Book Reviews: State University of Murder by Lev Raphael and Cattle Kate by Jana Bommersbach @LevRaphael @PPPress

State University of Murder
A Nick Hoffman Mystery #9
Lev Raphael
Perseverance Press, April 2019
ISBN 978-1-56474-609-2
Trade Paperback

Satirical, amusing, sometimes funny, scalpel sharp and relentless, this Nick Hoffman murder story will engage most academics, offend a few and, in the bargain, offers up a classic who-dunnit. Raphael’s writing, as always, is incisive, often cutting and mostly to the point.

The author provides an extensive context of the lives of the two principal characters, Professor of Literature, Nicholas Hoffmann, a semi-professional investigator and his marriage and life partner, Stefan, also a professor at the State University of Michigan (SUM) and a highly thought-of successful crime novelist.

Their department has recently been renamed English and Creative Writing, in the apparently usual manner, by Trustees of the University with little or no faculty consultation. This gives the author opportunity to swing wider his cleaver of criticism, aimed at all members of the academic community, top to bottom. A new chair has also been named, a flamboyant, self-centered, egotistical man of letters from France. He endears himself immediately to all full-time and adjunct faculty by making a series of unilateral decisions without consultation, thus raising to untold levels the ire of the department. Hoffman deplores the new office spaces as well.

The author carefully introduces us to many department members and sets the stage for murder, pointing to faculty jealousies and resentments which abound on this campus. The story moves along at a reasonable pace, with many side trips to drinks, dinner, a dog and social activities. All of it is precisely and clearly written with many quips and even sarcastic references to the world at large.

The story is well-placed in the world of today and reflects accurately the author’s world view and that of a more compressed academic community. The mystery is solved, the murderer arrested and the academics return to their emotionally fraught tasks of educating eager young people.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2019.
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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Cattle Kate
Jana Bommersbach
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2014
ISBN 978-1-4642-0302-2
Hardcover

Award-winning journalist and author, Bommersbach brings to this moving thoughtful novel, years of careful research, good writing and yes, a jaundiced eye. Those attributes are particularly important for this project because the author is directly confronting long-standing scurrilous myth about the subject of the novel, a woman named Ella Watson, and about the mythology of the settlement of the west.

Every child alive in America today as well as previous generations grew up on stories of the men who settled the western plains of North America in the years following the Civil War. There were strong mountain men, trappers, taciturn cowboys, sodbusters and cattlemen. Mostly missing from the narrative are the stories of the strong women who proved up on land grants, herded cattle and made homes for the men in their lives.

This is the story of once such strong woman, secretly married, who owned land in Wyoming Territory and was murdered, along with her husband on a July day in 1889. The couple was murdered by several landowners who claimed, along with help from local newspapers, that she was a pimp and a prostitute and a cattle rustler. Her attackers simply wanted her land and water rights.

The author meticulously tells the story of Ella Watson from her early life in Canada and Kansas to her death. Bommersbach’s canvas is broad and richly colored with the times, the trials and the triumphs of so many women on the frontier. The characters are clever and vividly portrayed. The pace at times slows to a thoughtful meander, but never loses focus. Here is a novel of the true old west to be read, savored and read again.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2018.
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: Sneaking Out by Chuck Vance

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Title: Sneaking Out
Series: The Chased Series, Book One
Author: Chuck Vance
Publisher: Dunemere Books
Publication Date: March 6, 2018
Genres: Mystery, Young Adult

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon // Indiebound

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Sneaking Out
The Chased Series, Book One
Chuck Vance
Dunemere Books, March 2018
ISBN 978-0-998499772
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Could you sleep next to a murderer?

Luke Chase—yes, that Luke Chase, a modern hero ripped from the headlines—didn’t mean to get caught up in Mrs. Heckler’s murder. He just wanted to hook up with the hot new British girl at St. Benedict’s, and if that meant sneaking out to the woods after hours, then so be it. But little did he know someone would end up dead right next to their rendezvous spot, and his best friend and roommate Oscar Weymouth would go down for it. With suspects aplenty and a past that’s anything but innocent, Luke Chase reluctantly calls on his famous survival skills to find the true killer.

There’s something very appealing to me about boarding school stories and it’s even better when the premise is a mystery. I think a large part of my liking comes from the notion that the kids involved, while supervised (as much as teens can be), have the opportunity to put their own wits to good use. That can lead to adventures and comical episodes and some pretty nifty sleuthing, all very attractive things for a story to have.

It also helps when the main character is a teen I wouldn’t mind spending time with in real life and that’s certainly the case with Luke. This is a kid with some major baggage but he really wants to help his friend, Oscar, when the chips are down. Luke isn’t alone, though, as some of the other kids are just as motivated as he is to solve the murder even if their motivations aren’t necessarily the same as his.

Mr. Vance has done a nice job crafting a good whodunnit that sent me down a variety of paths before the truth came to light and left me wanting more. I do hope the second book will be coming soon.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2018.

About the Author

Chuck Vance is a pseudonym for a bestselling writer of both adult mysteries and novels for young adults. Vance attended boarding school in Connecticut and graduated from Columbia University. Vance has lived in New York, Moscow, London, Paris and Los Angeles and is frequently on the move.

Author links: 

Website // Goodreads

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Follow the tour here.

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Book Review: The Semper Sonnet by Seth Margolis

the-semper-sonnetThe Semper Sonnet
Seth Margolis
Diversion Books, April 2016
ISBN: 978-1-68230-056-5
Trade Paperback

Academic Lee Nicholson discovers a long lost sonnet written by William Shakespeare in an old book, but when she announces the find on a television program, all sorts of evil things happen. First is the murder of the tv cameraman she’d taken to her bed in a euphoric response to the program. The problem is, she is the one accused of murdering him, and soon she is on the run, attempting to prove her innocence before she’s convicted and they throw away the key.

Violent events escalate. More people are murdered, usually right after she’s spoken to them. As Lee realizes the deaths are related to the sonnet, she examines the document ever more deeply. What she discovers is a hidden code, and the final word is Semper, which means “always.” As the plot thickens, she finds the sonnet was written to Queen Elizabeth I’s specifications, with a message for future generations. But also revealed is the presence of what could unleash a pandemic on the whole world and wipe out mankind.

Convoluted? You bet. I admire the way the author unfolds the mystery and the way Lee makes these discoveries. I didn’t, however, particularly admire Lee herself as a heroine. What thinking woman, particularly one supposedly as smart as she is purported to be, would climb into bed with so many men on one night stands? Especially when a basic stranger has already been murdered in her bed? Worse, she accepts yet another man into her life when she already suspects him of duplicity.

Even so, as the story winds down and as the reader flies from the U.S. to London and back and forth, the action ramps up to a high level. The book is well-written, and though much of the story is a bit predictable⏤we’ve seen it before in The Da Vinci Code and it’s like⏤I still enjoyed the way this played out.

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

Book Reviews: Sail Into Treachery by Gary R. Bush and The Musubi Murder by Frankie Bow

sail-into-treacherySail Into Treachery
A Jamie Sharpe Adventure
Gary R. Bush
40 Press, March 2016
ISBN: 978-1-938473-16-6
Trade Paperback

Although this debut novel is aimed at a young adult readership, nothing in its style, subject matter or plot in any way restricts its audience. The story is presented in the rousing style of a Patrick O’Brien, and draws nicely on the author’s meticulous research in the post-revolutionary years when America was a young nation, just coming into its own as a maritime power. The novel calls to mind Arthur Ransome’s fine boating series about the Swallows and the Amazons, set in England in the early Twentieth Century.

Jamie Sharpe is all of fifteen growing up at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. He’s already been to sea with his merchant father and experienced the terrors of sea battles. Now, at the behest of his far-seeing family, he’s finishing an advanced high school course of study that blends cultural studies with several languages and the practical skills that any young man growing up in the rough-and-tumble mercantile world of the commercial harbor of Boston will find necessary.

His father is away in the China Trade and financial troubles loom over the Sharpe family. This sets young Jamie on an exciting if terrifying adventure in which he faces murder, kidnapping, slavery, storms at sea, and more than one kind of death. The dialogue enhances the rollicking sense of adventure though and Jamie and his friends are able to survive through wit, intelligence and force of arms. I recommend this novel as a fast, enjoyable adventure, likely to be the first of an enduring series.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, April 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.

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the-musubi-murderThe Musubi Murder
A Professor Molly Mystery #1
Frankie Bow
Five Star, July 2015
ISBN 978-1-4328-3074-8
Hardcover

A classically framed and realized light murder mystery. It does offer a clever mis-direction. The setting, Hawaii, is well-limned and readers will delight in many of the idiosyncrasies of behavior, language and descriptions of the settings.

The primary action location, a small business college on the Big Island, where our accused protagonist teaches, is apparently struggling at all levels, from its administration right down to an absence of adequate janitorial services. The private college is beset by a lack of funding which leads to some compromising of academic standards and practices. Against this setting, enhanced by the usual wrangling and maneuvering of tenured and untenured faculty, financial supporters are naturally carefully handled and even cash contributions from thugs like Johnny Tanaka are welcomed.

Of course there is a murder, false accusations, the mystery of a purloined skull, an itinerant unclaimed suitcase, romance and some sparkling dialogue. The pace of the unraveling is a little ragged at times, but for readers looking for a light murder mystery, here’s an intriguing entry.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 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: Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald—and a Giveaway!

Another MargaretAnother Margaret
A Randy Craig Mystery #6
Janice MacDonald
Ravenstone, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-88801-551-8
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Anxiety is the watchword at most school reunions, with side-eye comparisons of greying hair and extra pounds around the belly. Not our Randy Craig. She’s more concerned with resolving a 20 year old CanLit scandal and catching a ruthless killer. While helping her best friend Denise organize their 20 year reunion at the University of Alberta, Randy’s tumultuous past as a graduate student comes rushing into the present as she faces off against old ghosts and imminent death.

Another Margaret is both Janice MacDonald’s first and sixth installment in her wildly popular Randy Craig series set in Edmonton, Alberta. Embedded in this latest adventure is Janice MacDonald’s very first, now out of print, Randy Craig mystery.

“This is going to be the yummiest reunion. It’s as if we all went to grad school with Jessica Fletcher!”

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And now she wanted to invite everyone from our
grad years back to revel in the fact that we were all
old, but not yet dead….I was pretty sure most of us
were going to look a lot more pear-shaped and a little
less golden than the last time we had seen each other.

I really love that thought, partly because it so accurately describes my feelings towards my upcoming high school reunion, but it also sets the tone for this appealing academic mystery. I knew then that I could expect more than a dash of dry humor mixed in with what I hoped would be an interesting puzzle and that’s exactly what I got, I’m happy to say.

Randy Craig is new to me and I found her quite appealing. She’s smart without being overbearing about it, has a sense of humor, isn’t entirely sure what she wants to be when she grows up and has an ingrained sense of loyalty to her friends. She’s also snoopy as any good amateur sleuth should be and she’s not young and fabulously beautiful. In short, she’s my kind of woman and comes across as entirely believable.

Edmonton turned out to be an engaging setting for me as did the university, the latter because of both its similarities to American universities and its differences. Edmonton is pictured as a metropolitan area with a small town feel and that’s very much like my own city, Richmond, VA. I could almost have been reading a book set here and that was really nice. I think I’d like to visit the real Edmonton some day.

Most of us have at least one favorite author who has passed on and we can’t help wishing there could be at least one more book, a manuscript the author had squirreled away, and Randy can’t believe her beloved Margaret Ahlers did just that. In fact, she really can’t believe it and she has every reason to doubt the story since she had thoroughly researched the author for her thesis. Surely it isn’t possible that she completely missed this little tidbit of information and, if ever a person had a reason to investigate, this is it. Unfortunately, Randy doesn’t foresee what her probing is going to bring to light.

I haven’t “met” Randy Craig before and, while I have no problem reading a series out of order, those who do should not hesitate to pick up Another Margaret. For a variety of reasons, Ms. MacDonald has written the core of her first book into this one so the reader is literally getting that one along with Randy’s newest adventure. It’s the perfect way to become acquainted with a series, one that I can heartily recommend.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2015.

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You have two chances to enter the
drawing for a paperback copy of
Another Margaret by Janice
MacDonald. Leave a comment
below and then again tomorrow,
October 2nd, after Janice’s guest post.
Two winning names will be drawn on
the evening of Monday, October 5th.
Open to residents of the US and Canada.

Book Reviews: The Perfect Coed by Judy Alter and Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

The Perfect CoedThe Perfect Coed
Judy Alter
Alter Ego Publishing, May 2014
ISBN 978-0-9960131-0-9
Trade Paperback

A coed, one of Professor Susan Hogan’s American Lit students has gone missing, and a few days later, her body is finally discovered in the trunk of Susan’s car. Why was this particular coed,who seemed the perfect student, daughter, girlfriend, murdered? Why was Missy Jackson’s body hidden in her car? That’s what Susan and her boyfriend Jake, a security officer at the university, wants to know. However, they’d better work fast because she may be fated to be the killer’s next victim. Unless the cops hurry up and arrest her for the murder.

Lots of suspects are introduced for the reader to choose among in the quest to deduce the murderer. Lots of twists and turns and red herrings to either help or to hinder. Lots of threats and scary, tension filled scenes thrust the story along, and the ending is a satisfactory conclusion with just the right amount of final explanation.

The only thing that bothered me–and I’m not sure that’s the right word–is why Susan is so “prickly,” (a word used in the back cover blurb to describe her) especially with her loved ones and her supporters. I found her reluctance to accept help or to even discuss measures to preserve her own life distracting at times.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, November 2014.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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Elizabeth Is MissingElizabeth is Missing
Emma Healey
Harper, June 10 2014
ISBN 978-0-0623-0966-2
Hardcover

“Elizabeth is missing” is the sole notation made on most of the innumerable notes that Maud Horsham constantly makes and puts in any available pocket, as a hoped-for aid to her increasingly failing memory.  Maud is in an advancing state of dementia, and more often than not cannot remember where she is, or with whom, even when the latter is her daughter, or her granddaughter (sometimes mistaking the latter for the former).  But she knows that her best friend – – indeed, just about her only remaining friend, as she remembers “The others are in homes or in graves” – –  appears to be missing.  She takes any path she can conjure up to try to solve the mystery, resorting to putting an ad in the local newspaper for any information anyone may have as to her whereabouts.

And her friend Elizabeth is not the only ‘disappeared’ person Maud is trying to track down.  Even 70 years later (which doesn’t matter so much when one has no idea of time frames), Maud is still trying to find her sister, Sukey, missing since the time after the London blitz, when Maud was 15 years old and England was still trying to recover from the war, enduring rationed food and bombed-out homes.  The narrative, such as it is, jumps back and forth in time, from looking for her sister to searching for her friend, sometimes for both at seemingly the same time.  It is often difficult just to follow where Maud is, both for Maud herself as well as for the reader.

This book is unlike any I have ever read.  Maud is the first-person narrator, and that narrative is as disjointed as Maud’s mind, conveying, quite convincingly, that state of being.  I must admit to a feeling of ‘there but for the grace of G-d go . . .’ well, I, or indeed any of us.  The novel is one that literally haunted me well after I had finished reading it, and I suspect it may do that for many readers.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.

Book Review: The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day

The Black HourThe Black Hour        
Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books, July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-61614-885-0
Trade Paperback

A dark, disturbing novel that will leave many readers wondering and seeking safe places. One usually assumes that except for urban campuses, colleges can be considered almost bucolic, homes away from home. It isn’t true today, if it ever was. This intense crime novel is set on a private college on the shores of Lake Michigan. It is about a journey, a difficult, painful, psychological and physical journey of one college sociology professor and her attempts at personal rehabilitation. Amelia Emmett faces physical pain, issues of mobility, and pain over the disruption of her career and her mounting need to publish.

She is a victim, first of her own uncertainties, questioning her role in academic life. She is then forced by circumstances to deal simultaneously with abrupt change in her physical circumstances when she is shot in the hall outside her campus office. Ten months of recovery have left her psychologically and physically damaged. The college and her former lover would have her resign and leave town.

The story unfolds with several intriguing threads when she takes on a graduate assistant for her classes in the study of violence in our society. Her graduate assistant, and others in the campus community, become more and more obsessed with peeling back any hidden facts as to why she was shot by this particular student, who else might have been involved and why, at the same time, is she so resistant to any further intrusion into her personal life. Meanwhile, her graduate assistant, Nathan, is having difficulties of his own.

It is a turbulent, engrossing novel, at times excruciating in its insight, mesmerizing in its carefully laid out reveals. It’s all here, obnoxious students, unkind faculty, uncaring administrators, strange rules and turbulent secret relationships. The Black Hour is hard to lay aside.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.