WELCOME TO LAST CHANCE by Cathleen Armstrong

last-chanceA sweet chick lit …. oh, pardon me, women’s fiction, read.  I will have to change the name of my category, because women’s fiction sounds so much more classy and less derogatory than chick lit.

Young Lainie Davis is running away from her long time boyfriend because he seems to have gotten himself involved with drugs and druggie people.  She has no family, but does have a sort of friend in a city in Texas who has gotten her a job there, but she must be there by Sunday night.  She buys a car of uncertain reliability, and as she is driving through New Mexico, the engine light comes on.  I hate cars with engine lights.  You can’t ignore them.  I prefer cars that just make strange noises.  Then you can just turn up the radio.

Things are looking very bad out on a dark and lonely stretch of highway, and she sees a sign for Last Chance, food, gas, hotel, etc, so she takes the exit.  After another long dark drive, she is able to roll, the engine having died, into the parking lot of the only place that looks open in Last Chance, the local bar.

She inquires of the young bar tender/owner of the local motel, is told it is closed for a week, the owner being out of town,  and refuses her request to stay in the bar overnight.  So she sleeps in her car.

She meets the denizens of the tiny town, and the grandmother of the bar owner offers her a room in her house while her car is getting repaired.  But now, since she is going to miss out on that job in Texas, she has nowhere to go.  The single mother owner of the little town diner offers her a job waitressing which she takes, always claiming she will be leaving shortly.  When the ne’er-do-well teenage son of the diner owner is in a terrible car accident and is in the hospital in a town some distance away, Lainie offers to take over the diner until the owner can get back.

Meanwhile, the brother of the bar owner who was in the military is now discharged and coming back to Last Chance.  The bar owner is happy because he gave up a promising career as an artist in Taos to run the bar until his brother got home.  But, brother has decided he doesn’t want it, and shows himself to be charming, but irresponsible and undependable.

So what does the bar owner do?  Stay tuned.

It is a story about small town values, friendship, loyalty, and compassion.   It was a lovely book, warm but not sappy or overly sentimental, had a lot of interesting characters that you wish you knew in Real Life,  and some timely musing on decisions and unintended consequences.   There are a couple more in what I think is now a trilogy.  But I will pass on those.  Enough of boy meets girl,  girl is a pain in the patooty, boy rejects girl, boy and girl finally ………. never mind.

 

COLT COLTRANE AND THE LOTUS KILLER by Allison M. Dickson

colt-coltraneNow this was a fun read!   Part detective story, part LA noir, part alternative history, part fantasy, and all ummmm  diesel robot punk.   What does she mean by that, I can hear you ask.   Let me explain.   It is 1947, this is LA after the war.  What war you ask.  Yeah, me too.  I got a little confused with the alternative history, which is why I don’t read very much alternative history.  I spend more time saying whaaaaaa? than reading.

Anyway, the city is dark and dirty, and our hero, the mostly out of work P.I. Colt Coltrane,  ex cop, and tough as shoe leather, lives in a time of robots and odd machines.  He is no longer part of the LA police force because he shot a fellow officer.  His partner, actually, when he came upon him and his wife en flagrante delicto.  His wife has become a druggie, and he got booted off the force.

The police have robots to help with the policing, and somehow, Colt has managed to acquire one himself, a 6 foot tall clanking red machine that has all kinds of neat superpowers, stealth not being one of them.

A beautiful dame … yeah, in noir detective fiction it is never a woman, it is a dame, and everybody talks like a bad version of Guys and Dolls,  comes to Coltrane’s office to hire him to do some investigating of her estranged father, a wealthy man who owns a very successful and progressive robot manufacturing business.

Meanwhile, and there is always a meanwhile, other young women are washing up dead on the shores of the river.  I actually did not know LA had a river.  Maybe it doesn’t.  They are pretty much torn asunder, missing limbs, etc, and with strange circle marks on their skin, kind of like that new craze for heating up suction glasses and putting them on your body to …. well, I don’t know what they are supposed to do, but all the athletes at the recent Olympics were doing it.  There are always lotus blossoms floating around, hence the name.

Coltrane has a friend, Clutch, who can make these robots from scratch, and fix anything.  He runs a bar, a down and dirty place, but his real deal are the warehouses that hold all kinds of parts and broken down old bots and bot parts.

Coultrane’s client leads him into the sewers of the city, and there is a whole lot of weird stuff going on, and it is just the craziest story.  I really enjoyed it and if you read a lot of severely serious detective fiction and are ready for a colorful break, grab a copy of Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer.

 

THE GRAY AND GUILTY SEA by Scott William Carter writing as Jack Nolte

gray-and-guilty-seaWhat is the point of having a writing pseudonym if on the cover your real name is in 40 point type and in little bitty type, ‘writing as…’?   So many mysteries in this life.  Like, Area 51, or what is gravity made of, or what exactly IS electricity, or how did Kim Kardashian get such a big butt and what the heck could she possibly see in Kanye West?

This was a great book.  I love the title, although I cannot find a reference for it, so I guess he just made it up.  Garrison Gage was a P.I. in NYC when his wife was brutally murdered and he was beaten within an inch.  Upon his recovery, he gave up P.I.ing, and moved to a small town on the Oregon coast where for five or six years, he has been holed up i his small house doing crossword puzzles, a recluse and a curmudgeon.  He has no computer, no phone, no TV.

One day, while limping along the beach with his ever-present cane, he sees an object at the sea’s edge.  It is a young girl, very dead.  Of course, the police take over the investigation, but the case is going nowhere.  They cannot get an ID on the young woman, and Gage can’t get the girl out of his mind.

He takes on the case all on his own, and begins investigating.  He meets the (of course) attractive young woman who is the sole person running the local paper,  and although she is interested in him, because what young woman wouldn’t be interested in a damaged man twice her age with PTSD and other emotional trauma, and that story kind of  runs parallel with the investigation into what happened to this dead young woman and who did it.

He has a friend, a retired FBI guy (of course, don’t we all?  How else could we solve cases.)  who now runs a used bookstore in town.  So now I am thinking that it must be a magical town, because how many small towns do you know that can support a used book store?  Heck, they are all going out of business in the big cities.  But a small town?  Really.

I guess you are thinking because of all my snide and disparaging comments  about the almost threadbare tropes that I didn’t like the book.  You would be wrong.  I really really liked the book.  The writing was excellent, and although well worn, the tropes almost seemed new under the author’s treatment, so I didn’t mind.

I think it is still a free download.  Let me check for you.  Aha!!!  Yes, you are in luck.  It is still free on Amazon for Kindle,  Nook, etc.  So if you are a fan of detective/P.I fiction, go grab it.  You can’t go wrong.

 

PLAYING GOD by Kate Flora

playing-godA police procedural of the first water!   [I don’t even know that that means:  first water. Gotta look it up.  Be right back.  OK, I’m back.  Here it is.  Of the finest qualityThis idiom refers to a grading system for diamonds for their color or luster (compared to the shininess of water). The system is no longer used but the term, used figuratively since the early 1800s, has survived it.  OK, I knew it meant of the best, but didn’t know where it originated.]

A very unloved radiologist is found dead in his vehicle one bitterly cold night, with his pants down, he ahem cough cough up, and , gee golly, a rod jammed down his throat. Perhaps he complained about the service?  Turns out the dear boy, with a lovely young wife and new baby,  is a sexual addict, and solicits prostitutes several times a week.  Every one knows this, even the wife, his partners in his practice, the staff of the hospital, and well, what can I say?  Hard to keep that secret when you park in the same spot each night for your ‘activities’.

Joe Burgess is a homicide detective with the Portland, Maine, police.  He fits the modern homicide detective mold:  damaged, solitary, tough, rule breaker, but the department’s top crime solver, so he gets a pass on a lot of stuff.  There is also the requisite shootings, physical damage, for which he ends up in the hospital where he meets the requisite single nurse, tough, wise, and willing to take on a cop from the dent and scratch sale.

There is the sweet, young but tough prostitute that Joe saved when she was 17 from something terrible, I forget what, (all these plots begin to merge one with another after a while),  but she is a chronic and consummate liar, and what she knows about this particular crime she ain’t telling,  only releasing bits and pieces here and there.

Good mystery, which I did not solve because CHEATING on the part of the author who did not give us everything up front.  Nasty woman.  My solve record stinks.

Really good book, great writing, somewhat formulaic characters, but I didn’t care.  I kept reading like a maniac anyway.

Somewhat off the topic,  Joe has a sister, and since both of them are on the problematic side of 40, philosophical thoughts come to Joe.  One evening, when he goes to his sister’s house,

When Sandy answered the door, puffy and rumpled from sleep, the hall dim behind her, he was rocked by sense that he was seeing his mother.  He’d never noticed the strong resemblance before.   Walking to his car, a thought hit him like a sudden sharp pain.  If Sandy was becoming their mother, was he becoming their father?  A blunt, selfish man who rode roughshod over everyone in his life?

So I got thinking.  Do we all eventually become like one parent or the other?  Is that a good thing or bad thing?

THE GIRL WHO TWEETED WOLF by Nick Bryan

tweetJohn Hobson is a London P.I. trying to improve his business.  Actually, trying to create business.   He accepts an intern, or what they call there a ‘work experience’ student, Angelina Choi, all of 16 years old, for a two week waddyacallit, I don’t think internship is exactly the right word.

Her first day on the job, he gives her a task.

“I’ve noticed this social Twitter internet media thing seems to be taking off,” he said, gesturing widely at the computer on her desk, as if that explained everything, “Could you create an account for me and get me some of those … followers?  You know, I’ve just repainted my office, I want to be modern, and your lot seem to be familiar with this kind of thing.”

And he leaves.

Angelina, being all of sixteen and wise in the ways of the Digital Age, whereas P.I. Hobson is wise in the ways of the Dinosaur Age, gets to work.  When her initial efforts produce few followers, she comes up with an idea.  She (as Hobson) writes that if he gets enough followers, he would solve a current high profile murder case for free.

“So Choi,” Hobson said, (on his return),  “am I …trending yet?”   He pronounced trending like it was the name of an alien planet.

So, yeah, he is trending,  with 353 following.  So she had gone a bit further and promised that if he got 400 followers he would fight a wolf. So now he is REALLY trending.

He loses his sh*t, has Angelina explain to him all about social media and marketing and what produces engaging topics,  and she works hard to drag Hobson into the world of Today.

“So, real people can see your tweeting?”

“Real people?”

“Real real people?  Like Will downstairs? Real people as opposed to internet people and trolls and whatnot?”

“Yes, Mister Hobson, the people on the internet are definitely real.”

Well, with that assurance, off they go to solve a murder, which was a pretty gruesome one.  Two, actually, no make that three.  A young man is attacked by a dog and killed, as well as the dog’s owner next door, found chewed up in his living room.  The house of the young man shows signs of human involvement in the dog attack, and it becomes a really interesting case.

I really enjoyed this comic crime caper, but here are my concerns:   a sixteen year old is permitted, actually sent by her school, to work in an investigative agency?  WTF?   Sixteen?   And it had a kind of pervy feel, only because he is this much older guy and she is just a female kid.  But there was nothing in the book to suggest pervy.  That was just me.

Angelina contributes quite a bit to the investigation, so the book has one foot in the YA genre, and one foot in the Regular Murder Mystery genre.  The author apparently is planning additional books for what is to become a series, and I look forward to them.  The writing was good, characters were fun, and the mystery was first rate.

I’m still smiling.

 

PURE by Andrew Miller

pure1111_1925194fA truly engaging and delightful work of historical fiction.  I didn’t read historical fiction in the past because I somehow had the idea that it was all Regency romances, but I am learning that anything set in an older time is historical fiction, so …. horizons widened.

This story is set in Paris a little before the Revolution.  A young engineer has been sent to some functionary whose offices are in the Versailles Palace.  He is given the job of excavating and demolishing an ancient cemetery in the heart of Paris, Cemetery of Les Innocents, and its resident church.  The cemetery was apparently used during the plague for enormous mass graves of the plague victims, but over the centuries, its contents have started to leak into nearby houses and basements, and the air smells truly foul.  It is so bad that the residents of the area can be identified by their breath, which smells of the carnal house.

Our engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is made to understand he does not really have a choice to accept the job, nor can he resign.  He is told he is not high enough up on the food chain to have the privilege of resigning, so he sets himself to getting the job done.  He goes to a friend working in a mine several days journey away, and arranges for 30 men to come for the job.  Although the job is gruesome, the men are happy to change careers, since the pay is better, the hours are better, they get fed and given a drink allotment.

An old caretaker and his young granddaughter live on the grounds, as well as an ancient definitely batty priest, who appears and disappears.  There have been no masses held in the decaying church for decades, and when Jean goes to examine the state of the building, he meets a fellow, dandily dressed, who is the organist for the church.  He still gets paid his stipend, although there is no one to play for, and no one to work the bellows, so his playing is only the clicking of the keys. A couple of times a month, he pays some local lounge-abouts to work the bellows so he can hear the music he is playing.  He and Jean become friends, and he becomes central to the story.

Those in charge of the operation have arranged for Jean to board in a nearby house, owned by an odd couple with a twenty-something year old unmarried daughter.  The house has the smell of the cemetery, and the food has a strange taste.

The workers arrive, they set up camps in the cemetery and start digging, piling up bones into huge mountains, waiting for the go -ahead to transport them to a catacombs in the city which will be used as a sacred resting place.

Jean becomes obsessed with a prostitute he has seen who was selecting books at the booksellers.  He was astounded that not only could she read, but that she read books.   He continues to think about her and look for her, eventually meets with her and in a strange state of mind, invites her to move in with him.  He sets up housekeeping with her in his boarding house.

The story progresses until a wonderful denouement, (See what I did there?   Used a French word for finale or climax. I impress even me.)  where  life, death and all the in betweens come together in one conflagration.  (Yeah, and that conflagration word was a hint, but I had to point it out because you wouldn’t know how clever I was unless you had read the book.)

The whole thing is a meditation on death, life, and the eternal verities.  Here are some great quotes for you.

A gloom and doom priest preaches from Isaiah:  Beware the Lord will empty the earth and turn it upside down and scatter its inhabitants.  The earth dries up and withers, the whole world withers and grows sick, the earth’s high places sicken, and the earth itself is desecrated by the feet of those who live in it.

Damn!  Isaiah had it going on, didn’t he?  Sounds like our near future, what with climate change and all.   OK, let’s move on to some other topic:

The poverty of the villages is almost picturesque from the windows of a coach that is not stopping.  How much has changed in two hundred years?  Did the people not live much like this in the days of Henri IV?  They may have lived better, with fewer of them and the land less tired and the lords, with their just glimpsable chateaux, less numerous.

Arrrrggg!   Now doesn’t that sound like today, too.  The average folk living less and less well as the billionaire class increases, living off the money of the average folk.   Whew.  Well, let’s try something about the future:

One does not resent the future.  Nor its agents.

However, one can very well be afraid of it.  Moving on to families:

The visit, like all visits home for a long time now, has been an obscure failure.  When is it we cease to be able to go back, truly go back?  What secret door is it that closes?

And a last musing on violence:

Violence is respected;  he has learnt that much about the world.  It may even be one of those virtues the young man on the chair was preaching about.  Gentlemen with blood up to their shoe buckles, bowing and making to each other un beau geste.  Virtuous violence.  The virtuous necessity of it.  Violence as a duty.  It is, very likely, the coming thing.

Indeed.

Beautifully written,  great story, wonderful characters.  Do read it.

The author, in an interview talking about his choice of subject matter, said, “After the age of fortysomething, death is a taste in your mouth, and never goes away again.”   He may be right on that score.   He got the idea for the story ten years before actually writing the book after reading a book about Les Innocents cemetery by French medievalist and historian, Philippe Ariès.

 

 

 

 

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

state-of-woncderAnother terrific story by a master story teller.   I talked about one of her other books which I read, Bel Canto, here.

Again, we have a South American setting, this time in Brazil.   And once again, it is a rather surreal version of Apocalypse Now meets Three Men in a Boat.   (You know, that’s the problem with living a long time and reading an enormous amount.  After a while, everything seems to be like something else you’ve read.)

A pharmacologist, Dr. Marina Singh, who changed her medical career path from ob/gyn to pharmacology, owing to a disastrous accident while doing a Casarean delivery during her residency, is now working for a big pharmaceutical firm doing research.

Another researcher has gone to the Amazonian jungle to work on a drug which would increase a woman’s fertility well into her 70’s.  She discovered this while on a trip to the jungle with her mentor 20 years ago when they came upon a remote tribe in which the women were still getting pregnant and giving birth in what seemed to be their sixties and up. Her research is being funded by the pharma company, but they haven’t heard from her in months.  She has turned off her phone and never answers emails.   They are concerned for her, but even more, they want to know how the drug is coming along.  Money, money, money, you know.   So the CEO sends Marina’s lab partner, an affable young man, down to Brazil to look for Dr. Annick Swenson, and hopefully bring her back so she can make a report to the powers that be.

They hear nothing for several months and then a letter from Dr. Swenson arrives reporting the death of the young man from some mysterious fever.

The young man’s wife is sure he is not dead, and begs Marina to go to Brazil and find out what happened.  Her CEO also wants her to go, but to find Dr. Swenson and haul her sorry a$$ back to the States.

So that is the first half of the book.  The second half is about her journey, the odd folks she meets in the Brazilian city that is the jumping off place for traveling into the jungle, her relationship past and present with the irascible Dr. Swenson, and what has happened to the young doctor.   It starts off with a strange and surreal river trip to the almost inaccessible  location of the tribe in question, where the good Dr. is ensconced with several other researchers.  And gets weirder from then on.

An amazing read, and I hope you put it at the top of your To Read In This Lifetime list.