Sunday, June 29, 2008

Book Review: "The Murderer Vine" by Shepard Rifkin

Hiding out in Puerto Lagarto as the novel opens, our hero Joe Dunne begins a detailed confession to a traveling American priest. He has been hiding out for two years with no one to talk to and clearly is a bit lonely. Besides that, he has been watching the American in a clerical collar chasing butterflies with a net and thought it was funny. As the pages turn, he tells his story and explains how e got a job that was to set him up money wise pretty good as well as cause his exile far from home.

After handing a case that pushed the bounds, his name is passed on to an angry father by a client who really should have kept his big fat mouth firmly shut. The father is aware of some of the details of the other case and thinks that Joe Dunne could be willing to do what he wants done. It seems his boy was one of three men who went down to Mississippi to help with voter registration. His son, who was a good student at Harvard, along with two friends are now missing and presumed dead. Dad knows who did it thanks to another contact and Dad wants justice.

"'I know they're dead. I don't know what your political views are and I don't care. But I think you know what justice is. If it doesn't exist, then you make it. I want my boy's body. And I want justice."
"You mean revenge."
"I don't make any distinction. Shall we talk business?'"
(page 34)

Dad also knows that the legal system in 1970 Mississippi isn't going to do anything to the five that local gossip says were involved. He wants proof of their guilt and he wants justice.

Justice he is willing to pay for and justice of a kind that means Dunne will have to close his private investigation business, send his receptionist, Kirby, on her way and disappear. The father is willing to pay for finding the bodies of the victims, another higher amount for proof of the guilty and a still higher amount for their execution—no matter how many are ultimately guilty of the crime. Justice that he is wiling to pay for and will pay well for once he has the proof he needs of their guilt. Justice that can be bought at these prices and justice that Dunne is willing to deliver.

Like most releases from Hard Case Crime, this recent re-release is a dark atmospheric one. One knows from the opening page something went horribly wrong and the only real question as the pain filled narrative begins from Joe Dunne is exactly what went wrong. Everything and everyone is flawed in some fatal way and that certainly is the case here. Like many from this publisher, there is a certain inevitability in the read that means all the hard work, the meticulous planning of every last detail, in the end truly did not matter.

Joe Dunne is a complex character and as this slow moving novel tells the tale, a character that the reader begins to identify with more and more. A character, that while one knows is probably doomed, one that the reader pulls for all the way to the bitter end.

The novel is a read full of rich detailed characters, a time that wasn't the best in American history, and plenty of evil. It is a read that also makes one wonder just how much, if any, things have really changed.

The Murderer Vine
Shepard Rifkin
Hard Case Crime
May 2008
ISBN# 0-8439-5961-4
254 Pages

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008

Book Review: "Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast: Slow Cooker"

After recently reviewing "Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast: Grilling" primarily for my newspaper column in Senior News and later elsewhere because I liked the book so much, I decided to see what my library had to offer in the series. While I am primarily a meat and potatoes kind of guy, I like to cook and do have a slow cooker. The last thing I want to do after teaching all day is come and cook. So, I was especially interested in this title.

The book is broken down in what seems to be the standard format in this series. The three main sections are labeled as "15 Minutes Hands-On Time" followed by" 30 Minutes Hands-On Time" and "Make More To Store." Each section has a number of recipes such as "spring veal stew," "tuscan ribollita," "beef –chipotle chili" or the just flat out funny sounding "turkey breast in mole." That one is followed by "mole enchiladas" and " mole huevos rancheros." "Mole" in this case seems to refer to a cooked combination of spices, onions, tomatoes and chilies used as a base to add other items to in order to create whatever recipe. Unfortunately, there are no calorie counts, fat counts, salt levels, etc. making it impossible to realistically determine how healthy any of the dishes are though many make use of items in such quantities one gets the impression they aren't designed for cardiac or low fat diets. Each section contains numerous pictures of the dishes once they are completed. The three main sections lead to the back of the book where there are detailed instructions on types of cookers, planning ahead, stocking your pantry, ingredients to use along with seasonal suggestions, and storage tips making this area much more valuable than the preceding pages. The book closes with an easy to use index.

Clearly the book is well thought out and is done well. But, for me, this book is a serious disappointment.

As I said before, the last thing I want to do when I come home from teaching and working with kids all day is to stand in the kitchen and cook. I don't find it therapeutic to chop and slice stuff for dinner after getting the first load of laundry going and the dishwasher started. It is nice to come home and find something almost ready to eat assuming the local power folks have managed to keep the power on (something they certainly seem to have trouble with, since we changed into a deregulated market with resulting astronomical bills).

I certainly don't want to cook before I go to work. In order to use most of the recipes in this book, which are ones my family wouldn't eat anyway because they are picky scavengers, one would have to do a lot of cooking before finally moving items to the slow cooker to slow cook for the day. Many of the recipes start with the instruction to brown chicken, pork, beef, etc. in a large frying pan for 10 or 20 minutes. Other recipes start with cooking the meat on the grill or under the broiler for a specified period of time before moving the meat to the slow cooker. Not only am I not human in the morning until I have had a couple of cups of tea, I have no desire to get up an hour early or so to cook something before it is added to the slow cooker to simmer all day. That defeats the whole purpose of being able to throw whatever into the slow cooker, set it, and forget it. So, for me, this book is a dismal failure and while it's well done, it does not fit what want or need from a book with this title.

Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast: Slow Cooker
Recipes by Norman Kolpas
General Editor Chuck Williams
Oxmoor House
October, 2006
ISBN# 0-8487-3139-5

Reviewed book provided by the Plano, Texas Public Library system

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008

Reviewing: "Of All Sad Words: A Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mystery"

Blacklin County, Texas is a fairly, quiet place most of the time which is how Sheriff Dan Rhodes likes it. His idea of a citizens' Sheriff's Academy had seemed like a good idea at the time in that it would teach folks about the department and generate some good publicity. Now he is getting flack over it from some, most notably county judge Jack Parry. Parry is convinced that some who went through the academy recently are vigilantes. There is more to his complaint but it boils down to the universal idea of politics and micromanagement.

Sheriff Dan Rhodes is finally saved from the county judge by a call about a trailer house explosion. The Crawford brothers, who have a bit of a reputation around the area, may have been inside when it blew. There had been accusations that the Crawford's were running a meth lab, something not uncommon these days in the East Texas woods. Rhodes never caught the Crawford's selling anything-not even Amway.

And while one brother has survived the blast, another has not and it quickly becomes clear that it was a murder. A murder that in the minds of some was caused by politics. Murder, that in the eyes of some others was caused by alleged drug dealing. No matter the cause, Sheriff Dan Rhodes intends to find out and isn't gong to let small town politics over a variety of matters stand in his way.

I'm ashamed to admit that this book, which was recommended to me by a friend, is my first Bill Crider novel. It puts me in the mind of the J. W. Jackson series penned by the late and missed Philip R. Craig. True, Sheriff Rhodes doesn't offer any recipes and is clearly not set anywhere near Martha's Vineyard. But, there is that same slow comfortable way of story telling that gradually spins the novel out while detailing the real world characters that live in the Dan Rhodes world. Instead of starting with an abrupt bang, this is the kind of book that slowly begins and allows the reader to get to know the people just a little bit before presenting the problem.

The result is a 265 page read featuring a steady hero who knows his limitations. This is a character, as well as many of the minor characters, that have universal appeal on one hand and are clearly Texan on the other. Dogged in his pursuit of justice Sheriff Dan Rhodes follows a trail with grace under pressure and a reserved calmness most of the time. Along the way, he deals with a variety of events and people from all walks of life who may or may not have his best interests at heart.

And he hooked a new reader.

Of All Sad Words: A Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mystery
Bill Crider
Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press)
February 2008
ISBN #0-312-34810-X
265 Pages

Review copy provided by the Plano, Texas Public Library System

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

Reviewing: "The Last Quarry" by Max Allan Collins

Quarry was a hit man and very good at his job. These days he is retired and not so good at that. He retired not because his conscience was getting to him, but because he had amassed enough money to live comfortably and not kill for money any more. So, he quit and through a contact he started managing a small resort that may or may not he located along Sylvan Lake in Minnesota.

Life is pretty good all things considered. But, he is having a small issue with insomnia. The fact that it is winter and everyone is gone except the maintenance guy, José, doesn't help. With the place closed and nothing to do except keep an eye on things, he is bored out of his mind. Very late one night he takes a 10 mile trip to the nearest convenience store for a little junk food and instead finds a contract killer who knows him. That killer, like a domino in a long line of dominoes, provides a way to deal with his insomnia and ultimately one last job.

According to the multi page author's note, this book was originally inspired by his anthologized short story "A Matter of Principal" (which is also a short film in the "Shades of Noir" collection and his short story "Guest Services." Fortunately for the author and readers, Charles Ardai wanted to not only reprint some of his earlier books, he also wanted an original Quarry novel for Hard Case Crime.

That request ultimately became this book which is a fast read at 194 pages and features distinctive cover art by the legendary Robert McGinnis. In those 194 pages, Max Allan Collins showcases an anti-hero of sorts who is what he is and accepts that with no excuses. He knows what he is and how he became what he is and when he makes a mistake, Quarry accepts it and moves on. This is a guy who does his job, expects others to follow through on their part of the contractual bargain and is perfectly willing to enforce compliance as well as accept his change of plans should the need arise. The result novel is an engaging tale that pulls no punches as it touches on the themes of murder, deceit, familial love and jealousy and the plain simple truth that some folks just need killing.

The Last Quarry
Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime
August 2006
201 Pages (Including author's note)

Review copy provided by the Plano Public Library System

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Reviewing: "Santa Fe Dead" by Stuart Woods

"Santa Fe Dead" could easily have been named "The Boring Return of the Evil B-word Barbara." That might have been more honest and would have better reflected the disappointingly weak quality of Stuart Wood's latest effort. It would have also worked naming it "Santa Fe STUPID."

It is time once again to hang out with Ed Eagle, Santa Fe lawyer and all around older stud. Someday, we may finally find out that Ed Eagle is actually Stone Barrington's father as they seem to share the same concepts about the law, making money, bedding beautiful women, etc. When Ed Eagle isn't romping in bed with the gorgeous actress Susannah Wilde (yes, he romps by his own admission and does it very well with no unsatisfied customers or golden arches), or wheeling and dealing, is testifying in court about how his ex-wife Barbara tried to take his money, kill Ed's private investigators, have Ed killed, and generally cause mayhem in both Mexico and the U. S. Despite his testimony, as well as the fact that she flees the courthouse while the jury is deliberating her verdict, the jury in San Diego, California finds her not guilty.

Barbara begins to set her sights on the next husband to be whose biggest asset is his money while Ed Eagle begins to try to move on with his life. Part of his stated attempt to move on is to warn the next husband to be that Barbara is evil. That doesn't help create separation, closure, or whatever the shrinks call it this week and before long Barbara is mad as a hatter and going after him everyway possible. That is fine with Ed because he isn't through with her either.

Featuring stereotypical characters, gratuitous sex scenes inserted for no plot reason whatsoever, and plenty of action as well as references to money and designer goods, this is an incredible weak read. Barbara is the complete evil B word, Ed is an unflappable stud, and the bad guys are amazingly stupid. Finding good help is hard to do and in this case one really wonders how the bad guys lived long enough to be the stupid help in this novel. Apparently, they never were forced to get out of wet paper bags at any time of their lives and therefore have managed to live long enough to get here where they can fly planes and do all sorts of things but can't kill worth anything and leave clues behind that a sixth grader wouldn't. The result is a book typical of Wood's write it fast and sell it philosophy of the last few years and on that many of his fans will mindlessly continue to snap up and enjoy.

Santa Fe Dead
Stuart Woods
G. P. Putnam's Sons
ISBN #978-0-399-15490-4
309 Pages

Review copy provided by the Plano Public Library System

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Reviewing: "Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption"

The third in the action crime Baby Shark series opens in May 1957. Kristin, aka Baby Shark, is still wielding guns and pool sticks with deadly accuracy. She is still working with Otis and the latest case and resulting plan of action were supposed to be relatively simple. Travis Horner has a girlfriend who got into some sort of trouble and is currently up in Oklahoma. She isn't kidnapped exactly, but she isn't free to leave either. In exchange for some money, Otis gets to bring the girlfriend back to Travis Horner. Kristin is supposed to lurk, provide support, and deal with anything unexpected that comes up.

Something she does very well and normally she is on time. However, as usual in May in Oklahoma, the weather is atrocious. A tornado that traveled through the vicinity has delayed her arrival by some two hours making the drive up from Fort Worth, Texas even harder.

Plenty of time for things to have gone badly and they have. Kristin never wanted any part of rescuing the girlfriend of a bootlegger, no matter how pretty or how well she can play the piano. Now, she has to rescue Otis also which will require violence. Violence is something Kristin has become very comfortable with the few years since her father died in front of her and she was brutally assaulted. Nobody does violence better than Kristin, aka Baby Shark, and there are serious consequences for those stupid enough to get in her way.

Featuring the same occasionally funny one liners, plenty of violence, and more break neck adventure, Robert Fate has penned another winner. Morality, always present in this series, plays a bigger role as Kristin in considers two major problems. One is the ease she steps into and out of violent actions which often leaves others dead in the chaos and wreckage. Truth be told, she likes it when circumstances force her into acting violently because she no longer knows any other way. Violence to those who interfere is simple while relationships and love are far more complicated. If violence is the answer, where does that leave the romance between herself and Lee, a detective with the Dallas PD?

Questions that have no easy answers much like what to do with the gorgeous redhead bootlegger's girlfriend, who is responsible for the waves of bad guys coming after them, and the major question as to the why of everything. Like the other books in the series, the motives of others, beside shooting at them is vague and unstated and Otis and Kristen have to survive long enough to get any answers at all. What is clear from the chaotic opening under an Oklahoma sky pulsing with jagged lighting to the final chaotic shoot out in a hospital in Fort Worth, Robert Fate's latest novel in the series easily is equal to the first two books. Another clear winner and one sure to please his growing legions of fans while recruiting new ones.

Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption
Robert Fate
Capital Crime Press
May 2008
ISBN # 0-9799960-2-3

Advance review copy was graciously provided by the author directly.

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Convention Time in Big D!!

Thanks to a miracle assist from PJ Nunn, I will be attending the Hardboiled Heroes And Cozy Cats mystery writers convention in Dallas this weekennd. For more info, surf over to the convention link at

Hope to see you there!


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Reviewing: "The Maya Stone Murders" by M. K. Shuman

It is the late eighties as this novel set in New Orleans opens. Private Investigator Micah Dunn, home from Vietnam for quite some time and still suffering flashbacks and war injuries, is used to people staring at his left arm. He doesn't have much use of it and usually tucks his left hand into his pants pocket for support and control. Something that Dr. Gregory Thorpe notices immediately and asks if his handicap is a detriment in his line of work.

After Dunn explains that most PI work is documents related and waiting, lots of waiting, Dr. Thorpe finally begins to outline his problem and one that the police can't help him with at all. Somebody is messing with Dr. Thorpe's exhibition of artifacts brought back from the Mayan city of Ek Balam located on the Yucatán peninsula. Somebody keeps adding items one at a time to the various displays. When a display is supposed to contain three items and suddenly contains four, visitors and staff notice. Dr. Gregory isn't a popular man and he has several suspects in mind.

Somebody is going to considerable effort to plant the realistic fakes in an effort to discredit Dr. Thorpe and Micah Dunn figures a couple of days max and the case will be wrapped up. That is what he thinks, before a death of one of Dr. Thorpe's suspects happens literally outside Micah Dunn's home in front of him in the middle of the night and Dr. Thorpe is subsequently arrested for the murder. What begins simply enough in the Crescent City will finally end at the ancient Mayan city making everyone wonder about the curse.

Written by M. K. Shuman who also wrote as M. S. Karl ("Killer's Ink" among others)

this is the first novel of the Micah Dunn Series. Published in 1989 the novel doesn't follow the current conventions of mysteries that mandate a body to fall in the first chapter, a breakneck opening, etc. Instead, this is a novel that opens slowly and deliberately with background on the characters to give them depth before slowly picking up the story pace. Setting and character developments are the main keys here with action scenes few and far apart with most saved for the last thirty or so pages of the novel.

Slower moving that his Peter Brady Series written as M. S. Karl, this book also has a darker tone to it than that series. Not just because of the frequent Vietnam flashbacks which serve to build character back story in several very different areas, but Dunn's perceptions of the world are much darker. While Peter Brady packs it in and runs to rural Louisiana to own and operate a small town paper and lick his wounds, he believes ultimately that most people are good at heart and want to get along. Dunn is much more cynical about the world and looks it as a hard place where everyone is hiding some dark secret or action. Dunn is often right but is that because the world is such as he sees it or a self fulfilling prophecy?

While not engrossing, this book overall is a solidly good read that delivers on well thought out characters, a complex mystery and themes of history and morality. Not easily available, it is a novel well worth hunting for as it will keep you turning the pages.

The Maya Stone Murders
M. K. Shuman
St. Martin's Press
ISBN# 0-312-02608-8
246 Pages

My sincere thanks to the staff of the Central Library of the Houston, Texas Public Library system who provided a copy of this book via the interlibrary loan program. If it was not for the staff of the local Plano, Texas library system as well as staff of libraries across the country, many of the reviews you have seen of mine in various places the past decade simply would not have ever appeared. I also would not have had the many hours of reading pleasure made possible by librarians.

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Reviewing: "Holy Moly" by Ben Rehder

The death of backhoe operator Hollis Farley appears at first glance to be a tragic accident. Found underneath his overturned rig on land he was clearing to make way for a mega church near the Pedernales River, Hollis Farley died on the job. But, this is Blanco County where weird things happen and this one is another. Instead of being killed when the backhoe hit a boulder and flipped as first theorized, it turns out that he was shot in the back with an arrow capped with a broadhead hunting point.

As the case unfolds and Game Warden John Marlin's involvement increases, the facts and the people involved get stranger and stranger. Finding a dinosaur bone on the property of the planned mega church didn't get Hollis Farley killed. What he did afterwards just might have done the trick. With so many having a motive for doing the deed, it is up to John Marlin and Sheriff Bobby Garza to flush the real killer out before he or she strikes again.

Much like he did with "Gun Shy" Austin, Texas area writer Ben Rehder has penned another often funny novel that lets everyone in sight have it. This time his main target is the religious hypocrisy often found in the mega churches. It is tempting to speculate a bit as to which church served as inspiration but unnecessary. Considering past events across the country, this satiric novel could easily become too real in coming months as no doubt another religious leader of a mega church will be caught doing something very wrong. It is inevitable—much like news reports of Jesus sightings in recently washed windows and fried food products.

In the meantime what we have here is yet another often funny novel sent in Blanco County, Texas featuring a strange murder, a ton of offbeat characters, and the resulting twisted and often funny search for justice. The book is another tale of the weird, funny and often absurd that packs a punch to the mind and the gut. Beyond the continuing romance involving John Marlin there is no real character development to speak of regarding the returning characters. That romance is a minor factor in the book with most of the focus on the murder case and the cast of offbeat characters who are involved at various levels. The result is a good piece of work with plenty of comedy and mystery guaranteed to keep readers entertained to the very last page.

Holy Moly
Ben Rehder
St. Martins Paperbacks
May 2008
ISBN# 0-312-35754-0

Review copy provided by PJ Nunn of Breakthrough Promotions

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008

Friday, June 06, 2008

Children's Book Review: "The Curious Child"

This children's book tells the tale of a child full of questions. The child lives on a small island that contains a tiny village of 100 people. He constantly is asking questions and his curiosity is driving everyone, including his own parents, to the edge. It is decided that he shall be sent to the ancient dragon that lives at the top of the biggest mountain on the island.

While he is sent in the hopes that the dragon can help him by placing a magic spell on him, time has passed, and the dragon after spending so much time alone over the years has become mean. The dragon, known to all as the Old One soon comes face to face with the boy. After a brief discussion with the child, the dragon states that he will answer three questions the boy asks. Should the dragon answer all three, he and his two village escorts will be eaten and live in his belly for 100 years. Stump the dragon and the dragon will let them go free.

The first two questions are easily answered by the dragon. With his final question, the boy attempts to get the upper hand on the situation. While the dragon ponders the third question in confusion, the three manage to escape. Proving the author's idea that one can never ask too many questions.

This book works in nearly all areas as it tells a tale that is important for children and their parents. The text flows well, the message is clear, and the black and white illustrations by Grethel Peralta are a very nice touch. With the color cover, I expected interior illustrations to be in color and was surprised that they weren't in color. I also expected a few more illustrations than there are in this entertaining book. However, that is a very minor quibble as the story works as do the black and white illustrations used which do not overpower the simple, clear text. This is a book that works well and shows how self publishing can work when actually done properly. The quality shows and the book is sure to delight children and their parents.

The Curious Child
Donni Floyd
Illustrated by Grethel Peralta
Outskirts Press, Inc.
ISBN# 978-1-59800-046-7
16 Pages

Kevin R. Tipple © 2008