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Thursday, August 17, 2017

USE OF FORCE

5 stars out of 5


Every time the author churns out a new Scot Harvath thriller, I have second thoughts about reading it. That's because settings in hot, dirty, far-off countries where war and strife are facts of daily life really don't have much appeal to me. Then too, I know I'll be subjected to a dose or two - sometimes hefty - of the author's opinions about what the United States ought to be doing about it (with which sometimes I agree but more often don't).

But every single time, all that fades into the background once I start reading - and I've been reading for quite some time (according to Amazon, this is the 17th book featuring Harvath, now a covert counter-terrorism operative who does a lot of work for a private company and its aging owner and Harvath's mentor, Reed Carleton). As this one starts, Harvath has left the love of his life in Boston and is chasing a suspected suicide bomber - which turns out to be three - at the Burning Man Festival.

It is also learned that a man thought to be up to his Bunsen burners in  weapons of mass destruction was on a boat that went down in the Mediterranean Sea. Too bad, so sad, on the surface - but his death raises the question of what he was doing there, where he was headed and what he was planning after he arrived. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency wants answers to those questions, but they don't have the reach (i.e., permission to run clandestine operations) to get the them. For that, they turn to Harvath; whether or not he's successful - and there's every reason to believe he will be - there won't be any blowback on the CIA.

As if that weren't enough, it seems someone once close to Carleton may now be his worst enemy - out to get the old man along with any or all of his team members. The ensuing pages are stacked with plenty of intrigue, torture, murder and razor-close calls, with all the story lines coming together for a satisfying ending (plus one that's sure to carry over to the next book in the series). For sure I'll be in line to get it!

Use of Force by Brad Thor (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, June 2017); 369 pp.

Friday, August 11, 2017

UNRAVELING OLIVER

5 stars out of 5

Told from the perspectives of several key characters, the chapters in this debut novel weave together a portrait of a young man who seems exceptionally likable on the surface. Readers, though, know otherwise right from the start; successful book author Oliver Ryan (who writes under the pseudonym of Vincent Dax) readily admits punching his wife, Alice, into unconsciousness and a coma from which it's likely she'll never recover.

Since my husband comes from Irish stock (and, in fact, his surname is Ryan, the same as the central character), I was more than a little excited to receive a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. When I opened it on my Kindle, however, my first reaction was far less enthusiastic. For the past couple of years, you see, I've often spoken of growing weary of books in which the chapters shift points of view, each one building on background that leads to the grand finale when everything comes together. That said, I've also maintained that this technique, while it may be over-used, is extremely effective when it's done well. And it's done very well here.

Set in Ireland (where reportedly it was a bestseller, I assume when it was initially released in 2014), the book begins with Oliver's astonishment that he actually punched the daylights out of his wife - even though it's pretty clear that he's treated her like dirt from the git-go. From there, his earlier life is described by other characters, beginning with Barney, the guy Alice dumped after she met Oliver and began illustrating his books. There's Michael, whose sister Laura was at one time a serious contender for the role of Oliver's wife, plus a couple of others who reminisce about Oliver's past and, of course, Oliver himself. Details of his life are unraveled, as it were - coming together again to show how,  why and by whom Oliver's dark side was nourished (clearly, the devil is in the details, none of which I can reveal here without spoiling things for other readers).

At any point along the way, did I feel sympathy for Oliver? Not once. Were there times the story seemed a titch unbelievable? Perhaps - but this is a novel, after all, so a little bit of crossing over that line is perfectly acceptable. More to the point, was I disappointed when I reached the end and there were no more pages to read? Absolutely! Put another way, this book is a gem - highly recommended.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent (Gallery/Scout Press, August 2017); 272 pp.

Monday, August 7, 2017

HIDE AND SEEK

3 stars out of 5


This book would, I truly believe, make an excellent motion picture - one that would keep you on the edge of your seat the whole time. As a book? Sorry, but it just didn't do it for me. 

It's not the plot, which is solid even though it's not terribly original. A child is kidnapped, his parents (one of whom has a deep dark secret) are distraught, police are not doing what parents think they should, parents set out on their own to find their child against all sensible advice and chaos ensues. Rather, my difficulties come from the writing; transition that is sadly lacking (or worse, nonexistent) and way too many unclear antecedents and misplaced modifiers. Consider, for instance, this gem:

"...woman chatting to a doctor in a pink smock."

Well, as it turns out, the doctor was a guy; so no, I rather think he wasn't the one wearing pink. 

The story begins as Lana Cross thwarts the would-be kidnapper of her 4-year-old son Cooper. Before he gets away, the mystery man - dubbed "Mr. Whisper" - has the last word: "Tomorrow."

Scared out of their wits, Lana and her husband Todd pick up Cooper and leave the home they love for a small apartment in the city. For months, the kidnapper's tomorrow never comes; but convinced that someday it will, Lana determines that she, and only she, must find Mr. Whisper before he makes good on his promise to return (why, exactly, she thinks that way remains a mystery to me). She taps into a crime-scene-finder iPhone app and does some mostly futile digging around, but that all but stops when she and Todd learn they've won a free two-week vacation to an adventure park. 

That's great, they say - we need to get away (my reaction would have been more like, "Are you kidding me? What kind of scam is this?" but then it's different strokes for different folks). And surprise, surprise - once they get to the park, the worst happens: Todd, who leaves Lana to take their son on a ride, is knocked unconscious and Cooper vanishes.

Getting a call to meet up from who she assumes is the kidnapper, Lana rushes off without telling anyone, even passing on heading to the hospital to visit her seriously injured husband. But wait, there's more: Apparently, Todd isn't as bad off as the doctors think; he, too, disappears from right under their noses. From that point on, the action really begins to heat up as Lana goes her way and Todd goes his - mostly for totally different reasons (remember that deep, dark secret)?

From that point on, it's impossible to explain what happens without giving away too much. I will emphasize, though, that the last half of the book was noticeably better and for the most part held my attention quite well. For that, I'm happy; when I'm given the opportunity to read an advance copy of a in exchange for an honest review (as with this one), I make it a rule to not give up till I at least pass that point. In this instance, that worked out for the best even though overall this book really isn't my cup of tea.

Hide and Seek by Richard Parker (Bookouture, August 2017); 393 pp.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

MURDER GAMES

5 stars out of 5


Prolific author James Patterson and co-author Howard Roughan really hit a home run with this one: Intriguing story, interesting characters and, IMHO, an exceptionally satisfying ending. So much did I enjoy the characters, in fact, that I'd love to see psychology professor Dr. Dylan Reinhart and NYPD Detective Elizabeth Needham turned into a series (one that includes, I emphasize, Reinhart's delightful partner Tracy).

The book reeled me in right from the start (well, if I don't count the opening remarks by a serial killer dubbed "The Dealer") with the introduction of 34-year-old Reinhart, who teaches a course on abnormal behavior and is the author of a book on what he calls "persuasion theory." Psychology is my own undergraduate degree, and just about any time I find a mystery/thriller that focuses on that subject, I'm hooked. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes not, but in this case, I got to the end with a big smile on my face.

Truth be told, Reinhart has a bit of an obnoxious streak, but he clearly knows his stuff (and his sometimes off-putting personality is nicely tempered by the aforementioned Tracy). The plot begins as Needham interrupts one of Reinhart's classes, making the attention-getting pronouncement that someone apparently wants to kill the professor. Turns out that's her way of asking for help with a murder case in which the killer leaves a playing card. Reinhart is skeptical, but when a second murder takes place and another playing card is left at the scene, he realizes - as does she - that a serial killer is on the loose.

Reinhart and Needham develop something of a rapport, albeit grudgingly at first. Their investigative efforts are  interspersed with bits of humor as they come to respect one another and follow clues that extend to a pesky journalist and even the local mayor, who's in desperation mode while vying for reelection. But is the deck stacked so far against them that the killer will end up with the winning hand? 

Inquiring minds want to know - at least mine sure did. Now I do, and I'm sorry to close the book on these characters. Bring them back, please?

Murder Games by James Patterson and Howard Roughan (Little, Brown and Co., June 2017); 400 pp.

Monday, July 31, 2017

JACK OF HEARTS

4 stars out of 5

This is the first book I've read in this series, but when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review, I checked out the description. That, and learning that all the books can be read as stand-alones in any order, convinced me to give it a go.

And by golly, I enjoyed it. It's got a solid plot with enough action to keep things interesting, although I'd describe it as much closer to a cozy mystery than a "thriller." There's the requisite cozy romance - this time between the hero, detective Jack Stratton, and the woman he wants to marry, investigator Alice - but I must say for two people who supposedly are in love, I sensed no real romantic vibe between the two of them. There's also a group of elderly ladies who can't keep their noses out of police business despite being told repeatedly that they'd just gum up the investigation (also a cozy requirement in some form or other). And inexplicably, Alice - supposedly a professional investigator herself - goes along with the hijinks they concoct. There's zero sex, no graphic violence even though murders happen and even the barest of hints of religion. All that said, the whole thing comes together in a fun, fast-paced adventure that made me look forward to reading the next one.

The story begins as Jack is taking Alice to Florida to meet his parents for the first time. They get stuck bringing Lady, his oversize King Shepherd, along for the ride (stuck in the cargo hold, where she's none too happy). Jack is a bit nervous, although mostly because when he popped the question to Alice recently, she didn't give him an enthusiastic response. Not surprisingly, Jack's parents welcome Alice with open arms - but notably, also with separate sleeping quarters. And immediately, they are taken to Lady as well (bless their hearts -I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be that welcoming to a brute the size of Lady in my house, no matter how sweet she is).

Soon, Jack and Alice learn of a series of petty thefts carried out by someone known in the retirement community as the "Orange Blossom Cove Bandit" and meet a group of ladies who belong to a book club who are determined to catch the perp. Meantime, another story line takes shape as Curtis Dixon, under the watchful eye of his evil elderly aunt, commits robberies that culminate in murder in the same community. Surely, I thought to myself, murder would be the first topic of discussion for Jack's parents and the other elderly folks who live here rather than trinkets like gone-missing solar-powered crowing roosters - but then that's just me; pink flamingos are the only non-living thing allowed to set foot in my yard, and who'd even consider stealing them? In the midst of all this isn't enough, unbeknownst to Alice, Jack has been trying to track down information on her family; her parents, it seems, were killed in an automobile crash many years ago that she alone survived. 

So insistent are the book club ladies that Jack, a former policeman, find the garden thief that he just can't say no to their demands for help - especially since one of them is his mother, for goodness sake. He's got a week before he and Alice must return to their normal lives; can they solve the case in time? And will the robbery/murder incidents somehow tie into on their efforts, perhaps putting lives of people they love on the line? And maybe most important, is there anything Jack can do to convince Alice to say yes?

Like a jar of Prego spaghetti sauce, it's all in there - but you'll just have to open the jar and find it for yourself. 

Jack of Hearts by Christopher Greyson (Greyson Media LLC, August 2017); 260 pp.

Friday, July 28, 2017

GAME OF GHOSTS

5 stars out of 5

By and large, paranormal, supernatural "stuff" just isn't my thing (with nods to the late Rod Serling's Twilight Zone and nobody-does-it-better Stephen King). But there's just something about P.I. Charlie Parker - the lead character here who actually died three times and now has a special connection to (or at least understanding of) otherworldly beings - that I just can't resist. And like the previous installments I've read, this one certainly didn't disappoint.

The appearance of characters from past books like Parker's faithful sidekicks Angel and Louis, his estranged wife Rachel and their daughter Samantha (the latter of whom shares her father's paranormal insights plus has a few notable ones of her own) makes this one extra-special for faithful readers, but there's more than enough background provided for newbies to follow along quite nicely. That said, I'm glad I read a few from the past, but that's just because they're all so doggoned enjoyable.

This one begins in Portland, Maine, on Feb. 1 and the onslaught of winter. Parker, still battered and torn from his many previous injuries, gets called in by the FBI's Edgar Ross, for whom Parker somewhat reluctantly works off and on. For an unexplained reason, Ross wants to find a missing private detective named Jaycob Eklund, who works with the FBI in a fashion similar to Parker. Eklund, it seems, has been sniffing around a series of homicides and disappearances, all of which took place amid hauntings of some kind. 

The trail leads Parker in and out of a shadowy world that includes a secret group known as The Brethren and their "enforcer," a criminal empire led by a woman called Mother and poignant exchanges between Parker's close friends Angel and Louis. In the midst of all this, Parker must deal with Rachel's insistence on keeping their young daughter safe at all costs - even if that means away from her loving father whose life is mostly spent in a danger zone not known by "regular" human beings. The ending is satisfying and complete, although a few threads are left that no doubt will be woven into the next book. Can't wait!

A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, July 2017); 465 pp.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

THE LATE SHOW

5 stars out of 5

New character and series? Base hit. By a favorite author? Double play. Getting a copy from the publisher to read in exchange for an honest review? Bases loaded.

The new character is Renee Ballard, a relatively young and feisty detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. The author is Michael Connelly, well known and much loved by me for his Harry Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer (Mickey Haller) series. And my honest opinion? A home run!

Also in all honesty, though, neither Harry nor Mickey need worry; this mama still loves them best. But when someone new comes along that's worthy of note, there's plenty of room left on my virtual bookshelves. And that means the next time Renee Ballard makes an appearance, I'll be there to greet her.

A native of Hawaii with a journalism degree from the University of Hawaii, Ballard spends part of her free time riding the California surf with her faithful dog Lola. She's also fighting a few demons from the past, including the untimely death of her beloved father in a water-related accident and the fact that her long-time day shift partner failed to support her in her sexual harassment claim against her supervisor. As a result of that unsuccessful complaint, she's been relegated to the night shift - a.k.a. the Late Show. Now, she and her new partner, John Jenkins, are charged with investigating crimes that happen in the wee hours, but they must turn all their findings over to an appropriate "desk" rather than follow up on their own. 

It's not always easy to let go of cases that come her way, but she manages - until, that is, she doesn't. On a single night, she lands in the middle of two: The first is the brutal beating of a prostitute who ends up close to death in an induced coma at the hospital. The second involves the murder of several patrons and a female employee at a local nightclub. She pleads her case for continuance on both cases, winning the right to follow up on the prostitute's. On the murders, though, everyone from the top down, including her partner, insists that she back off - but she's not having any of it. Bringing her extensive investigative skills and instincts to bear, she deals the beating incident during work hours. Then, using off hours and spare time, she delves into the nightclub murders with equal gusto - and lands smack dab in the middle of a close-to-home "hit" and a complex case that not only threatens her own future, but that of the entire department.

Now, of course, I'm looking forward to Ballard's next assignment. Bring her on!

The Late Show by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Co., July 2017); 544 pp.

Friday, July 21, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY

5 stars out of 5

Yes, I'm a little behind the times - this book was released last summer - but it's been on my must-read list ever since I read the description for several reasons, starting with the fact that it's a personal account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town. I can relate: I've lived near the Rust Belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, for close to 55 years and have seen first-hand the devastation that resulted with the collapse of the steel and automotive industries. Besides that, my pre-college years were spent in a small community not far from Middletown, Ohio, where the author grew up. He even lived for a time in Preble County, Ohio, as did my late parents for a few years, near the one-stoplight burg of New Paris.

The real story here is the author's, of course; he uses his experiences growing up in and around Middletown after his grandparents moved from the Appalachian region of Kentucky to shed light on the struggles of white working-class Americans - struggles that have become worse, not better, over time. 

America's white working poor, the official book description notes, have as a group been "slowly disintegrating" for more than 40 years. Calling up interesting and often poignant memories of his own life, the author tells of his experience being born and growing up among these people for whom, sadly, the American Dream doesn't exist. "Working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America," he writes. "It's about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it...a willingness to blame everyone but yourself."

This refusal to believe in and deal with reality I've seen first-hand as well. As I oversaw university-based programs to retrain workers permanently laid off by way of steel and auto plant closings, it wasn't unusual for those eligible to refuse to even consider taking any job that paid less than they'd earned on the assembly lines ("I'd sooner go on welfare," was the relatively common refrain). Others would simply opt to wait it out; periodic layoffs in those industries, after all, had been a way of life for them and their parents before them, so no matter what the evidence showed, they had no reason to think the jobs wouldn't come back this time.

Even though my mother came from poor-but-sturdy "hillbilly" stock and my father had been an equally poor "country boy," their childhoods never, to the best of my knowledge, mirrored that of the author. Like his grandparents, who provided perhaps his only encouragement to move up and out, my parents unfailingly believed in the value and future benefits of hard work - as did my many aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. The author wasn't so lucky; just about every one of his days was spent facing psychological, if not physical, abuse from the very people who should have been loving and caring (and were, but only on alternate Tuesdays). Worse, he and his family were not much different from everyone else they knew; it took years before he realized the life he was living wasn't the norm for people in the rest of the country.  Sharing the experiences of those around him, he explains how their "deep skepticism" of everyone and everything outside their own realm came about (and continues to grow to this day).

So what's the solution? The author doesn't have one, at least not a one-size-fits-all. "I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make it better," he writes.

He does, however, believe that any policy that targets the betterment of youth must involve an issue he says his high school teachers deal with on a day-to-day basis: That no matter how positive the school hours are, at the end of the day the students go back home. Based on what I've heard from the public-school teachers in our family (including my husband and our daughter), I couldn't agree more.

And if he could change one thing about the white working class today? "The feeling that our choices don't matter," he concludes. 

The author's life, from that childhood that included a father who willingly gave him up for adoption to the Marine Corps to The Ohio State University to Yale Law School, makes for can't-put-down reading. Interspersed is research that backs up what he's saying (the book ends with a list of resources, linkable on the ebook version). Highly recommended!

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (HarperCollins, June 2016); 273 pp.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

HOUSE OF SPIES

5 stars out of 5

Can it really be true that this the 17th book featuring Israeli secret agent Gabriel Allon? Pretty much from the beginning he has held the No. 1 spot on my list of favorite mystery/thriller "heroes." Every spring I start salivating in anticipation of a new installment, so of course I was delighted to get my hands on this one. 

That many books over the years also brings anticipation of a different sort: How much longer can Gabriel - now chief of Israel's hush-hush intelligence agency, replacing the crusty Uzi Navot (who still holds court in an office across the hall from Gabriel) - keep going? Rumors of his in-print "death," in fact, have been swirling online ever since MGM Television announced adaptation rights to the series (with author Daniel Silva and his wife, CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel, as executive producers). Everything appears to be a go at this point and who will play the role of Gabriel is at the discussion stage. For the record, after cringing at the choice for the lead in Lee Child's Jack Reacher TV series, I'm trying my damndest to remain optimistic (yet relieved to know Tom Cruise is already taken).

But the fact is, despite being the late-in-life father of twins with his beautiful and much younger wife, Chiara, Gabriel's getting a bit long in the tooth. And as chief, he's really not supposed to be running around in a field that has become ever more dangerous with the onslaught of ISIS. But difficult times call for difficult decisions; and it is recent, devastating ISIS "suicide warrior" attacks in London's West End, instigated by one of Gabriel's arch-enemies, that pulls him away from his desk and onto dusty roads of countries like Morocco (where they stay in a safe house dubbed the "House of Spies"). Gabriel has a personal score to settle with the man, known only as Saladin - and despite advice (make that warnings) to oversee the chase to find him from a safe room on King Saul Boulevard in Tel Aviv, Gabriel vows that Book of Romans notwithstanding, vengeance will be his alone.

Still, Gabriel isn't quite as physically active as usual; and much to my disappointment, Chiara doesn't play much of a role here. Other women from Gabriel's past do feature prominently, though including the doctor who nursed Saladin back to near-perfect health in the previous book. Also front and center here is Olivia Watson, a former fashion model and live-in lover of uber-wealthy Jean-Luc Martel, whose money is derived mostly from the drug market. Once it is determined he and his JLM empire are linked to Saladin, Gabriel - together with corresponding agencies in France, Great Britain and the United States join forces (headed up, after heated debate, by the Israelis) to turn the businessman and his lover against the man behind it all. Also recruited to the team because of his tracking and assassination skills is Gabriel's friend from past adventures Christopher Keller, who, as usual, excels at his trade and is quite an interesting character in and of himself.

Needless to say, it's a complex plot that takes a weary Gabriel practically all over the world and back, putting his life is in danger more than once. From start to finish, everything is described in Silva's matter-of-fact, almost understated fashion, but make no mistake - there's plenty of action here. There's also an abundance of history, which is another of the reasons I love this series. Much of those insights come from the author's extensive research which, together with his talent for creating intricate, intriguing stories, makes an unbeatable combination. 

House of Spies by Daniel Silva (Harper, July 2017); 549 pp.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

SINCE WE FELL

5 stars out of 5

To the best of my recollection, the only other book by this author I've ever read was Mystic River, released in 2009 - and it pretty much blew me away. Since then, I've bumped around the edges of others, but for whatever reason, they went by the boards. When this one hit the New York Times Bestseller list, though, I vowed to give it a go.

And once again I'm blown away. 

For the most part, it's not a whirlwind of spine-tingling action, although there's plenty of that as the story clears the mid-point. Rather, it centers on the complexities of the characters - one of the author's creative strengths - in particular those of the flawed Rachel Childs. Surviving (as best she can) a traumatic childhood (her mother, for instance, refused to the day she died to speak the name of Rachel's totally absent father) ends up making a good name herself as an on-air journalist. That comes after she marries a co-worker named Sebastian and finally learns who her father is. But she's been plagued by panic attacks, and she ends up losing her cool (to put it mildly) while doing a remote broadcast from storm-torn Haiti that brings her promising career track to a screeching halt.

After the breakdown, Sebastian distances himself (figuratively and mentally); eventually, she finds yet another soulmate, this one a flash out of her past named Brian. All seems to go swimmingly - until it doesn't; something just isn't as it should be. Now, Rachel's mind goes into overdrive: What if what's really going on could put both of their lives in danger? More to the point, given her fragile psychological history, can Rachel finally trust her own instincts? Even if that's possible, can she muster the courage to once and for all take charge of her life? The answers take shape by way of getting to know the ins and outs of the minds of several characters - primarily Rachel and Brian - and are revealed through many twists, turns and outright surprises that kept me intrigued enough to not want to put the book down till I'd reached the last page.

An afterword: After I finish any book and my own review, I usually check reviews from other readers (that doesn't apply, of course, to the advance copies I get in exchange for a review). In this case, I was a bit dumbfounded; at the time of this writing, the average was just 3.5 stars from 269 customers. That, in turn, piqued my curiosity as to why; what I learned is that apparently, this book veers from the author's "standard" approach to writing - a diversion not appreciated by a number of his faithful readers. I point this out why? Simply as a heads-up to regular fans to be prepared for something a bit different. I, on the other hand, went in with no expectations other than that because I thoroughly enjoying the one, it was likely I'd enjoy this one too. I was in no way disappointed - the writing is nothing short of brilliant.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane (Ecco, May 2017); 432 pp.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

HUSH MONEY

5 stars out of 5

A "throzy," perhaps? See what I did there? Coined a new term for this kind of book: Easy, breezy reading that's a hallmark of a cozy, but enough sex, mayhem and moving-right-along excitement to qualify as a thriller. 

There's another hallmark of a cozy at play here as well: A heroine who is (a) independent, headstrong and professionally successful, (b) fiercely loyal except when it doesn't serve her purpose, (c) hung up on past issues she can't resolve and (d) incapable of heeding anyone else's advice even when it puts her and those she loves in danger. 

And there you have Sydney Richardson, owner of two very different restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin and the star of this, the first book in a new series. One, the Ten-Ten, primarily is a bar that caters to first-responders (her late father was a cop). The other, Hush Money (like the book title) is a hoity-toity sit-down restaurant targeting the upper-crust in this up-and-coming city. She's determined to make both restaurants a success, aided and abetted by her very capable, loving (if a bit overprotective and overbearing) mother, Nancy. Sydney is interesting and likable, except perhaps when she's in (c) or (d) mode - I identify more with the strong woman with a can-do attitude part. When she refuses to listen, or selectively blows off only one of the many who tell her to mind her own business, it's not so much; but then without those moments, I guess there wouldn't be much of a story.

And make no mistake, it's a solid one. One of the servers, a woman named Wanda (a.k.a., Windy), fails to show up for work at Hush Money. That evening, Sydney has a run-in with the very drunk wife of the town's hard-driving - some would say ruthless - mayor, who claims she was waiting for her no-show husband. Turns out he had a good reason; back at their home, hizzoner has met an untimely end. And who is the prime suspect? None other than Windy, who is at the home and covered in the mayor's blood.

No matter how convinced the cops are that Windy is guilty - including Sydney's father's old police partner Horst Welke, who's been assigned to the case - Sydney simply can't believe that this mother of a young daughter did the deed. So, Sydney hires hot-shot attorney Andrew Conyer who will, hopefully, get her off. As the evidence against Windy mounts, so does Sydney's determination that the woman is innocent; but will Sydney's constant push-backs against the police and Windy's lawyer do more harm than good?

Throughout it all, Sydney must keep the restaurants running (which involves, not insignificantly, riding herd on a talented but impossibly egotistical chef). Apparently she doesn't need much sleep, since many nights after her fancy restaurant closes, she heads for the Low Down, a blues bar, to kick back to the music and bask in the company of the handsome, witty, wife-free (of course) guy who owns it.

Everything builds up to a surprising conclusion, when just about everything is resolved except those pesky details of Sydney's long-ago past. Now, she's free once again to build up business at her restaurants, possibly find a love life and, almost certainly, tackle another murder - all of which, I assume, will be fodder for the next book. I'll be waiting!

Thanks very much to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Hush Money by T.E. Woods (Alibi, August 2017). Page count not listed.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

GIRL IN SNOW

4 stars out of 5

This book is, first, foremost and almost entirely, an in-depth study of three characters in the aftermath of the murder of small-town Colorado high-school student Lucinda Hayes. Friends Cameron and Jade loved her and wanted to be her, respectively. Russ, a police officer involved in the investigation, is connected to many of the people around her - one of whom most likely is her killer.

All four, including Lucinda, are quirky at the very least; and they all have deep, dark secrets that are revealed in chapters that switch from perspective to perspective. As an aside, this is a technique that when done well - as it is here - is very effective; but it's also one of which I've grown weary over the last couple of years as author after author has adopted the style (much like sticking the word "girl" in the title). In addition to their secrets, every single one of these boys and girls (plus a few adults) speak a language that's way beyond the world in which I live. Take teenage Jade, for instance; at one point she utters at her shower door, "I step in with my pajama shirt still on and try to rinse the dream away from my vulnerable unconscious."

Okaaaaaay. The writing can be described, I'm sure, as eloquent prose; for me, esoteric is a better fit; to say that reading it was tedious is an understatement. That's not to say it isn't a well-crafted story, mind you, but it took me longer than usual to read because it's impossible to skim (three or four chapters were about all I could handle at one sitting before my brain started to hurt). I also must say that because there's virtually no investigation to follow despite the fact that the police, and the aforementioned Russ, were called in - nor is there much real action at all since almost everything takes place inside the characters' heads - it's very interesting, but not really a thriller, a police procedural or anything much beyond looks inside the heads of some seriously screwed-up people. Fairly early on, the girl's murder - and who did it and why - became almost inconsequential (yes, I was surprised, but when that person was revealed near the end, my reaction was much closer to, "All rightee, then" than "Wow!" )

Overall, I consider this to be a stellar effort, especially for a debut novel. It's a little too "deep" for my liking - especially for a book in this genre - but impressive nonetheless. Thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka (Simon & Schuster, August 2017); 368 pp.

Friday, July 7, 2017

SNAP JUDGMENT

5 stars out of 5

Just like its two predecessors, I loved this book. So much, in fact, that I really hope the author reconsiders the three-book series and brings readers more tales about super-cool but flawed attorney Samantha Brinkman.

For those thinking about diving in, I will say the water will be more comfortable if you start at the beginning (Blood Defense followed by Moral Defense). I had no trouble following the goings-on in any of the books including this one, but I'm also sure I got far more out of each one just because I read the one that came before. And lest I forget, many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review (as was the case with the first two books as well).

This one begins as college freshman Alicia, daughter of well-known attorney Graham Hutchins, is murdered. Not long before that, she dumped her abusive boyfriend Roan - and apparently he retaliated by posting online extremely personal photos she'd taken of herself for his eyes only. Nothing screams payback more than a spurned lover, so it's not surprising that Roan is considered the prime suspect. But then Roan is found dead - an apparent suicide. His mother insists he was murdered, though, and the coroner's report is inconclusive. Alicia's father had every reason to avenge his beloved daughter's death, so he suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs of the police.

Samantha, better known as Sam, knows Graham; when he calls for help, she agrees despite not really wanting to get involved in the case (he's a well-heeled customer and she's having a tough time paying the bills, so she can't afford to say no). Soon enough, she and her tech-savvy, hunky investigator Alex are up to their eyeballs in pot-smoking college students, secret lives of the rich and famous and pulling out every trick in their bags (some legal, some not so much) to ferret out evidence sufficient to get their client off the hook. In fact, one of the most interesting components of this series is being privvy to the legal goings-on inside and outside a courtroom - told through the eyes of someone who knows (we all remember the infamous trial of former NFL star O.J. Simpson, at which the author was the lead prosecutor, don't we )?

As if that weren't enough, Sam gets a very unwelcome visit from a big-time gangster from her past (and from past books in this series). He's privy to one of Sam's big secrets, and he's not above calling in a chit now and again when it suits his purpose. This time, he wants Sam, with help from her police officer father Dale, to locate the only witness to a murder committed by one of his relatives. Sam is convinced that her success will mean certain death for the witness, who's set to spill the beans at that relative's trial. But if she refuses, it just as certainly will mean her own death - so saying no just isn't an option.

Can she juggle both cases and come out a winner (or at least still alive)? Everything is resolved in the end, but of course I won't reveal how it all plays out. Now, the only question for me to ask is can we have more of Samantha? Please?

Snap Judgment by Marcia Clark (Thomas & Mercer, August 2017); 462 pp.

Monday, July 3, 2017

SHADOW GIRL

4 stars out of 5

Looking for a just-plain-good murder mystery with no female histrionics, flashbacks or chapters that flip back and forth from the perspectives of seven different characters? By golly, this one fills the bill. It's the second in a two-book series, and I must say I didn't feel at a disadvantage for not having read the first. Still, this one's good enough that if I could do it over again, I'd start at the beginning with Little Girl Gone (always my advice to anyone jumping into a series, BTW).

This one begins with an horrific scene in Minneapolis: Out of the blue (or perhaps more accurately, in the blue), a helicopter is blasted out of the sky. Turns out it was delivering a donor heart to multi-millionaire Leland Odin, head of a popular home shopping network who's at the brink of death and waiting for a transplant. Needless to say, the pilots were killed, and the fallout resulted in dozens of injuries on the ground. Also not surprisingly, the police hit the ground running - most notably, family liaison officer Afton Tangler and her partner Max Montgomery.

Early on, it becomes clear that someone is out to get the ailing Odin; as he clings to life in his hospital bed hoping a new heart will become available in time to save him, someone manages to sneak in and slit his throat (thus rendering moot that new heart). Now, the investigation centers on who wanted the guy dead and why.

Could it be his business partner, perhaps hoping for a big payout by selling off the shopping network? Could it be his obscenely rich wife, looking for a big payout through inheritance (or possibly payback for his cheating heart)? Or could it be that his illicit business deals have crossed a powerful someone who then put Odin in his or her crosshairs?

There's a fair amount of violence that turns personal for Afton, who keeps following clues that bring her closer to the truth (despite warnings from her partner and other department officials to back off a bit, reminding her that she's not a "real" police officer and doesn't even carry a weapon). Of course, she doesn't listen - and the chase is on to catch the killers before they catch her.

In short, this is a perfect book for beach reading, or any time you simply want to get lost in a fast-moving, interesting story. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Shadow Girl by Gerry Schmitt (Berkley, August 2017); 320 pp.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

ARE YOU SLEEPING?

4 stars out of 5

In the end, I enjoyed this book - but it was the plot, not the characters, that turned the tide. For much of the first half, all I did was mutter to myself how much I detested main character Josie Buhrman (and to a slightly lesser extent, her twin sister Lanie). The latter sister struck me as the "evil" twin, just as apparently she did to the characters in the book who knew her. Josie was another story; she spent most of her time berating other people for their lying ways when she was arguably the biggest liar of them all.

To be fair, the now-estranged Josie and Lanie had it tough growing up. Their mother had some kind of mental illness, their father was murdered 13 years earlier, and not long thereafter, the mother ran off to join a hippy-dippy cult. If there was a saving grace, it was that their father's killer was caught and convicted - identified by Lanie, who claimed to have seen him do the dastardly deed. Throughout his years in jail, though, he's insisted that he's innocent.

Not long after their mother abandoned them, Josie left home, ending up in New York with her partner, Caleb, and zero intentions of ever going back to visit once-treasured relatives. But then, a self-described "investigative" reporter named Poppy Parnell reveals a podcast which she claims will shed new light on the twins' father's murder. Was a man wrongly convicted? Did Lanie, who changed her original story that she'd seen nothing, lie on the witness stand? And if those things are true, who is the real murderer and what was the motivation?

The podcast, downloaded by thousands including Josie, opens up old family wounds - especially, it seems, for the twins' mother; not long after the first one appears, she is found dead on the cult's property, clearly a suicide. Now, Josie feels compelled to return home for the funeral of the mother she loved, hoping to avoid interaction with anyone else. She also doesn't want to interact with Caleb, who's ready and willing to accompany her. Why? Simply because everything she's told him about herself is a big fat lie, including her last name - which she changed to rid herself of the stigmas of her past and live in relative anominity.

Although she was given ample opportunity and good reason to 'fess up, Josie refuses to come clean - reasoning that her beloved Caleb just wouldn't understand and would exit stage left. Instead, she manages to convince him to stay put while she heads home alone. If I didn't already dislike her, that sealed the deal for sure.

From then on, much of the story focuses on Josie's encounters with family members, most notably her sister, interspersed with text of the podcasts and readers' reactions as they are released. As tensions begin to heat up, Josie gets a surprise visitor; and from that time forward, the story starts to move quickly, capturing my attention to the somewhat-of-a-twist ending.

My conclusion? If you can stand neurotic, sometimes totally unhinged females, this is a very good, intriguing book with a plot that's a bit different (and thus welcome, especially given all the recent books featuring neurotic females). Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Are You Sleeping? by Kathleen Barber (Gallery Books, August 2017); 336 pp.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

HUNTING HOUR

4 stars out of 5

One of the joys of being part of the NetGalley book review community is finding great new-to-me authors. When it turns out to be the writer of a series, my happiness grows exponentially. Such is the case here; this is the third in the author's "Timber Creek K-9 Mystery" series. I did not read the first two, but I didn't need to in order to enjoy this one; the backstory tidbits included here are quite sufficient to bring me up to speed.

For the most part, I came to like Mattie Cobb, a deputy in Timber Creek and the star of the show. She comes from an abused childhood and has some baggage that at times gets in the way of her investigative skills, but in another way it helps her identify with the victims and their families. That comes into play at the start of the story, when a junior high student goes missing and in short order is found dead on a hill behind the high school.

There's another character I loved even more than Mattie, though - her K-9 partner Robo. He's a real sweetheart, and his tracking ability makes him invaluable in situations like this. But wait, there's more: Still another totally lovable character is a real gem - Cole Walker, the local veterinarian who is, off-and-on, Mattie's boyfriend. He's got two daughters who love Mattie (and vice versa), but also an ex-wife for whom Mattie is sure is still carrying a torch.

Their relationship is put to the test when, shortly after the first young girl is found and determined to have been murdered, Cole's younger daughter goes missing. From that point on, the race is on to find her - hopefully still alive - as well as identify and bring the killer to justice. Needless to say, Robo gets a good workout, performing like the trooper he is.

In short, this is a solid murder mystery with interesting characters that will leave you satisfied and your fingernails intact. Many thanks to the publisher for allowing me to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. It's a sure bet I'll be watching for the next installment.

Hunting Hour by Margaret Mizushima (Crooked Lane Books, August 2017); 320 pp.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

THE ROSES OF MAY

5 stars out of 5

Right up front, I will say this: Before you read this book - the second in the author's Collector Trilogy - read the first  (The Butterfly Garden). It's probably possible to read this one as a standalone, but I'm quite sure I would not have enjoyed it half as much without being privy to the background and characters from its predecessor.

And boy, did I ever enjoy it! While it's not quite as dark and grisly as the first, perhaps, it's not all that far off; the prologue, written years ago, hints that a serial killer has been born. Fast forward to about four months after an explosion that destroyed the above-mentioned Butterfly Garden, where many beautiful young women were held captive (in more ways than one). A few survived, but all are struggling to readjust to a normal life - if that's even possible given the horrors they experienced. Now, some of the FBI agents from Book I - Victor Hanoverian, Brandon Eddison and Mercedes Ramirez, to be specific - are tackling paperwork. Enter Priya Sravasti, whose sister was murdered several years ago. Someone, it seems, is tracking them wherever they go, leaving flowers at their doorstep. As a result, she and her uber-professional mother move frequently, each time hoping they won't be found. Problem is, the flowers appear to represent the flowers left on the young female victims of an apparent serial killer - a person presumed to have killed 16 girls including Priya's sister.

Now they've been found again; and as all this is happening, Priya gets a letter from Inara, one of the surviving Butterfly girls from the garden (the one who seems to have been the "leader" of the others). The two girls correspond and eventually meet, thus connecting the cases from the two books. They also connect with Eddison, whose sister Faith was kidnapped at age 8 about 20 years easier. She's never been found, a fact that continues to haunt him - and both he and Hanovarian feel a special, though somewhat strange, affinity with both girls. As the FBI team investigates with the hope of nailing the serial killer, they get with help from Priya, who just may be one of the killer's targets - perhaps even the most important one.

As with the first book, there's plenty of tension, even though I correctly guessed who the serial killer was fairly early on. Sections shift perspectives from characters - most notably the killer and Priya - but it's very easy to follow who's who. Especially noteworthy to me is the in-depth development of the main characters; although I'm not sure we'd ever be friends, I really felt I "knew" each of them quite well by the end. I suppose my favorite is Hanovarian, although I also enjoyed the heck out of Eddison (at one point, he's described as being "twitchier than a long-tailed cat on the front porch of a Cracker Barrel.")

How great is that?

The Roses of May by Dot Hutchison (Thomas & Mercer, May 2017); 302 pp.

THE CHILD

5 stars out of 5

Note to readers: I read this book some time ago; the review has been held until today at the request of the publisher.

If I weren't already a huge Fiona Barton fan after reading The Widow (also a 5-star-worthy novel, IMHO), I sure would be after reading this one. Given that I have at somewhat of a life other than reading, I expected it would take a few days to wade through. In fact, it was so engrossing that I polished it off over just two days (granted, on one the only TV show worth watching was "Big Bang Theory" and on the second, I was so close to the end that I lugged my Kindle to bed to finish - something that happens once in a blue moon. But you get the point.

More than anything else, this is the story of three women, starting with Kate, a print journalist who needs a great news story to revive a career that's increasingly giving up ground to the newspaper's online reporters. Then there's Emma, a home-based book editor who's dragging a boatload of emotional baggage, including semi-estrangement from a seemingly uncaring mother. And finally, there's Angela, who is unable to come to grips with the loss of an infant in the early years of her marriage despite having a couple of other children and a saint-worthy patient husband. Actually, I'll add a fourth woman; Emma's mother, Jude, plays a significant role here as well.

The story begins as a construction worker turns up the skeleton of a baby in the process of demolishing old buildings. Clearly, the infant was buried there years earlier, making identification a challenge. Ever the nosy reporter, Kate smells a big story, but the lack of available information means she'll have to do some digging of her own before she can get the major scoop she's hoping for. 

Somehow, she convinces her reluctant editors that finding the bones is just the tip of the iceberg, and she - together with a newbie reporter who she's been ordered to take under her wing (a totally forgettable character who adds almost nothing to the story, I must say) - sets off to investigate on her own. That connects her to Angela, whose newborn baby was taken from the maternity hospital shortly after birth and never found. Needless to say, Angela is convinced that the bones belong to Alice, her stolen baby girl.

Kate then begins to explore the neighborhood where the bones were found, locating and interviewing some of the people who used to live there. It is then that she meets Emma, who grew up there - thus bringing the Kate-Angela-Emma triumvirate to full circle.

Anything that happened in that neighborhood from that point on will stay in that neighborhood as far as I'm concerned - divulging much else would be giving away too much. Little by little, the pieces come together as long-hidden secrets are revealed and the mystery of the bones is solved. Admittedly, the ending seems a little too pat (and with one exception, expected), but the whole thing was very entertaining and worthwhile nonetheless. Many thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for offering me an advance copy to read and review. Highly recommended!

The Child by Fiona Barton (Berkley, June 2017); 384 pp.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

NOT A SOUND

4 stars out of 5

If nothing else, I'll give the author points for putting a unique twist on the lead character: Former trauma nurse Amelia Winn is deaf, the result of a hit-and-run accident that killed one of her patients in a hospital parking lot. Being totally unable to hear gives her a different perspective - and at times increases the tension - and gives readers a look at arguably the real star of the book, Amelia's lovable service dog, Stitch.

Her deafness really doesn't make Amelia herself more lovable, though, at least in my eyes. She's another of those headstrong females who questions the words and actions of every other character in the book (occasionally, even the dog) and is incapable of keeping her nose out of places she's been warned not to go - up to and including actually breaking the law several times over. But needless to say, without her interference there wouldn't be much of a story; and on the plus side, it was great to watch her regain confidence after falling into an alcoholic stupor for a time following her accident two years earlier (she lost her husband David, an OB-GYN, and stepdaughter Nora as a result of her alcoholic histrionics).

They haven't yet divorced, and Amelia - who narrates the story - holds out some hope that they might get back together, or at minimum, he won't try to stop her from seeing Nora. In the interim, she's been banished from her former home by her estranged husband and is living in a (where else?) remote cabin in the Iowa woods. On one of her relaxing kayak voyages on the local river, a restless Stitch discovers a body that turns out to be her former nurse friend Gwen. After placing a 911 call, the authorities arrive and she bumps up against another of life's complications; childhood friend Jake, who's now a police detective. From then on, Amelia's emotions hop on a does he/doesn't he, should she/shouldn't she roller coaster with David on one end and Jake on the other. 

Gwen's murder leaves her devastated, though, in part because she lost Gwen and most of her friends when she was drinking heavily. Now, she wants to get to the bottom of things not only because of the guilt she feels for not staying in touch with Gwen, but also because she's afraid the murderer thinks she saw him. Still, she tries to forget it all and manages to land a job at a cancer clinic as a medical records clerk, in the hope it will lead to a return to her beloved career in nursing. Even though David is friends with the much-loved head of the clinic, though, he's not at all supportive. So what's up with that, she wonders?

As the story progresses, Amelia's snooping leads her from one suspect to another to another to another. She pleads her cases to Jake so often, in fact, that he pretty much tunes her out, and conversely, his pleas that she butt out and let the police do their jobs fall on deaf ears as well (pun intended). Along the way, she finds evidence that someone may be stalking her, at best to discredit her and at worst to, well, you know.

Will Amelia identify the killer before the killer kills her? Will her insistence on ignoring his warnings to stop nosing around kill any chance she may have for romance with Jake? Truth is, I didn't care all that much how she fared, but the whats, hows and whys kept the story moving along quickly and interestingly from beginning to end. Good job!

Not a Sound by Heather Gudenkauf (Park Row Books, June 2017); 352 pp.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN

5 stars out of 5


Way back in 1965, I saw the movie "The Collector," based on John Fowles' book of the same name. That story has haunted me to this day, when out of the blue will come a flashback to one of the disturbing scenes. I have no doubt that mental images from this book, the first in a trilogy, will stick with me as well.

It's definitely not for everyone, though. If violence (particularly involving young women), profanity and exceptional gruesomeness bother you, stay away. The writing really isn't all that graphic, but trust me, the pictures will come through loud and clear. 

In effect, the story begins at the end. Some kind of secret garden in which, apparently, kidnapped young women had been held captive was uncovered following a disaster that included an explosion and fire. A few survived, including one young woman who appears to be a sort of group leader; none of the others will say a word without her approval. FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are charged with interviewing the reluctant witness - who at first won't even reveal her name - to try and piece together what turn out to be almost unthinkable circumstances under which the women lived and died.

Interview scenes are interspersed with recollections of the witness, who finally reveals her name as Maya. Slowly, other details emerge; young girls about the age of 16 have been kidnapped for years by a man they know only as the Gardener. He brings them to live in his beautiful, self-contained (and escape-proof) garden; but first, he tattoos intricate butterfly designs on their backs. Thereafter, they're fed, watered and expected to comply with his every whim, no matter how kinky. Add a couple of grown sons to the mix, and Maya's stories become a no-longer-secret recipe for unspeakable horror. But is she telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

For the record, I've got the second book in the trilogy, The Roses of May, and my first instinct was to move it to the top of my reading list. Now that the dust has settled for a day on this one, though, I'm rethinking; it might be better to tackle something a bit lighter and give my creeped-out brain a rest. Whew!

The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison (Thomas & Mercer, June 2016); 288 pp.

Monday, June 19, 2017

REPORTED MISSING

4 stars out of 5

Without a doubt, this debut novel is going to hit the right notes for a ton of readers. For me, however, it fell a little bit flat. 

For sure, it's a solid plot and the writing is very good; and overall, I enjoyed reading it and give it 4 stars without hesitation. For the most part, what colored my experience, I think, is that I've read too many of late with a similar theme: A spouse/lover/child suddenly goes missing (or is accused of a crime, or both), and the remaining spouse/lover/parent desperately tries to figure out what happened while refusing to believe what others insist is true. Whether the chapters reflect the perspective of a single person (as is the case here) or alternates points of view among several characters, each one adds "clues" that crescendo to an ending that's intended to knock readers' socks off.

All that happens here as well, to a woman named Rebecca Pendle. In the midst of a seemingly happy married life, her husband Chris Harding suddenly disappears without a trace from Shawmouth, the small English town to which they'd recently moved from the hustle and bustle of London. That same day, 14-year-old Kayleigh Jackson went missing as well, leading authorities to suspect the two disappearances might be connected. In short order, many of the townspeople turn against Rebecca - as do some of her former friends and neighbors, who now taunt and shun her because she was close to a person they believe to be a pedophile or worse.

Rebecca, of course, still loves Chris and doesn't believe for a second that he's played any role in the young girl's disappearance. To escape, she relocates to a rather seedy "caravan" park; but even here, she can't get away from the rumors and things that go bump in the night. And little by little, clues crop up that make her begin to doubt how much she really knew her husband - for instance, the fact that he never told her he'd been fired from his job two weeks before he disappeared.

Rebecca narrates her attempts to ferret out the truth, which often take her to places she knows she shouldn't go and to people she knows don't want to see or hear her. The clues she picks up here and there, though, only add to her self-doubt, angst and paranoia. And here is where I really got bogged down. Admittedly, I come from a sturdy stock of female role models, but never in a million years would I allow myself to be victimized by other people's words or actions. Certainly, I can understand the emotional toll of not knowing, say, whether a missing loved one is alive or dead and the need to get answers; but only up to a point. Rebecca reaches that level early on and then drags it to an all-new high. By the halfway mark, I had a single nerve left - a frazzled one at that - and she was standing square on the middle of it. From then on, I remained interested in learning who did what, but I really didn't care a whit how, or even if, Rebecca herself survived.

But that, folks, is just me. As I said at the beginning, this is a solid effort that I expect - and hope - will do well. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for allowing me to read and review it.

Reported Missing by Sarah Wray (Bookouture, July 2017); 356 pp.

Friday, June 16, 2017

CRIME SCENE

4 stars out of 5

If the name Kellerman is on it, it's a pretty sure bet I'll like it. Over many years, I've devoured just about every book by Jonathan, his wife Faye, and their son Jesse. I've also learned, though, that collaborations don't always live up to their hype, and sometimes the first book in a series falls flat. But neither am I one to look a gift horse in the mouth: Pass up an opportunity to read an advance copy of anything written by favorite authors in exchange for an honest review? Just ain't gonna happen.

And honestly? I enjoyed it thoroughly. Perhaps most importantly, I really love the new character, Clay Edison, a deputy in the Coroner's Bureau (a bit of a twist on the standard-issue police detective). He comes with a few flaws - his brother is in jail, a serious knee injury put the kibosh on a possible superstar career in basketball, and he's got a shaky relationship with his parents. There's also no main squeeze, thus paving the way for him to be at the mercy of any gorgeous female character he meets. On the other side, while his degree in psychology doesn't put him anywhere near the big leagues, it does give him a leg up when it comes to reading people, whether they be co-workers (like his hypochondriac partner Zaragoza), victims or perpetrators.

As this one begins, reclusive former psychology professor Walter Rennert  is found dead by his daughter Tatiana (cue in that gorgeous female character). It appears that daddy simply fell down the stairs, but Tatiana insists her father was murdered. She continues to believe that even after the evidence reveals that his history of drinking and a bad heart are to blame. Clay, of course, is intrigued with Tatiana and agrees to take a closer look, to the dismay of his superiors who want the case closed.

As he digs deeper, he learns that Rennert resigned in disgrace when a coed was murdered by a mentally unstable participant in one of the professor's experiments. A few other clues throw more suspicion on the circumstances surrounding Rennert's death; and the deeper Clay digs, the more he wants to know about that experiment and precisely what went wrong. That, in turn, means Clay must call on one of Kellerman Senior's best-known characters, Dr. Alex Delaware, for help. The psychologist and LAPD consultant, it seems, had offered expert testimony at the trial of the young man who confessed to the coed's murder, who has since been released from jail. 

As an aside, Dr. Delaware has long been on my Top 10 list of favorite male characters, so I was happy to see him show up here. But I must say I thought he came across a bit snarky during his meeting with Clay, even allowing for the constraints of doctor-patient privilege. Then again, maybe it was just me; as I was reading that part, I realized I'd been so engrossed that I'd kept reading more than an hour past my usual dinnertime. 

In the end, as I said at the beginning, this is a very well written book with interesting, well-developed characters (especially Clay). Already, I'm looking forward to his next appearance.

Crime Scene by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman (Ballantine Books, August 2017); 400 pp.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

GWENDY'S BUTTON BOX

4 stars out of 5

Castle Rock, Maine, is the setting for this easy-to-read novella, an exclusive from Cemetery Dance Publications (more on that later). The story begins as 12-year-old Gwendy Peterson, in an effort to shed a few pounds in preparation for middle school, climbs to the top of Suicide Stairs. She does this often; but this time, the odd little man wearing a black hat she's seen for several days beckons to her. She finds him a bit off-putting (and maybe a little scary), but curiosity wins out.

Sitting together on a bench, the man shows her what he calls a button box, explaining the rather bizarre functions of each button. Then, he drops the real bombshell: The box, he says, is hers to keep. Once again, she's skeptical, but in the end she takes him up on the offer and heads for home, box in hand.

And her life will never be the same again.

So it is that I end my review, claiming that it's impossible to say more about such a short story without revealing too much. What I did find quite interesting, though, is the above-mentioned Cemetery Dance Publications (I've never heard of it before, and Gwendy isn't the only one with a curiosity gene). According to the website (cemeterydance.com), it was founded by co-author Richard Chizmar in 1988. In 1992, book publishing was added, with special focus on horror and dark suspense works (yeah, this novella is a perfect fit). At the site, I even found a just-published book by two of the many affiliated authors that's being offered for $2.99 for a limited time (The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss). Intrigued by the description (and unbeatable price), I headed to Amazon and snapped up the deal.

Gwendy's Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (Cemetery Dance Publications, May 2017); 180 pp.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

CAMINO ISLAND

5 stars out of 5

If I could change the title, I think I'd rename it Anatomy of a Heist. The writing is very matter-of-fact - nothing very thrilling or exciting - that begins with the theft of five one-of-a-kind F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the bowels of the Princeton University Firestone Library. From there, it follows the day-to-day (often minute-by-minute) lives of the thieves and those who want to find them and bring the manuscripts back to their rightful home. It's divided into sections, each of which details the relevant characters and events pretty much on a minute-by-minute basis.

"The Heist," the opening section, brings readers an up-close-and-personal look at the robbers and how they planned the job and carried off the loot. "The Dealer" focuses on Bruce Cable, owner of a popular bookstore on Florida's Camino Island who collects rare books and, despite having a gorgeous French wife who deals in antiques, is quite the ladies' man. That's followed by "The Recruit," which introduces Mercer Mann, a semi-successful novelist and current teacher at the University of North Carolina. She's desperately trying to get out of a writing slump, hoping to get published and sell enough books to pay off her massive student loans and live the life of a successful writer.

In earlier days, Mercer was a frequent visitor to Camino Island and thus is familiar with its small tourist town of Santa Rosa, where Bruce's bookstore is located. When powers-that-be suspect that Bruce somehow may be involved in the theft of the manuscripts, which are insured for a whopping $25 million, she's considered the perfect "spy" and is offered the job of getting close enough to Bruce to learn his secrets. What they're willing to pay for her services is mind-boggling; but she wonders if its worth selling her soul as a snitch. Even if she can get over that hump, does she have what it takes to convince Bruce that she's just a curious, temporary island resident who has an interest in old books? And what if it turns out that Bruce has no secrets at all?

From there, the story unfolds bit by bit, section by section - always in a mostly narrative, little dialogue fashion. For readers, that means no nail-biting or edge-of-seat balancing, which may not sit all that well with those who demand knock-'em-dead action (nor will, perhaps, the lack of courtroom drama). But as with any writer worth his or her salt, the devil is in the details - and in that respect, Grisham is as good as it gets. It was fascinating to see how deftly he weaves together all the bits and pieces into the whole story that builds to the ending - which, as might be expected, is understated as well. Good job!

Camino Island by John Grisham (Random House LLC, June 2017); 304 pp.