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Saturday, April 22, 2017

YOU WILL PAY

4 stars out of 5

Sex, lies and yes, even videotapes - the stuff of which soap operas are made - all come together in coastal small-town Oregon in this rather lusty novel. Murder? Check. Incest? Check. Throw in an Elmer Gantry-like leader of a summer camp for teenagers that's been closed for two decades, and you've got a solid start to your summer beach reading.

Camp Horseshoe closed after two of the still-teenage female counselors,   a hired hand and a convict who escaped from a nearby prison went missing. Now - 20 years later - Lucas Dalton, detective with the local sheriff's department and son of the aforementioned preacher man, is investigating the discovery of what appears to be human scull in a small cave on the bank of the water at which one of the missing counselors, Eleanor (Elle) was last seen. Complicating matters is that Lucas was Elle's serious love interest at the time; also, several of the other female counselors, led by Jo-Beth Chancellor, reportedly tried to put the fear of God into Monica shortly before she disappeared.

Today, all the camp participants, including Lucas, have gone on with their lives (mostly successfully), but the secrets they buried all those years ago now threaten to bring them down. Semi-estranged from his preacher father, Jeremiah, and his beautiful ex-stepmother Naomi, Lucas has secrets of his own that he hopes don't see the light of day. But as all the counselors involved in the scheme to scare Monica decide to return to align the stories they will once again offer to police, they face a nosy reporter who's desperate to get the real story for an online tabloid - a woman who was just as nosy as a camper 20 years ago. 

Chapters switch from viewpoints of the characters in the present and that fateful summer at camp - a technique of which I'm not fond, but it does allow details to be released little by little that shed more light on what really happened. Admittedly, that got a bit hard for me to follow in that there are so many characters to remember; besides that, there seemed to me to be an excessive amount of repetition from one recollection to another (although to be honest, that probably helped my aging brain keep all those characters straight). 

Tying up all the loose ends in one tidy package also tested the limits of believability for me, but then keep in mind I was a church camper back in the day, and the closest I ever got to high drama was having a bit of a crush - as did most of the other female campers - on a young, super-cute minister-counselor. All that meant, though, was that we sang "Kumbaya, My Lord" louder than necessary around the campfire in hopes of getting his attention. Kinky sex? Murder and mayhem? Fuhgettaboutit!

If you're looking for off-kilter characters in creepy settings, give this one a try. My thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy to read and review. 

You Will Pay by Lisa Jackson (Kensington, May 2017); 416 pp.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

ALL BY MYSELF, ALONE

4 stars out of 5

Well-developed, intriguing characters. Interesting plot, albeit with no mind-bending surprises. What's not to like?

Not much, from my point of view. No, it won't jack up your blood pressure nor keep you anywhere from the edge of your seat. In fact, it's about as close to a "cozy" mystery as you can get without actually crossing that line (although some readers might argue that it does). In short, it's a perfect summer read - on the beach or, in my case, while enjoying spring weather on our back deck as it comes (finally) to our little corner of the world in northeast Ohio.

Admittedly, it got a bit repetitive in spots, and there were a couple of incidents that challenged credibility. As the story progressed, the more it brought to mind the old game of Clue: Colonel Mustard did it with a knife in the library. Or was it Professor Plum with candlestick in the kitchen? Still, overall it was a fun read - just don't expect a complex psychological mystery that will keep you awake nights.

The Queen Charlotte, a new, uber-luxurious ocean liner, had just set off on its maiden voyage from the Hudson River to Southhampton, England. With a capacity of 100 passengers and a crew of 85, it is the newest ship in the fleet owned by wealthy Gregory Morrison and designed to be an upgrade on the ill-fated Titanic. On board are hoity-toity, wealthy passengers like 86-year-old Lady Emily Haywood, nouveau riche like William Meehan and his amateur-sleuth wife, Alvirah, guest lecturers like Celia Kilbride, a noted gems and jewelry expert and an international thief known as The Man with One Thousand Faces. 

Most of the chapters focus on details of specific passengers; Ted Cavanaugh, for instance, wants to convince the elderly Lady Em to return her famous Cleopatra emerald necklace to Egypt instead of the Smithsonian, as she plans. The necklace, he argues, was stolen from the country by her ancestors and should be returned to its rightful owner. 

But not long after departure, one passenger goes overboard. Then three days out, Lady Em is found dead - murdered in her stateroom - and the storied emerald necklace is missing. Are all these events related? Is the international thief really on board and if yes, who is he? Who's got the necklace? Are Roger Pearson, accountant to Lady Em, and Brenda Martin, her long-time personal assistant, really the loyal employees they appear to be? Just about everyone on board, it seems, is hiding some kind of secret; little by little, chapter by chapter, those secrets are revealed and lead up to the conclusion.

All By Myself, Alone by Mary Higgins Clark (Simon & Schuster, April 2017); 337 pp.

Monday, April 17, 2017

THE BURIAL HOUR

4.5 stars out of 5

At 752 pages, I'm pretty sure this qualifies as the longest Jeffery Deaver book I've ever read - at least of the series starring forensic detective Lincoln Rhyme. What it is not, however, is the best of the bunch.

To be sure, though, it's very good; and despite my grousing that I'd be reading it for several days, I surprised myself by polishing it off in just two. And for the most part, I enjoyed the experience from beginning to end - starting with the kidnapping of a man from New York's Upper East Side witnessed only by a young girl even though it took place in broad daylight. The perpetrator left behind a miniature noose made from a musical instrument string. Rhyme and his co-investigator (and soon to be wife), Amelia Sachs, are called in; shortly thereafter, a video is posted online showing the victim as he is slowly being hanged. Stranger still is that his gasps for air are synced to music, and the video is "signed" by someone called The Composer.

Search and seizure efforts by Rhyme and Sachs are only partly successful, and the kidnapper gets away. But then, a near identical incident takes place near Naples, Italy (noose and all), and in the flash of a private jet, the dynamic duo - accompanied by Rhyme's faithful and tough-nosed caretaker, Thom - make their way to the City of the Sun. The Italian police higher-ups clearly resent help from the Americans, but as Rhyme and Sachs sift through forensic evidence and prove their worth, the Italians grudgingly accept their insights. 

Meantime, readers learn the kidnapper's identity through interspersed chapters written from his perspective. Then fairly early on comes another case as a young American living and playing hard in Italy is arrested for battery and rape. Rhymes and Sachs are asked by the defense to help with this one as well - to look for evidence that suggests someone else could have done the dirty deed. As they begin to work on both cases, they learn that the Italian prosecutor on the rape case is the same guy who's carrying a chip on his shoulder about interference from the American duo on the kidnapping case. Oops - not exactly the way to win him over.

The original kidnapping case leads to an Italian camp that provides sanctuary for the thousands of immigrants who have fled their home countries in search of a better life (clarifying the meaning of the book's title and adding an element of timeliness to the plot). Clearly, there's plenty going on here.

But sometimes, plenty is too much. The details of the plot, the number of characters and the geographic settings seem to go on and on unnecessarily and, alas, with a lot less interaction than I like to see between Rhymes and Sachs. On the plus side, the loose ends (well, perhaps all but one) are tied up neatly. And, clues led me to suspect that many of those details and characters are meant to lay the foundation for a future book or books, so I'm willing to back off a bit on my criticism. In any event, it's for sure I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment - love this series!

The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver (Grand Central Publishing, April 2017); 752 pp.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

THE REMOVERS

5 stars out of 5

Any time I come off of reading a particularly intense, or intensely disappointing, book, my inclination is to reach for something that doesn't require lots of concentration and is dependably good. Now that they're available in Kindle format, Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series fills both of those requirements admirably (this being the third of 27).

Those not familiar with the books may remember the motion pictures starring the late, great Dean Martin; four of them, I believe, were released from 1966 to 1969. The first book, for the record, was published in 1960 (Death of a Citizen), and Hamilton passed away in 2006. Reading the books now (or re-reading, since I read a couple way back when but have long since forgotten which ones) is interesting for two reasons: First and foremost, they're just plain good "secret agent" novels. The other is the time frame; it's fun to see what's changed over the years since 1960 (when I was a college freshman, BTW) as well as what hasn't. Hearing a woman called "baby" or noting Helm's preference for those who wear skirts- ideally with nylon stockings covering their legs - is reminiscent of the old gumshoe books of the '40s and '50s. The espionage game, on the other hand, is pretty much same old, same old.

And Helm is right in the middle of that game here. After enjoying a few years' respite making a living mostly as a photographer to support a wife and children, his wife Beth became quite unhappy to learn what he really did for a living in all those years before she came on the scene and realized he had a heart behind his shoulder holster. Unable to come to terms with that, she divorced him six months ago; and now, looking for something to bring meaning to his life once again, he's been reactivated. 

So has Beth, in a way; she's remarried, this time to an English gentleman who owns a large ranch somewhere outside of Reno, Nevada. Helm's kids live with their mother, as does her new husband's grown son. But now, she's reaching out - sending a note to Helm's boss, Mac, to say she needs her ex-husband's help. Mac passes along the message with one of his own: As long as Helm (code name: Eric) is going to be in the area, how about checking out a young, inexperienced agent?  As they discuss the assignment, they agree that Helm and his ilk are not considered "enforcers," but rather "removers" - from hence cometh, I smartly perceive, the title of the book.

The young agent, alas, doesn't have much to offer about his assignment except that he was tracking an enemy agent named Martell, who's now working for a local mobster under an assumed name. And wonder of wonders, the mobster just happens to be the man for whom Beth's husband used to work (most likely as - you guessed it - a remover just like Helm).

The plot gets thicker and the action picks up as the book moves along - coming to an end that signals a major change in the direction of Helm's life going forward. That, in fact, is one of the most enjoyable parts of this series - watching how events that happen in one book shape what happens in the future. Just for the record, the books I've read so far can stand alone, but I'm sure I'm getting the biggest bang for my bucks - as would other readers, IMHO - by taking it one step at a time. They're short steps, I hasten to add; I polished this one off in just one day.

The Removers by Donald Hamilton (Titan Books, April 2013 Kindle release); 240 pp.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

IF I RUN

4 stars out of 5


"...one step ahead of the shoe shine
Two steps away from the county line..."

From the start of this one, those lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel's "Keep the Customer Satisfied" ran through my head in this fast-paced, exciting book that I read in a single day (partly because it's only 318 pages long and mostly because it was very hard to put down). 

You see, Casey Cox is a woman on the run; her DNA has been found at the scene of the stabbing murder of her best friend Brent, a journalist. In truth (or truth as she tells it), she really was at the scene - meeting him at his apartment at lunchtime at his request - but what she found was his bloody body. Believing her story wouldn't be convincing to the police, she ran away in hopes of finding a new identify and a new life. She's also trying to escape some haunting memories of her own youth - memories that comprise another reason to be wary of talking to the police.

Enter Dylan Roberts, a former Army cop with three deployments and a nasty case of PTSD who'd love to get a job on the local police force. Turns out he also was a good friend of Brent, and when Dylan attends the memorial service, because of his background he's hired to track down Casey (with approval from the time-challenged local police). As the chase ensues, chapters shift from Casey's perspective to Dylan's; in most instances, I'm not a big fan of that technique - nor of first-person writing - but they really do work well here.

Despite her efforts to stay off the grid, Casey leaves a trail that's almost amazingly easy for Dylan to follow. The closer he gets to finding her, though, the more he begins to realize there's far more to her story than he's being led to believe - bringing into question what happened to Brent, who actually did him in and why. 

Meantime, a second story line comes into play as Casey - who now has a new identity - tries to get her new act together in an Atlanta suburb. A new friend, it seems, has a daughter who went missing a couple of years earlier. In the course of her new job, Casey inadvertently uncovers clues that could mean the daughter is still alive. Risking the loss of her precious anonomity, she sets out to learn the truth. The book comes to a riveting conclusion that brings closure to one of the two story lines (but I won't reveal which).

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book - but with two reservations. The first is that there's a doozy of a cliffhanger ending. This is the first of a two-book series (which I knew ahead of time and, under those circumstances, certainly expected some carryover business). But this goes far beyond that, literally forcing readers to get the next book (If I'm Found) if they want closure. And not knowing that was gonna happen till the end of this one made me very grumpy.

The second is that it's in-your-face clear from the beginning that this book belongs in the category of Christian fiction (which I didn't know at the time I accepted an advance review copy from the publisher based on what sounded like a great story). Mind you, I have nothing against organized religion; in fact, I consider myself to be somewhat of a student of it. Over the years, I've enjoyed, and learned much from, books on the history and beliefs of faiths from Baha'i to Judaism to the Society of Friends to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 

What I do not want to read about, however, is some character's "search for the God I used to believe in" or, God forbid, proselytizing. Both are in here from the beginning, though thankfully, not in large doses (with a couple of exceptions). Still, it's more than I want to encounter, and I firmly believe potential readers should be made aware of this ahead of time.

If I Run by Terri Blackstock (Zondervan, February 2016); 318 pp.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

THE PREACHER: ACES AND EIGHTS

5 stars out of 5


Warning: Don't even think about speed-reading this book. Oh, you can try, but if you do, you'll miss a whole bunch of good stuff. I found that out early on, and after the first wave of "Oh drat - I've gotta concentrate on this one" hit, I settled back, took my time and enjoyed the heck out of the rest of the ride. 

This is, for the record, Book 2 in what Amazon lists as a two-book series featuring "The Preacher" - a one-eyed priest (Episcopal, I think), Vietnam veteran and professional gambler. When the publisher offered an advance copy for review, the description sounded like a sure bet. I didn't feel at a disadvantage for not having read the first book, either, although now that I'm done I'm pretty sure I missed out on another good thing (that book was a finalist for an Edgar Award).

In this one,The Preacher (readers never get to know him by any other name) knows his way around self-defense because of his Vietnam experience, and he's no slouch at the poker table, either. In fact, he's come to a high-stakes private game at a swanky Las Vegas casino to earn money to support his tiny congregation. Among the other players are a big-time televangelist and a couple of The Preacher's old friends (one of whom is a guy dubbed "Corner Pocket," who happens to be the chief investigator for the Clark County District Attorney's Office). Just as the betting turns serious, all hell breaks loose: two men with machine guns burst through the door, blasting away. The Preacher, the televangelist and the assistant D.A. escape injury, but the other old friend doesn't fare so well (nor does one of the two gunmen). The second hitman hits the ground running away - straight to the roof - where he hitches a ride on a waiting helicopter and escapes.

When the dust settles, the injured friend is rushed to the hospital, and The Preacher and other survivors are questioned by police. The gunmen left behind few clues, except for one oddity: On top of one of the dead bodies is a hand of cards - all aces and eights. Surely, that means something, all agree - but what?

At the hospital, The Preacher hopes his injured friend, whose name is Sam Goines, will regain consciousness and shed some insight on what happened back at the casino. Sam's beautiful wife, Maxey (who just happens to have had a years-ago fling with The Preacher), rushes to visit and is hopeful that first part happens as well. Suddenly, the plot thickens, and the hospital becomes the site of what will be several plot twists, more murder, mayhem and sleight of hand, a character who would give the late Howard Hughes a run for his money, a race to find an errant atomic bomb and yes, more of those hands of aces and eights. Saying much more would give too much away, so I'll just say it's an intelligently written, fast-paced story that hooked me from beginning to end.

When that end came, though, I learned that the author passed away in 2001, making me wonder why it took this long for it to be published. Further, a quick check at Amazon of the first, The Preacher, showed a May 2016 release date. My journalist's curiosity really kicked in then, prompting me to do a little sleuthing. Turns out the first one was published in 1988, followed by not one, but two others. The third, King of Diamonds, appears to have been released in 1989, and given how much I loved this one, I was interested. But good luck getting a hand on it; the only copy I could find has a list price of $184.19 - used, no less - so since I'm not that flush at the moment, I'm gonna pass. None of that is a big deal in terms of how good the books are, of course, but I'm a big believer in truth in lending.

Bottom line? This one's a winner, so if you're game, go for it!

The Preacher: Aces and Eights by Ted Thackrey Jr. (Brash Books, May 2017); 349 pp.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

ALIENATION OF AFFECTIONS

4 stars out of 5

Well, if I've learned anything after nearly 55 years of marriage, it's that when in divorce court, never trust a living soul. At this point, though, I'm in full agreement with the wife of the philandering husband in this, the second book in the author's Family Court series: I've invested far too much time in the one I've got to get rid of him now.

And in this case, that wife - Martha Grimm - is willing to pay handsomely to accomplish exactly that. But what she wants to avoid at all costs is suing her husband. When she puts that challenge to her attorney, though, the initial reaction is something like, say what? Putting their heads together - and realizing that no solution to their client's request means no fees - the attorney and her associates come up with the notion of putting the state's little-known (and probably never used) law called "Alienation of Affections" into play. As such, the firm can sue the wayward husband's mistress - herein known as "The Floozy" - thus taking the husband out of the equation and allowing for a trial by jury instead of the more typical judge's decision.

What happens behind the scenes in divorce court is revealed in this very short novel (I read it in one sitting and one-and-a-half glasses of a decent sangria). But most interesting to me were the characters, beginning with the Floozy, who's desperately trying to dress the part in court (using her paramour's credit card, of course) and the height-challenged judge who's just trying to get in 10 years so he can retire with a hefty pension for life. Then there's the Great Negotiator, a.k.a. Floozy's lawyer, who always delivers results (whether or not he'll manage that here I'll never tell). Even "The Dress" - the ill-fitting number Floozy picked for her day in court - plays a significant role.

All in all, it's a fun look inside the workings of divorce court. I thank the author for providing a copy for me to read and review.

Alienation of Affections by Portia Porter (Cheetah Press, August 2016); 141 pp.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

BEYOND JUSTICE

4 stars out of 5

Looking for a good legal mystery? Consider giving this one a try - seriously. Top-notch young attorney Hayden McCarthy has just earned her chops by pulling off an almost unbelievable win - a feat that doesn't go unnoticed by her hoity-toity law firm. But instead of a few days on a sunny beach or a hefty bonus, her reward is being assigned to a seemingly unwinnable wrongful death case. A young Mexican boy who attempted to enter the United States illegally was caught and stashed in a government-run juvenile detention facility in Texas - where he was murdered. Now, Hayden's firm has been asked to build - and more important, at least to Hayden's future career, win - a case against the government.

Add to the mix Hayden's roommate, who just happens to have a very hunky and eligible cousin named Andrew Wesley. And he just happens to be the son of an ambitious congressman. It goes without saying that Hayden and Andrew are wary of but attracted to each other. But even though Andrew claims to eschew his father's chosen profession of service to America, the fact that Hayden is going head-to-head with the government isn't exactly a relationship booster. 

Tracking down the facts she'll need to build her case takes Hayden from her job in Washington, D.C., to Texas and back - with plenty of dangerous turns in between. Although almost none of it takes place in a courtroom, there's plenty of action and legal details as Hayden tries to ferret out the truth.

So we have likable, well-developed characters, a story that's intriguing, timely (immigration) and believable. So what was missing? Although I certainly should have known, I failed to pick up ahead of time on the fact that this book falls into the Christian category - and there few things in this life I do not want to read about more than someone's religious "journey."

But wait, there's more.

Other than one horrific moment when I was convinced the book would end with Andrew's asking Hayden to marry him only if she agreed to quit the high-profile job she loves and stay home to be a proper mother to their kids, matters of faith were for the most part unobtrusive. In fact, what few references there were seemed to be inserted haphazardly, almost as an afterthought, sometimes where they really didn't seem to fit. It was almost as if someone said, "Oops, God hasn't had a mention in 50 pages - better throw one in!" 

And somehow, it strikes me that a "Christian" book should have more on that subject (or at least what was there should have been more fully developed). Ironic, isn't it, that the biggest downside (a mild one, I hasten to add) is that there wasn't enough of what I didn't want to read in the first place? But there it is.

That said, this is a very enjoyable book that's well worth reading no matter what side of the religion coin you're on. Many thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for providing me with an advance review copy.

Beyond Justice by Cara C. Putman (Thomas Nelson, April 2017); 384 pp.