Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Death Factory by Greg Iles

First Line: When you're told that your dying father has something important to say to you before he passes, two feelings flash through you: first, the sense that you're in an Alexandre Dumas novel, that some momentous family secret is about to be revealed-- the lost inheritance, your true paternity, something like that.

A heart attack sends Tom Cage to the emergency room and he insists that his son, Penn, be brought to his side to hear a dying declaration. But when Penn gets there, Tom denies ever having made the request. The whole thing sends Penn on a painful trip down Memory Lane when he was working in a Houston district attorney's office while caring for his dying wife. That DA's office was known as "the death factory" for sending more killers to death row than any other in America.

As Penn's wife lay dying, a tormented forensic technician comes to him for help. He brings evidence of a crime lab in chaos and begs Penn to prevent a gross miscarriage of justice. Now Penn has to fight the death factory with everything he's got-- both at home and on the job.

I don't think anyone could be a real crime fiction lover and not be aware of Greg Iles. Until now, that's all I was-- aware-- and since Iles tends to write quite weighty tomes, I decided to read this novella to see if I wanted to read more.

What I found was a well-told tale with lyrical descriptive passages and a main character I quickly grew to like. The storytelling flowed well, and the plot certainly kept my attention, especially with its emotional elements concerning Penn's father and wife. All my reactions were positive but for some strange reason, Penn didn't set my world on fire. As much as I liked him, I have no real burning desire to read more (although I may very well do so). This is a reaction I very seldom have so I'll have to ponder it a bit more. I may yet become a Penn Cage fan. Only time will tell.

The Death Factory by Greg Iles
eISBN: 9780062336682
HarperCollins © 2014
eBook, 92 pages

A Penn Cage novella
Rating: B+
Source: Purchased from Amazon.

Monday, November 20, 2017

My Top Ten Favorite Bookshops

I was reminded of a certain place the other day, and it occurred to me that I hadn't done a top ten list of my favorite bookshops yet.

I quickly compiled a list, trimmed it down to ten, and put all the bookshops in chronological order of when I visited them. Well, that's the order they're in for the most part.

I grew up in Illinois, went to university in Utah, and then moved down here to Phoenix, Arizona, where I've been ever since. Of course, I've done a bit of traveling over the years which means that my favorite places to buy books are spread out a bit. But you might find it odd that none of my favorites are in my birth state of Illinois. There's a rather simple reason for that. Money. I'm an only child who was raised by a widowed mother who had a small pension (my father died while serving in the Navy) and worked a variety of part-time jobs. One of those jobs was as the village librarian. I socked away as much money as I could for college, and since I grew up in a library, I didn't spend a lot of money on books. Bookshops became my life's blood once I went to college, and this is where I'll stop with the background and begin with my list.

Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah

While going to university in Utah, I quickly formed a weekend routine. In good weather, I spent a lot of time tracking down old ghost towns. In cold weather, I'd make the trip to Salt Lake City to eat lunch at the Shakespeare Sandwiche Shoppe and then lose myself in Sam Weller's. Weller's was the first bookshop I went in that had more than one floor, and that place was Wonderland for me. I had college courses opening my mind to so many new things and ideas, and it seemed that Weller's had a shelf for every one of them. Weller's has gone through several incarnations since I lived in Utah, but I'm glad to see that it's still thriving in a different location.

Upstart Crow, San Diego, California

I found Upstart Crow in Seaport Village on a trip to San Diego. After a particularly tasty seafood lunch in a restaurant on the beach, I wandered into this quirky little store with its nooks and crannies and started pulling book after book off the shelves that I wanted to read. It also had an excellent selection of one-of-a-kind cards and small gifts that I couldn't resist. Like Weller's, Upstart Crow has had to change in order to survive, and the way this bookshop has changed is to keep the books and other goodies and add a coffeehouse. Since the smell of brewing coffee makes me ill, I'm glad that I made Upstart Crow's acquaintance in earlier days.

Powell's Books, Portland, Oregon
In 2003, Denis and I went to Seattle to meet two dozen people from all over the world who'd all met online in a news group. We arrived early because there were places I wanted Denis to see, non-news group people I wanted him to meet... and I also wanted to explore new places-- like Powell's.

We headed down to Portland with a friend who'd been to Powell's on many occasions. The trouble was, Powell's is right downtown, and she couldn't remember exactly how to get there. One of my memories of visiting that bookstore is of her wanting to stop the car and ask every good-looking man for directions. (It seemed to be Handsome Man Day in downtown Portland that day.)

When we turned a corner and I saw that Powell's was not only several stories tall but had its own parking garage, I knew I was heading into book lovers' heaven. Yes, indeed. Floor after floor of books, an elevator, and shopping carts. Be still my heart. The hours we spent there were too few!

Singing Wind Bookshop, Benson, Arizona

I can't remember when I first heard about the bookshop on a working cattle ranch outside Benson, Arizona. I undoubtedly read a newspaper article about it. What I didn't expect to find was a ranch house crammed with a curated selection of books that accurately portrayed the mind and the interests of its incredible owner, Winn Bundy. If you click on the name of the bookshop in the caption below the photo, you'll be able to read my post and see a lot more photos.

Murder and Mayhem, Hay-on-Wye, Wales
On my first trip to the UK, we headed straight to Hay-on-Wye from the airport in Manchester. Jet lag made me sleep like a rock that night, and in the morning I experienced my first (but not last) full English breakfast. Then the broken-down rental car was loaded on a lorry, and Denis went to Leominster to get a new car. That left me alone on my first day in a new country. Alone. In the Book Capital of the UK. None of the forty-plus bookshops were open, so I wandered the streets of Hay-on-Wye, looking at houses and lack of parking, the castle, and those rolling green hills covered with white dots of grazing sheep.

Once the bookshops opened, I think I went a bit mad. I mean... over forty bookshops all within walking distance of each other? Murder and Mayhem was my favorite with its higgledy-piggledy rooms, steep twisting staircase, and imaginatively decorated rooms. I lost track of the time while I was in there, and afterward, I carried my sacks of books, my cold drink and a sandwich to a bench outside the library where I sat and ate and read and was serenaded by blackbirds and robins.

Barter Books, Alnwick, Northumberland, England
When you're the Duke of Northumberland and live in Alnwick Castle, you can have your own railway line and train station. When that station becomes surplus to requirements, what happens? It's turned into the largest secondhand bookshop in the UK.

Alnwick is very special to me, and so is Barter Books. If you click on the shop's name in the caption to the left, you'll be able to read my post about it and see several photos.

Leakey's Bookshop, Inverness, Scotland
Leakey's Bookshop is the largest secondhand bookshop in Scotland, and it was the highlight of my day in Inverness. Sadly, the café that Denis and I enjoyed so much is no longer there, but oh, those books!

Click on the shop's name in the caption to the right and you'll be able to read my post about it and see several more photos.

Waterstones, Cambridge, England
In the 1980s, Waterstones would send me this glorious, huge catalog, and I would order books from them. I thought visiting their shop in Cambridge would cap a perfect day of exploring this ancient university town. I was right.

This is a four-story bookshop complete with a café, which was the perfect place to give myself a breather from overdosing on that new book smell.

Books, glorious books! It was difficult for me not to bounce up and down like an excited child-- and I was right. After soaking up so much history and so many unusual sights, spending two or three hours immersed in books at Waterstones was the perfect thing to do.

Harrods book department, London, England

Some of you may have visited swanky department stores in places like New York or Los Angeles, but if you haven't walked into a place like Harrods in Knightsbridge, then you don't really know how the other half lives. Or shops. Harrods is huge, oozing class and money in every lavish detail. The book department is larger than many bookshops I've been in. As I walked down each aisle looking at the titles, it was all I could do not to start taking armloads of them to the cash register and having them all shipped to Phoenix. (If I'd done that, I'd probably still be paying off the credit card bill.)

The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, Scottsdale, Arizona
Long-time readers had to know that The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale would be on my list. It's by no means the last place I visited, but I had to save it for last.

I've spent hundreds of dollars in this bookshop. I've attended dozens of author events. I've made friends here among both staff and customers. It's the perfect blend of books and people, and I am blessed to be able to go there whenever I like.

Well, that's my list. Have any of you visited any of the bookshops I've listed? Which ones? More importantly, which bookshops do you long to visit that aren't on my list? Enquiring minds would love to know! (I might be compiling a list for future travels....)

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Life with Alexa Weekly Link Round-Up

I think this is the last time Denis will be using me as his alarm clock. At the requested time I went into the bedroom, told Alexa to play Reveille, and she did. Loud and clear. Perhaps because he spent several years in the Royal Navy, he was so not amused that when he came down to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee he said, “Alexa, don’t listen to Cathy!”

Both of us were stunned when Alexa replied, “Sorry. I’ve been taught never to ignore people when they speak to me.” I laughed until I cried. Denis was not quite as amused, although he was laughing, too.

Alexa's nickname has changed from “Cloth Ears” to “Traitor.” That made my day! (Don't know what "Cloth Ears" means? It's British slang for someone who has extremely poor hearing. Denis started calling Alexa that when she kept having trouble understanding his accent.)

I'd better stop laughing and head on out to the corral. You came to see the links, and links you shall see. Head 'em up! Moooooooove 'em out!

►Books, Movies & Other Interesting Tidbits◄
  • Loved to death: a photographer's tribute to discarded library books
  • “In the 1860s […] Russia had its own trio of writing sisters. Like the Brontës, the Khvoshchinskaya sisters wrote under male pseudonyms, endured hardships, and lived in the provinces.” Perhaps it's time to discover these sisters even if we can't pronounce their name? 
  • The graduate research paper that helped Rachel McCarthy James solve a century-old crime. 
  • Take a look at the photos of this 1931 Chicago condo on the shore of Lake Michigan and guess which room made me smile. 
  • What books will we be talking about one hundred years from now? 
  • The importance of rare, remarkable manuscripts.

►Channeling My Inner Indiana Jones◄

►Channeling My Inner Elly Mae Clampett◄
  • Low sealing! A 450-pound seal had to be removed from a northern Alaska airport's runway. 
  • Huh? Shrews shrink their skulls and brains for the winter. 
  • Photos document dramatic wildlife migrations across Yellowstone. 
  • What do you think... can bats swim? 
  • I'm still laughing over this one. A wild badger sneaked into a house and impersonated the family cat. 

►I ♥ Lists & Quizzes◄

That's all for this week! Don't forget to stop by next Friday when I'll be sharing a freshly selected batch of links for your surfing pleasure.

Have a great weekend, and read something fabulous!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall

First Line: Two hundred and six bones make up the adult human skeleton.

Los Angeles homicide detective Elouise "Lou" Norton has a new partner fresh from the Colorado Springs police department, and when they're called out to a death at a condominium construction site, Colin Taggert tells Lou that seventeen-year-old Monique Darson's death is a suicide, plain and simple. Lou thinks Monique's death is neither plain nor simple... nor a suicide.

The main reason why she thinks the young girl didn't commit suicide is that she was found inside a property owned by Napoleon Crase, a self-made millionaire and the man Lou is convinced killed her missing sister Tori thirty years ago. The people she works with on the force are well aware of how she feels about Crase, and her boss makes her work hard to prove that he is a viable suspect. And work Lou does. The more she works, the more she discovers that the death of Monique Darson and Lou's missing sister are linked-- so much so that she feels finding Monique's killer will finally bring her sister home. But getting closer to the truth also means that Lou is getting very very close to a violent killer.

The minute I began reading Land of Shadows, Lou Norton's voice pulled me right into the story. She's a black woman who grew up in a dangerous part of Los Angeles, and she worked hard to get out of there, get an education, and better herself. She and her husband have money, nice cars, a very nice home. Lou wants for no material possessions, yet she's right back in the 'hood working hard to put the bad guys behind bars. Lou may have gotten out, but she's determined to give back, to help those who couldn't get out.

Lou is definitely the star of this show, but I also liked her supporting cast. Her boss, Rodriguez, is a fair man who looks her right in the eye and tells her "I just want you to be as good as you can be." He knows how she feels about Napoleon Crase and makes her work twice as hard to prove everything she says about the millionaire. Her new partner, Colin Taggert, starts out as a bumbling newbie full of bogus ideas, and it was refreshing to see his gradual change. Hall's sense of humor shines brightest when Lou and Colin don't see eye-to-eye, although at times it may be humor more easily understood by women: "I climbed out of the car before he could explain. Didn't he hear me? I was in no mood to kiss boo-boos and hand out juice boxes. There were worse things in life than being sent from a living room."

The investigation in Land of Shadows is filled with twists, turns, and surprises, and I certainly wasn't expecting the identity of whodunnit. With Rachel Howzell Hall's skill at storytelling and creating characters, I know I'm going to be visiting Lou Norton's part of Los Angeles regularly.

Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall
ISBN: 9780765336378
Forge Books © 2014
Paperback, 336 pages

Police Procedural, #1 Detective Elouise Norton
Rating: A
Source: Purchased at The Poisoned Pen.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Long Way Home by Eva Dolan

First Line: The last thing he remembered was the pattern on the carpet, barbed strips of indigo and puce-like bruises inflicted by alien implements, then a steel toecap coming at his face.

Detectives Zigic and Ferreira are called in from the Peterborough Police Hate Crimes Unit to find the killer of a man who was locked in a garden shed and burned to death. It's not going to be easy. There are no witnesses and no fingerprints. The only thing the two do know is the identity of the victim: he was an immigrant with a long list of enemies.

There may be a long suspect list, but no one wants to talk. Zigic and Ferreira are deep in the territory of slum racketeers and people-trafficking gangs-- and people are afraid.

Eva Dolan's first Zigic and Ferreira mystery features two very different leads. Zigic is older, married, used to people being unable to pronounce his name, and adept at not letting people's intended-- or unintended-- racism get to him. Ferreira is the opposite-- younger, female, opinionated (sometimes to the point of blindness), convinced that she knows what's best and determined not to put up with any of this racist crap. Dolan gives readers two different approaches to solving hate crimes, and between the two detectives, they get the job done. I can't say that I warmed to either character. Zigic is almost too quiet, too used to flying under the radar to avoid obstacles and get his work done. On the other hand, Ferreira is too abrasive and pig-headed, and although I didn't like her, I have to admit that I'm interested in seeing if her personality changes the longer she's on the job.

Dolan has created a strong mystery with a very human touch. Migrant workers play an important role in the story, and readers could very well feel uncomfortable as they learn why migrant workers are used, how they are abused, and how all levels of society look at them. The burned corpse that brings the two detectives to the scene leads to other crimes, and I enjoyed watching everything unfold-- the teasing out of whodunnit and the motives from the rest of the threads of the plot.

Long Way Home is an enlightening, sometimes uncomfortable, read with two strong leads and an intricate, engrossing plot. I know I will be visiting with Zigic and Ferreira again in the future.

Long Way Home by Eva Dolan
eISBN: 9781448163304
Harvill Secker © 2014
eBook, 392 pages

Police Procedural, #1 Zigic & Ferreira mystery
Rating: B+
Source: Purchased from Amazon.


On My Radar: Spencer Kope's Whispers of the Dead

Here I am to report on sighting a book that made me break into a happy dance. In 2016, Spencer Kope's first book, Collecting the Dead, was one of my Best Reads of the year, and I kept waiting for the follow-up this year only to have no joy.

Imagine my smiles when I looked through NetGalley's newest offerings to find this:

"A pair of severed feet, stored in a portable cooler, is found in the house of a Federal judge in El Paso. The victim is unknown. The reason the killer went to such trouble― breaking into the judge’s house― and what message he intends to send are both mysteries.

Magnus “Steps” Craig is part of the elite three-man Special Tracking Unit of the FBI. Called in on special cases where his skills are especially indispensable, Steps is renowned for his incredible ability to find and follow trails over any surface better than anyone else. But there’s a secret to his success.

Steps has a kind of synesthesia, an ability that allows him to see whatever a person has touched in a unique color―what Steps calls ‘shine.’ His ability is known to only a few people―his father, the director of the FBI, and his partner, Special Agent Jimmy Donovan.

The Special Tracking Unit soon discovers another, earlier victim; again, only the feet were left behind in an icebox. In Spencer Kope’s Whispers of the Dead―with few clues besides the body parts left behind―Steps and his team find themselves enmeshed in the most difficult case of their careers. And The Icebox Killer has only just begun.

This second book in the Special Tracking Unit series will be released on April 17, 2018. This is very good news for those of us who read and enjoyed the first book... and it gives those of you who haven't yet had a chance to read Collecting the Dead enough time so you'll be ready for April 17!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Red Moth by Sam Eastland

First Line: A thousand feet above the Russian front, a German scout plane weaved among the clouds, searching for a place to land.

In August 1941 the German Army is a juggernaut, racing to lay waste to the cities of Stalingrad and Leningrad. During these crucial days, a German scout plane is forced down outside of Pushkin-- a town formerly known as Tsarskoye Selo, home of the summer palace of the Romanovs. The only thing in the briefcase of the German officer in the plane is an unimportant painting of a red moth.

Or is it inconsequential? With his country teetering on the brink of disaster, Stalin suspects some sort of German plot, and he has just the man to get to the bottom of it-- his old adversary Inspector Pekkala.

With the help of his assistant Kirov, Pekkala finds himself on the trail of the most formidable art thieves in history, whose target is a prized Romanov possession, once considered to be the eighth wonder of the world. In order to save this treasure, Pekkala will have to go behind enemy lines and outfox the invaders-- or face Stalin with his failure.

Sam Eastland's Inspector Pekkala novels have been among my favorite historical mystery series since the first book, Eye of the Red Tsar. The books' setting of Stalinist Russia tends to be cold, bleak, and brutal (in other words quite truthful) so I don't read them like potato chips. No, these books I hoard, pulling one out to savor every so often. I don't even read the synopsis; I just pull the next book in the series from the shelf, open it, and begin to read. Opening The Red Moth was like sitting down to a banquet prepared just for me: a setting I can see and touch and hear and taste, a strong, memorable main character, a fast-paced "how's-he-going-to-do-it?" story, and a treasure that I've always hoped would be found.

The indomitable Pekkala is a Finn who-- you would think-- would not be employed by Stalin at all for he first came to be known as the Eye of the Tsar, Nicholas II's private investigator. For that particular crime, Pekkala spent nine years in Siberia doing a solitary job that killed everyone else who did it in six months or less. But regardless of his history, Stalin recognizes the man's worth. Pekkala has always been the one man who can never be bribed or bought or threatened. As his assistant Kirov says, "Sometimes I think the reason Stalin gives you the worst assignments is not only because no one else can solve them, but because nobody else could survive them."

While Kirov is kept in Moscow to solve a mystery there, Pekkala joins forces with Stefanov the Soviet anti-aircraft gunner, and cryptoanalyst Lt. Churikova in Tsarskoye Selo to keep the fabled Amber Room out of Nazi hands. The two-headed approach is a good one because those readers who have been following the series need to know if Kirov can actually solve crimes or if he's just been riding Pekkala's coattails the entire time. And Pekkala trying to keep seven tons of amber worth ten times its weight in gold out of the hands of the worst art thieves the world has ever known? Ah, the part of me who loves Indiana Jones savored every twist and turn of the adventure.

The first three books in Sam Eastland's series were published in the U.S., but to go further you may find yourself tracking down the U.K. editions (which isn't difficult). Believe me, they are well worth it for their fantastic sense of place, for Pekkala the man of granite, and for the stories. If you enjoy historical mysteries, you definitely need to give these a try.

The Red Moth by Sam Eastland
ISBN: 9780571278480
Faber & Faber © 2013
Paperback, 384 pages

Historical Mystery, #4 Inspector Pekkala mystery
Rating: A
Source: Purchased from The Book Depository.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Butterflies at the Desert Botanical Garden

Denis and I saw so much during the afternoon that we spent at the Desert Botanical Garden that you'd think we went into every little nook and cranny of the place, but we didn't. We didn't even come close. It would take more than an afternoon to see everything properly at this wonderful place.

Last week I shared photographs of the offrendas at the Webster Center and the colorful Jun Kaneko sculptures that are placed throughout the garden. Today I'm going to share photos of our visit to the new Butterfly Pavilion that can be found just off the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail. If you'd like to see any of the photos in their original sizes, just left click on one of them and a new window will open automatically for you to do so.

Are you ready to see butterflies? So am I-- let's get started!

The new (larger) Butterfly Pavilion in the bright Arizona sun.

Inside there's loop to walk past flowers, a water feature, and butterflies, of course! (db)

A new-to-us butterfly-- the Malachite.

Yes, there are lime green butterflies!

I love all these flowers blooming in November!

The Monarch butterflies are always a big draw to the pavilion.

Plenty of flowers to keep the butterflies happy!

Zebra Heliconian butterfly

A Pipevine Swallowtail looks a bit drab... (db)

...until the sun hits them just right!

November's lovely in the Sonoran Desert!

This Buckeye butterfly had a death wish, parking itself right in the middle of the humans' path! (db)

Another new-to-us, the White Peacock butterfly.

And just in case you thought butterflies were the only critters we saw while we were there, think again...

One of many garden residents, a desert cottontail.