Sunday, July 9, 2017

Beat Until Stiff by Claire Johnson has Murder on the Menu

Beat Until Stiff
By Claire M. Johnson

Are you hungry for a fun, summer read?  Here it is - a taste of intrigue, with spicy characters, a dash of humor, and a steamy setting all blended into a delicious mystery.

In this mystery the protagonist, Mary Ryan, is a pastry chef at a fancy San Francisco restaurant.  Some who work at the restaurant, or dine there, hide interesting, personal secrets.  And somebody hides one that’s clandestine.  It’s murder after hours in the restaurant’s kitchen.  You the reader are in a great place to try to solve this murder along with Mary.

To complicate matters, Mary’s ex-husband is a police officer and becomes involved in the investigation.  However, the officer assigned to the investigation is the ex-husband’s former partner on patrol who also knows Mary very well.  Neither of them is interested in Mary’s theories, but as the reader you’ll find that the clues she turns up are very helpful.

I really enjoyed the humor in the book, especially with the amateur sleuth, Mary Ryan.  And not just the characters are described so well.  The author painted a vivid picture of the setting.  San Francisco scenes are well known, but Claire M. Johnson wrote deeper including background snippets about the society and cultures there that put the story into a meaningful context.

Claire M. Johnson knows a lot about the life in her book.  After graduating from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in History, she decided to work as a pastry chef.  She loved it so much she continued for eight years in San Francisco and Oakland during the height of their food revolution. The passion and frenzied pace characterizing the food scene on the West Coast during the 1980s is well documented in this book, her first novel Beat Until Stiff.  For this book she won the 1999 Malice Domestic Writers Grant.  She stopped cooking professionally when her children were born.  Eating at restaurants is still one of her favorite hobbies, with her most discerning critiques reserved for their dessert menus.

If you have an appetite for following clues, meeting interesting characters, and trying to solve mysteries, you’ll enjoy this book.  Perhaps you’ll want to read it with a side of Butterscotch pie – Claire M. Johnson’s favorite.

And if you’d like to hear more, from the author herself, please click on our podcast Kendall & Cooper Talk Mysteries with Claire Johnson -

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Go Deep Undercover with a KGB Spy

Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America; Hardcover; Author - Jack BarskyDeep Undercover
By Jack Barsky

The tension and intrigue of a thriller, spy novel is irresistible for so many of us. What about reading a spy memoir?  Can real life spying stand up to artistic license to kill?  In this case, yes.  I enjoyed reading all about the life of a real German, Russian spy in America during the 1970’s and 1980’s.  You’ll find his spying skills were very different from today’s Russian hacking accusations.

The author was born in 1949 in East Germany, into a small family suffering the impacts of the end of World War II.  This very East German Albrecht Dittrich had no idea he would grow up to take on an American name and life.  He describes in painful recollection the destitute life he lived with his brother and parents, the lack of love, and the early and continued indoctrination into Marxism, Leninism, and the glory of a future with international Communism.  The indoctrination included villainizing Germans living on the other side of the Berlin wall.  How the 0ppression affects the different members of this family during the slow rebuilding from the War is a sobering story.

Brilliant in school, Albrecht caught the attention of KGB.  The recruitment process is a fascinating read.  The skills that he learns, and the tests he’s put through are meant to prepare him for assignments that are at first well understood by his KGB mentors.  Later it’s interesting how they try to prepare him for spying in America, which is an environment they really knew very little about.

When Albrecht is sent to America to spy, he has to leave his entire life behind as if it never existed.  He had to find an American identity he could become, and so he became Jack Barsky.  His family and friends were given a made up cover story and could not contact him at all for years at a time.  As a young, idealistic and fully indoctrinated man, he was able to successfully become a totally different person with a new history and a mission he believed in.  This book allows you to see how he did it.  As time goes on you see how this decision wears on him.  It’s amazing to watch first the strength of his commitment to do his duty, and then it’s spellbinding to watch how the pent up emotion, regret, and discovery of love penetrate his plans and change them.

When Jack Barsky turned his back on the KGB, it was suspenseful to see if they would come after him.  I really enjoyed this book, including the part where the FBI catches him. The FBI agent’s Afterword is also very good at the end of the book.  I have to admit, the last few chapters when the author describes settling into a “normal” American life, I quickly lost interest.  Guess I was really into it for the old fashioned intrigue, and I’m glad there was plenty of that.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ghost Man by Roger Hobbs

Image result for ghostman by roger hobbs

By Roger Hobbs

A casino robbery in Atlantic City goes horribly sideways, despite all appearances of its intricate planning.  The brain behind the operation needs to repair the damage and make it go away.  He calls in an old favor from a Ghostman.  Occasionally called Jack, Ghostman lives completely off the grid and cannot be found when he doesn’t want to be.  He makes himself invisible to society and lives without any ties or associations with people.  You’re introduced to this curious personality, who has a high intellect, and ethics he’s created for himself.  When inclined, he’s an expert fixer who cleans up crimes and makes them disappear.

This time the Ghostman is up against an explosive 48 hour clock, as well as more bad guys.  His analysis of the situation, as well as the stories he hears and sees played out before him, is compelling.  It’s a refreshingly intelligent crime story.  Your page turning will grow faster and faster as you can’t wait to find out what happens next.  No guarantees that anyone is as they seem.  And most fascinating of all is the Ghostman himself.  Incredible the smart ways he keeps himself unknown, fully disguised, in the shadows.  Seeing his personality at work through his own thoughts and actions is a real education.  Woven through the story the Ghostman mentally relives the inciting crime when he created this life for himself, and reasons why he did it.  The psychology is frightening, and at the same time fantastic.

This genius author created shadowy and criminal characters that not only come to life, but demand a true and thought provoking presence.  The smart plot appears to be moving in a specified direction, when the Ghostman improvises, and reimprovises a new ending right before your eyes.

When this novel was written, it received high acclaim from critics as a reinvention of the crime novel.  The excellent, descriptive writing in this debut novel led him to be named one of the best writers in his field.  In 2014 he was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.  He went on to author Vanishing Games which I look forward to reading.  Tragically he died far too young, near the end of 2016.  This legacy that he’s left his readers is meant to be grabbed tightly and devoured whole.  You’ll fully enjoy this tense ride.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Amanda Knox In Her Own Words

WaitingToBeHeard Final.REV

Waiting To Be Heard
By Amanda Knox
A story that monopolized international headlines for months at a time over the course of four years couldn’t tell the whole story.  A University of Washington student, who dreamed through her childhood of spending a year studying in Italy, settles into a life in Perugia, Italy.  Tragic, brutal murder of one of her housemates turns Amanda Knox’s dream into the darkest, life-altering nightmare that took years to resolve, enveloping her beloved family and friends and forever impacting their lives.  This memoir shows an isolated twenty year old who must somehow reach deep into her heart and soul to find courage, inspiration and hope.

I was so moved by the talent and skill of her writing.  I mean, this author can really write.  I felt the naïveté, the giddiness, the youthful freedom at the start of her dream adventure.  Then, I felt the accelerating horror as destiny takes hold.  And then, I was swept up in the diametrically opposed emotions as she’s jailed in Italy, put on trial in a media surroundsound, and convicted with a twenty-six year sentence for a crime she did not commit.

At the heart is Meredith Kercher who will not be forgotten.  What the reader learns about her crystallizes what a beautiful young woman’s life was stolen so young.  Amanda writes anecdotes about the short time she and Meredith had together as friends.  What a nice, naïve, giving young woman, also joyful with her own dreams and aspirations and part of a loving family and circle of friends left devastated.

The author is not only able to vividly record her own experiences, but she also gives glimpses into the experience of her family, friends, and others including Rafaelle Sollecito who was also wrongly convicted.  The reader is filled with compassion for them all for what they also endured.  You can vividly imagine the horror to be in Seattle on the other end of Amanda’s evolving phone calls home, to uproot your life, maintain a residence in Italy to be as near as possible for years, watch your finances dwindle, and struggle to maintain hope your daughter would be freed.

It takes an incredible storyteller to write about a well known, true event in a way that the reader is carried along and kept in the moment on each page.  I found myself hoping for triumphs and fearing tragedy and thinking the next page would be different, as if history can be changed.  Amanda Knox takes us on an insightful tour of the long trip from agony to ecstasy.  The author is never self-pitying, never represents herself as a victim.  Her depiction of the Italian police, the trials, her attorneys, her guards, and others she was in jail with is all riveting.

Today the author lives in Seattle and works with the Innocence Project, which is a non-profit dedicated to putting an end to wrongful convictions.  Exonerated by Italy’s highest court in 2015, almost four years after she was acquitted of murder, you can believe that such an effort would be close to Amanda Knox’s heart.  She’s also attended college courses and is an Arts Correspondent at the West Seattle Herald.  She paints a picture of a person who does not fear life, but relishes it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Laura Childs Spills and Thrills

Pekoe Most Poison
By Laura Childs
Have you ever attended a “rat tea”?  Well, you’re invited, in the recently released, eighteenth book in Laura Childs’ cozy tea shop mystery series.  If you’re already a fan, you’ll be delighted with this return to Charleston and the world of the Indigo tea shop, which blends beautifully with mystery.  If this is your first trip to this series, you can comfortably jump right in with Pekoe Most Poison.

You’ll learn, along with our protagonist Theo, that rat teas are parties dating back to twentieth century Charleston where the cream of society would sponsor teas to promote city rodent control and better public health.  You’ll also have a seat at the table for murder.  Now it’s up to you and Theo to follow the clues and puzzle out which of the suspects has committed this crime.

As a reader I was devouring the clues eagerly, between enjoyable tidbits of history and color around Charleston.  It’s the core characters that surrounded me like old friends.  The tea shop trio personalities are so interesting they resonate, and their interactions are laced with humor and fun.  And the suspects are abundant and varied.  You’ll be challenged working through potential motives and opportunity, but follow the clues to the thrilling ending, let your theories brew a little, and you just may solve this mystery along with Theo and her friends.

Little Girl Gone
By Gerry Schmitt
For this thriller, the author tossed aside the pseudonym of Laura Childs, and she began a new Afton Tangler thriller series. This first book in the series introduces her protagonist who is a family liaison officer with the Minneapolis Police Department.  Afton works closely and empathetically with families that are crime victims, and is also very tough in her developing investigative skills.

The mystery in this book is abduction.  In a thriller, different than a cozy, the mystery for the reader isn’t who did it.  Now the mystery is if the hero can catch the villain, and the clock is ticking from the moment this baby’s abducted.  In the meantime, you learn family secrets revealed.  And the movements and motives of the abductors are fascinating.

This book is an incredible, raw ride that you’ll be excited to read.  Be sure you have time to finish the last fifty pages in one sitting, because you won’t be able to put it down.  The next in the Afton Tangler series, Shadow Girl will be available August 1st.

To hear more from the author of both series, and over 40 mysteries, listen to our episode Kendall & Cooper Talk Mysteries with Laura Childs/Gerry Schmitt.

In honor of this, our sweet 16 podcast episode and in tribute to our tea shop series author, the Treasures and Teas Shop in Edmonds created custom, first taste mystery tea blends.  These are wonderful for sipping while listening to Kendall & Cooper, or while reading your favorite mysteries.

Phyllis Carlton, tea sommelier at Treasures and Teas blended the Queen’s Mystery #2.  Like a good mystery, this blend beckons to you to chase it.  The second blend for our sweet 16 is the Evening Shadow which is particularly soothing while enthralled in thrillers, and well suited to those cozy mysteries.  The Podners were invited to a tea tasting by Phyllis and were delighted.  We left after enthusiastically purchasing each.   And we were excited to send samples to Laura Childs for her to enjoy for our episode.

Next time you’re downtown Edmonds, stop by Treasures and Teas shop and ask Phyllis or Carla for these mystery blends.  And if you want to know more about them, listen to our brief interview with Phyllis who tells more details about these intriguing blends.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Terminated by Simon Wood, The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away
By Simon Wood

Friends Zoe and Holli take a break from graduate studies for a joyful Las Vegas trip, but end up tragically abducted by a sadistic killer.  Zoe escapes with her life, forever changed.  She never sees her friend again and this villain wasn’t caught.  A year later our heroine carries the burden of haunting fears on top of a heavy load of survivor guilt.

Zoe hears of a murder investigation on TV that includes shreds of information that she’s convinced match her abduction.  Now she has to get police to believe that she can help them find this killer.  She’s desperate to have this chance to be part of stopping him.  It’s a second chance at saving someone’s life.  But becoming involved in this investigation puts her life in danger again, if this killer realizes that she’s the one that got away.  This book, typical for this author’s writing, pulses suspense.  You’ll never know what turn this tale will take next, but you’re in for a wild ride and you’ll want to stay on for the exciting finish.

It’s said that Simon Wood concocts wild and dangerous thrillers that would have given Hitchcock nightmares. I appreciate that he creates fascinating, smart villains that get under your skin, then pits them against strong heroes for a truly exciting fight.  I highly recommend this author.  The broad conflicts at the heart of his books give the reader a chance to explore different perspectives on very human issues.  In this book the dynamic issue of survivor guilt, and in his book Terminated an exploration into work place violence.
By Simon Wood
Gwen is conscientiously doing a good job at work, and was recently promoted. But Stephen is one of the employees in her department and he is not happy with Gwen’s work or her promotion.  He decides he’s not going to complain about it, he’s going to do something about it himself.  Taking what he sees as justice in his own hands, this misplaced vigilante is terrifying.

Just like Gwen, the reader doesn’t know when, where or how this self-appointed enforcer will strike next.  His moves are genius in their planning and execution.  If only he put all that energy and intelligence toward good, but then he thinks he is working to make things good.  He’s an ominous character with chilling determination and self-assurance.  He’s devious in chipping away at Gwen’s credibility with others, seeking to isolate her, increase her vulnerability, and ultimately destroy her.  Can she find a way to protect herself, and her family?  It’s a white knuckle ending.  With work place aggression an increasing issue, this book is a thought provoking plot to ponder.

Learn more about this award winning suspense and horror author, who is also a former racecar driver, licensed pilot, animal rescue volunteer, endurance cyclist, and occasional private investigator, from his interview podcast Kendall & Cooper talk mysteries with Simon Wood.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Van Shaw Thrillers

Past Crimes

Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

This novel is the first in the Van Shaw Thriller series. Take a deep breath when you open the cover, because you’ll find yourself deep in action right from start to end. Van is now an Army Ranger serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was raised in Seattle by his grandfather. Now ten years estranged, his grandfather has asked him to come home.

Van’s welcome home is extraordinary. He finds his grandfather bleeding out on the floor from a gunshot wound to his head. And now Van is suddenly in the midst of break-ins, thefts, attempted murder, then he’s suspected and chased by police, and threatened by others. The chase and Van’s investigation is on, and one of the best parts of being a reader along for this wild ride is that this novel is all written from Van’s perspective, giving you a front row seat in real time. You’ll feel your heart pound as you walk down the dark alley with Van, trying to sneak past the bad guys knowing you have nothing but your wits for defense against their weapons. And that’s just one of the chills he shares with you.

His grandfather is not your typical relative; at least I don’t think so. He had some interesting friends and followed some questionable pursuits. Putting together the clues to find out what’s happened and who’s behind it is mesmerizing and suspenseful.

Skillfully laced throughout the novel are some of Van’s memories of his unusual youth growing up in Seattle. Some memories include his friends and some are with his grandfather, and it’s a wonderful way to entertain while giving the reader valuable insights into Van’s personality.

This award winning, best-selling author knows a lot about the Seattle area. He grew up aboard a sailboat in the Seattle area, and spent much time around the islands of the Pacific Northwest. He now lives in Burbank, California with his family but left his heart in Seattle and visits frequently.

You’ll be intrigued to find how past crimes can sneak up on you, and influence your present. They can even be part of a chance at a future. I can’t wait to pick up the sequel Hard Cold Winter available in paperback in May, and I’m looking forward to the newest in the series Every Day Above Ground available July 25th.

And hear more from the author by clicking on the episode when Kendall & Cooper Talk Mysteries with Glen Erik Hamilton, including more information about his new book Every Day Above Ground -