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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

OUT OF THE DARKNESS

4 stars out of 5

Reading this book - which I thoroughly enjoyed, BTW - marks a couple of firsts for me. It's the first time I've "won" the right to read and review a book, accomplished at Bookish First after writing an initial impressions paragraph by reading just one chapter. It's also the first time in probably 10 years that I've read a real book; that's how long I've been a confirmed ebook reader. As for the latter, it's likely to be the last for another decade; the paperback had such tiny print that it was tough for my aging eyes to read even with relatively powerful bifocals.

That said, my annoyance with the fine print had no bearing on content; in fact, I've read at least one other book by this author and, because it was good, I expected this one to be the same. And quite honestly, it is.

I've read elsewhere that this is the third in the author's Finnegan Connection series; if that's true, I didn't notice any glitches that kept it from being a standalone. It's also billed as "romantic suspense" - and I'm happy to say that the romance part really didn't take center stage (I'm so not into romance novels). What's there is a bit on the sappy side, to be sure, but for the most part it didn't get in the way of the good parts. As for the suspense, there's plenty to go around, especially as the end nears.

A decade ago, a group of high school friends had a pre-Halloween adventure that would forever change their lives. When they visited one of the New York haunted houses to which they'd scored free tickets, they were greeted with horror. One of the "actors" hired to scare the wits out of guests isn't an actor at all; but for the grace of God (and one heavy duty fake sword), the teens narrowly escaped being massacred by him on the spot (others weren't so lucky). The killer, who turned out to be an escaped convict, was killed - but even though they weren't physically harmed, all the teens were left with enough mental scars to trigger a lifetime of nightmares.

Since then, the friends have scattered a bit. Most notably, Sarah Hampton and the love of her life, Tyler Grant, went their separate ways. She's back in New York now, writing science fiction novels. He's in Boston, working as a private investigator after stints in the military and the FBI. Also hanging around is Sarah's nephew Davey Cray, who has Down Syndrome and was the sword-wielding hero of that awful night 10 years earlier.

Suddenly, the past comes roaring back: One of their friends back then, Hannah Levine, is found murdered. Actually, she wasn't just murdered; rather, she was decapitated, thoroughly chopped up into parts and strewn thither and yon. Scared out of her wits because the murder style mimics those at the haunted house, Sarah contacts Tyler for the first time in 10 years, begging him to come back home and help with the investigation. He does, of course - and also, of course, they quickly realize they're still madly in love with each other.

But alas, they and their other old friends once again have targets on their backs. For sure, the haunted house killer is dead; so who is responsible now? When he escaped prison, the killer had an equally evil partner, who supposedly is long dead as well. Or is he? Has someone else - a copycat, perhaps - taken over where those two left off? More to the point, can the culprit be captured before he (or she) wipes out all the haunted house friends, thus preventing Sarah and Tyler from living happily ever after?

The action is fast-paced and picks up speed (with a few sharp turns, only one of which I correctly guessed) all the way to the end. All in all, a solid effort and a fun read.

Out of the Darkness by Heather Graham (Harlequin Intrigue, February 2018); 256 pp.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

THE CAT OF THE BASKERVILLES

5 stars out of 5

This is the third book in this highly entertaining Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery series; I've read one other and enjoyed it, so when I was lucky enough to be approved by the publisher to read and review an advance copy in exchange for an honest review, I was a happy camper. When it turned out to be even better than that other one, well, my smile widened.

The cozy mysteries follow the amateur sleuthing of Gemma Doyle, co-owner of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium in West London, Massachusetts. Another of the three owners is Jayne Wilson, who also owns and operates a tea shop/bakery that's attached to the bookstore. Originally from England, Gemma has a nose for details and, it seems, loves nothing better than sticking it into the business of the local police (sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not). That both annoys and pleases police detective, Ryan - a former lover who "dumped" her and left the area for another job. Now he's back and the attraction is there, but they've since been holding each other at arms' lengths.

As this begins, the community is excited to learn that a well-known but aging stage actor, Sir Nigel Bellingham, will be in town to star in a local theater production of Holmes's The Hound of the Baskervilles. As rehearsals begin, organizers decide to hold a fund-raising English tea at the home of one of the well-heeled theater-loving ladies - and Jayne convinces Gemma that their shops should handle the catering. Gemma is less enthusiastic, but she agrees. After all, it's a private event for about a hundred local hoity-toits - what could possibly go wrong?

Make that plenty - starting with the fact that Sir Nigel turns out to be a nasty old drunk. Still, everyone expects that his professionalism will surface long enough for him to get through the play; that is, until he's found quite dead at the bottom of a cliff on the property. To make matters even worse, if that's possible, the primary suspect is Jayne's mother Leslie.

Gemma is certain Leslie is innocent, and of course, she sets out to prove it while trying to keep her poking nose out of the sight of law enforcement. That proves next to impossible most of the time, which strains the already fragile relationship between Gemma and Ryan (as well as with Ryan's partner, who has butted heads with Gemma on more than one occasion and isn't fond of her meddling).

More details I must necessarily leave for other readers to discover, but I will say that anyone who enjoys an occasional respite from heavier reading (as I do) or simply the more lighthearted approach of an interesting cozy mystery won't go wrong by picking this one. Thoroughly enjoyable!

The Cat of the Baskervilles: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery by Vicki Delany (Crooked Lane Books, February 2018); 304 pp.

Monday, January 15, 2018

THE REUNION

5 stars out of 5


With 11-and-a-half months to go in 2018 as I write my review, it's too early to say this - but say it I will: If you have but one book to read this year, make it this one. 

Yep, it's that good. It grabbed my mind in the beginning and didn't let go till the end (and beyond - the next day as I finish my review I still feel like I've been run over with a Mack truck).

The story begins in 1996, when a teenage girl named Claire is playing with friends and her little sister Eleanor ("Lenni") on the beach near the family's Trevellin Farm on coastal England. Striving to be independent, as young children do, Lenni begs Claire to let her go off on her own to buy an ice cream cone. Caught up in the thrill of the waves, Claire reluctantly hands her some money and warns her to hurry.

But somewhere between there and back, Lenni disappears - and remains missing in 2017, when the here-and-now story kicks in. Claire still lives in a cottage on the farm near her parents, but now she's a successful realtor, married to a neurosurgeon and has two children. Her father, Patrick, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and is declining rapidly, forcing her mother to seriously consider selling the property (to which Patrick is vehemently opposed). In an effort to help boost his failing memory, Claire decides to host a reunion of the old gang of kids who used to play together. The group includes Claire's best friend Maggie, would-be restaurateur Nick and her brother, Jason, who's married to a very pregnant-with-twins wife.

The idea is met with enthusiasm by all, except perhaps Claire's husband Callum, but take nothing at face value: All the guests are bringing baggage beyond the cases that carry their clothing. Maggie has made a career out of hopping from one boyfriend to another, turning her daughter, Rain, into the teenager from hell. Nick, who was Claire's first love, is struggling with serious family issues as well as his upcoming restaurant launch. Jason is looking forward to fatherhood, but not to seeing his own father - from whom he's been estranged for years. That issue, Claire hopes, will be resolved at the get-together.

Interspersed throughout the book are chapters that show flashes of the past, each adding clues as to what the future may hold. But then, the unthinkable happens: Another girl goes missing. From that point on, there's never a dull moment (although in all honesty, I didn't notice any dull moments before she disappeared, either). The tension - and surprises - just keep mounting all the way to the jaw-dropping end. Whew!

Now that I can breathe again, I guess all that's left is to highly recommend this book and thank the publisher for allowing me to read it in exchange for an honest review. Did I say whew?

The Reunion by Samantha Hayes (Bookouture, February 2018); 410 pp.

Friday, January 12, 2018

UNBOUND

3.5 stars


Teddy Fay is not a nice man. On the other hand, if you want vengeance - all the way up to and including having somebody rubbed out - Teddy's your guy. But if you need to find him, look for Billy Barnett; that's the identity he's been using ever since New York attorney Stone Barrington, his friend of sorts, finagled him a Presidential pardon for sins he committed years earlier. Billy even works at the motion picture production company run by Stone's son, Peter, with his partner Ben (another well-connected son of a filthy rich and powerful guy).

As this story begins, Billy is still mourning the death of his wife, who was run down by a drunk driver - the wife of another filmmaker, Dax Baxter, who outshines Billy in the unnice guy category. Dax also managed to use his considerable wealth and connections to protect his wife from prosecution, which understandably rankles Billy no end. As a former CIA operative back when he was Teddy, Billy is a man who tends to get what he wants - and he wants Dax's head on a platter (literally, if necessary).

Using still another identity, Billy gets hired on the set of Dax's latest movie, where he hopes to create havoc that will hit Dax where it hurts most - in the pocketbook. But Dax smells a rat, figuring out who Billy really is. Worse, he decides Billy needs to be taken out, bringing in some Russian muscle to do the job.

So since this book supposedly is about high-powered, oversexed Stone (this is the 44th book, I believe), how does he play into the story? Hardly at all, as it turns out. Mostly, he jets from place to place, talks on the phone and arranges for friends, including Billy, to stay in one of his ostentatious homes that are scattered all over the country. At least this time he settles on a single woman - a highly successful Sante Fe realtor - rather than trying to keep customers satisfied in all the cities in which he owns property.

All in all, it's not a bad story - perhaps with a bit more murder, mayhem and gore than usual - so if I overlook the fact that Stone is pretty much overlooked, I'm willing to call it a decent read (nowhere near as boring as the last few in this series, in fact). That said, I've never been a big Teddy Fay fan, and this book didn't do much to change that opinion. 

Unbound by Stuart Woods (G.P. Putnam's Sons, January 2018); 318 pp.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

THE ESCAPE ARTIST

5 stars out of 5

Murder, deeply hidden political secrets, interesting but emotionally scarred characters and a unique setting - who could ask for more? Me, actually; I'm thinking (make that hoping) this marks the start of a great new series. 

The intriguing setting is Dover Air Force Base, where exceptionally talented mortician and beekeeper Jim "Zig" Zigarowski lovingly works on the bodies of fallen soldiers and not a few of the U.S. government's high-profile deaths (bringing to mind a male take on Patricia Cornwell's medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta - a long-time favorite series of mine, BTW). As the story begins, a plane has crashed in a remote part of Alaska, killing everyone on board; among the bodies identified by the government and Zig's superiors is Sgt. Nola Brown. Turns out Zig knows her from 10-or-so years ago, when she saved the life of Zig's daughter. But as he begins to restore her body to viewing order, he realizes that the woman he's working on definitely is not Nola. 

But if not Nola, who? Why are the powers-that-be intent on making the rest of the world believe it's her? And perhaps more important, where is the real Nola and what is she up to? Because of his past connection, Zig is determined to find her and get to the truth despite warnings from the people he considers to be his friends.

What he first learns is that Nola held an enviable position - that of artist-in-residence for the U.S. Army. As a highly trained soldier, she goes into battle zones to create  realistic and minds-eye paintings of scenes that showcase details even photographs may not reveal. Most likely, Zig concludes, it was Nola's observations in the Alaska wilderness that made her a target. Following that lead, however, puts Zig himself (surprise!) in places he probably shouldn't be, thus in the crosshairs of some very dangerous people - and conjures up top-secret historical connections between the government and the late Harry Houdini, considered by many to be the world's greatest (insert book title here). It also puts him at odds with Nola herself, who is less than thrilled at being reminded of anything from her troubled past, which readers learn about via flashback chapters.

The ending brings a few twists and offers a ray of hope that indeed, this will be a series; if so, I'll be among the first in line when the next installment is available. Meantime, many thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this one in exchange for an honest review.

The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer (Grand Central Publishing, March 2017); 434 pp.

Monday, January 8, 2018

POISON

5 stars out of 5

Getting shot ain't a walk in the park; and the last time it happened to defense attorney Dismas Hardy, two bullets nearly cost him his life. So now - a year later - he's still recovering and seriously contemplating at least a partial retirement. But everyone knows what happens to best-laid plans - and hopefully for better, not worse, he finds himself trying to defend former client Abby Jarvis. Turns out she's been charged with the murder of her boss, a highly successful owner of a closely held family business. Abby was the man's bookkeeper, hired not long after she got out of jail (a shorter-than-expected stint thanks to Dismas' defense). This time, it's claimed that she was embezzling substantial funds from the company; in part because of her prior record, the police believe her boss caught her in the act and she retaliated by putting a deadly poison in his ever-present tea.

The company will continue under the leadership of the "G Team" - owner Grant Wagner's children, whose names all begin with that letter. But as the investigation proceeds, aided by Dismas' loyal private investigator, Wyatt Hunt, it comes to light that relationships among the dead guy's kids may be less than harmonious. In fact, it can be argued that each of them has reason to get rid of daddy dearest. But the question is, did one of them do the deed? And can Dismas and Wyatt get to the truth before someone else gets hurt (perhaps even Dismas or his grown son, Vincent, who has ties to at least a couple of the suspects)?

I do love this character - this is his 17th appearance - what's not to like about a guy who, when it comes to technology calls himself an "old fart?" That he reads books by another of my favorite authors, C.J. Box, endears him to me even more. And while he may be trying to wind down, he's still "got it" in my book - with the action constant from beginning to end. I won't say that the whodunit came as a big surprise - in fact, I guessed it fairly early on - but that didn't diminish my enjoyment a whit. It's a terrific book, and I thank the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Poison by John Lescroart (Atria Books, February 2018); 304 pp.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

COLD BLOOD

4 stars out of 5

Not to sound like a broken record, but I do love a good series - especially when I'm fond of the main character. John Jordan, senior chaplain at the Gulf Correctional Institute in Florida and an investigator for the Gulf County Sheriff's Department, certainly fills that bill. He works two jobs, BTW, simply because he loves doing both and can't decide which to give up. 

This is the 13th in the series; I've read several others, although I have to admit I've skipped at least two before picking up this one. No matter; I've read enough that there was no problem catching up. At this point, John has an ex-wife and child, a live-in fiance, Anna, and their very young child.

In 2005, a 21-year-old student at the University of West Florida went missing; apparently, the car she was driving crashed in a remote area near the Gulf of Mexico. According to passers-by, the woman - Randa Raffield - was very much alive when they saw her at the scene of the accident. But then, she vanished - leaving her still-drivable car locked and in a spot many miles from the place she'd told others she'd be. A police investigation ensued, but no conclusions were reached (and since she was considered to be a troubled young woman, many believed she committed suicide).

It's 12 years later now, and true crime podcast reporters Merrick and Daniel are looking into the cold case in hopes of getting to the truth. They're both friends with John and ask him for help; after getting permission from the Sheriff (who has close ties to one of the reporters), he agrees. As new details turn up, though, the investigators get threatening messages telling them to back off or else. Needless to say, they don't listen - leading up to a surprise ending that's a real cliffhanger.

And that, perhaps above all else, was what soured me a tiny bit on this one - we're talking a doozy of a cliffhanger, and I'm just not enthralled with that tactic no matter who's doing the writing or how good the book otherwise is. Add in a few too many "coincidences" and an overload of praise laid on John for his wonderfulness, both personally and professionally (to the point of sappiness), and the whole thing just missed being perfectly enjoyable. But it's still well worth reading, and I've already got the next two just waiting for me to find time to read. For those who haven't read this series, I highly recommend that you go for it.

Cold Blood by Michael Lister (Pulpwood Press, February 2017); 306 pp.