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Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

There are two major things going on in Katie’s life simultaneously: (1) Katie kissed her best friend, Esme, and now they’re not friends and (2) Mary, the grandmother Katie never met, has come to live with them. Mary’s partner, Jack, suddenly passed away, listing Katie’s mother, Caroline, as the person to contact in an emergency. The thing is, Mary has dementia and she and Caroline do not get along.

Unbecoming

As the school term has just ended, Katie volunteers to care for Mary while proper care is arranged, which suits her mother. The two form a close bond and Mary in her lucid moments tells of her life, both sad and happy. Katie learns that Mary left Caroline in the care of Mary’s sister, Pat, since Mary at 16 was not capable of raising an illegitimate child. Katie learns of Mary’s ‘carefree’ life in the London theater, as well as the regrets of losing Caroline.

There is so much going on in Unbecoming, a wonderful, bittersweet novel. Downham gently explores Katie’s sexuality, the family’s intergenerational dynamics and Katie’s special needs brother, Chris. The rapport between grandmother and granddaughter is gratifying. The contrast between a ‘carefree’ grandmother and her overly careful daughter makes one wonder which traits are genetic and which are learned. Although none of us can really know how a person with early Alzheimers feels, moments of lucidity offset by moments of clouded memory, Downham ably puts us in Mary’s head, a difficult feat.

One of the best books I’ve read this year and one that will probably make my 2016 Top Ten list, Unbecoming is a tender novel that will warm your heart.

 

There’s a reason that Black Mask is/was the premier pulp mystery magazine for so long. It had the best. In the introduction to A Cent A Story! The Best from Ten Detective Aces, editor Garyn G. Roberts makes the case that Ten Detective Aces magazine was cutting edge at the time. Well, based on the 10 stories in this anthology, it is nowhere near cutting edge.

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Debuting in 1928 and originally entitled The Dragnet and changed to Detective-Dragnet Magazine and ultimately to Ten Detective Aces in 1933, Roberts states that “…a small detective pulp debuted which would in its own way substantially mold the form for detectives to come.” “…and for his dime, the reader got ten fast-paced mysteries, complete in each issue.” Only a cent a story!

True, the anthology does contain stories by some of the pulp greats: Norvell Page, Lester Dent, Frederick C. Davis. However, if you are looking for hard boiled mystery, gritty, noir, the stuff of Hammett and Chandler, you won’t find it in A Cent A Story! The stories are strange, off beat, which is OK. It just isn’t my cup of tea.

I love everything mystery pulp and am glad I read this, but if you’re a novice in the pulp mystery genre and want to start slow, I’d suggest The Black Mask Boys: Masters in the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction edited by William F. Nolan with eight great stories or The Hardboiled Dicks edited by Ron Goulart.

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

Tanya Pitts Dubois comes home one day to find her husband, Frank, lying at the base of the stairs, quite dead, with a big gash on his head. She decides that if she notifies the police and remains at the house until they arrive, she will be the most likely suspect. For various reasons, she concludes, this would not be a brilliant idea. So, she packs her bags and leaves.

For a book I contemplated not reading, I would have made a grave (no pun intended) error in not reading The Passenger because I couldn’t put it down. I am a big fan of Lisa Lutz and the Spellman series. However, I couldn’t get through Heads You Lose, her ‘joint venture’ with David Hayward. Plus, I’m not typically a fan of humorous mysteries, which I thought this was. I had put a reserve on the book and it arrived, I was between books and said “What the heck.” It was truly a smart move.

I’m not going to write any more about the plot. It will speak for itself as you read. You’ll love Tanya as you travel with her, as you read her emails and learn her history. The Passenger is a truly entertaining read.

 

Love and Fear is the fourth in the Gulliver Dowd mystery series (after Dirty Work, Valentino Pier and The Boardwalk) of ‘high interest-low reading level’ books by Reed Farrel Coleman. I give Coleman a lot of credit for (a) catering to a neglected segment of the reading population and (b) writing something interesting for them to read. Mystery readers, in general, will enjoy the book, regardless of reading level.

Gullier Dowd is no ordinary man. He is short (under five feet). His body is mismatched, almost grotesque, and totally opposite of his handsome face. He refers to himself as God’s Little Joke. A private investigator, he is in between jobs when there is a knock on the door…from someone he’d rather not see-crime boss Joey Vespucci’s number one enforcer, Tony. Dowd and Tony do not get along, at all.

Tony using his own initiative tells Dowd that Vespucci, unbeknownst to himself, needs Dowd’s help in finding his missing daughter, Bella. Dowd is the best person-finder money can hire and all the other investigators Vespucci hired have failed. Dowd, using a bit of psychology on Vespucci, gets his buy-in and off he goes with Ahmed, his right hand man, and Tony as Vespucci’s eyes and ears.

In a mere 150 pages, Coleman put together an interesting mystery with twists and turns and logical thinking. It certainly helps with the backstory to have read the previous books as Love and Fear does refer to the death of Dowd’s sister, Keisha, and to his current amore. Either way, Love and Fear is an enjoyable read.

As an aside, if you haven’t read Coleman’s new Gus Murphy series, book one Where It Hurts is waiting for you.

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Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt’s career has spanned almost 50 years and her repertoire of songs seems endless. The set list of last night’s concert at the Beacon Theater spanned pretty much her entire career while adding a few new songs into the mix.

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I first saw Bonnie Raitt at Jones Beach oh so long ago. If I’m not mistaken she was on the bill with Lyle Lovett (what a mismatch). An upbeat, catchy Will Ya Won’t Ya prompted me by buy her album and the rest is history. We see her every chance we get, even traveling once to Connecticut.

Bonnie’s voice is always strong. Her guitar playing is superb and her band, over the years, has been tight and spectacular. Bonnie’s love of the blues is evident. When I first started seeing her she’d bring Ruth Brown and Charles Brown, old R&B singers, to the stage. Last night she paid tribute to Skippy Wallace whose Women Be Wise was on Bonnie’s first self-titled album in 1971.

Two staples of Raitt’s concerts include Right Down the Line by Gerry Rafferty (from the 2012 Slipstream album) and Angel From Montgomery from 1974’s Streetlights, the latter always getting standing ovations. Her encore included I Can’t Make You Love Me which is always an emotional song.

Raitt was very appreciative of her dedicated, long-time fan base (more so than most artists) and got very emotional as the sold out crowd gave her standing ovations and demanded an encore. She always mentions how lucky she is to do what she loves to do and never forgets to mention her father, the Broadway actor/singer, John Raitt.

I was quite surprised, however, how low key the political activist in Raitt was last night (and has been over the years), especially this year with the unfathomed candidates in the Presidential race.

If you have not seen Bonnie Raitt in concert, you’re missing something. If you haven’t listened to her albums, you’re missing even more. So, start with her latest, Dig Deep and go from there.

 

Sarah Alt (aka Salt) has just been promoted to Detective-Atlanta Homicide Squad. As the only female on the day shift, and known to typically work alone, almost as a hazing ceremony she is given the 10 year old cold case of blues singer Mike Armstrong’s death. Originally ruled an accidental drug overdose, there is new evidence, in the form of convicted felon Dwayne Stone’s testimony, that Armstrong was intentionally given a ‘hot dose’ of heroin. However, it is Stone who shot Salt a year ago, from which she still carries the physical and emotional scars. Stone will be trading his information for a reduced sentence and Salt will be working towards that goal when corroborating his testimony…another emotional scar.OutOfTheBlues

Salt carries other emotional scars as well, especially that of finding her policeman father’s body after his shotgun suicide when she was nine years old.

When Salt’s cold case intersects with a recent high profile murder, everyone gets involved, from detectives to narcotics to SWAT and the action builds up.

Out of the Blues by Trudy Nan Boyce attracted my attention because of its blues orientation and apparently Atlanta was a hot spot of early blues activity. In an era when hip hop and rap are at the top of the charts, the popularity of the blues seems to be declining and the plight of the old bluesmen is going virtually unnoticed, Boyce brings it to the forefront. Readers can visualize the dusty, dirty clubs that the book’s rag tag blues band is forced to play in. One of the characters is a down on her luck, homeless former blues singer.

Boyce’s (a former police officer) debut novel is a great start for a series, which I hope this is. She’s has a great set of characters in Salt, her detective boyfriend Wills and their dogs, the transgender desk sergeant, Rosie, Thing One and Thing Two, etc. There is an adequate split between police procedural and action. All the characters are believable. The book has an evangelical bent to it, which is not one of my favorite subjects, but it wasn’t an overpowering slant to the book.

While Boyce’s prose are a little hard to follow/read at times, Out of the Blues is still quite readable, maybe a little slower read, but readable. Her descriptions, especially blues related sounds or feelings, are a little over the top, kind of like she went to writing school and this is what they taught her…not naturally flowing is probably a better way to describe it.

While I don’t normally give star ratings, I’d probably give Out of the Blues three and a half stars. Boyce has the characters and plot down, now she just has to make the words flow more smoothly. I’d definitely read her next book and am actually looking forward to it.

 

The Faroe Islands are midway between Norway and Iceland in the North Atlantic and therefore, from a geographical standpoint, mysteries from that region should have the noir-ish bent of say an Arnaldur Indridason Icelandic mystery or a Jo Nesbo Norwegian mystery. And while The Blood Strand describes the bleak setting of a cold, windy, rainy group of islands, it doesn’t have that overall bleakness that Indridason incorporates into his novels.BloodStrand.jpg

Signar Ravnsfjall, noted Faroe businessman, is found unconscious in his car in a lay-by in Tjornuvik, a remote part of the island of Streymoy. There are blood splatters on the car, a shattered window, a shotgun in the passenger foot well and an attaché case of money in the boot.

CID Detective Hjalti Hentze is in charge of the case. Soon after, another body is found, that of Tummas Gramm, a laborer and ne’er-do-well, who has what looks like a shot gun wound in his stomach. Are these two incidents related?

Upon hearing that his estranged father, Signar, is unconscious and hospitalized, Police Detective Jan Reyna is convinced by his Aunt Ketty (who raised him after his mother’s death) to leave England and visit his father. They haven’t spoken in years and their previous encounter was not cordial…as a matter of fact, it ended in a fist fight.

Reyna is met at the hospital by his half brother, Magnus, as strong willed as their father, and equally stubborn and willing to do anything to preserve the family reputation. He is also met by Frida, a cousin who is Magnus’ opposite.

As should be expected, Reyna becomes involved in the investigation, with Hentze and his boss juggling his utility against his kinship with the Ravnsfjall family.

I really enjoyed The Blood Strand which is more than just a murder mystery. Reyna is trying to learn about his family, since he and his mother left the islands when he was three. While doing so, he struggles to figure out where he stands within the family and how much he actually cares about them. Meanwhile, he and Hentze are trying to solve the murder.

Hentze and Reyna play off of each other very well and should author Ould decide that Reyna should remain in the islands and make this into a series, I personally would be quite happy.

P.S. I just learned that The Blood Strand is the first book in a planned trilogy. Excellent!

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