Cynthia Riggs

Islands are magical places, no doubt about it. Whether you live on one, as I do, vacation on one, or read about them, islands stir some deep core of fantasy. Island Justice is a satisfying island book. Elizabeth Winthrop understands and better still, makes us understand the feeling of a close-knit community that knows everyone else's business and personal life, that pulls together when it needs to.

When Maggie Hammond's godmother, Nan, dies and leaves her island home to Maggie, a sophisticated world traveler, a furniture conservator who works with museums in London, Madrid, Amsterdam, and Prague, Maggie sets about selling the cluttered Victorian house. The task of getting the house ready for sale takes longer than she expects, and Maggie gets caught up in off-season island life. The body of an island man, missing for several days, washes up on her beach. Islanders rally around his daughter and give Maggie, who found the body, the support she needs. “You're entitled to fall apart,” she is told. She learns about a serious problem in one of the families. Should she remain silent, closing her eyes the way the islanders have been doing? Should she call in authorities from the mainland? What role should she play? In Island Justice, Winthrop packs onto her small island (12 miles long, three miles wide) adventure, romance, mystery, and humor. We learn a bit about furniture conservation, a bit about training Vishlas, hunting dogs. When Randy Baker spots a school of fish off the beach: “ÔHallelujah,' he shouted, and got on the radio with a single call. He knew he was breaking the cardinal rule of the island. The radio was to be used only for emergencies. But the fishermen had come up with a simple code. . . . Within twenty minutes, there were twelve fishermen lining the beach, calling news of lures and catches to one another.” Kasha, Maggie's Siberian husky, is hurt badly and must get to the mainland. The word goes out, “Get down to the ferry will you, and try to convince Dan to hold that boat.” Besides being a good yarn, the story has the feel of an island. We hear the bell buoy, the fog horn, the gulls, we struggle along with Maggie to back a car onto the ferry. I was sorry when I finished this wonderful, rich book. Now that I've discovered Elizabeth Winthrop, I am off to my favorite island bookstore to order her previous novel, In My Mother's House.

Reviewed by Cynthia Riggs.

Islands are magical places, no doubt about it. Whether you live on one, as I do, vacation on one, or read about them, islands stir some deep core of fantasy. Island Justice is a satisfying island book. Elizabeth Winthrop understands and better still, makes us understand the feeling of a close-knit community that knows everyone […]

"The sacred and the dispossessed meeting on the streets," is the way Sara Paretsky describes her vision of Ghost Country. Paretsky enthusiasts who look forward to each V.I. Warshawski mystery will find a different sort of book, but one that will not disappoint. When I realized the book was about homeless women on the streets of Chicago, I wasn't sure I wanted a dose of sociology for bedside reading. But from the first page, where a has-been diva wrestles with her demons, I was hooked solidly, for all 386 pages of excitement, wit, violence, romance, and pathos.

The action centers on an underground garage wall at the Hotel Pleiades in Chicago. A homeless woman has set up a cardboard box home and a shrine beside a crack in a wall that weeps rusty water which she believes is the blood of the Virgin Mary. Other homeless women join her. The hotel is in a quandary. They can't afford the publicity of ousting women who may, just possibly, be practicing their religion. Yet hotel guests are complaining. The diva, whom we met on page one, joins the homeless women in her silk designer suit, somewhat soiled by now, and Italian heels. Once a world renowned opera singer, she has been "tough loved" out of her wealthy twin brother's house because of her problems with alcohol (and for running up $40,000 on his credit card). Mara Stonds, sister of the hotel's lawyer and illegitimate granddaughter of Dr. Abraham Stonds, eminent neurosurgeon, ends up at the wall, too. Against his better judgment, Dr. Stonds has taken in his daughter's baby, calling her Mara, which means "for the Lord has dealt bitterly with me." The cast of homeless women is buffeted about by do-gooders at Hagar's House a refuge for homeless women by church officials, mental health authorities, Dr. Stonds's hospital, and by the police. The church on Orleans Street holds Bible lessons for the homeless women, lessons they must attend if they are to get a bed for the night. The women's powerlessness is frightening and real, and the twists and turns of Ghost Country entertaining and thought provoking. I won't look at bag ladies in my own city the same way ever again.

"The sacred and the dispossessed meeting on the streets," is the way Sara Paretsky describes her vision of Ghost Country. Paretsky enthusiasts who look forward to each V.I. Warshawski mystery will find a different sort of book, but one that will not disappoint. When I realized the book was about homeless women on the streets […]

Ever since I read A Is for Alibi, 13 books ago, I've been hooked on the adventures of Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton's private investigator, who works out of Santa Teresa, California. I have followed Kinsey through B Is for Burglar, C Is for Corpse, all the way through M Is for Malice. The 14th in the series, N Is for Noose, is the best yet, and all of them rate five diamonds. Kinsey is brave, bright, funny, and human. I hurt for her when she's about to get a tetanus shot: The nurse comes back "holding the you-know-what on a little plastic tray like a snack." I chew the inside of my lip when fear shoots through her "like a bottle rocket, lighting my insides with a shower of adrenaline." I worry about her diet when she picks up a "pack of chips and a can of Pepsi" for dinner.

The setting for N Is for Noose is Nota Lake, a threadbare town on the eastern edge of the Sierras (ten gas stations and 22 motels), that caters to the less-than-wealthy ski crowd. Selma Newquist, the widow of a detective in the sheriff's department, hires Kinsey to find out why her husband, Tom, had been so distraught in the several weeks before his fatal heart attack. Kinsey has her doubts about the assignment, figuring Tom's behavior could be blamed on failing health or who knows what. She starts with no clues, several times coming close to backing out. Tom was respected. His colleagues liked him. He didn't seem to be messing around with other women. His finances were in order. Kinsey dutifully follows a few flimsy leads, and we're right there with her, wondering where she's being led. Then, as she digs deeper, she unearths more than she expected, and soon we're immersed in a can't-put-it-down adventure.

I'm not about to give the plot away, but it twists and turns in the most satisfying way. As in all the Kinsey Millhone books, she is real. The words on paper disappear, and we are with her, whether she is bemoaning her housekeeping, "Every time I buy parsley, it turns to slime," or reacting to a hunk, "I allowed myself one small inaudible whine of the sort heard only by dogs." If Kinsey were to step off the page, I would recognize her, understand her better than my own sister, sympathize with her frailties and shortcomings.

If this is your introduction to Sue Grafton's Alphabet Series, beware! You will find you need to make more shelf space for all 14 books, plus those to come. If you have already met Kinsey Millhone, join her growing fan club, waiting not-so-patiently for her next adventure, O Is for . . . ?

Reviewed by Cynthia Riggs.

Ever since I read A Is for Alibi, 13 books ago, I've been hooked on the adventures of Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton's private investigator, who works out of Santa Teresa, California. I have followed Kinsey through B Is for Burglar, C Is for Corpse, all the way through M Is for Malice. The 14th in the […]

Michael Dibdin's latest Aurelio Zen mystery, A Long Finish (the title refers to the lingering aftertaste of a fine wine), combines an education in wine making and truffle hunting with a witty, wacky, suspenseful plot, a satisfying set of gory murders, and a solution that keeps the reader guessing up to the last paragraph. For those who have not yet met Aurelio Zen, he is an arrogant, bumbling Italian police detective, who, despite his seeming incompetence, manages to solve mysteries that baffle lesser minds. His subordinates view him with awe. As the story opens, Aldo Vincenzo, one of the greatest vintners in Italy's piedmont country, has been brutally killed. His son is being held for the murder. A wine connoisseur, collector, and world-famous film and opera director (and friend of police higher-ups), summons Zen. Now he's dead and his son is in prison, all on the eve of what promises to be one of the great vintages of the century! he says. I want Manlio Vincenzo [the son] released from prison in time to make the wine this year. He tells Zen, Unless we act now, the grapes will either be sold off to some competitor or crudely vinified into a parody of what a Vincenzo wine could and should be. Zen is given a choice. Either get Manlio released from prison, or plan on becoming part of an elite corps of police officers who are being sent to Sicily to wipe out the mob. This, Aurelio Zen does not want, and we are launched into an absorbing (and funny) tale. Dibdin brings the Italian piedmont setting to life: russet and golden foliage sprouting from ancient stumps ; vines heavy with fat blood-red grapes ; the vast, cold damp cellar, its vaulted roof encrusted with a white mesh of saltpetre. He also brings its characters to life, describing three aging partisans, as interchangeable as pieces on a board in their dark, durable patched clothes, each garment a manuscript in palimpsest of tales that would never be told. A Long Finish is Michael Dibdin's 12th book, and after reading this skillful writer's latest tale, you're sure to want to read the entire series.

Cynthia Riggs is a freelance writer on Martha's Vineyard where she runs a B&andB for poets and writers.

Michael Dibdin's latest Aurelio Zen mystery, A Long Finish (the title refers to the lingering aftertaste of a fine wine), combines an education in wine making and truffle hunting with a witty, wacky, suspenseful plot, a satisfying set of gory murders, and a solution that keeps the reader guessing up to the last paragraph. For […]

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