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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Fionna Griffiths series by Harry Bingham

Titles in the series in order:
1. Talking to the Dead
2. Love Story, with Murders
3. The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths
4. This Thing of Darkness
5. The Dead House
6. The Deepest Grave

Rating: I like and recommend

I am looking at the series as a whole but I don't think there are any spoilers. You can get plot summaries at the Amazon links above and at the link to the author's website below.

Discovering a new series is one of the great joys in the life of an avid reader and I have a post in a Facebook post for bringing these books into the house.  Even more joy, I was late to this series so I had five to read at once. I powered through all five available at the time in short order. While I wanted to read slowly and savour the text, these are "no good stopping place" books meaning I had to read just one more chapter. Number six came out this summer and is now waiting on my Kindle so I can continue my binge watching.

If you like to categorize your reading, I'll call this series crime thriller with procedural elements and a sub-genre of defective detective. Fiona Griffiths is a very junior DC (detective constable) in Cardiff, Wales. She is short on social skills but an extraordinary detective capable of connecting events and data more so than any of her peers. Her superiors recognize Fiona's abilities but find themselves challenged when it comes to managing her. OK, you might be saying "Not this plot device again" and I might ordinarily agree but Bingham handles the interactions between Fiona and the higher-up in the force very well and often with humor.

Why did I include this series in the "defective detective" sub-genre? Something happened to Fiona as a teenager that left her with an affinity for the dead and and about 90 degrees off-center from the way everyone else thinks and acts. What happened to her is a real corker of an idea and one the reader needs to discover for themselves. I will say that she's not a Lisbeth Salander or Sherlock Holmes type.

The stories are first person from Fiona's viewpoint. She is very self-aware of how different she is from everyone else which adds humor as she tries to figure out how a normal person would react. This really comes out as she tries to relate to other women. My wife thinks Bingham does very well writing a female character. Her only criticism so far is that Fiona never has a period.

We also get wry observational humor from Fiona:
Accounts come in pairs these days. A middle-aged man in a dark suit and a sheen of perspiration, plus his younger accomplice, a woman who looks like her hobbies are arranging things in rows and making right angles.
It is a common occurrence when one of us is reading a book that the other has finished that the reader will chuckle and the other demand to know where they are in the book.

These series needs to be read in order as there are threads that run through all the books. This verges on serious spoilerdom so I'll just say that one thread is personal to Fiona and the other relates to something in book one that has repercussions throughout the series. Sometimes the threads cross. Bingham is a master at subtly weaving these threads through the books.

The plots are complex without being dense and the author manages to explain the complexity without making it an infodump. Seriously, Bingham makes Fiona looking at spreadsheets interesting. Here is a taste—if you've ever wondered how police are trained for undercover work in the UK, you'll find out.

The books do sometimes rely on coincidences that might stretch your credulity a bit but honestly, you don't care, the stories are just so much fun to read.

Check out Harry Bingham's website. If you sign up for his newsletter he'll some bonuses he'll share with you..

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Written in Blood by Layton Green

Format: Amazon Kindle 
Genre: Police procedural
Rating: Enjoyed and recommend it

Disclosure: I was given an e-book version of Written in Blood by the publisher. I liked it enough to place a pre-order for a Kindle edition.

Joe "Preach" Everson is back in his hometown of Creeksville, NC as a detective on the town's police force. His return coincides with the town's first murder in ten years. If the murder of local bookstore owner Farley Robinson in the hipsterfied community wasn't shocking enough, it was staged to resemble Raskolnikov's murder of the pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment.

As the only detective with homicide experience, Joe gets the case. Assisting him is officer Scotty Kirby, competent but a publicity hound who hopes the case catapults him to greater things, such as TV.

Written in Blood is an entertaining and stimulating police procedural. I use the word stimulating because the many literary references add a fun complexity to the investigation. Because of the staging, there isn't an obvious motive, like a robbery gone bad. What does the staging have to do with the crime? Why Crime and Punishment? Is it a message? If so, for whom?

Tying the murder to a literary classic is a clever hook. It means that Joe and Scott not only have to follow the usual trails, like known associates, but also figure out how the literary reference fits in to the crime. Helping on the literary side, Joe has Ari Hale, a bookstore employee and, pretty obviously from the start, potential romantic interest.

Joe is a likable, interesting, and complex character. I put him slightly on the "defective detective" spectrum of characters. He doesn't have Monk's OCD or Holmes' aspergers characteristics but he does have a past that makes therapy a requirement for employment. One clue is his nickname, "Preach". I'll say no more on this.

The author has a good, flowing style of writing with no jarring notes and realistic dialog. Layton also has a wry way of describing things that generates a chuckle. Here is how he describes the chief of police:
Chief Higgins was full of seeming contradictions: an overweight vegan, a gun-toting liberal, and a North Carolinian who didn't care for any of the Big Three: BBQ, beer, or basketball. 
If you know anything about North Carolina you know that BBQ and basketball are practically religions.

This is a solid and intelligent procedural with good forensic details to keep the reader's attention. As you expect, the investigation takes off with false starts and goes off on many paths but still arrives at a logical (and pretty neat) conclusion that doesn't leave the reader wondering where that came from. I also have to confess that I was a literature major at university and found the dissection of the literary clues great fun.

I'm voting for this to become a series.

Layton Green currently lives in Durham, NC and is the author of the Dominic Grey series which I can also recommend. I reviewed the first of the Dominic Grey series, The Summoner,

Please take a look at his website -- Layton Green

Monday, September 25, 2017

Just Arrived

Fresh off the plane from The Book Lounge in Cape Town,  Fred Khumolo's books, Bitches' Brew and Dancing the Death Drill,. He was attending a book festival in Cape Town and I enlisted the help of the good people at Book Lounge to track him down and personalise two of his books for me. These books are headed for my TBR stack immediately.

Fred is from Mpumalanga, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa and currently lives in Johannesburg. Hi holds an MA in creatice writing from Wits University. His desire to write started in high school and he is now a gifted writer who has contributed to the written word as a journalist, columnist, contributor, short story writer, and novelist.

His novel Bitches' Brew was the joint winner of the 2005 European Union Literary Award (now the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award). Touch My Blood, his autobiography was short-listed for the Alan Paton Prize for Non-fiction. He was runner-up for the 1991 Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A New Blog...Yes, Another One

I haven't made a blog post in nearly two years.

This seems like a good time, now that I'm retired, to return to blogging. With past efforts, I attempted to focus the blog on very specific subjects, crime fiction and African literature specifically. I found that too limiting and frustrating hence the creation of Mack's Stacks of Books...and stuff which is actually an accurate reflection of what my workroom looks like.

All the posts from previous blogs have migrated here. Those blogs will go away by December 3. I need a clean slate and don't want them lurking in the backgound.

This site is still under construction. The hyena photo in the header was handy when I started playing with header images and will likely change. Maybe. I kind of like it. If you're curious, it was taken by my father in the 1950s in Kruger National Park in South Africa and is not color corrected due to age.

I generally only write about books that I like so positive reviews will predominate. I hate the star system of reviews so I might just say "like and recommmend" or "don't like and don't recommend". We'll see.

I put "...and stuff" in the title to I can post non-book topics without guilt. Nature photographs, for example.

That's it for now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why You were Taken by JT Lawrence

Night. A disheveled and and apparently deranged woman. A mysterious warning. A key. To what?And we are off on a technological/medical/mystery thriller.

Titles usually don't play a big part when I select a book but Why You Were Taken got my attention. A simple declarative statement. The promise a question will be answered. The "you" makes it personal.

Once inside I was not disappointed. WYWT appealed to me from the start with its combination of mystery, investigation, intriguing technology, strong characters, and thrilling action.

I'd also put it in the realm of near sci-fi. "Near" because the technology isn't all that farfetched: algae powered street lights, biomorphic buildings, locket cameras, superblack clothing, snakewatches -- I don't know what a snakewatch is but I want one. The author doesn't dwell on or over explain the technology, it just is.

The main story opens in 2021 in a not quite dystopian Johannesburg, SA.
It's not quite dystopian but the potential is there: blackouts, undrinkable tap water, an infertility crises, soaring suicide stats, personal autos have all but disappeared. Ok, the last one might not be so bad. If you follow news in South Africa you'll know that two of those events already threaten SA: energy and water are at the crises stage. Combining contemporary and future societal elements does a lot to bind the story together.

Balancing the story's present, are journal entries from a young woman, Anne, in 1987 Johannesburg. She's in the throws of her own crises, unmarried and pregnant. But through her eyes we get snippets of apartheid South Africa, world events, what she's reading, watching, and listening to, how her life plays out. Trust me, this blends into the story and enhances it.

Previously I said I liked the strong characters. In Kirsten Lovell and Seth Denicker, Lawrence has created two of the more interesting characters I've encountered. Kirsten is a photographer, a victim of the infertility crises, and her parents have just been murdered. She is also a synesthete where one type of sensation evokes another. For Kirsten, sounds produce smells, sensations are seen as colors. Backing up Kristen is Keke, a journalist and possibly my favorite character. I'm a sucker for the spirited sidekick. Seth is as creative as Kirsten but in a different way. He is a skilled mathematician and a creative bioengineering designer. We see him working on a new drug, moving molecules around to achieve the desired effect. He's like a graphic artist creating a design but with molecules instead of ink.

Why You Were Taken is a good read. It has the story, setting, and characters to pull you in and the legs to make you keep reading. It also has things that make you go "hmm, I wonder if...". There is at least one more story to be told with these characters and I hope the author will write that story some day. That means you need to buy this book.

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