Book Review: Killing Secrets by Dianne Emley

Killing SecretsKilling Secrets
A Nan Vining Mystery #5
Dianne Emley
Alibi, July 2015
ISBN 978-0804178945
Ebook

From the publisher—

When she gets the call, Nan Vining responds as a mother first and a detective second. Her daughter, Emily, has made a gruesome discovery in a secluded section of a Pasadena park: a pretty, popular young teacher from Emily’s high school and a bright yet troubled transfer student—both dead and bloody in a copse of trees. But the crime scene isn’t the only thing that seems off to Detective Vining. There’s also the cocky classmate who was with Emily in the park—the boyfriend she never knew about. What else doesn’t she know about her daughter?
 
As she attempts to channel both her maternal and investigative instincts into one single point of focus, Vining’s superiors at the Pasadena Police Department are moving at lightning speed. Before the evidence has even been processed, the case is closed as a clear-cut murder/suicide: a disturbed teenager murders his teacher, then takes his own life. Vining doesn’t buy it. Now she’s chasing dangerous, powerful people with secrets they would kill for—and taking them down means risking her own flesh and blood.

The action rarely stops or even slows down to take a breath in Dianne Emley‘s Killing Secrets. When Detective Nan Vining’s daughter and a friend discover two bodies, Nan’s protective instincts kick in but also her sense of knowing when something is not quite right. She’s not satisfied when there’s a quick rush to judgment that a lovesick teen killed his teacher and then himself and her hackles rise, bringing to the fore the questioning mentality that has made her such a good detective in the past. Emily’s involvement just makes everything more intense.

Ms. Emley is one of those authors who are good at both plot and character development and I found myself really engaged with all the players, no matter how small or large their roles, because they’re so vividly drawn and each one has characteristics that make them memorable. As for the storyline, it would be easy to jump to conclusions about what happened in that park but, because criminals tend to do stupid things, it soon becomes apparent that Emily and Nan herself have plucked a few nerves.

Towards the resolution, the tension rises to a level that kept me reading much longer than I anticipated and, although I had my suspicions, I still had not figured it all out. To me, that’s a really good piece of crime fiction and I’m interested now in reading about Nan’s earlier cases so I’ll be picking up the first book in the series, The First Cut as soon as possible. Killing Secrets is my idea of a hard-edged police drama, the kind I love best, and I want more.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2015.

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About the Author

Dianne EmleyDianne Emley is the bestselling author of The Night Visitor and the Nan Vining series: The First Cut, Cut to the Quick, The Deepest Cutand Love Kills. A Los Angeles native, she lives in the Central California wine country with her husband, Charlie.

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Book Review: L.A. Rotten by Jeff Klima

L.A. RottenL.A. Rotten
A Tom Tanner Mystery #1
Jeff Klima
Alibi, May 2015
ISBN 9781101882733
Ebook

From the publisher—

As an expert crime-scene cleaner, Tom Tanner charges big money to carve out bullets, mop up fluids, disinfect walls, and dispose of whatever’s left of whomever was unlucky enough to require his services. For a handsome young ex-con determined to stay out of trouble, it’s practically a dream job—until he discovers a grisly pattern to his work: a string of gruesome murders at a cheap motel chain, always in Room 236.
 
While prying into a serial killer’s nasty scheme, Tom finds himself with a sharp-witted strip-bar waitress plastered to his side—and his conscience. Even more surprising, the killer starts prying into his life, luring Tom into a twisted friendship. As Tom struggles against his adversary’s wicked whims, risking the lives of the few people he holds dear, bodies pile up everywhere he turns. With a psychopath calling the shots, Tom has little choice but to clean house once and for all.

I’m usually very good at picking books I’m going to like but, every once in a long while, I blunder and I surely did with L.A. Rotten. Does that mean I think this is a bad book? Absolutely not, just that it’s not the right book for me.

I did check it out first as much as I could before signing on for the blog tour and didn’t see anything to put me off. Once I started reading, the first few paragraphs were pretty gruesome but not beyond what I expected—this is, after all, about a guy who cleans up crime scenes and, by the nature of the beast, such a job is frequently going to be gory and messy. The more I read, though, the more I realized the publisher’s description that accompanies the book is just not clear enough for a potential reader to make a choice. Yes, I expect violence in a story involving a serial killer and I expect gritty language in a mystery labeled by other readers as “hard-boiled”. I did not expect to actively dislike the protagonist or to be confronted with very graphic, explicit sex, both action and language, on top of increasingly gory crime scenes. It was all just a bit too much for me.

My feelings about the protagonist did ease up by the time I finished the book but he’s still not one of my favorite guys, by any means. He feels inordinately sorry for himself and his circumstances but he’s entirely responsible. Rather than do whatever he can to improve his lot, he chooses to indulge in activities to make him forget his life and why, for heaven’s sake, does he think all cops are out to get him? Surely, the LAPD has better things to do than harass an ex-con who did his time for a drunk driving death.

There is one character I liked quite a bit, Ivy. I can’t really say why but she appealed to me in a number of ways and she was a big reason I didn’t DNF the book.

I also found the storyline compelling. It makes sense to me that a crime scene cleaner could be the first to see a pattern and I didn’t find it odd that Tom would feel a need to look into his suspicions. In fact, Tom is much more credible as a sleuth than many other amateurs. (Amateur might not be exactly the right word since an ex-con certainly has more practical crime-solving knowledge than many other non-professionals.)

I should mention also that the actual construction of the book—grammar, formatting, etc.—is quite good. Having read a number of books by this publisher, I was not surprised at all that this one was so nicely edited.

Bottomline, for the right reader, this is a good entry in the hard-boiled crime fiction field and the author certainly has the background to make his storytelling as credible as you can hope. I think many will enjoy L.A. Rotten.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2015.

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About the Author

Jeff KlimaJeff Klima is the author of The Dead Janitors Club and L.A. Rotten and is the cofounder of Orange County Crime Scene Cleanup.

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Book Review: The Rhyme of the Magpie by Marty Wingate

The Rhyme of the MagpieThe Rhyme of the Magpie
A Birds of a Feather Mystery #1
Marty Wingate
Alibi, June 2015
ISBN 978-1101883389
Ebook

From the publisher—

With her personal life in disarray, Julia Lanchester feels she has no option but to quit her job on her father’s hit BBC Two nature show, A Bird in the Hand. Accepting a tourist management position in Smeaton-under-Lyme, a quaint village in the English countryside, Julia throws herself into her new life, delighting sightseers (and a local member of the gentry) with tales of ancient Romans and pillaging Vikings.

But the past is front and center when her father, Rupert, tracks her down in a moment of desperation. Julia refuses to hear him out; his quick remarriage after her mother’s death was one of the reasons Julia flew the coop. But later she gets a distressed call from her new stepmum: Rupert has gone missing. Julia decides to investigate—she owes him that much, at least—and her father’s new assistant, the infuriatingly dapper Michael Sedgwick, offers to help. Little does the unlikely pair realize that awaiting them is a tightly woven nest of lies and murder.

When I first picked up The Rhyme of the Magpie, I expected a typical English village mystery but this is a bit of an anomaly. Yes, it’s set in an English village and it’s a mystery but there the expectations go off the rails. The most obvious difference is that the sleuth is a newcomer to the village and, because of that, there are only a few villagers that we get to know. I miss that because the interweaving of villagers’ lives is so often a large part of the story, even the core of the solution to the mystery.

Not only is the sleuth new to the area but the criminal activity is, in some ways, a step away from the village, meaning it isn’t happening because of some element unique to the village. Also, there is hostility between two factions that could happen anywhere, the eternal fight between conservationists and those who value land development and other commercial enterprises over the preservation of habitats. In other words, there’s a feeling of watching at a distance rather than being totally immersed. This is not a bad thing, just a caution that Ms. Wingate’s story is not what you might normally anticipate.

Julia is a likeable woman and she’s in the midst of making some critical changes in her life. Other than the mystery itself, I found this aspect of the story to be most interesting as she tries to find a way to fit into an environment so different from what she’s used to. Although I didn’t move to a new town, I did uproot my career after many years and started over so I had a lot of empathy for Julia. The other thing I like about her is that she’s not inordinately reckless and, well, TSTL, another departure from so many mysteries of this kind.

Other characters, while not as well developed as Julia, are fleshed out enough so that I felt comfortable with them and I’m sure we’ll get to know them better in future books. Michael is intriguing, as any potential love interest should be, and Vesta and Linus are a good introduction to the denizens of the village. All have their parts to play in the murder investigation and, wonder of wonders, the local police are competent, another difference from some amateur sleuth novels. When Rupert, Julia’s TV celebrity dad, disappears and a body is found, the hunt is on for the missing man and a killer who has a gruesome touch. Are they one and the same?

All in all, this first in the series is a good effort and I’ll be back when the second book comes out.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2015.

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About the Author

Marty WingateMarty Wingate is the author of The Garden Plot, The Red Book of Primrose House, and the upcoming Between a Rock and a Hard Place and a regular contributor to Country Gardens as well as other magazines. She also leads gardening tours throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and North America. More Birds of a Feather mysteries are planned.

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Book Review: Ivory Ghosts by Caitlin O’Connell

Ivory GhostsIvory Ghosts
A Catherine Sohon Elephant Mystery
Caitlin O’Connell
Alibi, April 2015
ISBN 9781101883471
Ebook

From the publisher—

Still grieving over the tragic death of her fiancé, American wildlife biologist Catherine Sohon leaves South Africa and drives to a remote outpost in northeast Namibia, where she plans to face off against the shadowy forces of corruption and relentless human greed in the fight against elephant poaching. Undercover as a census pilot tracking the local elephant population, she’ll really be collecting evidence on the ruthless ivory traffickers.

But before she even reaches her destination, Catherine stumbles onto a scene of horrifying carnage: three people shot dead in their car, and a fourth nearby—with his brain removed. The slaughter appears to be the handiwork of a Zambian smuggler known as “the witchdoctor,” a figure reviled by activists and poachers alike. Forced to play nice with local officials, Catherine finds herself drawn to the prickly but charismatic Jon Baggs, head of the Ministry of Conservation, whose blustery exterior belies his deep investment in the poaching wars.

Torn between her developing feelings and her unofficial investigation, she takes to the air, only to be grounded by a vicious turf war between competing factions of a black-market operation that reaches far beyond the borders of Africa. With the mortality rate—both human and animal—skyrocketing, Catherine races to intercept a valuable shipment. Now she’s flying blind, and a cunning killer is on the move.

Elephants have to be among the most beloved of all animals and there’s something quite romantic about them and their story. I think much of our appreciation of these wondrous creatures comes from our recognition of their intelligence and their loyalty to one another. We’re also drawn in by the tragedy of their existence, the horrendous poaching and slaughter for their body parts, especially their tusks.

Catherine Sohon is an admirable woman, one who goes the extra mile to fight the smuggling trade that so severely endangers the elephants, but the stakes get even higher when she becomes involved in murder. Unprepared for this, she nevertheless plunges right in to investigate the human deaths as well as the poaching and slaughter of the animals. Running into something of a brick wall in an official named Jon Baggs, Catherine pushes ahead and finds a senseless darkness even she didn’t expect. She also finds a welcome lightening of the grief she has been living with since her fiancé’s death.

Author Caitlin O’Connell doesn’t just admire elephants; she has made them her life’s work and I envy the opportunities she has to be around them. She’s also a dedicated scientist and is doing much to make that discipline more accessible to those of us who aren’t as thoroughly immersed as she is. Her knowledge of science and of elephants in particular shine through the pages of this debut novel and I can honestly say I know a little more after reading it. I’m already looking forward to what I hope will be many more novels from Ms. O’Connell.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2015.

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About the Author

Caitlin O'ConnellA world-renowned expert on elephants, Caitlin O’Connell holds a Ph.D. in ecology and is a faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as director of life sciences for HNu Photonics. She is the author of five nonfiction books about elephants, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense, An Elephant’s Life, A Baby Elephant in the Wild, and Elephant Don, and co-author of the award-winning The Elephant Scientist. She is the co-founder and CEO of Utopia Scientific, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and science education, and the co-founder of Triple Helix Productions, a global media forum with a mandate to develop more accurate and entertaining science content for the media. When not in the field with elephants, O’Connell divides her time between San Diego, California, and Maui, Hawaii, with her husband, Tim Rodwell, and their dog, Frodo.

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Book Review: Cost of Life by Joshua Corin

Cost of LifeCost of Life
Joshua Corin
Alibi, March 2015
ISBN 9781101882610
Ebook

From the publisher—

Happy Independence Day. You’re all going to die.
 
Life can’t be better for veteran pilot Larry Walder. He has a great job, a terrific kid, a gorgeous wife—and no inkling that tonight will be the end of the world as he knows it. In the early hours before the Fourth of July, three men break into Larry’s home. And as the day lurches on to its terrifying course, a life is taken, and Flight 816 from Atlanta to Cozumel, Mexico, vanishes off the radar.
 
In the air, Larry must find a way to save his family, his crew, and his passengers. On the ground, disgraced FBI agent Xanadu Marx goes rogue, making it her mission to track down the missing flight before the hijackers reach their diabolical endgame. With the casualties racking up and the world’s busiest airport under lockdown, a message arrives: This is no ordinary hijacking, no typical hostage crisis. This ransom is a totally different beast—the first hint of a conspiracy that might bring America to its knees.

I’m drawn to thrillers involving airplanes in jeopardy for some reason so, when offered the chance to participate in this blog tour, I jumped right on it. Once I started reading, and all through the book, I was delighted to find that Cost of Life is really, really good.

From the first sentences, I bonded with Larry Walder and his family with just a simple scenario of a little boy and his parents having fun together. I did not, of course, bond with the bad guys who show up on the scene early on and are, indeed, very bad guys. It’s apparent that they will have no reluctance to harm Marie and Sean so Larry is left with a terrible choice—which lives matter more, Marie’s and Sean’s or the 174 people on board the airplane that should be heading to Cozumel?

I don’t know about anyone else here but, once past the initial moderate unease during takeoff, I find most flights to be excruciatingly boring. Believe me when I say Flight 816 to Cozumel is anything but boring and Mr. Corin manages to ratchet up the tension every time he shows us certain passengers.

Then there’s Special Agent Xana Marx, a woman who has made a mess of her life. She may not make it back into the FBI but she has talents the authorities need if they’re going to find the missing plane and a waif of a girl named Hayley O’Leary just may be the person to bring Xana the redemption she so sorely needs. Both are severely damaged, each in her own way, but it’s hard for me to say which of these two very different people I liked the most.

There are just a few authors who reside on my list of favorite thriller writers but I think I’ve found one to add to that list, Joshua Corin. After this rollercoaster of a tale, I can barely wait to see what he’ll give us next.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2015.

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About the Author

Joshua CorinJoshua Corin is the author of Nuclear Winter Wonderland, While Galileo Preysand Before Cain Strikes. He holds an M.A. in English and an M.A. in theater from Binghamton University, and currently teaches college in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Book Review: 13 Hollywood Apes by Gil Reavill

13 Hollywood Apes13 Hollywood Apes
A Layla Remington Mystery
Gil Reavill
Alibi, December 2014
ISBN 9780553395051
Ebook

From the publisher—

As a wildfire rages outside the Odalon Animal Sanctuary in the rugged Santa Monica foothills, the retired Hollywood movie chimpanzees housed there are shot and left for dead. When Malibu detective Layla Remington reaches the grisly scene the next morning, she’s deeply disturbed—and even more confused. The victims are not human, so the attack cannot be classified as homicide. Yet someone clearly wanted these animals dead, and executed them with ruthless efficiency. Miraculously, there is one survivor: a juvenile male named Angle.
 
But as Layla reaches the veterinarian’s office where Angle is recovering, a man with rock-star good looks and a laid-back Southern California attitude swoops in and removes him. And just like that, an unusual case turns truly bizarre. Soon reports surface of ferocious attacks against Odalon employees . . . with Angle as the prime suspect. As a wave of senseless violence reaches its apex, Layla chases a mystery man and his chimp—but everything comes back to that terrible night at the sanctuary.

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Book Review: Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death by Mark Reutlinger

Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of DeathMrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death
Mark Reutlinger
Alibi, November 2014
ISBN 9780553393392
Ebook

From the publisher—

Everyone knows that Rose Kaplan makes the best matzoh ball soup around—she’s a regular matzoh ball maven—so it’s no surprise at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors when, once again, Mrs. K wins the honor of preparing the beloved dish for the Home’s seder on the first night of Passover.
 
But when Bertha Finkelstein is discovered facedown in her bowl of soup, her death puts a bit of a pall on the rest of the seder. And things go really meshugge when it comes out that Bertha choked on a diamond earring earlier stolen from resident Daisy Goldfarb. Suddenly Mrs. K is the prime suspect in the police investigation of both theft and murder. Oy vey—it’s a recipe for disaster, unless Rose and her dear friend Ida can summon up the chutzpah to face down the police and solve the mystery themselves.

Spending a pleasant afternoon with a quiet little mystery is never a bad thing and Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death fills the bill quite nicely. Our two senior sleuths, Rose Kaplan and Ida Berkowitz, are intelligent women who are not just going to sit there and let the world go by so doing their own snooping comes naturally when Mrs. K is accused of being a thief and a killer.

I enjoyed these two ladies but the supporting cast is less well developed and I didn’t feel the same attachment to any of those characters. In particular, the two police detectives are mere shadow figures and certainly don’t behave as detectives normally would. I also felt that far too much emphasis was placed on the players being Jewish and being residents of the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors. We’re told over and over again where these folks live when that is really not necessary since nearly all the action takes place there and the very, very liberal use of Yiddish quickly became annoying. I get it, they’re Jewish and this is a Jewish senior home but, except for the soup and the seder at which it’s served, this could easily have been any nondescript community. Judaism really isn’t a factor.

The mystery itself is a puzzle, as it should be, and I didn’t guess the solution ahead of time but one aspect of the ladies’ investigation made no sense as a certain item would not have been returned to the victim’s room after her death. No matter, though, as I did spend an enjoyable afternoon with Rose and Ida and, with a little work by the author, a second adventure could be worth waiting for.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2014.

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About the Author

Mark ReutlingerMark Reutlinger is the author of the novel Made in China and a professor of law emeritus at Seattle University. Born in San Francisco, Mark graduated from UC Berkeley and now lives with his wife, Analee, in University Place, Washington.

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