Book Review: Smoke Screen by Terri Blackstock @TerriBlackstock @ThomasNelson @partnersincr1me

Smoke Screen
Terri Blackstock
Thomas Nelson, November 2019
ISBN 978-0-3103-3260-2
Hardcover

From the publisher—

One father was murdered. Another was convicted of his death. All because their children fell in love.

Nate Beckett has spent his life fighting wildfires instead of the lies and rumors that drove him from his Colorado hometown. His mother begs him to come back now that his father has been released from prison, but it isn’t until he’s sidelined by an injury that he’s forced to return and face his past. But that means facing Brenna too.

Fourteen years ago, Nate was in love with the preacher’s daughter. When Pastor Strickland discovered Brenna defied him to sneak out with Nate, the fight between Strickland and Nate’s drunken dad was loud—and very public. Strickland was found murdered later that night, and everyone accused Roy Beckett. When the church burned down not long after, people assumed Nate set the fire to get even for his father’s conviction. He let the rumors fly and left town without looking back.

Brenna is stunned to learn that the man convicted of murdering her father has been pardoned. The events of that night set her life on a bad course, and now she’s fighting a brutal custody battle with her ex and his new wife where he’s using lies and his family’s money to sway the judge. Brenna is barely hanging on, and she’s turned to alcohol to cope. Shame and fear consume her.

As Nate and Brenna deal with the present—including new information about that fateful night and a wildfire that’s threatening their town—the past keeps igniting. Nate is the steady force Brenna has so desperately needed. But she’ll have to learn to trust him again first.

Old wounds are ripped open when several different events converge. Nate returns to his hometown to recover from wildfire injuries; his father, incarcerated for killing his girlfriend’s father fourteen years ago, is pardoned; that girlfriend, Brenna, is deeply affected by a nasty custody battle and appalled by the release of her dad’s killer. Smoke Screen can be considered a multiple entendre since everyone is hidden by their own personal smoke screens. The big question is can all these people find redemption and learn that trust is still possible?

Brenna is probably the most embattled character and deserving of sympathy. She’s never really recovered from her father’s death and knowing that her relationship with Nate was the impetus for the murder. That emotional damage eventually led to a bad marriage and a custody battle and alcohol has become a crutch. Some will say that no “real” mother would let an addiction get in the way of caring for her children but that really isn’t true. ANY mother can be brought to her knees when life becomes nearly unendurable and perhaps only Nate can lift her up again. Nate, though, has his own battles to fight with the past while he and Brenna try to find the way back to each other.

I haven’t read anything by Ms. Blackstock before this one but I’m intrigued enough to want to try more. Now I just have to figure out where to begin 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2019.

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

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An Excerpt from Smoke Screen

I woke up in a blinding bright room, my clothes off and something clamped to my face. I tried to reach it, but I couldn’t bend my right arm, and my hand stung. An IV was taped to my other hand, but I moved carefully and touched the thing over my face.

An oxygen mask. I tried to sit up. “What happened?”

T-bird came to my bedside, a sheen of smoky sweat still soiling his face. “Nate, lie back, man.”

“The fire,” I said. “Need to get back. My men.”

“They’re still there. Making progress. But you’re not going anywhere near a fire for a month or so.”

I took the mask off and coughed a little, but managed to catch my breath. “A month?”

“Yep. Second degree burns on 20 percent of your body. Some of the burns are deep.”

It came back to me, the event that had gotten me here.

“The family. Were they injured?”

“Not a scratch or burn. Turns out it was a U.S. Senator from Kansas. He says you’re a hero.”

“You know I had no choice. They were in the path—”

“Take the praise where you can get it, man. We don’t get that much.”

I looked at my right side. My right arm was bandaged, and so was my side and down my right leg to the point where my boots had stopped the flames. Second degree wasn’t so bad, I told myself. Third degree would have been brutal. I’d be able to leave the hospital soon. I’d heal.

“I won’t need a month,” I said.

“Yes, you will. They can’t let you go back. Doctor’s orders. You’re grounded until he releases you.”

I managed to sit up, but it was a bad idea. The burns pulling on my skin reminded me why I shouldn’t. “I can’t be grounded during fire season. Are you crazy? I need to be there. You don’t have enough men as it is.”

“Sorry, Nate. It is what it is. Why don’t you go home to Carlisle for a while? Take it easy.”

Go home? Pop had just been pardoned, and he and my mom were trying to navigate the reunion. Though she would love to have me home, I didn’t know if I was up to it. My father could be challenging, and fourteen years of prison hadn’t done him any favors.

Required text: Taken from “Smoke Screen” by Terri Blackstock. Copyright © 2019 by Terri Blackstock. Used by permission of http://www.thomasnelson.com/.

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About the Author

Terri Blackstock has sold over seven million books worldwide and is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author. She is the award-winning author of Intervention, Vicious Cycle, and Downfall, as well as such series as Cape Refuge, Newpointe 911, the SunCoast Chronicles, and the Restoration Series.

Catch Up With Terri Blackstock On:
Website // Goodreads // Twitter // BookBub // Facebook

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Book Review: A Stone’s Throw by James W. Ziskin

A Stone’s Throw
An Ellie Stone Mystery #6
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books, June  2018
ISBN 978-1-63388-419-9
Trade Paperback

A Stone’s Throw strikes me, for some reason, as more indicative of the 1940s or 50s than of the 60s. Lordy, Lordy, didn’t people just smoke, then? Or at least the characters in this book do. But that’s only a small, amusing detail in a book with a heroine as downright cool as Ellie Stone.

A Jewish “girl reporter” –yes, I’m reminded of Lois Lane–who is determined to make it in a man’s world, Ellie is Johnny-on-the-spot when a fire destroys a rundown barn on an abandoned property. The property used to be the center of a horsebreeding operation, until a long ago fire put an end to it. Owned by the wealthy, and politically important Shaw family, the barn is deemed to be no particular loss until Ellie walks through and discovers two bodies, both burned beyond recognition, in the ashes. Who are they? Ellie is determined to find out.

Even then the sheriff isn’t terribly concerned, and it isn’t until Ellie starts investigating that secrets are revealed which will involve many in the horse racing community of Saratoga Springs, New York. Owners, trainers, jockeys, and bookmakers all have something to hide, and it will take Ellie and a cadre of quirky friends to discover the truth.

The writing is good, the dialogue snappy, the setting appropriate. Most of all, the subject of horse racing, which is dear to my heart, a hoot to visit. I’m worried about Ellie, though. Her lovelife is a bust and I’m afraid she may have a drinking problem, although a full bottle of Dewars proves a godsend. A fun read.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Reviews: A Measure of Murder by Leslie Karst and Mile High Murder by Marcia Talley

A Measure of Murder
A Sally Solari Mystery #2
Leslie Karst
Crooked Lane Books, February 2018
ISBN 978-1-68331-493-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Sally Solari is busy juggling work at her family’s Italian restaurant, Solari’s, and helping Javier plan the autumn menu for the restaurant she’s just inherited, Gauguin. Complicating this already hectic schedule, Sally joins her ex-boyfriend Eric’s chorus, which is performing a newly discovered version of her favorite composition: the Mozart Requiem. But then, at the first rehearsal, a tenor falls to his death on the church courtyard–and his soprano girlfriend is sure it wasn’t an accident.

Now Sally’s back on another murder case mixed in with a dash of revenge, a pinch of peril, and a suspicious stack of sheet music. And while tensions in the chorus heat up, so does the kitchen at Gauguin–set aflame right as Sally starts getting too close to the truth. Can Sally catch the killer before she’s burnt to a crisp, or will the case grow as cold as yesterday’s leftovers?

Good food and good music go together beautifully but not so much when death—most likely murder—is in the mix. Sally Solari had looked forward to singing in the chorus performing this special piece but gets drawn into the peculiarities surrounding Kyle’s death. She has very little spare time in her life for this, though, because she’s working at both her family’s restaurant and the one she recently inherited from her aunt but Sally is a Type-A Energizer Bunny who can be downright exhausting. In fact, the one weakness (in my mind) was that, because Sally is often off chasing leads, we don’t get to spend as much time as I would like in the restaurants but then I’m an unofficial foodie 😉

Nobody wishes death on people but Kyle was not a pleasant person and, quite frankly, he won’t be missed by many other than his girlfriend, Jill. It isn’t long before possible motives seem to pile up and Sally becomes suspicious about several possible killers but I have to say it took me a while to settle on one. Before Sally can bring the perpetrator to justice, she becomes a target herself.

As a former attorney, Sally is probably more qualified than most amateurs to investigate a crime and that lends her snooping a certain credibility other amateurs don’t have but her rationale still doesn’t hold much water. That’s okay, however, because (1) this is a cozy and sleuths in cozies don’t need a lot of justification and (2) I enjoyed this mystery as much as the first in the series. Let’s face it, Sally and her family and friends are fun to be around—I especially enjoyed re-connecting with Javier and Eric—and we’re rewarded at the end with a handful of recipes that just might entice you to try them out. I’m feeling the munchies for the grilled cheese sandwich right now 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

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Mile High Murder
A Hannah Ives Mystery #16
Marcia Talley
Severn House, April 2018
ISBN 978-0-7278-8768-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Hannah Ives embarks on a trip to the Mile High City on a fact-finding mission. But is she about to get ‘high’ on murder?

It’s a well-known fact that some of the Reach for Recovery cancer support group survivors Hannah Ives works with take marijuana. Recreational use of the drug may be illegal, but a few, like Maryland State Senator Claire Thompson, are prescribed it on medical grounds.

Claire has co-sponsored a Cannabis Legalisation Bill and wants Hannah to be part of a fact-finding task force that testifies before the Maryland State Senate.

Before long, Hannah is in Denver, Colorado – the Mile High City – staying at a B&B with a group of pot pilgrims and medical refugees – some of whom, like her, are on a mission for information. But when one of the group is found dead, and a closer inspection of the body reveals they may not be who they seem, Hannah is plunged into a dangerous cocktail of drugs and death.

Hannah Ives has been a comfortable fictional friend for a long time now and I’m always happy to see a new book come out. This time she gets involved in “research” to bolster State Senator Claire Thompson’s hopes to get a marijuana bill passed in Maryland, one to broaden and organize the specifics of already passed legislation that legalized the drug for medical use. To do this, they have to go to a state where recreational pot use is already lawful so they head out to Colorado, Denver to be specific. As a long-term cancer survivor, Hannah doesn’t need medical marijuana but Claire has a prescription and is inclined to use it even if she’s at risk of being caught breaking the law.

Hannah decides to go, mainly because she’ll have a chance to testify before the senate, a taste of the old days when she dealt with bureaucrats on a regular basis. This seems like a fairly simple task but Hannah did try to tell Claire that Hannah seems to attract dead bodies, a lengthy list of them, in fact. Still, they didn’t expect to find themselves so completely surrounded by hippie types and a million different ways to indulge at their “bud-and-breakfast”, Bell House…nor did they expect a fellow guest to be a victim of foul play.

I think the mystery here is a little less suspenseful than in Hannah’s previous adventures but I still had a good time learning all the ins and outs of legalized marijuana and watching Hannah do what she does so well, identify a murderer. Fans will be happy to see her again (and, Paul, her lovely Navy professor husband) but new readers might want to start with at least the first book to have a better idea of who Hannah is.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

Book Review: After the Fire by Henning Mankell

After the Fire
Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Vintage Books, October 31, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-5254-3508-2
Trade Paperback

Henning Mankell, who died in 2015, capped a distinguished career with this follow-up to Italian Shoes, in which Frederik Welin, a disgraced surgeon, was the principal character, as he is in After the Fire.  In  each novel, Welin looks deeply into his present as a lone resident on an island in the Swedish archipelago, living in his boyhood home built by his grandfather, as well as dredging up past memories.

The major difference between the two novels, however, is in the later book, his house burns down, apparently by arson (of which he is suspected) while he is asleep and narrowly escapes death.  Previously, Welin was content to live quietly, taking a daily dip in the sea, even if he had to cut a hole in the ice with an axe to do so.  Following the destruction of his home, things change.  When a female journalist visits to write a story about the event, it awakens sexual hope in the 70-year-old retired doctor, but to develop into only a close friendship.  At the same time,  his somewhat strained relationship with his daughter changes for the better.

In other words, the consequences of the house being reduced to ashes forces Welin to approach life differently, accepting life (and death) as it is, rather than as was his attitude toward it in the past.  His introspection leads him to develop a more practical approach to his relationships.

Mankell has here written a superlatively insightful look into a man’s mind.  While, perhaps, better known for his Kurt Wallender mysteries, Mankell has here added another well-written and -thought-out novel to a long list of other books he penned.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2017.

Book Review: The Elusive Elixir by Gigi Pandian

The Elusive Elixir
An Accidental Alchemist Mystery #3
Gigi Pandian
Midnight Ink,  January 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-4236-6
Trade Paperback

Who isn’t interested in Alchemy? Can there be anything more intriguing than the ability to transform one thing into something completely different? Lead into gold is probably the conversion of matter most people know of–not that in reality anyone has ever succeeded. But close to that is the search for an elixir to make a living person immortal. And there begins the story.

Zoe Faust, who is 340 years old but appears 30ish, has found the way to transform her own life while keeping her age secret. She moves frequently when her lack of aging becomes too obvious. She states she’s a granddaughter of the original Zoe. And now she’s on a quest to preserve her friend, Dorian Robert-Houdin, a gargoyle who came to life, from turning back to stone. Zoe travels to France, where she once lived, to discover someone from her past, an old lady who says that as a child, she knew Zoe. She also tells Zoe that the police want her for the murder, during WWII, of the man who ran Zoe’s shop and was burned beyond recognition when the shop fell victim to arson.

Zoe flees, which lands her in a peck of trouble when more people from her past follow her to her home–and right to Dorian. These people expect her to provide an old book they believe will show them the way to make the elixir of life–except the elixir needs the sacrifice of a living person. Who will they chose to be this sacrifice? That’s what Zoe has to find out  and prevent. Complicating all she does is the relationship she has with a lover, a partner after more than one hundred years. If he finds out what she really is, what will happen?

This is a good plot. I greatly enjoyed Dorian (although his “brother” not so much) and most of the rest of the cast are good, too. Given her great age, sometimes Zoe struck me as insipid. Well, maybe because of her great age, yes? Some passages are quite repetitive, as well, but overall, I did enjoy the book.

As for alchemy, Dorian is a marvelous cook. He’s found a way to transform common vegan ingredients into wonderful meals. His greatest discovery? Avocado! The book contains the recipe for his special chocolate mousse, which I actually made and found it pretty darn good!

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

Book Review: Silent Rain by Karin Salvalaggio—and a Giveaway!

Silent Rain
Macy Greeley Mysteries #4
Karin Salvalaggio
Minotaur Books, May 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07893-3
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Grace Adams has spent three years trying to move on―mentally, physically, emotionally―from the traumatizing events of her past. But it’s not easy when the world is morbidly curious about the crimes that shaped her childhood, when despite her changed name, people still track her down for the sensational details. Now in college in Bolton, Montana, the one person Grace has trusted with the truth about her past has betrayed her. The bestselling novelist Peter Granger wants to use Grace’s story in his next book, regardless of how desperate Grace is to keep the details to herself. And then, on Halloween night, Peter Granger’s house burns to the ground and his and his wife’s bodies are found inside.

Montana state detective Macy Greeley is sent to Bolton to handle the investigation into the fire and deaths…which soon appear to be arson and murder. It doesn’t take Macy long to realize that Grace isn’t the only one whom Peter Granger has betrayed, and there are no shortage of others in town who took issue with him and his wife. What at first looked like a straightforward investigation is poised to expose some of Bolton’s darkest secrets, and the fallout may put more than one life in danger.

I had never read any of the Macy Greeley books before this one but, when a review copy was offered to me by the publisher, I pounced on it. Police procedurals are among my favorite mystery subgenres and, in looking at the earlier books, it was very apparent that the series is well-regarded. Now that I’ve been introduced to Macy and her world, I have to agree and, even as a standalone, Silent Rain is indeed well worth the time.

When Macy is sent to investigate a house fire and resulting deaths, she’s unaware that she already knows one of the potential suspects. Grace, who played a critical role in one of Macy’s earlier cases, was betrayed by Peter Granger who wanted to tell the world the story she’s been running from. How far would Grace have gone to stop him? And who else hated Peter Granger enough to do this?

Macy is a single mother to a young boy and the scenes with him add a great deal to the reader’s understanding of this detective and her compassion for others, even in little ways, while she pursues truth. In this case, numerous threads come together but slowly enough to give the reader time to ponder the various leads…and, for me, come to the wrong conclusion more than once.

Silent Rain is an engrossing mystery and features vivid characters, both good and bad. I’m happy to have “discovered” another police procedural series I can get into with a good deal of anticipation.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2017.

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Book Review: An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock by Terry Shames

an-unsettling-crime-for-samuel-cradddockAn Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock
A Samuel Craddock Mystery Prequel
Terry Shames
Seventh Street Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-63388-209-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

When the Jarrett Creek Fire Department is called to douse a blaze on the outskirts of town, they discover a grisly scene: five black young people have been murdered. Newly elected Chief of Police Samuel Craddock, just back from a stint in the Air Force, finds himself an outsider in the investigation headed by the Texas Highway Patrol. He takes an immediate dislike to John Sutherland, a racist trooper.

Craddock’s fears are realized when Sutherland arrests Truly Bennett, a young black man whom Craddock knows and respects. Sutherland cites dubious evidence that points to Bennett, and Craddock uncovers facts leading in another direction. When Sutherland refuses to relent, Craddock is faced with a choice that will define him as a lawman—either let the highway patrol have its way, or take on a separate investigation himself.

Although his choice to investigate puts both Craddock and his family in danger, he perseveres. In the process, he learns something about himself and the limits of law enforcement in Jarrett Creek.

It’s the early 1980’s, a time we like to look back on as more enlightened than the Vietnam War era but, in a rural Texas town, racism is still very much in the open, whether blatant or subtle.

I’ve had a remarkably hard time getting started with this review and it’s because Terry Shames has really plucked my emotions and, in some ways, memories. Samuel Craddock is one of my very favorite lawmen and his series is, I think, very tough to beat; An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock may just be the best installment yet (and will be on my list of favorite books for this year).

In the early 1980’s in a small town in Texas, nothing much happens but there’s a pretty severe drug problem, particularly among the younger set. In fact, Samuel was appointed chief of police, with no experience or training, because the city administrator thought his youth and brains were better suited to coping with the issue than the current chief. So far, he hasn’t really made inroads but then a terrible thing happens, a fire with five fatalities.

The house was located in Darktown, the community where all the local black people live. This is segregation, of course, but it’s not talked about or even acknowledged and racism is alive and well. Unfortunately, Samuel is officially kept out of the investigation since, according to state law, the highway patrol has jurisdiction over suspicious deaths in small towns, and then the Texas Rangers also become involved. Samuel keeps a hand in peripherally while also looking into what he believes may be a connection between the drug situation and whatever led to the killings.

Besides the arson, murder and drug investigations, we also meet Jeanne, Samuel’s beloved wife who wishes he hadn’t taken this job and his brother and sister-in-law who are never going to be named Parents of the Year. Local reporter Bonnie Bedichek will become an important, if annoying, aide in Samuel’s plans and Truly Bennett, an enterprising young man, is helping Samuel learn how to work with his brand new 20 head of cattle, Samuel’s personal dream. These people, along with many other characters, are so well-drawn that they come to life on the page and you can’t help having an emotional attachment to them, thanks to Ms. Shames‘ fine hand.

Because this is a prequel, it’s not a bad place to start the series but I think readers will do just as well to read the five books published earlier from the beginning. One way, you meet Samuel in the early days before he really knew what he was doing but was honorbound to try, and you get a taste of what influenced his later years. The other way, you learn to truly appreciate this man’s abilities, his experience, his grace, if you will, before finding out what he was like as a young, untried lawman. Take your pick—you can’t go wrong 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2017.