Book Review: The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles

The Boy at the Keyhole
Stephen Giles
Hanover Square Press, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-335-65292-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Nine-year-old Samuel lives alone in a once-great estate in Surrey with the family’s housekeeper, Ruth. His father is dead and his mother has been abroad for months, purportedly tending to her late husband’s faltering business. She left in a hurry one night while Samuel was sleeping and did not say goodbye.

Beyond her sporadic postcards, Samuel hears nothing from his mother. He misses her dearly and maps her journey in an atlas he finds in her study. Samuel’s life is otherwise regulated by Ruth, who runs the house with an iron fist. Only she and Samuel know how brutally she enforces order.

As rumors in town begin to swirl, Samuel wonders whether something more sinister is afoot. Perhaps his mother did not leave but was murdered—by Ruth.

Artful, haunting and hurtling toward a psychological showdown, The Boy at the Keyhole is an incandescent debut about the precarious dance between truth and perception, and the shocking acts that occur behind closed doors.

On the surface, this book would seem to have elements of a dark, gothic story, something like Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, with a looming, cavernous manse, a creepy, sinister housekeeper and a protagonist who becomes more and more suspicious about what’s going on. Really, the main difference is that the protagonist is a child rather than a new young wife being intimidated by the housekeeper while the husband is apparently distant emotionally.

Certainly Samuel has reason to be suspicious, lonesome, baffled, all the feelings a child would have when one parent is dead and the other disappears, supposedly legitimately but without even telling him goodbye. Right there, my empathy went to this little boy who surely deserved better. How disappointed he must have been each day when she didn’t come home.

Ruth is undoubtedly an unpleasant caregiver and it’s no wonder Samuel begins to have dark thoughts about this woman and her peculiar behavior. These feelings are exacerbated by Samuel’s friend who, intentionally or not, hints at nefarious goings-on and the suspense begins to build while Ruth understandably becomes more and more frustrated by this child who dares to snoop and raise questions. Is this all just a child’s imagination run amok?

A promising beginning doesn’t quite succeed, as least not as fully as it could have, and the very slow pace doesn’t help. I also felt the ending was a bit lacking but, overall, I think readers who like a slow-building suspense will be satisfied.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2018.

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About the Author

Stephen Giles is the Australian author behind the lauded children’s series “Anyone But Ivy Pocket”, penned under the pseudonym Caleb Krisp. The series, published in the US by HarperCollins/Greenwillow and the UK by Bloomsbury, appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List, has been translated into 25 different languages and was optioned by Paramount Pictures.

Prior to selling his first book, Stephen worked in a variety of jobs to supplement his writing including market research, film classification and media monitoring. The Boy at the Keyhole is Giles’ first work for adults and the film rights for this book have been acquired by New Regency.

http://madeleinemilburn.co.uk/mm-authors/stephen-giles/

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Book Review: Condition Book One by Alec Birri

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Title: Condition Book One
Series: The Condition Trilogy
Author: Alec Birri
Narrator: Jonathan Keeble
Publication Date: January 17, 2018
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian

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Condition Book One
A Medical Miracle?
The Condition Trilogy
Alec Birri
Narrated by Jonathan Keeble
Essential Music Limited, January 2018
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook

From the publisher—

What if all brain disorders were treatable? Few would lament the passing of dementia or autism, but what if the twisted mind of a sex offender or murderer could be cured too? Or how about a terrorist or maybe a political extremist? What if we could all be “corrected”?

It’s 1966, and RAF pilot Dan Stewart awakes from a coma following an aircraft accident into a world where nothing seems to make sense anymore. Not being able to recall the crash might be expected, but what about the rest of his life? And what’s stopping him from taking his medication? Is it brain damage that’s causing paranoia about the red pill, or is Dan right to think something sinister is going on?

His horrific injuries don’t make any sense either – a post-crash fire caused him to suffer almost 100% burns. How is it even possible to survive that? Are the hallucinations and strange dreams trying to tell him something? They are, and he’ll soon find out what, but not before his doctor’s sure the shock won’t kill him.

Have you ever met a character that seemed to somehow exactly fit what you expected? Dan is more than a little loudmouthed, brash, even obnoxious, and his thoughts swirl madly and almost aimlessly. He’s badtempered and suspicious and apparently has kind feelings only about his young daughter. All of this meshed nicely with how I might feel and behave if I woke up in a hospital after a terrible accident that should have killed me and found that, not only was my body in a rather strange condition, but I also just knew that something wasn’t right.

Dan, of course, is correct in thinking something’s off and, if there has ever been an unreliable narrator, it’s him. Small wonder since he is seemingly surrounded by people who don’t want to be honest with him. Is the doctor really treating him? Why are all the patients he meets suffering severe burns just like his? Does he have good reason to be suspicious about his wife? Why is his memory so faulty? And why is he so leery of taking the red pill?

Unfortunately, in the early stages of this story, I couldn’t like a single character for one reason or another, with special dislikes for Dan and his nurse, Tracy. If that happens to you, I urge you to keep reading anyway because, when all is said and done, this is a unique tale, one that kept my interest to the end and I’m anticipating enjoying the next book just as much. Reading about the evil that can be done in the name of science is always tough but a gripping story nonetheless.

As for the narration, Mr. Keeble added a lot to my appreciation of the story. His tone is smooth and very pleasing and he interprets different players really well, male and female. I haven’t listened to anything else he might have done but I certainly won’t mind listening to him again.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2018.

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About the Author

Alec Birri served thirty years with the UK Armed Forces. He commanded an operational unit that experimented in new military capabilities classified at the highest level (Top Secret Strap 3) and it is this that forms the basis of his novels. Although semi-autobiographical, for national security and personal liberty reasons, the events and individuals portrayed have to be fiction but are still nonetheless in keeping with his experiences.

Website
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About the Narrator

If you regularly enjoy listening to audiobooks then this Shakespearean actor will need no introduction. Winner of a 2016 SOVAS award, Jonathan’s voice is rightly recognized as being one of the best, and his narration of The Condition Trilogy is no exception.

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Book Reviews: Drag Teen by Jeffrey Self and The Arrow Shooter by James Mather

Drag Teen
Jeffery Self
Push, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-82993-9
Hardcover

Remember the first time you released your inner-most self?  Knowing you, to your very core; adoring and admiring that person so much it had to be celebrated—the joyful, buoyant feeling had to be released, good vibes to everyone.  Imagine being in that moment when a hate-filled, bitter person brings contempt so tangible that the light is smothered; the joy stolen.  Because most of us have experienced that, it is almost intuitive to empathize with JT’s predicament.

His parents do not support his desire to attend college after high school.  They appear offended by his plan, as if his ambition is as an affront to the lives they lead.  Rather than seeing and hearing their son, they seem to have created a persona of an ungrateful, arrogant brat that is easy to dismiss.  But JT has Seth, and Seth has a plan.

A Drag Teen pageant is being held for high school seniors needing financial aid for college; the prize—a full scholarship.  The idea of being a Drag Teen doesn’t bother JT; the terror of doing it again, with the same results is paralyzing.  With the support of his boyfriend, their best friend Heather and an assortment of souls along the way, JT tackles the terror.

I was amused, delighted and entirely invested in this story.  The combination of blue-collar parents, an over-the-top, former country music sensation, teen-agers and Drag Queens is quirky in the best possible ways and works wonderfully for JT’s journey to New York City and self discovery.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2016.

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The Arrow Shooter
Jim Mather
CreateSpace, September 2015
ISBN: 978-0-692-46617-9
Trade Paperback

The novel has enormous unrealized potential to provide a long look into what is sometimes referred to as the inscrutable East. Yakuza target Jonathan Lusk leaves Japan and his professional activities as a special undercover operative and enrolls at Stanford University. He is following his father’s trail and seeking the murderer of his father.

Of course his life is complicated by his growing infatuation, a forbidden love for Princess Nanami Yoritomo. A non-Japanese and a commoner, the love between the couple is overladen with difficulties. The campus atmosphere in the 1960s, the threat of a killer stalking Lusk, the efforts of the romantic couple to develop their relationship, all offer great opportunity for emotional soaring narrative.

Alas, the writing is competent, straight forward, efficient and flat. Although we are surely meant to identify with the young couple, the lack of emotion tends to set barriers so we never fully empathize with Jonathan or his princess. On the other hand, the narrative passages that reveal much about Japanese culture are quite interesting. In sum, an interesting read for those who wish to look more closely at a specific cultural element of the East.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, April 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: See Also Deception by Larry D. Sweazy and Called to Justice by Edith Maxwell

See Also Deception
A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery #2
Larry D. Sweazy
Seventh Street Books, May 2016
ISBN: 978-1-63388-127-3
Trade Paperback

I’ve read recommendations to read the first book of this series, See Also Murder, before starting the second. While I’d be happy to get my hands on the introductory book, I had no problem catching up with Marjorie Trumaine and her husband, Hank.

Set in the North Dakota of 1964, Marjorie is a farm wife whose husband has been paralyzed and blinded in a hunting accident. But just to show a farm wife should never be underestimated, she is also an indexer for a prestigious publisher of scholastic books , a job requiring strenuous attention to detail. Most of all, she’s Hank’s loving caregiver. Let’s not end there. In the first book, Marjorie solved a series of murders, and now, her suspicions are aroused when she receives news her friend, the local librarian, has been found dead, an apparent suicide. Marjorie can’t believe it.

Things don’t add up, in Marjorie’s opinion, although the sheriff and his deputy refuse to listen to her doubts about Calla’s death. Then things begin happening to Marjorie, and her worries about Hank grow. He, he says, wants to die. She cannot bear to let him go.

At last there is another death, this one clearly murder, and the authorities finally begin to believe Marjorie’s claim that Calla was murdered. Predictably, she may well be the next slated to die.

This story is much more than a murder mystery, although it is, and it’s a good one. But it’s also a look back at the sixties, historical for some, nostalgic for other readers. It is a story of a woman’s love. Of her fortitude, and her strength. I found Marjorie Trumaine a truly worthy heroine and human being.

The writing is strong, yet sensitive. The story fast-paced. See Also Deception is one of the best books I’ve read this year, not perhaps surprising as Mr. Sweazy has won many well-deserved national awards for his stories, including Western Writers of America’s Spur Award.

And the ending? Well, it’s sure to yank your heartstrings, and if you’re like me, you’ll be waiting impatiently for the next book in the series.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, October, 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

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Called to Justice
A Quaker Midwife Mystery
Edith Maxwell
Midnight Ink Books, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-5032-3
Trade Paperback

This historical mystery, set twenty years after the Civil War, realistically portrays how even Northerners and Union veterans were quick to point fingers and proclaim guilt due to the color of one’s skin.

Rose Carroll is a Quaker and a midwife. Her patients are from all walks of life, Quaker or not. A young woman named Hannah Breed has come to Rose because she’s pregnant. Hannah works in the local mill and is not only a fellow Quaker, but a friend of Rose’s sister. Hannah is unmarried and frightened. With good cause, as it turns out, because she is shot and killed during the local Fourth of July celebration. Was it an accident or was it murder? Whichever, a finger soon points at a freed slave, Akwasi Ayensu, who is also a Quaker and Rose’s friend. Even Rose’s good friend, Officer Guy Gilbert who is under pressure to quickly solve the case, accepts meager false proof of Akwasi’s guilt. Determined to prove Akwasi’s innocence, Rose will also be in danger as this mystery plays out.

I very much enjoyed learning about the Quaker beliefs, as well as midwifery as practiced in the late 1800s.  The mystery itself is well done, with plenty of false trails and twists. The novel is set in Amesbury, Massachusetts, the home of fellow Quaker and poet John Greenleaf Whittier who also plays a part in the story. Authenticity shows the research author Edith Maxwell has put to good use.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, March 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Reviews: The Candidate by Lis Wiehl with Sebastian Stuart and The Cuban Connection by M.L. Malcolm

The Candidate
A Newsmakers Novel #2
Lis Wiehl with Sebastian Stuart
Thomas Nelson, October 2016
ISBN:978-0-7180-3768-0
Hardcover

This is a finely crafted, taut modern thriller. It takes readers inside the current explosion of news and comment electronic channel, of blogging, punditry, false panic, alternative facts and similar fact and fiction. The multiple levels of conspiracy are interesting and reflect the background of the author. In a general sense, the pace is relentless and largely compelling, if a little predictable at times.

Protagonist Erica Sparks, under almost constant pressure to improve her standing, in spite of the fact she’s at the top of the ratings list, seeks interviews with presidential candidates. The assignment takes her all over the country, where she encounters bombs, murder and suicide by gun, and a cabal of nasty characters aimed at the ultimate power grab. To explain more would reveal too much.

The author has devised a cast of intriguing characters, some beset with the kind of domestic problems many readers will recognize. The story is well-grounded in modern realities for the professional working mother. Still, therein lies the principal difficulty of the narrative. Every so often, Erica Sparks succumbs to the stupid bug. For a top reporter and anchor she misses several obvious clues that would have revealed the identity of her adversaries or at least warned her of impending danger.

Even with these lapses, the book, well-described, carefully plotted, should raise the alarms in any reader who is aware of today’s society’s conflicting pressures, and the inimical forces of evil arrayed against us, regardless of constant protestations to the contrary.

The novel is intense, relentless and compelling. In spite of our awareness of the very contemporary setting and potential realities, it is, in the end, a novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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The Cuban Connection
M.L. Malcolm
A Good Read Publishing, February 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9815726-3-5
Trade Paperback

An intriguing well-written examination of the realities that have existed in the mysterious island nation of Cuba since the revolution. The novel—and it is an exceptionally carefully researched novel—is set in the early years of the 1960s. The story is narrated by an intrepid reporter named Katherine O’Connor. She’s an experienced reporter working on general assignments for the Reuters news agency out of London.

Her first intimation of major change coming to her life is when she is recalled to the New York office of the agency. She’s still not a bylined reporter. That’s the next career step up and she’s getting desperate to make the grade. Unfortunately, her fortunes at Reuters seem to be on a downward track until she wangles a freelance assignment to Cuba.

Cuba is a dangerous place for honest reporters as the Castro regime tightens censorship and moves to total control of the country. With help from clandestine intelligence resources, O’Connor goes to Cuba and headlong into a series of adventures while falling for a man who may be a Soviet spy.

Anyone who wants a good spy story and to join some devilishly clever characters on a series of nicely conceived adventures strongly rooted in the realities of the time, will enjoy this novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2016.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Long Way Home by Ann M. Martin

The Long Way HomeThe Long Way Home
Family Tree Book 2
Ann M. Martin
Scholastic Press, November 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-35943-6
Hardcover

The story begins in 1955 when Dana and her twin sister turn seven years old. Dana loves New York City where her family lives in a spacious townhouse and they all get to dress up for taxi rides to fine restaurants and glamorous parties in honor of her famous writer father. She attends a private school and excels in art. In fact, her father persuades his editor to let her illustrate one of his novels.

In the first third of the book, accounts of important events in Dana’s life are told with childlike optimism and revolve around typical childhood problems. (Even the reverse attributions—said Dana rather than Dana said—remind one of children’s books of yore.) Each chapter is dated several months apart as the reader follows Dana and her family from year to year.

Then, tragedy strikes, and Dana’s charmed life takes twists and turns that turn her life upside down. During her teen years, Dana must use all of her inner resources to adapt and survive as she makes her way home, in all senses of the word. Right along with Dana, the reader cringes when the world tosses her a curve and smiles when she zips back with force.

Ann M. Martin skillfully weaves all kinds of life issues into this story. The flawed characters and real-life situations let each reader form opinions about the characters’ actions and approaches to life. At the same time, the historical setting is well-drawn and the coming-of-age story believable. Preteens and up will enjoy this story and want to read other books in the series.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, March 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: Half in Love with Death by Emily Ross

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Title: Half in Love with Death
Author: Emily Ross
Publisher: Merit Press
Release Date: December 16, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

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Half in Love with DeathHalf in Love with Death
Emily Ross
Merit Press, December 2015
ISBN 978-1-4405-8903-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It’s the era of peace and love in the 1960s, but nothing is peaceful in Caroline’s life. Since her beautiful older sister disappeared, fifteen-year-old Caroline might as well have disappeared too. She’s invisible to her parents, who can’t stop blaming each other. The police keep following up on leads even Caroline knows are foolish. The only one who seems to care about her is Tony, her sister’s older boyfriend, who soothes Caroline’s desperate heart every time he turns his magical blue eyes on her.

Tony is convinced that the answer to Jess’s disappearance is in California, the land of endless summer, among the runaways and flower children. Come with me, Tony says to Caroline, and we’ll find her together. Tony is so loving, and all he cares about is bringing Jess home. And so Caroline follows, and closes a door behind her that may never open again.

Inspired by the disturbing case of Charles Schmid, ‘the Pied Piper of Tucson’, Half in Love with Death is a heartfelt thriller that never lets up.

To lose a sibling at any age and under any circumstances is painful but how terrible it must be when you’re a teen and no one knows what happened to your sister. I watch a lot of crime shows on the ID channel and I’m particularly struck by the stories of the “Disappeared”. There’s so much left hanging and no real resolution until the missing loved one is found either alive or dead and teens and younger children must be especially bewildered by this world they thought was safe.

When Caroline’s sister is lost, her parents don’t exactly feel less love for her; it’s just that they’re consumed by their grief and fear and their need to place blame. As you might expect, they all turn inwards and fail to comfort each other as much as they could, creating the perfect chance for Jess’s boyfriend, Tony, to step in to Caroline’s life with promises that, together, they can find Jess. It’s hardly surprising that Caroline would be drawn to this man but her inexperience and innocence, her desperation to find her sister and her near-abandonment by her parents blind her to Tony’s true nature.

Much of what happens in this novel would be unlikely today with our much-heightened sense of the evil that exists in the world but the 60’s were a more innocent time with thoughts of peace and love for one another and just general trust mixed in with our acute awareness of war and the atrocities that go with it. Sure, there was evil then, too, but it just did not have the same pervasiveness as today and, let’s face it, many of us believed in an Ozzie and Harriet universe. I did quite a few things as a teen that would give me heart seizures now if my 20-something grandson did them, much less a teenaged daughter. It’s that difference in how we see things now that makes Half in Love with Death such a powerful novel even though the story itself is pretty predictable.

Caroline herself is painfully naive, more so than any 15-year-old I knew back then, but her family is unusually dysfunctional and it’s clear she’s struggling to find her own way. As much as I wanted to shake some sense into her and, sometimes, I really didn’t think she had a brain, I also liked her and wanted her to find some comfort. The journey toward that hope kept me reading until the end and, predictable or not, I enjoyed the trip.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

About the Author

Emily RossEmily Ross’s YA mystery/thriller HALF IN LOVE WITH DEATH is forthcoming from Merit Press(12/2015). She received a 2014 MCC Artist Fellowship finalist award for fiction, and is a graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program. When not writing she works as a web developer and is the mother of two millennials. Find out more at http://www.emilyrosswrites.com/ or https://twitter.com/emilyross816.

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