Review ~ On the Wrong Track

Cover via Goodreads

On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith

It might be 1893 and the modern world may in full-swing, but cowboy Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer is an old-fashioned kind of guy: he prefers a long trail ride even when a train could get him where he’s going in one-tenth the time. His brother Otto (“Big Red”), on the other hand, wouldn’t mind climbing down from his horse and onto a train once in a while if it’ll give his saddle-sore rear end a rest. So when it’s Old Red who insists they sign on to protect the luxurious Pacific Express, despite a generations-old Amlingmeyer family distrust of the farm-stealin’, cattle-killin’, money-grubbin’ railroads, Big Red is flummoxed. But Old Red, tired of the cowpoke life, wants to take a stab at professional ‘detectifying’ just like his hero, Sherlock Holmes and guard jobs for the railroad are the only ones on offer.

So it is that Big Red and Old Red find themselves trapped on a thousand tons of steam-driven steel, summiting the Sierras en route to San Francisco with a crafty gang of outlaws somewhere around the next bend, a baggage car jam-packed with deadly secrets, and a vicious killer hidden somewhere amongst the colorful passengers.

On the Wrong Track, Old Red and Big Red’s much anticipated return, is filled with all of the wit, flavor, humor, and suspense that made Hockensmith’s debut, Holmes on the Range, so beloved by critics and fans alike. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I read Holmes on the Range, the first book in this series, in late 2016. Only a year between the first and the second? I amaze even myself!

What Worked
I really enjoy the set up of Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range books: Gustav Amlingmeyer, a cowhand in the 1890’s American west, knows Doyle’s (or rather Watson’s) tales of Sherlock Holmes. He’s taken with the notion of “deducifying” and wants to be a professional detective. He is also illiterate, having worked labor-intensive jobs to keep his family afloat since he was young. His brother Otto is a big strong guy, but has been given a clerk’s education. Together, the brothers are a complementary team, even if they don’t always get along. They’re brother’s after all. Against the backdrop of the Old West, the brothers encounter and solve mysteries.

On the Wrong Track involves a mystery set aboard a train bound to San Francisco. It’s a good mystery with enough clues and events to keep the brothers and readers busy.

I read this soon after reading “The Huge Hunter: Or, the Steam Man of the Prairies” by Edward S. Ellis. The Steam Man, an giant robot man made to pull a wagon, was the subject of a series of dime novels in the latter half of the 19th century. As with a lot of late 19th century fiction, Ellis felt the need to give accents to characters of different backgrounds. The Irishman character, McSquizzle, is nearly incomprehensible. Thank goodness we’ve moved beyond that. While Hockensmith has the brothers (and others) use quite a bit of western slang, it reads easy.

What Didn’t Work
A minor annoyance: sometimes Otto (our POV brother) is a bit repetitive. I can understand wanting to get certain things solid in a reader’s mind, but I think Hockensmith can have a little more faith in his audience. This is a very minor point.

Overall
Honestly, my best reading this year has been “fun” reading. The Holmes on the Range series isn’t high art, but it’s entertainingly written and plotted. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, author published (I believe), 2016 (2007)
Acquired: Amazon, 4/19/17
Genre: mystery, western

This is my first book for the Wild West Reading Challenge!

hosted by Nick @ One Catholic Life

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Review ~ Countdown City

Cover via Goodreads

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

There are just 77 days to go before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Hank Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over…until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Brett Cavatone disappeared without a trace – an easy feat in a world with no phones, no cars, and no way to tell whether someone’s gone “bucket list” or just gone. With society falling to shambles, Hank pieces together what few clues he can, on a search that leads him from a college-campus-turned-anarchist-encampment to a crumbling coastal landscape where anti-immigrant militia fend off “impact zone” refugees.

The second novel in the critically acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy, Countdown City presents a fascinating mystery set on brink of an apocalypse – and once again, Hank Palace confronts questions way beyond “whodunit.” What do we as human beings owe to one another? And what does it mean to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you? (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
So, I won this book from The Geeky Library back in June 2014. Two years later in 2016, I reviewed the first in the series, The Last Policeman. I said at the end of that review I said I’d be reading Countdown City in the near future. Well… I guess that’s what the TBR Challenge is for!

What Worked
As with the first book, the thing I like about this series is the character of Hank Palance. Hank is just a regular guy. He just wants to be a police detective, a job he’s reasonably good at. Sadly, the end of the world is kind of getting in the way. The novel starts July 18th; in 77 days a meteor is going to hit the Earth, a possibly humanity-ending event. Hank is the type of character I like to write: a hard-worker who is being screwed over by circumstances. Despite everything, Hank is still this good, decent guy.

Winters also does a good job of advancing the timeline of societal breakdown as Impact Day approaches.  Things are getting dicey. People are starting to get a little nutty about resources. There are cults and scams and conspiracies. These things are a lot more interesting than the super lawlessness that most apocalyptic stories present.

What Didn’t Work
A bit of a **SPOILER** warning here — Hank has a knack of getting himself into trouble without a plan to get out of that trouble. While he gets the crap beat out of him, the narrative bails him out. There are a couple of swoop-in rescues of Hank in this book. They’re not really unreasonable, but this is a trend that can get old. **END SPOILER**

Overall
I enjoyed Countdown City. I had a couple of problems with the story, but I’m still interested in reading the third book. Maybe I’ll finish the series by 2020?

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Quick Books, 2013
Acquired: Won it from GeekyLibrary, June 2014
Genre: mystery, science fiction

Review ~ The Linking Rings

This book was provided to me by Henery Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

The Linking Rings by John Gaspard

What does Eli Marks have up his sleeve this time? Well, let me tell you, no matter the mystery, his sleight of hand always does the trick.

Eli’s trip to London with his uncle Harry quickly turns homicidal when the older magician finds himself accused of murder. Not Uncle Harry!

A second slaying does little to take the spotlight off Harry. Instead it’s clear someone is knocking off Harry’s elderly peers in bizarrely effective ways. But who?
The odd gets odder when the prime suspect appears to be a bitter performer with a grudge…who committed suicide over thirty years before.

While Eli struggles to prove his uncle’s innocence—and keep them both alive—he finds himself embroiled in a battle of his own: a favorite magic routine of his has been ripped off by another hugely popular magician.

What began as a whirlwind vacation to London with girlfriend Megan turns into a fatal and larcenous trip into the dark heart of magic within the city’s oldest magic society, The Magic Circle. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This is the 4th Eli Marks mystery. The first, The Ambitious Card, established Eli as our working magician and amateur sleuth protagonist. I’ve enjoyed the whole series.

What Worked
Gaspard’s details about magic and the social aspects surrounding magicians are always great. Magicians have a strange dynamic of friendship/rivalry which I’m not sure exists in other industries. It’s a lot of fun and adds a certain amount of drama to situations.

The setting of The Linking Rings shifts away from the Twin Cities in Minnesota to London. While the sense of place isn’t as strong, I never doubted Eli and Harry jumping from tube station to tube station as murders happen around them.

What Didn’t Work (as much)
Set in London, this volume of the series doesn’t have one of the relationships that have made the other mysteries work better: Eli’s district attorney ex-wife and her cop fiance.  Without these hooks into the investigation, the clues in The Linking Rings just sort of accumulate around Eli. While he’s instrumental in the climax of the story, solving of the mystery feels abrupt.

Overall
This is a fun, honest mystery. Eli Marks is a great character and I’m hoping that John Gaspard continues to provide magic in future books.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, Henery Press, 01/16/18
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: Mystery

Deal Me In, Week 39 ~ “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” by Arthur Conan Doyle

Card picked: 10*
From: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (I’d link to this story, but published in 1924, it isn’t yet in the public domain in the United States. Which is utterly ridiculous.)

* Every-so-often, I make a mistake in my Deal Me In list. This week ended up being one of those oftens. When I copy/pasted the table of contents listing for the Shirley Jackson stories I’m reading for hearts, “Dorothy and my Grandmother” was slated for the 9 and “And the Sailors” for the 10, but actually, that’s all the title of one story! So, I decided to have an extra wild card slot and filled it with a Sherlock Holmes story that was recently mentioned in my copy of Dracula.

The Story
“The Sussex Vampire” is generally considered one of the strongest of this collection. Case-book was the last collection of Holmes stories written by Doyle and, in fact, some of his last published fiction. Doyle was well-tired of Holmes at this point and probably low on ideas.

“The Sussex Vampire,” though, is a very quintessential Holmes story. We have a problem, one of seemingly supernatural—or at least very deviant—origin. A woman is accused of sucking the blood of her infant child. I kind of wonder if Doyle had this story rattling around as an idea for a while, but had earlier thought the concept a little too much.

As a reread, I sort of remembered the solution to this case and I could see all the pieces being put into place. There’s the drawing room consultation and the on-site visit and Holmes being very smart while everyone is frazzled. All these things, are very satisfying as a reader. Holmes does seem a little more sensitive to others in “Vampire,” but maybe I’m used  to the very anti-social modern versions of Holmes.

The Author

This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.

I have to give props to Doyle for maintaining Holmes as a skeptical character while the author was far into his spiritualistic sojourn.

Peril of the Short Story

Review ~ Club Deception

This book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Club Deception by Sarah Skilton

A glamorous romp through the scandals and secrets of LA’s most exclusive fictional magician’s society, CLUB DECEPTION.

Claire Fredericksson is the beating heart of CLUB DECEPTION, LA’s most exclusive magician’s society. She’s the Queen Bee of Magician WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends), and the genius behind her philandering husband Jonathan’s award-winning magic show. Claire’s life is upended by the arrival of two new women to the closed group of wives-Jessica, a young trophy wife with a secret, and Kaimi, an art expert looking for the long-lost Erdnase papers by posing as a girlfriend. When a magician rivalry erupts into murder, the women must uncover the truth and set things right for the men they love. With a cast of endurance experts, Vegas stage stars, and close-up card handlers, this novel weaves a tale of murder, fame, and many, many illusions. (via Goodreads)

Note: I did not finish this book.

Why was I interested in this book?
The magic/magician aspect of this book was the big draw for me. I was a bit hesitant though. Many of the books I’ve read with magic aspects get those things wrong, or (maybe worse) just use them as a light flavoring to the plot.

What Worked
Skilton does a great job with the magic. It’s not just “Houdini, yeah, he was a magician, right?” There’s references to tons of historical magicians and allusions to some modern ones. One of the plot points revolves around lost/stolen original drawings from Erdnase’s The Expert at the Card Table which is an excellent idea. From a magic standpoint: this was totally the book for me…

What Didn’t Work
…but otherwise, it’s not at all the book for me. Truly, I think this is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” I’ve never connected well with noir, which Club Deception shares some aspects of. I’m also not a fan of the heightened drama that goes along with Dynasty-like storytelling. It was hard for me to stay engaged with the story when most of the characters are scheming wives and unfaithful husbands. I stopped reading at the 32% mark because I really wasn’t enjoying my time with this book.

Overall
Despite the magic, I’m not the audience for Club Deception. Now, if you grew up with Dynasty and/or rather enjoyed Revenge (the 2011-2015 TV series) give this book a try.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ARC, Grand Central Publishing, July 25, 2017
Acquired: NetGalley, 5/22/17
Genre: mystery

This is 4/10 Books of Summer!

Review ~ The Last Train

This book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

The Last Train by Michael Pronko

Detective Hiroshi Shimizu investigates white collar crime in Tokyo. He’s lost his girlfriend and still dreams of his time studying in America, but with a stable job, his own office and a half-empty apartment, he’s settled in.

When an American businessman turns up dead, his mentor Takamatsu calls him out to the site of a grisly murder. A glimpse from a security camera video suggests the killer was a woman, but in Japan, that seems unlikely. Hiroshi quickly learns how close homicide and suicide can appear in a city full of high-speed trains just a step—or a push—away. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
About two years back, I reviewed Michael Pronko’s Beauty and Chaos, his first collection of essays about Tokyo. A few months back, via a fellow blogger, I saw that Pronko was planning to release a series of Tokyo-based mysteries. I was definitely interest and excited when offered The Last Train to review.

What Worked
The big thing for me: The Last Train has a great sense of place. Considering Beauty and Chaos I expected no less. There are aspects of Tokyo that I was unfamiliar with, like hostess clubs, that got me Googling.

Hiroshi is solid character. Pronko has lived and taught in Tokyo for 20 years, but I was a little concerned about his main character being Japanese. Would a Western guy be able to pull that off? (And can I, not being Japanese myself, even be able to judge that?) From my point of view, Hiroshi’s education and background give him reason to look at the culture around him from a point slightly removed. It’s a little like when I go back to Nebraska after living in Arizona for 17 years—I suddenly remember that college football is a *very big deal* and that the afternoon news includes the prices for hogs and corn.

The key to a good mystery is how well information is revealed to the characters and readers as the story unfolds. It’s no spoiler to mention that Michiko, an ex-hostess, is the antagonist of The Last Train. Chapters are written from her point of view. Doing that and not revealing all of the character’s motivations is a tricky thing to do. Pronko handles it well. The ending of The Last Train felt a little abrupt, but it wasn’t unsatisfying.

What Didn’t Work
A minor thing: Hiroshi’s position within the police force was a little muddled. Though he works white-collar fraud cases, he’s currently under the umbrella of homicide. That is explained by it being a reorganization happenstance, but I think I would have like to have seen Hiroshi even more settled as a pencil-pusher. The circumstances of the case could have brought him in even without the homicide division (mis)connection.

Overall
It looks like there are at least two more Hiroshi thrillers on the way and I’m up for ’em. All the pieces are in place: Hiroshi, his sometimes partner and ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi, already put-upon assistant Akiko, and Tokyo as the backdrop. Bring on the next case!

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle mobi, Raked Gravel Press, May 31, 2017
Genre: mystery, thriller

Review ~ Holmes on the Range

Cover via Goodreads

Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith

1893 is a tough year in Montana, and any job is a good job. When brothers Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer sign on as ranch hands at a secretive ranch, they’re not expecting much more than hard work, bad pay, and a few free moments to enjoy their favorite pastime: reading stories about Sherlock Holmes.

When another hand turns up dead, Old Red sees the perfect opportunity to employ his Holmes-inspired “deducifyin'” skills and sets out to solve the case. Big Red, like it or not (and mostly he does not), is along for the wild ride in this clever, compelling, and completely one-of-a-kind mystery. (via Goodreads)

Earlier in the year, I had high hopes for a Western about two brothers. That one didn’t work out for me. The Sisters Brothers is a fairly literary work and, to be honest, I like my fiction more on the genre side of things.

To me, genre is a set of plot-related tropes. Story consumers of all types know the tropes, and story producers aim to create narratives that use the tropes as faithfully or creatively as needed. Genre is somewhat separate from setting, but many genre categories can be settings as well. “Western” (like “science fiction” and “fantasy”) can be either. If you put Western tropes in a science fiction setting, you end up with something like Firefly. Other genre categories are really only genres; “mystery” is one of those. Mystery has enough flexibility in its tropes to go anywhere. Holmes on the Range is a great Western set mystery.

I put Holmes on the Range on me TBR list during one of my Holmesathons. For some reason, I was under the impression that it directly features Holmes—that this books partially filled in his Great Hiatus. (I have a cover blurb mental block, I swear.) It is not.

Instead, this is the story of two brother Otto (Big Red) and Gustav (Old Red) Amlingmeyer. Big Red, despite his size and obvious physical cow-hand traits, is the educated of the two, the Watson of the story. Old Red, who has been relegated since early life to labor, is illiterate but loves hearing the stories of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Old Red casts himself into Holmes’ mold and aims to solve the murders at the Bar VR ranch.

The relationship between the brothers isn’t always sunshine and light, but there is steadfast loyalty between them which rings true considering their backstory. Hockensmith also does a really good job with time-period slang. Slang can be distracting, but the narrative here is seamlessly in Otto’s voice. The plot is a solid mystery with pleanty of nod to Holmes stories.

I highly recommend Holmes on the Range. It’s the beginning of a series; I’m looking forward to reading the others.

Publishing info, my copy: Trade Paperback, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2006
Acquired: Book Mooch (I believe)
Genre: Mystery