Wednesday, July 30, 2014

ROLLING THUNDER by Chris Grabenstein

In Chris Grabenstein’s Rolling Thunder, Danny Boyle becomes a hero and finds a new girlfriend.

The story starts with a death on Sea Haven, New Jersey’s new roller coaster, Rolling Thunder. The owner’s wife suffers a heart attack on the ride’s first official run.

Was the death a murder? New Haven Police Officers John Ceepak and Danny Boyle don’t think so. Then someone kills a sexy young waitress and dismembers her. She has connections with the owner of the Rolling Thunder ride.

Ceepak and Boyle decide to take another look at the first death. Are they related? Do they involve family or friends of the two victims.

The two men end up uncovering a high class call girl operation serving prominent people in the town. They uncover clues to the first murder that the two cops find too obvious.

Along the way, Boyle loses his girlfriend. She thinks being married to a cop will be a lonely life. She is going one direction in her life and Boyle another.

The story ends on the same roller coaster where it started. Boyle is a hero. The harrowing ending is violent and exciting. Boyle meets a woman who could become his new girlfriend.

As always Ceepak’s unrelenting adherence to the West Point code of honor adds humor and character to the story.

Again, Ceepak has to deal with his father, a nasty character. 

Rolling Thunder is a typical Ceepak and Boyle story. The book is fun and exciting, but it is also violent and realistic.

I enjoy reading about John Ceepak and Danny Boyle.



“Ceepak nods. Guess he understands New Jersey politics. Guess we all do. You grease the wheel. Let people dip their beaks. That’s why you see so many of our elecrted officials perp-walking into court with handcuffs on their wrists and raincoats over their heads.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

MIND SCRAMBLER by Chris Grabenstein


Chris Grabenstein’s Mind Scrambler (2009) is an extended magic trick.

Someone murders Danny Boyle’s friend Katie. They place her in a compromising position to make it look as if she died of asphyxiation during sexual bondage.

This happens backstage during a magic show in Atlantic City. John Ceepak and Danny Boyle are out of their usual milieu, Sea Haven, New Jersey. 

Mind Scrambler’s title refers to a Sea Haven carnival ride of the same name. That wildly spinning ride uses flashing lights and loud music to confuse the rider. When you finish the ride, you can hardly stand up.

So it is with Ceepack and Boyle. They watch the magic show during which the murder occurs, and they become entranced by the deceptive magic.

These books often deal with brutal, abusive topics, and this book is no exception. 

Mind Scrambler’s strength is its weakness. The elaborate plot makes for exciting action, at least five murders, and mind scrambling deception that keeps the reader guessing.

But what happened takes explaining. I found the explanations tedious.

I enjoy reading about John Ceepak and Danny Boyle. Grabenstein’s plot and characters keep me reading. 

Mind Scrambler was not my favorite book in the series, but it was well worth reading.

John Ceepak and Danny Boyle mysteries

Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak and Danny Boyle

7. Fun House (2012)
Ring Toss (2011)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

ORDINARY GRACE by William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace is a remembered story. Remembered stories are different. The narrator, Frank Drum puts it this way--

“It seems to me that when you look back at a life, yours or another’s, what you see is a path that weaves into and out of deep shadow. So much is lost. What we use to construct the past is what has remained in the open., a hodgepodge of fleeting glimpses. Our histories, like my father’s current body, are structures built of toothpicks. So what I recall of that last summer in New Bremen is a construct both of what stands in the light and what I imagine in the dark where I cannot see.”

That summer in New Bremen saw several deaths including one life-changing death for Frank and his family.

I didn’t know it when I bought it, but Ordinary Grace is a New York Times best-selling book. It won a host of awards. More competent people than I have reviewed the book.

I need say little about it, except to give my impression that every character in the book was true-to-life (at least true-to-life as Frank remembers them).

Frank’s father always acts in love, even when he has heart-rending pain.

Frank’s younger brother is so sensitive it hurts.

Frank is a rebel, at least in a mild way. He is the one who intrudes and does the things one shouldn’t do.

Frank’s mother and sister are extraordinarily talented.

Frank’s mother has more character than first appears. She is stronger than she appears to be at first.

The family’s friends are strong and weak, brilliant and sometimes violent.

Krueger fills Ordinary Grace with disturbing small and large memories. We all have those memories. The time we saw and silently condoned cruelty to animals, or (in this book) the time we intentionally listened to a conversation we wish we hadn’t overheard.

Ordinary Grace is a religious story. The Ordinary Grace of the title is what religious people would call God's grace working in ordinary things, sometimes among people who don’t believe in God.

Some critics have compared this book to To Kill a Mockingbird. The two books are similar. From my memory of reading To Kill a Mockingbird several times years ago, Mockingbird was the better book.

But that doesn’t change anything. Ordinary Grace is a wonderful book. I won’t soon forget Ordinary Grace.

Monday, July 14, 2014

TO DARKNESS AND TO DEATH by Juilia Spencer Fleming

Reading Julia Spencer-Fleming's To Darkness and to Death (2005) is like watching a blockbuster action movie. The plot is frenetic.

Every major character in the book faces either a crisis or a life-changing decision. One person has been kidnapped. Another lost his job and is about to lose his home. A third, faces the forced sale of his long term family-owned business.

Another is about to lose the forest which embodies his family's history. And the two main characters Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopalian priest the Reverend Clare Fergusson watch their love for one another grow as Russ' marriage dissolves.

And that's just the beginning. The book involves kidnapping, murder, terrorism, and a total change in the town of Millers Kill, N.Y.

The change in Millers Kill is at the heart of the story. Nature advocates and a foreign company are about to take over control of the old growth forest.

Anyone who reads about these issues knows control of New England's old growth forests is a real issue, not a fictional issue. Foreign companies and outside groups are taking over the woodlands.

I suspect most people read the Clare Fergusson books for their unrelenting action. I read them for their characters.

The most interesting character interaction in To Darkness and to Death was Clare's connection to a minor player, a stodgy old man, the bishop's assistant. That old man seems to be as conservative as you can get. He has come to chastise Clare for blessing a gay marriage, but after talking to Clare, he suspects something more ethically challenging is happening in her life and ministry.

Yet he is an old man filled with Christian love. He and Claire have what is the beginning of real compassion for one another based on their love of Jesus Christ. (The Clare Fergusson books do have a religious component!)

I'm reading through this series. I've read a few of them previously, but this time I am going in order. Sometimes I get frustrated with these books. Some of the action seems contrived to keep the plot driving along. But, oh!, the characters. They make these stories live.

P.S. I tried to look up what denomination Clare serves. The Episcopal church we belonged to (until the bishop and his “man” closed it because it was a failing new church start) was open-and-affirming. We welcomed and had many active gay members. Our minister could have performed a gay marriage had that been legal in our state. The Episcopalian church I know has ordained gay clergy and bishops.

Monday, July 7, 2014



Donis Casey's Hell With The Lid Blown Off has two sections—Before and After. 

Before, things are peaceful. In the summer of 1916, the Shaw Tucker family gathers for a meal. When the Tuckers gather, that is a large gathering. Shaw and Alifair have ten children (if I remember correctly). Several are married. But they come together (most of them, at least) for a spontaneous evening meal. 

Things are going well. The Tuckers expect two more grandchildren. Seventeen-year-old Ruth Tucker has a new beau. (The stories often feature one of the children courting and finally—maybe a book or two down the road--marrying.)

Ruth now gives piano lessons in Miss Beckie's house. Miss Beckie is a wealthy woman of Scottish descent who especially loves her grandson.

But the Boynton, Oklahoma, worm in the apple, Jubal Beldon, stalks Ruth. He threatens to start terrible rumors about her as he has about many people in the county. He is universally-hated. Paradoxically, he treats his animals with care and kindness.

Then the tornado hits.

This is the best-told section of the story. It reminded me of a time back in the 1980s. We often went to Silver Dollar City about one hundred miles from where we lived. One of their small venues featured a hammered dulcimer player named John Corbin.

One afternoon, I returned to that venue at least three times to hear him sing a powerful song about a tornado.

Donis Casey's description of the tornado reminded me of that song.

The Before section makes up almost sixty percent of the book.

And then there's After.

One of the Tuckers finds the body of Jubal Beldon. Someone murdered him at least a day before the tornado hit. His body rested in the high grass where no one saw it. Then the tornado grabbed it up and blew it from who-knows-where.

Alafair Tucker, Ruth Tucker, Alafair's brother-in-law Scott, Scott's deputy and Ruth's beau Trenton Calder, and the others work to solve the crime.

It is hard to overstate how much I like the Alafair Tucker books. We lived in Oklahoma for three years. Donis Casey knows the history and the people of Oklahoma. She tells an honest story about a wonderful family.

Hell With The Lid Blown Off reflects the blessings and hatreds of Boynton, Oklahoma. At seventeen years old, Ruth has to be told what a sodomite is. But she knows, as do the rest of them, how many people hate out-of-their-place African Americans and gays (two terms they wouldn't have known.) You can be imprisoned or strung up for being gay.

I read this book over two days, fast for me. If you enjoy well-told, historically-accurate mysteries, you should like Hell With The Lid Blown Off.


Don't your understand? If folks think a thing, it is so. It doesn't matter if it's true our not. Your reputation is ruined.
----- a tight little town like Boynton, where everybody knew everybody else, rumor was as damaging as fact.
She didn't take notice of my collapse. She never doubted that I'd see the rightness of her position.
--Trenton Calder describing his girlfriend Ruth Tucker's response to his caving-in, changing his mind and agreeing with her.
Everybody lost something or somebody, but everybody helped their neighbors, too.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

HELL HOLE by Chris Grabenstein


Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole came out in 2009, but it has application today.

Sea Haven, New Jersey, police officers Danny Boyle and John Ceepak investigate an apparent suicide. The victim returned from multiple tours in Iraq.

Unbeknownst to Ceepak, he had connections to the victim. Boyle becomes involved too because, previously, the dispatcher sent him on a disturbing-the-peace call. He later learned the loud, drunken soldiers are part of the dead man’s unit.

To complicate things, local thieves ransack the dead man’s car and steal his CD player. The whole thing revolves around drug dealing in the little tourist town of Sea Haven. Ceepak and Boyle get on the wrong side of a prominent U.S. Senator, the father of one of the soldiers.

And as if that weren’t enough, straight-laced, Dudley Do Right John Ceepak’s nasty, drunken father shows up in Sea Haven. That’s when what had been up to now an ordinary book turns into something special.

In a sense, Iraq is a background setting for this story.

A lot happens in Hell Hole. Events are more humorous and more serious than any summary makes them sound.

The humorous part is the straight-laced Ceepak and those around him. They investigate murders named after carnival rides or amusement parks in Sea Haven.

The now-unused Hell Hole ride is what we used to call the Grape Press. Riders stand along the wall of a large round smooth-walled barrel. The operator spins the barrel and people stick to the wall as the floor drops out beneath them. This particular Grape Press resides in the Hell Hole, a small, boarded-up, out-of-business amusement park in Sea Haven.

But the book’s title has other meanings too.

Along the way, Hell Hole explicitly describes crimes against humanity.

So how does this book apply to the present? In several ways. I’ve appended three quotes. Read them to find some examples of where I saw the parallel.

I always enjoy the John Ceepak-Danny Boyle books. If I were ranking this one among the Ceepak books I have read, I’d put Hell Hole at or near the top. 


No wonder the guy made it all the way to senator. He lies better than anyone in Washington, and that’s saying something.

“The Patriot Act clearly states that we can hold American citizens precisely because we do not have sufficient evidence to prove that said citizens have committed a crime meriting detention.”

            --The Senator’s justification for having his bodyguards kidnap Boyle and Ceepak.

CD number three is a gospel collection. A dozen songs entreating the Almighty to have mercy on the singer’s soul and not let him be forsaken in the Valley of The Shadow of Death, which could be another name for Iraq.