Book Reviews: Lifers by M.A. Griffin and When My Heart Was Wicked by Tricia Stirling

 

lifersLifers
M.A. Griffin
Chicken House, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-06553-4
Hardcover

Particularly pertinent in current political climate, this fresh Middle-Grade mystery-adventure is a phenomenally fantastic read for all ages.  Mace may be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but when weird news of missing teens and strange sights at night hits close to home, even practical Preston is pulled in.  Also….he is pretty sure he is partly to blame for the most recent disappearances.

Attempting to trace Alice’s steps, Preston walks the night streets of Manchester and senses a spooky truth to the recent rumors.  He enlists Mace to delve deeper and the two stumble onto a pseudo-futuristic-sci-fi scene.  Children are trapped in a prison prototype with dwindling supplies and absolutely no way out.  The only way in, is scheduled to be permanently shut down in less than twenty-four hours.

The juvenile delinquents are not completely alone.  One young lady is the daughter of a recently deceased politician, her “crime”: doubting that her father’s death was an accident.  She is not going down until the guilty party pays.  Two Urban Explorers snuck into the prison to help facilitate an escape and two workers who never wanted their creations to be used in this manner will fight for freedom.

The story plays out in a matter of days; the pace is very quick and quite captivating.  A bit of sharp wit, an unexpected kindness keeps the book from becoming bleak.  Many questions are answered, but nothing is too pat; there’s plenty to think on…..in a sneaky kind of way.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

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when-my-heart-was-wickedWhen My Heart Was Wicked
Tricia Stirling
Scholastic Press, March 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-69573-2
Hardcover

Lacy is clearly conflicted and completely compelling. At the tender age of sixteen, she has become so very good in spite of her tumultuous, tangled life; but, things change. The loss of a parent is heart-breaking and often life-changing.  When that loss is followed by an abrupt and unwelcome custody change, the downward spiral spins out of control.

Flashbacks and memories reveal the characteristics of Lacy’s parents allowing the reader to understand Lacy’s influences.  The vibes emanating from the recollections reach from the pages to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.  Parents are palpable presences and when Lacy thinks of her father, sunshine shoots from the pages.  She is light, happy, hopeful……joyous and buoyant when considering her father and his charming hippie-chick wife, Anna.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Lacy’s mother, Cheyenne.  Her unique “teaching techniques” and willingness to spend weeks without electricity did not result in a nurturing home.  Rather, she burned her daughter’s wrist for asking “too many questions”, tied her to a tree to prevent “wandering”, then completely vanished without a word, leaving a broken 13-year old girl all alone.

When My Heart Was Wicked is a captivating and quick read that bravely tackles taboo topics such as “cutting”.  More than merely acknowledging the existence of a disorder that plagues so many teens, by offering an answer to the common question: “why?” On some level, problems that plague Lacy are the same, or at least similar to the challenges every teenager faces.  The importance of identity is not easy to address, but Ms. Stirling demonstrates how strong will, determination and knowledge can carve a unique path, even when it seems all forces are fighting to make you march down a different road.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2016.

Book Review: Seldom Traveled by Marilyn Meredith

seldom-traveledSeldom Traveled
Tempe Crabtree Mystery Series #15
Marilyn Meredith
Mundania Press, August 2016
ISBN 978-1-59426-433-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

The tranquility of the mountain community of Bear Creek is disrupted by a runaway fugitive, a vicious murderer, and a raging forest fire. Deputy Tempe Crabtree is threatened by all three.

One of the things that makes the Tempe Crabtree series by Marilyn Meredith so appealing is its setting in a mountain community where the issues facing law enforcement that can be common in urban areas are rather unique in a more rural environment. Certainly the fugitive seen near Bear Creek could have just as easily headed for a big city but he didn’t do so, meaning Tempe will have to deal with the situation along with…or, rather, in spite of…the dismissive Marshal Gallegos. Unfortunately, that isn’t all she has on her plate; a woman, Mariah Konstanzer, has gone missing from her family’s remote vacation home and is found murdered.

Detectives Morrison and Richards take control of the murder investigation but it isn’t long before Tempe is pulled in to assist and is soon interviewing a lengthy list of potential suspects. Before she can shorten the list, a third crisis erupts, a wildfire high on the mountain. Tempe races to warn residents to evacuate and it isn’t long before all three issues intersect.

Tempe is a deputy I’ve followed for years and, once again, she’s the diligent, thoughtful investigator I’ve come to expect as well as a caring wife and member of the Bear Creek community. For some reason, Tempe always gives me a sense of confidence that all will be right with the world when it’s all said and done and she pulls it off once again. I hope we won’t have to wait long for the next adventure.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

Book Review: If the Shoe Kills by Lynn Cahoon

if-the-shoe-killsIf the Shoe Kills
A Tourist Trap Mystery #3
Lynn Cahoon
Kensington Books, November 2014
ISBN 978-1-60183-306-8
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

The tourist town of South Cove, California, is a lovely place to spend the holidays. But this year, shop owner Jill Gardner discovers there’s no place like home for homicide. . .

As owner of Coffee, Books, and More, Jill Gardner looks forward to the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers. But when the mayor ropes her into being liasion for a new work program, ’tis the season to be wary. Local businesses are afraid the interns will be delinquents, punks, or worse. For Jill, nothing’s worse than Ted Hendricks–the jerk who runs the program. After a few run-ins, Jill’s ready to kill the guy. That, however, turns out to be unnecessary when she finds Ted in his car–dead as a doornail. Officer Greg assumes it’s a suicide. Jill thinks it’s murder. And if the holidays weren’t stressful enough, a spoiled blonde wants to sue the city for breaking her heel. Jill has to act fast to solve this mess–before the other shoe drops. . .

I’m ashamed to admit that I read this l-o-n-g ago and never got around to writing a review, not because I hated it or had a beef with the author but because, well, I just sort of kept pushing it down the to-review list until it kind of became an embarrassment. I decided to woman up and get it done, finally, and I discovered an interesting thing—I remember it, remember it quite well. Now, that may be SOP for many of you but, except for a handful of standouts that are implanted in my brain, I usually need some sort of prompt to remind me, whether it be the description on the book jacket or a mention of something in someone else’s review. None of that was needed this time.

What, exactly, does that mean? Well, it means I think this is a really enjoyable cozy, one with memorable characters—book and coffee shop owner Jill and her “boy toy”, Detective Greg King, the Martha Stewart-ish Aunt Jackie and the overbearing Mayor Baylor along with many others—and a town I wouldn’t mind living in. The charitable project that riles everyone up is a worthy one that could work in real life and the potential motivations for the inevitable murder actually make sense. Jill herself has some validity in sleuthing and, thank heavens, she doesn’t fall into the TSTL trap.

As for the mystery itself, I have to say this is pretty darned good, causing me to go in one direction and another until I figured it out but that wasn’t until near the end so, all in all, this is a cozy mystery I can happily recommend to anyone looking for a well-done puzzle. Since it took me so long to get around to reviewing this, there are more books out in the series; as it happens, I have #1 in the series so I think I’ll start from the beginning 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

Book Review: It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm

its-not-me-its-youIt’s Not Me, It’s You
Stephanie Kate Strohm
Point, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-95258-3
Hardcover

When Avery’s dumped mere days before the senior prom, that would be bad enough, but she’s prom committee chair and all the guys have dates. All the guys except the Nerd Squad who avoid things like prom in favor of an all night game rage. Included in that group is Hutch, her lab partner for all four years at their California prep school.

Determined to hold her head high and look successful on prom night, Avery turns her oral history assignment for English class into a psychological autopsy of her long and unsuccessful dating career. She hopes that by interviewing every one of her old boyfriends, she can learn why there were so many and what caused each breakup. Avery imagines this knowledge will somehow help her stay single and happy.

She enlists the help of Hutch and Coco Kim, her best friend, to accomplish this task. The list of exes is impressive, stretching back to fourth grade. The story is arranged in brief interview form, alternating between Avery, Hutch, Coco and whoever is the topic at the moment. Said topics include her arch nemesis Bizzy Stanhope, her parents, the principal, Ms. Sergerson, the teacher who gave her the assignment, the former boyfriends, random kids from school, a Vespa riding Italian boy, a TV star and even a pair of helicopter parents.

Avery must bulldoze (convince isn’t even on the table here), her teacher to let her forge ahead with this as a valid oral history project. After all, as she notes early on, history can be what happened five minutes ago. At first, the short paragraphs with rapidly changing viewpoints can be a bit disconcerting, but once you get into the flow and start being comfortable with the main characters’ personalities, it’s a mad and funny ride. There are times when you’re likely to cringe at Avery’s ‘blondness’ (after all more than a few exes bring up her long blonde hair as among their first impression of her) and a reader could get frustrated with what seems to be an aura of cluelessness and self-absorption, but Avery manages to dance back from that abyss at the right moment each time.

Halfway through the book, I realized where it was headed, but that made it all the more fun reading to see how Avery and the rest got there. It was particularly satisfying to read how she and the guy she was meant to be with saved the prom after it was sabotaged two days before it was to happen.

I’ve read and really enjoyed the author’s other books. She writes teen funny extremely well while keeping her characters sympathetic. Those are rare talents. This is a good book to offer young adults who like funny high school drama or a quirky love story.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, September 2016.

Book Reviews: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes and Surrounded by Witnesses by Jeff Foster

hidden-bodiesHidden Bodies
Caroline Kepnes
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8562-2
Hardcover

Joe, narrator and protagonist of this turbulent novel is arrogant, smart, clever and well educated. He is also misogynistic, athletic, immoral, talented and a serial killer. As an adept seducer of women, he travels the nation, expounding on his distorted philosophy, scamming various people and murdering those who get in his way, often for the flimsiest of reasons. He is an extremely engaging modern character.

The story begins in a New York bookstore and ends in a California lockup. In between, Joe rambles both physically and intellectually about the human condition, about relationships and about what he should do next. And he pursues a distorted nihilistic philosophy of life that leads him into a morass of morally questionable actions that take place in often unusual and well-described locations. Yet he is a charmer and as pursued by his chronicler, author, Caroline Kepner, he is successful in persuading a great many people to buy at least some of his arguments and actions.

Of course, it is the skill and talent of the author that helps persuade us to continue to pay attention to this most reprehensible of characters and to give his oft-times hare-brained philosophizing serious consideration. A well-conceived, finely written effort that somehow seems peculiarly relevant in today’s world.

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.

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surrounded-by-witnessesSurrounded By Witnesses
Jeff Foster
North Star Press, January 2007
ISBN: 978-0-87839-258-0
Trade Paperback

The novel has an interesting premise: a Muslim terrorist scout team is heading for the middle of the middle west in order to set up some kind of attack. They travel as a family and with typical short-view planning, come down from Canada into the Upper Midwest during the height of winter. This of course means blizzards, disruption of timing and attendant growing rage from the family’s controllers.

The novel centers on the family’s interaction with an intensely rural Minnesota family of taciturn Scandinavians. Swede and Heidi and their children are the epitome of type. Manifold difficulties rise to hamper the progress of the terrorist unit toward their intended target. The novel is replete with high tech maneuvering which at times gets in the way of human interaction and the pace of the novel.

I was bothered by the remote language of the narration, disconcerting shifts of points of view and a few clichéd characters. That said, the story line is interesting, but at 330 pages, this trade paper novel could have benefited from some judicious editing. At times the language including the dialogue is stilted and awkward. Those caveats aside, this is an enjoyable novel, worth a few hours of leisure.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, May 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: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

be-frank-with-meBe Frank With Me
Julia Claiborne Johnson
William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-241372-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies—with a few stipulations: No Ivy-Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away—as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders.

As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank’s father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation—and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

Full of heart and countless “only-in-Hollywood” moments, Be Frank with Me is a captivating and unconventional story of an unusual mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.

After reading the publisher’s description of this book, I couldn’t help thinking this could have been about Harper Lee and, truth be known, Mimi is a bit like her. Both had a major publishing success early on and then wrote nothing else (remember, Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was technically not a second book) and both spent years as recluses. I found it kind of fun to imagine Lee’s life being much like Mimi’s.

There, of course, is where the similarities end and Be Frank With Me is much more the story of Frank and an impressionable young girl named Alice. Frank is a pure delight with his quirkiness, his devotion to all things Hollywood, his irrepressible charm and humor and interest in life. Is he on the autism spectrum, possibly showing signs of Asperger’s Syndrome, or is he just very socially awkward? No matter, Frank is a delightful kid and Alice has much to learn from him and from her observations of his relationship with his mother.

Alice herself could be any young professional-in-training thrown into a situation nothing could have prepared her for, especially since she thought she’d be using her editorial skills rather than looking after a child. How she copes with this change in plans and steps up to the plate is only one aspect of a story that is ultimately heartwarming and sweet with large dollops of humor and a bit of sadness, just the kind of thing to while away a few hours of true pleasure.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2016.

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Purchase Links:

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About the Author

julia-claiborne-johnsonJulia Claiborne Johnson worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines before marrying and moving to Los Angeles, where she lives with her comedy-writer husband and their two children.

Connect with Julia on Facebook and Twitter.

AP Photo by Christa Parravani

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Book Review: Bullet in the Blue Sky by Bill Larkin

Bullet in the Blue SkyBullet in the Blue Sky
Bill Larkin
William Larkin, July 2016
ISBN 978-0-9894002-1-3Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

In the chaotic aftermath of a massive earthquake that leveled much of the Los Angeles region, a LAPD deputy chief sends an elite team of detectives on a rescue mission. They are ordered to set aside all law enforcement duties, to ignore the destruction and to focus on one task: Find LAPD Detective Gavin Shaw, who disappeared just before the earthquake.

Kevin “Schmitty” Schmidt of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department joins five others on the rescue team. With rioting, looting, attacks and homicides rampant in the streets, the six cops have to defend themselves while chasing down leads on the whereabouts of Shaw. The mission takes them through the dizzying war zone and the more they encounter, the more they wonder why they are searching for one man in these extreme circumstances. Why is this man so important to the deputy chief, and why now?

Schmitty discovers that others with high connections are also after Shaw. The questions pile even higher when they learn of a shadowy history between Shaw and the deputy chief. A history with deadly consequences for the team as they uncover a threat that elevates the mission to a race against time.

From the moment I began reading Bullet in the Blue Sky, I was captivated by this story in a myriad of ways. The core premise, that this hodgepodge group of law enforcement officers is tasked with finding one particular detective after the earthquake hits, is a fresh idea (to me, at least) and the author does a fantastic job of melding their mission with the horrible aftermath of the quake. Gang warfare erupts, looting is rampant, and the sheer effort involved in getting anywhere through the massive damage seems as true to life as I could want, never having been in such a situation myself.

The tension rarely lets up and that alone would have kept me turning pages but I also was really drawn to this band of people who can be seen as heroes but who actually are just doing the job they’ve dedicated their lives to. Each one is vividly drawn, especially Schmitty and Mata, and each has his or her own strengths and vulnerabilities, even the quite unlikeable Anderson. I wanted to know not only what would happen to them but also how they would accomplish their goal.

As for the reason behind their search and rescue mission, the reader knows only a tiny bit more than they do and it’s just enough to whet the appetite. I had my own theories but had to keep looking in different directions as more information slowly came to light. When all was said and done, Mr. Larkin’s details took me by surprise page after page until the very end. Even the explanation of the book’s title is filled with meaning.

My only quibble is that some things seem to happen a bit too easily. For instance, they’re in the midst of a disaster and looting is severe but at no point are they unable to find food, water or medical supplies. Granted, the choices might be limited to chips and over-the-counter painkillers but it’s unrealistic to think that such things would still be on the shelves in a looted convenience store or school cafeteria. Still, this was just a minor blip in an otherwise tightly woven story.

Mr. Larkin drew me in initially with two of my favorite themes, law enforcement and disasters, and he never let me down along the way, filling his tale with twists and turns and creating situations that test loyalty and ingenuity while being realistic about what would happen to society after such a major quake. I couldn’t ask for more and Bullet in the Blue Sky will be on my list of favorite books read in 2016.

Note: the author doesn’t seem to categorize his writings as a series but both Schmitty and Mata can be found in earlier work and I’ll be checking them out whenever they become available through an epub retailer.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2016.

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An Excerpt from Bullet in the Blue Sky

The adjunct lieutenant moved into the conference room and stood behind Jenkins and off to the side. Jenkins now addressed our five–person team.

“Your orders are to find Detective Gavin Shaw. He’s a member of Major Crimes and I need him here or I need to know where he is. That’s it. Nothing more.”

As Jenkins paused, several of the detectives looked at each other. Anderson opened her mouth. “Is he—“

Jenkins put up a hand. “You are not, repeat not, to take on law enforcement duties. You are not out to arrest looters, answer radio calls, help firefighters, or anything else you think you ought to be doing. Your only assignment is to find Shaw. And find him as fast as you possibly can. Am I clear?”

“Can I ask the importance of Detective Shaw at this juncture?” Mata said.

“No, you may not. Find him and bring him to me.”

“A search-and-rescue mission?” Anderson said in a puzzled tone.

“Call it that, Anderson. Lieutenant Tallon is in charge and you’d better be aware of what you’re facing. This city is falling apart. Aside from the destruction, there are forty-five thousand gang members, and at least that same number of state parolees and felons on probation. Then there are the opportunists who will loot, burglarize, and kill without the police to stop them. That’s probably a hundred fifty thousand bad guys in a city of rubble and fire.”

Jenkins let that number sink in a moment. The man projected political polish, as I would expect from somebody of his rank, but he didn’t hide his edgy urgency.

He went on. “The LAPD has almost ten thousand sworn, but who knows how many are still alive, much less how many can physically get mobilized. Break that down into twelve-hour shifts and there might be two thousand cops in the whole city at any given time. Three thousand if we’re lucky.”

Lieutenant Tallon said, “Sir that makes the odds against the LAPD about sixty-to-one.” His voice carried both cordiality and self-assurance.

Jenkins nodded. “That’s right. But you will be undercover. Plain clothes and a plain vehicle.”

“Where is Shaw?” Anderson asked.

“I don’t know.” Jenkins nodded to his adjunct who stepped forward and handed a folder to Tallon, then stepped back. “Here is his address and personal information. Best guess is home, but start wherever you need to and find the man.”

Anderson made a small snort. “What if he’s dead?”

“You find him, either way.”

One thing was for sure. Jenkins wasn’t sugarcoating the assignment.

“What about help from the outside?” I asked.

“In time. They’ll mobilize the National Guard and we’ll get relief and search-and-rescue teams, but it’ll take days.”

Tallon said, “We’ll be mostly on our own for the first forty-eight hours. Keep in mind just about every other city in Southern California has the same problems. Some worse, some better.”

“Jesus,” Anderson said.

Tallon said, “Chief, you’ll be here? We bring Shaw here?”

“At this time, I am in command of the department. The chief, assistant and other deputy chiefs have not yet been in contact. That means I’m the Director of Emergency Operations until further notice. That’s all. Dismissed.”

Jenkins motioned to Tallon to follow him and they stepped outside of the conference room with the adjunct lieutenant close behind. Tallon stood about six inches taller than the deputy chief, but Jenkins didn’t seem the least bit intimidated.

The doorway stayed open and I stood up, keeping my back to them, but close enough to hear.

“Lieutenant, I don’t know you very well, but I’ll tell you this with certainty. This is the most difficult challenge you’ll ever face on this job. I was told you have the intellect, resourcefulness, and tenacity to carry this out. Do not disappoint me.”

I heard Jenkins walk away. When I turned, Tallon had locked eyes with the other lieutenant. A beat later, she hurried after her boss.

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About the Author

Bill LarkinBill Larkin writes crime fiction and is the author of two highly-acclaimed books: Bullet in the Blue Sky and Detective Lessons. He has also written several short stories, including “The Highlands” and “Shadow Truth”, both Amazon category bestsellers. Bill previously served as a reserve with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, then the Los Angeles Police Department where he worked in four different divisions and a detective assignment. Bill is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

Catch Up With Mr. Larkin:

Bill Larkin’s Website: http://bill-larkin.com/
Bill Larkin’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/WriteThrillers

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