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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.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

POLITICALLY CORRECT BEDTIME STORIES

4 stars out of 5

As a card-carrying feminist carryover from the '60s, I've long been a proponent of concepts like gender equality and nonsexist language. That said, it's possible to cross the "roll up your pantlegs - it's too late to save your shoes" line at which political correctness becomes downright silly. Such is the case on occasion in this, a collection of well-known bedtime stories that have been revised for the modern generation. Still, it's amusing - and I got a kick out of all 11 stories that are in the version I read. Originally published in Great Britain in 1994, it's been updated and re-released, sent to me by our daughter-in-law who figured I'd enjoy it.

At just 89 pages, it can be breezed through in an hour or less - so for those enlightened individuals looking for a chuckle or two, I recommend it, taking into account the author's opening caveat: "However much we might like to, we cannot blame the Brothers Grimm for their insensibility to women's issues, minority cultures and the environment."

No, the good brothers did their thing long before Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women, so the only thing left for the author to do is clean them up.There's no point in detailing any of the stories just because the book is so short, but I'll cite a few examples to give you a better idea of what's going on. In "Little Red Riding Hood," for instance, the woodsman becomes a "woodcutter" or, as he prefers, a "log-fuel technician."

In The Emperor's New Clothes, the boy shouts to the crowd that the emperor is naked. "No, he isn't," the crowd fires back. "The emperor is merely endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle!"

Likewise, Cinderella's "sisters-of-step" are "differently visaged enough to stop a clock," and Cinderella has a "fairy godperson," a.k.a. "individual deity proxy."

And there you have it - at the very least, if you've set a goal for the number of books you hope to read this year, it's a quick and relatively enjoyable way to get there.

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner (Amazon Digital Services LLC, November 2010); 89 pp.

ASTROPHYSICS FOR PEOPLE IN A HURRY

5 stars out of 5

At my age - almost old enough to be a great-grandmother but young enough to be happy that I'm not - I won't pretend to be in a hurry to do much of anything. But ever since I was a farm kid watching a star-filled sky on a blanket in our back yard, I've wanted to know more about how it all came about. Astronomy was my favorite part of science class, and I never missed an episode of late astrophysicist Carl Sagan's Cosmos - nothing short of fascinating stuff, at least when it's presented in a way that's informative, entertaining and, most importantly, understandable to a totally nonscientific person like me.

Needless to say, I gravitated straight toward this book. And in fact, it's very easy read; in short, to-the-point (and footnoted) chapters, topics are addressed like dark matter, dark energy and black holes as well as how planets, galaxies and other cosmic "stuff" get found. Everything is presented in a down-to-earth (so to speak) and often humorous manner. And eye-opening? Check this: "In the beginning, nearly 14 billion years ago, all the space, all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence."

Wowsa!

The author, an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and director of the Hayden Planetarium doesn't preach, but neither does he hesitate to tackle current hot buttons, such as those who think chemicals are the enemy of humans. Citing scientific evidence that suggests otherwise, he quips, "Personally, I am quite comfortable with chemicals, anywhere in the universe. My favorite stars, as well as my best friends, are made up of them."

If I got nothing else out of the book, it is that we humans take ourselves way too seriously in the overall scheme of things. The author keeps things in mind-boggling perspective: At a relatively early age, he reports, he learned that more bacteria live and work in one centimeter of his colon than the number of people who have ever existed in the world.

Here are a few other revelations (to me, at least):

*One pound of plutonium generates 10 million kilowatt-hours of heat energy - enough to power a human being for 11,000 years "if we ran on nuclear fuel instead of grocery food."

*Apparently, Sagan was on to something: Our galaxy contains more than 100 billion stars, and known universes have some 100 billion galaxies. 

*There are more molecules of water in an 8-ounce cup than there are cups of water in all the world's oceans. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach.

*Einstein was a badass.

Say what? There's a story behind that last one, but you'll just have to read the book to find out what it is. And with that, I'll end my review with a favorite quote from the book:

"The power and beauty of physical laws is that they apply everywhere, whether or not you choose to believe in them."

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (W. W. Norton & Co., May 2017); 208 pp.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

NO TURNING BACK

4 stars out of 5

Easy to read and enjoyable, this is one I'd pick to take with me to the beach or on vacation. It's got enough of the chill factor to keep me near the edge of my chair without scaring me out of my wits. Recently separated from her husband and with a small daughter named Joni, Anna Graves has just returned to her successful call-in radio show after several months on maternity leave. She gets along well with her much-loved co-star, Nathan Wheeler, but less so with her new producer, Heather. But all things considered - which includes a psychologically troubled, off-putting mother and a father who committed suicide - Anna is getting it together.

That is, until it comes apart in a dramatic way. One day as she's walking on the beach with Joni, a teenage boy runs toward them with what Anna believes is clear intent to harm her and/or her daughter. Anna pulls a wicked-looking comb from her purse and, in the tussle that ensues, the boy is stabbed with it and dies. The police, and for the most part, Anna's family and friends, believe she acted in self-defense; the family and friends of the victim - who live on the "other side of the tracks" near the docks - believe otherwise.

For the most part, Anna is coping; but then, new details about the boy's death are revealed, followed by text messages she receives from someone who claims to be the "Ophelia Killer" who murdered seven boys in the town some two decades ago. That person, who seemingly was content to stop at seven, was never identified. In fact, Anna's late father, a journalist, was working on the case when he died. Could it be that he or she is back? And could Anna and her daughter be in danger? In trying to sort things out, Anna strikes up a relationship with an unlikely person - one who may or may not be on her side.

Toward the end, the action begins to heat up, as new details come to light that lead to the killer's identity (I suspected who was involved, but wasn't sure exactly how). And I never really warmed up to Anna despite all that was happening to her; some of what happened stretched the limits of my believability, and further, when heroes and heroines do things that are just plain dumb (the movie version is the scared-silly female being chased by a monster who heads not for a crowded street corner but rather into a dark alley), my sympathy factor drops to zero. All in all, though, this is a very good book - and I thank the author and publisher (via NetGalley) for providing me with an advance copy to read and review.

No Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan (Crooked Lane Books, June 2017); 352 pp.

THE RED HUNTER

5 stars out of 5

Loving this one crept up on me, but once it got me in its clutches, it didn't let go till the end. I say that because for the first half-dozen chapters or so, I had to go slowly and reread parts because I just couldn't keep the characters and time frames straight. I attribute much of that to the aging process - I've transitioned from a multi-tasking whiz to one who must make a to-do list each day and then forgets where I put it. The chapters here shift back and forth, and on top of that focus on the past and present lives of two women (with plenty of other characters, both relatives and friends, thrown in). So until I got them all straight, it was a bit of a struggle (hence my actual rating of 4.5 stars).

But the book also is a great example of why it's important to keep plodding away. The story was intriguing (and well written) from the beginning, and once I was comfortable with the who's who, I was totally hooked. Had anyone interrupted me during the last quarter of the book, in fact, he or she would have incurred wrath comparable only to what happens when someone tries to make conversation before I've had my morning coffee.

The two women are Claudia Bishop and Zoey Drake, who are total strangers but share dark pasts. Claudia was brutally attacked, after which she became pregnant. For the most part unable to come to grips with what happened, her marriage falls apart, leaving her with daughter Raven, who is torn between wanting, or not, to know the identity of her birth father. As Claudia tries to build an audience for her blog, she inherits a crumbling old house and begins to renovate it in hopes of creating a fresh start for her and Raven.

Zoey, meanwhile, is trying to deal with a tragedy of her own; during a home invasion, she was severely injured and her parents were murdered by men who were looking for something valuable they believed her father, a homicide detective, had hidden. With help from her late father's step-brother, who took over her care, and down-and-dirty martial arts training, she survived the physical injuries. But the psychological trauma never went away, and now, bolstered by her physical prowess, she looks to quell the "red hunter" in her - the rage that's been building up ever since she lost her parents. 

What neither woman knows, however, is that the house Claudia and her daughter Raven now occupy is the same house in which Zoey and her family were living on the fateful night of her parents' murder. Slowly, as secrets of the past are revealed (some surprising to me, others not so much), their lives come together and the tension builds. 

The ending is filled with suspense and action, and all the loose ends are tied (or at least wrapped up so tightly that it's unlikely they'll unravel again anytime soon. This is a suspense novel not to be missed - I thank the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

For the record, I read this book sometime in March. When I get advance copies of books, the occasional publisher will ask that all reviews be held till the day of official release. I dutifully comply, jotting the publication date on my calendar. But I'm always afraid somehow I'll miss seeing it - and that's exactly what happened this time (the book was released in mid-April). My apologies!


The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger (Touchstone, April 2017); 368 pp.

Friday, June 9, 2017

MATCHUP

5 stars out of 5

I do not like them, Sam I am.

Short stories, that is. With few exceptions - most notably Ernest Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and Guy De Maupassant's "The Necklace" - I tend to avoid them like the plague.

Well, okay, that worked until 2014, when I ran across FaceOff - a compilation of short stories, each co-written by two well-known members of International Thriller Writers, that pair up characters readers have come to know and love. That one, edited by David Baldacci, was nothing short of a gem. So imagine my excitement when I learned of this one - a follow-up that is set apart by the joining of one male and one female writer. Never thinking I'd be approved, I requested an advance copy at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. To say I was over-the-top excited to get it is an understatement.

Now I've finished. And just like its predecessor, I'm giving it a resounding 5 stars and a strong recommendation that other mystery/thriller lovers give it a go. Does that mean that every single one of the stories in this collection knocks it out of the ball park? No; although I enjoyed them all, some are better than others - and chances are, there'll be a wide variation in the picks of the litter among other readers as well. This book's greatest value in my mind is because of its uniqueness. Where else, for instance, will you see how Lee Child's rough-and-tough Jack Reacher interacts with Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan (she of the uber-scientific mind)?

Settings, time periods and concepts are all over the map, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to a castle in Scotland to ancient Alexandria. There's murder, theft and fantasy. I was delighted to find some of my favorite characters - among them Lucas Davenport, Joe Pickett and the aforementioned Reacher and Brennan - as well as a few others with whom I wasn't familiar (more's the pity, but that's been rectified now).

The whole thing is edited by Child, and at the beginning of each story is a quick peek at the writing process. Some authors knew each other beforehand; others did not. But what comes through loud and clear is that each and every one of them put considerable effort into turning out a great story - no throwing ideas or characters up against the wall to see what sticks here, folks. Every one is well thought out, intriguing and plausible (well, given the particular combination of characters). Some are deadly serious, while others serve up bits of humor. For instance, puns run rampant in “Footloose” by Val McDermid and Peter James, in which dead folks are distinguished by their feet (or the lack thereof). The victims "must be hopping mad," one character deadpans. 

And then there's my personal favorite, from “Short Story” by Karin Slaughter and Michael Koryta (the longest story in the collection, BTW): As the characters discuss the ungodly frigid weather, one quips, "...the whole witch is cold today. You know what I mean?"

Take a sec. You'll get it.

There's no real point in summarizing all the individual stories here; each has considerable merit, but my point is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, thereby making this a significant work. Another big benefit, for me at least, is the opportunity to get acquainted with authors I've heard of but for whatever reason never read. 

All that said, here's the cast of characters and authors (the whole thing is edited by Lee Childs):

"Honor &..." by Sandra Brown and C.J. Box (Lee Coburn and Joe Pickett)

"Footloose" by Val McDermid and Peter James (Tony Hill and Roy Grace)

"Faking a Murder" by Kathy Reichs and Lee Child (Temperance Brennan and Jack Reacher)

"Past Prologue" by Diana Gabaldon and Steve Berry (Jamie Fraser and Cotton Malone)

 “Rambo on Their Minds” by Gayle Lynds and David Morrell (Liz Sansborough and Rambo)

“Short Story” by Karin Slaughter and Michael Koryta (Jeffrey Tolliver and Joe Pritchard)

“Dig Here” by Charlaine Harris and Andrew Gross (Harper Connelly and Ty Hauck)

 “Deserves to be Dead” by Lisa Jackson and John Sandford (Regan Pescoli and Lucas Davenport)

“Midnight Flame” by Lara Adrian and Christopher Rice (Lucan Thorne and Lilliane)

“Getaway” by Lisa Scottoline and Nelson DeMille (Bennie Rosato and John Corey)

“Taking the Veil” by J.A. Jance and Eric Van Lustbader (Ali Reynolds and Bravo Shaw)

My final word? Don't miss this one!

MatchUp edited by Lee Child (Simon & Schuster, June 2017); 464 pp.

Monday, June 5, 2017

BRING HER HOME

4 stars out of 5

Bill Price and his teenage daughter, Summer, are still trying to cope with the sudden loss of their wife and mother, Julia, who fell to her death about a year and a half earlier. Not wanting to alienate Summer as she continues to grieve, Bill gives her a bit more rein than usual - not forcing the issue if she stays out a bit later or sulks around the house. That leeway comes into serious question, though, when Summer and her best friend Haley go missing. 

Days later, they're found in a city park; Haley is dead, and Summer has been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp but is still clinging to life. In the hospital ICU, she begins the slow process of healing - her father and his sister, Paige, by her side almost every minute. Once in a while, she tries to speak - and the word she utters seems to be "no." She also knocks the stuffed animal Bill brought to comfort her - the one she refuses to sleep without at home - on the floor every time he places it in the bed with her. What, Bill wonders, is up with that?

Bill also questions the efforts of the local police, who he's convinced aren't doing enough to find out who did this to his precious daughter. For solace, he turns to Paige and his ever-so-slick friend and next-door neighbor, Adam. But mostly, he rants, yells, cajoles and berates the lead police detective on the case (that is, when he's not running off to badger someone he suspects is the culprit). Each time he gets himself in trouble for sticking his nose into police business, he apologizes - and then turns around and does it again when a new suspect (to his mind) turns up. 

As the investigation continues, new information is unearthed on almost every page (clearly not fast enough for Bill, but it seemed plenty fast for me). Much of it sheds new light on Summer, leading Bill to reflect on how much he and his late wife really knew their precious daughter.

Especially given that at least one major twist happens near the beginning, that's about all I can say without giving away too much. The story is interesting and straightforward (the chapters don't shift back and forth among characters and/or time period, thank you very much), the action moves along quickly and the loose ends are pretty well tied up in the end - making for a very enjoyable experience overall. Many thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.


Bring Her Home by David Bell (Berkley, July 2017); 464 pp.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

TESTIMONY

5 stars out of 5

Warning: If you're bothered by settings in war-torn countries, or refuse to believe (even when it's mostly fiction) that the U.S. Government is capable of wrongdoing, or don't like endings that may not bring total closure, this probably isn't the book for you. On top of that, I dare anybody to speed read through this one; it took me the better part of five days to finish, although in fairness, we were enjoying the company of a house guest for two of those days and I barely was able to finish half a dozen chapters then. And that brings up another point: Don't even think about zipping through this one. It's as close to tedious reading as I've seen in a while although, as evidenced by my 5-star rating, well worth the effort.

Although he's written a number of best-sellers, this is my first Scott Turow novel. And based on other reviews, it sounds as if it deviates from the courtroom-focused work (almost none of the action takes place there) - so I suppose some who are more familiar with his past work than I might disagree with my very positive opinion. To be sure, there's a court involved - the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where lead character, former prosecutor Bill Ten Boom, has been chosen to take on prosecution of whoever is responsible for the massacre of some 400 men, women and children in a Roma Refugee camp in Bosnia in 2004. That prosecution, however, depends on first determining not only who did the dirty deed, but whether or not the deed actually happened.

"Boom," as he's called, arrives with some baggage of his own; Now 2015, at age 50, he's without a wife, has two grown sons with whom he has a somewhat shaky relationship, and in many ways, he's looking for some direction in his life and hoping to find it here. A survivor of the massacre, himself a bit on the shady side, claims that heavily armed men showed up in the middle of the night and forced the Gypsy residents - refugees from Bosnia - into trucks that dropped them off in a nearby cave with instructions to stay put. After the trucks took off for parts unknown, the cave suddenly exploded - burying all the refugees. The survivor, a man named Ferko Rincic, reluctantly agrees to provide testimony before the court as to what happened.

Ferko is assisted by a drop-dead gorgeous attorney named Esme Czarni, who claims to have come from Gypsy stock. As Boom and his team of experts begin to gather evidence, they begin to suspect there's much more going on than anyone - including top muckity-mucks in the U.S. government - is willing to admit. The investigation takes Boom far from the courtroom, including to Bosnia and Washington, D.C., and puts him directly in the sights of the very dangerous and elusive Laza Kajevic, a Bin Laden-type character who once led the Bosnian Serbs and remains in hiding as a most-wanted war criminal.

I'd say the whole thing is a merry chase, except that there's not much merry about it (well, I'm overlooking a couple of Boom's fairly graphic but seemingly mutually enjoyable liaisons with a couple of lovely ladies). In the end, all the details are pretty well sorted out - none of which I can reveal, of course, leaving me no option besides referring you to my first-paragraph caveats and saying that I'm really glad I read it. 

Testimony by Scott Turow (Grand Central Publishing, May 2017); 497 pp.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

WATCH ME DISAPPEAR

5 stars out of 5

More than anything else, I think, this is a character study; what I know is that it was riveting to watch the threads that hold together three close-knit characters - a father, a mother and a teenage daughter - begin to twist, unravel and, depending on what you read into it, come together again.

The story begins about a year after the disappearance of Billie Flanagan, who went for a solo hike in a California wilderness area and never came back. She left behind a loving, trusting husband, Jonathan, and their teenage daughter, Olive; because her body never turned up, their lives have been turned upside down. On one hand, they hold out the hope that she'll turn up - apparently, she's always been a bit of a "hippie" who disappears for a day or two on a whim. On the other, they want the whole thing to be over. Jonathan and his attorney have petitioned the court to declare Billie legally dead - partly to bring some measure of closure and partly so Jonathan can collect the somewhat hefty life insurance settlement. He quit a high-stress job to concentrate on writing, and he's already behind in tuition payments to his daughter's pricey all-girl private school.

He's also run through the advance he got from a publisher for rights to his as-yet-unfinished book detailing life with the offbeat (to say the least) Billie. This book is interspersed with bits and pieces of what he's written that reflect not only his feelings for her and their life together, but how those feelings evolve as new information comes to light.

Suddenly, for instance, Olive begins to "see" visions of her mother, who passes on cryptic messages that convince the girl that her mother is still alive. Jonathan, needless to say, thinks Olive is heading off the deep end - especially since the visions are interfering with her schoolwork and relationship with him. Still, his curiosity is piqued enough that he sets out to look for other clues as to what really happened (including digging into files hidden in Billie's laptop). As the story progresses, he learns - much to his dismay - that Billie has lied to him and Olive. But the question is, were those lies simply omissions of a past events that are too painful for Billie to share or to cover up a more insidious life that came before her husband and daughter?

Helping to console him is next-door neighbor Harmony, a caterer who was Billie's best friend. That complicates the situation by eliciting quite different emotions from Jonathan, who leans toward going with the flow, and Olive, who (quite understandably) resents the intrusion. Adding to her angst is that she's just beginning to come to terms with her own sexuality as awareness of what her mother really was about begins, for better or worse, to grow.

"Who you want people to be makes you blind to who they really are" is a tagline in the book's official description - and it's right on target. This is a don't-miss book that grabbed and held my attention from the start, and I heartily thank the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for a review.

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown (Spiegel & Grau, July 2017); 368 pp.

Friday, May 26, 2017

ROBERT B. PARKER'S THE HANGMAN'S SONNET

5 stars out of 5

Welcome to the 16th installment of the Jesse Stone series! Although the books no longer are written by the late, great Robert B. Parker (he of Spenser fame), the legacy is being carried on admirably by Reed Farrel Coleman, who has been tagged to keep the series alive. And this is one of the best so far, IMHO.

The rather sleepy town of Paradise, Massachusetts, is about to get the mother of all wake-up calls: Plans are in the making for a mega-star-studded 75th birthday party for folk singer Terry Jester, who tore up the charts in his Bob Dylan years. He stepped out of the limelight when the master recording tape of his "The Hangman's Sonnet" album went missing some 40 years ago, and he's remained a recluse ever since. Paradise police chief Jesse Stone learns of the gala the morning that his deputy, "Suitcase" Simpson, is getting married, and he's none too thrilled about the ruckus and security nightmare such an ostentatious blow-out will cause (Woodstock comes to mind).

As if that weren't enough, the same morning an elderly resident is found dead in her home - apparently the victim of a home invasion gone wrong. The whole place is torn apart, suggesting that the culprits were looking for something. As Jesse and his team, including his faithful sidekick Molly Crane, get on the case, the mayor of Paradise and her PR flack get on Jesse's case. Mess up just once and you're gone, they threaten. As always, Jesse takes it in stride; after all, he's been there, done that. The threats do give him a tiny bit of pause, though; he came to Paradise after "screwing up" in Los Angeles, but he wonders, "...where does a man land after he screws up in Paradise?" 

As the investigation progresses, Jesse begins to suspect that the old woman's murder may be connected to the missing tape. But how? The chase keeps Jesse guessing and following clues all the way to Boston, where he gets a little help from a private eye named Spenser (who way back when helped with the case of the missing tape, so Jesse wants to pick his brain). Readers should get a kick out of seeing two of Parker's popular characters come together in the same book; as a huge fan of both characters, I sure did.

In between trying to figure out what's going on, keep his job and avoid getting killed, Jesse is still trying to come to terms with the murder of his fiance, former FBI agent Diana Evans (that sad event happened in the previous book) and his penchant for drowning his sorrows in a bottle of Scotch. Throw it all together and you've got a very enjoyable book with interesting characters and a fast-moving plot. 

All that said, I do offer an apology of sorts. I've got a ton of for-review books on my list courtesy of publishers (via NetGalley), and I try to tackle them according to closest release date. That doesn't happen for his one till Sept. 12, 2017, but I was so delighted to get it that I just couldn't wait. But alas, you will. Sorry 'bout that! 

Robert B. Parker's The Hangman's Sonnet by Reed Farrel Coleman (G.P. Putnam's Sons, September 2017); 368 pp.

Monday, May 22, 2017

THE BLACK BOOK

5 stars out of 5

Call me flamboozled. Call me chastised for all the potshots I've taken at Patterson's works of late (on second thought, check that - I meant what I said). Above all, call me happy that I ignored my previous rants and read this book.

The title, as one might expect, refers to a missing "little black book" that didn't turn up after a raid and thorough search at a house of ill repute at which some of Chicago's finest are customers. Needless to say, the house madam ain't talking - and without it, finding even more high-level patrons (including cops on the take) and others who weren't present during the raid, may never be found.

At the epicenter is police detective Billy Harney and his partner, detective Kate Fenton. Billy's sister Patti is a cop as well, their dad, Daniel, was chief of detectives, and dad's friend (and Billy's beloved mentor) heads up Internal Affairs, so clearly copness is a family affair. As the raid is analyzed, Billy insists he had every right to initiate it; but Amy Lentini, the beautiful assistant state's attorney, seems out to prove that it wasn't justifiable (and therefore was illegal), thus putting the kabosh on potential prosecution of everyone captured.

In reality, that event took place in Billy's fairly recent past; his present has taken a very different turn that has left him unable and/or unwilling to remember details (including, perhaps, the whereabouts of that little black book). Chapters shift back and forth, with "past" chapters peeling away more clues to what really happened. Usually, I'm not fond of this technique - nor did I love it here. But it's actually done very well and helped keep me on the edge of my seat even though I guessed pretty much from the start who was behind everything. In fact, besides an intriguing, fast-moving story, my desire to find out if my guess was right (it was) and learn the how and why was a big part of what kept me going.

All in all, it's a totally engrossing book. The Patterson-Ellis collaboration hasn't always produced such stellar efforts - I'm referring specifically to The Murder House and Mistress, to which I gave 4 and 3 stars, respectively - but this one sure hit the mark. More, please! 

The Black Book by James Patterson and David Ellis (Little, Brown and Co., March 2017); 418 pp.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

HEAT STORM

3.5 stars out of 5


It's a little hard to take the Nikki Heat series seriously - whether or not you loved the very popular Castle TV show that starred the New York police detective (played by Stana Katic) and her Pulitzer prize-winning squeeze, Richard Castle (played by the hunky Nathan Filion). I was a diehard fan until the last couple of seasons, when the shows somehow stopped being fun and I pretty much lost interest. Supposedly, the books are written by Castle; but of course, he's not a real person; the true author, in fact, has been speculated about but never revealed. And like the TV show, the books started out quite fun but may be slipping a bit (the last three, including this one, earned just 3-1/2 stars from me). 

This one brings together Nikki and another "Richard Castle" series hero, Derrick Storm - a hulk of a man the CIA calls when something is amiss in the U.S. of A., where CIA investigations are off limits. The pairing, though, seems just plain off. There's plenty of action, particularly on Storm's side of the plot, but I never felt any kind of connection between the two, nor of Storm with Heat's husband Jameson Rook (the name her TV husband Castle assumes in the books) even though indications are that Heat has been friends with Storm for quite some time.

Essentially, what we have are two story lines that, as expected, eventually converge. Ever since Heat's recent sighting of  a woman she's sure is her mother Cynthia - a secret U.S. spy Heat had believed was murdered 17 years ago - she's been frantically trying to track her down. In the midst of that, the female U.S. President-to-be has rather inexplicably asked Heat to be her chief of Homeland Security, so there's a big decision to be made. That's even harder since she's banished her hubby from her life, claiming her search for her mother is a dangerous journey and she doesn't want him to be involved (yeah, I never bought that in the TV series, either).

Meanwhile, Storm took part in the raid of a counterfeiting ring that appears to be connected to a nasty group known as the Shanghai Seven. In the process, he begins to suspect that his own government may be working against him, and he turns to his dad Carl for much-needed help. The two story lines begin to come together when Storm finds a tape with Heat's mother's voice on it that appears to connect her to the Shanghai Seven. At the same time, Heat is taking heat in the form of text messages from someone called "The Serpent" warning her to call off the search for her mother.

From then on, the action really picks up - some of it the stuff a Roger Moore James Bond movie is made of that crosses the line of credulity and leads to a rather sappy ending. Overall, it makes for an easy, breezy read that won't tax your brain cells - perfect for reading on a beach or waiting at a doctor's office.

Heat Storm by Richard Castle (Kingswell, May 2017); 320 pp.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

INTO THE WATER

4 stars out of 5


Okay, I admit I'm not quite as enthusiastic about this one as The Girl on the Train, the author's first, and wildly popular, novel. At the same time, I'm a bit flummoxed by all the negative reviews I'm seeing (as I write this, the book has an average of 3-1/2 stars at Amazon, based on 169 customer reviews - 32% of which are 1- and 2-star ratings. Wow - did y'all read the same book I did?

To a certain extent, I get it. While I honestly enjoyed this book overall, there are a few things that gave me pause (and prompted me to knock it down one star from the enthusiastic 5 stars I gave the author's first stellar effort). I agree, for instance, that there are too many characters - a couple of whom really don't contribute much to the story. I've also grown weary of chapters that shift from character to character and in time frame (although to my great dismay that seems to be the norm now, so guess I'd better get used to it). The story gets a little confusing - who really knew what and when and why it really matters - and all the characters are so flawed and have so many secrets that they all fall short of likable.

Forgive me, though, if all that sounds off-putting, because on the whole it really isn't. Each chapter adds details to the background, peeling back layers that allow readers to learn what's really going on now, what went on in the past and how it's all connected (or most of it, anyway - some secrets, or at least things I suspected were secrets, stayed that way till the end). 

Here are the basics: A single mother, Nel, is found dead at the bottom of a part of a river known as the Drowning Pool because so many other women died there. Nel leaves behind a moody, incorrigible 15-year-old daughter, Lena, and a long-estranged sister, Jules. No one knows who Lena's father is (well, except for Nel, and she's not talking). Lena resents Jules and Jules still detests her dead sister, but they agree Nel didn't commit suicide as is the common belief given the surface evidence. An investigation brings in local police officer Sean and his new-to-town partner Erin - both of whom (surprise!) carry baggage from their own pasts. It is learned that Nel was compiling a book detailing the lives and deaths of some of the other women who lost their lives in the Drowning pool - and then everything begins to unravel as clues lead to characters whose lives were intertwined with Nel's. 

The ending came as a bit of a surprise, but was it satisfying? Not really - but on the other hand, given everything that preceded it, it seemed fitting. And that, my friends, is good enough for me.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books, May 217); 394 pp.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

16th SEDUCTION

4 stars out of 5


They're baaaaack: Lindsay, Claire, Cindy and Yuki all get fairly substantial roles in this, the latest installment of the Women's Murder Club adventures. There's plenty of murder and mayhem - some of which hits more than a little too close to home for one club member - and Lindsay must come to terms with her true feelings for Joe, her once-beloved husband.

The book opens as Lindsay, a San Francisco Police Department detective, is having a "date night" with Joe, who she reluctantly kicked out of her life after learning that in essence, he's been a spy and neither 'fessed up to his secret activities nor apologized for doing them. The spark between the two (and love for their young daughter, Julie) remain, though, and they're keeping things civil as Lindsay tries to decide whether to keep Joe or turn him loose. As they're starting to engage in meaningful conversation during a restaurant dinner, all hell breaks loose: A popular attraction nearby explodes, showering rubble and body parts for blocks. Lindsay just came off the successful take-down of a member of a bomb-loving terrorist group - could it be more of their work?

Rushing to the scene, Lindsay and Joe find what appears to be the answer; but within 24 hours, the case turns sour in more than one way and Lindsay finds her career in jeopardy as she tries to defend her actions. Attorney Yuki Castellano gets her day in court and crime reporter Cindy Thomas scoops the competition. Not to be left out, medical examiner Claire Washburn finds evidence that a serial killer may be on a rampage - giving Lindsay and her partner, Rich Conklin (who lives with Cindy) something to do that takes Lindsay's mind off the possibility of losing her job and making up her mind what to do with Joe.

As usual, it's all good fun - with most, but not all, the issues resolved in the end (also as usual). And, I always get a kick out of the author's crediting Humphrey Germaniuk, medical examiner for Trumbull County, Ohio (my county of residence), for his help; this time out, Chuck Hanni, a fire investigator from nearby Youngstown, gets a nod as well. Nice going, gentlemen - you done us proud.

16th Seduction by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro (Little, Brown & Co., May 2017); 384 pp.

LIAR

5 stars out of 5


Thank goodness this one is short, because it's very, very hard to put down. As the official description of "psychological thriller" suggests, it messed with my head - mostly as I tried to figure out what was really going on in the minds of the two primary characters, both of whom clearly are in need of some serious psychiatric help.

One of those characters, Judi, is mother to Ben and grandmother to his two young sons. Another of Judi's sons, David, was killed years ago, but she maintains his bedroom almost as a shrine in the home she shares with her husband. Especially since her relationship with her husband has deteriorated over time, helping Ben with his sons provides her with much-needed joy and comfort - and she'll do absolutely anything to keep them all close. A couple of years earlier, Ben's wife (and mother of the grandsons) died, leaving Ben to raise them on his own. A dedicated teacher, Ben is lonely; but focusing on his work and his sons (and endless help from his mother), he's coping as best he can.

But suddenly, Ben meets Amber - and everything changes. As their whirlwind romance begins, Ben is happy once again; his mother Judi, not so much. As Amber worms her way into Ben's life - taking over "responsibilities" Judi believes are now and always will be hers and threatening her treasured family dynamic - the tension builds. Amber, Judi is certain, is up to no good; and she sets out to find out exactly why that is (and in the process discredit Amber in Ben's rose-colored eyes). That becomes harder as Judi encounters resistance from Ben and her husband, both of whom think she's being overly critical. Judi herself even has a few doubts about her feelings, given that she's also dealing with the physical symptoms of menopause (as an aside, that was a little puzzling to me since Judi is 59 - way beyond the average age of 51. Certainly, it can begin much later, but it's far less common). At any rate, Judi goes to great lengths to keep that change a secret from the men in her life - I suppose because she thinks they'll take her even less seriously (as if that were possible).

Constantly facing opposition from them but convinced Amber is up to no good, Judi begins to dig deeper - and what she learns only bolsters her belief and distrust of Ben's about-to-be second wife. As all that unfolds, readers are treated to snippets of  what Amber really is thinking as chapters shift from her perspective to Judi's. The whole thing comes to an exciting climax as dark secrets from the past of both women are revealed. 

My conclusion? Pretty creepy - and thus destined to be a hit. Many thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

Liar by K.L. Slater (Bookouture, June 2017); 303 pp.

Friday, May 12, 2017

ROBERT B. PARKER'S LITTLE WHITE LIES

4.5 stars out of 5


The author has done a commendable job taking over the late, great Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, IMHO. Most of what I've missed is the snappy banter between Spenser and his faithful sidekick Hawk (and to some extent, between Spenser and his main squeeze, Dr. Susan Silverman). That, and the occasional interjections of humor, seem better here. When Spenser visits a service in a Georgia mega-church and listens to the music from a rock band and a gospel choir, for instance, he quips that it "was a bit like Andrew Lloyd Webber meets Three Dog Night."

The adventure begins when Spenser gets a visit from Connie Kelly, a woman not only scorned, but ripped off. Her handsome and much older lover - whom she met online and trusted because he's a "talking head" TV networks - has flown her coop along with the nearly $300,000 she gave him to invest in a "sure thing." Distraught, she discussed her feelings with her shrink - you guessed it, Susan - who in turn recommended that she bring the matter to Spenser's attention.

 All Connie wants is for Spenser to find the man who done her wrong, M. Brooks Welles, and get her money back. But almost immediately, Spenser learns Welles is far from what he claims to be; his hot-shot military and espionage experience, Harvard degree and even his name are nothing more than hot air. But wait, there's more: it seems he's to in cahoots with some very dangerous characters from the Atlanta area who don't take kindly to a Boston private eye poking around in their territory. What's more, they, too, have set their sights on finding Welles; apparently, Connie isn't the only person he ripped off. 

Even after some twists and turns that mean he could turn his back on the whole mess and walk away, Spenser remains determined to carry out Connie's directive and recoup her money. To help, he calls in the super-capable Hawk and even his old pal Teddy Sapp; but will they be able to get to the bottom of things before at least one of them gets seriously wounded or even killed? 

Ah, you'll just have to find that out for yourself. It's short, sweet and snappy - what I call perfect summer reading. 

Robert B. Parker's Little White Lie by Ace Atkins (G.P. Putnam's Sons, May 2017); 310 pp.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A TALENT FOR MURDER

5 stars out of 5

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared from her home and her seven-year-old daughter Rosalind; 11 days later, she turned up in a hotel - safe and sound, but according to her, unable to recall what had happened. Later, biographer Andrew Norman reportedly wrote that she suffered from amnesia and was suicidal, and much speculation has come from other sources. Was it a publicity stunt to draw attention to her books? Was she distraught over learning of her husband (at the time) Archie's mistress, Theresa Neele?

To this day, the mystery of her disappearance remains unknown. The author, however, has given it his twist in this book - creating an engrossing account of the missing time in a work worthy of the late, great English crime novelist, playwright and writer of short stories that seems to me to be well-researched. A little far-fetched? Perhaps, but no more so than one of Christie's own novels.

The tale begins as Christie is saved from falling in front of an oncoming train. Or was she? It seems her "rescuer," a physician, has darker things in mind. His offer of comfort as they share tea in a cafe following the near-fatal accident quickly becomes an offer of another sort entirely. The not-so-good doctor, it seems, knows everything there is to know about Christie and her family - including her husband's infidelity. Unless she follows his plan to the letter - the first step of which is that she must disappear - he'll reveal all and possibly even cause physical harm to Christie's young daughter.

So begins her frightening journey into a fictional adventure that mirrors all too closely the intricate novels for which she is becoming well known. It is a journey filled with intrigue, cover-ups and murder; throughout, Christie's resourcefulness is put to the test as she tries to extricate herself from the tasks she's being blackmailed into doing without jeopardizing the lives of her family, friends, and even herself. How (and to what extent) she pulls that off is the stuff of this clever, well-researched novel. Well done!

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson (Atria Books, July 2017); 320 pp.