Book Reviews

The Scorpion's Tail (Nora Kelly Book 2) by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Archaeologist Kelly and FBI Agent Swanson Reprise their Uneasy Partnership

The Scorpion’s Tail sees the reluctant partnership of Nora Kelly, archaeologist, and Corrie Swanson, FBI Agent, reprised to solve a historical mystery. I say reluctant as each of the women describe the other as a “pain in the ass” and nothing in the initial setting for this novel changes that. Corrie has been given what she sees as a make-work case—examining a fifty-year-old corpse discovered on federal land—and only calls in Nora as a necessary unpleasantry for recovering the remains. Nora, on the other hand, is competing for a promotion at work with a newly hired, male senior curator. So, when Corrie comes to ask the favor, Nora hopes that the agent isn’t “… going to throw her current dig into the extended chaos she had with the previous one.

The book is classified as a “historical mystery” on Amazon, although the whodunit element seems to fade about halfway through as the villain begins to tip his hand. Why this foe would be committing all the crimes that occur during the story, however, remains a mystery and the authors work this question into what might be considered a twist. To me, however, it felt more like a dividing of the storyline and by the end, Corrie and Nora are leading almost independent investigations into the case. But because one of these threads lacks suspense and the other feels out-of-the-blue, the ending lacked impact. Two weak endings put together does not equal one strong one.

Besides the end, there were a couple of other aspects of the book that I found disappointing. For one, attention is paid to the sexist environment in which Corrie and Nora find themselves—the male-dominated world of the FBI in the former case and competition for promotion in the latter. Unfortunately, Preston and Child’s treatment of the issue is heavy-handed in places. But to make the matter worse, Agent Pendergast makes an appearance at the end to solve the crime as if the two women aren’t capable of doing it themselves. Second, Corrie takes every opportunity to characterize this case as penance for her mistake on a previous domestic disturbance incident to the point where it is affecting her job performance. Even her boss says, “I’m going to give you an assignment, and you might find it a difficult one. I can summarize it in two words: don’t brood.” But what makes her feelings even less understandable is the fact that she is doing exactly what a forensic anthropologist is trained to do in criminal cases—determine identity and cause of death from skeletal remains. How did she specialize in this area during her FBI training and not realize that many of the cases would be exactly like this?

But despite these limitations, I greatly enjoyed the book; I like Preston and Child’s storytelling style. However, in future novels, I hope Corrie will shed some of her self-doubt and embrace her career path. Hopefully, Nora will recognize she enjoys the riddles of crime almost as much as the mystery of archeology. And hopefully, in future books, neither of them will need a man to solve the crime.

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Anemone a Creature/Starship and The Pilots of the Birkeland Currents by PanOrpheus

Not Your Father’s Steampunk Novel

Traditionally, steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that has a historical setting and that features current and futuristic technology powered by steam. So, you might expect boiler-driven engines with analog dials and gauges. You will, however, find almost nothing like that in Anemone a Creature/Starship and The Pilots of the Birkeland Currents save a story told by one of the main characters during an outer-space trip. Yes, this isn’t your father’s steampunk novel.

What, then, is the setting and technology? The story is set in the distant future near the binary star Pleione, which is about 450 light-years from the sun in the constellation, Taurus. (I only know that because PanOrpheus intertwines history, science, mythology, and imagination in his books, and Pleione is part of the science, i.e., I could search it online.) Not only is the story set far from our earth in time and space, but it is also couched in an alternative theory of astrophysics generally known as plasma cosmology or the electric universe. So, rather than black, empty, and cold space governed by gravitational forces, space contains flows such as the Birkeland Currents involving ionized gases and plasmas (this nonstandard theory is also searchable on the Internet). Do you need to understand the differences between Big Bang and Plasma Cosmology to enjoy this book? Not at all. Many works of fiction involve building alternative worlds, and though this alternative has some scientific underpinnings, it’s still fantasy world-building to a large degree.

As for the technology involved in space travel, it’s centered around a bio-engineered organism that also serves as a spacecraft, the anemone. Think horse and rider, except for the scale—the anemone is huge, making the human rider more like a flea on horseback. And somehow, these minuscule humans (a pilot and copilot) direct this monstrous creature/spacecraft, with PanOrpheus comparing their control to that of the unconscious over a human, i.e., directing things not in awareness, such as emotions, habits, and memory. Conscious control over the anemone is provided by a computer, which has as much personality as the humans because the pilot decided to save a little money on its purchase. And finally, prescience or the ability to foresee the future is provided by Aletheia, with PanOrpheus tapping into ancient Greek philosophy for this character. If that’s not enough cooks to spoil the soup, anemone also has a collective unconscious (from past generates of the organism) and an evolving free will. I came away wondering if this craft ever made it to a destination on time.

If you’ve read this far, I suspect you’re thinking, what an odd collection of alternative world-theories, characters from mythology, tidbits from less than mainstream science, and wild imaginings and I’d have to agree. But that’s what makes Anemone a Creature/Starship and The Pilots of the Birkeland Currents such an entertaining read. Tickle your imagination with a book that’s definitely not your father’s steampunk.

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Bottoms Up (A Top Shelf Mystery) (Top Shelf Mysteries Book 5) by Lolli Powell

Meet Ricki Fontaine, Purveyor of (Humorous) Wisdom

If you haven’t read any of the Top Shelf Mysteries, then you should meet the heroine, Ricki Fontaine. I never fail to learn something new from her. In Bottoms Up, she introduced me to the last part of an old saying: “‘everyone to his own taste,’ the old woman said when she kissed her cow”. She gave me insight on how to dole out the truth: “Mark and I had been in the park looking for drug dealers. It was a half- truth…. I wasn’t going to tell them the other half— that we’d found the drug dealers because they’d agreed to meet with us.” And she gave me advice on watching out for my friends: “I sat there for a minute or two longer while I polished off the banana chocolate chip muffin. July didn’t need three muffins, after all. He was an old man and should be careful about carbs.”

Besides the droll humor that author Lolli Powell weaves into every book, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mysteries are top-notch. This one, like each of the previous books in the series, kept me guessing to the last page. And with all the twists in the finale, make sure you don’t stop until you see “The End” because it might not be. Additionally, the continuing story of Ricki’s love life provides another source of entertainment. This time, Ricki’s mom is trying to meddle in it, until her new love interest turns the tables with a little charm. “He raised my mother’s hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. For a second, I thought she was going to pass out.”

As for areas for improvement, there aren’t many. The story shifts between investigating a suspicious death and romance smoothly and with a steady rhythm. The characters are well-developed, a bit quirky, and quite entertaining. About the only thing I noticed was a slight tendency to repetition: “I was in no mood for his games. “’Oh, you two are hilarious!’ I said. ‘But I’m not in the mood for your childishness’”. But for the laughs I get from every one of these books, I can hear Ricki’s not in the mood for games/childishness twice.

So, if you haven’t yet, it’s time you meet Ricki Fontaine.

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Shattered: a Logan McKenna Mystery Book 1 (Logan McKenna Series) by Valerie Davisson

Logan’s Attempt at A New Life Maybe Be Shattered … Just Like Her Old One Was

Shattered is not only the title of the book, but also a good description of Logan McKenna’s life at the start of it. Her husband has died in a car crash and she gave up the business they had built from the ground up. So, she’s starting a new life as a substitute teacher and working over the summer with an old friend, Thomas, at his and his wife’s booth at an arts festival. Unfortunately, it looks like this new chapter could end in pieces as well. She’s accused of cheating on the job and Thomas is arrested for murder. So, Logan largely ignores her personal problem to help the friend she’s sure isn’t a killer.

Overall, the book has the feel of a cozy mystery with no sex and no profanity (unless I just missed it). There is violence in the murder scene, but it’s not graphic. And the story has a sweetness that’s typical of the genre. Logan is always running into old friends and making new ones, all of whom have time for her; no one slammed the door in her face when she started asking about the murder. Though apparently old enough to have a grown daughter, there is a youth and vibrancy to Logan. That characteristic is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in her romantic interest in a neighbor, with her concerns seeming more typical of a teenager than an adult. Basically, Shattered is not a violent mystery investigated by a hardboiled detective, but the woman next door, trying to build a new life and save a friend. And Logan’s definitely an amateur at the later, frequently admitting to herself she doesn’t know what she’s doing but muddling along until the murderer is revealed.

The detail given in some areas of the story seemed excessive, as they did little to move the plot forward. For example, “Lisa completely shredded the tissue, balled it up and placed it in the ashtray on the coffee table. Thomas still smoked.” In the midst of this emotional scene, do we need to know Thomas is a smoker? Would it make any difference if the ashtray was there for visitors? This is a first of a series, so some additional background is necessary, but things like descriptions of every meal Logan ate felt unnecessary. The larger distraction for me, however, was the author’s use of flashbacks and flashforwards. They were introduced at odd times; we got the thumbnail of the victim’s life, for example, after she’s dead. And some of the shifts in timeframe crossed chapters without warning. That confused me more than once.

Overall, Shattered is a solid start to a series and a good introduction to a female amateur sleuth worth following.

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The Retreat by Gordon Ballantyne

Preppers Stand Against Invasion When International Creditors Demand Repayment

If you know what a “prepper” is, then you’re a step ahead of me when I started this book. Basically, it’s someone who believes a catastrophe is looming and makes active preparations for it. The approaching disaster in this book? The United States has failed to balance trade for far too long and our international creditors have called our debt due. America capitulates and China takes over on the West Coast, the Russians on the East, and the population is left in virtual slavery to work off what the country owes. Not everyone is OK with this arrangement, of course, not the least of whom are the protagonists of this tale—Mitch, the enigmatic head of the Olympus Capital hedge fund, and Melanie, logistical guru, mathematical genius, and later, his wife. Together, they provide the financial wizardry that is used to build a prepper community, the Retreat, in the forests of Idaho to battle the Chinese.

Overall, the writing is good, and in particular, the characters are well-developed. Each has their own voice, so even without attribution, you can usually tell who is speaking. You’ll never mistake Angus’ harrumphing, for example. But for my taste, the author is too fond of cliches, e.g., “… would you rather ask for permission or beg for forgiveness? If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance then baffle them with bull.” And there is a tendency to run-on sentences, including some that take up half a page. An additional edit would have helped.

But the real limitations to the book are twofold. First, I found the basic premise difficult to accept. Would no one be suspicious if all of our creditors demanded repayment at the same moment? Would Americans stand by and let foreign militaries on US soil? Would a president just hand over all authority because of debt? Could he? I found it necessary to “suspend disbelief” to get into the story. But second, even after I did that, the plot lacked tension. Consistently, the reader is told that Mitch and Melanie are smarter than any of their adversaries and the prepper community knows more about survival and battle tactics than the Chinese, more than the US Army. It never felt like the Retreat was in any danger. True, there were losses later in the book, but those were the result of massive bombardments where “… they were bound to get lucky on a few shots.” Basically, hero and villain were significantly mismatched and plot tension and suspense suffered as a result.

Overall, the story was an interesting portrayal of the prepper philosophy of survival and freedom. But even if you can accept the basic premise of the invasion, the tension of conflict between equal opposing forces was missing.

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The Reeking Hegs by Pete Peru and Lord Tupelo.

Superlative Wordplay, A Somewhat Incomprehensible Satire, or Hallucinatory Gibberish?

Take your pick of titles because, in my opinion, it could be any of them. It just depends on your tolerance for the absurd.

There were a few typos, although admittedly the text is bizarre enough that’s it’s hard to be sure they are typos. But when the synopsis says, “A work of purest purest fiction …,” I feel comfortable saying that some of what you are reading is a mistake. But even so, there is a case to be made for Superlative Wordplay. The prose is entertaining, filled with double meanings (“He came from a short but sturdy Indian race and was completely out of breath”), unusual but fathomable word choices (“I am as utterly despoiled as the out-of-date filling of a tuna mayo sandwich …”), and twists that occur mid-sentence (“The carver opened his gaping maw to reply but was cut short by a tidal wave”). There is also ample support for the third title, such as the following: “Flying fish fillets filled with dread unco mizzen mast crash of thunderclouds all demon gris in the firmament.” Huh? The prose is fun … but keeping up with the nonsense, the twists, and the double meanings is tiring. If the book was half its length that would have been enough for me. And if you are a fan of genres like police procedurals or hard science fiction where the fine line between technical accuracy and fiction drives your gut reaction, look elsewhere. If you try to “figure out” this book, you’ll only give yourself migraines.

So, which of the titles above is the one I’d choose if I had to … and I suppose I do since this is my review. I’d take number two, A Somewhat Incomprehensible Satire. Why? I’d say it’s satire because it makes use of many common satirical forms such as parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, and double entendre. And besides, that’s the way the author/publisher had it classified on Amazon (yeah, I cheated on this much of my choice). But satires are often written as social criticism and here, things become murkier. Just what is being satirized? At certain points in the novel, I would have said literature and the way authors take the meme of the latest best-seller and try to push it farther … sometimes right off the edge of a cliff. But in the end, I rejected that idea in favor of how commercialism impinges on nearly all aspects of life. In the book, advertisements are interjected into everything from politics to criminal justice, and vendors selling every sort of product seem never more than a few pages away.

How sure am I of my conclusion? About 2 percent, because I can’t shake the feeling that the author wrote this book for his own amusement and he’s chuckling now as he reads my review.

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Blaze of Glory by Ryan Krol

An Interesting Story Written in an Unusual Style

First person omniscient? That’s a narrator, sometimes the protagonist as in this book, who not only knows everything he/she is thinking but the thoughts of every other character. I can’t say I’ve read many books like that, but Jimmy Buckman, the protagonist of Blaze of Glory knows all! “I wasn’t surprised that he knew my name. Neither was Robert nor Downing.” And while that sounds like an optimal point of view, I found it quite distracting. One minute, Buckman is recounting his thoughts. The next, he’s reading everyone’s mind around him. If you want to give it a try, check out this book.

Point of view aside, Blaze of Glory is an interesting tale. Jimmy Buckman is a rancher, turned gunslinger of sorts when the villain, Lone Pine Jack Maddux tries to steal the gold he believes Buckman’s father has left him. Actually, there isn’t any gold; it’s just a family legend that Buckman has failed to keep secret. And though Buckman, his son, Robert, and his friends get the better of Maddux during the confrontation, they flee and Maddux burns the ranch. (Frankly, I had some trouble following the logic of Buckman having the upper hand against Maddux and then leaving the ranch to be destroyed, but took it as a literary gimme.) After that, Buckman and son join up with friends and they go after the gold so Buckman can start anew. Maddux pursues him, setting up potentially deadly confrontations along the route, although why Maddux didn’t just wait for Buckman to return with the gold is another mystery to me.

All of this story is being recounted some thirty-seven years after it occurred when a reporter interviews Buckman. Maddux shows up at the interview and scenes with lots of traded glares and veiled threats ensue. Of course, if you think about it—Buckman’s son was 17 during the original story, meaning Buckman was mid-to-late 30s. So, during the later interview, which occurred in 1906, you have two 70+ year-olds snarling at each other in a time when life expectancy was under 50. It’s not impossible, although that perspective changed my image of the scene considerably.

Though interesting, the story had several weaknesses in its telling. For one, the language didn’t seem appropriate to the era or the rancher/gunslinger character: “I thought it would be more beneficial to adapt to the darkness and let the moonlight take over as the spotlight.” There were quite a few typos and internal inconsistencies: “Downing managed to kill Charlie McGwire, and I got Gus Davis.” Then later, Buckman says, “Never in my life had I killed anyone ….” Terminology was used inappropriately or at least in unusual ways; Buckman often parks his horse, for example. Additionally, perhaps due to the author’s background in film, the text often includes detailed movements of every character. “So, Elizabeth, Whitewater, Wind Runner, Timmy, and I all dismounted.” A few sentences later, “Kaiba then led the way as Elizabeth, Robert, Whitewater, Wind Runner, Timmy, and I all followed Kaiba to his hut.” And a few more sentences, “Meanwhile, Elizabeth, Robert, Whitewater, Wind Runner, Timmy, and I all sat in the hut ….” That style hurts the story’s pace. The dialog is similar, where nearly every statement is attributed to a specific person. True, attributing statements is a balancing act—too many slow the pace, too few can be confusing—but for my tastes, the book was on the “too many” side of the issue.

Overall, Blaze of Glory is an interesting story told in an unusual style. The writing, however, ends up feeling somewhat plodding because action and dialog are told in low-level detail more than shown in the flow of the plot and through different voices of the characters.

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5 Clones by Edward Bonilla

Questioning the Nature of Humanity in an Eerily Familiar Dystopian Future

Although this book is not listed as dystopian fiction, it should be. The future world depicted in 5 Clones is bleak and yet, it’s eerily familiar. Take all of the tensions of recent life in America—the pandemic, racial unrest, isolationism, climate change—and let them linger (the pandemic) or worsen dramatically (all the rest). Drought and fires rage out of control in parts of the United States; other areas are devastated by floods. The United States government trusts no one, as the rest of the world (and many ethnicities) become “outsiders” to be avoided at best, destroyed at worst. Then, have California and Texas succeed from the union in response, drawing the ire of the remaining “New Federal Union”. Embargoes by the NFU produce shortages in food, gas, and information in these new nations, further pushing America as we know it toward self-destruction. At the same time, science advances, producing (as is often the case), a breakthrough with great possibilities for good and an equal or even greater potential for evil. It’s the stuff that causes civil wars … and produces great stories.

Amid this social and political upheaval, we have Dan, a Mexican-American farmer who has cloned himself to provide a source of cheap labor. (No, this isn’t the technology at the crux of the NFU/California rift, although it could be). Dan just wants to sell his clones and make a new start. Things, however, are never as simple as they seem and soon, he’s helping a mysterious woman he comes across in the desert and whatever goals she has for a world turned upside down.

Author Bonilla slowly answers the questions you’ll be asking yourself as a reader—who is this woman Dan has befriended, why are people trying to kill them, where is Dan’s family, how cognizant are the clones, or even, who is Dan? As a literary technique, a slow reveal has both advantages and disadvantages. When complete, I felt satisfaction (relief?) in understanding all the pieces. And some of these are deeper issues, e.g., the nature of humanity and awareness. But the journey to that point sometimes felt meandering. More than halfway through the book, I was wondering if it was just a collection of interesting, although largely unrelated anecdotes from a possible future? And it didn’t help that many of the stories are flashbacks but without any indication that the events occurred in the past. However, to the author’s credit, all the threads are neatly tied up by the book’s end.

Overall, 5 Clones paints a bleak but largely familiar picture of the future. Themes are developed slowly but stick with it; the end is worth the suspense.

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Straight River (Matt Lanier Book 1) by Chris Norbury

An Amateur Sleuth with a Musical Ear Faces a Not-So-Subtle Conspiracy

The protagonist of this novel, Matt Lanier, is a musician. He’s always humming a tune or drawing parallels between his situation and the lyrics of a song. And when he’s reluctantly pressed into a murder/conspiracy investigation, he leverages this talent to find clues to the truth in the timber and tone of voice of the people he meets. That’s not an ability I’ve seen other amateur sleuths leverage and one of the reasons I enjoyed Straight River.

As you might imagine with a thriller, the songs that Matt finds apropos to his situation are ones like Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor—his circumstances are often bleak. Called back to his boyhood home after his father’s unexpected death, Matt soon suspects foul play. Then, later, he finds evidence of a multi-state (perhaps eventually, multi-nation) conspiracy to purchase vast tracks of farmland at below-market prices. Physical intimidation, even murder, are the tools of this criminal scheme and author Norbury keeps the reader guessing, presenting us with a long list of possible co-conspirators. The action is tense and well-paced, with the body count increasing steadily throughout the novel. But even so, there are pauses to enjoy the Minnesota countryside or to relive moments of Matt’s past. His still strong feelings for his ex-wife, in particular, provide a nice counterpoint to the action. And the ending, though a bit well-worn, felt appropriate to the plot.

The limitations of the book are primarily in the lack of subtly of the conspiracy and how/why that seemed to have little effect on the course of the tale. To start, the story is set in the 2008 Recession, so killing reluctant sellers seems a bit excessive given the overall financial state of the world. But even if we accept that premise as a literary given—to create tension—the number of deaths, near fatalities, and co-conspirators in one small Minnesotan county implies dozens, if not hundreds of incidents across multiple states. And facts that should have caused suspicion amid this killing spree are often ignored—things like suffocating in a silo when the grain isn’t being taken out from the bottom or a hanging that produces no bruising around the victim’s neck. And when a police sergeant asks the coroner about the latter evidence, she refuses to talk … but the sergeant still ignores the issue. A little more attention to aligning the investigation to the extent and nature of the crime would have increased the impact of the tale considerably.

Overall, expressive descriptions of setting and backstory add spice to a tense, well-paced thriller. Tightening up the plot would have let the action reach its full potential.

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True Fiction (Ian Ludlow Thrillers Book 1) by Lee Goldberg

Part Conspiracy Thriller, but Mostly Over-the-Top Spy Spoof

True Fiction definitely contains the grist for a top-notch spy/conspiracy thriller. You have a ruthless villain with the resources to implement his evil plot—take over the intelligence functions of the CIA. The technology he uses to push the government toward outsourcing this source of absolute power and incredible wealth is plausible. You also have a somewhat bumbling individual, in this case a writer, Ian Ludlow, who’s an unknowing pawn in the plan. But as in any good thriller, the victim sees through the deception and assembles (totally by happenstance) his band of misfits—a wannabe singer/song writer making her living driving authors to book signings; and a retired actor who’s an advocate of every conspiracy theory known to man … and several of his own making as well. This group, of course, is the only line of defense against the all-powerful, all-knowing criminal because their tale is too bizarre for anyone else to believe. Good luck Ian and friends!

Despite the book’s potential for fingernail-chewing, white-knuckle tension, however, I felt little. That was because … I was too busy laughing. Before getting too far into that topic, let me mention that the humor can and often is rather raunchy. Gratuitous, highly exaggerated sex scenes appear with some regularity and both setup and punchlines often involve the F-word, so be forewarned if that is not your style. But if you’re not offended by off-color humor, you’ll be rewarded with a story that’s replete with outlandish exaggerations and bizarre embellishments to reality. My favorites came from the ex-actor, who played the Vine in Hollywood and the Vine, a TV series written by Ian. Or, as the actor was known on the series, “Half man, half plant, all cop.” You gotta love the characters with bright green hair, wearing a tinfoil hat.

Overall, if you enjoy action mixed with some rather lowbrow humor, you should love True Fiction. Just be sure to get your copy before the “global elites” declare this fiction too close to the truth and have it banned (conspiracy theory complements of the ex-actor).

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Last Star Standing by Spaulding Taylor

Character-Driven Post-Apocalyptic Fiction with a Timeless Theme

The Last Star Standing is set on post-apocalyptic earth … although, without a few references to places like Australia, it can be hard to tell. That’s because its cast of characters prominently features non-humans—a ruthless race of conquering aliens, their imported, brutish servants, robots, giant sea creatures, and so on. The humans, when they appear, are often augmented, including our protagonist, Aiden Tenten. And when not enhanced with technology, they are often depicted only as overheard comments in crowd scenes. The result is an earth that feels otherworldly.

The story has a character-driven element, although the starting point in the transformation of our hero is a bit unclear. On one hand, Aiden is insecure about … well, almost everything from his abandonment by his mother as a child to when he was picked for sports at school to his current-day relationships with women. As a result, reputation is everything to him and he’s reckless in his pursuit of fame. But at the same time, he is described as having a messiah complex, a belief that he is destined to save the world. It seems a strange mix of destiny-calling while dealing with imagined slights, but that’s Aiden. As to where his character ends up? Well, that might be too much of a spoiler, but it’s a significant shift.

At a very high level, the plot is based on a well-worn theme as undermanned humans mount a rebellion against their ruthless overlords. To counter the threat, Aiden gathers a band of misfits with conveniently appropriate skills and powers (of course). While the battle between the evil empire and the out-gunned rebels is the general drift, fully the first half of the book does little to advance this plot. Aiden is being held captive, recalling some of his life and his missions. The intent is probably world-building and character development, but it feels somewhat meandering. In the second half, the focus is much clearer, allowing the plot to advance more smoothly (and with greater suspense and intrigue).

The prose is solid, as you might expect from an author with a background as a ghostwriter. One element of his style, however, deserves mention. He frequently inserts two or more distinct thoughts into single sentences with each new idea set off with dashes.  “My cost was crippling – for I remained in rude health despite my birth mother’s best efforts – but Duncan Tenten had old-fashioned notions about his ‘line’– the irony being that most lines ended between WWIII and the invasion anyway.” This kind of interposition of ideas can make the text more interesting in moderation, but it can become tiring when overused. And it was, for my tastes.

Overall, the otherworldly feel of post-apocalyptic earth is well developed. And Aiden, as a damaged hero leading a vastly outgunned rebel force, is timeless and well worth the read.

I was given a copy of the book by the author. I elected to write this candid review.

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Double Shot (A Top Shelf Mystery) (Top Shelf Mysteries Book 4) by Lolli Powell

If Scientists Start Looking for the Self-Preservation Gene, They Shouldn’t Check Ricki

It’s not so much that Ricki Fontaine, the hero of the Top Shelf Mysteries, laughs in the face of death as it is that she wisecracks her way through peril. Take the bar owner’s thoughts as she stares down the barrel of a handgun in this latest installment:  If she died then her employees “… would be swamped at the Shelf. Murder always increased business, and I liked to think mine would draw more than an out-of-town real estate developer’s.” Of course, as a long-time reader of the series, I knew she was a bit low on the self-preservation trait (like into negative numbers), but I’ll deal with that because there are few fictional characters that make me laugh more than Ricki. I mean, all the life lessons she gives us readers for free! “Murder in close proximity to your person is not conducive to a good night’s sleep, so do your best to avoid it if you can.” Who would have thought that?

Of course, there’s a whodunit to be solved in this mystery series, and like the predecessor books, this one’s good. Mose Franklin and his grandson, Trey, are being evicted from their family home after the Savings & Loan makes an unprecedented decision to sell the delinquent mortgage to an outside developer. Trey gets arrested for the crime. Author Powell, however, keeps us guessing by introducing several other suspects with possible motives – mobsters, mean alcoholics, unscrupulous land developers, even law enforcement. Each is well portrayed through Ricki’s thoughts. But the book also gives us a double shot of mysteries, the second being of the romantic variety. Will Ricki let her past, detective boyfriend, Gabe, back in her life? Or will she take up with the newspaper editor, Logan? And, as the author’s synopsis says, “And then there’s that FBI agent….” I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to say that neither of these mysteries ends in a cliff-hanger.

I had only minor issues with the book (perhaps because it’s tough to have concerns when you’re laughing). There were some minor repetitions in the text, sometimes just a word, and sometimes between Ricki’s thoughts and the dialog: “Victor still had a few things to do, and I shook my head. ‘No, that’s okay. Looks like you’ve still got things to do.’” A more general concern was the emphasis on the Gabe vs. Logan backstory. For my taste, that quandary was repeated a bit too often during the tale. But I suppose if you’re going to live on the edge, it’s better to have someone special when you back away from it.

Overall, Double Shot is an excellent read. I look forward to the next installment in the series, wondering whose warnings Ricki will ignore and how I’ll get along without more of her life philosophy until then.

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The Trafficking Murders (The Inspector Sheehan Mysteries Book 5) by Brian O'Hare

Another Formulaic Mystery? Not in this Series! 

I’ve read several of the novels in The Inspector Sheehan Mysteries series. One of my favorites was The Occult Murders. But when reading it, I admit to wondering if it signaled an end to the police procedurals that I liked in favor of fantasy. The Trafficking Murders, however, is about as far from make-believe as possible, dealing instead with one of the gut-wrenching realities of our world—human trafficking.

Though no single book could cover all the forms of this horrific crime, author Brian O’Hare obviously did his homework, giving readers a couple of distinct looks into this illicit industry. On the one hand, Alina Balauru travels from a poor farm in Romania in search of a better life, only to be abused and beaten into sexual slavery. On the other, Lin Hui and Cheung Mingzhu come from more prosperous families in China. They, however, succumb to the glitzy life of call girls, held captive there by threats to their lives and their families. And though different on the surface, Inspector Sheehan gets to the heart of these women’s situation when he notes, “No matter how gilded their cages, these girls are victims.” 

Though the subject matter is distasteful, the story is presented without grisly details using a vivid literary style that I’ve come to expect from O’Hare. The pace is typical of mysteries as Sheehan and his team systematically peal back the layers of clues and suspects. And there is no lack of suspects. Fortunately, the book provides a list of characters, which I soon bookmarked in my Kindle for easy and often reference. The mystery is engaging. Is there a connection among these victims that seem so different on the surface? Who is the sinister enforcer, the Shadow, who keeps these girls in line? As the police close in, can this individual be stopped before tying up all the remaining loose ends? O’Hare keeps the reader guessing.

A few things occurred in the book that seemed a little too convenient for my tastes. For example, Sheehan and his team decided to pressure a hardened criminal to help solve one of the cases. Not only does their scheme work, but of all the information this individual knew from his years in crime, he gave up the one thing Sheehan wanted. In another scene, when the Shadow couldn’t locate one of the intended victims, he/she tried blackmailing the police to turn over the woman. Other than demented serial killers, are there criminals who openly challenge the police? But while these unlikely occurrences reduced tension a bit, there was still plenty of white-knuckle material from the crimes themselves.

Overall, The Trafficking Murders is another outstanding mystery and without a formula to know where O’Hare is taking his characters next, I’ll just have to wait for the next installment in the series.

I was given a copy of this book by the author. I elected to write this candid review.

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You Only Live Once (A James Flynn Escapade Book 1) by Haris Orkin

A Laugh-a-Page Spy Spoof; Just Don’t Read the Author’s Synopsis!

Don’t read the synopsis because I’m convinced that the “twist” the author gives in the first two sentences of it will be that much more fun if you walk into the story unprepared. Of course, the same can be said of this review, so I’ll give you the bottom line upfront so you can stop after reading it:

If you enjoy laughing and pulling for the underdog, then pick up a copy of You Only Live Once. Overall, it’s often politically incorrect, frequently profane, and always great fun.

Well, I guess you don’t want to be surprised (since you’re still reading), so here’s the twist that I suggested you skip. James Flynn is a double-O spy in Her Majesty’s Secret Service a la James Bond … or so he believes. In fact, he’s “… a heavily medicated patient in a Los Angeles psychiatric hospital.” The possibilities stemming from that satirical premise are many and largely humorous.  Author Haris Orkin picks one that bestows some of the characteristics we associate with a world-class spy upon Flynn—he can tell if his martini has been stirred or shaken, for example. But in other cases, Flynn’s confidence is just part of his delusion, e.g., his expertise in flying an Apache helicopter is all fantasy. And while this constantly shifting ground of factual vs. imaginary beliefs keeps the plot moving and the laughs coming, it also detracts a bit when Orkin wants to create drama. In particular, some of the fight scenes are vicious, but it’s difficult to feel too concerned about Flynn when you never know if he’s going to beat everyone with a single finger or his laser pointer. The dilution of drama, however, is a small price to pay for all the laughs.

The issues in craft are small. There are a few typos, e.g., “She was even more beautiful then he remembered.” There are a few changes in point of view within a single paragraph. And while the author usually refers to the protagonist as Flynn, occasionally he’d say ‘James’ did something. Those missteps, however, are more than offset by the humor and the affinity you’ll feel for Flynn and his band of reluctant followers. In fact, by the end of the book, you may want to join them in the next installment. I know I do.

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Ventures and Visions: A Short Story Collection by Kayla Hicks and Steph O'Connell

 A Fantasy Shines in a Collection Sometimes Missing Realistic Conflict and Suspense

Ventures and Visions is a collection of eight short stories, described by the authors as thrillers, action/adventure, and mystery. The stories representing the first two genres showed good pacing—there are plenty of battles, strange occurrences, and mass devastation as you would expect. And the stories that leaned toward mystery clearly raise the whodunit issue—who blew up the capitol, for example. But my favorite of the group, The Quietus, is more in the realm of a paranormal fantasy with a side of humor. One of the main characters, Sophia, is the grim reaper … or one of them, since being the grim is a job where the long-dead are guides for the recently deceased, rather than the harbinger of death. And because Sophia loves wearing black and has a flair for the dramatic, she dresses the part even though that’s not a job requirement. She comes across like a veteran tour host, with her canned lines and well-practiced patter. But her thoughts still reflect the mystery of being dead—what’s time when you live exist forever, strike-throughs being the author’s way to show these evolving mental concepts. I appreciated the technique. Overall, this short story was a fun reinterpretation of a common myth.

The stories, however, were not without some issues. Simple attention to detail was one when, for example, a character named Mick was occasionally called Mike. Several sentences, such as “Seizing my chance and I went for it” were unusual (conjunctions don’t usually connect a prepositional phrase and an independent clause). Some word choices were incorrect, e.g., “Mateo hadn’t seemed phased at all.” From the context, it should be “fazed”. And telling something before it’s spoken happened often. “She ate so fast, I doubt she tasted it at all. ‘Did you taste any of that?’ I asked. The repetitions slow the plot. An additional, independent edit would have helped the flow substantially.

But the primary limitation of most of the stories was that they failed to develop sufficient conflict, tension, or suspense, and the reason varies from tale to tale. In some, the story just seems to end—no twist, no surprise, no thought-provoking question. Others are too implausible to generate tension in the reader. After the Shock, for example, involves a bombing in Washington DC sufficient to destroy the capitol and several nearby buildings. But since there are no first responders for days, the devastation had to be wider. And there’s no communications, so all the cell towers must have been destroyed. The secrecy, expense, and expertise that such a large-scale operation would require is far beyond the capabilities of the culprits revealed, making the story seem surreal rather than gut-wrenching.

Overall, this debut collection shows promise, but for short stories to work, they need more conflict, tension, or realistic suspense than some of these supplied.

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The Kafir: The Unbeliever by Abigail Rook

A Web of Secrecy and Bad (Political) Assumptions Keep the Thrill Going

If you’re looking to get away from talk of viruses (e.g., the coronavirus) for a while, The Kafir will let you escape into a world of international, political intrigue and espionage (although the story revolves around the threat of an epidemic). And if you haven’t had enough about these infective agents, the novel still works. Though I have no background, the medical information in the book feels authoritative, which is further supported by the fact that the author is a doctor. I greatly enjoyed the interplay of life-and-death drama with medical information about viruses, manmade vs. natural. It’s a great combination to keep the pages turning.

Our heroine, Carolin Falkenberg, is a German doctor investigating a virus outbreak in Zimbabwe on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO). Not all is what it seems and eventually, she forms something of an alliance with Nathan Cole, a National Security Agency (NSA) agent. Together, they try to disentangle a web of misinformation and bad assumptions involving secret biological warfare programs, religious groups, and military organizations. The author kept me guessing about the true culprit long into the tale, although at least part of the mystery is maintained by the number of possibilities; there are quite a few characters to keep straight. And along the way, the American military system and intelligence services receive some criticism, as they too frequently opted for political answers over evidence.

There are a few, minor issues that probably came from the translation from German. For example, when a man was described as boarding a plane in Washington DC, he is actually getting off the plane. These confusions, however, are limited and detract little from the tale. More concerning to me was a somewhat inconsistent characterization of our protagonist. At the start of the book, she seems quite uneasy with people, and yet later, she’s described as extremely empathetic, seeing through Coles’ fake identity almost immediately. Perhaps under the circumstances in the tale, her transition is supposed to represent a personality change, but it seemed too abrupt and too extreme. And finally, the event that allowed the epidemic to occur is a bit too convenient. In the context of authoritative medical information on viruses, how the virus was obtained felt contrived.

Overall, if you look beyond the epidemic’s initiating event, the medical information on the virus, the individuals involved in investigating and spreading it, and their motivations make for some captivating reading.

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Old Bones (Nora Kelly Book 1) by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

What Do Grave-Robbing and Murder Have in Common?

Grave-robbing and murder. Those two crimes are perhaps not the most common of bedfellows, but they make for some fascinating reading in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s new series, Old Bones. The hero of this new set of tales is familiar—at least for readers of the Pendergast series by the same authors—Nora Kelly, archaeologist. When she is approached by Clive Benton, Stanford-educated historian, to lead an archaeological expedition in search for the “Lost Camp” of the ill-fated Donner Party, a compelling historical setting is added to the story (the Donner Party was believed to have resorted to cannibalism to survive when they became snow-bound in the California mountains in 1847). But to sell the expensive archaeological expedition to Nora’s boss, Benton adds evidence that one of the party was carrying gold, now worth 20 million dollars. That, of course, is sufficient motive for murder, but wait. Two murders occurred before the expedition even started. And both happened in the context of grave-robbing where all that was apparently taken was part of a skeleton. Since when is a skull worth killing for? That question remains until the final pages of the novel.

It is via one of these murders at a grave site that a second, familiar name is added to the tale. Corrie Swanson, an angry, bullied teenager when first introduced in the Pendergast series is now a freshly minted FBI agent. And when one of the grave-robbers is executed on federal land, she is given the case—her first. She finds another similar murder and a disappearance, all connected because they were the descendants of a Donner Party member, Albert Parkin. Convinced that Nora Kelly’s expedition is just a cover for robbing Parkin’s grave, Agent Swanson joins the archaeological team on site. Sparks fly between the women, Swanson believing she is on the trail of a crime, it’s exact nature unknown, while Kelly sees the agent as nothing but a waste of time and money. But then, things start getting deadlier.

Preston and Child are exceptional story-tellers and this novel is no exception. The pace is good, the mystery compelling, the characters developed. There were a few places when relatively minor events were dealt with in greater detail than necessary to advance the plot, but these were rare. About my only concern of any significance is the way the authors linked the quite disparate crimes of stealing a skeleton and killing. To do so required two, quite dissimilar approaches to a single objective. In other words, the twist felt a bit strained.

Overall, Old Bones is a solid start to a new series and I look forward to the next installment. Let’s see what Nora gets herself into next time

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Consumed by Justin Alcala

Suspense Drives this Historical Fantasy of Nosferatu and Necromancers

“You have to wake up from this ridiculous dream world of yours. There’s no nosferatu, necromancers, or missions from God. It’s just two crazed foreigners, a dead girl, and a pair of dim-witted detectives involved in a set of bizarre circumstances.” So said Nathan Brannick, protagonist of Consumed to one of those “crazed foreigners” about three-fourths of the way through the book. And it highlights one of the main reasons I really enjoyed the story. There are so many twists, so many paths I thought I was on but wasn’t, that for much of the story I was no more confident of my interpretation of events than Nathan was of his reality. I really enjoyed the suspense.

Underlying this tension is an intricate web of crosses and double-crosses among the forces of evil. A master tasks a slave with retrieving a source of power, but the slave decides to use that power against the master. The slave, in turn, takes an apprentice, who then plots to use that same power toward his/her own ends. And so on. It’s a fabric of evil, slowly unraveling violently as the plot advances. And then, there is the question of whether Nathan’s observations can be believed at all or are they just the product of the opium he turned to after his wife died? Perhaps his partner is the better source of fact? Can we believe the foreign witch-hunters who are apparently driven by the vision of an obsessive father? And finally, the unease is supported by a skillful mixing of history (e.g., Vlad the Impaler), folklore (e.g., Spring-heeled Jack), and fiction (everything else). It’s difficult to tell in which world you’re standing.

There are, however, a few issues that may reduce the effect of the book for any particular reader. For one, there are a number of errors in word usage and grammar. Most are minor, such as the misuse of then/than, but others may produce a bit of confusion, “… maybe he’ll at least confirm who that nutter, Mr. Feld, was why we found sitting outside the pub door.” More significantly, the story is told from the perspective of at least four different people, but these shifts come without warning. I was sometimes a couple of pages into a chapter before I figured out whose thoughts I was reading. Perhaps the author did that intentionally, but for my taste, the technique is more confusing than suspenseful.

While the shifts in point-of-view are somewhat disruptive, overall, Consumed is an exceptional read, filled with well-told, often-violent scenes of the unmasking of evil in Victorian London.

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Syndrome by Ryan Krol

Myth-Chasing Scientists Unravel the Mystery Surrounding a Secret Lab

Syndrome is the debut novel of college-film-major turned writer, Ryan Krol. I mention the author’s educational background because even before reading his bio, I noticed a “movie feel” to the book. Perhaps it was the location and time period—small-town Nevada in the late 1950s. Perhaps it was the events of the early chapters—three curious boys investigating a meteorite crash site on land that was closed to the public. Perhaps it was the existence of a secret, underground research facility nearby funded by an eccentric billionaire. It was easy to imagine these elements coming together in a movie about life from outer space, unauthorized research in the secret lab, and a team of scientists turned myth-chasers to figure it all out. But as it turns out, this drama unfolds across pages rather than on the silver screen. Overall, this mix of plot elements and how they play out are both classic and quite entertaining.

Krol’s film background, however, may have influenced more than plot and setting. For example, he spends considerable time describing how people look and what they are wearing. “So on this Friday morning, Jim and Elizabeth were doing their regular routine in t-shirts, jeans, and boots. Jim had on his jacket. Elizabeth had her shoulder-length brunette hair in a ponytail.” Of course, writers try to paint a scene with descriptions of appearance but the regularity of these updates when they do little to further the plot was unusual. As a new writer, there were also a few glitches in craft. For one, the editing process was cut short and as a result, there are quite a few minor errors in grammar or spelling, e.g., “He seemed to knew something.” For another, characters are introduced with a full accounting of their background rather than covering the relevant aspects of their history as part of the story.

While the issues above were somewhat distracting, it was the unusual shifts in points of view that caused me more pause. The book is written as third-person omniscient—we should know the thoughts of every character. But often, we jump between the thoughts of two, three, or more characters in a single paragraph including what they didn’t yet realize (i.e., the lack of a thought). And sometimes, it seems the point of view is what we, as readers, should be thinking. For example, after one character (Hill) makes a phone call, we have this: “To Hill, it was a matter of life and death. And who was he talking to?” Obviously, Hill would know who he called, so this seems to be what we should be asking ourselves

Overall, Syndrome is an engaging tale filled with many classic plot elements from sci-fi film and literature. That aspect of the novel is fun and produced (for me anyway) feelings of nostalgia. Some breakdowns in craft, however, reduce its overall effect.

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How Abraham Lincoln Used Stories to Touch Hearts, Minds, and Funny Bones by Terry Sprouse

An Interesting Historical Self-Help Book

If there was a genre called historical self-help, How Abraham Lincoln Used Stories to Touch Hearts, Minds, and Funny Bones would be in it. I don’t mean a self-help book written long ago, like how to trim the wicks of your coal oil lamps. Rather, I mean one written today but based on an historical figure—in this case, Abraham Lincoln. Terry Sprouse has compiled numerous quotes and examples of how Lincoln dealt with the pressures of the long road to the US Presidency and his tenure during the Civil War by using storytelling as his means to influence foes and win friends. In Lincoln’s words, “Stories are the shortest path between strangers and friends.” But Sprouse takes it a step further, showing how you may be able to learn from Lincoln to achieve your (probably more modest) goals in life

I had heard (as I expect many have) that Lincoln had a self-deprecating wit, often directed at his homely appearance—“I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would be wearing this one?” But Sprouse took my appreciation of Lincoln’s gift for wit and storytelling much further. Lincoln made a practice of learning stories and putting himself in them using his own gestures, facial expressions, and voices. He often added a touch of wit or a moral, as appropriate, and he could tell his stories, again and again, seemingly enjoying them immensely each time. That’s an enviable skill.

Storytelling to win friends and influence people may not be the path for success for everyone, but if you’re so inclined, How Abraham Lincoln Used Stories to Touch Hearts, Minds, and Funny Bones will give you a leg up on your journey. And if not, it’s still a fascinating read to see how one of the greatest US presidents used this ability to accomplish all that he did.

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Murder Creek by Jane Suen

Entertaining Mystery Novella with Something of a Paranormal Feel

Have you ever driven by some land feature with an unusual name—dead horse creek, lost miner’s canyon—and wondered what had happened there? The hero of Murder Creek, journalism student Eve Sawyer did when she drove over the bridge at Murder Creek. But for Eve, her reaction doesn’t stop with curiosity. Soon, she’s having nightmares about the gold miners brutally murdered on the creek’s banks in the 1800s. And sometimes, she isn’t even asleep—she’s just having coffee at her favorite diner. But while there is a bit of a supernatural feel to parts of the story, Eve’s investigation into the case of a girl gone missing from that location twenty years earlier taps more into her persistence and her ability to read people than the supernatural. In fact, all she learned about the girl from her visions was that she might not be dead. Why did she think that? Because the girl wasn’t among the dead men she saw wandering the banks of the creek.

If that sounds like an entertaining blend of amateur detective work and the paranormal, I’d agree. Eve tackles the mystery with the straightforward zeal of youth, opening many of her interviews with, “I need to know whatever you can tell me about her” or the like. And while I expected that to end in phone hang-ups and slammed doors in most cases, she got people talking. And slowly, she uncovers facts that even the horde of crime reporters failed to find twenty years earlier.

There were a few, minor stretches in plausibility that were not related to the supernatural. For example, in one case, Eve is checking twenty-year-old records after their owner said they kept them for seven. And she finds a pivotal clue, one that could easily have been destroyed any time in the last twenty years. Several of the emotional reactions seemed a bit strained as well. Take the reaction of a character that she accused of knowing the girl’s murderer:  “‘Oh no, no.’ He cried out, shoulders trembling. ‘Please don’t.’” For a man who has been hiding the truth for years, his total meltdown after a couple of questions from a student fifteen to twenty years his junior felt strained. Another quick developmental edit would have helped the story. But the primary limitation of the book is its lack of tension. Eve did receive one threatening phone call, but for most of the book, she’s taking rides with men to lonely locales, having lunch at their home, meeting them at night, and so on. Often, it sounded like she was on a date, not tracking a vile criminal. And while Eve’s ESP, or whatever she has, might have told her it was OK, it’s difficult to feel tension when the hero doesn’t show much.

Overall, Murder Creek is a fun, fast read with a plucky, persistent hero who may (or may not) have some connection to the paranormal. All it needs to be a great story is a bit more realistic tension.

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Hit the Road Jack: A wickedly suspenseful serial killer thriller (Jack Ryder Book 1) by Willow Rose

Constant Action Pits Detective against Killer … But You Pay a Heavy Price for the Drama

I won’t need a spoiler to illustrate the type of action in this book; the synopsis will do fine. “But, when his black Labrador suddenly runs upstairs and comes down with a finger in his mouth, Ben knows he's not making it to school today at all.” That murder comes in Chapter 3, after another killing in Chapters 1 and 2, one chapter written from the victim’s point of view, the other from the killer’s. If you’re getting the idea that author Willow Rose has packed a lot of violent action into Hit the Road Jack, I’d agree. Besides those two murders, there’s a date rape, a suicide, and several other gruesome murders by a serial killer known only as the Snakecharmer throughout most of the story.

At the opposite end of the wholesome to vile continuum, we have our hero, Detective Jack Ryder. He’s a surf-loving, single father of three, one of them a black, teenage girl adopted when his partner was killed. He’s handsome (of course). And because he’s an experienced detective from a more violent city, he becomes the go-to investigator for his homicide unit in a small, county sheriff’s department. This situation anchors the primary plotline of the book, one that crime thriller readers will readily recognize: the virtuous detective single-handedly pursues the despicable serial killer through a series of heinous crimes amid a budding romance.

The best of the genre places the hero in this detective vs. killer setting using clever twists of fate and provide some basis for the sex. Less well-written books ride roughshod over common sense and unfortunately, Hit the Road Jack falls uncomfortably close to the latter group. When a child is abducted, Ryder doesn’t send out an Amber Alert or instigate any type of city or state-wide notification. That would spoil the one-on-one theme. When the killing escalates and it’s clear there is a serial killer, no other city, state, or federal agencies get involved. When someone takes a shot at Ryder, he doesn’t make an officer-under-fire call. Nor does he call for support to locate or apprehend the shooter. Rather, when he stumbles on the gunman’s truck at a motel, he goes in with an unarmed civilian (his new romantic interest) as his only backup. And so on. We, as readers, are asked to suspend disbelief much too frequently for my liking.

Overall, the book’s primary storyline is a bit stereotypic but appealing, and the breaks from common sense and police practice are disguised by constant, violent action. But if you’re the type of reader who wants a clever blending of fact and fiction, you may want to look elsewhere.

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Murder on Cold Street (Lady Sherlock #5) by Sherry Thomas

Quite the Character Solves Quite the Mystery

If you’re new to the Lady Sherlock books, as I was, a sentence on their premise is appropriate. In the series, Sherlock Holmes is the invention of Charlotte Holmes and Mrs. Watson so that the former can practice her trade as a private investigator in a time and place (Victorian England) when a woman would have been ignored. If that sounds like a promising foundation for historical fiction, let me say that author Sherry Thomas in Murder on Cold Street delivers on it fully. I particularly liked our hero, Charlotte. She’s not constrained by the strict social mores of the time, often being the aggressor in her budding relationship with Lord Ingram Ashburton … although Ash is starting to catch up. She’s adept at reading the emotions of others, even if her own are stunted in most areas except those involving Ash or cake. And her fashion sense is truly outlandish. "Had his retinas not been seared by the Christmas tree dress, her dinner gown would have been the most outlandish thing he witnessed today.” And while that specific sentence may not make it through the final edit of the book, which is set for release on October 6, Charlotte’s audacious look will.

But plot drives mysteries for me, and this one has everything an intelligent whodunit should. At the outset, Inspector Treadles is apprehended in a locked room with two dead men. He’s covered in blood and armed with his service revolver, the apparent murder weapon. And yet, he won’t defend himself. A probable villain soon appears and the primary focus of the mystery shifts to piecing together a timeline and finding motivations. A crime scene that initially seems well contained—an empty house on Cold Street—ends up seeming as busy a subway station at rush hour. But by the end, Holmes, Watson, and their compatriots put it all together. There is even some well-turned commentary on Victorian race relations and a woman’s place in business, all of which resonant well with current times.

My concerns about the book were few and minor. In one case, it seemed that our investigators assumed the importance of a piece of evidence that, in real life, would have probably turned out to be irrelevant. Holmes shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions. As another example, the explanation of how and why two had died in the house felt a bit strained, like a one-in-a-million shot. But overall, the complexity of the situation and the way the pieces came together at the end more than offset these minor issues. Murder on Cold Street is an outstanding read, ready to keep you guessing till the very end.

Thanks to NetGalley, the author (Sherry Thomas), and the publisher (Berkley Publishing Group) for providing a copy of this book. I opted to write this candid review.

Break My Bones (A Deadly Sins Novel Book 1) by Rachael Tamayo

A Raw Tale of Domestic Violence Weakened by Plot Inconsistencies

Take one demanding, abusive husband, Cain, who equates marriage with ownership. Add one sadistic sidekick, Donovan, who believes it’s his obligation to goad his friend into settling the score with his wife—whether her indiscretions are real or imagined. And finally, the woman, Brook, who’s tired of running with her child and has decided to take a stand against Cain. Those elements promise a tense tale of domestic violence and that’s what Rachel Tamayo delivers in Break My Bones. The prose is descriptive and raw—not for young audiences. The pacing is fast, as the story moves between the ‘lessons’ Cain taught his wife in the past to the reconciliation he plans for their future, a reconciliation on his terms or else.

For her part, Brook prepares for Cain’s return from incarceration for DWI, the only crime he’s been convicted of perpetrating. She starts to rebuild her life. She pulls herself out of poverty. She buys a gun and gets into shape. Those measures, however, prove completely ineffectual, as he easily overpowers her, again and again after he returns. Now, she is trapped in the psychological conflict of an abused spouse—guilt in turning against a first love and the father of her child vs. her terror of making another misstep in his eyes. There is hope for Brook, however, in the form of a new love—one she didn’t want, never expected, but can’t resist. Brandon enters the picture, offering her the shelter she needs in this violent storm. This budding relationship is described with sensitivity and well-turned prose, although it felt a bit far-fetched in the midst of everything else.

But the real problem with the book are issues with the plot. First, there is an “explanation” at the end of the book that presumably was to be a twist. Unfortunately, it’s a convenient scapegoat easily spotted early in the book. But more importantly, events just don’t hang together. For example, at one point Brook decries the fact that she has no proof of her husband’s abuse to take to the police, and yet, in other places we learn her back is covered with scars from cigarette burns. That’s not self-inflected. In another scene, Cain breaks into a house in the middle of the night where Brook is staying with friends. It’s surprising he could do so without waking anyone, but when the friends do nothing the next morning—they don’t call the police, change the locks, install a security system—the turn of events is inexplicable. And as a final example, Cain visits his lawyer, then leaves his office with the man dead. And yet, the lawyer’s receptionist apparently can’t put it together since no one comes looking for Cain at that point. A book that could have been nail-biting and gut-wrenching becomes unfathomable in several places. 

Overall, Break My Bones is a chilling tale of domestic abuse and the psychological conflict of a woman caught in it. Fixing some of the plot inconsistencies would have made it much better.

I was given a copy of the book by the author. I elected to write this candid review.

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CyberStorm: A Novel by Matthew Mather

Cyberterrorism as an Attack on our Minds as Much as our Bodies

CyberStorm is a story of survival, a tale about Mike Mitchell and his family and friends struggling to stay alive in New York City without power, without water, with rapidly diminishing food supplies, and with limited, unreliable communications. Presumably the result of a cyberattack, the situation deteriorates further when the city is hit with a major snowstorm. Under these dire conditions, the psychological growth of the characters is particularly well portrayed by author Matthew Mather. I enjoyed watching the relationship between Mitchell and his wife change. Their initial discord gave way to a bond they forged under the threat of starvation, illness, injury, and freezing to death. Mitchell’s growth is also well portrayed. The women, in general terms, are disappointingly shallow for much of the book, making their later adaptation seem a bit too little, too late, but it is there. Of course, the threat to life didn’t bring out altruism in everyone. Author Mather’s villains are viable, although not as diabolical as they might have been.

As an attack on our physical existence, the book is somewhat lacking in creativity. If you design a situation where some eight million or so people are trapped in a dying city, which Mather does, it’s not hard to imagine what would happen. Looting at first, then killing to survive when the stores are picked clean. True, these events are chillingly described, but I did not find them surprising or particularly gripping (but then, maybe I read too many dystopian novels).

What is, however, much more insightful is the book’s portrayal of the effect of cyberterrorism on our minds. As a reader, we know what Mike Mitchell believes to be true and what he believes is shaped by his expectations as much as his experiences. In the final few pages, Mather peels back the distorting influences of the main character’s preconceptions and we as readers get a look at ground truth, witnessing how the isolation and deprivation caused by a cyberattack and massive storm might play with our heads. If there is a limitation in this aspect of the story, it is that Mather left it until very late, making it feel a bit rushed and underdeveloped. But from my perspective, this insight, along with a well-told story of surviving against all odds makes this book a stellar read.

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The Sapphire Eruption: An Epic Adventure (The Sword's Choice Book 1) by I.M. Redwright

The Start to What Promises to be an Epic, Fantasy Adventure

On his seventeenth birthday, Noakhail (Noakh) learns that he had been selected by a magic sword to rule the “fire” kingdom of his world. To take his rightful place, however, he’ll need to defeat the current king who commands a formidable army, who has the twin to Noakh’s magic sword, and who has had years of training and practice in its use. That, in a couple of sentences, is the central conflict of the series, The Sword’s Choice. Book 1 of the series, The Sapphire Eruption sees Noakh learn of his situation, attract a small band of followers, and develop his plan to return, which will take him through each of the other kingdoms (water where he’s been in hiding, earth, and air). The book also foreshadows a conflict with the water kingdom, whose magic sword has also recently selected a new queen, Vienne. She too must learn of her sword’s powers and is opposed by the reigning queen. And neither was favored for selection, Noakh being an unknown commoner and Vienne the least ‘queen-like’ of her princess sisters. Coincidences? Maybe, but more likely, the similarity of backgrounds and plights will play into this tale as it unfolds.

The book, like many fantasies, has much to say about the state of our world. The effect of racial biases and the need to look beyond them is one of the more frequent, indirect references to modern society. For example, when surprised by the compassion shown by a giant, Hilzen, one of Noakh’s band, said he “… could see an aura of wisdom in his eyes, an intelligence that he had been unable to see before, blinded as he was by his prejudices.”

With establishing the fantasy world’s system of magic and its strange settings and peoples as primary objectives of book 1, the story is a bit sluggish despite plenty of swordplay and a few twists. That’s because, in a yet-to-be-built world, it’s difficult to know what are real threats to a magic sword unless the prose conveys the danger. In some cases, the text is a bit clinical for that purpose. “The soldier’s sharp sword sliced smoothly through the other soldier’s neck, his head falling with a thud to the floor ….” There is also a question of detail—how much is needed to carry the plot forward without slowing the pace. Consider this description of the water queen’s power: “… the Guards of the Temple were also under her power, but not as firmly as the rest of the guards, since the Guards of the Temple obeyed the Congregation of the Church as a whole, not just the high priestess. The queen had absolute control of all the guards, except for the Temple Guard and the Divine Protection, as these two only obeyed the Congregation of the Church, of which the queen was a part.” Power is an important topic in a book like this, but a more concise description and working it into the story (rather than telling us) would have been better. And finally, there are some repetitions and vague passages that may interrupt your reading, e.g., “Little by little, Noakh retreated, because although the beasts were not very strong, he stood his ground in the face of such numbers.” Was he staying to fight or retreating to regroup?

All told, The Sapphire Eruption is a solid first book of what promises to be an epic, fantasy adventure with interesting characters and a setting filled with magic and strange beings. An additional edit, however, would have let the story move more smoothly.

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Death Notice (A Kisses and Killers Thriller) by Lolli Powell

An Exceptional Blend of Romance and Crime Thriller

I once read that if romance was part of the name for a book’s genre (e.g., historical romance, romantic thriller, etc.), the romance would always take precedence and the plot might become a backdrop for intimacy. At the opposite extreme, thrillers may have the main characters jump into bed even when their behavior is more surprising than the story’s plot twists. When and how did this attraction develop when they are on the verge of a grisly death? But author Lolli Powell avoids either extreme with skill and finesse, producing a tale in Death Notice that is as naturally romantic as it is gut-wrenchingly tense.

Our female protagonist, police detective Jen Dillon is gutsy, determined, and resourceful, as we learn as the tale unfolds. But she’s also a bit flummoxed by her attraction to FBI Special Agent Will Anderson. It’s not the time or the place for a man. So, she deals with it with common sense, showing a bit of sardonic wit along the way. “… she saw Madeline direct an appreciative look Will’s way, and she felt a disturbing pang of possessiveness. She quickly subjected it to an unmerciful death.” But the attraction is mutual and grows despite the timing, her job, and her son. And the danger of their situation becomes an impetus for passion, rather than a barrier.

As much as I enjoyed the romance, I’d have to say the crime thriller was even better. After delving into the understandable confusion of two lovers-in-the-making, author Powell takes us inside the mind of a serial killer. And the result is truly creepy. Other than the killer’s ultimate target—Will, using Jen as bait—both who he is and who he’ll kill next are well disguised. The author kept me on the edge of my seat and guessing to the very end.

Questions left in my mind by the time I finished were few and extremely minor. One, for example, was why the police were following the killer’s possible targets (which were many) and not the suspects (which were few). But all told, those issues were nothing compared to the tension created as the killer slowly closed his trap on our two protagonists. It’s a real, white-knuckle read with romantic breaks to catch your breath.

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A Private Cathedral: A Dave Robicheaux Novel (Dave Robicheaux #23) by James Lee Burke

Hard-boiled Crime and Paranormal Make for an Uneasy Mix

The first thing I noticed about A Private Cathedral is the author’s writing style. It’s eloquent, evocative, and vividly descriptive. Author Burke doesn’t write about a sunset, but about strips of orange fire in the clouds. And while the final metaphors and similes may change—this review is based on a pre-release version of the novel—Burke’s writing style won’t, and that’s a definite plus. I appreciated the mental images and feelings his expressive prose engendered. I enjoy this style, however, as ‘seasoning’ to the text and for my taste, Burke over-seasoned this book. Amid action, he often paused to paint a word picture of the setting, or of a flashback from the protagonist’s past as a child or in Vietnam, or of a historical or mythological reference. I would have preferred that Burke depict the setting and once done, let the action flow. Additionally, he frequently rendered his flowery prose in quite lengthy sentences. One I noticed was 76 words long with seven conjunctions (and) to tie it all together. Probably as a result of these stylistic decisions, I found the story a bit slow, somewhat repetitive, and unfocused in places.

The protagonist of the story, Dave Robicheaux, and his partner and friend, Clete Purcel, are both deeply flawed characters. The former has been scarred by his childhood, the deaths of two wives, his experiences in Vietnam, his drug and alcohol dependency, his attraction to destructive relationships, and his dealings with the unsavory side of humanity on the job as a police detective. Purcel’s background has been no less difficult. And though the books are said to be standalone, that’s a lot of emotional baggage to try to understand when you start with book number 23 in the series. Easing into these characters would be preferable.

There is a hard realism to the story, one of sexual slavery, with Robicheaux and Purcel depicted in the same light. They are a mix of southern manners and violence. They’ll address you with your first name, proceeded by Mr. or Miss. Or they’ll hurl profanity and racial slurs at you before they beat you to a pulp. But when Robicheaux and Purcel start believing in the paranormal—ghosts ships piloted by time-traveling assassins—I found the plot-lines nearly impossible to reconcile. Where had our hard-bitten, cynical heroes gone? Had our protagonists’ chemical dependency left them unable to distinguish reality from make-believe? And if that’s true, what else have they fantasized? Or is the paranormal real (whatever that means) and the book is a fantasy rather than a thriller? I suppose the author might have wanted the reader to ponder those questions, but for a book advertised as a blend of romance, mythology, horror, and science fiction, they made the first three themes vanish in confusion while the promise of science-fiction was left unfulfilled. Unfortunately, that confusion lasts through the finale, when I couldn’t guess who or what our heroes faced or who or what might come to their aid. And it’s tough to feel much tension when that’s the case.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (James Lee Burke), and the publisher (Simon and Shuster) for providing a copy of the book. I opted to write this candid review.

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The Man With Two Names: A Novel of Ancient Rome (The Sertorius Scrolls Series Book 1) by Vincent B. Davis II 

Sertorius Faces Enemies from the Roman Forum to the Wilderness of Gaul

With themes that resonant today (The idea of an innocent statesman is more myth than the Minotaur”) and a history of ancient Rome that comes to life, it’s easy to find much to like in The Man With Two Names. The protagonist of this historical fiction, Quintus Sertorius, is pressed into political service when his father dies, leaving his hometown without a presence in Rome—a presence that’s necessary if his village is to receive the aid they need to survive. Service to the Roman patricians soon runs counter to Sertorius’s values, however, and he joins the Roman Legions in order to keep his people from starving. Now, his once possible benefactors in Rome become his mortal enemies, forcing Sertorius to face threats on two fronts—from the nobility and from Rome’s enemies in the distant battlefields of Gaul. It’s hard choice, picking the more treacherous and deadly of the two.

The pacing at first is a bit slow, as the picture of everyday life and political maneuvering in ancient Rome is painted. But when Sertorius changes allegiance, the story becomes more tension-filled and moves more quickly. The confusion and deadly surrealism of the battle scenes are particularly well done. With the book written in first person, it soon becomes clear that Sertorius is quite humble. He tends to focus on his naivety, nervousness, and stammer. But with others seeing greatness in him and through his actions, we soon learn his true mettle. With the complex political situation and infighting among and within families, I found it somewhat difficult to keep all the characters straight. But the main characters are well developed and soon this problem lessens as they start to feel real. Finally, the last scene felt somewhat abrupt. Although it’s not a cliff-hanger, it definitely foretold of volumes to come.

Overall, if you like historical fiction and particularly, if you like tales of ancient Rome, you’ll love this book.

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The Everett Exorcism (World of Shadows Book 1) by Lincoln Cole

Bad Things Happen When Your Exorcist Doesn’t Believe in Demons

When ‘occult’ and ‘paranormal’ are the sub-genres of a horror novel, I don’t necessarily expect to be scared. Often after loosening the constraints of reality, the authors become embroiled in creating ever more hideous creatures or discovering increasingly horrendous ways for people to die. The result is that the stories can end up being as humorous as they are scary. The Everett Exorcism, however, is NOT one of those books. It is quite creepy … in all the right ways.

The story begins with Father Jackson Reynolds, a Catholic priest in Everett, Washington, reporting a case of possible demoniac possession. The Vatican dispatches Father Niccolo Paladina, a trained but inexperienced exorcist to investigate and we, the readers, are introduced to a first wrinkle in the tale. Father Paladina doesn’t believe that demons exist apart from their human host, calling them “… a representation of the inner darkness within humanity itself.” That belief perhaps explains why he denies the problem long after it seems apparent.

At this point, a man with a diametrically opposed view of demons enters the story. Driven by the tragic death of his wife and daughter, Arthur Vangeest, a Demon Hunter, shows up in Everett on his own quest for justice. Now the question becomes, can Paladina and Vangeest find common ground and stem the rising tide of evil in time to save anyone in Everett … including themselves? Getting an answer to that question is a suspenseful and tension-filled ride.

As emotionally charged as I found The Everett Exorcism, it could have been even more powerful with an additional edit. Some of the wording in the book is a bit awkward. “He wanted to tell the priest about the goings on, but a part of him warned him that such disclosure wouldn’t turn out a good idea.” Other statements had confusing connotations. “Leopold Glasser seemed a short man with a trimmed black beard ….” Did he only seem short or was he? And still other sentences had issues that are difficult to describe. “That would, most likely, mean because of Arthur and what he might do, which meant they knew his intentions.” Generally, the meaning of these sentences can be inferred from context, but each confusion pulls the reader’s mind from the story, reducing suspense and slowing the pace.

Overall, the Everett Exorcism makes for some tense reading but leaves some of its potential unrealized.

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Name Your Poison (Top Shelf Mysteries Book 3) by Lolli Powell

You Can’t Beat this Heroine for an Imaginative and Humorous Murder Investigation

Author Lolli Powell continues her winning formula for bar owner and amateur sleuth, Erica (Ricki) Fontaine, mixing a hyperactive imagination with a cynical sense of humor in this third installment of the Top Shelf Mysteries, Name Your Poison.

Above all, our heroine has near-boundless imagination. Before the police have the forensics report on the cause of death, Ricki has already decided it was a murder. Not only that, but she’s sure the victim wasn’t the intended target and her newspaper reporter friend, Logan, was nearly killed only as collateral damage. And while that’s quite the deductive leap without a net, she becomes really creative on motives. Before a tense (and unexpected) finale, Ricki suggests the murder was motivated by everything from retaliation by a sexually harassed Hollywood starlet to an attempt to derail a movie that was to be shot in her hometown. All the better to keep the reader guessing … which I did.

Ricki also possesses a sardonic wit. Sometimes, it’s directed at life. “Laughter may be the best medicine, but caffeine and pastries aren’t far behind.” Sometimes, she focuses her laser-like tongue on people, her police detective boyfriend, Gabe, included. When he suggested some of her theories were a bit over the top and that the simplest answer was usually correct, she replied, “Only if you’re too dumb or lazy to look for the right one.” But then, she can turn a critical eye on herself, too. “Sometimes I let my mouth get ahead of my good judgment. Oh, wait. I don’t have good judgment for my mouth to get ahead of.” If this is your style of humor—as it is mine—you’ll love Ricki. Of course, I don’t have to be in Gabe’s shoes.

I have very few and only minor quibbles with the book, the primary one being somewhat idiosyncratic—I’ve never been a fan of adding humor to an otherwise tense scene. Just before the story’s ending, someone makes an offhand remark that Ricki could be a screenwriter for Hollywood, given that vivid imagination mentioned above. So, as she is metaphorically staring down the barrel of the killer’s gun, she’s trying to remember the witticisms that spring to mind. “He chuckled. I thought it sounded like the devil gargling souls. I made a mental note to remember that line for my script.” I’m always torn—should I be laughing or cringing?

Overall, I have a difficult time getting enough of Ricki Fontaine’s overactive imagination and sharp tongue … at least, as long as she’s fictional. In real life? Well, that would be another book.

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She Wore Mourning (Zachary Goldman Mysteries Book 1) by P.D. Workman

PI Investigates His Own Demons as Well as the Crime’s

In She Wore Mourning, Private Investigator Zachary Goldman takes on a gut-wrenching case when he investigates the drowning death of a five-year-old boy. Ruled an accident by the police, the boy’s grandmother wants closure and hires Goldman for a second opinion. Goldman has his suspicions, but he has nothing sufficient for law enforcement to re-open the investigation. Things seem at an impasse, then someone tries to kill him. But is the attempt on his life because of this case or some other that he’s working? He can’t be sure. And if it is this case, who’s responsible for the boy’s death? A pedophile who abducted the boy from his unlocked, backyard and then killed him? One or both of the parents? A forensic scientist in training who seems a bit too interested in Goldman’s case? Even the grandmother doesn’t escape Goldman’s scrutiny. Kudos to the author for keeping the suspense high, dangling several viable suspects in front of our eyes.

Character development is a major strength of the book. Author Workman skillfully portrays the murdered boy’s parents as sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), although with differing manifestations. “Spencer was neat and tidy, and Isabella was a collector.” Goldman is also non-neurotypical, although his diagnosis is not so neatly wrapped up with a single label in the book. Chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, ADHD, and even antipsychotic medications (Risperdal) get mentioned. Sometimes, we (the readers) get a glimpse into how Goldman’s paranoia and anxieties bolster his investigative skills. At one point, he even uses examples of his own maladaptive behaviors to get a suspect to open up about his. But we also get to see how they hamper his life. He ends up fighting his own demons almost as much as fighting the one that killed the young boy.

Although a strength, there is also a downside to a book that’s dominated by characters with mental illnesses and their stock diagnoses. One or two damaged characters can add interest to a story, but when everyone is flawed, damaged becomes the new typical. Goldman’s tendencies also make him something of an antihero; some of his behaviors are quite distasteful. His new romantic interest could excuse them—which makes her seem too good to be true—but I found it more difficult to do so. Goldman is also a bit difficult to admire for his investigative skills. He went beyond suspicion to name a killer several times before the real culprit was identified. And when the case was solved, it wasn’t Goldman who did. But then, I suspect all of this was the author’s intent—to create a central character that we esteem for his determination to live life as best he can while we often dislike what he does.

Overall, She Wore Mourning is a well-written book with plenty of suspense and a main character you may admire and dislike at the same time. But that’s what makes this story worth your time.

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Curmudgeon Avenue #1: The Terraced House Diaries by Samantha Henthorn

A British Farce about “nincompoops and intertwined lives” Told by a House

The author of Curmudgeon Avenue #1, Samantha Henthorn describes her work as a comedy-drama. Drama, for example, comes in the form of the death of the parents of our two protagonists, the elderly sisters Edna and Edith at the start of the book. Comedy comes in the form of the parents dying by being crushed by an elephant thrown from a lorry driven by one of Edna’s exes. The elephant broke free of her constraints because the driver smelled so bad. Even so, he later becomes Edith’s romantic interest when he rents a room in the sisters’ home after a long, roof-sitting protest over being evicted from his own. Yes, it’s pretty difficult to find much drama in this book that’s not wrapped in total absurdity. It is truly the story of a group of nincompoops whose worlds never generate enough momentum of their own to escape each other’s orbits. And if that silliness isn’t enough, the story is told by the house, a Victorian terrace. The book even has some house humor. Speaking of the “tiresome” process of evicting someone, the house notes that it’s “… enough to make one's front bedroom windows glaze over.” Drama? Maybe. A farce? Without a doubt.

My primary word of advice to the potential reader is check out the book’s preview online so that you can judge the humor for yourself. Humor is, in my opinion, idiosyncratic. Not everyone finds the same things funny. And while I count satires as material I usually enjoy, I couldn’t figure out what was being satirized in this book. The British form of welfare and how it affects their society? Rather, I found humor based largely on peculiar personalities, bizarre relationships, and bodily functions. It wasn’t material that I found greatly entertaining, which is not to say others won’t. Like I said, humor is personal.

There are also a few minor detractions, the grammar and punctuation being one. The book is filled with run-on sentences and missing punctuation. It’s surprising how confusing one missing period can be in the middle of a long, winding thought. I found myself re-reading sections, which made the book feel somewhat slow. There is also some repetition, which adds to that problem. Additionally, the (over)reliance on British slang and custom affected the flow of the story for me. What does it mean to order a “shandy” and get “watered down slops?” What is the old saying about “chalk and cheese?” Why were the sisters upset when their ad for a lodger was changed to an ad for a todger? Of course, I expect and enjoy some exposure to another set of customs and forms of expression when reading an author from another country, but too much of this book felt like inside jokes told to someone, me, who isn’t part of the in-crowd.

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Franny’s Fable by Heather Harrison

Kill Your Husband, Rinse, Repeat

As we join Franny in the book, Franny’s Fable, she’s writing the story of her life with husband Jamie. He’s lying in bed in the next room, dead, stabbed through the heart. She killed him. There are authors who could turn the hate, the rage, the desperation that must have gone into such a violent act into a book. But Franny isn’t documenting her struggle for survival. She’s writing about the routine of her life, about something she’s done “more times than she can count” to quote the author’s synopsis. And what she’s documenting is … her love.

Hopefully, that paragraph gives you an idea how strangely twisted, yet highly enjoyable this book is. It draws you in with great pace, unexpected turns, and strange beings. Author Heather Harrison also uses foreshadowing to good advantage, ending sections with statements such as “… I never planned on seeing Jamie again. Of course, that was before the sickness started.” What sickness? And while the technique is easy to overuse, she doesn’t. She kept me wanting to read just one more section until the 114-page novella was complete. There’s even a touch of humor in this otherwise dark, creepy, paranormal romance, e.g., “I was happy, blissfully married, with the exception of occasionally having to kill my husband.” I’ve not seen chills and chuckles mixed better.

My concerns about the book are quite minor. For one, I’ve never cared when a character gains a complex understanding of another from one expression. “The look in his eyes was clear… there was no way he was going to let us be friends or anything else. What bothered me was, I could tell he wanted us to be.” That’s a lot to read from one look. The other is that I tend to write off protagonists who are self-destructive—if they don’t care, why should I? And Franny knows better but can’t help stalking Jamie. On the other hand, we’re only talking about one human here (Franny), almost making these issues feel like story.

My advice to the potential reader:  Find a couple of hours to give this unexpected, highly entertaining book a read. If you have any interest in the genre, you’ll love it.

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Living in a Star's Light: A novel based on the life of Miss Lotta Crabtree by Steve Lindahl

1870-80s Celebrities Had Their Posses Too 

From the complete book title, you know that Living in a Star’s Light is based on the life of American actress, dancer, musician, and philanthropist Lotta Crabtree. She made her name primarily in the 1870-80s, starting her career at the age of six dancing in the gold-mining camps in California and ending in quiet retirement and philanthropic work at Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, some 70 years later. But as is often the case with historical fiction, Ms. Crabtree is not the center of this book. Rather, she is a notable, historical figure around whom the fictional characters circulate. In this case, it’s Walter Cain, his wife, and their friends. They are her number-one fans; they provide her feedback on her performances; they reassure her when things go wrong; they worry about her. In short, they are her crew, her entourage, her posse.

Living in a Star’s Light is well written, something I’ve come to expect from author Steve Lindahl. You ease into the part of Walter and through his eyes, come to gain a bit of perspective on 1800s Americana. It’s a time when the man of the house is the bread-winner, yet Lotta was one of the most highly paid and successful actresses of her era. It’s a time when success in the theater is defined by New York and Europe, but Lotta showed that the United States Midwest and West could also have a say. And it’s a time when women recognize the inequalities they’ve been handed and some decry it, including Lotta’s mother. Lotta’s world is one of old-fashion notions, risqué ventures, tireless energy, and values ahead of her time.

If there is a limitation to the book, it’s pace. The easy-going progression of the tale can make it feel slow in places. This is perhaps most true when Lotta’s posse is concerned about her lack of a love life. Their lament undoubtedly fits the time period, but it’s repeated a bit too frequently. And frankly, Lotta’s life (other than some misadventures of her brothers) was largely one of privilege, not disaster, especially after the early years. If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, this book’s not for you. But if life has already stimulated you enough, lean back with this relaxing look to the past. 

Overall, if you like historical fiction, you’ll enjoy learning a bit more about this amazing woman and the world of her time in Living in a Star’s Light.

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The Selection: The Forgotten Chronicles Book 1 by Jason J. Nugent

When Humans Take ‘Survival of the Fittest’ in their Own Hands

If The Selection doesn’t remind you of The Hunger Games, then I suspect you haven’t read the books or seen the movies. In both stories, teens from outlying colonies (or districts) are forced to participate in a competition, often to the death. There are, of course, differences. In The Selection, only the males compete and the reason is basically, survival of the fittest. There is an extreme gender imbalance on the planet, with males outnumbering females ten to one. Only if a male survives the process can he procreate. Our protagonist, Eron, sees this devaluation of human life and forced evolution as wrong, instead preferring compromise and letting nature take its course. As the story unfolds, he suffers greatly for these convictions.

Author Jason Nugent does an excellent job creating harrowing situations for our hero. The first challenges are his male competitors. Given Eron’s stance against killing, he often seems near death when he fails to fight back, only to rally to save another or to be spared by fate. His planet also presents a variety of hurdles from hostile animals to something the equivalent of potent, acid rain and deadly dust storms. And then, there are “the forgotten”—males who failed to reach the end of the Selection ordeal within the one month allotted. Apparently, the planet causes those individuals to regress, becoming more primitive over time. Given the name of the series, I expect they’ll play an increasing role over the course of the books.

There were a few plot holes or inconsistencies that detracted in minor ways. For example, in one place, one of Eron’s rivals, Bello, is caught in a dust storm and is in trouble. Eron’s romantic interest, Mina, says "Eron, do something!" He saves Bello, but then, three pages later, Mina says with no trace of irony, “Eron, I can’t believe you went out there. Especially for Bello.” Pacing, in places, also tends to be an issue. There’s sufficient action, but the repetition makes the story feel slow. One theme that is repeated quite often is Eron or his friends wondering why he remembers so little of his training and preparation for the Selection. Given the emphasis, I was expecting something surprising, a twist that I couldn’t see coming. But in the end, Eron’s total lack of preparation is explained away as some type of amnesia or repression that’s blocked every class and every discussion about the ritual, but seemingly, nothing else in his life. That was a bit too convenient.

Overall, The Selection is the story of a harrowing ordeal designed to thin a planet of a burgeoning male population and one man’s stand against the cruel practice. If you liked Hunger Games, you’ll find a kindred read in this novel.

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Requiem's Reach: A Chaos of Souls Novella (Chaos of Souls Novella Series, Volume 1) by R.M. Garino

A Fantasy as Tension-Producing as Any Fiction Set in the “Real” World

It’s difficult for a fantasy to generate any real tension in a reader … at least, until he/she is totally immersed in the story’s make-believe world. Before that, the threat to life and limb (which may or may not include humans) is often met with a shrug, a roll of the eyes, because, of course, the good guys will have another magical spell up their sleeves to save the day. This limitation, however, is not an issue for Requiem’s Reach. Even without a background in author Garino’s fantasy world, uneasiness rolled over me in waves during the action scenes. Perhaps that’s because these chapters have the feel of a military campaign—gains come only with tremendous personal sacrifice; enemies are allies because they’re less reprehensible than the others. It’s the kind of fantasy you could easily imagine in our world, although you’d rather not. And therein lies the tale’s ability to tie your stomach in a knot.

In a nutshell, the heroes of our story, led by Malachite, are fighting a doomed war against the Apostate, a fallen angel who retains his abilities. To escape his trap, they must cross over to the Patresilen, find the fabled and possibly illusory world of Raqui, align the two realms, and open the Gates of Golorath so the others may escape. Didn’t follow all of that? Well, to help manage this information overload of new worlds, races composed mostly of fallen angels, and our characters, the author provides a brief introduction. Even so, it’s a lot to follow.

I enjoyed the writer’s style. Magical spells were strange amalgamations of science, mathematics, and drawings. Humans were a misunderstood species, despised by some—“At least have the decency to keep the little creatures out of sight when you have company”—and respected by others.  About the only concern I have in recommending this novella is whether it is an appropriate introduction to this imaginary realm. The author considers these novellas extensions to the main series, written so that the reader may better understand a character and his or her story. And as I said before, the composition of the world and its inhabitants is a lot to comprehend. My advice, however, is don’t worry about the details too much; the nature of the characters in this book becomes clear with their acts of cruelty or kindness, their betrayals, and their self-sacrifice on an ever-shifting battleground across multiple dimensions, making it a highly enjoyable read on its own.

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Second Chance: The Conclusion of the Flowers in December Trilogy by Jane Suen

A Bit of Sweet, Romantic Escapism – I just Worry that the Leopard Can’t Change Its Spots

By luck, or maybe poor planning, I ended up with several horror novels right in the midst of the holidays. So, when I saw Second Chance, I knew it was my opportunity to balance out the unthinkable with the sweet. And even though it is the third of a Trilogy, the author’s synopsis describes it as “… a standalone sweet romance.” That worked for me.

Second Chance finds Connor Norton looking for—you guessed it—a second chance with Mary Ann. They met before the funeral for Connor’s mother but lost contact when Connor went back to the city where he worked. Both main characters are well-developed, although a bit stereotypic. I found Mary Ann quite likable as the plucky, no-nonsense business owner. She had suffered through an abusive relationship with a stepfather, making her slow to trust men (one of the stereotypes). But she was open to taking a chance with the right person if she could find him. Author Suen goes to get lengths to make the setting and Mary Ann’s background wholesome but hard-earned. Sometimes, however, this theme went too far. At one point, for example, Mary Ann is recalling her experiences with her grandfather, who had to live “… through hard times.” And then, we transition to his parents, her great grandparents, who lived during the Great Depression, a further elaboration that didn’t seem to advance the story appreciably.

My primary concern about the book may be idiosyncratic, but here it is. Romances often put a hindrance to love between two likable (although perhaps flawed) characters and we, as readers, become emotionally involved in whether, when, or how the obstacle will be hurdled. The blockage can be due to a misunderstanding or a series of them; something bigger than the individuals such as a war; feuding families (think Romeo and Juliet); and so on. And sometimes, as in Second Chance, it’s the characters’ personal traits that get in the way. Using temperament as the obstacle, however, is a double-edged sword; it can show the sensitivity of our characters, but what does it say about a happily-ever-after ending? In the case of this book, it’s Connor’s withdrawal from the world that drove the wedge between these two.  And that collapse was serious enough that he left Mary Ann without a word, never called for four months, lost interest in his career, and quit his job. It even got to the point that he almost starved his pet cat to death from neglect before he metaphorically shook himself out of his stupor. And even when he and Mary Ann had been together—the good times before he withdrew—he was happy because he “…felt Mom was there.” Basically, I ended up not really pulling for these two to get together because Mary Ann deserved better. I worry that the leopard can’t change its spots and that the book is fitting material for a tragic love story like The Great Gatsby rather than a sweet romance.

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The Haunted Bridge: Part One (The Haunting of Bob and Brandy Book 1) by Lennie Grace

A Fast-Paced, Scary Novella … and Then It Just Ends

Brandy is a red-haired, high-school skeptic in this horror novella. "There’s no such thing as ghosts …. I only believe in science and logic.” Bob is Brandy’s guy-pal. He’s mature for his age, being described in Brandy’s thoughts as “… an eighty-year-old man trapped in a teen’s body.” But he’s the one who wants to test a local urban legend that one of the bridges in town is haunted by a ghost who kills everyone who dares cross it at midnight. Of course, Bob talks Brandy into joining him. From there, The Haunted Bridge unfolds at a good pace, never leaving the reader a dull moment. The bite-sized chapters—twenty of them in sixty-seven pages—seem to make it go even faster. I always wanted to read just one more. The only thing that slows the story are the typos, and there are quite a few. Some are easy to ignore, as the meaning is apparent, e.g., “She did feel beautiful with tonight.” But others, in the context of strange and eerie happenings, caused me to break from my train of thought, e.g., “… a book fell off of her dress” or “She nodded, leaning over the pant and catch her breath.

The other drawback of the book is that it lacks an ending. There’s no twist that reveals that these ghostly happenings are actually innocent. Or that they aren’t benign, but someone prevails. There’s no resolution of any kind. Additionally, the ending’s not a cliff-hanger, because that suggests the story has reached a crucial turning point. Brandy and Bob’s predicament seems pretty much unchanged through the last half of the book, although the ghost gets nastier. And while our protagonists did try something to escape at the end, their ploy was so rushed that it felt makeshift rather than potentially game-changing.

Overall, The Haunted Bridge is a fun, fast read that could use a stronger ending and an additional edit.

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Elon: Journey to Truth by Isabella Adams

Issues of Genetics and Prejudice Are Just Below the Surface of this Compelling Fantasy

Elon must discover and learn to harness her powers if she is to save her planet from destruction. At that level, Elon: Journey to Truth is a fairly typical fantasy. But author Isabella Adams introduces an interesting twist. She links Elon’s emerging powers to her genetics, something that our protagonist worries about as well. “I reflected on my mixed genetics, wrestling with familiar confusion about my place in the universe.” In Adams’ fantasy world, being vamphyre means you can control minds, being Sidar means you can use telepathy, and being troll means you’ll be strong. And Elon has all three in her blood. Her best friend, Qidira, on the other hand, is initially identified as dwarf and human, but later in the story she is told she has “… the rare genetic gift of a fairy somewhere in your (her) bloodline.” As you might guess, with all this mixing of gene pools, there is great diversity in our characters and with it, considerable prejudice. More than once, Elon has to defend vamphyres against the closed-mindedness of her peers, reminding them that they are not all bad. Genetics may set the bounds, but few, Elon included, believe they define what one will be.

In addition to character development, this world-building tale creates a beautiful setting with lush valleys, forested mountains, clear blue lakes, and lots of caves. It also has an interesting mix of technology. Interplanetary travel is commonplace and yet, much of their food is obtained from hunting and foraging. Much of the industry is based on manual labor, although sometimes it is aided by magic. And even the weaponry hasn’t progressed beyond knives and swords. Will part of a future story expand upon that divergence?

I did have a couple of concerns about the book, both relatively minor. First, I occasionally had difficulty connecting a character’s emotional reaction to the setting. Why was this individual so reticent given the scene? What caused that biting reply? The other issue was the amount of text spent on activities that were part of our characters’ daily routines, e.g., eating, grooming, lodging, side conversations. Much of that did not seem to further the story. That said, it’s difficult to tell what might prove relevant in a later installment of what I assume will be a series.

Overall, Elon: Journey to Truth sets the stage admirably to answer the question, can Elon harness her genetic gifts to save her home? Only the next book will tell.

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Wake of the Sadico by Jo Sparkes

A Scary Read; Just Watch Out for the Sudden Changes in Point of View

Wake of the Sadico is the story of five friends sharing a vacation scuba diving in the Caribbean. There is Melanie, the adult version of a kid in a candy store—she always wants the man she doesn’t have and has the physical beauty to make it happen. Jill is the coming of age tomboy who is as anxious to prove herself as she is confused about men’s attraction to her. Through most of the book, I would have said these two are our main characters, as we spend much of our time inside their heads. But Wall, the gangly, always polite and proper Brit comes to play a larger role by the end. Initially, our cast of five has some troubling experiences—fleeting images, bad dreams—but nothing most of us haven’t had. Then, the author turns up the tension with them seeing people who are here one moment, gone the next. Or they recall a past life of pain and brutality that feels too real to ignore (reincarnation is a central theme of the novel). By the end, our protagonists are facing off against a paranormal evil come to claim, as the author puts it, “a karmic debt past due.” You’ll want to keep the lights on for this one.

In addition to managing the story’s tension expertly, the author crafts some outstanding diving scenes. In particular, she helps us non-divers understand some of the perils of the sport. It looks so easy in the movies; author Sparkes shows us why that’s not always the case. The feel of the tropics, its sun-drenched days and balmy nights, is also well depicted.

There are two things that detract from the story. One is the frequent, sudden shifts in point of view. The book is written third person from the perspective of one of our characters. One minute, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Jill, the next it is Wall or Mike. And besides these five in the present day, we’re transported in time to their previous lives. We also see the world from the eyes of some of the secondary characters. We even get a glimpse of the reality of a paranormal evil. And these perspectives change dozens of times in a single chapter, marked only by a slightly wider gap between paragraphs. The style makes it tough to keep up. The second problem is that the story is a tale of a trap “… laid centuries ago, for five souls moved on to new lives and new loves. Set by the one soul they left behind.” (author’s synopsis). But when the scenes from the past end, the last individual standing is owed nothing. In fact, it seems the other five would owe this person a debt for the brutality they were shown at his hands. I ended up quite confused about the book’s basic premise.

Even though the shifts in POV can be disorienting, the characters are interesting, the setting is well developed, and the tension is palpable. If horror is your genre, you’ll enjoy the read. 

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Deadly Enterprise by Kevin Chapman

Sometimes you have to ask for forgiveness

When a twenty-year-old woman with a record for drugs and solicitation is found floating in the East River, everyone is ready to attribute her death to an accidental overdose. Everyone, that is, except Medical Examiner Michelle McNeill. She conveys her suspicions to her romantic interest, Detective Mike Stoneman. Since he’s rehabbing from injuries sustained in his last case and is not on active duty, Stoneman launches an investigation that’s part official, but mostly not. It’s driven by his and McNeill’s strong sense of right and wrong, with Stoneman’s partner, Jason Dickson, joining the cause. In addition to the overdose case, Dickson is working with a new, temporary partner, Ray McMillian, on a high-profile murder connected with a drugs and money laundering scheme. That case, too, erupts in violence, leaving Dickson juggling competing demands on his time and fighting office politics.

Together, these cases keep the action moving and the pages of Deadly Enterprise turning at a steady pace. Readers have insight behind the scenes, revealing a twisted world of corruption, murder, drugs, prostitution, and politics. The tension is palpable, as you’ll find yourself wondering how, when, or if Stoneman and Dickson can solve these cases while walking a tightrope between an official investigation and doing what’s right. Additionally, the romance between McNeill and Stoneman, started in the first book of the series, continues to develop, giving readers a chance to catch their breath in an enjoyable side story filled with the sights and sounds of New York City.

For me, part of the book’s draw comes from where on the continuum from do-right-by-the-victim to do-it-by-the-book Stoneman will fall. Initially, he’s pulled into the overdose investigation largely by McNeill’s concerns; he shares her suspicions but entertains other possibilities as well. As the story unfolds, demons from Dr. McNeill’s past keep her digging, with Stoneman becoming more and more immersed in acts that are certainly in a gray area of the law, if not illegal. How far will he go to make sure the guilty are caught? Far enough that he’s going to have to ask for forgiveness because he’ll never get permission for what he must do.

Overall, Deadly Enterprise is a taut, fast-paced crime thriller with plenty to think about after the last page is turned. 

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Turn Your Happiness ON: How to Light up your Days and Fill your Life with Joy by Norma Nikutowski

Consider Your Impediments to Happiness Before You Pick Up this Book

"Happiness means different things to different people." That’s just one of dozens of quotes in the book. I wanted to use it because it highlights why this book can’t be completely successful. It can’t because, in 196 pages, it cannot deal with everyone’s impediments to living a happier life. I’d guess the author has addressed a large portion of the population. But on the other hand, I’m certain the book doesn’t address everyone. Why? Because you won’t find much on issues such as the lack of self-esteem (other than the fact that it suffers when you’re unhappy), learned helplessness, bullying, most work issues such as dealing with glass ceilings or learning to delegate, fear of success, and so on. And there is certainly nothing like living with phobias, addictions, or compulsions. So, my advice to the potential reader: consider what blocks your happiness and compare it to the topics covered in the book. To help with that process, I’ll try to summarize the book’s primary points.

First, many of the roadblocks to happiness covered in the book were almost truisms or circular. For example, several involve people’s tendency to focus on the negative—in the past, in interactions with friends and family, even in the news. But if you are unhappy, aren’t you by definition focusing on the negative? The advice was also a bit cliched—let go of the hurts, change your attitude, and avoid the negative (although avoiding the news wouldn’t make me happy). There were other impediments, of course, including:

Being hampered by a fear of failure—even cluttering your life with things ‘just in case’;
Believing there are simple fixes to being unhappy, particularly money;
Holding up others as examples to highlight your shortcomings; and
Focusing on the expectations of others particularly when it causes you to overextend yourself.

If you see yourself in the impediments mentioned above or similar ones, give the book a try. Changing is never going to be easy, but learning a few tricks and hearing about others who have corrected these life issues can only help.

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The Diplomat and Desperado Stories by PanOrpheus

I read PanOrpheus’s books with a search window open.

PanOrpheus’s books—and I’ve read a few—involve a bizarre collection of recurring figures from history and mythology, not to mention from the author’s imagination. Phoebe, the Spirit of the mythical Third Oracle of the Temple of Delphi and her consort, Mister E, the afterlife spirit of Nikola Tesla are a couple of examples. In this installment, these two assign their agents—the Diplomat and the Desperado—to travel to other times and realms to correct certain anomalies that have or are about to occur. And these two, let me assure you, have unique ways for dealing with anomalies!

The Diplomat taps into his growing abilities for precognition and telekinesis. In other words, he’ll be using his head, just like all diplomats do. And the Desperado? She’s the muscle, employing all “… the weapons used in Terminator One, Two, and Three, and a few from the Matrix Two” on one mission. Sure, sometimes it seems she’s gotten out of hand, like the afternoon she destroyed the entire Forbidden City. But do you really want to quibble with the Diplomat’s summary of the mission:  “… unfortunate but within bounds collateral damage. Goals attained.” Again, his stellar diplomatic skills were on display.

Along with “anomalous, paradoxical events” that “transcend time and place,” to use the authors words, PanOrpheus brings in toys and songs that will evoke memories. Noirtown, the home of the Diplomat and the Desperado, is all one big trip down the memory lane of black and white, detective and gangster films of the 1940’s … or at least, reruns of them. You’ll also never know when the author will repurpose a snippet of history for our entertainment. On one mission, for example, the Diplomat and the Desperado were piloting a Winnebago to intercept a space object known as Oumuamua. The word seemed familiar—or maybe I just knew the author’s penchant for the juxtaposition of reality and fantasy—so I did a quick search. Oumuamua is the first known interstellar object. Of course, when the Diplomat and the Desperado boarded it and found …. Well, maybe I’ve described enough of the story already. I’ll leave their handling of that potential end of the universe to you.

Overall, The Diplomat and Desperado Stories feature imaginary and often bizarre people, places, and things mixed with a bit of reality to keep you chuckling and wondering … often at the same time. To deal with it, just do as I do and keep a search window open to handle all those tip-of-the-tongue feelings you’ll get.

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Daedalus LEO: SWIC Drop from Low Earth Orbit (Daedalus Series Book 2) by Robert G. Williscroft.

An Interesting Blend of Science and Fiction with a Larger than Life Hero

Like the first installment of the series, the focus of Daedalus LEO is on using a wingsuit to deliver SEALs to a trouble spot, a concept that is part science and part fiction. And like all good hard-science-fiction writing, the boundary between current theory and the author’s imagination is difficult to determine. Leave the readers guessing, make them sweat. That tension, however, generally comes from trying to guess the dividing line between current, beneficial theory and the story’s disastrous side effects of the same technology. Just where in the development of technology X did it stop being the savior of mankind and become our downfall? In this book, however, there is no catastrophic side of the wingsuit and so, the distinction between fact and fantasy is interesting, if not particularly tension producing.

There are, of course, differences between the first and second installments of the story, the primary one being the mission. This time, our protagonist Tiger Bailey is launching in an advanced, rigid wingsuit attached to a pallet from low earth orbit (LEO). There are also problems this time—several of them actually. But as before, Bailey remains impassive in the face of danger. “My assignment, SWIC-3’s assignment, was probably impossible to accomplish. I figured that just made it interesting.” And when the first problem arose, he dealt with it by taking a nap to conserve oxygen. Bailey moves fully into the role of a ‘laugh in the face of death’ protagonist. If you like that type of main character, you’ll love Bailey.

As for the emergencies themselves, they felt a bit underdeveloped. Part of it is the length of the book; it’s difficult to generate much tension in the amount of space they got in the book’s 71-page total. Part of it is Bailey’s character. If he’s impassive, why shouldn’t we be the same? And part of it is because they felt a bit contrived. There is also an element of romance in the book. That too follows the ‘thriller stereotype’ as Bailey and Apryl meet once causally, then end up in bed when they run into each other the second time.

So, overall, if you’re in the mood for an interesting, near-future concept that seamlessly pairs science and fiction and you enjoy bigger-than-life heroes, this is your book.

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Daedalus: SWIC Basejump from Fred Noonan Skyport by Robert G. Williscroft

A Death-Defying Feat Told with the Swagger of a Navy SEAL

Imagine, if you will, riding something like an extremely high-speed elevator 80 kilometers into the sky (that’s almost 50 miles or over 262,000 feet). And you’re doing this in preparation for jumping with nothing but a hard-shell, wingsuit with a steerable rocket while aiming for a small island 379 kilometers away. I can think of a lot of phrases that might describe people’s feelings as that elevator starts its ascent—paralyzed by fear, hearts pounding in their ears, stomachs in their throats. Now consider how the narrator of the novella Daedalus, Tiger Bailey a Navy SEAL, described it. “I felt a faint tug that rapidly increased to about the same pressure produced by a chick sitting on my chest.

Throughout the novella, Bailey doesn’t show a lot of anxiety about what he’s doing. In fact, you’d hardly notice anything in his behavior except a few times he said things aloud that he thought he was only thinking. Or he’d answer a question by saying he’d talk later because he was ‘sort of busy’ at the moment. And while there may be some false bravado in his re-telling, Bailey’s tone is consistent with people well-trained and experienced in high-risk occupations. So, for the reader, there are plenty of opportunities to share in Bailey’s awe standing on that platform looking out into space, to marvel at his cool composure with what was ahead, and to shudder when thinking about how it would feel if you were doing it.

My primary concern about this work as a standalone novella is that it was too short to allow for much development of either the character (Bailey) or the plot; it’s 58 pages. Bailey remains mostly a stereotype, the feat a succinct description. However, the novella is an introduction to the man—we know he’s calm under pressure—and to a new weapon delivery system—a rigid wingsuit capable of delivering SEALs to a battle zone. And since this is the first of four, interconnected stories, according to the Author’s Note, the brevity of this novella and the limited development of story and character is appropriate.

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Boston Metaphysical Society: Prelude: A Seven Story Collection by Madeleine Holly-Rosing

Coming-of-Age Short Stories Set in a Well-Crafted, Steampunk Alternative History

Prelude, a short-story collection, is one of three literary paths into an alternative, steampunk world that is the Boston Metaphysical Society. The other two paths are a novel, Storm of Secrets, which I have read, and a comic book/graphic novel, which I have not. The two I've read lead to a fascinating world where steam power and gauges replace the electronics and digital readouts of our world. And it's not just technology that's different, but history and society as well. Then, add a supernatural element with mediums, ghosts, and demons, and you have a fertile setting for the imaginative tales that make up Prelude.

The collection of shorts in the book can be thought of as specific, significant events in the backstory of the Boston Metaphysical Society saga—how Samuel Hunter came to wed Elizabeth Weldsmore who was well beyond his social station or how the second born of the Weldsmore sons came to power in his family. Even in just these two examples, you may notice one of the prominent features of Holly-Rosing’s alternative history; Boston is composed of a highly stratified society with the politically powerful living in opulence on Beacon Hill, while the Irish struggle and die in obscurity and abject poverty on the South Side. Much of the population is trapped between these extremes in the Middle District. Based on social standing, there are vast differences in the characters’ speech, thought, and dress, which the author has skillfully crafted and consistently maintains. And as you might guess with such a strict structure, the stories often feature protagonists struggling against these constraints, which are imposed by a parent, grandparent, or spouse as well as society as a whole. Add a bit of light humor (as in the Steampunk Rat) and some demon-hunting action (as in The Demons of Liberty Row), and you have a mix that makes these stories a pleasure to read.

My concerns are relatively minor. First, there are more typos than one would like, particularly in the use of the wrong word, a missing word, or an extra one. The author’s meaning is easily understood, but the errors can draw the reader’s attention from the story. Second, I would have preferred that the stories be in chronological order or have some type of introduction. I found myself resetting my mental history at the start of each short story—where are we in the character’s life and how does this play into what he/she becomes? I would have welcomed some help from the author in these transitions.

Overall, Prelude is a carefully crafted and well-written Steampunk version of history. Coming of age themes with a sprinkling of humor and plenty of action make this collection of short stories a very entertaining read.

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The Dark Web Murders by Brian O’Hare

An Engrossing Murder Thriller with a Gut-Wrenching Finale

The Dark Web Murders is an engrossing—and by its end, harrowing—serial-killer, murder thriller. Initially, it’s a ‘crowd whodunit,’ deriving mystery from the excess of viable, and in this case, powerful suspects. “So, we have a dead judge who has just been partying with another judge, a law professor, a couple of property millionaires, a prominent surgeon, a well-known barrister, a socialite and a playboy, a gambling machines tycoon, a media mogul, a top civil servant, and a restaurateur.” This part of the story has the feel of a well-developed police procedural, bolstered by the considerable deductive skills of our protagonist, Chief Inspector Jim Sheehan. “Sheehan didn’t miss the deliberate nature of the judge’s composure.” That’s a lot of fine reading of body language.

The author maintains and grows the tension by giving the reader insights before Sheehan and his team; we are reading the blog posts of our demented killer on the dark web well before Sergeant Stewart discovers them. I found myself yelling at the book, trying to tell Sheehan not to get distracted. But distracted, he isn’t. He’s picking up on some very subtle clues that are sprinkled throughout the story. But author Brian O’Hare didn’t just plant understated evidence for the killer—that’s not devious enough for this writer. He had me suspecting another individual almost from the start with a series of chance meetings and mannerisms that fit our killer. If you like being fooled as much as I, you’ll enjoy the author’s skill at planting red herrings. The story ends with a well-known but extremely well-written, gut-wrenching moral dilemma. 

My qualms about the book are few and quite minor. For one, the story felt complete a couple of chapters before the book ended. Even the method Sheehan used to fill in the details of the killer’s motivation seemed unnecessary; Sheehan already knew where to get those answers. Also, the killer’s posts on the dark web are complex, pseudo-philosophical arguments written in a style reminiscent of nineteenth-century novelists such as Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, and others. I understand Sheehan’s interest in those posts—what serial killer doesn’t leave clues to identity in his or her manifesto—but how did the killer get such a following on the dark web? The killer’s motivation also seemed a bit at odds with the his/her description as a narcissistic psychopath, although no diagnosis will fit any specific individual perfectly. And finally, some of the content deals with depraved, sexual behavior—pedophilia, extreme sadism to the point of death, human trafficking. If you are strongly affected by such topics, be forewarned.

Overall, The Dark Web Murders is an engrossing murder thriller filled with subtle clues, only some of which point to the killer.

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I was given a copy of the book by the author. I elected to write this candid review.

(I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.)

The Dreaming Tree by Matthew Mather

A Mind-Bending, Emotion-Stirring, Series-Launching Medical Thriller

“This is definitely one for the weird books.”

So said the partner of the book’s protagonist, Detective Delta Devlin, after they had solved the case. And I’d have to agree. From full-body transplants, to hunting trips for celebrities’ excrement, to “oil changes” for the wealthy—I’ll let you read the book, if you don’t follow those references—The Dreaming Tree is a wild ride between recent advances and imminent breakthroughs in medical science with a bit a pure fiction thrown into the mix. And author Matthew Mather makes it really tough to know just which of those you are reading at any given point in the story.

Of course, in dealing at the bleeding edge of medical science, societal and ethical questions appear at every turn in the plot, not as academic questions, but as part of a baffling, sometimes surreal mystery. When is someone dead? If we can grow parts, why not an entire body? And similarly, your emotions will sustain some collateral damage from treading this ground. References to body-part harvesting among the helpless and the brutally poor are particularly gut wrenching.

Within this backdrop of science vs. fiction, ethics, and emotion, Mather inserts at least two, rather dramatic twists into his storyline. They are revelations that, while not new to frequent readers of mystery and thrillers, will cause you to reframe all that you thought you knew about the head with a new body. Mather’s use of this technique, however, leads me to a minor quibble. The last twist comes so late that despite the author speeding through the threads of the tale, the reader doesn’t have time for the new mindset to gel. Basically, the end feels a bit rushed and some of the threads feel like they are still dangling.

No review of The Dreaming Tree would be complete without mention of Mather’s new, series protagonist, Delta Devlin. Besides having a melodic, alliterating name that describes her roots—Delta for her mother from the South, Devlin for her Irish father—she’s a tetrachromat. She has four color receptors in her eyes, rather than the three that most of us have. That visual capability lets her spot subtle changes in a person’s coloration, say, when he/she is lying. Maybe this is a bit of a stretch of what a tetrachromat can do, or maybe not, but it adds a dimension to an already likeable character. I’ll be watching for book 2 in the series.

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(I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.)

When Hell Struck Twelve (A Billy Boyle WWII Mystery Book 14) by James R. Benn
A Well-Crafted Wartime Backdrop for a Somewhat Clumsy Mystery

Author James Benn’s depiction of the events leading up to and during the Liberation of Paris—the backdrop for When Hell Struck Twelve—is outstanding. The Germans are retreating from Normandy after their defeat at the Battle for Hill 262. On the Battle’s 20th anniversary, President Eisenhower said that "… no other battlefield presented such a horrible sight of death, hell, and total destruction." Benn’s description in the opening chapters of the book does that statement justice. As the Germans retreat toward Paris after the defeat, a power vacuum is created, letting factions within the French resistance settle old scores. It’s not enough that the French are killing Germans and vice versa; the French are also killing each other. Our main characters, US Army detective Billy Boyle and Lieutenant Kazimierz (Kaz) find themselves entangled in this purgatory, witnessing the horrors of war from tank and gun battles on the streets of Paris to clandestine torture and murder in backrooms and deserted buildings. The psychological costs are also felt as our heroes develop mysterious headaches and uncontrollable muscle tremors. It’s a dark, brutal, unrelenting world compellingly drawn by Benn.

This stellar setting provides a backdrop to a mystery that, unfortunately, feels contrived and convenient. The Allied army leaks plans for the liberation of Paris to a French traitor, while actually, they plan to skirt the city and trap the Germans there. But rather than letting the Germans believe the traitor has succeeded in his espionage, Billy, Kaz, and the French raise a ruckus in their pursuit of the man. As the author notes, that reaction gives the stolen plans credibility, but it also makes them worthless. The Allies would just go to Plan B for the liberation of the city now that the theft is known; that is, unless they had no time to change plans. But they have time and in fact do change their minds, deciding to take Paris rather than bypassing it. Of course, the French traitor would have only been allowed to steal fake plans, right? Not so quick. Apparently, the Allies seeded their ruse with the real (and only?) plans for liberating Paris, because now they want to use them. There is apparently no Plan B as Billy and Kaz are sent off to stop the traitor who has been on the run for at least a day. He could have made copies. He could have talked to any number of people, both in person and on the phone. Other than providing a reason for Billy and Kaz to enter Paris (and the story to continue), why would the Allies do such a thing? There’s another change of direction in this basic storyline and several more bizarre coincidences that keep the mystery feeling fantastical, rather than real to the very end.

With a bit of work on the plot, Billy and Kaz could have ended up in the middle of the Liberation of Paris in ways that were both historically consistent and logically plausible. But as the book is written, the fiction felt like a somewhat clumsy add-on.

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Kaleidoscope (The Vision Chronicles Book 1) by Chariss K. Walker

A Suspenseful Cliff-Hanger that Sets a High Bar for the Series

Kaleidoscope is Book 1 of The Vision Chronicles, an eight-book, paranormal suspense series with a ninth novella offered as a prequel. The set, which according to the author should be read in order, follows the life of Mike Lewis as he develops his gift—the ability to see the future—in order to protect himself, his family, and his friends from powerful enemies.

Written in first person, book 1 gives us insight into the mind of Mike Lewis. Paralyzed by a fear of being confined in a laboratory that studies paranormal abilities, he has held everyone at arm’s length—friends, family, potential love interests. But as we join him, things are about to change. He can’t continue this way and decides to contact his old, college friend, Nelson, who is now a psychiatrist. About the same time, he meets a beautiful, wealthy New York socialite, Cassandra (Casey) D’Angelo. And from that point forward, everything goes sideways, as it becomes clear someone is after him. The list of potential suspects is short, but then, the book is suspense, not mystery. And the questions abound! Who is pulling the strings behind these attacks? Why can’t Mike remember this gift when others do? What happened to him fifteen years ago when a co-worker tapped him on the head and these kaleidoscopic visions of the future started? The author builds this uncertainty masterfully. The first-person perspective is also the perfect place to second guess Mike’s surmises … something I found myself doing all the time, sometimes correctly, other times not. Kudos to the author for making me care. I also appreciated her invention of a technique to study Mike’s visions, basing it roughly on methods used to study lucid dreaming. (Yeah, my reaction is a bit esoteric, but I found the notion clever.)

As usual, I had a few nitpicks. One is the fact that the plot ends with a cliff-hanger, something I usually don’t like. But admittedly, that fact is revealed in the book’s description, so I went in with my eyes open and it was worth it. There were also a few things that didn’t totally add up in my mind. For example, another of Mike’s college friends, Joe, is now an FBI agent. When he first learned of the attempts on Mike, his reaction was “… for whatever reason someone is very interested in you.” And yet later, when Mike comes clean, Joe admits knowing Mike’s secret. He had even been contacted by a group that wanted him to spy on Mike back in college. Why did he seem so clueless just a few pages earlier? But while there were, in my view, a few minor plot inconsistencies like this one, the suspense was undeniable and the character development was excellent, especially that of our protagonist. 

Overall, Kaleidoscope is a suspenseful, well-crafted first of the series that’s well worth the read.

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The Atopia Chronicles by Matthew Mather

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will need a lot of work

If author Matthew Mather paints an even halfway accurate picture of our future in The Atopia Chronicles, one thing is certain—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) is going to need a lot of work. First, we’ll need to add the Sim Kid Syndrome, marked by an irrational desire to bring into the world bio-similar digital versions of oneself until your family resembles a small town. Loss of Neural Cohesion results from letting your proxxi drive your body too often. Phuture-Driven Hyperactivity is marked by frenetic action to avoid one’s demise as predicted by the Phuture News (note: more research is needed because these actions may be justified—perhaps the predictions are right).

If you’re thinking that’s a whole truckload of new terminology and technology, you’d be right and there’s a lot more in the book. But in general, all of it is the product of one thing: nanobots that attach to your nervous system (smarticles) so that they can change what you see, hear, feel, taste, and touch. And they can let other synthetic beings (proxxis) act on your behalf because they are, in a sense, you. So, imagine you can live anywhere you want with anyone you want (or at least, a bio-similar copy of that person) during any time period you want while copies of you take care of business. Sound a bit addictive? Sound like it could mess with your mind? And while in the novel this technological revolution is a last-ditch effort to save a dying planet, it parallels some of the current nanobot, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence research. Those similarities are just one of a number of real-world themes raised in the book, making it a very thought-provoking read. I loved that aspect of the work.

But while the book’s provocative concepts are a highlight, there are downsides. First, categorizing the novel in the hard science fiction genre is a bit of a stretch. Parts of its psychology are fantasy—perhaps some medical aspects too, although that’s not my background. Of course, that’s not a problem unless you were expecting hard science fiction. A second concern is that the book is poorly organized. Mather starts with a set of five vignettes that all occur at the same point in time, each from the perspective of a different character. Then, the second half of the book attempts to bring all these threads together. The result is confusing and produces considerable overlap. It’s a 500-page book that probably has 300 pages of story filled with characters that appear, sometimes to reappear, other times not.

While I find the themes in The Atopia Chronicles fascinating and some of them quite probable given the trajectories of today’s research, it was a laborious and often confusing read.

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Choosing the Dark by Brian Marshall

A Tale of Living Life on One’s Own Terms … and Often Growing from It

Choosing the Dark is a coming of age tale that finds our protagonist, Rob Walstein, at the juncture between high school and, you guessed it, the rest of his life. Concerned that he’d spent his first seventeen years trying to be what others expected, Rob wants to find himself. So, he leaves his comfortable, middle-class home on the outskirts of San Francisco and moves into the city, lives in a dive, and makes rent (barely) by washing dishes. He also gets a girl—or at least, has a one-night stand—and joins a band led by a self-destructive poet, their music described by what it’s not. It’s not punk, not metal, not rock … maybe not even music, but it stirs his soul. All of these events are quite well-crafted by author Brian Marshall, with interesting and vivid analogies and a sprinkling of humor. Overall, the prose is excellent, although some simple typos detract slightly.

Coming of age tales, however, aren’t defined by their action but rather, by the protagonist’s personal growth. And if you’re expecting a story where a significant aspect of history, social expectations, or cultural norms profoundly affects the main character’s maturation—as slavery did for Huckleberry Finn, for example—you won’t find it in this book. What you find instead is a potpourri of Rob’s emerging philosophies on topics as diverse as parent-child relations, compassion, love, religion, and death. Some are thought-provoking, such as Rob’s relationship with his mother. Many, however, are shallow, mere fortune-cookie thoughts—they sound fine but have little meaning. And a few appear ill-fitting to the character. Rob, for example, occasionally laments his aloofness, his desire to remain free of attachment. His actions, however, show just the opposite. He starts and ends his story worrying about how his mother will react to his quest for self-awareness. Even his first encounter on his journey results in much stronger emotions than the act of casual sex would imply. Insensitive seems wholly inappropriate for Rob, even before coming of age.

Overall, I enjoyed the well-crafted portrayal of Rob living his life on his own terms, but what he learned from it—sometimes, it was hard to tell.

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Without a Prayer by Susan Ashline.

A Difficult Read for a Couple of Reasons.

Without a Prayer is a difficult read. I recognize that there are different interpretations of that sentence and at least two of them apply.

First, it’s difficult because it’s disturbing to read about the level of toxicity that existed in the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC) and the brutal and callous beatings that occurred there. It’s made even more difficult because the story is true, or at least as accurate as a meticulous author reviewing massive amounts of data can make it. The followers were religious, often submissive, and generally at a point in their life when options were limited, e.g., they had been kicked out of their home. So, they fled to the WLCC, only to suffer worse there. The message of the church was that they were surrounded by evil—demons, witchcraft, impure thoughts. Everyday actions were questioned—could two brothers playfully wrestle or was that sexual perversion? No one outside the church could be trusted, but even inside, parents couldn’t trust children, sisters couldn’t trust brothers. Who knew if a spouse was being himself/herself or if a demon was in control? Given such a threatening world, the followers became paralyzed, unable to act until it was sanctioned by the church. It was, simply put, an environment that led a father to participate in a fatal beating of his son because the church called for it.

It is also a difficult book because of the way the author chose to cover the story—as a sequence of incidents reproduced largely as they were reported (with some crosschecking for accuracy) or by providing some organizing structure, e.g., breaking the timeline according to major shifts in church doctrine. The author selected the first, which admittedly removes the abstraction and simplification of an organization. But it also makes it harder on the reader. That’s especially true when many of the incidents are accusations and counter-accusations among dozens of characters or spiritual breakthroughs claimed by a character only to be withdrawn five pages later. By far, the most dog-eared part of my book is the page with the characters’ names and relationships, and the list is not close to being exhaustive. Eventually, cult followers, escapees, and church leadership become clear, but it takes some effort. Otherwise, the primary limitation was the lack of clarification of Tiffany Irwin’s thoughts and beliefs. She was the final pastor of WLCC, led the questioning (the counseling session) before the fatal beatings started, and did nothing to stop them as she watched. But was she intentionally making her followers dependent on her and distrustful of everyone else? Or did she believe there were demons, that she talked to God, and that every male wanted to molest her? She claimed all three. Perhaps, nothing more definitive was learned about her during the investigation and trial, but the book ended up feeling somewhat incomplete.

I was given a free copy of this book.  I elected to write this candid review.

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A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber

Lives Forever Changed by Experience and Held Constant by Blood

If you’re looking for a whodunit, this book isn’t it. The author’s synopsis pretty much answers that question and even the culprit’s name is known halfway through the tale. But if you want your heart in your throat from compelling, psychological suspense fiction, then read on.

A Girl Named Anna is the story of a British girl’s abduction from an American theme park some fifteen years prior to the events in the book. Anna, kidnapped at the age of three, has been raised in America by a woman with extreme religious beliefs, obsessive in her pursuit of physical cleanliness and spiritual purity. While the characterization is a bit stereotypic, author Barber paints the figure well. Chapters told from Anna’s perspective alternate with one’s from her sister’s point of view. That sister, Rosie, lives what seems a more ‘normal’ life in London with their parents and a brother.

Throughout the book, Anna is pulled between the woman who raised her and her prior life. Initially, that earlier existence is little more than a vague memory, a feeling to Anna. But even after the crime against her is fully exposed, she remains torn—a product of her experience as much as her heredity. Kudos to the author for depicting that duality so well. Rosie, on the other hand, must deal with life in the public eye, a family on the brink of collapse, and trying to live up to a sister who is perfect in her absence. While I first thought Rosie had the easier life’s path, by the end, I was cringing equally for both. The author’s use of these totally different backgrounds and perspectives in order to convey the emotional toll of this shared but separate experience was masterful.

There were a few, minor shortcomings, the most significant being that the plot becomes a bit farfetched by the end. That’s not because the situation described couldn’t occur; it has. It’s a bit improbable because the mere mention of it would have produced a media frenzy and a public outcry, even without proof. And when the finale produces an extensive backlash, the fragility of this aspect of the story is highlighted. Even so, this issue is minor in the context of an emotionally compelling story of lives forever changed by experience and held constant by blood.

I was given a free copy of this book.  I elected to write this candid review.

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The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America by Karen Abbott

A Tale of Bootlegging, Betrayal, and Murder Diluted in the Telling

The Ghosts of Eden Park is set in the Jazz Age in the United States. It was a time of great change—women received the right to vote; fashion, music, and social norms were being transformed; and alcohol became illegal. Into this setting, insert George Remus, a lawyer turned bootlegger who quickly amassed a vast fortune by finding loopholes in the new Prohibition laws. Opposing Remus was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, appointed as US Assistant Attorney General with responsibility for enforcing Prohibition. Fresh out of law school, few expected her to upset the benign indifference shown by most politicians; they were wrong. Remus was convicted and sentenced to prison. His second wife, Imogene, betrayed him with one of Willebrandt’s agents, Franklin Dodge, and they stole much of his fortune. And then, the histrionics Remus showed in the courtroom became more prevalent and much more violent. But was it insanity, or just a ruse to defend himself in his own trial for killing Imogene?

With all this grist for a spellbinding tale, I expected one; unfortunately, it never quite materializes. The text and dialog pulled from court records and other documents reflect the style of the time, e.g., somewhat wooden compared to today’s standards. But that same stilted feel continues into the rest of the book. Perhaps that was intentional, but it reduces the pace to the point of plodding. The story is not presented succinctly. As an example, during Remus’s murder trial, several witnesses were called to testify about the night Remus discovered that his mansion had been stripped of its valuables. Each witness, however, gives a different date. And after several pages of this same story, the author reveals that the lawyers were trying to prove Remus was staging his ‘discovery’ of the theft over and over, so he could fly into a rage at his wife’s betrayal for each new audience. One well-written paragraph could have replaced several pages of repetition. The basic sequence of events is also confusing, when segments from court transcripts representing a different time are inserted between chapters. And digressions into the personal and professional lives of characters only loosely related to the story feel like filler.

I did enjoy the insight the book provided on several tangential topics—the excesses of Remus’s Gatsby-esque lifestyle, the treatment of the rich in the penal system, the concept of insanity in the legal system, among others. And I came to greatly admire the stamina and vision of a past US Assistant Attorney General. To accomplish what Wllibrandt did during the Prohibition Era was truly amazing. But as for a riveting story of betrayal and murder in the matter of George Remus? That was difficult to find.

I was given a free copy of this book.  I elected to write this candid review.

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Man on the Stair by Stacy Bender

Quirky Supporting Characters in an Entertaining Mystery/Sci-Fi/Pulp Noir Blend

Man on the Stair is part mystery and part sci-fi.  What first appears a simple traffic accident turns out to be part of a murder spree by a serial killer, producing the mystery element of the story.  Who is he/she?  It is not, however, a whodunit with multiple, possible suspects or several red herrings.  Rather, it is more of a slow reveal through the investigative efforts of our main characters – Adam, ex-police officer and now, ghost to the digital world; Lila, a driven and highly capable police detective; and Michal, a high schooler with considerable computer skills.  The sci-fi element comes in through the near-future setting.  Self-driving cars have been perfected and some jobs have been automated with holographic figures, for example.  And apparently, automation is highly interconnected, as something like facial recognition identifies Adam on a phone camera and erases him even before the video can be replayed.  That’s a lot more interconnected than your phone ‘talking’ to your thermostat.

There is also a pulp noir feel to the story.  Claiming little but “military training”, Adam is our gritty hero who holds three, warring street gangs at bay in a seedy, run-down urban area.  His digital invisibility could nudge him more toward super-hero, except his ghost status seems more a hindrance than a help.  He has to follow people through doors, since the technology that controls them can’t see him.  The supporting cast to our three main characters tends toward quirky, if somewhat stereotypic.  Taggard, for example, is the police computer technician who believes that every room is bugged and that aliens are coming to get him (and probably just about any other conspiracy theory you can imagine).  He’s good for several laughs over the course of the story.

My reservation about the book is minor and hinges on the inconsistent advance of technology.  Some of the tech is quite revolutionary, e.g., using gene editing to mix human and animal DNA to create futuristic, police working dogs.  Quite the feat!  And yet, people are still using tablets to send texts and emails and pulling out their phones to take video.  Computer security is another example.  Both the villain and our police computer technician seemed to find system vulnerabilities quite frequently, as does Michal, the untrained, high school student.  Either we have three, computer savants in the story or software security took a giant step backwards.  But this issue hardly makes an impression in the midst of this light, fast, and often humorous story.

Overall, Man on the Stair is an entertaining blend of genre, populated by some gritty heroes with a quirky, supporting cast.

I was given a free copy of this book by the author.  I elected to write this candid review.

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I’ll Never Tell by Catherine McKenzie

Emotional Drama Built on Exposing a Web of Lies and Misperceptions

I’ll Never Tell finds the five MacAllister siblings (Margaux, Ryan, Mary, Kate, and Liddie) and a groundskeeper (Sean Booth) trying to solve a 20-year-old, cold case – the bludgeoning of Amanda Holmes on the grounds of the family’s camp, Camp Macaw.  Why?  Because their father’s will stipulated that until they unravel the mystery of what happened to Amanda, they can’t settle the estate.  That sentence alone should tell you one of the concerns I have about this book – the plot is contrived.  What kind of man would saddle his five children with solving a case that the police couldn’t?  What kind of man would task his children with something he never did when he was alive?  Of course, every author gets one gimme and this could be it, except the pattern repeats quite often.  For example, in a backstory, Ryan takes the blame for “killing” a young woman when, in fact, it was an accident.  There is no blame to be taken, no one to protect in an accident, and so, the whole scene ends up feeling convenient – a way for the author to increase drama and little more.

But even with the contrived feel of the main plot and many of the scenes, it’s easy to see why the book is popular – the twists and character development.  The latter is facilitated by the chapters’ different points of view.  Each one takes the perspective of one of the seven figures mentioned above.  Yes, there are seven different POVs.  And from them, we learn that these people are not a particularly likable bunch.  They are the kind who would fake a bad phone connection rather than have an uncomfortable conversation with a significant other (to pick one simple example).  But while they have largely withdrawn from each other and in some cases, from the world, they have steadfastly hidden what they believe are secrets about Amanda to protect one another.  Or maybe that’s why they’ve withdrawn?

Twists in the story are the second driver of this tale and most revolve around omissions or lies about the assault on Amanda.  But the author takes it a step further because often the lies are only hiding a misperception of events rather than the truth.  So, a secret revealed means little until its verified and you’re left guessing what really happened until the next secret, and so on.  Unfortunately, even an excellent writing hook can be overused and this one is.  I found myself fascinated by how the author would spin each incident but at the same time, numbed to the drama.  And until you’re on the last page, why give any reveal much credence?

Overall, the plot is contrived and the drama somewhat overplayed, but character development and the twists make I’ll Never Tell a worthwhile read.

I would like to thank NetGalley, Lake Union Publishing, and Catherine McKenzie for the digital ARC I received.  I elected to write a review.

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The Scorpion: Metamorphosis of Smoke by John A. Autero

An Action-Heavy Techno-Thriller from the World of Government Coverups

When a sadistic government agent from a top-secret group within the National Security Agency gets to define who’s a threat to the nation and who’s not, you have to expect a fair amount of bloodshed.  And that’s what you get with The Scorpion: Metamorphosis of Smoke.  Stephen Harris, Senior Director of the NSA is our villain, a man who never found a problem he couldn’t fix with some combination of torture and assassination.  Opposing him are two characters from the first book in the series:  Jack Arthur, retired NSA operative, and Bruce Herdino, his successor in exposing government coverups.  Joining those two is a new character, Agent Monica Deverow.  As you’ll find, she can take care of herself … and then some.

As I mentioned that this is the second in a series, I should note that this book is standalone.  Part of Herdino’s motivation in this novel stems from his losses in the first book – friends who have gone missing, relatives who are under virtual house arrest.  But author John Autero provides enough background from the previous story to understand what drives Herdino in this one.  In fact, with the combination of his worries about friends and family, his loyalty to his new compatriots, and his desire to do what’s right, Herdino emerges as a relatively well-nuanced figure.

In addition to relentless action and good character development, this thriller offers a nice mix of possible, advanced capabilities and some more futuristic tech.  Using maglev drives (electromagnetic catapults) to put payloads into earth orbit is an example of the former – something that has been considered but yet to be developed.  At the other end of this spectrum are massive infrastructures built by alien races.  But even the aforementioned magnetic drive is shrouded in some mystery.  How else do you explain no public awareness of a structure that has to be hundreds of miles in length and that costs billions of dollars?

Overall, The Scorpion: Metamorphosis of Smoke gives the reader plenty of action and some well-developed characters, while the technical aspects of this thriller run from possibly near-future to imaginative fantasy.  It’s a fun mix.

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Cemetery Road by Greg Iles

Damaged Characters and Melodrama Dominate this “Thriller”

Perhaps as much as a quarter of Greg Iles’ 600-page Cemetery Road is consumed by the backstories of three main characters:  Marshall McEwan, Jet Turner, and Paul Matheson.  They suffer through emotional tragedies ranging from abandonment by a father – true to some degree for all three – to post traumatic stress disorder.  Those pages also detail the relationships among them and a tangled web it is, ranging from first loves to friendships forged in war.  Via these histories, the characters become quite nuanced, especially Marshall.  But developed and likeable aren’t the same and none achieve that status.  Marshall is perhaps the closest and yet, he lets Jet marry Paul because the time isn’t right for him.  But then, he starts an affair with her when he returns to his hometown.  There are only so many bad decisions in adulthood that can be blamed on a traumatic upbringing and Marshall crosses that line for me.

Marshall is also the character who makes less than complimentary remarks about the Trump administration.  What else would you expect from a liberal news reporter?  While I thought it was a good way for Iles to develop Marshall’s character, many readers have objected, complaining that these are Iles’ political views.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but if you find a fictional character speaking against a US president distasteful, be forewarned.

In general terms, the plot is Marshall seeking justice for a murdered man pitted against an amorphous group of wealthy, ruthless businessmen, the Poker Club.  Paul is heir apparent to his father’s (Max’s) seat in the club, while Jet has access through her marriage to Paul.  And in general terms, the plot drags, even though there is action.  The opening scene, for example, is a murder and later, there is an interrogation that is quite tense.  But these few pages almost disappear in a lengthy book that is dominated by scheming to get the upper hand, then counter-scheming when that plan is blocked, then counter-counter-scheming ….  You get the idea.  There is a wealth of speculation about what might happen if someone did something, but very little action to see what occurs.  And the basis for all this speculation?  It’s often half-truths or complete lies that are later exposed.  Dominance in these largely theoretical clashes isn’t just fleeting; it’s often an illusion.  And by the end, the shifts in loyalties and reversals of power come so fast, it’s difficult to find or follow the reasons and harder yet, to care about them.

Overall, Cemetery Road relies heavily on damaged characters and emotional turmoil to supply tension and keep the pages turning.  If that’s your cup of tea, then this book could be your Darjeeling.  If not, then find a more traditional thriller.

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Share in this author’s true story of discovery – of ADHD and of herself

In the book ADHD: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, author Nico Genes shares her story of meeting and befriending a single mother and her young son.  It chronicles her early experiences with them, marked by frayed nerves, exhaustion, and hurt feelings when the child can’t seem to focus or hold still for more than a few moments.  It also describes some unacceptable behavior by a teacher and a principal.  Hopefully, that section represents an isolated pocket of indifference and lack of knowledge, as health organizations estimate between five and ten percent of all children suffer from the condition; otherwise, there are a lot of children being marginalizing by the educational system.  Eventually, the young man is diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the doctor adding that the mother probably has the same condition.  The book is also a story of the author’s growth, as she comes to recognize new qualities in herself as a result of the friendship.  “This new part of me enjoyed the smell of a lavender field rather than the scent of the most expensive perfume. I was now living for the moment, and one benefit of this was it helped me get through the other less pleasant times.”

Some of the book is descriptive prose, generally to establish the setting – often near the sea with the sun, sand, and warm, salty breezes.  But most of the book is either a glimpse into the author’s philosophy on life or an account of her experiences with her friends.  The former is quite positive and sunny, as you might guess from the title.  The latter describes the challenges, growth, and development of the characters in direct, simple prose.  It almost feels like something from a diary, except for the dialog.

While there is no cure for ADHD (as of the time of this review), there are treatments to help manage the symptoms ranging from medication to behavioral therapies.  And while I’m not suggesting the author should have changed the nature of her book – it was not intended as a self-help guide – some of its current content seems too fatalistic, e.g., “He may repeatedly get in trouble for having a cluttered room, even after being told to tidy it up. I know now that this is beyond him.”  While patience and acceptance are clearly part of the solution, behavioral change is often possible.  Well-structured environments with clear responsibilities, both at home and at school, have helped many children with ADHD.  So, while the book is correct in saying, “Some things are written in our genes, and can’t be changed” that doesn’t mean parents have no recourse.

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Redemption Point by Candice Fox

Vivid Writing, Interesting Characters, but the Plot Was Disappointing

Redemption Point has two plot lines, each getting about the same play in numbers of pages.  First, there is the wrongly-accused, former Australian police detective now turned PI Ted Conkaffey.  He would like to clear his name but feels it would be too painful, and so, he struggles to live with the shame and guilt until it blows over.  Eventually, he gets nudged into the investigation of his own crime, setting up the finale.  Parallel to that thread, Ted and Amanda Pharrell, Ted’s quirky partner in the PI business, get hired to investigate a double homicide at a local bar.  On it, they work with Pip Sweeney, a newly minted, Detective Inspector who is in charge of the case and who is battling her own emotional demons.

The book contains many beautifully written scenes with this cast of damaged characters, but unfortunately, those evocative bits of prose implement a plot that’s poorly conceived and rife with implausibility.  Take for instance the living arrangements of Ted Conkaffey and Dale Bingley, the father of the girl Ted supposedly attacked.  They live together.  If that isn’t strange enough, Dale learns Ted’s email password.  Ted knows but doesn’t change it, making the end of this part of the story totally predictable.  Or another example – Pip has inherited a double homicide that brings in detectives from neighboring cities.  But who does she bond with?  An accused and much hated pedophile (Ted) and a nearly equally disliked, convicted murderer (Amanda).  Why author Fox created this unlikely team only becomes clear in the end, but it’s not nearly worth the cost in lost plot credibility.

But while the plot disappointed, the writing didn’t.  From the opening line – “There were predators beyond the wire” – I was hooked.  And although authors spend a disproportionate amount of time on the first chapter, the writing remained vivid throughout the novel. There is, for example, a scene where Pip and Amanda, the latter immaculately dressed in an evening grown, go on a girl’s night out.  Amanda doesn’t like cars, so they get to their destination on bicycles, Amanda riding barefoot through the rain forest with her high heels hooked on the handlebar.  Fox’s writing does complete justice to this bizarre scene, painting an image that’s hard to forget.  The way the characters are developed in the book is interesting more than exceptional.  Amanda, for example, is something of a crime-solving savant who lacks a grasp of social graces and human emotion.  It makes her behavior entertaining, if not exactly easy to understand.  And every main character having emotional skeletons was a bit over the top; a character without a background to hide might have ended up being the most memorable, if there had been one.  Similarly, pacing has its good and bad points.  Each scene flows well, but after a while, its clear that many do almost nothing to move the plot forward.

Overall, readers who like vividly-written, character-driven mysteries, particularly ones featuring emotionally damaged persons, should pick up a copy of Redemption Point.  But if you’re looking for a tightly woven plot as part of the read, this book probably won’t satisfy.

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Split Second by Douglas E. Richards

A Thought-Provoking, Well-Constructed Technothriller

Split Second is a tense, fast-paced technothriller involving a capability that in the context of all the books and movies about time travel sounds rather mundane – the ability to move an object a mere split second into the past.  I mean, what injustice could you right, what fortune could you win in a split second?  None.  But mundane it is not, as author Douglas Richards takes the science behind time travel, extends it in fictional but believable ways, and ends up with a story that’s not only adrenaline-charged, but also thought-provoking.

The pace is excellent, with ambushes following chases following gun battles following double-crosses.  There are a number of twists in the story, some quite surprising, others a bit more predictable.  But overall, they are more than adequate to keep the reader on their mental toes.  The characters are likeable, but like most thrillers, a bit stereotypical, e.g., the computer specialist who can hack into anything but who can create encryption so secure that no one else can break it.  They are also quite intelligent, which may partially explain why they talk the way they do, e.g., “… you haven’t given me any reason to doubt its veracity.  You said you confiscated the cell phones of two men.”  Even so, the dialog is too stiff and feels less than realistic in places.

When no one’s life is in peril, the story turns to the science behind time travel.  And lest you think that would be dry and boring, it’s not.  As one of the characters says, “Time is a nightmare.  No subject is so utterly intuitive, and also counter-intuitive, at the same time.”  Richards hits the highlights of theories about time travel to reveal how mind-boggling and disaster-prone it might be.  I greatly enjoyed this part of the story.  My only quibble is a small one – some of that dialog is protracted and the book might have been better served by working more of this scientific context into the plot.  The same could be said about the hero’s view of the lack of consistency in politician’s support for the fight on terrorism.  It was long-winded enough it began to feel preachy, rather than just a look into the attitudes of our protagonist.

Overall, Split Second is a superior technothriller with excellent action and mind-bending science.  In my view, that’s an unbeatable combination.

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Blossom Blood by Carlyle Labuschagne

A Fast-Paced Fantasy with a Twist (and a few typos) 

Blossom Blood hooks you quickly with a car crash that claims the lives of three people.  Asher Blossom is thrown clear but must deal with the pain and guilt of the incident that took his parents and his girlfriend.  Fast forward three years and Asher is returning home from school abroad.  And although he’s been in contact with his siblings and his uncle who has been raising them, he’s taken aback by what he finds – a house in disrepair, relatives he hardly recognizes, and a tattooed babysitter he’s sure is a bad influence on them all.

As author Labuschagne peels back the layers of the mystery onion in this novella, we come to realize that not all is as it seems to Asher.  The Blossom family has a history – a history of magic, some of it dark. Soon, he’s tempted to use one of the dark spells to return to his past, correct the accident that has eaten at him for the last three years.  It’s a fast-paced, fun story.  And as the finale unfolds, the story takes a twist.  While it didn’t seem a completely “clean” re-casting of events (i.e., it left some questions hanging), it was clever.

The distractions to this otherwise engaging story are small, but unfortunately, somewhat numerous.  There are a number of incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, spelling mistakes, grammar errors, and the like.  Some produce a bit of unintended humor, e.g., “he slipped on his jeans and gathered his laundry from off the dam bathroom floor.” (Cursing at the floor’s not going to help.)  A few created something of a double meaning, e.g., “That is not an accrual word.”  (Accrual is a word, but not the one for the context.)  Still others showed a lack of attention to detail, e.g., “Octavius, Brooke, Milla and the twins looked eager. The four of them staring …”  (Four? Or five?)  Obviously, these are minor and nothing a good edit wouldn’t fix, but my pauses in momentary confusion were a bit too frequent for my taste.

Overall, if you can look beyond the writing mechanics, which are rough in places, Blossom Blood is an entertaining, well-paced short read.

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Nights Arose by Andrea Roche

An Opportunity for Some Fun, Imaginative Escapism

Interested in escaping for an afternoon or a couple of evenings?  Do you like fantasies with magic, both good and evil?  Want a bit of romance for some added spice in your story?  If so, Nights Arose is perfect for you.

The novel is an inventive telling of a battle between good and evil – good in the form of our heroine, Nessarose (Arose) Du Mouchelle; evil in the guise of Morel, a Voodoo sorceress.  Over the pages of the book, Arose comes to understand her magical powers and how they are magnified by a mysterious opalescent stone called the Gem of the Red Spirit.  Morel is intent on stealing the stone and using it to open the gates to the netherworld.  That, Arose realizes, will spell the end of humanity.  With the stakes set, the battle wages on in ever increasing drama and fury.  The encounters with Morel’s brother and chief henchman were particularly intense, ranging from sexual assaults to attacks from the man transformed to beast.  All of the violence, however, was handled well – intense without being graphic.

The author also weaves a romantic thread into the drama, with the physical aspects of Arose’s coming of age often downplayed in favor of visions or daydreams.  I found the approach refreshing.  Unfortunately, in places, these threads were not well coordinated, with life-and-death scenes interrupted by an amorous encounter.  Both the drama and the romance became somewhat diluted as a result.

There were some inconsistencies in the story, ranging from low-level details to broader characterizations.  An example of the former is the description of Arose’s hair color as both “ashen” and blonde, the former description not explained by age as it was used when she was young.  Or, as another example, a character named Louis was occasionally called Louise.  None of these are major, obviously, but they can unintentionally distract.  At a broader level, Arose’s character seemed inconsistent.  Within the span of five pages, she accused the same man of trying to kill her and of being her soulmate, saying they had a “special connection.”  She was also extremely forward-thinking for the time (the 1600s), freeing all the slaves on her family’s sugar plantation.  But she wouldn’t consider marrying below her station, stating that a free servant was someone to be used sexually and discarded.  That sentiment is almost undoubtedly a nod to the prevailing attitude at the time, but in a story that is not particularly era-appropriate in speech and action, being consistent here made our heroine seem a bit petty.  In the end, I never felt I knew Arose.

Overall, another edit to clean up some of these inconsistencies and to take care of the small, mechanical issues such as incomplete sentences or multiple points of view in the same paragraph would have improved the readability of this otherwise imaginative story.

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The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

A Questionable Plot Bogs Down in Repetitive Trips Down Memory Lane

The Escape Artist has Jim "Zig" Zigarowski, a mortician at Dover Air Force Base, sticking steadfastly to his creed to help the families of our fallen military – a truly honorable calling.  Part of his pledge to them is to verify the identity of every victim.  So, when he’s expecting the body of Nola Smith, a person he knows, but someone else is in the casket, Zig ignores the advice of all his friends and the orders of his superiors in order to investigate.  It’s a premise that promises tense action and unexpected twists, which it delivers.  Unfortunately, the story also gets bogged down in prolonged bouts with angst and lengthy trips down memory lane.

One area that lives up to expectations is Meltzer’s development of the background of Nola.  She’s a keen observer of humanity, a hard-as-nails loner who rarely speaks and even less often, finds happiness in what she sees.  Her extreme personality is made more believable by Meltzer’s use of flashbacks to a childhood filled with brutality and neglect.  Each time a chapter started, ‘Ten years ago.  This was Nola at sixteen,’ I would find myself tensing, preparing for the next emotional gut-punch.  Her’s was a childhood that no one should experience.

Meltzer uses the same technique to illuminate the background of Zig, but much less effectively.  That’s because his emotional scar comes from the death of his daughter, a truly devastating loss.  But unlike Nola where each flashback is one more layer of the onion, Zig laments the same thing, over and over.  Even the most horrific, tear-jerker scenes can only work so many times and Meltzer was considerably over that limit.  He also has Zig reminiscing about his life too often.  To get an idea how far this went, one of the final scenes involves a showdown between Zig and the villain and it occurs in a storehouse on Dover AFB.  In the midst of this life-and-death battle, Zig starts thinking about how he learned on the antiquated equipment stored there.  Seriously?  And when asked why he is taking such an enormous risk for a young woman he hardly knows, he talks about his commitment to the fallen and his dead child, but admits he doesn’t really know.  If he doesn’t understand his motivation, how could the reader?

Finally, the plot is iffy in places.  Several gunshot victims are hardier to kill than reason would dictate.  One, shot at point blank range in the back of the head, crawls back to his office to later speak to Zig.  But even more fundamental than that, the entire story rests on a coverup when there is absolutely no reason for one – Nola was nothing more than an innocent bystander to the corruption being hidden by a plane crash.  To me, that was the real mystery of the story – why did the bad guys do things that would have raised red flags all through the process when there is no need?

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Gene Born: Awakening (The Koci Hybrid Series Book 1) by Lilly Griffin

A Front-Row Seat to Humankind’s Capacity for Cruelty

Do you know what happens when you modify the genes of a human, mix in some DNA from a couple of animal species and some from an alien race (the Koci), and then let an Artificial Intelligence (AI) control the body’s muscles?  Well, me either.  But then, neither did the scientists in Gene Born: Awakening, a story that takes place on a dying earth circa 2054.  And if experimenting on humans without the foggiest about the outcome seems heartless, that’s just the tip of the inhumanity iceberg for these men.  They kill and maim and torture their test subjects, their only concern being to leave enough of them to be slaves in whatever new world they find in outer space.  It’s a tale well deserving of the author’s warning in the synopsis:  this story contains content that may trigger readers sensitive to violence and references to sexual assault.  Potential reader, be advised.

Sloan, our heroine, is aided by a small number of other test subjects and together, they are planning an escape from their cruel, caged existence.  It’s a powerful storyline, one that easily incited my ire against the scientists and aroused my allegiance to these helpless victims.  And even when not immersed in reading, my concerns about the theme of this book are small.  The primary one is that these scientists threw a wide range of technology at Sloan and her colleagues – AI, gene therapy, nanotechnology, and something that produced changes in basic mental functioning.  These fields, however, are dealt with superficially and sometimes, incorrectly.  You will need to take the science with a very large grain of salt.  But again, the overall theme is strong enough to overcome this issue.

What is more difficult to overlook, however, are the mechanics of the writing.  The author noted in the front of the book that commas are “the bane of my existence.”  And considering the number of sentences that puzzled me, I’d say that’s true.  Consider, for example, “They and the remaining test subjects were to be prepped for shipment over the next two days, and that they needed to move any final equipment, they would need into the labs on the ships.”  But the author also struggles with verb tense; it often changes within a paragraph and in some cases, within a sentence.  Additionally, the book is filled with telling, e.g., ‘I was furious with my captors’ (although the language is usually more colorful than that.)  But sections that made you feel Sloan’s anger, her heart thundering in her chest, her jaw clenched so tight she feared she would break a tooth?  Those are rare.  Fortunately, these are limitations that an editor and a rewrite would easily fix.

Overall, Gene Born: Awakening taps into a powerful theme – humankind’s capacity for cruelty to their own species.  A less stereotypic treatment of the science involved in the story would help, but the greatest room for improvement is in a thorough edit.

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Hear Me by Virginia Babcock

Action-Laden Story that Could Use More Credible Threats to Life and Love

Madeline (Maddy) Quincy, the heroine of Hear Me, gets visions from her departed ancestors, a group she calls her ‘grannies’.  Sometimes they take control of her body and reveal hard-truths that Maddy would rather avoid, like announcing a bride’s pregnancy with the best man in the midst of her wedding ceremony.  Sometimes, the visions are just helpful.  She’d straightened her hair that morning so the images were warning her that a shampoo was necessary.”  But often, the grannies warned of impending danger, visions that drove the story.  There are both good and bad aspects of this plot mechanism.  It was always a bit startling when, in the midst of an otherwise tranquil scene, Maddy would suddenly say, ‘Jacob, the bad guys are coming.  Get your gun.’  But the downside is that this foreshadowing of both the threat and the solution reduced the drama.  Then, in the aftermath, the events leading up to the incident are described as a flashback, e.g., the police “… informed him that eleven staff members had been shot, and four had died.”  Letting the reader experience the threat as it unfolds would make Maddy’s pronouncements less startling, but overall, it would also render the situations more gut-wrenching.

I enjoyed the way author Babcock painted the story’s setting, tapping into what are common memes in the region (Idaho-Utah).  For example, the two primary families involved, the Quincy’s and the Bronson’s, are divided along religious lines; one family is Catholic, the other Mormon.  That difference, of course, produces inevitable difficulties in the children’s romantic interests that cross family lines.  The pace of the book is also excellent.  Our heroine and her love interest hardly have a moment of rest before the next vision and an attack, with Maddy often taking the brunt of them.  Twice, she ends up in coma and a third incident leaves her severely beaten and bruised.

My engagement in both the action-adventure and the romantic aspects of the story suffered, however, because the threats to life and love didn’t seem credible.  For example, the primary bad guys, a “Salt Lake-Provo burglary ring” (later described as robbers) sent a single sniper into a compound defended by three men with rifles and covered by a drone flying reconnaissance for them.  Not smart.  Once the burglars/robbers were identified, they wanted to “… take out any witnesses before they disappeared,” so they went after a police officer, her family, Maddy, and Jacob.  Killing a police officer and her family is a questionable tactic, but none of these people had witnessed anything.  Maddy had obtained DNA that matched some found at the scene of a burglary, but killing everyone wouldn’t destroy this lead.  As for the romantic tension, Jacob’s reason for leaving Maddy was never clear to me.  It’s difficult to feel the sting of lost love when the ‘why’ for the separation is vague.

Overall, Hear Me is loaded with action and contains some, sweet romantic moments.  Both, however, suffer when the foe seems less than credible and the romance is on the rocks from unknown causes.

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Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

The plot of Dark Matter is driven by the concept of alternate worlds.  Jason Dessen wakes up in one after being abducted at gunpoint – one in which he isn’t married, doesn’t have a son.  And with the reference to Jason’s occupation in physics, you might guess there is an underlying scientific explanation (of sorts).  But whether the synopsis evoked thoughts of Schrodinger’s cat or only seemed an interesting science-fiction MacGuffin, one thing is certain – the concept enables nonstop action as you explore strange realities.  It also creates mind-bending paradoxes; what does it even mean to meet yourself in an alternate world?  But lest these references to science cause you to hesitate, let me say that Crouch does an admirable job of making the theory accessible.

The book is very well written, evoking clear images of the various utopias and dystopias visited.  The pace is excellent, as moments of respite are followed by life-threatening peril.  Twist follows twist, as the implications of multiple worlds start making you ponder your own life.  It’s a story that will make you think about what’s important and what’s not, because even with the nearly insurmountable challenges that Jason faces, this is also a book about being human.  And while this is a gross oversimplification, the way Crouch brings this aspect of the book to the fore makes it atypical of a technothriller.  It’s not just a race against a looming, technology-based catastrophe, but also an exploration of choice, commitment, and family.  I loved this aspect of the book.

The potential reader should be aware of a couple of things.  First, placement of this book in the time travel genre on Amazon is technically incorrect and perhaps misleading.  Although some of the alternate worlds visited are technologically advanced, all are visited in the same time period.  Second, Jason is a gifted physicist who early in his career was developing the technology that now imprisons him.  And yet, he didn’t recognize what was happening for several chapters.  His panic seems more a writing ploy to maintain tension than something consistent with the story and that was a slight distraction.  But the disconnect is minor compared to the overall, thought-provoking nature of the work.

In sum, Dark Matter is engrossing with the enigmas it poses and the constant battle Jason wages against long odds.  It’s also a story about paths not taken and what we value in life, making this a book that should not be missed.

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Memory Man by David Baldacci

A Taut Mystery Solved by a Detective with an Unusual Gift/Curse

In a few reviews, I’ve criticized books for portraying memory as if it was video; you find the right episode and memory plays in vivid, accurate detail.  For most of us, that’s not the case, not even close.  But for Amos Decker, the protagonist of Memory Man, it is.  As a result of a vicious hit on a football field, Decker develops a condition known as hyperthymesia – the ability to remember every detail of every minute of every day.  So, when the book begins with the brutal murder of Decker’s brother-in-law, wife, and young daughter, the reader soon realizes how this gift is also a curse.  The image of his slain family will never, ever leave his mind.

With the ability to replay events and compare them for inconsistencies and patterns, Decker had become a successful police detective.  But with the murder of his family, he lost the will to do anything but subsist; that is, until a demented, serial killer came looking for him.  Drawn into the investigation of a hideous crime ripped from today’s headlines, Decker begins replaying the incident in exacting detail, over and over.  That part of the story might have become tedious had Baldacci not kept the twists and the murders coming.  Additionally, Decker also lost much of his connection to humanity – his capability for empathy and sympathy – so almost everything he does and says is cryptic.  Together, the twists, the action, and Decker’s obscure behavior keep the suspense high and the story flowing.

For the bulk of the book, I enjoyed the interplay of a taut mystery and the enhanced memory abilities of Amos Decker.  But the mystery is solved several chapters before the book ends, the remainder plodding toward a somewhat predictable finale.  While there is a final twist, it is deduced by Decker with the flimsiest of clues and serves to reveal the villain’s motive, which is a bit implausible.  The journey was excellent; the destination, however, left something to be desired.

Overall, Memory Man is a great introduction to the series and to Amos Decker, a detective with an unusual gift/curse.  For me, the mystery and how he solved it outweighed the final resolution, which is somewhat disappointing.

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Righteous Assassin: A Mike Stoneman Thriller by Kevin Chapman

A Familiar Crime-Thriller Plot Implemented with Some Gruesome Action

Righteous Assassin features a dinosaur of a police detective (Detective Mike Stoneman) who has seen it all.  He’s partnered with a young, ambitious rookie.  Over the course of the story, he develops a romantic interest in an intelligent, attractive woman.  And of course, he has a brilliant, psychotic, serial killer to chase.  Sound familiar?  If you’re a reader of crime thrillers, these threads should be.  And so, the question becomes, how effectively are they implemented by the specifics of this book?  For the most part, I’m happy to say, quite well with one ‘it depends’ on the list.  That last factor is the author’s use of violence to provide much of the tension.  You only need look at the first three sentences of the book’s synopsis to know that rather bizarre deaths play an important role in the story.  The descriptions of those assassinations are often explicit, which may make the violence over-the-top for some readers.  Be forewarned.

There are many factors, however, where I don’t need to equivocate.  The writing is excellent, with a good mix of believable dialog and descriptive storytelling.  The main characters – Stoneman, Detective Jason Dickson (the partner), and Dr. Michelle McNeill (the love interest and Medical Examiner) – are well developed, although the times Dr. McNeill ‘giggled’ seemed a bit out of place.  The pacing was excellent.  As the killer planned his murders for the last Saturday of the month, there was always a countdown to make the detectives sweat and to keep our stomachs in a knot.  And there was even some humor that I enjoyed, such as Dickson trying to help Stoneman with his budding relationship with McNeill.  But other quips, particularly some of the stationhouse humor, seemed a bit juvenile and crass.

Of the factors that could have used attention, a lack of realism in police procedure would be the top of my list.  For example, knowing the killer had planned three escape routes from one assassination site, the four detectives and two building security officers covered exactly one entrance … and then, let the door slam.  Of course, the killer escaped.  Or in another place, the detectives knew the killer had been in the Army and they had a sample of his blood and yet, they never checked the military’s DNA database.  Many of the leads they pursued, on the other hand, seemed destined to failure from the start – like tracing a name that was surely an alias.  And finally, some of their breakthroughs seemed a bit too convenient, the connection to the Plagues of Egypt being an example.  Even so, these limitations didn’t outweigh a very dynamic, gut-wrenching story.

Overall, Righteous Assassin is a somewhat prototypical, crime thriller that sets itself apart with excellent writing, good character development, edge-of-your-seat pacing, and significant, sometimes explicit violence.  With greater attention to police procedure, its appeal could have been increased even further.

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Never Enough by Isabella Adams

Another Genre-Blending Tale from the Pen of Isabella Adams

Never Enough finds the series protagonist, Dr. Andromeda (Andie) Markos, her gal pals, and her wanna-be fiancé, Sean, embroiled in a tale of family secrets revealed and addiction-driven drama.  As with the two previous books in the series, the camaraderie and unqualified support among the women is extremely well portrayed.  Likewise, the cultural constraints of Andie’s Greek heritage strike home, the expectations of her mother and Andie’s own conflicted feelings between old and new traditions being center stage.  When you read the book, you’ll feel the muggy days of this small, Florida, coastal town (Tarpon Springs), as well as the sand between your toes.  Adams paints these scenes well.  And finally, the author deals with the topic of addiction with such an authoritative voice that I could not help but suspect there is something autobiographical in the Dr. Markos’ character.   But in guiding potential readers to this book, things become murkier, as Adams bends the rules a bit on her chosen genre, a cozy mystery, while putting emotional drama center stage.  It’s a blend that gives the story a fresh voice and can be engaging, if the combination works for you.

The book stays true to a cozy, downplaying both sex and violence.  The former is generally behind closed doors, while the latter is somewhat intense during a hostage scene, but is still handled with restraint and care.  It was the mystery, however, that gave me pause.  The book involves a cold case, but the killer is revealed in the prologue.  No mystery there.  There is a hostage situation, but it’s resolved quickly and midway through the story.  Even the extent of the ‘sins of the father’ is thin as a mystery, as the clues which were intended to be vague left only two possibilities, only one of which seemed viable for the series.  In the end, the mystery seems to be whether Sean’s family secrets will destroy his dreams for the future – his career and his hoped-for life with Andie.

While the truth that’s revealed is definitely something that would rock anyone’s world, to my mind, the drama is overplayed in places.  Characters showed desperation around issues that were largely resolved.  They were prone to jumping to the worst possible conclusion.  Regarding Andie’s feeling about Sean, for example, Stacy said it best.  “… perhaps you should wait to talk to him about this before delegating him to the ‘vile betrayer’ bin.”  And the characters never seem able to make a decision – “I can’t speak my mind, because I’m not sure what my mind is saying.”  That’s Stacy’s thought but it seemed to describe everyone.  Too often, confusion was my reaction to a character’s emotions rather than empathy.  But as they say about cars, your mileage may vary.

Overall, if you’re looking for a cozy mystery featuring warm solidarity among a group of likeable women and a depiction of Greek tradition transplanted to a small, Florida, coastal town that rings true, you can’t go wrong with Never Enough.

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The Coven Murders (The Inspector Sheehan Mysteries Book 3) by Brian O’Hare

Mix of a Police Procedural and the Occult (Seriously – and Seriously Scary)

If you are prone to check a book’s genre, as I do when seeking a new read, you may do a doubletake when you view The Coven Murders.  It’s listed in the occult and the police procedural genres, the latter having a focus on investigative processes.  Are we talking about arresting demons?  Actually, that guess is not far off, as author Brian O’Hare has penned a unique and intriguing mix of detailed detective work in pursuit of some bad guys, not all of whom may be human.  And if you’re thinking that could be amusing, you’re at the wrong end of the spectrum.  It’s bone chilling, truly scary, without resorting to graphic details of ritualistic murders or grotesque beasts.  Not many authors can do that.

One of the first things you’ll notice about the book is the author’s writing style; it’s elegant, evocative.  Consider this description from the first chapter.  “An atavistic dread paralyses the coven members, shocking them into a silent, transfixed tableau,” as opposed to, ‘they were so scared they couldn’t move.’  The book is so eloquently written that literary fiction could be added to the list of genres, giving further pause to the potential reader.  I will admit, however, that in a few places the flowery prose and the gruesome story seemed in discord and some ‘plain talk’ might have worked better, but that was an extremely minor concern.

The method O’Hare uses to manage the plot’s mystery is nothing short of outstanding.  From the start, the reader knows more than the protagonist, Chief Inspector Sheehan, about a 21-year-old cold case – the bones of a young woman found in a shallow grave near the ruins of an abandoned church.  All the time, we’re wondering, when will he and his team get the break they need?  But at the same time, we as readers know there is more to the mystery because now, coven members are dying.  It’s this constant, mental dissonance between willing the police forward and realizing that their path is littered with dark, evil unknowns that make the pages turn themselves long into the night.

Overall, my advice to the reader interested in crime mysteries and/or books involving the occult is, don’t be baffled by the somewhat incongruent genres of The Coven Murders.  The story is, in fact, a great mix of the two and not to be missed.

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Perax Frontier by Alistair Potter

Likeable Characters in a Taut Mystery Set in a Fascinating Outer-Space World

How do you fight crime without the benefit of electricity and electronics?  No computers.  No phones.  No cars (as we know them).  That’s the quandary facing Sheriff Artur Perax in Perax Frontier.  That, and the fact that he’s sitting on a potentially lethal boundary between two universes and dealing with complex, government bureaucracies on both sides.  And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a mix of alien races, each with their own characteristics and capabilities.  If you’re thinking author Alistair Potter had his world-building work cut out for him, I’d have to agree.  And for the most part, he does it well, describing technologies like phonographs driven by compressed air and aliens who read human body language like a book, but don’t understand our slang.

Character development in the book is a plus.  Most of the figures have personalities that jump off the page, in part because several aren’t human.  But even our species is well represented in Reven and her collusion with Artur, or the larger-than-life Langford Jollity Martupp (the name says it all).  Throughout the book, the dialog feels a bit formal.  Some of that is undoubtedly intentional, illustrating the complexities of dealing with multiple bureaucracies and several races.  Artur’s internal thoughts and some of the aliens’ misinterpretations of human idioms, however, reduce the stuffiness by introducing some rather dry humor.

Pacing is a bit inconsistent and this is the book’s primary limitation.  The story begins with a hook – Artur’s friend, Imperial Ambassador, Madam Lintsa Kroft, is killed in an explosion and a dramatic chase follows.  But then, world-building starts.  And while the end product is fascinating, too much is packed into the first half of the book, causing the story to drag.  The author would have been better served by sprinkling this information throughout the tale and perhaps, reducing some technical information (although I tended to like it).  The second half picks up considerably and the ending is solid, closing out all the threads quite cleverly and with emotion.

Overall, Perax Frontier builds a fascinating, if somewhat detailed, outer-space world with the bulk of the action in the second half.

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Hopatcong Vision Quest by Steve Lindahl

A Murder Mystery with Some Unusual Investigative Techniques

Hopatcong Vision Quest is a murder mystery that starts fast with the killing of two women.  Subsequently, the police conclude the deaths were accidental, leaving the families of the victims (Ryan and Diane) to solve the crime.  Believing that Ryan’s daughter may have witnessed her mother’s death, they turn to a hypnotist to help her retrieve this repressed memory.  What they get from the process, however, is much more.  It’s information from their past lives in a Native American village hundreds of years ago.  Those lives differ in many ways from today, but in one important respect – the commission of the crime – they are identical.  Those glimpses of the distant past become the basis for solving the present-day crime.

The book is excellently written and maintains an engaging pace.  Each hypnotic regression adds one more clue to the killer’s identity in the present.  At the same time, the current-day villainy isn’t complete, with the threat continuing to evolve.  The characters (both now and in the past) are well developed.  I found the villain both unexpected and particularly contemptible.  About the only downside here was keeping the characters straight.  Each person/spirit existed in two timeframes, so each had two names.  Additionally, the family trees and interrelationships are a bit complex.

But the primary factor in the story that gave me pause was the use of hypnotism to recover memories.  Memories are not videotapes where you can fast forward to a specific time; they’re more like scrapbooks where we pull bits and pieces of sensory experience, some of which are unrelated or have been modified, to reconstruct what we swear is the truth.  Of course, I could/should have taken the use of hypnotism as part of the fiction, but then, the story becomes less compelling.  I also realize that this issue will probably not bother many others.  It’s a bit like the strict grammarian who slams a book closed after the second, misused comma (a predisposition I don’t have).  So, if you’re not a student of human thought and memory, the hypnotic regressions shouldn’t interrupt your enjoyment of the tale.

Overall, Hopatcong Vision Quest is an intriguing blend of mystery, spiritualism, and Native American life with a bit of free license in the working of memory.

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Tainted Luck by Cynthia Austin

A Mixture of Humor and Horror in a Fast, Enjoyable Read

Tainted Luck features a seventeen-year-old high school student, Levi, who worries that he’s “… invisible when it came to the female species” and that he’s a distant second in his dad’s life.  Then, we have the cute cheerleader, Stacy, the object of Levi’s dreams if only he had the courage to act on them.  And finally, there’s the enigmatic, gothic, new girl in school, Taylor, who attaches herself to Levi, never taking no for an answer.  Sound a bit like the setup for a typical story about teenage angst?  Tainted Luck is that … and more.  Taylor’s darkness turns black.  Is it witchcraft or just a crush taken too far?  Levi, on the other hand, starts off annoyed with Taylor, describing her as a gawky scarecrow with a shaggy, black mane but later, as “mesmerizing”.  Has Taylor bewitched him?  Or is this just the normal course of male hormones?  And Stacy actually seems interested in Levi … or is this just part of his delusion as well?  It’s an enjoyable undertaking to find out.

At 125 pages and with a plot that progresses steadily, the book is a quick read.  The bite-sized chapters make it seem even faster – I always wanted to read just one more, making ‘The End’ sneak up on me sooner than I expected.  One of the more enjoyable parts of the book is the author’s unusual and generally humorous similes, e.g., “I walked through the exit doors with Taylor trailing me like a paparazzi in a mini- Cooper.”  Or “she had latched onto my side again like a school of piranhas sucking on a sea cow.”  I certainly found myself smirking more than once at these strange yet descriptive, visual images.

The downside of this style, however, is that the same irreverence continues into the grislier scenes.  I’ve never been a big fan of a super-macho, male protagonist ‘laughing in the face of death.’  It doesn’t work much better when it’s a 17-year-old, blonde cheerleader who wants to know if her murderous captor wants her baton because “I know just the place you can shove it.”  Scare me or make me laugh, but both at the same time?  No thanks.  I also had some difficulty picturing the characters.  Part of this muddle is the evolving nature of Levi’s image of Taylor, Stacy, and himself.  But even so, I was never sure what they were like until the end and so, didn’t develop much attachment.  And finally, I found my thoughts pulled from the plot by a typo or grammar misstep more often than I would like.  One more edit would have helped. 

Overall, Tainted Luck is a fast-paced, enjoyable read filled with humorous quips and tongue-in-cheek similes … even when, on occasion, they don’t seem to fit the setting.

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The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

A Locked-Door Murder Mystery in a Poorly Conceived Alternate History

The Psychology of Time Travel provides the reader with an alternate history in which four women scientists develop time-travel technology in 1967.  Fifty years later, a fifth woman discovers an unidentified body inside a locked room and becomes obsessed with solving the case, while a sixth woman worries that the dead woman is her grandmother and launches her own investigation.  While this seems considerable grist for a tense, suspenseful mystery, the book falls somewhat short of that goal.  Part of the reason is suggested in the two-sentence summary above – there are a lot of characters (more than just these six).  Additionally, the chapters are short, moving among these individuals and across time periods in an unpredictable sequence of flash forwards and backs, making the story feel choppy.  And finally, the mystery isn’t maintained.  By the midpoint of the book, the victim is known and at three-fourths, the perpetrator.  The rest is tying up loose ends, which is rather dry.

In general, character development is good but with as many people as there are, some are included only to be victims.  Romance between some of the women helps with development, although as is often the case in thrillers and mysteries, the sex is superfluous to the plot and often seems like a means to kill time (pun intended).   The villain was particularly loathe-worthy, as she descends into unbridled narcissism and cruelty.  There are also the usual thought-provoking paradoxes in the concept of time travel.  So, even though in this version of the capability, history cannot be changed, wouldn’t the mere presence of items from the future change its course?

The primary weakness of the book is its alternate version of history.  Time travel would be the most revolutionary and dangerous technology devised by humanity in 1967.  And yet, when the scientists extensively self-experiment (which is improbable to start with) and one develops a mental disturbance that’s caught on camera for the world to see, there is no outcry, no public health group demanding a moratorium on testing.  Rather, the group’s leader ostracizes her, which also fails to generate negative press for her callous treatment of the mentally disturbed, and the technology is commercialized.  Now, with everything from new, life-saving technologies to advanced weaponry just an easy trip into the future, what’s brought back to 2018?  Not much beyond some new types of candy and a few plants that were about to become extinct.  Psychology still uses paper-and-pencil tests and dream interpretation.  The British government doesn’t declare time travel essential to national security, despite the immense threat it poses, leaving the three women to manage it.  There are no foreign spies trying to steal it, no industrial espionage, not even much use of it for personal gain (beyond sex).  The only control against proliferation and misuse is the exorbitant cost of the fuel – 500,000 British pounds for a single piece.  And yet, one of the few commercial uses of the tech is as a child’s toy; it makes a piece of candy disappear by sending it a minute into the future.  With the cost of fuel, it would be a gift that gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘batteries not included’.

Overall, The Psychology of Time Travel provides the reader a decent, if not exceptionally suspenseful mystery.  It’s unfortunate that its alternate history involves inexplicable changes in human perception and significant lapses in public policy, as well as time travel.

I obtained an advance copy of this story from NetGalley without obligation.  I choose to review the book.

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Boston Metaphysical Society: A Storm of Secrets by Madeleine Holly-Rosing

A Disturbing Alternative History … With a Tension-Filled Story to Match

Boston Metaphysical Society: A Storm of Secrets offers us a stark look at a disturbing, alternative history.  Set in 1890s Boston, the world is run by ‘Great Houses’, families devoted to wealth and power at all costs.  The gap between the haves and the have-nots, a concern in our world, has become enormous, with the poorest – the Irish on the south side of Boston – living in appalling poverty.  A rigid, class system, right down to the ‘uniforms’ people wear, defines life.  Free speech has become “… a quaint notion and rarely applied to anyone except those in power.”  And justice?  When a number of these poor disappear, the police simply look the other way.  After all, it’s only the Irish.

Throughout this bleak look at a possible (but thankfully imaginary) world, author Holly-Rosing skillfully manipulates our emotions.  In Elizabeth Weldsmore Hunter, a member of the Weldsmore Great House by birth, we see a glimmer of hope for change.  Accompanying her new husband, Samuel Hunter in starting his own detective agency, she is developing a better understanding of the plight of the poor on whose backs the Great Houses have built their empire.  But even so, when the clothes she wears “… cost more than what the average Bostonian made in their lifetime,” her philanthropic gestures are revealed for what they are … admirable and promising, but rather feeble.  Elizabeth is also learning to control her psychic abilities and soon, she discovers they are the only way to save the missing Irish.  But her quest is filled with danger, as she navigates unfamiliar metaphysical worlds, encounters forces she doesn’t understand, and keeps much of her peril secret because … well, that’s what the Great Houses do.  I found myself alternating between admiration for her courage and determination to save the poor, concern for her welfare, and simply wanting to wash my hands of her if she was going to be so reckless.  Kudos to the author for my emotional exhaustion.

There seemed some small but troubling inconsistencies in the story, things that should follow even in the author’s fantasy world.  For example, psychic abilities were frequently found in the Irish.  How could a group with this capability be so powerless and downtrodden?  Wouldn’t the ability to see the future, read minds, and even take control of another’s body change their plight?  Or, as another example, the ‘Great States of America’ had apparently created a robust and stable monetary system, the root of the power of the Great Houses.  And yet, the government is incapable of creating anything else to deal with its societal woes.  How is that possible?  While minor, these types of irregularities weakened the fabric of plausibility, reminding us this is all make-believe.

Overall, Storm of Secrets provides a bleak look at an imaginary future, providing considerable food in a taut, tension-filled story.

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Sister Witch: The Life of Moll Dyer (Legends of the Family Dyer Book 1) by David W. Thompson

Excellent Historical Fiction with Some Paranormal Spice

Sister Witch is the story of perhaps Maryland’s most famous witch, Moll Dyer.  The novel portrays her as a courageous and determined woman with opinions and beliefs far ahead of her time.  I found myself cheering when she took an unpopular, progressive stand, but also cringing when she took another step toward what I knew to be her fate.  Certainly, she had some unusual beliefs, such as in her ability to create love potions or protection spells.  But they were harmless … at least until other people discovered she held those views.  And when that happened, the woman became the target of suspicion and then, hatred.  Over the course of the story, she was held accountable for everything from still births to season-long droughts.

The first two-thirds of the book is a chance to study the psychology of a unique individual and the sociology of a superstitious and sometimes violent society in which she lived.  And lest I make the novel sound dry and academic, author Thompson makes you feel Moll’s determination and dedication to family as well as her isolation, pain, and finally, her tenuous grasp on reality.  And while I’m no expert on language, the more formal wording of Moll’s speech and thoughts felt realistic to the time and I enjoyed listening to her.  For example, while this observation is still made today, I appreciated the way she (via Thompson) phrased it.  “Men are such poor custodians of the heart, its language is foreign to them.  It is historical fiction at its best.

In the last third or so of the book, the flavor shifts and the supernatural plays a much more prominent role.  The ‘twist,’ if its possible to have one in a story so well-known is that in her need to secure a future for her family, she called upon dark powers.  She no longer sought only protection from her enemies; she desired their downfall.  And in the end, she had to pay the price for those wishes.  Personally, I didn’t need this aspect of the book, but I fully understand why it was included.  To write about the folk legend that is Moll Dyer without reference to the paranormal is to leave the story half told.

Overall, the book is excellent historical fiction, rich in the language, thoughts, and beliefs of the time and the life of one strong, courageous woman wronged by society.  And if you like your historical fiction with a bit of paranormal spice, you’ll love Sister Witch.

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The Steampunk-Electric Puppy (for curious adults only) by PanOrpheus

A novella for which the phrase ‘needless to say’ is never appropriate.

“Cady Miller was 10 years old and in the 4th grade! Needless to say, it was the 25th Century and she lived on the Earth.”

So begins the novella, The Steampunk-Electric Puppy, a story for which the phrase ‘needless to say’ is never appropriate.  That’s because if there is one thing to expect from this book, it’s to be ready for the unexpected.  Sure, as steampunk, its futuristic technology is implemented in equipment reminiscent of nineteenth-century, steam-powered machinery.  And its fashion is the mix of top-hats and tails accessorized with goggles and gears that you might anticipate.  But other than those mainstays of genre, you never know when the science, technology, and politics of the past will be superimposed on the future … or vice versa.  The result is a complex mix of fact and fiction that feels familiar even when its fantasy and strange even when it’s part of our past.

The title of the book starts us off a bit unbalanced.  Is this a children’s book about puppies or something to whet an adult’s curiosity?  The author doesn’t help us much with that question, describing the work as a ‘Children’s book for Adults.’  Additionally, some of the early text seems focused on kids, right down to interesting words to look up in the dictionary, e.g., “The town had forgiven her for making those illicit (*very good look-up word*) videos when she was eighteen years old …”  But overall, the pretext of being a child’s book disappears, as retrofuturistic technology and an alternative, fantastical history dominate later.  Even the puppy turns out to be an extremely advanced Artificial Intelligence, which has gained magical powers but failed to develop any appreciation for the preciousness of life.  Go figure.

There were a couple of weaknesses in the book, the first being some typographical and formatting errors.  Those don’t particularly bother me unless they break the rhythm of the story … and in a few cases, they did.  And second, as an introduction to a complex, alternative reality, the author has a great deal of ground to cover.  Overall, he does an admirable job, but some of it sounds a bit formal, particularly when it’s part of the dialog between two 10-year-olds.

Why might you want to read The Steampunk-Electric Puppy?  It’s an introduction to the steampunk genre by an author well regarded in the style.  It introduces us to several characters that have central roles in his other works, including Caddy.  It provides a taste of the author’s writing style – a style that blends prose, humor, and rhyme, the last in the form of old songs or new words set to old melodies.  And finally, it gives you something to think about after you’ve closed the book or shut down your eReader.  That’s a lot to deliver in a 130-page novella.

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City of Endless Night (Agent Pendergast series) by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

A Familiar Formula that Fails to Yield Drama this Time

City of Endless Night is the seventeenth installment in the Agent Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  It follows a formula found in several of their earlier works, as FBI Agent Pendergast faces a previously unknown type of foe, which has been shaped by forces in the gray area between science and the supernatural.  But unlike the monsters he pursues in the museums and caves of earlier books, Pendergast’s adversary in the City of Endless Night seems little more than a man.  An intelligent, cunning, and extremely disturbed one, but a man nonetheless.  There is science run amok in the book and it was apparently intended to provide the ‘disfiguring’ stresses on this individual, but it never achieves Preston and Child’s trademark blend of the bizarre, the natural, and the paranormal that keeps the pages turning.  Basically, the story ends up being a murder mystery.

As a murder mystery, City of Endless Night is OK, but not outstanding.  Agent Pendergast held my interest as brilliant, inscrutable detectives are prone to do, even if the description is somewhat stereotypical.  On the other hand, Lieutenant D’Agosta of the NYPD, a recurring figure in the series, is uncharacteristically inept, diluting the tension.  The latitude NY Post reporter Bryce Harriman was given to make sweeping generalizations based on little to no evidence felt unrealistic.  There is also a subplot about an ex-Jesuit, Marsden Swope, who is trying to lead people from their wicked, materialistic ways, but it fails to add to the story.  Even the motivation for the murders, when it is finally revealed, turns out to be rather trite. 

Overall, the authors could have developed the invisible deformities of Pendergast’s latest foe more fully, giving readers the adrenaline-fueled tension we have come to expect from the series.  But without that monster misshapen by nature (or something otherworldly), the remaining story is solid but not exceptional.

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CRISPR by Lincoln Cole

An intricate plot woven around a potential, technological nightmare

In terms of doomsday scenarios, editing human genes with horrifying, heritable results has to be near the top of the list.  That, in a sentence, is the scientific terror featured in Lincoln Cole’s latest technothriller, CRISPR.  And in case you think this is all in the imagination of a creative author, note that if you search for CRISPR in Amazon books, his fiction will appear right alongside the laboratory manuals and academic tomes on this gene-editing methodology.  There’s more truth to Cole’s fiction than we might want to admit.

The plot Cole weaves around this potentially lethal science is complex, with old acquaintances on opposing sides – one trying to destroy a mysterious cargo while the other tries to save it.  And even loyalty within a team is just a matter of money, as crosses and double-crosses abound.  I won’t describe the plot further, because the reader has to peel back this onion right along with our co-protagonists.  And that mystery is almost half the book.

Our co-protagonists are Kate Allison and Lyle Goldman, individuals hired for the dirty jobs big business doesn’t want us to know about.  Kate is the experienced hand, craving the adrenaline rush she gets from the work.  Lyle is the newbie, expert software hacker and … well, this one sentence summarizes him for me.  Lyle picked the comfiest-looking chair in the room, which still ended up too hard and cold ….”  But his self-absorption is fading, albeit slowly, as he tries to fit into Kate’s world.

There are a few minor inconsistencies in the story.  For example, early on, a caterer stumbles on a room that later was described as an area only our villain could access.  And the leisurely way the bad guys attacked their targets, seemingly unconcerned if the police were more than 30 seconds away, was a bit of a stretch.  But in general, the action was intense, fast-paced, and believable.

Overall, CRISPR boasts an intricately fashioned plot woven around a potential, technological nightmare.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

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Red Wrath (Blood of the Masked God Book 1) by Gerhard Gehrke
Superhero Abilities with Supersized Character Flaws Make this Book Fly

Once superheroes were unswervingly virtuous, while supervillains were, without exception, rotten to the core.  It was all so simple – pure good vs. absolute evil.  But that hasn’t been true for a while, with even Superman, the archetype for all superheroes, turning evil multiple times, sometimes from necessity, sometimes from choice.  Author Gerhard Gehrke in Red Wrath focuses on that gray area where a superhero (Chronos) who is adored by the masses also has a dark, alter ego.  And the main character, Lily (aka Jade or Red), is obsessed with getting even with him after he killed her parents in one of his dark fugues.

Along with superhuman abilities, author Gehrke bestows ‘supersized’ flaws in several of his characters.  Chronos’ split personality has been mentioned, while Jade exhibits a near death wish in her pursuit of him.  Reluctantly, she works with Carter, who’s equally obsessed with Chronos but nearly opposite in temperament.  He probably would have never left his database of Chronos sightings had it not been for Jade.  In fact, their extreme, yet complimentary defects are what makes their team work.  And even the secondary characters get larger-than-life personalities, as you’ll probably never meet anyone as protective and dependent as Carter’s sister.

The additional spice added by these extremes helps hold interest, particularly in the first half of the book when the pace is somewhat deliberate.  We learn a lot about Carter’s data and Jade’s seat-of-the-pants, assassination methods.  But then, the pace becomes frenetic, as it seems no one can be trusted and disputes are settled by throwing cars or slamming someone through a wall.  My only reservation about this action is that Jade exhausts all her will and energy just to make a miraculous comeback too often … much like a character that keeps coming back from the dead.

Finally, a word of caution to the potential reader if, like me, you use a book’s genre as a guide.  This book was, at the time of this review, listed in the Greek and Roman mythology genre on Amazon.  It is true that Chronos is found in Greek philosophy and literature as the personification of time, the forerunner of Father Time.  But how Red Wrath is related to mythology escapes me.  Maybe that’s coming in the next book of the series, but this one seems misclassified.

Overall, the bigger-than-life characters (superhumans and not) and the intense action in the book’s finale make it an enjoyable escape for an afternoon or two.

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A Wordy Woman's Guide for Writing a Book by Dawn Husted
A Guide for Succinct Guys, Too!

I admit to being drawn to this book initially by the title – just what kind of guidance does a ‘wordy woman’ need to write a book?  Don’t get lost in subplots?  Of course, I suspected the title was intended to be catchy rather than descriptive of the intended audience.  And after reading it, that’s true – succinct guys could use this guide as well.

The work is, simply put, a solid, beginner’s guide for writing a book.  First, it defines and gives examples of much of the jargon you’ll hear around the writersphere.  For example, if you immediately understand the sentence, “Third-person omniscient is less common than third-person limited,” then you may be able to skip some of the vocabulary.  But knowing the words and using the concepts they represent are two different things and author Husted gives the reader a number of suggestions for generating book ideals, deriving plots, and developing characters.  The book is also hands-on, featuring defined exercises, solutions often derived from one of the author’s books, and a place for working out your own ideas, if you get the paperback version.  There are even spots where the author suggests taking a break!

My concerns about the book are minor.  First, the author’s methods emphasize a structured, planned approach to writing (as opposed to a more ‘seat of the pants’ approach).  For example, she suggests setting words-a-day and days-a-week goals.  Then, with another estimate of overall book length, she can calculate when she’ll be done.  Overall, A Wordy Woman’s Guide may work better for budding authors who are at home with this level of structure, because some may find the guidance intimidating or constraining rather than empowering.  And even though the author says each person will have to find what works for him/her, there are enough words and exercises devoted to this approach that many may try to apply it ‘cookbook’.  Second, there is a focus on books driven by ‘character arc’, e.g., the transformation of a person in the course of the story such as a coming-of-age tale.  Most (if not all) books are a combination of character and plot-driven, and some works feature plot, e.g., a protagonist who changes little in the course of a story or even across stories in a series except for having met and mastered some challenge.  The option of writing a primarily plot-driven story is difficult to recognize in this guide.

Overall, A Wordy Woman's Guide for Writing a Book is a solid, workbook-style aid for those who wish to write their first novel.  And as the author (among others) wisely counsels, “Being a writer doesn’t mean waiting for inspiration to strike.”  So, whether you’re wordy or succinct, if you have the inclination to write, then get this book and stop waiting for the perfect moment.

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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Untangling the History Behind the “Reign of Terror” for the Osage Indians

In what author David Grann called a “curious provision” to the agreement between the Osage Indian Tribe and the US government, the Tribe claimed all rights to “…the oil, gas, coal, or other minerals covered by the lands.”  It was curious because the lands forming their reservation in northeastern Oklahoma were considered virtually worthless.  That is until oil was discovered there in 1897.  And in a matter of a few years, that black gold made the Osage some of the richest people on earth, changing their lives forever … but not for the better.

As the Indians’ wealth grew, they became targets for greedy whites.  Soon, Indian deaths from causes ranging from suspected poisoning to execution-style shootings to bombs that leveled entire homes headlined in a period between 1921 and 1925 known as the “Reign of Terror.”  And even when a suspect was brought up for trial, justice was anything but certain.  As one member of the Tribe said, the jury will have to decide “…whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.”

The book, Killers of the Flower Moon, is a well-researched, historical account of those days.  Grann documents the political corruption, the misinformation, the dealings and double-crosses, and the lack of investigative skill that allowed these atrocities to occur and that have kept them buried for so long.  It’s riveting, as he untangles history to reveal murderers in some of the most unlikely places.  And once read, it’s disturbing message will stay with you for a long time.

The honor of “Best Book of 2017” was bestowed on Killers of the Flower Moon by organizations from Amazon to the Wall Street Journal (including Time Magazine, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly, and the Smithsonian among others).  I’ll add my own ‘highly recommended’ to that list.

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The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger

Two (or Three?) Strong Women Protagonists Make this Story Work

With the title, The Banker’s Wife, you would expect the individual in that role (Annabel, wife to banker Matthew Werner) to play a major role.  And she did.  But she knew little of her husband’s work and his oft-notorious clients.  So, she became our view into the dangerous world of offshore banking, where everyone from dishonest politicians to brutal dictators hid their money.  Although intelligent and obviously brave, Annabel spent much of the book running for her life.  Annabel’s co-protagonist is a journalist, Marina, drawn into the situation by colleague and largely unaware of Annabel and her husband.  In terms of a solution, Marina was more the instrumental.  But I suppose ‘the journalist to a banking whistle-blower’ doesn’t make for a very catchy title.  In any case, much of the book alternated chapters written from these two women’s perspectives.

But there is a third woman who appears later in the book, Zoe.  After little more than a few cameos at the start, she emerges as a prime mover in the plot – with her own chapters.  And while it would have been good to read more about her, author Alger reveals her characters’ true colors deliberately, maintaining suspense and forming the twists that keep you guessing.  As for Zoe, you’ll just have to wait to see the role she plays, as well as many of the other characters.

In general, the risks taken by the women seemed natural, given their situations.  Only occasionally did one, often Annabel, follow a path that seemed clearly ill-advised, breaking somewhat from character for the sake of drama.  A more prevalent issue, however, was the accumulation of implausibility as layers of the deception onion were peeled back.  For example, by the end, the bank to the morally corrupt, Swiss United, had too many spies, knew too much about actions inside shell companies, and employed blackmail too frequently to feel real.  And the role of law enforcement?  When you consider what they did (or didn’t do) in hindsight, you’ll be saying, ‘surely not.’

Overall, The Banker’s Wife is a solid, financial thriller, keeping the reader guessing about who is really wearing the white hats.  Several aspects of the story, however, feel a bit contrived in light of all of the final reveals.

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Empty Seats by Wanda Adams Fischer

A Fan’s View of the Pressure Cooker that Is Professional Baseball

With so many excellent books on baseball written by veteran players and coaches, you might wonder why you’d read one by a spectator?  And admittedly, sometimes the thoughts or words of the fictional characters in Empty Seats sound a bit more like the hyperbole of a fan than the analysis of a player, e.g., “Bobby sends a fireball his way, and slugger-boy doesn’t even see it until it’s landed in Russ’s mitt and the umpire calls it.”  But the story’s not about baseball strategy or history; it’s about broader themes in life.  One, for example, is the sense of belonging provided by sports.  When the team wanted to visit an injured player and the hospital was limiting visitors to family members, one coach summed it up well, saying, “Can’t chew see that we come from the same mother? Mother beisbol!” 

But the themes pivotal in the story are those magnified by the pressure cooker that is professional sports.  How do you handle the mental stress of going from being the best in your hometown to just another kid trying to make the big leagues?  Where do you find the drive to maintain the demands of training – in yourself?  In the expectations and needs of others?  What is your Plan B, if baseball doesn’t work out?  It is among these themes that Empty Seats makes its twists and turns, some surprising but all feeling real.

For my tastes, the ‘redemption’ scenes were a bit too syrupy and some of the seedier aspects of the game came across as bland.  For example, what appeared a serious addiction from the perspective of one player’s behavior was based on his craving for a few beers.  The story could have been edgier with ease.  The characters tended toward stereotypes, especially in the secondary figures.  And finally, the repetition of certain events was an issue, particularly toward the end of the book.  There were too many instances where the reader was part of a scene and then later, heard one or more characters describe it to one or two others.

Overall, you don’t have to be a fan of baseball to enjoy Empty Seats.  Its messages apply anywhere a person pushes him- or her- self beyond the norm.

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Crazy Love by Rachael Tamayo

A Tense Psychological Thriller with a Generous Serving of Sex on the Side

For perhaps the first half of Crazy Love, I was unsure – just who did crazy refer to?  There was Emily who was the victim.  But Emily had a friend who said she had forgotten conversations, perhaps even entire relationships and so, was only a victim in her mind.  And Emily was having problems with headaches.  Then, there was Noah, who was clearly obsessed with Emily.  He was a stalker and possibly worse.  And finally, Isaiah, who shows similarly intense feelings toward Emily, the difference being Emily liked Isaiah while Noah was just a nuisance (or so Emily thought).  In my view, Ms. Tamayo had done a masterful job keeping the reader off balance.  But then I read her synopsis, in order to avoid spoilers in my review, only to find that she identified Noah as the threat.  I guess my author’s mind was working too hard to find a plot twist when there wasn’t one to be had.  The second half of the book settles into the delusional obsession that defines Noah’s reality.  It’s creepy, intense, and quite well written.

The book contains numerous sex scenes, always descriptive and somewhat explicit in places.  The ones involving Isaiah and Emily add spice to the story.  But they do little to further the thriller plotline, making the latter ones feel superfluous even before I knew Isaiah wasn’t a suspect.  The scenes involving Noah, however, did much to further develop the character of this disturbed individual.

There were some minor issues in translating the book’s manuscript into the Kindle format.  Within the first few pages, the word “call” was hyphenated between the two L’s.  Weird, but the same problem involving different words recurred often, becoming a bit of an annoyance by the end.  A somewhat more significant issue is the plausibility of the story.  For example, at least part of the time, Noah was watching Emily through holes in her ceiling, and yet, no one noticed them even after several careful searches.  Some of the steps the police took or failed to take seemed equally farfetched.  And finally, Emily’s character was a bit muddled.  The author makes us feel her extreme fear in one scene with some well-crafted prose.  A chapter or two later, however, Emily is calling Noah to explain things to him.  And then, the pattern repeats.  These sudden, emotional reversals made her seem unreal.

Overall, Crazy Love is a tense, well-crafted psychological thriller with a generous serving of sex on the side.  A bit more believability in the action and Emily’s character would have increased its gut-wrenching quotient even more.

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Bewitcher (A Mompesson Mystery Book 1) by Hickory Crowl

Who hunts this plague-ridden English village?  A human?  A demon? 

Set in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1666, Betwitcher is a tense, action-filled thriller.  The story has its roots in history, as Eyam fell victim to the bubonic plague in 1665.  But rather than fleeing and possibly infecting the rest of England, the residents decided to quarantine themselves.  Several hundred people in close quarters, many dead or dying, armed only with limited medical knowledge, religion, and superstition.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, according to the book, a human murderer might appear … or a demon … or both.  If you enjoy action, especially of the gruesome sort, between the ritualistic killings of the demon/human and the carnage of the disease, it’s hard to find twenty pages without a vividly described death.

Interspersed with these grisly scenes, the author delivers equally rich descriptions of setting.  Often, those scenes are dark and menacing – forest paths at night, decrepit houses, empty streets.  But sometimes they are peaceful and serene, a contrast that author Crowl uses to full effect.  Character development is also a strength.  Reverend Mompesson is particularly well done as the man of the cloth, torn between religion and the science he hopes may save his village.  It’s an eternal theme, well done in this work.

The detractions from the story were few and minor.  There were a few mechanical errors – a missing word, an awkward phrase.  Second, there were some leaps in reasoning not well founded.  For example, how the Reverend deduced the meaning of a symbol he found at each murder scenes could have used additional development.  And finally, the conclusion is a mixed bag.  The way Reverend Mompesson escapes is a bit convenient, but his ‘situation’ at the end raises all sorts of questions for book 2.  I’ll be watching for it.

Overall, Bewitcher is an entertaining and often grisly mystery well worth the read.

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Dancing for a Stranger by Isabella Adams

A Cozy Thriller…If There Was Such a Genre

Dancing for a Stranger appears to be the second book in the Markos Mystery series written by Isabella Adams.  It sees the return of Dr. Andromeda “Andie” Markos, family physician and amateur sleuth, along with her three gal-pals and her boyfriend, Detective Sean Malone.  In this installment, Andie and Sean are hunting a serial killer who has taken an unhealthy interest in one of Andie’s friends, Aphrodite.

The story starts strong, when Aphrodite interrupts the killer mid-act.  After that opening, however, the pace slows as backstory dominates – you learn a surprising amount about how Andie feels about her aging car, as well as her thoughts about Sean, her friends, her ex-husband, her daughter, and the Greek culture as transplanted to Tarpon Springs, Florida.  It’s a solid section for character development, but the crime thriller takes a back seat.  Then in the second half, the tension ratchets up as our serial killer stalks his prey.  Despite the unsavory character and sleazy settings, Dancing with a Stranger is not a gritty crime novel.  The author generally alludes to the murders and the sexual abuse the killer endured as a child.  That fact, coupled with the good-natured ribbing and unwavering warmth shared among the women makes this book feel something like a ‘cozy thriller’ – violence, but not enough to interrupt the friends’ Saturday morning coffee dates.

Realism suffers in places where it would have helped maintain the story’s tension, particularly in the actions of the police.  For example, there was no fingerprinting when they recovered a car the killer had used; a trip to a state prison became a romantic interlude for two detectives, Andie, and a friend; there was no statewide bulletin even after the police had the killer’s name and occupation; and so on.  The killer, driven by an insatiable urge he called ‘The Beast’ took extreme chances – killing in plain sight of the backdoor of a strip club; posing as a doctor doing CPR in a hospital room when he was caught in the act; returning to the same strip club to kill in one of their public restrooms.  His brazen actions further highlight the lack of what most would consider a standard police response.

Overall, the story brings into contrast the brutality of a deranged, serial killer and the warmth and support of good friends.  That comparison would have been more balanced and considerably starker had the drama felt a bit more real.

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A Convenient Death (An Eden Mystery) by Laurel Heidtman

The List of Suspects Will Keep You Guessing ‘til the End

You and Sticks have fallen into the biggest pot of suspects I’ve ever seen.”  That was the opinion of the chief of police and boss of Detective Jo Valentine, the protagonist of A Convenient Death.  And it was mine too.  Jo and her partner, Gerald “Sticks” Mullens unearthed a veritable menagerie of possible killers of a convenience store clerk and an elderly customer, from a meth addict to other law enforcement officers to the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at a local university.  And just when you think you know who the killer is, our detectives turn over another stone and a few more suspects scurry out.

The book is an Eden Mystery, one of several.  But for the interested reader, it isn’t part of a numbered series and this novel is clearly standalone.  About the only theme with a continuing thread was a romantic interest between Jo and Dan Cobb.  There seemed some history there, but otherwise, everything is neatly tied up by the time you read ‘The End’.

Author Heidtman followed the dictum, write what you know, as according to her bio, she was once a police officer.  It shows in the story; the police work feels real.  About the only exception was how readily the suspects broke under questioning by Jo and Sticks – I thought one or two might have given them more trouble.  Of course, that’s based on my extensive experience watching crime shows on TV.  I also enjoyed the author’s informal writing style, laced with dry humor.  Consider this description of one of the many suspects:  “The old saw ‘nice guys finish last’ came to mind when she looked at Walton and wondered how he'd convinced a hot babe like Tracy Andrews to say ‘I do’.”  A style like that makes for a fun, fast read.

Overall, if you want to play the whodunit guessing game with a talented author, give A Convenient Death a try.  My money, however, is on Ms. Heidtman.

Stolen Prey (The Prey Series Book 22) by John Sanford

A Tense Plot with a Humorous Backstory So You Can Catch Your Breath

I’m a long-time, John Sanford fan (full disclosure) and Stolen Prey is another excellent read in the now 28-book series.  This one opens with a grisly, multiple murder of husband, wife, children, and pets in a well-to-do suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Obviously, you’ll need some stomach for violence to get into this story, but if you can handle that, you’ll be rewarded with good action and gripping, didn’t-see-them-coming twists.  Because it is a tale of retaliation by a Mexican drug gang, a host of agencies and individuals become involved – the DEA for what they can learn about the drug cartel; the local police to pursue the murderers; and Lucas Davenport, the protagonist of the series, to pursue the thieves that precipitated events by stealing drug money.  It’s an intricate plot, but Stanford does an excellent job of describing the division of labor and the interplay of these characters and agencies.

Complimenting the main plot is a significant backstory, featuring a cameo by Virgil Flowers (the hero of another Sanford series).  Everything about this secondary tale is custom made to feature Davenport’s generally sarcastic sense of humor, from the (smelly) clues they find to the capture of the bad guys.  It provided a nice counterpoint, a break from the tension.

Most of the early books in the series involved demented, serial killers, and like many, that’s where I developed my interest in this author.  Stolen Prey strays from that theme, and the story suffers as a result … but only slightly.  For example, the development of the characters of the three Mexican killers, while less about psychosis and more about a way of life, is solid.  There is also a touching father/daughter moment, where Lucas and Letty, his adopted daughter, bond at the shooting range.  Makes me wonder if this is a preview for a series to come?

Overall, Stolen Prey diverges from Sanford’s bread-and-butter, serial-killer theme, but it’s still excellent, with a tense, action-filled plot and a humorous backstory so you can catch your breath.

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Murder in the Mind (Detective Inspector Skelgill Investigates Book 6) by Bruce Beckham
A Somewhat Abrasive Hero ‘Fishing’ for the Insight That Will Break the Case

Murder in the Mind is the sixth book in what is currently an eleven-book, British mystery series, each novel advertised as a standalone work.  This installment finds the series protagonist, DI Skelgill, called to an isolated, high-security, psychiatric hospital for a routine investigation.  But soon, concerns about petty pilfering are forgotten when inexplicable deaths and daring escapes enter the storyline.  Over the course of the rest of the book, Skelgill uses something akin to an abrasive, Socratic method to elicit thoughts and theories from his team only to discount or disregard them in most cases.  Eventually, however, he fits all of the pieces into the puzzle, gaining his insight while fishing … which appears to be a trademark for the series’ detective.

One of the strengths of the book is the description of the setting, in this case, the Lake District in northwest England.  As (bad) luck would have it, this story occurs during a rainy, dreary stretch of weather and you can almost feel the drizzle seep under your collar as you stand beside Skelgill on the banks of a lake.  The story is a bit slow starting, but then moves at a deliberate pace as the detective collects facts, then lets the solution form in his mind.  The murderer is somewhat obvious, but twists in the details are still good.

There were, however, a couple of aspects of the book that detracted.  One was the writing style.  Clearly, there is a thin line between clever turns of a phrase and wording that is mind-numbing, but for me, this book crossed over.  Consider the description of the hospital as “…an appellation that hints of Bedlam (albeit an authentic eponym – being built on the lower slopes of Hare’s Fell) and an outward appearance that is at once foreboding and forbidding.”  I could almost understand this type of wording if it reflected the protagonist’s speech, but Skelgill tends toward simple statements replete with British slang (although he can be obscure).  A second concern was point of view.  It is third person consistently, but sometimes the narrator knew what Skelgill was thinking and other times, he/she did not.  Whether or not we got a peek into the detective’s thoughts seemed random and so, became a bit distracting.

Overall, consistent use of point of view and more straightforward prose would have helped this otherwise prototypical British murder mystery.

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Last Man Out (A Markos Mystery) by Isabella Adams

Some Serious “Series Building” and A Murder Mystery Too!

Last Man Out introduces us to Dr. Andromeda “Andie” Markos, heroine of the Markos Mystery series.  And by the end of the book, she may feel like your best friend.  You’ll learn about her and the Greek culture, transplanted to Tarpon Springs, Florida, in which she was raised.  You’ll met her three best friends, her mother, her somewhat moody teenage daughter, her philandering husband or ex-husband (depending on who you talk to), and her new romantic interest, Sean.  Sean just happens to be a detective in the local police department and Andie’s high school boyfriend.  Yep, there’s a lot of family, a lot of history, a lot of Greek culture in this first installment of the series, and the author does it well.  Add to that her skill in bringing the sights and smells of this Gulf Coast city to life and this first novel involves some serious building of the series setting and its characters.

But don’t worry; there is a murder mystery too!  Andie treats one of the criminals early in the story, then stays involved in the case through a combination of bad luck, coincidence, and some meddling by one of her friends who wants to fan the flames between her and Sean.  The author maintains the story’s tension skillfully, but overall, the pace is a bit slow, especially for a book in the crime-thriller genre.  There are explosions and murders, but there are also quite a few chapters with only backstory, devoid of any event that moved the plot forward.  But as the first book in the series, this heavier focus on character development and setting building is understandable.  And the finale, while short, is action-filled and tense.

Overall, Last Man Out is a deliberately paced, suspenseful murder mystery, introducing us to an interesting amateur sleuth, complete with nods to her family, friends, and Greek life in a Gulf Coast city.  It’s a solid foundation for a series.

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Alterations (Alterations Trilogy Book 1) by Jane Suen

How Much Would You Risk to Get Your Mind Right?

It’s hard to imagine me ignoring a book about a doctor who claimed to have “…an implant that can control” the human mind (author’s synopsis).  Yes, technothrillers are among my favorites and Alterations involves some amazing tech.  In this first installment in the trilogy of the same name, we are introduced to three women – Gigi, Ellen, Lilly – each with problems that have dominated their lives.  They want a change, they’re desperate for one.  Enter Doctor Kite, who has something for each of them.  So, they roll the dice on a shady doctor and an unproven implant.  Now, what could possibly go wrong in that scenario…?

I enjoyed the forward-looking nature of Alterations, because devices that allow us to share thoughts appear to be in our near future.  Could replacing memories be far behind?  But author Suen doesn’t stop there.  Rather, she creates three variants to Kite’s implants – “one to cure illnesses and heal injuries, one to re-sculpture and lose fat, and one to rejuvenate and reverse the aging process.”  And finally, add the fact that these changes occur quickly – within moments in at least one case.  Now, the forward-looking technology around which the suspense and drama was to be built looks a bit farfetched, a bit of a McGuffin.  But it’s still interesting food for thought.

The pace of Alterations was good, with the characters moving from problem, to hoped-for solution, to complication extremely quickly in this 110-page book.  But character development paid the price.  Flashbacks help us understand the women’s desperation better.  But most of these scenes are a retelling of a memory, rather than having us live their pain.  And the mental anguish that must have occurred before any of them put themselves in Kite’s hands is missing.  Having the reader feel rather than just read about the women’s suffering and helplessness would have improved the suspense.

Overall, Alterations is an interesting and fast-paced look at the risks three women were willing to take to change their lives based on the promise of a new technology.  A closer look into what drove these women would have improved the suspense even more.

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The Wild Dead (The Bannerless Saga Book 2) by Carrie Vaughn

A Future When Old-Fashioned Detective Work Returns

The Wild Dead is the sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award–winning novel by Carrie Vaughn, Bannerless.

If you miss murder investigations where the solution comes from old-fashion questioning and playing hunches rather than hi-tech, The Wild Dead is for you.  Enid, the heroine of the series, catches her killers with legwork – literally.  That’s because author Vaughn has set these mysteries in a future dystopia, where high-tech forensics is gone and investigators walk to the scene of the crime…or catch the occasional solar car.  More on this unusual mix of high and no-tech later.

Character development is a strength of the book.  Enid, for example, wasn’t a protagonist I immediately liked.  Initially, she is indecisive, torn between what she feels to be right and a host of issues – questions of jurisdiction, complaints from her partner, desire to be home.  But she persists, eventually succeeding through a combination of grit and intelligence.  The secondary characters are similarly brought to life under Vaughn’s pen.  Kudos to the author.   World-building is also a strength.  You can almost see, feel, and even smell the mud and debris of our decaying world, while lives built around agriculture, scavenging, hunting, and trading feel real.

Plot and pace, however, are weaker features of the work.  With few investigative tools other than questioning, clues come slowly.  But unfortunately, the book makes the reader work for them too, with a style that is plodding at times.  This problem is magnified by the repetition of thoughts, themes, and dialog.  For example, Enid constantly evaluates each person’s home, because part of her job is detecting the waste of resources.  But as this duty has little to do with the murder and so, doesn’t advance the plot, these sections end up feeling like filler.  Vaughn also made some ‘convenient’ decisions about which parts of technology to bring forward to her dystopia and which to leave in the past.  Medicine, for example, was saved by a decision of the survivors of ‘the Fall’, but forensics was not, despite the significant overlap between these fields.  Solar energy was another technology kept, explaining the solar cars and house lighting.  But the infrastructure to maintain medicine and solar power is no where to be seen.  It ends up being a strange and somewhat inexplicable mix of our high-tech past and an austere future.

Overall, Vaughn’s vibrant characters and her vivid accounts of a future, decaying world are winners, weakened only slightly by pace and decisions about technology that are convenient for the plot, but not easily explained.

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Under a Warped Cross by Steve Lindahl

A Tough Look at the Clash Between Life and Religion in Medieval Britannia

People didn’t live long in medieval Britannia, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  If you were lucky enough to survive birth and a childhood filled with hard labor and poor living conditions, you could look forward to adulthood when disagreements between individuals and states were often settled with a whip to the back or a battle axe to the skull.  Under a Warped Cross covers all those forms of ‘conflict resolution,’ some several times.  But the aggression at the heart of the story is the inhumanity inflicted in the name of organized religion.  It was a time when religion would condone any and all means to ‘correct’ the thinking of the masses.  And its heavy hand often fell on women.  In fact, as the story begins, priests have just made an example of Abigail, one of the main characters of the book, by cutting off her nose because she was suspected of incest.  The violence in the book, while not graphic, is intense and frequent.

In the simple dichotomy of plot-driven vs. character-driven books, Under a Warped Cross is primarily the latter.  The plot is simple.  The priests’ punishment changes the lives of three siblings, as Goda and Abigail run off together while Waso begins a quest to find them.  This storyline is completed well before the end of the book.  Character development, on the other hand, continues to the end, as author Lindahl does an admirable job depicting the characters’ courage and determination, as well as their distrust and superstition.  In particular, I found the latter interesting, as “signs” were everywhere, but their meaning was never clear and often contradictory.

To go beyond traits that are shown through action, the author occasionally includes thoughts or dialog that deviate from character, e.g., Jolenta wondered if her choice had been a revenge of sorts, for all the times Coventina had chosen her wards over her own child. That thought made Jolenta worry about her own soul as much as she worried about her mother’s.”  That’s a complex concept for a ten-year-old (Jolenta).  But even though these out-of-character thoughts interrupt the story’s flow, they’re useful for the depth they provide.

Overall, Under a Warped Cross is an engrossing look at the people of the Middle Ages and their suffering at the hands of organized religion.  It can be tough reading in places, but then, that was their life.

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The Stork (A Shelby McDougall Mystery Book 2) by Nancy Wood

Enjoy a Satisfying ‘Whew’ When Its All Over

The Stork is a well-crafted mystery with a tense, action-filled finale.  The story starts fast, with a middle-of-the-night, hysterical call for help.  A child has been kidnapped.  But not just any child – one that Shelby McDougall, the series heroine, gave birth to as a surrogate mother (in Book 1 of the series).  The pace then moderates.  Minor details like the sequence of California roads taken between point A and point B get perhaps too much coverage, but the discoveries sprinkled throughout the midsection will hold your interest.  Then, things heat up again for the finale, allowing the reader a satisfying ‘whew’ when it’s all over.

There are a couple of factors a potential reader should know in advance.  First, although part of a series, this book is standalone.  However, if you read this one first, you may have little motivation to return to book 1 (Due Date).  That’s because there are fairly extensive flashbacks in this book and you end up knowing the characters, the plot, and even the outcome of book 1 (beyond the obvious that the heroine of the series survives).  So, I’ll make the highly surprising and completely radical suggestion that you start at the beginning…or plan on reading only this one.

Second, if you are a fan of hard-boiled, procedurally detailed crime mysteries, you may not get your fill.  Shelby is a PI-in-training, and so, some of her extremely ill-advised choices of what to investigate and what to let slide and what to tell colleagues and what to omit are frustrating.  But they are also undoubtedly by design; I expect that Shelby will mature with the series.  But some are also a bit too convenient – why isn’t anyone looking at the children’s miraculous capabilities as a way to solve the crime?   And there are a few errors, like expecting an outdoor motion detector to be activated by throwing a stick in front of it.  But overall, these are minor.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s imaginative turns of a phrase, often related to a character’s emotions.  Where many authors might write the first five words of this sentence to show surprise, Wood’s take is:  “My jaw dropped in surprise and I snapped it shut, feeling like it’d been opened and closed by some external force. As if I were the dummy and the universe was the ventriloquist.”  It would be easy to get carried away with this kind of ‘cuteness’, but to her credit, Wood doesn’t.

Overall, The Stork is a well-crafted book that starts strong, sprinkles a few discoveries in the middle to keep you hooked, then ends with a bang.  And while tense in places, it’s cozy feel makes for a comfortable, summer-afternoon read.

The Soldier’s Return (The Heaven's Pond Trilogy Book 2) by Laura Libricz

Historical Fiction Where Everyday Life is a Test of Survival 

Historical fiction can entertain with a look at everyday life, especially when that life is much different than our own.  The Soldier’s Return by Laura Libricz is a good example of that approach.

The book provides an unflinching look at life during the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), one of the longest and deadliest conflicts in Europe.  But the wounds the novel depicts aren’t from the battlefield, but from the mercenaries who live off the land.  Life of those in their path is hard, as the soldiers take what they want – food, drink, valuables, women – and destroy much of the what’s left.  Herr Tucher, master of Sichardtshof farm, and Katarina, his maid and mistress accept this life fatalistically, doing what’s necessary to survive.  “Children had to be fed, animals had to be tended. Life had to go on.”  Famine and disease follow the troops.  Then, if that wasn’t enough, the region is also embroiled in witch hunts, with the fanatical Ralf driving “…the devil from those fallen souls. With force. With fire.

By today’s standards, the characters are difficult to like.  For example, Herr Tucher does little to protect his family, servants, and farm, while expecting them to make the best of it.  And in the eyes of the public, he’s the devoted husband while ignoring his true love, the maid Katerina.  Pieter, on the other hand, is a self-centered, drunken, ill-tempered womanizer.  But these characterizations serve the story well by conveying some of the norms of the time.  Outside the nobility, women are little more than property.  Religion is politics, with superstition and intolerance its operating principles.  Survival is for the brutal or the unscrupulous.

Clearly, author Libricz has chosen a time and place overflowing with story-telling potential, and generally, she uses that potential well.  She weaves scenes of vivid clarity and descriptions that evoke images.  “Traveling with the troops is like riding on the top of a wave. We can see where it’s going instead of just waiting for the wave to drown us.”  But at other points, the prose is terse, artificial, and detached even in action scenes.  “A quick visual survey showed Katarina the soldier had a dagger on his belt, close to her detained arm.”  Repetition of words in a sentence and thoughts and actions across sections is also a minor distraction.  For example, Pieter, the returning soldier for whom the book is named, seems to operate in cycles.  Do something foolish due to drink or his temper, get arrested, escape, repeat.  And finally, although this is book 2 of a trilogy, I expected some issues to be closed, some secondary milestone in the series to be reached.  The Soldier’s Return just seems to end.

Overall, The Soldier’s Return is a vivid account of life in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, focusing on the destruction wrought by the warring forces, the resulting fame and disease, and the accompanying witch hunts.   A bit of artificiality in the prose, some repetition, and the lack of a book-2-specific theme, however, slightly dilute the book’s overall appeal.

Miro by A.E. Nasr

A Powerful Story, An Elegant Style…And Some Discord Between Them 

Miro boasts a compelling plot.  An occupying army brutalizes a nation, some of the conquered trying to become invisible to their oppressors to make a living…or even joining with them.  Some resist in secret, hoping to eventually throw off the bonds of tyranny.  Still others just try to survive.  Miro and his companions – the Captain, Alex, Aidan, and Markus – are part of the latter group, imprisoned and tortured for nine years until events give them a second chance at freedom.  And be forewarned – some of this action is intense and brutal.

But even as powerful as this storyline is, it is the prose that sets Miro apart.  The book is elegantly written, the scenes evocative, the characters nuanced.  It explores some of the extremes of human existence that can only be found in the hostile and unforgiving setting of war – courage, betrayal, brotherhood, hope.  Clearly, words are the friend of author A.E. Nasr.

In places, there is some discord between style and story.  With such evocative prose, the transitions from thought to reality can blur easily.  More than once I found myself returning to an earlier paragraph, realizing that what was being recounted was not a dream, not the demon of a former battle or the fantasy of an earlier time, but events in the here and now.  Some of that intertwining of real and imagined may have been intentional – a character’s past influences how he reactions.  But at other times, it seemed that a transition was missing, resulting in my pause.

Overall, melding the ‘nuts and bolts’ of action and the elegance of literary fiction is not an easy task.  With only few exceptions, Miro does it extremely well.

With Face Aflame by A.E. Walnofer

A Perilous Journey of Self-Discovery in 17-Century England

Madge, the seventeen-year-old protagonist of With Face Aflame, lived in humiliation, ashamed of the red birthmark that covered one side of her face.  Working in her father’s inn in 17-century England, she received little to shape her self-image beyond the stares, the gasps, and in some cases, the ridicule of their customers.  But when circumstances forced her hand, she joins a mistral she just met and his crass friend, tagging along in search of a miracle.  The rest of the tale is one of discovery…and danger.

The story is told from Madge’s perspective, a large portion of it being her inner thoughts.  Walnofer uses the technique well, as the reader hears Madge’s inner voice as she debates some of life’s greatest mysteries, as well as the meaning of even the simplest of acts – the look of a stranger, the feel of a hand on her back, the kiss of a child.  Those inner struggles and reversals perhaps become a bit overused toward the end, but overall, we come to know Madge quite well.  And she’s a worthwhile person to know – intelligent, caring, funny, growing.

Much of the book involves the daily life of an inn keeper or that of a mistral, traveling town to town, singing for supper.  And while that may sound slow, the pacing of events and the novelty of the lifestyles easily held my interest.  Additionally, there is an underling tension to her story.  Her world is one built on superstition and religious intolerance, where women are wenches, little more than a man’s possession.  Would her father’s warnings about the ways of men and some simple self-defense see her through?

Overall, With Face Aflame boasts a heroine well worth knowing in a finely crafted story of self-discovery.  It’s well worth the read.

Rafferty Lincoln Loves… by Emily Williams

If You’re Male, You’ll Probably See Some of Yourself in Raff Lincoln

Rafferty Lincoln Loves… is a fanciful, young-adult book about four teenagers who scarcely knew each other at school, but who bond to care for a horse they find.  The main character, Rafferty (Raff) Lincoln cares nothing about horses, but he’s idolized Liberty Ashburn for years.  So, when she becomes involved, so does he.  Much of the rest of the story is Raff trying to catch her eye, with more than one of his hapless attempts making me laugh aloud…like seeing if he can impress her with how fast he can ride his bike.  Other actions, however, made me cringe at his impulsiveness and ineptitude.  Liberty, on the other hand, is not easily swayed.  As the most popular girl in school, she wants everyone’s adoration, including Raff’s, but nothing more.  It might hurt her image.

The author sprinkles in several serious topics – the price of popularity (as I mentioned), the effect of confidences betrayed, bullying, and even child abuse.  At such times, one or more of the figures would come out of character and speak with wisdom beyond their years, making the story feel a bit artificial at that point.  But it is mostly light and humorous…until it gives way to a rather dramatic ending that will stay with you for a while.

It’s difficult to say who is the appropriate audience for this book.  The synopsis says, “…older young adults,” which is probably due to the language; Liberty’s use of profanity helps sell her image as the queen bee and Rafferty’s helps convey the heat of the moment.  But while the language says older, much of the action seems aimed at the younger end of the scale, like suggesting graffiti that says, “Rafferty Lincoln Loves…” would teach him a lesson.  Would young adults say anything to that beyond, ‘whatever?’  And several of Raff’s inner thoughts hardly seemed like they came from the mind of a sixteen-year-old boy, e.g., “She smelt of summer flowers and linen, probably just her washing powder fragrance. Heavenly.”

Finally, not to be overlooked – the proceeds from the book go to the British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre, a very worthy cause.  So, you can feel good about your purchase, as you chuckle about Raff’s misfortunes and watch him grow as the pages turn.

Nomad: A Thriller (The New Earth Series Book 1) by Matthew Mather

When you’re reading and you have to stop to catch your breath….

Nomad by Matthew Mather has plenty of action.  At the center of the whirlwind is the Earth, being threatened by something invisible, massive, and moving extremely fast toward us from the other side of the sun.  It threatens to rip through our solar system, pulling the sun behind it in its gravitational wake and leaving the Earth a frozen wasteland, ejected into deep space.  And like many of the best science thrillers, the story has the ring of solid research and the latest theory.  But for those not sure or who just want more (like me), Mather provides an Afterword that details recent findings.  They parallel the story to an amazing degree, providing some fascinating food for thought.  They’d even be cause for concern, except no similar events are expected in the next million years.  (Whew)

Although I thought the science was the star of the book, if suspense born of astrophysics is not your ‘cup of tea,’ don’t worry.  Dealing with awaking volcanos, kidnappings, earthquakes, being trapped in a cave-in, robbery, and tsunamis all make an appearance in the story.  The action is intense and nearly nonstop.

With the focus on pace, one might expect character development to suffer, but it didn’t.  One of the primary figures in Nomad is Jessica Rollins.  Even in the first scenes, it’s clear that she’s headstrong and doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind – perhaps to a fault.  As a result, she seems spoiled and arrogant, especially early in the book.  But as the story unfolds, we get views into her history, resulting in a more textured picture of a woman fighting for survival while coming to grips with her past.  At times, Jessica’s backstory seemed a bit excessive.  But if she is to be one of the main protagonists throughout the series, which I suspect, the development is appropriate.  Romance also made its way into the book, but it was the trite, ‘what do you do when you only have hours to live’ type.  It was a throwaway scene, one of the very few.

Overall, Nomad lives up to the name of its genre – it’s a thriller with fascinating science and decent characters.  And the pace?  Well, you may even need to take a break from reading just to catch your breath.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

An Excellently Crafted Book with a Somewhat Diluted Ending

One of the things that first drew me into Force of Nature was the way Harper characterized the Australian bush country – so dense and tangled that even if you were walking in a straight line, it could feel like you were walking in circles.  Every sound, every glimpse of motion is lost in the shadows from the vegetation just a few feet away.  Then add a cold wind and rain, and uncomfortable becomes punishing.  So, when five women on a corporate retreat to the area lose some gear and then get lost, a bad situation turns much worse.  It would have been tense even if the women were the best of friends, a well-oiled machine in the working world.  But they weren’t and when the story starts, only four of them have returned from their hike.

Harper uses parallel timelines, one chronicling the women’s hike, the other telling of Australian Federal Police Agents Falk and Cooper’s actions when they are called in four days later.  The tension mounts with both storylines reaching their respective climaxes at the end of the book.  It’s a great technique and Harper uses it well.  I liked Falk and Cooper as the co-investigators.  Neither were simple stereotypes, although Faulk was a bit flat.  And Harper avoided the cliché of making their story too romantic.  As for the women’s story, they ‘took turns’ relating the events as they saw them, and these shifting points of view give the reader considerable insight into their lives and personalities.  Again, a nice touch by the author.

The paucity of the women’s training and the complete absence of safety equipment was not believable, but the rest of the story creates enough tension that this fact is easily forgotten.  The pacing is acceptable, although it is more the ‘slow burn’ of rivals in a desperate situation for most of the book.  The action does increase markedly at the end.  But what should have been the pinnacle of tension becomes diluted, as the twist in the last third of the book introduces not only new thoughts about what happened to the missing hiker, but the reasons as well.  Shifting themes so dramatically made it feel like two stories, the second one clearly significant but not nearly as developed as the suspense in the first.

Overall, Force of Nature is excellently crafted, with palpable tension for most of the book.  But with a new theme competing for the reader’s attention, the finale fizzles a bit.

Doctor Perry by Kirsten McKenzie

Can an Improbable Cast of Characters Stop Dr. Perry?

Doctor Perry by New Zealand-based author Kirsten McKenzie derives its suspense from the question, can the improbable cast of characters she has assembled stop the nefarious Dr. Perry?  That Dr. Perry is evil is never in doubt – even the cover asks, ‘can you trust your doctor?’  But hanging in a delicate balance is whether the downtrodden and forgotten of the world can stop him?  Can Elijah Cone, a once famous but now forgotten football coach nearly bed-ridden with arthritis put up a fight?  Might Doctor Perry’s totally subservient wife rebel?  Could the gregarious, plus-sized Indian woman, Sulia Patel, make any difference, even if she is one of the few willing to resist?  And the police?  If they are to make any difference, they’ll need to overcome their incredulity and do more than arrive at Dr. Perry’s location…soon after he has left.  Whether this motley crew will succeed is definitely in question to the very end, to the author’s credit.

The pacing of the book was good, with a range of people coming and going.  Many of them were grist for Dr. Perry’s malicious scheme, some were potential liberators, while still others seemed distractors added simply to build tension.  Or perhaps they provide groundwork for a sequel.  In any case, they did little to further the plot.  Some of the characters were well-developed, Elijah Cone and to a degree, Sulia Patel, being in that category.  But overall, the characters tended toward extreme stereotypes.  If you think of a bottom-line-driven, totally heartless retirement home administrator, you have Tracey Chappell.  Retirement home workers who looked the other way to keep their paycheck were in abundance.  The drug addict who never met a pill he didn’t want to snort or smoke was also there.  And several of these characterizations became well-worn by the end.

There was a small disconnect between the language of the author and the setting.  The latter was Florida, while the former was definitely non-American, with words like ‘mould’ for ‘mold,’ and phrases that would be unfamiliar to the U.S. reader.  But the dissonance is slight.  More significant is the lack of a troubling technology at the heart of this book’s plot.  Masters of the medical thriller use examples that seem so real, readers wonder if they missed an announcement in the news.  The horror Dr. Perry wrought was a bit far-fetched, the suspense suffering as a result.

Overall, Doctor Perry is an entertaining book, although it requires some imagination to achieve thriller status.

You Don’t Know Me by Aza Clave

An International Crime Mystery with Prevalent Erotic Elements

You Don’t Know Me is the debut novel by Aza Clave, the first book in the Hannah Hauptmann series, and a best seller in Germany.  Set in Berlin and Stockholm, it provides a look into the dark and heartless world of those caught in the European Refugee Crisis, circa 2015.  Anders Anderson leads the investigation into a series of grisly murders of immigrants to Sweden, as the hatred of the right wing of that country reaches the boiling point.  Hannah, on the other hand, is trying to rebuild her life after leaving her husband and accidentally bumping into Anderson, her long-lost love.

I had some difficulty getting into the book, the first third introducing numerous characters and being slanted toward erotica; some of the scenes are rather graphic (potential reader be forewarned).  From that point forward, sex shared the stage with the mystery more equally, but even at the end, the erotic element seemed overplayed.  It wasn’t ‘spice’ for one or two characters or a means to clarify someone’s personality, but rather, it was nearly a universal trait among the book’s figures, both good and bad.  As such, it did little to further the plot; at most, it helped explain the nature of some of the violence.

As for the mystery itself, it was generally well done.  The action and suspense build through twists and revelations at a good pace.  Tension would have been greater had the procedural elements been better done.  At one point, for example, law enforcement personnel were ‘tossing’ a sim card box between them, yet later, they found one of the killer’s prints on it.  No smudges?  And despite the brutal nature of the crimes – torture, rape, mutilation involving multiple suspects – the police had no physical evidence beyond those prints for most of the book.

English is not the author’s native tongue and in places, it showed.  For example, after finding a comfortable place to stay, Hannah “…glared at the striking maisonette.”   Glared?  Point of view was also an issue on occasion.  Sometimes it changed in the middle of a paragraph; other times, it was not clear for long stretches of text.  But overall, the story is well written, with the author’s descriptions of settings – the sights, sounds, and smells of them – being a strength.

Overall, You Don’t Know Me is an unflinching look at fictionalized atrocities occurring during the European Refugee Crisis of 2015.  With those strong roots, the book would have been better served with less focus on sex, which did little to progress the story, and more on procedural realism.
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Letters to the Pianist by S.D. Mayes

Letters to the Pianist Runs the Gamut of Emotions

There are scenes of hope and happiness in Letters to the Pianist, almost seeming like a fairytale when seen through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Ruth and her younger siblings Gabi and Hannah.  But soon the realities of war and its aftermath intervene and sadness descends as a life is lost or dreams are shattered.  There are also characters to loathe, individuals cruel and heartless almost beyond words.  Romance and love also find their way into the story, passionate in places but never graphic in its portrayal.  And finally, tension abounds, clearly the dominant emotion as the father, Joe, and Ruth find themselves embroiled in situations fraught with peril, literally fighting for their lives in the finale.  With finely crafted prose, author S.D. Mayes elicits the full gamut of emotions.  I have read books that have produced stronger feelings of anxiety or hope or affection, but I’m not sure I’ve read any that have elicited such range of feelings in the span of 400 pages.  Kudos to the author.

The pacing was excellent, as the author keeps you a bit off balance, always wondering what’s next.  Character development was also good, with Joe and Ruth in particular coming to life.  As with many books of this genre, I enjoyed the interplay of history and fiction.  Admittedly, I’m not that well versed on Britain during World War II and the players, although some are nearly universally known.  One of my few unmet hopes in this book was that the author had described some of her research in a note at the end.  However, I did fill in a few holes myself with online searches, again attesting to how gripping I found the tale.  Other than that, the finale at the Douglas-Scott estate was the only other issue, as it seemed a bit convenient, but it was an extremely minor concern given the strength of the story.

Overall, Letters to the Pianist is an excellent book, a truly griping story that will push your emotions to their bounds.
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A Harvest of Stars by Cecily Wolfe

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

There is little mystery to A Harvest of Stars.  In the synopsis, the author tells us that Locklyn (Lock) Gaines lives with a drunken, abusive stepfather, Bobby Wyatt.  Her mother is too sick to help.  The townspeople turn a blind eye. There are only so many ways that story can end.  Then, there’s the boy obsessed with her, Isiah Parker.  That storyline too has limited options.  But even with much of the mystery gone, the author keeps us immersed, running our emotions from despair, to hope, to hate … as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

Before getting into characters and plot, it’s worth mentioning to the potentially interested reader that the genre for this book is misleading.  At the time of this writing, it was listed as a children’s book on dysfunctional relationships and abuse.  To me, this book is adult reading, or at a minimum, advanced teens.  The violence is not graphic, but it’s tense and suggestive, especially toward the end.

The author uses a theme – child abuse – that’s virtually guaranteed to elicit our sympathy.  Lock is in a desperate situation.  But for us to fully feel her pain, to despise those that want to hurt her or who look away, the writing needs to be crisp, the characters real, and the plot believable.  There are places where the author meets these goals quite well.  I liked, for example, the way Lock had romanticized her mother and father’s relationship, when objectively, it seemed little more than a one-night stand.  She had little hope beyond her dreams.

But while parts were good, the author could have done better.  The writing was a bit muddled, often repetitive, and very slow developing.  Many of the sentences were run-on.  The characterization of both Lock and Isiah was lacking.  Lock, for example, seems almost fatalistic in the final scenes, trusting to the same defensive ploys that had failed her in the past.  Isiah, on the other hand, seems the quiet, overly polite friend, until suddenly in the second half of the book, he develops a temper and fighting skills.  It seemed a very convenient shift in personality to support the plot.  And finally, it’s never clear how Lock’s dire situation is perpetuated, why the townspeople never help.  The great grandmother’s haughtiness is blamed, but would anyone really care after so many years?  Then, her mother’s poor life choices are questioned, but why does that reflect on Lock?  And through it all, everyone knows that Bobby is a vile, brutal drunk, but they still ignore injuries even Isiah as a child noticed.  It doesn’t add up.

Overall, the theme – child abuse – is bound to elicit our emotions.  But the possibility of making us really ‘live’ Lock’s pain wasn’t fully realized, weakened by some muddled prose, inconsistent characters, and implausible obstacles.

Sketches of a Black Cat - Full Color Collector's Edition: Story of a night flying WWII pilot and artist by Ron Miner
Great Stories, Interesting Art, and More Would Have Been Even Better

Ever wonder who paints those pictures on the front of aircraft?  In the book, Sketches of a Black Cat, you’ll meet one such pilot and artist in the memoir written by his son.  Howard (Howie) Miner was a WWII Navy Seaplane pilot and although he probably never painted his plane (they were black for night operations), he was also an artist.  He sketched many other works for his buddies and himself, from pictures of family to scenes from his area of operations – the South Pacific.

The book moves quickly, covering training and two tours of duty in less than 250 pages including numerous photographs.  Through the first tour, the pace is perhaps a little too fast, but then the story slows a bit and the reader gets a closer glimpse at Howard Miner’s life and his art.  Although he flew several types of missions – humanitarian, bombing, and others – the search and rescue of downed pilots dominated the book.  Many of these operations were accomplished at great peril and involving incredible skill.  Landing in heavy seas “…tested the mettle of the metal” and holes from missing rivets and bullets were plugged with golf tees and pencils.  Not every rescue was a success, of course, and some of the deaths seemed cruel twists of fate.  Life between flights is also described, where rations seemed to vary from feast to famine and weather from picturesque sunsets to hurricane force winds and torrential rain.  But with the aid of the occasion R&R, Howard and his buddies persisted and generally did so with a sense of humor.

The artwork in the book included photographs of people, notebooks, maps, letters, and Howard Miner’s sketches.  The drawings were both pencil and in color, the latter appearing mostly later in the book.  Photos of people seemed to predominate and I would have liked to see many more of Howard’s sketches.  For the potential reader, the quality of the computer rendering may be a question.  On my 7” Amazon Fire, the pictures were crisp and clear, although the writing was sometimes too small to read.  I also viewed some of the book using the Kindle app on a PC and here, I could enlarge the pictures so that even the smallest details were apparent.

Overall, the pictures and stories from Sketches of a Black Cat will give you a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the skills, persistence, and life of the pilots and crew that flew the Black Cats in WWII.  It’s a story well worth reading…and seeing.

The Policeman’s Daughter by Trudy Nan Boyce

A Police Procedural that Feels Real

Lil’ D, Dirty Red, Q-ball, Man.  They aren’t the nicknames of anyone I know, but after reading The Policeman’s Daughter, it feels like I do.  Boyce vividly brings to life the people and the setting of an area of Atlanta known as the Homes.  It’s a tough, violent neighborhood and a difficult life, on the edge of poverty, ruled by a drug gang, forgotten by all…except Detective Sarah Alt, aka Salt.  Salt patrols her beat with guts, with intelligence, and most of all, with compassion.  But what part of that compassion represents her need to feel close to her father, a cop she found dead by his own hand when she was just ten?  How far will she go to cling to that memory by walking in his shoes?  It’s a tense ride, as Salt tries to come to grips with her past without sacrificing herself, her home, and those around her.

Boyce weaves the tale from ‘war stories’ on the job – talking a violent man into the wagon, watching kids play in a fire hydrant on a sweltering summer day in Atlanta.  As a result, the book feels a bit slow at first.  But soon, the plot centers around the murder of Shannell, a woman who does whatever is necessary to get her drug fix; and Stone, the violent lieutenant of the local drug gang.  There are places where the story became somewhat muddled.  At one point, Stone sets up Lil’ D to be arrested for drugs, but I wasn’t sure why.  To establish his dominance?  To test Lil’ D’s mettle?  In another, a fellow policeman, Pepper got a flat tire.  Or was it shot out?  Was this supposed to be a warning, because if so, none of the police seemed to make the connection, except perhaps Salt.  (And yes, the nicknames Salt and Pepper seemed a little too cute at first, but that bit of syrup is soon lost in the suspense.)

The Policeman’s Daughter is not the kind of mystery you can solve by paying attention to the subtle cues, and so, identify the killer before the author comes to the finale.  Boyce, through a character, tells you that.  It’s a world teetering on the edge of collapse, where anyone could have snapped and killed Shannell.  Even so, the conclusion is a bit shocking.  And in that ending, Boyce draws the themes of past vs. present, her father vs. the force to a satisfying conclusion.  Only the apparently miraculous recovery of Salt’s eyesight seemed too convenient.

Overall, The Policeman’s Daughter is driven by Boyce’s rich depiction of life in the Homes and Salt’s growth as a person and a cop.  It’s well worth the read.

One Shot by Brian Gates

A familiar theme, very well-done in an enjoyable book

A man finds clues about the future, then puts himself in the line of fire to save the day.  That’s the crux of One Shot, and I’ve been there, done that…well, at least, I’ve read that.  But while it’s a familiar theme, it’s one that Brian Gates, the author, does it quite well with a likeable hero and an interesting writing style.

Jack Shot, the main character, is described as ‘content,’ but aimless might be more appropriate; he seems to have few goals beyond keeping his job and getting a date with an attractive coworker, Abby.  That all changes, however, with the first clues into the future, and suddenly, he is thrust into heroic action.  That action takes a toll, as suffers injuries that would put a mere human down for the count – concussions and third-degree burns among them – but he keeps fighting.  Realism might suffer a bit at these points, but the tension was there.  These exploits also turned Abby’s head, making her seem a bit shallow, but subsequently, she shows herself to be gritty and determined.

The book is written as a narrated memoir – also familiar and also well done.  The tone is easy, conversational, and largely, about Jack’s life.  The chapters, however, often begin with a quote, a bit of folksy philosophy, or a platitude, like ‘love’s a bitch’.  It might sound strange, but it consistently encapsulated the story and provided a transition back to the action.  And despite the informal, storytelling tone of the story in general, Gates pens numerous clever turns of a phrase.  I found this mixture of the unique and the informal both engaging and often, quite funny.

For me, the book gets a bit heavy-handed on the fantasy and philosophizing about the battle between good and evil at the end.  And after reading it, I wasn’t certain if it was actually a call to end our moral indifference, or just a segue to a possible book 2.  But either way, it detracted little.

Overall, One Shot is an excellent read.  The theme may seem familiar, but the characters, the mix of writing styles, and the turns of a phrase made it a pleasure to read.

The Delphic Oracles in Egypt and New York by PanOrpheus

Historical Fiction/Fantasy with Loads of Humor from Dry to Bawdy

With a penname of PanOrpheus, this author has a lot to live up to.  Pan is the god of the wilds and friend of the nymphs.  Orpheus is a legendary Greek musician, poet, and prophet, said to be able to charm anyone with his music, even stones.  While I can’t guarantee that The Delphic Oracles in Egypt and New York would charm a stone, I found it both humorous and thought-provoking.

The book is filled with references to people and events that cut across time and space in odd and unpredictable ways…like spotting Sinatra singing jazz in 500 BC Egypt.  Or traveling in the company of an Oracle who played on Broadway…leaping lizards!  Or discussing the connection between computer software implicated in the 2016 election and Egyptian embalming fluid.  Say what?  The implications of some these happenings and sightings seem clear; others are a bit of a mind twister.  And when you tease one of them from your gray matter, you start wondering – what else have I missed.  (I never did figure out the importance of Mallville, PA, for example.)

I also enjoyed the author’s sense of humor, which ran the gamut from dry to bawdy.  I’d quote something from Phoebe at this point, but it might be difficult to find much without a four-letter word or two…or three.  (And I’d like to keep this review family-friendly.)  Humor is so central to this book that if you eliminate the final Interview between the Reporter and the Mage, it can be seen as a buildup for a play on words.  At that point, it had me groaning…in a good way.

As for downsides, there were few and they were minor.  First, the formatting of my ebook version took some strange twists.  While that didn’t affect the story per se, it was distracting in places.  Second, the book introduces a lot of names at the beginning – some real or close to it, others are total fiction, and several are incarnations of someone you’ve already met.  It can be confusing.  It does come together but checking out the author’s biography on the Amazon book page also provided some helpful context.

So, my recommendation.  Read The Delphic Oracles in Egypt and New York.  Like Phoebe would say, it’s a d@#& fine book.

Tomb of Aradia (Lost Origins Book 1) by Antony Davies

An Epic Adventure…That Takes Some Epic Reading to Complete

Do you like bigger than life, epic action/adventures?  If yes, then you may have found the right book in the Tomb of Aradia.  It has everything you could ask for.  A young, dashing protagonist, Jules, who’s a world-class, parkour practitioner, even calculating complex maneuvers on the fly (like the length of a bungee cord needed to land softly – imagine what happens if you make a mistake).  He also boasts encyclopedic knowledge over an immense range of topics.  The story boasts buried cities and ancient civilizations with strange, perhaps mystical powers.  You’ll also find globe-trotting action from Old Town Prague to a chateau in France to the far reaches of Mongolia.  It has scenes that will bring to mind movies from Indiana Jones to James Bond.  But even though it has all the elements of a spell-binding, epic adventure, their implementation hurt the pace, making the book somewhat of an epic read.

The story centers around Julian Siebeko (Jules), a young, black freelance treasure hunter.  But if you have a stereotype for that profession, I’d guess he’s nothing like it.  He’s impatient, almost hostile toward the thoughts and plans of others, yet he constantly ends up in trouble himself.  He repetitively changes loyalties among three competing factors – a group of unorthodox archaeologists, a ruthless billionaire, and the head curator of the British royal family.  Then, he’s forced to seek help from one of the others to extricate himself.  He’s also driven by an insatiable urge to retrieve a bangle stolen from his dying mother, but when he secures it, he just finds other troubles. True, the book sees Jules maturing, but the ‘go your own way, then get help’ routine gets repeated too frequently.  Additionally, some things about his character are simply inexplicable.  For such an extremely well-read and intelligent individual, he talks like he never finished 3rd grade (“I ain’t a hacker on the level you people play by, but I do what I gotta.”).  Sure, every character needs their own voice, but this one makes no sense and seems degrading.

The settings, while far-flung and in some cases exotic, are not used well.  In general, the action could have occurred anywhere from rural Montana to the boroughs of New York.  The opening scene, for example, is set in Old Town Prague, but the ‘landmark’ that’s mentioned is a “fried chicken place.”  Sure, there are KFCs in Old Town, but that’s hardly symbolic of a city brimming with incredible architecture.  And later in Rome, they “…whizzed by the fountain of the Piazza Navona,” a place that’s usually so crowded it’s difficult to walk.  The setting descriptions didn’t do anything to create an image.

So, overall, the Tomb of Aradia has all the elements of a pulse-pounding, epic action/adventure.  Unfortunately, I labored a bit watching Jules complete savant-like analyses and perform world-class physical feats, then repeat his mistakes while explaining himself using inexplicably poor language.

The Cabal (Powell Book 6) by Bill Ward

A Direct Style that Delivers on Action and Characters?  This Book Does!

Do you like straight talk in your novels?  The Cabal has it.  People aren’t pierced by a projectile; they’re shot.  Their life force doesn’t ebb from their body; they bleed.  It’s a great style for action, and the Cabal has that too.  From the opening scene in which a businessman is assassinated in Singapore to the finale when Powell is trapped in his office by the same man, the action comes steadily, relentlessly.  Yes, there’s a bit of romance, some humor, and a few clever nods to politics in both the US and the UK that round out the story, but action is at the heart.

The ruthless Chairman gets top billing as the villain, but he is not the only obstacle Powell has to face.  The unwitting pawn of the Chairman, the husband of the woman Powell is protecting presents his own challenges.  And very soon, Ward paints him as a man easy to hate.  I did.  The abused woman, Rose, on the other hand lacks the self-esteem necessary to pull herself from this man, further complicating Powell’s mission and making me feel both pity for her and frustration – someone drag her out of there.  But the fact that these characters elicited so much emotion testifies to how skillfully Ward uses his writing style.  I didn’t necessarily expect that.

There were a few plot weaknesses in the book.  For example, the letter that implicated the husband’s involvement was in the un-emptied recycle bin on his computer.  Seems a bit amateurish for someone involved with terrorism.  As another example, Powell makes Rose dispose of her phone, but let’s her kids keep theirs.  And he keeps his.  Avoiding phones seems pretty basic, if you want to stay off the grid.  But such issues are minor in the context of the story.

Overall, The Cabal delivered action while giving me more fully developed characters than I expected.  It’s a fun, fast read well worth your time.

The Take by Christopher Reich

My Take on The Take – Lots of Action, but Without the Adrenaline

A “freelance, industrial spy.”  That’s how Reich describes his protagonist, Simon Riske, in the synopsis.  I wondered because when Riske isn’t running his sports car restoration garage, he’s using skills he honed during his criminal youth to perform ‘odd jobs’ for banks, insurance companies, and even the British Secret Service.  It’s an interesting career path – one that places him in the quagmire of long-term vendettas, shifting alliances, and political secrets on an international scale that are the plot of The Take.

The book has all the action you could want.  Assassinations from afar and face-to-face, some with quick and painless deaths, others not.  There are knife fights and gun battles.  Even a high-speed game of chicken.  But as much as those events suggest gut-wrenching tension, they don’t necessarily produce it.  Some of the incidents are implied, occurring between chapters rather than in one.  Some are in prolonged flashbacks that add greatly to character development, but that can slow the pace.  Other events are handled clinically, with the victim dispatched almost before the scene begins.  Not that I’m seeking gory details, but a chance to see the characters sweat, hear their hearts pounding would have added to the story.  It’s also a book that when you finish, sit back, and ponder, it will feel a bit contrived.  When incredible skills are needed, Riske and his friends have them.  But in the next scene, they will do something inexplicably foolish.  Even the foundation of the story, why this all happens, feels a bit artificial in retrospect. 

But what’s not lacking is suspense produced by an intricately interwoven plot.  By the finale, there are five opposing forces, each with their own objectives and motivations.  And who will end up on top and how they will prevail kept me guessing to the very end…even into the Epilogue.

Overall, The Take is loaded with action, some of which feels too clinical or contrived to get your adrenaline flowing.  But for suspense born of a complex, evolving story with multiple competing factions, it’s loaded.  You’ll just need to stay on your mental toes to keep up.

Point of Control by L.J. Sellers

Not Your Stereotypic Heroine…Or At Least, Not the Stereotype You’d Expect

It’s not a spoiler to say that Andra Bailey, FBI agent and protagonist of Point of Control is a sociopath.  It’s right there in the third sentence of the author’s synopsis.  And the reason I want to mention it is because it was a factor that made this book so enjoyable to me.

If you’re a mystery/thriller fan, you probably know a number of protagonists that fit the description of a sociopath – intelligent, risk-takers, charming but without really caring what others think.  But knowing at the outset that Bailey was one and seeing how Sellers worked that into the story was fascinating.  For example, like many thrillers, there’s a romantic element, and like many, the kiss seemed to come from nowhere.  Generally, I figured the author just glossed over the emotion to get back to the action, but with Bailey?  She was experimenting with an unexpected connection to another human.  Interesting.  There were places where I felt Sellers might have gone a bit too far, e.g., Bailey seemed to read other people’s emotional traits almost at a glance (“Bailey studied his face, looking for signs of deceptiveness, and found none. Weakness, yes. He was emotional and eager to please.”).  That ability seems well beyond charming and manipulative.  And why did she suffer from topographical disorientation (a tendency to become lost easily)?  So, she wouldn’t be a stereotypic sociopath?

But Bailey’s personality aside, the book is a solid crime thriller.  The pace is good, as our heroine jets across the country chasing her suspects and sustaining herself with coffee and naps on planes.  The story is propelled in places by discoveries that seem a bit too convenient.  Why, for example, did Bailey focus on cellphone CEOs when rare earth metals are used throughout the electronics industry?  The attempt on Bailey’s life early in the book, when she was pursuing a very speculative connection between missing scientists also gave me pause.  The bad guy’s attack proved her right and would have brought in even more agents had they succeeded.  What were they thinking?  But overall, the plot flowed well.  There is also an excellent twist at the end that clarifies a few discordant threads – it’s all tied up with a bow by the time Sellers finishes the book.

Overall, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable novel, in part for the way Bailey’s personality was woven into the story, but mainly because it was just plain good story-telling.

Red Julie (An Olivia Miller Mystery Book 2) by J.A. Whiting

An Unusual Mix of Syrup and Gore

J.A. Whiting, the author of Red Julie (An Olivia Miller Mystery Book 2), has written books for at least four other series.  All of these other series have ‘cozy mystery’ in the title.  This series doesn’t.  And while the change in title might imply a clean break from the style and characters of a cozy, the book doesn’t quite achieve it.  It still has the syrup typical of the genre, e.g., “Olivia nodded as she slathered the jam on her scone and took a chomp out of it. She laughed and wiped her mouth with her napkin. ‘Yum,’ she managed.”  I’m not sure eating a scone is worth a chuckle in any other genre.  But it also has gore that no cozy would condone, with gruesome deaths, torture, and mutilation.  Yeah, no kidding.  I’m not saying the mixture is bad, but it’s…unusual.

The characters of Red Julie are quite likeable, although perhaps a bit stereotypic…or maybe, cozy-typic.  The men are sensitive, thoughtful, and for some reason, always want to cook something for Olivia to eat.  Olivia is smart and spunky.  But there are inconsistencies as well.  For example, at one point, Olivia is going to impersonate a police officer to get information.  Even if she isn’t in law school yet, she should know better.

The pacing is somewhat inconsistent, being fast during the scenes of violence, but not so much in the other three-quarters of the book.  Part of the reason is the repetition of clues.  The mumbled phrases, discovered papers, and overheard rumors that create uncertainty about the culprits are repeated a lot.  Also, the transition from action back to speculation disrupts the flow a bit.  After a high-speed chase in heavy traffic, including an escape that involved a last-minute, cut-across-lanes to a rest area ploy, the story nearly stops when Olivia passes it off as nothing, wondering if “…she misperceived that the car was following her.”  That’s a head scratcher of the type the author probably didn’t intend.

And finally, there’s the question that’s common to a lot of amateur sleuth novels:  why is this untrained, ill-prepared amateur is investigating rather than the authorities?  The answer – because the police won’t – seems a bit unbelievable after the brutal killing of a very well-to-do individual.  But its fiction, after all.

Overall, much of Red Julie reads like the too-good-to-be-true characters and dialog of a cozy.  Just don’t get too comfortable with it, because you never know when and how the next person will die.

An Ace and A Pair: A Dead Cold Mystery (Dead Cold Mysteries Book 1) by Blake Banner

An Enjoyable Police Procedural with a Few Convenient Discoveries

If you’re a fan of police procedurals, chances are you’ll enjoy An Ace and A Pair.  The story hits the ground running, with the ‘dinosaur’ of an NYPD detective, John Stone, partnered with attractive, but generally disliked Detective Carmen Dehan.  They’re relegated to cold cases, and after shuffling through boxes of them, Stone picks the ten-year old, Nelson Hernandez file with the well-reasoned justification of “This one always interested me.” 

Soon, the list of suspects from that gangland-style execution looks like a who’s who of the criminal world with the New Jersey Mob, a Chinese gang (the Triads), a Latino gang (the Angeles de Satanas), and one or more bent NYPD cops all making appearances.  As Stone and Dehan track down leads, it becomes apparent that someone believes the score still needs to be settled – their ‘persons of interest’ start to die.  It all ends with a finale that caught me by surprise…and I was sure I knew.

The downside to An Ace and A Pair is that Stone’s detective work involved some quite improbable deductive leaps.  For example, at one point the New York detective comes to the barren plains of Texas and finds an abandoned car that no one seems to have noticed in ten years.  Really?  A lot of his discoveries are passed off as old-fashioned detective work, but details aren’t given, making them seem much too convenient.  But I liked the concept of the old-school detective.  And as characters, Stone and Dehan worked, showing a mix of humor and begrudging admiration for each other.

Overall, you’ll need to accept some deductive leaps that might clear the Grand Canyon, but otherwise, it’s a fast and enjoyable read.

The Amazon Code (Harvey Bennett Thrillers Book 2) by Nick Thacker

An Action-Packed Adventure…But Psychics?

At its heart, The Amazon Code is action/adventure, with all the extreme feats and unlikely events that this genre implies.  Set in the Amazon (obviously), it becomes a veritable catalog of the gruesome ways someone might die in that world – hostile natives, vicious creatures, unforgiving habitat.  Then, add to that mix a shadowy and utterly ruthless organization committed to your demise and the stage is set for some hair-raising action.

The potential reader should view this book’s listed genre with skepticism, in my opinion.  On Amazon (the online store, not the region), the book is listed as Psychics, as well as Action & Adventure.  I don’t get it.  With the references to neuroscience, as well as the author’s synopsis mentioning “emerging science,” I was thinking technothriller.  For example, the clues that drive our protagonist, Harvey “Ben” Bennett, to the Amazon come from fMRI-based videos of people dreaming, a capability that appears close at hand.  But perhaps the author went with the psychic category because the link to science is weak with more hand-waving in crucial places (how did they get that map?) and niggling errors (e.g., the incorrect definition of fMRI) than one would hope.

The second precautionary note for potential readers is that you may want to start with book 1 – always a good idea, but maybe more so for this series, because you are joining an on-going story.  Ben is single-mindedly pursuing a ruthless organization he faced in book 1, even though he’s totally unsuited to the task.  He’s a park ranger.  The villains are part of a clandestine group unencumbered by ethics and at ease with the use of extreme violence.  Hopefully, his obsession is explained in the first book, because the attempt to attribute it to his personality in this book just doesn’t work (“Ben was just being Ben — stubborn, boorish, and reclusive”).  Lots of people share those traits, but none of them go to the Amazon based on a rumor, untrained and unprepared, hoping to form a rag-tag team with the right mix of skills to win the day.  Ben, however, does.  It’s good suspense, but a bit inexplicable even for action/adventure.

The Amazon Code also has the somewhat unusual distinction of being loaded with action – chases, gun fights, grisly deaths – and yet, it feels slow.  Part of the reason is that chapters are written from the perspective of different characters, so with each change in point of view, the reader gets another recounting of the hopelessness of their situation.  Additionally, each character recounts events from their lives in general.  The technique can greatly aid character development, but it’s overused and sometimes makes little sense.  I was never sure, for example, how either Ben or Julie saw their relationship, beyond the fact that they thought it was something they couldn’t escape (“Hours of arguing and slamming doors had taught her that there was nothing that could force them apart, except, ironically, death”).  Is that supposed to be romantic?

So, for the reader who can suspend reality a bit and who doesn’t require crystalline characters, The Amazon Code can provide a decent rush of intense action…and a long list of ways to die in the Amazon.

One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline

A Review Without a Spoiler?  That’ll Be Tough But Here Goes…

Misdirection is at the heart of One Perfect Lie.  In fact, it’s so integral that to say much about the plot is difficult without making it a spoiler.  So, I won’t.  But there is something to be said about other elements, such as pacing (OK, but inconsistent for a couple of reasons) and character development (probably the best part).

This book was recommended to me by a friend because it’s a thriller that uses more than the usual array of fists, torture, guns, car chases, etc.  It also involves the use of psychology to control and manipulate others.  I did find that addition interesting, at least until the twist.  The thing about a twist is that everything that proceeds it should make sense after the ‘reveal.’ In other words, you should be able to reframe everything, but in this case, the psychological ploys no longer fit.  So, a potential plus became a bit of a letdown.

Character development was good.  The young men (mainly, members of a high school baseball team) and their moms felt real for the most part.  The mothers, in particular, grew within the story, and I applauded their efforts to turn their lives around.  The only downside was that after their changes in heart, they tended to act somewhat impulsively, calling, writing texts, and posting on social media without always having the facts.  Sometimes, they acted as if no one else was involved, but you can’t fault them for inaction.

Pacing of the story is OK, with the requisite chase scenes, deaths, and confrontations.  But it’s inconsistent for a couple of reasons.  First, there are extensive side stories about the moms and their sons (and a husband in one case).  But those tales are so protracted, it seemed like the title of the book should be, Three Women Get their Lives Together.  The other damper on pacing was the conclusion, which you expect to be fast and tense for a thriller.  Unfortunately, the end is so difficult to believe that eye-rolling is more likely than a knot-in-the-stomach.

Overall, One Perfect Lie has the action of a thriller, including some novel use of psychological ploys in addition to violence.  But the impact is limited because not all the action fits after the twist, the side stories take too much of the stage, and the finale nudges the story toward the fantasy genre.

Blackout (Sam Archer Book 3) by Tom Barber

Lots of Action in a Good Guys against the Bad Plot

Blackout is an action thriller, with the good guys (Archer and his teammates) against the bad.  And for that simple storyline, it has all the right parts.  The pacing is fast.  You hardly have time to relax from one attack to the next.  The action scenes are intense, explicit, and sometimes grisly (be forewarned).  The tension is good, with a foe that appears invincible.   And all of those parts are well done.  But if you’re looking for more – say character development beyond the minimal or even a bit of a romantic backstory?  Well, you need to look elsewhere.

Blackout builds suspense by methodically revealing first, what’s happening, then who’s involved, and finally, why.  In fact, the why continues to almost the end of the book…which is possible because there are ten targets and seven killers, not including Archer’s organization, the Armed Response Unit (ARU).  We end up with a lot of stories about upbringing, battles, and family, but these generally serve to reinforce a stereotype.  Even Archer, who seems to lament his time away from a woman he likes, puts himself squarely in the macho, save-the-world mold when he thinks, “To be with her, he would have to leave the Armed Response Unit. And right now that wasn't something he was prepared to do.

The tension in Blackout is stoked by the fact that the good guys are less experienced, less well armed, and less ruthless than their foe.  That stumped me at first, as a job with “one of the two premier counter-terrorist squads” in London would seem to attract ex-special forces personnel.  But for some reason, the men of the ARU came up through the police ranks, a fact that becomes clear later in the book.  Yeah, you’re not going to stop a terrorist by reading him his rights.

Although I’ve said the storyline is simple, the good guys are wearing gray hats, not white, as you will find.  More could have been made of that issue, but then, it probably would have come at the expense of the action.  And action is this book’s forte.  I can’t fault the author for his decision.

There were only a few places where I ended up scratching my head.  For one, the bad guys’ safe house was a recently completed office building.  It had such poor security that they seemed to come and go at will over several days, even wiring it for self-destruction in advance.  Or in another case, one of the targets decided to hide in an unknown location…after telling everyone else in the office where they would be.  That seemed to go well beyond naivete.

But these concerns were small and overall, the tension and pace of this action thriller are hard to beat.  Just don’t look for too much beyond the good guys against the bad.

Brain Storm (A Taylor Morrison Thriller Book 1) by Cat Gilbert

Good Action and Characters, But the Emotional Angst Slows the Story

Brain Storm introduces us to Taylor Morrison, Private Investigator and high-volume coffee drinker.  Her story follows a familiar path for paranormal novels, as she discovers she has psychic abilities, only to find out that others already know and that they will kill to capture her.  She ends up on the run with her friends, trying to understand her new skills and how they can be used to save the day.  While this sounds like a formula for a taunt, action-packed thriller, the constant angst of the protagonist and the bickering among the characters hurts the overall pacing.

There is plenty of action in Brain Storm, from a bank heist (of sorts) to commando-style raids to car bombs and gun battles.  These scenes are well-written and tense.  The suspense and mystery are also good, primarily because of all the double-crosses and mixed allegiances of the characters.  I also enjoyed the secondary characters – Trinity, Jonas, and Mama D.  They are well developed and likeable.  There is a twist in the story; unfortunately, it uses a ploy that has become all too common in thrillers.  Once I read the setup in the first few chapters, it was just a matter of waiting for this shoe to drop. 

The pacing of the book, however, is inconsistent.  The pages with action flew by, but in between, the story dragged.  Part of the problem was the author’s tendency to repeat events.  For example, when Taylor’s friends did not see the action inside the bank, Taylor repeats for them, even though the reader has already been through it.  But the major hit on pacing comes from Taylor’s emotional angst and the frequency of bickering over trivialities among the friends.  For example, at one point Taylor worries that Trinity will want a scientific explanation for her abilities and she hopes that she can be forgiven because there isn’t one.  (I was going to disappoint her if that’s what she was looking for and I just had to hope she could forgive me for it.)   Isn’t that like apologizing because you’re breathing someone else’s air?  Fortunately, the angst is less prevalent later in the book.

Even though the plot is a bit well-worn and the twist somewhat common, the author’s voice is fresh and the action scenes are good.  The major problem comes in pacing, where Taylor’s inner battles and bickering among the characters slow the story to a crawl.

Fight for Life by T.J. Frost

A Slow-Burn Introduction Leads to A Fast and Tense Finish

Rachel Phelps, the strong, female protagonist in Fight for Life, faces more than her fair share of challenges.  Her mother is swindled out of her life’s savings, then dies mysteriously.  Her husband prefers drinking and gambling to work and seems to know more about Rachel’s mom’s death than he’s saying.  Rachel is responsible for her younger brother with Down’s syndrome because there’s no one else.  And then, some shadowy figures involved in high-tech, genetic research in a foreign country show more than a healthy interest in her life.  Yes, author T.J. Frost concocts a setting rife with potential for tension and action.  That potential is realized, but it takes some reading. 

The evil geneticist theme in the author’s synopsis caught my interest, and the man appears in chapter 1.  But that mention is largely a teaser and he doesn’t reappear until chapter 27, more than halfway through the book.  What’s happening in the intervening text?  Mostly, character development and scene setting, and the author does them well.  We learn to love strong, yet self-deprecating Rachel.  We come to dislike, or at least distrust her get-rich-quick husband.  And we learn a fair amount about their acquaintances and their failing business.  But while the characters may be enigmatic and the events mysterious, little happens.  The pace is a bit plodding.  Even the dialog reinforces this ‘all in good time’ feel.  For example, early in the book when Rachel’s mother announces she wants to die, Rachel’s response is “Mum, whatever is the matter?”

The pace quickens and the tension increases markedly in the second half of the book when Rachel takes matters into her own hands and decides to investigate.  The pressure becomes palpable, as the characters become darker and the action grows more intense, more gruesome.  After the first half, the second almost felt rushed, and I wondered if the story would end in a cliff-hanger.  But Frost ties up all the loose ends, even to the point of explaining the motivations of several minor characters.  As for the outcome of the final confrontation, it was somewhat predictable given the situation of the principals.  Even the motivation behind the “multi-million-dollar conspiracy” is foreshadowed.  But there was still plenty of action and ample opportunity for nail-biting getting to that conclusion.

Overall, Fight for Life gets high marks for character and setting development, albeit in a somewhat plodding manner.  The climax, although somewhat predictable, still provides an adrenaline rush, as Rachel seemingly battles alone against powerful forces allied against her.

Silent Waters by Jan Coffey

Action-filled Military Thriller with a Touch of Romance

Silent Waters is the story of Commander Darius McCann and Ship Superintendent Amy Russell as they try to free the nuclear submarine USS Hartford from the hands of hijackers.  The bad guys are apparently intent on targeting New York City with its deadly weapons.  On shore, NCIS Investigators Lieutenant Sarah Connelly and Commander Bruce Dunn work the clues, investigating who is behind this contemptible plot and why.  Although it’s a somewhat typical military thriller, it gets high marks on action and a cozy romance in the back story.

Silent Waters is filled with action, as the protagonists onboard the sub have their hands full battling the hijackers against formidable odds.  And when the story shifts to land, the action doesn’t stop; it simply transitions to car chases and gunfights.  What you won’t find in this book, however, is much suspense.  It’s fairly clear to the reader what’s happening, almost to the point of wondering why the NCIS investigators don’t see it.  But then, few would want to entertain this possibility in real life without some pretty overwhelming evidence.

There is one backstory romance and a second possibility, adding a bit of a respite from the action.  It also helps to develop the characters, making each of the four principals a bit more real – a detail that doesn’t get covered in every thriller.

So, if you’re seeking intense suspense and clever twists as part of your military thriller, this is probably not your book.  But if you like action-filled stories with a touch of romance, and especially if you enjoy sub stories as I do, Silent Waters is a recommended read.

Untangling the Black Web by T.F. Jacobs

A Lack of Realism Weakens this ‘Hot-Button’ Novel

In just about every poll about Americans’ top concerns, you’ll find healthcare number one or two.  So, a book about a man taking on a “corrupt medical system” after his young wife dies is bound to catch attention.  It got mine.

The book starts well, with charged scenes involving the death of David Higgin’s wife.  And from there, the story moves at a good clip.  After vowing revenge at her funeral, David forms his team and goes after American True Care, one of two, big healthcare insurers in the United States.  The action scenes are particularly well-done, as you can often feel the protagonist’s pounding heart and sweaty palms.  David’s character is also well developed, as the judgmental, self-centered lawyer who throws ethics to the wind in the pursuit of justice.  At the end, there is a redemption scene, of sorts, in which he confesses his excesses; unfortunately, his rebirth seems superficial.  For example, throughout the book, David plays the ‘justice for his wife’ card often – appropriately so, given her tragic death.  But when he expresses romantic interest in another woman in the final scenes, claiming she is actually more his type than his wife had ever been, it seems unlikely he has learned anything about himself.

But while less than admirable characters are sometimes intentional, the loss of tension due to a lack of realism in the plot of a thriller is not.  Regrettably, the book often suffers this problem.  For example, consider the surgeon who makes ‘rookie mistakes’ in order to re-treat and re-charge his patients, and ask yourself, is it possible he could do this more than once or twice?  How could he afford the malpractice insurance?  Or look at the break-in and theft inside the House Majority Whip’s personal office – surely no one is this lax with evidence of criminality and treason.  And why was there no media frenzy or public backlash when the whip was exposed for extorting votes by threatening a Congresswoman with a sex scandal?  Overall, I spent too much time wondering why cause and effect had been suspended, and too little time worrying about the fate of David and his colleagues.

In short, Untangling the Black Web ends up being a collection of well-written, emotional and action scenes on one of American’s pressing concerns.  Unfortunately, their effect is diluted because they’re difficult to believe.

The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook by Josie Brown

Humor, Suspense, and Sex Make Strange Bedfellows (Pun Intended)

The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook is the story of Donna Stone who is recruited by Acme, a front for the CIA, after her husband Carl is killed.  Now the career housewife and mother of three can go after her husband’s killers, a shadowy group of freelance assassins known as the Quorum.

I admit to being intrigued by the subtitle of this book:  “Murder.  Suspense.  Sex.  And some handy household tips.”  With a tagline like that, you can’t expect anything too serious, and it’s not.  The story starts well, with a farfetched scene involving Donna on a mission and some decent humor.  And it remains fast and light, being a tale you can finish in an afternoon or a couple of evenings.

But with the premise of homemaker turned assassin, I expected a focus on satire and humor, while the author went for suspense and sex.  Unfortunately, that’s a difficult task.  How do you make a mother who hands out housekeeping tips about killing, poisons, and cleaning up after a hit the protagonist of a suspenseful, romantic yarn?  In this case, the task proved a bit too steep, as the humor wanes, the mystery is fairly transparent, and the reader is left wondering what to make of the sex embedded in a satire.

So, overall, for a light and easy, afternoon read with a touch of humor, The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook will fit the bill.  Just don’t expect to become too engrossed in the suspense or the romance.

Pushing Brilliance by Tim Tigner

Bigger than Life Hero in Nonstop Action Thriller

Simply put, if you are a fan of bigger-than-life action/thriller heroes, Pushing Brilliance is for you.  The book introduces Kyle Achilles, who unlike his namesake, appears to have no heel.  Working with the beautiful, Russian mathematician Katya Kozara, they fight assassins out to kill them for reasons they can’t begin to guess.

Action is clearly the strong suit of this book.  It starts early and seldom slackens.  And each time you believe Tigner is about to wrap up this tale, our protagonists meet another challenge.  Relaxation only comes when you finish reading.  One doesn’t necessarily expect a great deal of character development in a thriller, and this book fits that mold.  We get a glimpse of Achilles and Katya, but nothing in depth.  Both are stereotypes, although Katya seems well beyond the norm on nerdiness.  Do mathematicians really run their lives by calculating probabilities?  Additionally, thrillers often struggle with the romantic connection between the leads – usually they just jump into bed.  Tigner, in my opinion, handles this aspect of the story better than most. 

While I like the bigger-than-life heroes on occasion, they can get old.  There are just so many Olympic bronze medalists, turned CIA operative, turned competitive rock climber, turned invincible hero I can take (yes, that’s Achilles’ resume).  Additionally, there was too much dialog on tactics and strategy with Achilles being the teacher and Katya playing the role of the ready-to-risk-her-life student.  And some of the tactical insights seemed little more than common sense, although Katya was still in awe.  Finally, there was a question if the target of this crime (I’ll leave that vague to avoid a spoiler) would really be as gullible as they are portrayed.  Human nature became a bit warped in places.

But overall, for an action-packed ride filled with gun battles, plotting and counter-plotting, and a bit of technology and romance, Pushing Brilliance is tough to beat.

Whiskey Kills (A Top Shelf Mystery) by Lolli Powell

A Satisfying Mystery Driven by Its Humor

Whiskey Kills is a cozy mystery, the second in the Top Shelf Mystery series.  With the absence of sex and violence that marks a cozy, the story features humor in their place.  Erica (Ricki) Fontaine’s sarcastic wit on everything from mothers to men will keep you chuckling to the last page.  As a bonus, those quips are woven into a substantial whodunit.

The mystery contained in the pages of Whiskey Kills is solid.  The author introduces us to enough well-developed characters with possible motives to keep almost anyone guessing.  In fact, it seems like the author could have written most of the book, then flipped a coin to decide who gets nailed in the big reveal – the field was that well populated.  And the suspense is maintained skillfully, as Ms. Powell continues to peel back layers of the mystery onion, revealing new connections and unanticipated motivations to the last page.

But as good as the mystery is, the crux is the humor.  And since Ricki’s investigation often puts her at odds with her police detective boyfriend, Gabriel (Gabe) Russel, a lot of that sarcasm is directed at the opposite sex, e.g., “I've noticed that men have trouble concentrating on more than one thing at a time, and he was already doing two.  Asking him to also think was probably expecting too much.”  (Potential male readers be forewarned!)  But no one escapes her caustic view, including herself, making Ricki a very likeable character.

In the true spirit of back-seat writing (e.g., being a book reviewer), I’ll pick one nit.  For me, Ricki pushed the ‘ignore common sense’ theme somewhat too far.  In this regard, the book was a bit like a YA, with a protagonist ignoring authority, parents, and sometimes, even friends.  Would it really be out of character if Ricki didn’t do everything that people told her to avoid?  She can be frustrating…but maybe that was the author’s intent.  The heroine you love to fret about?

Overall, I recommend that you read Whiskey Kills because it’s a satisfying mystery.  And then, if your sense of humor is like mine, you’ll love it for the laughs.

At Bay (An Alex Troutt Thriller, Book 1) by John W. Mefford

Who’s the Real Alex Troutt?  Beats Me.

At Bay introduces us to Alex (Alexandra) Troutt, Special Agent of the FBI.  Following a serious car crash which produces total amnesia, she starts to rebuild her past as she also builds a case against a brutal, serial killer terrorizing the Boston area.

For a thriller, At Bay was slower than I expected, with a large portion of the book dealing with Alex’s memory loss and the inconsistencies she saw between her internal feelings and the way others characterized her past.  Presumably, this was the author’s intent – give the readers of the series a significant insight into the person that is Alex Troutt.  And with this much emphasis on character development, one might expect a clear picture.  But because of the strongly differing perspectives, none emerged.  In book 2, Alex might be the hard-driving, risk-taking FBI agent we saw occasionally in book 1…or she might quit and become a soccer mom.  I couldn’t guess (although it’s probably the former, given this is a thriller series).

The opposing viewpoints about her character also seemed to push the finale to the final few pages, where there were simply too many convenient coincidences and extreme, deductive leaps to build much tension from realism.  The way the final victim was identified, the way the location of the final murder was determined, and the way the suspect was identified all seemed to involve such unlikely events and leaps of faith that it was difficult to give them any credibility.  To me, the end really fizzled, and it was slow getting there.

Overall, At Bay seems to aim for an in-depth look at what makes Special Agent Alex Troutt tick – her marriage, her kids, her drive for justice.  But that picture is never clear and the thriller part of the tale is relegated to what’s left, making the story a bit unsatisfying.

Death's Privilege (A Sarah Gladstone Thriller Book 2) by Darryl Donaghue

Interesting Theme, Solid Plot with an Ending that Fizzles a Bit

When British police detective trainee Sarah Gladstone is assigned to an apparent suicide, it appears a simple case, a chance to check off another training requirement.  But when a connection to another suicide is found, and both become murders, Sarah takes the lead on a case that will change her life.

There’s a lot to like in Death’s Privilege, not the least of which is character development.  Sarah Gladstone comes across as a real person – strong, caring, determined, although flawed.  Her personality is one side of a generational gap with the old-hands who mentor her (and another trainee) on the other.  While she is caring and sees people as salvageable, they represent more of a ‘keep your distance to keep your sanity’ approach to crime fighting.  Sarah resists that view and where she falls after the events of this book is a central theme, key to how you may feel about the ending.

The basic plot – two unconnected, apparent suicides that become murders – was also solid.  I was sold after reading the synopsis, and the book continues the suspense, especially in the early parts.  The rigors of Sarah’s job are also well described.  The long hours, the sacrifices, even the minor inconveniences of aging accommodations and limited budgets are well depicted.

But while the way Sarah was characterized was a strength, the process of developing that persona wasn’t.  The sections where Sarah lamented her sacrifices and worried about their effect on her family and herself were too drawn out.  All the angst pulled the story down.  Additionally, some facets of her personality seemed out of place, as if they had been added merely to increase complexity or suspense.  A minor example, to avoid any spoiler, was her claiming to remember nothing during an exam when by all other accounts, she was flying through the program.  But the primary downside was the ending.  It was too rushed and too convenient.  Most of the late reveals involved relationships, aliases, and basic facts about people that the police should have known much earlier.  And both the way the details of the crime were exposed in the final pages and the nature of culprit’s motivations were somewhat disappointing.

Overall, the ending leaves something to be desired, but as a police procedural across generational boundaries with characters who feel real, Death’s Privilege is tough to beat.

The Grave Man by David Archer

A Decent, Feel-Good Book, But Not My Style

The Grave Man is the first book in the Sam Prichard Thriller series, introducing us to Sam, a private investigator and former police detective, now medically retired due to an injury sustained on the job.  We also meet Indiana (Indie) Perkins, a computer hacker of extraordinary skill, who I suspect is a recurring character.  Her skills have as much or more to do with Sam’s success as a PI as he does.

I have to admit I’m not a big fan of the down-home, somewhat macho, and trite-heavy tone of the book.  For example, early in chapter 1, Sam says, “Excuse me, sir, I ain’t no politician!  I prefer to be honest and work for my livin!”  The book plays on social stereotypes and urban myths to a significant degree.  And what’s with all the exclamation points?  It seems like the characters are always shouting.  The investigative procedures Sam uses are a bit simplistic as well.  If he thinks he has the upper hand, he threatens the witness/suspect, who then gives up everything he knows.  If Sam doesn’t have superior abilities, he tells the witness/suspect the gravity of the situation, and he caves anyway.  Don’t look to this book for a good police procedural.

As characters, both Indie and Sam strain the limits of believability.  Indie, for example, is the beautiful, single mother, educated at MIT but unable to find any job except working the counter at Dairy Queen.  Really?  She’s also the perfect cook and housekeeper, game for anything even when it involves having a gun put to her head.  And it’s truly amazing how in a matter of minutes, hacking primarily Facebook and email accounts, she can discover information on crooks that have eluded law enforcement for years.

While it may sound like I hated the book, I didn’t.  As a somewhat simple, feel-good, change of pace, it wasn’t bad.  And if the homey, slightly macho, too good to be true tone is what you seek, look no further.  You’ll find The Grave Man a worthwhile read.

The Last Firewall by William Hertling

High Marks for Action in a Somewhat Overused Plot

There are technothrillers that chill you with a look at near-future technology gone wrong.  And there are ones that rock you with action that’s both real, near-term, and perhaps out there a bit.  The Last Firewall is solidly in the camp of the latter.

Catherine (Cat) Matthews is an everyday student (in a near-future world) with everyday concerns, such as boyfriends, and only a few quirks.  For one, she can see people’s data streams in netspace and sever them.  But when she’s pushed into a life or death situation, she discovers capabilities she didn’t know she had, starting her on a collision course with an Artificial Intelligence with designs on the world.  That course is littered with bodies and battles, waged with everything from today’s bullets to tomorrow’s massive cyberattacks.  Catherine is supported (and opposed) by a cast of interesting characters – other AIs, robots, the creators of Artificial Intelligence, human-AI hybrids.  Other than a couple of the villains, there’s hardly a human you’d recognize.  But all the same, they feel more real than you might expect, adding to the book’s appeal.

There are a few downsides.  For one, romantic inclinations in the heat of battle seem a bit out of place.  Cat discovering new capabilities just in the nick of time also gets a bit overused.  And the basic plot – an evil AI taking over the world is somewhat trite.  That said, The Last Firewall does that theme just about as well as any of them, blending an array of current and possible future network technology.

So, if you’re looking for a thought-provoking story on AIs and human coexisting in the future, you’re probably in the wrong place.  But if you’re seeking an action-packed battle to the end between a super heroine still learning her powers and an evil AI, The Last Firewall is for you.

The Final Enemy by Dan Petrosini

Not Hard Science Fiction; More Like Sensationalized Fantasy

The Final Enemy is the story of Jack Amato, a newly graduated reporter who is writing obituaries for a Keokuk, Iowa, newspaper, waiting for the scoop that will lead to fame and fortune.  And when he makes a far-fetched connection between a meteorite that lands near his home and the cessation of death – and the connection proves real – he has his exclusive.  What follows, however, is not what he expected from fame and immortality.

The story gets high marks for vividly portraying humanity’s fight for survival in this apocalyptic tale.  It becomes gruesome and gory in places as the government tries to tiptoe its way through the landmines of population growth, the loss of spirituality, and widespread famine.  They often misstep and Jack is quick to cover the human suffering.

But unfortunately, the problems with the story are many.  Take for instance the fact that Jack’s second major scoop is that overpopulation may result if there is no death.  Wouldn’t anyone conclude that after about 30 seconds?  Jack’s rise to fame seemed like the daydream of a fifteen-year-old, not that of a protagonist in an apocalyptic thriller.  Additionally, for a “hard science fiction” book, the genre indicated on Amazon, most of the science-related material is treated with a wave of a hand.  It’s a new “element” but its atomic number is never found.  It emits some type of energy, but the type is never known.  It ends death, but the only hypothesis suggested is that cells continue to divide forever.  But cellular senescence (loss of function) increases mortality after maturity, it doesn’t cause it.

Human nature is also dealt with the poorly.  When the connection to immortality is proven, everyone demands to be exposed – there is widespread rioting to get close, even though the side effects aren’t known.  Even though the long-term effects aren’t known.  Even though it doesn’t restore people, it just keeps them from dying.  Would people really clamor for immortality if they had to live with a growing list of infirmities forever?

Admittedly, several of these limitations stem from the fact that when I read hard science fiction, I was expecting a story that builds tension and suspense by blurring the line between technical knowledge and a theoretically possible fiction.  If this is what you are seeking, you should look elsewhere.  However, as a fantasy about population growing out of control and some bizarre countermeasures by a beleaguered government, it yields a descriptive, surprising tale, if not always believable.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The End is a Gem

The Late Show introduces a new Michael Connelly character, Detective Renee Ballard who works the night shift in Hollywood, aka the Late Show.  Although a new character, Ballard immediately shows allegiance to the familiar Harry Bosch credo, everybody counts or nobody counts, as she commits herself to three cases that are likely to fall through the cracks if she drops them at the end of her shift.  And so, she doesn’t, putting her at odds with police policy and perhaps more importantly, department politics.

Ballard is well developed as the driven detective, bending the rules when they will and breaking them when she feels she must.  I’m not a big fan of either perfect protagonists who never fail or the heroes who are so flawed that it’s hard to know whether they succeeded or their demons did.  Ballard is perhaps a bit closer to the latter than I would prefer, as her dedication to the underdog approaches reckless obsession in places.  But I have to say, that made for excellent pacing as the plot moves from looks into her unusual and disquieting past to scenes of tense action, gut-wrenching in places.

There seem to be a few scenes where things occur somewhat conveniently – developing the initial lead on the case involving the assault on the prostitute is an example.  And in places, Ballard seems to be moving faster than teams of detectives working the same issue.  But overall, Connelly continues as the master of the police procedural.  The book is filled with the jargon and terminology of the field, giving the book a strong feel of authenticity, of being in the moment.

And, without giving a spoiler, all I can say is that the end is a gem.

So, overall, if you have ever enjoyed police procedural mysteries and particularly ones with strong, well-defined female leads, I don’t see how The Late Show could miss for you.  I know it was a hit with me.

Dead Close to Reality by Jennifer Bull

A tense, physical plot in a well-paced read

Dead Close to Reality is the story of Cora Winters, computer geek, and her attempts to unravel several mysterious deaths connected to a high-tech, virtual reality game.  In a generally well-paced story, somewhat grittier than a typical YA mystery/thriller, she battles virtual as well has real enemies in a constantly shifting landscape of friend and foe, dead and alive.

Dead Close to Reality bears many of the hallmarks of a YA mystery/thriller, e.g., young protagonist, largely missing or ineffectual adults (unless they are villains of course), little or no sex.  But this book goes a bit farther on violence than I consider typical.  That’s not to say it was graphic, but violence was frequent and often intense.  If you’re looking for a somewhat more ‘physical’ YA yarn, this one will fit nicely.

The pacing was good, although the author did repeat some themes a bit much.  Cora’s complaints about a ‘nuisance’ male friend, Derek, was an example.  But overall, the story flowed well and held my attention to the end.  As for character development, Cora represented a strong, intelligent, and independent female, all great qualities.  But there is a fine line between strong and headstrong for no reason, and Cora’s unwillingness to trust anyone became somewhat tedious.  If her self-reliance had succeeded, it might have made more sense.  But the author used frequent reversals of fortune to keep tension high, making me wish Cora had used more of her intellect to discover her real friends and develop better plans.  She was likeable as seat-of-the-pants gutsy and tough, but not much of a tactician or strategist.

The main factor that kept me from becoming fully immersed, however, was the lack of attention to making the story seem real, or at least near-future real, rather than just ignoring implausibility for plot convenience.  There was something like a half-dozen deaths connected to the game, but there was no public outcry.  There was no media frenzy.  There was hardly any police presence.  And at one point, 20-30 people were being held against their will in a cave, but an individual connected with law enforcement told Cora she had to hang on until he could get enough evidence for a conviction.  Huh?  Simply put, the story lacked the confluence of tragic coincidence or unforeseen circumstances that the best authors find to tie your stomach in a knot, rather than make you scratch your head.

Overall, the story has some holes and a heroine that could often use her smarts to better effect, but it’s still a tense, physical plot in a well-paced read.

Liberty’s Last Stand by Stephen Coonts

As a Story, It’s Great; As a Precautionary Note, It’s Muddled

In Liberty’s Last Stand, President Barry Saetoro’s uses the cover of terrorist attacks to declare martial law, adjourn Congress, suspend the constitution, and jail his detractors.  He wants to be dictator of the United States.  There’s also a political message in the book, a precautionary note about liberal, left-wing politics.  That message, however, becomes extremely muddled, significantly detracting from an otherwise outstanding thriller.

Politics aside (if you can do that), this is an extremely well written story.  It grabbed me in the opening scenes with good action and interesting characters, and it never let go.  Series figures Jake Grafton and Tommy Carmellini are featured and right in character.  But we’re also introduced to a host of new players, and Coonts does an admirable job developing them and making them feel real.   Plot twists and suspense aren’t highlights of this book; it’s clear where it’s going from the outset.  But Coonts keeps the tension building and uses a few, well-placed misdirects.  There is one plot flaw, at least for me.  It was much too convenient the way Grafton organizes resistance that appears after the coup but claims he couldn’t have done the same beforehand.  And he’s Director of the CIA?  Really?

With the rather consistent references to left-wing politics and their devastating effect on the country, the thriller aspect of the novel almost takes a back seat to the politicking.  That’s unfortunate, not so much because it occurs, as many authors decry a variety of excesses of that harm society.  But the problem with the politics in this book was that the message got quite muddled because Saetoro wasn’t a left-wing politician.  He was a fascist.  Even with the varying and conflicting meanings of left and right-wing, Saetoro was a right-wing wolf in left-wing sheep’s clothing, complete with delusions of absolute power and a chosen race.  His claims to typical left-wing causes were a ruse.  To him, climate change was a means to keep the masses under his rule, not a way to save the planet.  And because of that, all the diatribes in the prose and dialog about left-wing politics, all the attacks on Saetoro’s label rather than the man, became tedious sermonizing.

Overall, it was an extremely well written, political thriller, but in the end, trying to tie the condemnation of left-wing politics to someone who wasn’t left-wing became too tiring.

A Case of Need by Michael Crichton

Not Crichton’s Best Work…Not Even Close

A Case of Need is the story of Dr. John Berry’s efforts to clear his fellow doctor and friend, Dr. Arthur Lee, after a teenager in his care dies from an illegal abortion.  My first thought for a title for this review was, ‘You’ll need a scorecard to follow all the characters in this somewhat preachy, meandering plot involving an obstinate doctor who wants to play detective but has no idea how the criminal justice system works.’  But that seemed a bit long.

As mentioned above, the story deals with abortion and the need to broaden/relax the laws.  So, depending on your political and religious leanings, you may find the story anywhere between contemporary and thought-provoking to depraved and immoral.  Be advised.

Beyond the ethical position it takes, there is a story here with some suspense and good pacing.  The suspense is provided by assembling a myriad of suspects and digging into the background of several witnesses, many of whom have their own secrets – drug use, infidelity, self-destructive behavior, deceitfulness.  And surprisingly, Berry, with no authority and only some vague background in the Military Police, unearths all of this information singlehandedly.  But after doing so, he doesn’t understand he has more than enough to raise reasonable doubt; then he doesn’t want to use this information because it’s too “dirty;” finally, he complains that the lawyer didn’t use it aggressively enough.  The only consistency I could find in Berry was that he always wanted to play it alone and as a result, the circumstances that pitted him against the world were of his own making.  That behavior doesn’t gain my empathy and tends to make my mind wander to other books I could be reading.

As a long-time Crichton fan, I thought I’d always be able to recommend one of his stories.  I was wrong.  My advice, look elsewhere for your reading entertainment.

The Killdeer Connection (Lawyer David Thompson Series Book 1) by Tom Swyers

A Shaky Plot and Somewhat Preachy Dialog Limits this Book’s Appeal

The Killdeer Connection is the story of lawyer David Thompson’s struggle to clear his name after he is falsely accused of killing an acquaintance, Harold Salar.  And when a possible link to terrorism comes up, Thompson is fighting for his life.  One of his main clues?  A cryptic message in Salar’s will that says, ‘always follow the killdeer’ – a message that has a host of meanings, both symbolic and literal.

Swyer is an excellent writer – one who is particularly adept at creating visual descriptions that convey the underlying psychology of a situation, as well as the physical scene.  The initial meeting at Baxter & Chadwick, lawyers for the oil industry, and at the oil field in Williston, North Dakota, are particularly good examples.  If there is a flaw in these descriptions, it’s that they do tend to be overly long and in some cases, misplaced.  The scene where Thompson and a friend, Jim, are watching dust particles, until Jim chases them away with a hand is an example of the latter issue.  I had a hard time picturing why anyone would be doing that.

Thompson as the protagonist was cast as the man who tried to do it all himself, tending toward sarcasm and deceit as his tools.  When he wasn’t making excuses or telling half-truths to everyone from his wife to the FBI, he was preaching about the dangers of transporting oil by rail – complete with statistics.  True, it is dangerous, but he wasn’t comparing its pros and cons against pipelines or alternative energy.  He was sermonizing and those sections became ponderous.  By the end, Thompson was transformed by his experiences…maybe.  But even at the conclusion, he was grandstanding and reveling in his moral stands.  I never came around to liking him.

One of my biggest concerns, however, was that the plot was shaky.  For example, physical evidence links Thompson to the murder scene when he clears a spot and sits down near the body.  While that is odd enough, at least two later scenes have him running into the apartment holding his breath because the smell is so bad, even though the body has been removed.  The notion that the FBI would consider Thompson a terrorist based on the evidence they had seemed ludicrous.  That they would even think terrorism was a motive given the nature of the crimes was not believable to start with.  How could Salar have left the clues he supposedly did when he was being accosted?  Why did Salar put Thompson in such an awkward position when his objectives could have been accomplished many other ways?  Etc.

The author has some reveals at the conclusion that tie up some loose ends, but several of the apparent twists involve revelations that have little to do with the story.  Many other questions that are germane, however, remain unanswered.

Repository by Ela Lond

A Near-Future YA/Cozy Mystery with A Somewhat Predictable End

Set one hundred years in the future, Repository is the story of Maya Bell, an eighteen-year-old university student who stumbles across an apparent murder.  Teaming with a classmate from high school who’s now a policeman-in-training, Damien Cain, they pursue the case as it grows from an isolated incident to a major conspiracy built on a heinous disregard of life.

Repository has the feel of a young adult or cozy mystery even if it’s not classified that way (it’s in the Mystery/Thriller, women and amateur sleuth genre on Amazon).  That feel suits the story well, as much of the excitement comes from the optimism and enthusiasm of youth.  Why call in backup or carefully stake out a potential crime scene when you can rush in unprepared?  But that feel also dampens some of the emotion when its needed.  On discovering the atrocious nature of the crime they were investigating, the comment was that it’s “…horrible and really disgusting.”

Maya was easy to like as the over-achieving, guilt-ridden student turned sleuth.  And other than the immaturity that seemed extreme in places, Damien was as well.  Pacing was good, although there seemed some unnecessary repetition.  Overall, the plot was somewhat predictable; it was fairly clear from about the middle of the book what was happening and how it would end.  The details getting there, of course, were unknown and the author does an admirable job keeping the reader immersed to the end.

As a story set one-hundred years in the future, Repository provided a somewhat ‘mixed bag’ of future technology.  One gadget that was featured was wearable computing in the form of glasses – a tech novelty that may have already come and gone.  And a lot of the technology seemed 2017 era – emails and dishwashers – or not as far along as you might expect, e.g., androids could be distinguished from humans because of their unsynchronized lip movement.  In 100 years, really?  But there were androids and an Artificial Intelligence with a personality chip, the latter being a lot of fun.

So, if you’re a fan of well-written, YA/cozy mysteries and don’t mind a somewhat predictable finale, you’ll enjoy Repository.

Liberty Boy by David Gaughran

The Historical Context is Excellent; the Fictional Story, Not So Much

Historical fiction is, obviously, part history and part story.  Liberty Boy did well in creating the look and feel of the period (the British oppression and Robert Emmet’s uprising in 1803 Ireland), but the accompanying fiction had the feel of a formulaic romance.  I was hoping for more.

Liberty Boy conveyed a feeling of helplessness and oppression that seems appropriate to the period.  The nature of home life, work, social interactions, and political intrigue in this part of the world and time all felt true.  Simply put, the book made a period in history that I knew little about come to life, as good historical fiction will often do.

The pacing of the story was OK to a bit slow with some repetition or unnecessary emphasis, and yet, the book was a quick read.  Perhaps that’s because it’s relatively short.  Character development was good.  I particularly enjoyed Kitty Doyle, who is brash, aggressive, and daring, which of course, stirs the pot in her world.  Development of Jimmy O'Flaherty, on the other hand, started well, but by the end, he seemed both too good and too rudderless to be real.

The plot that went with the history, however, was the primary letdown for me.  In general, it followed a well-worn recipe for romances – keep the potential young lovers apart through a series of misunderstandings, poor timing, and chance events to build emotional tension.  And then…  Well, to finish that thought would give away the ending, but it’s one of the two possible – they get together or they don’t.  But either way, the storyline already felt stale.

So, while the romance was somewhat trite and predictable, the feel of the period comes through at nearly a gut level, making Liberty Boy a worthwhile read.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Solid Characters in an Implausible Plot

I like plot, reading for the tension, suspense, and unexpected twists that the best authors can craft. For me, characters are in books largely to move the plot forward. But characters can also be captivating, as Since We Fell reminded me. Unfortunately for this book, those fascinating and nuanced individuals populate a plot that was often unbelievable and always convenient.

Rachel Childs, the protagonist of Since We Fell, felt real to me and quite easy to like. In the early chapters, Lehane paints her as a woman who is utterly alone – emotionally, psychologically, and physically. By the middle of the book, she has suffered her on-air mental breakdown and is a virtual shut-in. She is a well-developed, complex character through these sections. Her final transformation seemed a bit over-the-top to me, but extreme situations might call for reaching into the depths of one’s psyche and drawing on capacities rarely seen.

Although a bit slow paced initially, I generally enjoyed the author’s writing style, particularly some of the visual similes. This type of comparison is easy to overuse, but Lehane hits a good rhythm. And the end is action packed.

The weakness of the book, however, was the plot. It simply strained credibility too much for me to remain immersed in the story. There are several, specific scenes that were questionable, e.g., an interaction between Rachel and a detective or several scenes involving the villains. Those, however, could be written off as a necessary stretch of the imagination. But it was the primary ‘twist,’ the turning point in the story that came about two-thirds of the way through the book that pushed the story beyond believability. While it forced me to re-characterize much of the action, which good twists will do, it also made everything that had and would happen convenient and generally trite.

Overall, I loved Rachel’s climb back out of self-doubt and despair. If you’re a reader who values character development and vivid prose even when not fully supported by plot, you should enjoy Since We Fell.

The Obsidian Chamber (Agent Pendergast series) by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

A Good Read for New Fans; Not So Much for the Long-Time Ones

For the fans of the Pendergast series, and I count myself among their number, The Obsidian Chamber brings together several familiar figures in a well-written and generally entertaining chase.  But that strength is also its weakness, as the plot seems a bit well-worn.  The old gang keeps coming back from the dead to pursue much the same agenda as before.

In general, I enjoy Preston and Child’s writing.  Their prose flows smoothly and quickly, and I soon become immersed in their stories.  And their primary characters are always interesting, each with their own flaws and often with strange and mysterious roots. 

But these pros don’t offset several weaknesses in this book.  First, one of the “twists” was bringing Pendergast back from the dead (mentioned in the authors’ synopsis).  To avoid a spoiler, I’ll just say he is not the only one, and two resurrections in one book is at least one too many.  Second, for those familiar with the characters, Constance’s abduction would seem a bit implausible both because of the setting and her past history with the abductor.  But even without previous exposure to the series, Proctor’s race to her rescue would seem ill-considered.  And finally, again for the long-time readers, The Obsidian Chamber does little to further the series, as the book brings back an animosity that’s driven several of the previous novels.  If there is a positive, at least none of the main characters dies, so we don’t have to expect another miraculous return from the grave.

Overall, new readers to the series will find The Obsidian Chamber entertaining.  It’s a well-written, fast read, with only a few questionable coincidences or actions to mar the flow.  But for the long-time reader, these glitches are magnified, especially in the context of a theme that’s not really new.

Hyper by John A. Autero

Don’t You Love It When a Plot Comes Together?

There are books that end with threads still hanging.  There are the ones that tie it all up, but you saw the finale coming after the first 20 pages.  And then, there’s the ones that sneak up on you with a finish that makes you rethink the whole story.  They’re fun.  Hyper is one of them.

Hyper is a whodunit, set in the future and on a station in deep space.  And with a limited cast of unusual characters (seven of them), guessing the killer is possible…even quite likely, as the body count continues to rise.  But giving the killing spree context was the real twist for me, and when the author sprung it, I admit making that admiring nod.  He got me.  And when it happened, I saw several of the characters in a new light.

In general, the pace of the book is good, as the story moves from death to death at a nice clip.  There are some deliberate flashbacks that seemed to interrupt the flow, but even those apparent diversions made sense by the end.  The violence is intense and gruesome; the book is adult reading.  Character development is adequate, although a bit stereotypic around people like the “thug from the south side of Chicago” (author synopsis).  But the individuals are interesting and easily distinguished, allowing the story to flow readily.

With its future setting (the year 2061), the technology gave me some pause.  It seemed to range from futuristic (space stations and cyborgs) to 2017-era manufacturing, communications, and computing systems.  In some ways, it seemed like ‘steampunk,’ except that the technology inserted into the dystopian future is not Victorian-era steam gauges and engines, but the maze of pipes, tanks, and compressors of today’s manufacturing world.

Overall, for a somewhat grisly whodunit all tied up neatly with a thought-provoking climax, I recommend Hyper as a fun and fast read.

Book Review:  The Negative’s Tale by R. Leib

A Story in a Story and Both Are Good

OK, it’s not really a story in a story, but rather, a story with some extended flashbacks.  But the last flashback nearly stole the show for me – thus the title.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The Negative’s Tale is the story of Allon Wu, a rare ‘negative’ who can tap into the psychic abilities of others, e.g., their clairvoyance, telepathy, etc.  When the Vice Admiral of the Space Guards, Allon’s wife, can trust no one else to unravel a mysterious death on the Kostya station, she calls on her reclusive, somewhat burned-out husband for help.

One of the early flashbacks develops Allon’s character and introduces us to his world by way of his psychic skills, martial arts, and science training.  I found it fascinating.  But as I said above, it was a final flashback that rivaled the main plot.  It involves Allon’s exploits on a hostile planet inhabited by a psychic, crustacean-like species.  It is a fast, fun, and highly descriptive sequence, bound to leave the reader with some strange and entertaining images.

The primary plot – investigating the death of Bertie Lindermann – is a more traditional murder mystery.  It even ends with a scene in which Allon confronts the suspects in a big reveal.  But like the flashbacks, the author has saved a few twists for his primary storyline, just to keep us readers guessing.

For me, the integration of science fiction and mystery in The Negative’s Tale was handled perfectly, with enough touches of advanced technology, the paranormal, and ethical/cultural issues to appeal on many different levels.  It’s a story well worth the read.

Book Review:  To Conquer Heaven by Felix Long

An Outstanding Story, but It Takes Some Persistence

College buddies Jeremy Wang and Brett East team up with Dr. Saffiyah Halcyone, Egyptian archaeologist, to search for the lost tomb of the first emperor of China, Shi Huang Di.  Joined by the mysterious Jin, the threesome face the perils of rivers of mercury, terracotta warriors, and a quicksilver dragon in order to stop the emperor before he can rise again and continue his quest To Conquer Heaven.

I found this story nothing short of outstanding in the way it weaves history, folklore, science, and magic into the plot.  Desperate to conquer death, the first emperor of China calls upon the Egyptians and their expertise on the afterlife.  That, in turn, brings into play stories such as the curse of the Pharaohs and historical characters such as Howard Carter and Aleister Crowley.  Coupled with the mythical figure of the Monkey King in Chinese folklore and the tyrannical legacy of Shi Huang Di, author Felix Long has a great deal of violence, magic, and mystery with which to work.  And he weaves all these threads into a conclusion, a feat I was not certain was possible mid-story.

Writings from the Tao Te Ching, the foundation of Taoism, introduce each chapter.  It’s basic form of declarations, followed by contradictions to stimulate thought, seemed to be continued into the novel.  The chapters when our explorers first enter the tomb are filled with contradictory situations, with Jeremy, a doctoral student, and Saffiyah seeking science-based explanations for what appears to be magic.  In some cases, science gets them out of a jam.  But when it doesn’t, magic is there as the backup.  It’s a fascinating interplay.

Character development in the story gave me some pause.  For an Egyptian archaeologist and a doctoral student, there was not much planning and forethought for their adventure.  And giggling and ‘horseplay’ were more common than I would have expected.  Even the budding romance seemed to come out of nowhere.  But overall, these were secondary issues.

More troubling for me was the writing style.  Clearly, there are passages that are beautifully worded and highly evocative.  Take for example: “The sheer delight of survival was trickling away behind her, like a melting candy coating revealing a seed of cold panic in her breast.”  Very expressive, but any technique can be over-worked.  And analogies are.  Then, there are phrases that seem complex for no apparent reason, e.g., ““There was a subliminal susurration on the edge of the audible spectrum.”  As far as I can tell, that just means there was a soft rustling.  It’s clearly a matter of taste, but for mine, the prose was unnecessarily dense, requiring some persistence to complete an otherwise outstanding tale.

If you’re drawn to adventures that cleverly mix history, myth, science, and magic, especially when they are of a Chinese and/or Egyptian origin, To Conquer Heaven is a treat.  You just need to be a bit persistent.

Book Review:  Through Shade and Shadow (Shades and Shadows Book 1) by Natalie J. Case

Stage Setting, with a Fair Dose of Action

Through Shade and Shadow felt very much like setting the stage – that is, establishing the characters and building parts of the fantasy world before the protagonists become engaged in the main conflict.  But as stage setting goes, this book did pretty well as the action was fast, although it was not always as immersive as I might have liked.

The violence in Through Shade and Shadow was the result of bigotry and intolerance, after a mass murderer was identified as a Shade.  Shades were previously considered a mythical species with supernatural healing capabilities, so the hatred that erupted was from a fear of those who are different.  To reinforce that idea, the author had the persecution extend well beyond the Shades and the other fantasy species (Shadows, Shifters, Sages) to many other groups and organizations.  Over the course of the story, blacks, immigrants, synagogues, gays, Planned Parenthood, and others were attacked, often with horrific results.  While the use of these examples brings to mind real world events, the breadth of the persecution seemed generally unrealistic.  Even the story’s references to extreme religious close-mindedness, hatemongering on the political front, and violent military stereotypes did little to make these events seem more than a listing of historical intolerance.

The book spends some considerable time developing the lifestyle and gifts of the two primary characters, Mason Jerah, a Shade, and Alaric Lambrecht, who is a Shadow.  Both are being thrust into roles much greater than anything they had experienced before and it is easy to feel their growing pains.  Beyond these two individuals, the author expounds on a variety of other fantasy species and their gifts – the ability to feel another’s emotions, to see another’s thoughts, to plant thoughts, to create false appearances, to control fire, to control light, and so on.  While variety may generally add interest to a story, when so many supernatural capabilities are available in a fantasy world, creating obstacles becomes a matter of explaining why a gift doesn’t work and eliminating problems just takes the right gift at the right time.  The creation of tension and its resolution starts to feel artificial, subject completely to the stage of the story.

So, while the plight described in Through Shade and Shadow will, unfortunately, bring to mind many real-world events, the breadth of the persecution and the lack of boundaries on supernatural gifts tends to render the story somewhat strained.

Book Review:  As Wings Unfurl by Arthur M. Doweyko
SciFi Action with Meaning on Several Levels
When the reader first meets Applegate “Apple” Bogdanski, he is “…looking forward to nothing and hoping it will arrive soon,” as the author’s synopsis puts it.  But then, he and two other reluctant heroes become involved in a battle with an alien race for no less than the survival of humanity.  Despite how trite that may sound, As Wings Unfurl has enough action, differing themes, and twists in the nature of the combatants to make it an interesting read.
As Wings Unfurl is on the high end of the action-and-pacing scale.  From the first scenes in which Apple stops a mugging, only to wake up later to be hailed as a hero, the fights come fast and frequent.  And they’re battles that can be viewed from multiple perspectives – as a war between good and evil, including some with religious overtones; a battle between humanity and aliens; a fight within a person for self-respect; and a battle to prove that mankind can evolve to something worth saving.  The last battle ground, in particular, is mentioned frequently and started to feel a bit overworked by the end.  There is also the issue that the physical battle left casualties, but too often, these dead returned to fight again.  That type of misdirection is better not repeated as often as it was in this book.
Part of the pace of the book is driven by changes in setting, with the story taking place in New York, Tibet, and London.  But while the author does an admirable job of crafting vivid descriptions of each locale, the movement often seemed abrupt and haphazard.  When flashbacks to other areas, e.g., Vietnam, were added, shifts in the setting became difficult to follow and on occasion, jarring.
The characters were developed gradually throughout the story, and Apple becomes fairly well-defined as the war hero who can’t accept his failures along with his valor.  Other supporting characters – Shilog, Yowl, and Angela – are less well developed, perhaps in part because they represent cultures/species with which most readers will be less familiar.  This fact may also be partially responsible for why the attraction between Apple and Angela felt rushed and poorly founded.  But whatever the reason, it felt underdeveloped.
So, for a SciFi tale with lots of actions and some interesting twists on the characters involved and the nature of the battle, As Wings Unfurl makes an enjoyable read.

Book Review:  Over Shadowed (Over Cast Series Book 2) by K.W. Benton

Teenage Angst & Fantasy Creatures – Who Knew the Mix Could Be So Funny?

Generally, I start my reviews with a one or two sentence summary of the story.  But for Over Shadowed, the crux of the book is not so much in the multi-threaded plot but rather, the interplay of teenage angst and what it means to be a maturing witch or werewolf or faery on top of that.  The result is always entertaining and is often hilarious.
So, take the ‘normal’ worries of a teenage girl according to this novel – am I pretty, just what’s up with boys, can I survive another year of school – and add to it being a member of a fantasy species, or being turned to one, or being mated to one, and you have some idea of the fodder author K.W. Benton has to work with.  The dissonances that occur are further highlighted by the protagonist’s sense of humor.  At one point, Nat wonders if she could “…get a master’s degree in sarcasm.”  I’d say yes, in any of the most prestigious schools that give one.  And her BFF, G.J. doesn’t do bad in that department either.
Added to the human/fantasy species, coming-of-age story line, the book has a number of more dramatic plot elements.  Nat has become a bridge to the Shadow World, threatening to bring some not so nice hijackers back with her when she returns to Earth.  Her parents are so concerned that they flee.  People are being gruesomely murdered.  And more.  But the problem with having so many plot threads is that it is difficult to develop them fully.  Sometimes, the transition from one crisis to another occurs mid conversation.  Additionally, the tongue-in-cheek way the characters treat these life-and-death matters makes it difficult for the reader to take them seriously.  Admittedly, this balance is a problem whenever humor and drama are mixed, but the interplay here becomes somewhat more jumbled than I would have liked.
Finally, Over Shadowed is the second book in the series and I did not read the first.  While I you can read this book as a standalone, I suspect I missed out on quite a bit of character development.  In particular, the author’s synopsis mentions that Drake was Nat’s nemesis, which must have been developed in book 1.  This fact would help explain some of Nat’s behavior in book 2 that had me scratching my head a bit.
So, while the delicate balance of drama and humor might have been done better, the humor comes on strong and makes Over Shadowed a quite worthwhile read.

Book Review:  The Life Siphon by Kathryn Sommerlot

A Reluctant Hero, Battling Evil Magic…and Himself

The Life Siphon is the first book of a duology.  It tells the story of Tatsu, a reclusive woodsman who is reluctantly drawn into a conflict with a neighboring kingdom.  To save the day, he must stop a magical energy that siphons the life force from every living thing it encounters.

Overall, the story flows well.  With the book’s length – 363 pages – and a tendency by the author to repeat some thoughts for emphasis, I wasn’t necessarily expecting that.  But it was a quick read that easily held my attention, attesting to the author’s skill.  There is also plenty of action, which obviously helps with the pace.  A few action scenes seem a bit well-worn in the fantasy genre, but those are well done.  And there are enough twists in the plot to keep you wondering.

Other than Tatsu, the characters come and go throughout the story, making them feel a bit under-developed…and often a bit mysterious.  There is, however, enough detail in their portrayals to flesh out a supporting cast.  Tatsu, on the other hand, is well developed as the reluctant hero.  He is (for the most part) happy in his isolated life in the woods.  But when he’s implicated in a crime against his homeland, the scene is set for him to be forced into service for the crown.

Apart from the action, a great deal of the book is spent exploring the angst of the reluctant hero.  And for me, this is where the book became a bit muddled.  Sometimes I could not reconcile how Tatsu was acting with what he was feeling (according to our third person perspective or his nonverbal cues).  Or I wasn’t sure what in the story had elicited his emotional response or his change in feelings.  Toward the end, for example, Tatsu becomes overwhelmed with, let’s say, ‘family issues’ to avoid a spoiler.  Yet, in the midst of this, he agrees with the statement that ‘blood doesn’t dictate who you are.’  Admittedly, recounting the doubts and misgivings of a reluctant hero is a way to add tension to a fantasy, but I couldn’t quite make sense of some of Tatsu’s reactions and emotional swings.

Overall, if you are a fan of fantasies, particularly ones with a somewhat conflicted and anxious reluctant hero, The Life Siphon will make a great addition to your shelf.

Book Review:  Blood Shot by Blake Colby

Its Irreverence Has No Bounds

Is there anything you hold sacred – life, love, family, a good bologna sandwich?  If so, you may not want to read Blood Shot, because it treats everything in life with a merciless irreverence.  Well, everything that is except…basketball.

In a word, I found Blood Shot to be hilarious.  Its humorous exaggerations, most of which were quite politically incorrect, centered on the lack of worldliness of an elite professional basketball player turned private detective named Kable Anderken.  Who else other than the coddled pro wouldn’t understand the purpose of public transportation?  Who else would carry several thousand dollars in his socks just in case he needed to bribe a government official?  Who else would repeatedly drop his wallet and passport on the floor because he was jumping up and down, yelling about a game on TV…and not consider it a problem?  There was hardly a situation that Anderken assessed correctly, because he had never had to worry about pedestrian concerns such as money or career or other people or…well, just about anything else, including staying straight. 

There is also murder mystery in the book, with some strangely odd twists and lots of action that result in an array of injuries to Anderken and an ever-rising body count.  And, as you might guess from the tongue-in-cheek nature of this work, Anderken has some success solving the mystery despite his complete lack of aptitude, skill, and knowledge.  How much success?  Well, that would be a spoiler, right?

So, if you’re in the mood for some laughs and you’re not an overpaid athlete who thinks heroin is an over-the-counter drug, then Blood Shot may be the perfect read for you.

Book Review:  Raven’s Rise by Lincoln Cole

A High-Octane Finish to a Trilogy?

Raven’s Rise is the third book in the World on Fire series by Lincoln Cole.  I haven’t seen the author use the word ‘trilogy,’ although admittedly I haven’t looked that hard.  But this installment clearly brings to a close a number of mysteries and leaves few characters hanging by a thread…unlike the previous books.  So, yes, it has the feel of the end of a trilogy, while leaving ample room for the same characters to fight new hordes of demons and leave us again gasping for breath.

As I did after book 2, I’ll address the question, are these books standalone or do you need to read them in order?  And I’ll stick with my previous answer – I’d strongly recommend sticking with the sequence.  If nothing else, you’ll miss out on the development of Haatim as a character if you start here, and for me, that was central to the story.

Raven’s Rise is primarily action-oriented, starting from the first chapter, which put my heart in my throat.  The mysteries that were laid out in books 1 and 2 get resolved, often with a plot twist.  But none of the twists seemed to release any tension, as it built continuously to the end.  The author’s writing style is informal, almost as if he is just telling you a story by the campfire.  Of course, with the prominence of evil in these books, the story might not be one you’d enjoy that much at night, far from the safe confines of your home.  The downside of this style, however, is that occasionally the sentences become a bit convoluted.  But with a handful of such situations in a 370-page book, it’s not really an issue – for me, anyway.

No review is complete without some critique, and for me, there were just a couple of areas I wished the story had been handled differently.  First, one of my pet peeves with fantasy/occult books is when all the supernatural conventions of the first, in this case, 2.5 books get violated in the final pages in order to reach a resolution.  This happened, in a way, in that something inexplicable occurred at the end.  But it appeared so late and seemed so tangential that I wonder if it is just the author’s segue to the next trilogy?  We’ll see.  And second, by about 70% of the way through the book, the mysteries had been resolved and the battle lines had been drawn - all that was left was the fight to the death.  But that covered over 100 of those 370 pages.  To me, the impact of this book would have been doubled if the finale had been halved.  My heart can only race for so long.

So, for a superior (perhaps) trilogy, featuring some great action, unexpected twists, and plenty of tension to go around, don’t miss this series.  And if you have to read just one of the series, make it Raven’s Rise.

Book Review:  Forever and a Night Dark Experiments by Lana Campbell

Twilight meets Grey’s Anatomy

Romance continues to be the most popular literary genre according to most surveys, with paranormal romance being a prevalent subgenre.  Mystery/thriller/suspense tends to come in second.  So how could you go wrong with a Paranormal Romance Mystery?  With a love affair between Tiffany Peebles, a human, and Dr. Christian La Mond, a vampire, in the midst of attacks by an unknown serial killer, that’s exactly where I’d put Forever and a Night Dark Experiments by Lana Campbell.

The basic romance plot is fairly standard, with boy and girl experiencing a strong romantic attraction, then complications ensue – in this case, the girl feeling she doesn’t fit in the boy’s world and that he deserves better.  And the rest of the romance story is them trying to overcome that hurdle.  There is additional spice, of course, as we’re talking about a human and a vampire, so we have twice the suggestive scenes, some of which are rather explicit but always done tastefully.  Running parallel to this story is a good murder mystery.  It’s intense, especially considering the targets of the killer and the author provides a couple of good twists.  In fact, for me, this was the best part of the book – it gave the story an edge that kept me turning the pages.

Christian La Mond as the vampire doctor is a bit stereotypic in everything but his species.  He’s the ruggedly ‘beautiful,’ transplanted Texan in cowboy boots and pickup truck.  Tiffany, on the other hand, is anything but stereotypic.  As a self-described computer nerd, one might think quiet and socially inept.  She is, in a way, but she also has a temper, is an outdoor sports enthusiast, has a sharp tongue, and is somewhat self-centered and emotion-driven in her initial reactions to situations (later retracting her outbursts).  Her maturation is one of the main themes of the story and is quite well done.

There are a few areas where this book could be improved.  First, there are some minor editing issues – sentences with missing words, words used incorrectly, and the like.  These are, as I said, minor, but have a tendency to pull you out of the make-believe world for a moment to reconcile them.  Second, on a more technical level, melding two different genres is always tricky, and there are places where the romance and the suspense in this book seem to clash.  Romantic shenanigans in the same setting as a killing spree requires some delicate balancing.  There is also some unnecessary repetition and a little tightening of dialog and plot would have helped the pacing.

Overall, if you’re looking for a Paranormal Romance Mystery, with some solid roots in the mystery genre and some interesting character development, Forever and a Night Dark Experiments is worth the read.

Book Review:  The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

Witty Sci-Fi with a Message

The Box of Tricks has the mind-boggling technology one expects in a sci-fi book, along with the battle between good and evil.  But under all the expected sci-fi trappings, Alistair Potter still delivers well-developed characters and even a message to his readers, all wrapped in humor and wit.

The story centers around Tom Mathers, a mild-mannered, somewhat socially inept taxi driver from Edinburgh.  Thrust into his strange new reality, Tom matures.  But even by the end of the book, his timidity is often the appropriate trait and common sense is generally the correct tactic.  Other than a strong sense of loyalty to friends and a desire to do right, Tom was an everyday hero, and I appreciated that fact.  Romantic interest Suzie and co-protagonist Fanshawe also come across as believable, although toward the riskier end of the scale.

Pacing is also excellent.  The author moves steadily through challenges revealed, skirmishes waged, and alliances formed, saving a few unexpected twists for the end.  The aptness of the pacing is also apparent in Potter’s treatment of his social message about our stewardship of the planet.  It would be easy for that message to become overbearing…but it doesn’t.  The author maintains a velocity that keeps us engrossed and entertained.

I wouldn’t say the book is a laugh-a-minute tome – what American reader would say that about British humor?  But it does have a tongue-in-cheek witticism that was very appealing.  If you want to take the possible end of planet earth completely seriously, you may need to look elsewhere.

Overall, The Book of Tricks felt like storytelling at its best, with solid characters, good pacing, a touch of humor, and a broader message.  It’s well worth the read.

Book Review:  Ice Rift: An Action Adventure Sci-Fi Horror set in Antarctica by Ben Hammott

A ‘Slasher Film’ in Book Form

As I was reading Ice Rift, I kept thinking it had a number of similarities to a ‘slasher film.’  In particular, I was thinking of that scene where the so-to-be-victims are deciding if they should hide in the basement, when that is exactly where the psychotic killer does his thing.  And you keep thinking, don’t go to the basement, don’t go to the basement…and of course, they all go to the basement.  In this case, I was thinking, don’t go into that alien space ship with the malfunctioning door…but they all go in.  Could you really expect anything good to happen after that?

Of course, there are differences between this book and a slasher film, one of the prime being that instead of a single, psychotic killer, you have waves and waves of man-eating, space aliens.  And therein lies one of my concerns I had about this book – pacing.  It was over-paced with space-monster attacks for most of the story.  The constant parade of odd-looking, yet consistently predatory aliens made me numb after a while – almost to the point of chuckling when a new variant appeared.  Even the strangest, most bloodthirsty monsters can become repetitive.  And like one of the characters in the story, I started wondering, where are the cuddly puppies and kittens?  I will give the author credit, however.  He did come up with some ingenious ways for these various species to kill their prey.

The theme of near constant human-alien battle made character development problematic.  Whenever the scientists trapped inside the ship paused to reflect on life or the wonders of the technology or each other, it seemed grossly out of place.  Is this really what they would do in the 30 seconds between narrow escapes?  A budding romance between two characters seemed particularly strained to the point of breaking – I don’t think the bulk of the plot left any room for sex.

There were a few issues in the writing – typos, grammar, etc. – but not many that I noticed.  Sentence structure in places was unusual and the dialog seemed quite stiff on occasion.  But overall, the book was well written.  It is written as third person, allowing looks inside the heads of the characters.  But interestingly, once or twice, the reader was given a peek inside the mind of the main, space-alien ‘villain.’  Personally, I wished the author had either used that technique more or not at all, because the limited use was jarring and left a inconsistent picture of this being.

Overall, readers who enjoy slasher-type stories, recast in a space-alien setting will like Ice Rift, unless the constant parade of monsters wears too thin.

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