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Wednesday, August 31, 2016


4 stars out of 5

If this is, as the description suggests, the first book in a series, it's off to a pretty good start. The characters are interesting, the plot intriguing and the action relatively fast-paced. Leading the case is investigative journalist Jake Boxer, who used to host a tabloid-type show called "Bullseye." 

Several years back, Jake's sound man on the show is murdered - presumably by Russian intelligence agents - while he was digging up fodder for the show related to a strange humming noise said to be causing health issues for local folks. At the time, the sound man was engaged to the Clare, the show's producer; but after Jake goes on one too many far-out on-camera rants, the show is canceled and he's kicked off his career path.

Fast-forward a few years to the start of the current story, when a man convicted of murdering Soviet spies back in the 1970s and who claimed to be a former contract hitman for the CIA is executed. Jack has just married Clare (who's now a travel writer), and the two have landed at a fancy-schmancy ski resort in remote Alaska called Blind River - ostensibly so she can write an article about the place. Clare interviewed the now-dead inmate several times for a story years ago and, to Jake's surprise, she's clearly upset by the guy's execution. Suddenly, her behavior turns curiously secretive; and after a nasty turn of events, Jake learns only that the man's last words to Clare were, "The good spy dies twice."

Needless to say, Jake - ever the newshound (and a paranoid one at that)  - can't bring himself to not try to get to the bottom of his wife's interest in the old man and the meaning behind those words. As he pokes around the secluded town and resort, he runs into several questionable characters  and, potentially, an international conspiracy that's rooted in the past but has far-reaching implications for the present and beyond.

For the most part, the writing is solid, with lines here and there that gave me a chuckle, such as:

"...the ice-skating rink and hot cocoa stand was [sic] decorated with enough mistletoe to get the entire town laid."

I must admit, though, that although I enjoyed the book, I never "connected" with any of the characters who - despite all that happens to them - never seemed to give off any emotional vibes that seemed real to me (hence my rating of 4 stars instead of 5). There is plenty of ongoing tension as Jake tries to learn who's behind the conspiracy - no, I didn't know till the end - but somehow I just couldn't feel his often considerable pain. I really did hate to put the book down when other chores demanded my attention, but at the same time, at least twice I found myself wondering if the ending would turn out like the memorable finale of "Newhart" (if you don't know what that was, it's worth looking up). 

For the record, I was granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review courtesy of the author and publisher via NetGalley. And also for the record, yes, I've put this series on my watch list for the next installment - if only because the former journalist in me wants to find out what story Jake will end up chasing next.  

The Good Spy Dies Twice by Mark Hosack (Wide Awake Books, September 2016); 324 pp.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


5 stars out of 5

Ah, man - I finished it. Now I'll have to wait for who knows how long (well, maybe the author has an inkling) for Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers to make his next appearance in print.

Sigh. You see, over many years of reading the previous books in the series (this, I believe, is the ninth) as well as the author's Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport, the two have made and stayed on my Top 10 list of all-time favorite leading men. But the free-wheeling, often irreverent Virgil beats the more reserved Lucas hands down in my book - except maybe in the 2011 TV movie "Certain Prey" starring hunky Mark Harmon as Davenport.

The point is this: opening this book, like all that preceded it, is like opening the door to welcome an old friend - and I'm always sorry when our visits come to an end.

Here, Virgil finds himself entwined in two concurrent plots, starting with the apparent theft of two rare Amur tigers from the Minnesota zoo. Tiger parts, it seems, are in great demand in traditional Chinese medicine, and the race is on to find them before they're chopped, ground and funneled into high-priced vials. Meantime, Virgil's girlfriend Frankie's sister Sparkle, visiting for the summer, has put herself in the crosshairs of some very nasty people as she tries to get the dirt on mistreatment of migrant workers to finish her doctoral dissertation. Because of his relationship with Frankie, Virgil can't be directly involved with the latter issue, although (as usual), the issue has a way of involving him whether or not he likes it.

There's no shortage of action that includes plenty of blood, guts, gore and bawdy language. And also as usual, Lucas makes the occasional appearance, if only by phone (he was Virgil's boss at the BCI before getting fed up with the bureaucracy and leaving, but the two remain in touch). 

In the interests of full disclosure, I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. So lest I be accused of being overenthusiastic in my opinion because of my prior relationship with Virgil (I wish), I'll nitpick a bit - starting with the man himself. He seems to have mellowed a bit here, almost to the point of threatening his good ol' bad boy reputation. But after all, he is getting older, and he appears to be happily settled down with girlfriend Frankie, so maybe that's an inevitable progression. The ending, too, kind of gnawed at me; it was tasty, but a bit hard to swallow. 

The verdict? It's another solid entry in the Virgil Flowers series (and for those who may be concerned, it stands alone well). Highly recommended!

Escape Clause by John Sandford (G.P. Putnam's Sons, October 2016); 400 pp.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


4 stars out of 5

This one falls in the bad news/good news department. If you've loved the interaction between New York Detective Michael Bennett and his ginormous family (including elderly Father Seamus and Mary Catherine, the live-in nanny), you'll likely be disappointed. I admit to feeling a bit like that, but on the other hand, I've grown so weary of the is-it-or-isn't-it-real love affair between Michael and Mary Catherine that it was good news for me to not find much of that here.

The basic story is the identification, tracking down and arresting (or otherwise taking out of commission) of a pair of exceptionally skilled assassins. Some nasty target practice, it seems, was nothing more than a warm-up for their real target - the president of the United States. He's in Manhattan for a United Nations summit (other participants include Russian leader Vladimir Putin, so it's clear something really serious is going down here). In between are the typical turf wars with the police department, the CIA and Secret Service (yawn), lengthy chases that end in almost impossible escapes and the predictable dash to beat the assassins' lethal clock.

To be sure, there's plenty of action, but most of it happens on the killer end where everything was planned to the nth degree. On the police side, not so much; that they got anywhere at all in their investigation seemed more like happenstance than professional competence.

I should mention that there is a secondary plot here that relates to family, or at least one member of the large brood (son Brian) who's made friends with another kid (Marvin) who's temporarily moved into the Bennett household but whose background is spurious. The whole situation never quite gelled for me, and I'm still not sure why it was included at all.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book, even if it is a bit off center in comparison with the others in the series. In the end, I admit to wavering between a rating of 3.5 stars and 4, but the good writing and relatively fast-paced action won out.

Bullseye by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge (Little, Brown and Co., August 2016); 339 pp.

Friday, August 19, 2016


3 stars out of 5

If there's such a thing as a poster child for "different strokes for different folks," this book is it for me. Largely because of all the pre-release rave reviews it received and the subtitle, "A totally enthralling, totally gripping thriller," I figured what's not to love? So it was that I requested, and received, a copy in exchange for an honest review with the full expectation that I'd enjoy it.  

Within the first few chapters, however, my hopes began to fade; and by the time I reached the halfway point, I actually considered giving up. Not finishing a book just isn't in my DNA, though, so I kept going, fingers crossed every page of the way that it would get better. In fact it did - somewhat - but in the end it was clear this one just isn't my cup of tea. For the record, my actual rating is 3.5 stars; while I admit to agonizing over whether to round up or down (most review websites don't allow half-stars), I just couldn't in good conscience err on the more generous side.

So what's at issue here? I'll start with the positives - the first of which is that the writing, from a technical standpoint, is very well done. That's a huge compliment, given that I'm a stickler for such things and that it's not unusual to find misspelled words and incomplete sentences in books these days, even from big-name authors. And obviously, the author gave substantial thought to the plot; everywhere are twists and turns, most of which came as surprises to me (and no doubt contributed to the reasons for the high ratings from so many other readers).

The characters, too, are exceptionally well developed, starting with the family - Rob and Wendy Turner, their grown-up twin sons and adopted teenage daughter Georgia. Then there are the members of a cult-like group called the Brood led by a menacing young man named Gabriel (whoa, did anyone but me see the irony in naming someone so evil after an angel)?

It's an understatement to say this is a dysfunctional family; in fact, the author explains in his notes that creating flawed characters was his intention. With that, I have no problem, and at any rate I've always maintained that I really don't need to "like" characters to consider a book to be outstanding. I do, however, need to have some kind of feelings for them - even if it's just the desire to slap them all upside the head. But such was not the case here; almost from the git-go, I didn't give a hoot what happened to any of them. Their actions (or lack thereof) and angst-riddled dialog - maybe especially their words - for the most part seemed downright silly, especially given their dire circumstances. And those plot twists that should have been thrilling gave off a distinctly contrived vibe - bringing to mind the hucksters in TV commercials who shout, "But wait, there's more..."

All things considered, this is far from a bad novel - but alas, it just didn't work for me. So sorry.

All Fall Down by Tom Bale (Bookouture, September 2016); 359 pp.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


5 stars out of 5

This is the second book in the series featuring Detective Matt Jones of the Los Angeles Police Department, and from where I sat (Kindle Fire in hand), it's a winner. Despite the author's note in the introduction that it's best to read the first book first - to which, as a general rule of thumb, I heartily concur - I hadn't done that, but neither did I have any trouble following the action in this one.

And boy, there's plenty of it - and for those who lean toward the squeamish, I'll warn that some of it is rather grisly. Jones is well on his way to full recovery after being shot by a hit man - which I presume happened in Book No. 1 - when he gets tapped to help the FBI with a case just outside Philadelphia. There, he encounters the gruesome murder of an entire family in their home (complete with sexual overtones). The killer is thought to be Dr. George Baylor, a serial killer Jones tried, unsuccessfully, to capture once before (also, I presume, in that first book, which for the record is City of Echoes

Jones wants to help, although the across-the-country assignment threatens to take valuable time away from his mission of finding the person who funded the hit that nearly took his own life. But as he delves further into the family's murder, doubts begin to creep in as to whether it's really the work of the not-so-good doctor. Those doubts grow stronger when a second family bites the dust in similar fashion.

The FBI, though, always gets its man, and the powers-that-be are hell-bent on making sure it happens in this case as well. Jones goes head-to-head (and in one case, head-to-bed) with a couple of them as he tries to sort out the details and track down the killer. Along the way, he learns a few things about his personal background that are unsettling, to say the least. All of that means some unexpected plot revelations that will, no doubt, carry over to the next installment (the ending in this one certainly is a killer).

So count me in with those looking forward to hooking up with Jones in the [hopefully near] future - and I thank the author and publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read and review this one. Great story, great writing and a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience!

The Love Killings by Robert Ellis (Thomas & Mercer, August 2016); 364 pp.

Sunday, August 7, 2016


4 stars out of 5

One thing's for sure: The title couldn't be any more perfect. And although I'm a bit less enthusiastic about the rest of the book, it's a solid launch for what I expect to be a series. I'm a huge fan of medically induced dramas (characters like Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, Tess Gerritsen's Maura Isles and yes, even James Patterson's Claire Washburn (she of the Women's Murder Club series) are among my favorites), and this one introduced me to a whole new profession: Death investigator. It is mostly for that reason - and the potential for an excellent series - that rounding up my actual 3.5-star rating to 4 was a no-brainer (half-stars aren't possible at most review websites).

Such is the job of lead character Angela Richman, who is felled by a series of six strokes and saved by the expertise of egomaniacal neurosurgeon Jeb Travis Tritt after being misdiagnosed by another full-of-himself doctor who practices at the same hospital. Interestingly, the author herself had a similar experience, much of which she no doubt used to shape this story.

But as Angela struggles to regain her investigative skills amid medical setbacks and hospital screw-ups, another drama emerges: Despite his obvious talent, no one at the hospital or in the community wants the neurosurgeon (who yes, was named after the country singer) around. He's not, you see, cut from the same cloth as the locals in the very close-knit community called the Forest. Not so for the  doctor who misdiagnosed Angela in the first place; his smooth talking manner - and more to the point, his family's heritage and money - make him a local hero whose image is untarnishable.

That the two doctors share a bitter dislike of each other is pretty much a given; so when the popular doc gets bumped off, it's no surprise that the "outsider" becomes the prime suspect. Angela, though, has serious doubts about his guilt (despite his late-night rants in her hospital room about the other doctor's ineptitude), but her mind is so much in turmoil as she recovers from her own brain surgery that it's hard for her to discern what's real and what's not. She gets help from her friend Katie, a doctor/medical examiner who's overly fond not only of salty language but of reminding everyone that the people who land on her table can't talk, sing, swim (fill in the blank). Okay, my dear, we got it the first time - they're dead. Now give it a rest. 

In the midst of all this, Katie is trying to round up loose ends on a case of her own; someone at the hospital, it seems, is a serial "Angel of Death," killing patients who otherwise should have survived (ah - could that be tied to the murder of Angela's neurosurgeon)? As Angela moves toward recovery of her former well-honed investigative skills, she unearths clues that lead to the answer of that question as well as the murderer's identity and illicit goings-on in the hospital.

The story doesn't end there, though; an epilogue describes how all the characters ended up after the major brouhaha has passed. That's a nice touch, actually, and I'm left with only one question: When Angela left the hospital, she was taking the blood-thinner Warfarin. But just a few days later, it's mentioned that she's on Coumadin (another brand-name blood thinner). Huh?

All in all, this is a great read-on-the-beach kind of book and I thank the author and publisher, via NetGalley, for a copy in exchange for an honest review. When the death investigator makes her next appearance, I hope I'll be on the list to read it as well.

Brain Storm by Elaine Viets (Thomas & Mercer, August 2016); 322 pp.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


5 stars out of 5

Okay, 5 stars it is - but only because I can't find a way to give it 6. Or, put another way, Charlie Parker rocks!

Actually, Parker started kicking otherworldly butt something like 13 books ago. I'm almost embarrassed to say I'd read only two others (Nos. 1 and 11), but based on how good those two were, when the publisher offered me the opportunity to read this one in exchange for an honest review, I wasted no time saying yes. And my honest opinion now that I've finished it? Wow.

To love these books does take a strong sense of imagination (it's no accident that I used the word "otherworldly"). Parker, you see, actually died - but he remains among the living. That experience left him in a sort of purgatory; he operates as a private detective in this world but is aware that there's another, darker world (dimension, if you will) filled with mostly evil entities. Yes, it's Twilight Zone stuff, and engrossing as all get-out. And if you're wondering, no, it's not necessary to have read previous books to enjoy this one; it's been a while since No. 11 for me, and I didn't feel lost at all.

The story begins as Parker is contacted by Jerome Burnel, a man who heroically kept some folks from being killed but in the process killed the perpetrators. But not long thereafter, he was tried and convicted for having pornography in his home despite insisting it was a set-up. Tortured unmercifully while in prison, he's now out, convinced he's still got a target on his back. Before someone hits it, he wants Parker to hear his story, which involves a cult-like community in an isolated part of West Virginia called the Cut.

Parker and his two cronies agree Burnel is telling the truth about his wrongful conviction and take on the investigation - and then learn that Cut members are highly protective not only of their own, but of an evil entity called the Dead King. That gives the Parker team pause (not to mention a great line): 

" far as I can tell, there isn't even a rapper called Dead King, and those guys pick up on all the good names."

But alas, just the mention of that name is enough to strike fear in the hearts of men and women (and not infrequently, those who slip up and mention it end up tortured and killed in very unpleasant ways). That means yes, there's plenty of murder and mayhem here, so this book isn't for the squeamish. 

Besides a really kinky plot and edge-of-seat action, I got a personal kick out of the fact that some of the action happens in places near and dear to my husband and me, like Portland, Maine, Columbus, Ohio (including my favorite German Village section and Go Bucks) and historic Lewisburg, West Virginia. Scenes take place in other interesting spots as well: 

"It was the kind of bar where everybody knew your name, as long as your name was Motherf***er."

Hmmm; truth be told, we've spent time in a few of those as well.

The character development is outstanding and the excellent writing, as well as the action, is nonstop. The ending is satisfying, although there's a loose end that no doubt will be tied into the next installment. Bring it on! 

A Time of Torment: A Charlie Parker Thriller by John Connolly (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, August 2016); 480 pp.