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Thursday, October 14, 2021

FALLEN ANGEL

4 stars out of 5

I've read two other books in this series - this is the 13th - and enjoyed them. The main characters, Sheriff Jenna Alton and her professional and personal partner, David Kane, are likable, skilled people with intriguing, secretive backgrounds who are, well, fun to read about. So naturally, I was looking forward to diving into this one. But for several reasons, this one doesn't quite measure up.

On the plus side, the story itself held my interest from beginning to end. The setting is an expansive mountaintop resort in the middle of winter, at which a convention of current and would-be writers, agents and publishers is happening. Alton and Kane are here to follow up on a gone-missing report of one of the most successful agents; they hang around after her dead, frozen body is found in a pond near her chalet. Also onsite is another familiar character, Medical Examiner Shane Wolfe, who is accompanied by his two grown daughters Emily and Julie - both of whom play major roles this time out.

As they and other members of their team work toward narrowing down suspects - not an easy task given the well-known nastiness of the dead woman - another victim turns up in an under-construction chalet, together with a clue that ties the two murders together. Given that blizzard conditions prevent all but emergency comings and goings, it becomes clear that the murderer is in their midst; and when yet another body gets zapped, they realize they're dealing with a serial killer.

Everyone, including Wolfe's daughters, get their heads together to speculate on the killer's motive in hopes of preventing yet another ugly incident. As a team, they all work well together - even honoring professional responsibilities during a spat between two lovers that would make a junior high student cringe - but the killer's identity remains elusive. As an aside, though, I had to wonder why on earth Kane is sometimes called "Uncle Dave" and other times "Uncle Kane" by the girls - like, who calls an uncle by his last name)? But hey, maybe that was explained in a previous book.

In between "regular" chapters, readers get the musings from the clearly deranged killer himself (or herself - the investigative team realizes that the methods of death could be accomplished by either sex). It is here, too, that readers learn the killer has set sights not only on a select list of victims, but on a team member as well. Can the good guys and gals figure out who the culprit is before the unthinkable happens and one of their own goes down for the count? 

As this exciting race to the finish plays out, it's clear that pains are being taken to keep readers guessing whether the killer is male or female. That process, sorry to say, triggered one of my grammar hot buttons: Pairing a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. An example (my words): "I saw someone get off the elevator, but I didn't recognize 'them'." No, no, a thousand times NO (which has to be close to the number of times it happens in the book, which is why I'm compelled to mention it; once or twice I could overlook). That took a big bite out of my enjoyment of this book, although I still recommend it to others because it's a well-thought-out, interesting story. Thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for allowing me to read and review a pre-release copy.

Fallen Angel by D.K. Hood (Bookouture, November 2021); 232 pp.

Monday, October 11, 2021

DARKNESS FALLS

5 stars out of 5

After thoroughly enjoying the first two books in this series, I was chomping at the bit at the opportunity to dive into this one (thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the advance review copy). And once again, I wasn't disappointed. Kate Marshall, who recently started a private investigation business in England, is in her best sleuthing mode, with lots of help from her personable partner, Tristan Harper. Business isn't exactly booming, so they're both delighted when they get a call from Bev Ellis asking them to tackle a cold case: the disappearance of her journalist daughter, Joanna Duncan, a dozen years earlier.

Kate also owns a bunch of caravans - which if I'm correct is what we across the Pond call trailers (as in trailer park) - that bring in some money but need to be cleaned regularly. For that, she's hoping her grown son, Jake, will take charge when he comes home from college in a couple of weeks. For now, though, she and Tristan concentrate on their new case and start looking for clues, beginning with people who might be holding a grudge after Joanna did an expose on a local government official that resulted in losing his seat. It was, after all, just a couple of weeks after that when Joanna went missing. Willing to pay for the search is Bill, Bev's rather wealthy partner for many years, with whom she's now living.

Eventually, clues - some found in evidence boxes Kate has obtained from the police from their early-on investigation - turn up some names that lead to connections to the gay community, which seems to proliferate locally, both publicly and in secret (the latter mostly among married men who frequent gay bars and hire "rent boys" on the sly). As their investigation continues, though, it takes an even more sinister direction: the possibility that Joanna's disappearance isn't a one-off, but rather another in a string of serial killings by someone who isn't a stranger to the local community.

All in all, another entertaining adventure from beginning to end with very likable characters who are easy to "root" for. Bring on the next one - I'm ready already!

Darkness Falls by Robert Bryndza (Thomas & Mercer, December 2021); 304 pp.

Friday, October 8, 2021

THE ARCHIVIST

4 stars out of 5

If I had to describe my impression of this book in a single word, it would be pretentious. As a journalist/editor, I was taught never to use a $20 word when a 50-cent one would do. Right from the git-go, this rule-of-thumb got turned on its head and never righted itself throughout the 700 pages (yes, I had to look up several words, the meanings of which I couldn't discern through context alone). Also off-putting to me is the length; with the exception of the Harry Potters, a couple of James Micheners and a Stephen King or two, anything more than 400 pages and I'm inclined to run the other way.

So all that said, I was surprised at being drawn in almost from the beginning and even more shocked when my enthusiasm grew as the pages trudged on. Even before the halfway point, in fact, I just didn't want to put it down, and for a book of this length, I finished it in record time.

At the heart of the story are two professional archivists - Nadia Fontaine and Emily Snow - both hired to organize the "papers" of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Raymond West at his alma mater, Regents University, where he's also a professor. But at different times; Nadia, who came first, drowned while surfing, deemed an accident by police. Emily followed, chosen because of her expertise and the need to finish Raymond's collection in time for the opening of the $25 million upgrade to the college library's eighth floor, where the collection will be housed (also, hopefully, coinciding with the announcement that Raymond has won the year's Nobel Prize for literature). Of even more importance, though, is that those big bucks are coming from none other than Raymond's starchy wife, Elizabeth - so stepping on toes by anyone on the library staff, in particular the Special Collections Department, is, well, frowned upon.

As Emily starts to make sense of her predecessor's work and assess what still needs to be done, though, she notices that several items that should be in the collection are missing. But why? Were they simply mislaid, and if so, where? Or were they deliberately removed, and if so, why? Aided in secret by her closest friend at the library, Joel, Emily gains access to what's called the "Dark Archives" - and tumbles headlong into evidence of a torrid love affair between Raymond and Nadia. That puts Emily in sleuth mode, trying her best to get to the truth about the missing papers and Nadia's untimely death.

At almost every juncture, she gets pushback from the library powers-that-be, all of whom seem intent on stopping her from throwing a monkey wrench into the plans for the library makeover and embarrassing the college and Raymond's wealthy wife even though they have no idea how much she's already learned. Even Emily isn't totally sure what it all means, but she's convinced that no matter how the chips fall, Nadia's story - as recorded by both Nadia and Raymond - needs to be made public despite the family's wishes. That, in turn, brings Emily's ethics into serious question and, ultimately, threatens to destroy not only her career, but her very life.

In the interest of full disclosure - and other readers' sensitivities - I will note that the book has plenty of graphic sex (culled from Nadia's super-detailed accounts of her trysts with Raymond). Also, I'll hope that Moleskine and Societe paid for the extensive product placement (if they didn't, the companies darned well should ante up for all those mentions). I'd also concede that the story could have been told in fewer pages by leaving out what some might deem irrelevant details (such as descriptions of clothing, where and what a character ate and drank). From my perspective, though, those details help shape the story and add substantially to character development (in other words, I'm fine with it). Finally, I think this could be a great motion picture or, maybe even better, a TV series.

All that comes together to make a very enjoyable, thought-provoking and at times scary tale I'm really glad I took the time to read. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for giving me the opportunity to read and review a pre-release copy.

Oh, and for the record (which I'm including only on my book blog here), one of the main reasons I requested this book is the author's name - much the same as when I first read the Joe Pickett series by C.J. Boxx. My maiden name is Pickett, and I have a cousin on that side of the family named Rex (different last name, but close enough for horseshoes).

The Archivist by Rex Pickett (Blackstone Publishing, November 2021); 700 pp.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

TERMINATION SHOCK

4 stars out of 5

This is a book with an important message, but by no means can I call it an easy book to read. For starters, there are way too many characters, several of which go by different names part of the time, and too many different location settings to make things very confusing if you don't pay close attention. Couple that with more than 700 pages, and well, getting through the whole thing requires serious commitment.

That said, though, it's worth making the effort, especially if you have an interest in climate change. It takes place in the post-COVID but not-too-distant future, when the world is reeling from the effects of global warming. Everywhere are scenes of impending doom, like devastating, land-altering floods, superstorms and infestations of critters like feral pigs (yes, you read that correctly). The story centers around groups of people from different countries who are seeking ways to rectify (make that survive) the dire situation. At the beginning, the Queen of the Netherlands is on her way to Texas when a storm forces a crash landing of the airplane she's piloting. On her way to meet up with some kind of secret conference with a wealthy Texan who may have devised a way save humanity, she must keep her true identity secret.

The rest follows several characters on their journey toward save-the-earth enlightenment, which includes the awareness that whatever solution is found may help some, but at the expense of others. Obviously, there's much more action and food for thought going on here (at 736 pages, a lot more), but I'll keep those details to myself so other readers can discover them firsthand. My thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for allowing me to read and review a pre-release copy.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, November 2021); 736 pp.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

LAST GIRL GHOSTED

4 stars out of 5

Despite having a few issues with this story near the end - more on that later - I'm compelled to say this right up front: I do not recall the last time I read a book so thoroughly engrossing - mesmerizing, even - that except for a handful of chapters I started the night before, I polished off in one sitting even though it extended past my usual bedtime. For that alone, it gets a rousing WOW! from me.

Wren Greenwood is a successful advice columnist and blogger with a past that she's managed to hide from the rest of the world (she's created a whole new identity since her childhood years). For obvious reasons, she's a bit of a loner, and her best friend convinces her to sign up for an online dating app and dip her toes into the dating waters. When she does, she finds an intriguing guy named Adam; they meet, and for the first time in her life, Wren thinks she's in love. Heck, she even told him about her horrific past when he asked her to share with him something she's never told anyone else. Not long thereafter, the unthinkable happens. At their most recent arranged meeting, he's a no-show; his phone has been disconnected and all his online profiles have gone poof in the night. As young folks would say today, she's been ghosted.

To put it mildly, she's crushed. And determined to figure out why. Was he turned off by her past? Did something awful happen to him? Did he have a few secrets of his own? Then she gets a visit from private detective Bailey Kirk; his firm's client is the father of another young woman who went missing after hooking up with a guy online who's a dead ringer for her Adam. Could it be that he's a serial lover and leaver? Or, when a couple of other women met up with him turn out to be missing as well, maybe something worse?

The bulk of the story is told by Wren (and occasionally Bailey); some chapters flash back to scenes from Wren's frenetic childhood and a couple of the other victims. That's a bit confusing at first, but I didn't find it hard to follow. Plus, there's quite a bit of repetition as Wren and Bailey retell their experiences and conclusions with other characters - such as Bailey's boss and the man who helped Wren escape her horrific childhood and create a new life - so what's happened then and now gets reinforced throughout.

The conclusion, albeit nail-bitingly fast-paced, is where I lost some interest (not to mention respect for Wren, who up to that point had been a survivor with a sensible head on her shoulders in my view). Of course, I won't reveal what happened - so I'll just say that some parts (and characters) were very satisfying and others not so much. The epilogue, too, was a bit unsettling, bringing what I consider to be a surprising, and somewhat disappointing, turn of events.

But no matter; I base my reviews primarily on the quality of writing and plot originality, not on whether or not I agree with an author's perspective or don't "connect" with the characters. And trust me, that WOW! factor that struck me at the beginning was in place right to the end. Well done, and once again I thank the publisher, via NetGalley, for allowing me to read and review a pre-release copy. 

Last Girl Ghosted by Lisa Unger (Park Row, October 2021); 336 pp.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

WHAT THE CAT DRAGGED IN

5 stars out of 5

Toss a cozy mystery in a stack of 10 books in my favorite mystery/thriller genre, and almost always I'll shove it to the bottom of the pile. But once in a while a series comes along that's just too good to put on the back burner. Maybe it's because there's a cat involved (make that a CAT - Diesel is a Maine Coon, after all), plus a middle-age-plus, sensible and intelligent owner, Charlie Harris, who I know would be a friend if he were to turn up in my real life. This book, the 14th "Cat in the Stacks" entry, is enjoyable, entertaining and one I didn't want to put down (no edge-of-seat nail-biter, mind you - simply a pleasure to read).

Set in the small town of Athena, Mississippi, Charlie is retired but a regular volunteer in the library of the local college. He shares his comfy and rather large home with a gay couple (one a police officer), Diesel and a new, normal-sized rambunctious kitty named Ramses. He's got a housekeeper, Azalea Berry, the mother of the local police chief, who keeps him (and his tenants) well fed, a son Sean who's a local attorney, a daughter Laura who teaches at the aforementioned college and a fiancee who, in this installment, is away at a professional conference. About 15 miles outside of town is a large farm that Charlie thinks his grandfather sold to his longtime tenant, Martin Hale.

And herein lies the plot: Martin dies, and Charlie learns, much to his surprise, that his grandfather never sold the farm, but rather leased it to Martin for the duration of Martin's life. An even bigger surprise comes when Charlie learns that the farm, house and all, now belong to him. Alas, the non-sale comes as an even bigger surprise to Martin Hale's grandson Marty, who shows up in town expecting to take over the property. When he learns the truth, he's not a happy camper.

For Charlie, the surprises keep coming. When he and Diesel visit the house he hasn't visited since his childhood, he pokes around to check out its condition. When they get to the attic, Diesel plays the role of curious cat to the hilt - finding a pile of human bones. Suddenly, the police are involved, but identification of the remains, and how, when and why they got to the attic, prove problematic - in part because there are at least three known possibilities. Meantime, another, more serious problem arises when Marty's dead body is found on a remote section of the farm. This time, despite his discovery under a fallen tree, there's no doubt about the how; bullet holes are a clear indication that he didn't die of natural causes. As the investigation progresses, Charlie learns intriguing things about his family he didn't know and meets several interesting people. Problem is, one of them most likely is a killer who just might do it again. 

But who's the intended victim? I'll never tell, nor will I reveal anything else in the hope that you'll read this one for yourself. You won't be sorry - it's a refreshing change from the typical ditzy heroines that grace the pages of most cozies (did I mention that I usually relegate them to the bottom of my to-read stack)? Thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for allowing me to read and review it. Delightful!

What the Cat Dragged In by Miranda James (Berkley, August 2021); 297 pp.

Friday, September 24, 2021

GAME ON

4 stars out of 5

When I finished the author's 24th installment of this series, I literally hung up my Kindle in frustration. I've read and enjoyed the action and humor in the previous books featuring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, but over the last few years, they'd grown to be, well, downright silly - partly, IMHO, because despite getting older, Stephanie just didn't grow up.

An offer of a pre-release copy of this one from the publisher, via NetGalley, made me decide to take another look. And honestly? I'm glad I did. Yes, some parts are still on the silly side (a guy who makes a living mooning guests at parties, for instance) and Stephanie is still waffling among her three hunky guy friends, but for the most part she seems to have settled on longtime love, New Jersey detective Joe Morelli. 

One of those hunks, another "apprehension agent" named Diesel, shows up in Stephanie's bedroom unexpectedly (triggering both annoyance and one of those aforementioned waffling spells that permeate the rest of the book). Turns out they're on the trail of the same guy, an extremely talented computer hacker named Oswald Wednesday. Scuttlebutt has it he's working on something really big, so the sooner they catch him, the better. Stephanie hooks up with another hacker - a member of a hacking group that does it for fun, not profit. But one of the folks they hacked is Wednesday; when Morelli starts to investigate the murder of a man done in a rather grisly fashion, it brings the suspicion that the motive may be payback and this guy was only the beginning.

When the danger hits closer to home, Stephanie's third hunk and security firm owner Ranger makes an appearance. In between all this, Stephanie's wacky assistant Lula (she of the wild hairdos, skanky clothes and penchant for fried chicken) and crazy Grandma Mazur add some comic relief. All told, it's an entertaining romp that gave me a few chuckles and put me back in the mood to read the next one. To the publisher, many thanks!

Oh, and by the way - that really big project Wednesday was cooking up? It was a doozy!

Game On: Tempting Twenty-Eight by Janet Evanovich (Atria Books, November 2021); 320 pp.