Book Review: Pressed to Death by Kirsten Weiss

Pressed to Death
A Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum Mystery #2
Kirsten Weiss
Midnight Ink, March 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-5031-6
Trade Paperback

Maddie Kosloski, the owner of the paranormal museum, displays items with a history, usually a bloody history, in her small shop that also sell ouija boards, spooky T-shirts, and other touristy stuff. Oddly enough, she seems to make a living at it, even as she participates in the celebrations and festivals in the California wine country where she lives. As this story opens, she is being accused of stealing an antique grape press–reportedly haunted–from a local winery. Thankfully, she has a receipt signed by the winery owner’s wife, but that doesn’t stop Detective Laurel Hammer’s accusations. Only because the Halloween/autumn festival is in the offing does Maddie escape arrest. Unfortunately, as she’s setting up the display for her paranormal museum, she stumbles upon the body of–who else–the man who owned the wine press.

Trouble, as you might expect, ensues.

Somehow, the Ladies Aid Society, a lively bunch of do-gooders with a lot of influence in the community, persuade Maddie to investigate the death, which of course, turns out to be murder. At the Ladies Aid forefront is Maddie’s own mother.

Maddie’s poking and prying manages to stir up a hornet’s nest, some of which puts her in a peck of trouble, not to mention danger. It takes a lot of help from her friends to put this haunting to rest. Worse, as Maddie’s investigation winds down, she discovers why the wine press is haunted. Should she tell? Because once revealed, an unhaunted wine press isn’t much of a draw to her museum.

I wouldn’t say as this is a strong mystery, but the writing is good, the characters are engaging, the setting is warm and friendly (hauntings aside) and the story, with all it’s twists and turns, has a really good cat character.

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

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Book Review: The Black Kachina by Jack Getze

The Black Kachina
Jack Getze
Down & Out Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-943402-69-4
Trade Paperback

San Diego Reporter Jordon Scott finds himself on the trail of a hot story involving a missing bomb, a terrorist and falling in love with a tough military officer at the same time. These are the interesting plot lines in this unusual novel. Author Getze is a former LA Times reporter so he knows the territory and if the activities of this fictional reporter at times get a little questionable, well, this is realistic fiction, after all. Scott is a bright, good-looking, aggressive reporter who, while pushing leads on the loss of an aging USAF bomber in the mountains of southern California, encounters Colonel Maggie Black, USAF.

Black is an intriguing character. A former combat pilot—unusual in itself—she can no longer fly due to loss of one arm, but she’s actively working with a secret unit of the service on special weapons. She’s bright, good-looking, aggressive and dedicated to her assignment. While monitoring a test flight carrying her experimental weapon, she discovers the flight has crashed and her weapon is missing.

Then we have the third character in this novel, he of the title. Kachina’s are an intimate part, along with their influences, of the lives and lore of southwestern native tribes and bands. Whether or not they, like other religious icons, were real, their influence is wide and important. Asdrubal Torres believes in Kachina and he comes to believe, aided by his hatred for the white man, that he is destined to return the Salton Sea and surrounding area to its original state as the huge Lake Cahuilla in the Santa Rosa Mountains. Asdrubal Torres will become a modern Kachina.

How these forces maneuver their complicated way through the limitations and dangers of modern technology and personal relationships forms the texture, structure and movement of this interesting and intriguing thriller. I recommend it.

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

Book Review: Water Signs by Janet Dawson

Water Signs
A Jeri Howard Mystery #12
Janet Dawson
Perseverance Press, April 2017
ISBN 978-1-56474-586-6
Trade Paperback

Methodology is at the forefront of this story. There’s really never any doubt as to who the criminals are. The problem PI Jeri Howard has to work through is proving what happened to her friend Cal Brady who was discovered drowned in the Estuary. Why would anyone want to murder a lowly security guard? Well, unless he’s seen something he shouldn’t have and begun investigating it. Because when thugs turn to murder, there must be more at stake than keeping the homeless off a building site.

I think this story might find its audience with native Oaklanders. The book is filled with local political agenda items. I admit to skipping much of the driving directions and what building is on what corner and which business faces onto the Estuary and such. I’ve never been there, probably never will be there, and beyond a general setting, really didn’t care about reaching the closest Starbucks in the least time. IMO, all this doesn’t add to the plot, unless perhaps you live in Oakland.

That said, I sympathize with the problems of gentrification and can certainly see, with the big money involved, how it could lead to criminal activity. In fact, there’s probably not too much fiction in the plot. It’s all happened at one time or another.

But I wanted to read about Jeri solving her friend’s murder. The investigation sometimes got lost in the details. Besides, Jeri will go broke handing out all those business cards.

Even so, Jeri is sharply drawn. The reader definitely knows what makes her tick. I liked her friends. I liked the way she worked her way to the truth, and I  liked the way she took the murderers down, even though it happened a little fast at the end. Go Jeri!

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

Book Review: The Quiet Child by John Burley and The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

The Quiet Child
John Burley
William Morrow Paperbacks, August 2017
ISBN 978-0-0624-3185-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  It’s the summer of 1954, and the residents of Cottonwood, California, are dying.  At the center of it all is six-year-old Danny McCray, a strange and silent child the townspeople regard with superstition, who appears to bring illness and ruin to those around him.  Even his own mother is plagued by a disease that is slowly consuming her.  Sheriff Jim Kent, increasingly aware of the whispers and rumors surrounding the boy, has watched the people of his town suffer, and he worries someone might take drastic action to protect their loved ones.  Then a stranger arrives, and Danny and his ten-year-old brother, Sean, go missing.  In the search that follows, everyone is a suspect, and the consequences of finding the two brothers may be worse than not finding them at all.

This is a tale of what appears to be a kidnapping gone horribly wrong.  But put aside any preconceptions you may have with regard to kidnappings – this is not like any conjecture you can imagine.

This is a difficult time for the residents of Cottonwood, where “it seemed everyone had something wrong.”  The protagonists are Michael McCray, a science teacher at Anderson Union High School, and his wife of 12 years, Kate.  Days go by, and no headway is made in finding their two kidnapped sons, despite the best efforts of Michael and Jim Kent, 65 and “the town’s only plumber and part-time sheriff,” who thinks “there was something out here, some trace of them.  There had to be.  People do not just disappear.  There was a concerted law enforcement effort under way.  They would find them – – soon, he thought.  He only hoped it would be soon enough.”  The boys are 6 and 10 years old, of whom Michael thinks “one a constant source of chatter and energy and the other an enigma, silent and indecipherable,” the eponymous brother.

The reader is introduced to Richard Banes, who is at the crux of most of what takes place in this novel, and who “had harbored the suspicion that he might be going insane. True, it was not a condition that had plagued him in the past.  But the recent events had been wild and unpredictable – – and beyond his ability to control.  If he had heard the story from someone else and not experienced it for himself, he would have scoffed at it and questioned their mental stability.    But here he was: incapacitated by a small child . . . ”

This is a psychological thriller of the highest order, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2017.

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The Last Mrs. Parrish
Liv Constantine
Harper, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-266757-1
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Amber Patterson is fed up.  She’s tired of being a nobody:  a plain, invisible woman who blends into the background.  She deserves more – – a life of money and power, like the one blond-haired, blue-eyed goddess Daphne Parrish takes for granted.  To everyone in the exclusive town of Bishops Harbor, Connecticut, Daphne – – a socialite and philanthropist – – and her real-estate mogul husband, Jackson, a man of apparently limitless wealth, are a couple straight out of a fairy tale.  Amber’s envy could eat her alive . . . if she didn’t have a plan.  Amber uses Daphne’s compassion to insinuate herself into the family’s life – – the first step in a meticulous scheme to undermine her.  Before long, Amber is Daphne’s closest confidante, traveling to Europe with the Parrishes and their lovely young daughters, and growing closer to Jackson.  But a skeleton from her past may destroy everything that Amber has worked toward, and if it is discovered, her well-laid plan may fall to pieces.

Part I of the novel is told from Amber’s perspective, Part II, roughly half-way through the book, from Daphne’s.  The two women meet at a gym they both attend, and are drawn together by a shared interest:  It appears that Daphne, through an organization called the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, puts out a magazine dealing with that disease.  Daphne tells Amber, when questioned, that she had lost her younger sister to that disease, 20 years earlier at the age of 16.  When Daphne asks, Amber reveals that her own younger sister had died of the disease at the age of 14.  That is the beginning of a friendship that becomes much more than just that, with Amber becoming almost of the Parrish family

The reader discovers late in the novel that Amber’s name isn’t even Amber – it was Laura Crump.  She had made everything up, including the ostensible existence of a sick sister, an abusive father, when in actuality she was a criminal, a fugitive.   But we are told very early on that the only sisters she does [or ever did] have are all alive and well.  She apparently makes monthly pilgrimages to the main library in Manhattan and to museums, the better to display her apparent knowledge and acumen to others, most importantly to Jackson Parrish.  She inveigles her way into the family dynamic and, in doing so, into the “world of the rich and mighty, mingling and toasting each other, smug and confident in their little one percent corner of the world,” and ultimately landing a job as Jackson’s new office assistant.  I have to admit I found myself at one point I could not help but admire Amber’s success in achieving her aim of worming herself into the Parrish world in many aspects, although that didn’t last too long.  The Parrish marriage of 12 years soon is threatened.   I also have to admit that once the 2nd half of the book is under way–from Daphne’s p.o.v.–that admiration quickly ended.

This novel received starred reviews from each of the most highly respected review sites in the industry, each comparing it favorably with “Gone Girl,” one of the mostly highly lauded novels of its kind in the last couple of years [and one I must admit I have never read, unlike, I suspect, most of the readers of this review, I humbly realize].  That said, “Mrs. Parrish” kept me turning the pages as quickly as I could until the very end.

Liv Constantine is the pen name of sisters Lynne Constantine and Valerie Constantine., a remarkable job, considering they live several states apart!  They have created a book that captivates the reader, and one I highly recommend.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2017.

Book Reviews: American Static by Tom Pitts and A Case of Vineyard Poison by Philip R. Craig

American Static
Tom Pitts
Down & Out Books, June 2017
ISBN: 978-1-943402-84-7
Trade Paperback

This novel is a long, detailed, twisting trail of a plot. Along the way two small-town cops, and readers, encounter many characters, nearly all of whom are consummate criminals in that vibrant, unusual city, Bagdad by the Bay, San Francisco. It follows the unwanted adventure of a rural California student, carrying weed from Humboldt County for friends to deliver to recipients in the city. Robbed and beaten at bus stop, Steven is collected and succored by one of the most relentlessly evil personalities one is ever likely to meet in a single story.

The student, Steven, left penniless and beaten in a small northern California town, is carrying a load of marijuana to people in San Francisco when he is set upon, viciously beaten and robbed. An interested bystander offers Steven a ride to` San Francisco with a stop or two along the way. There is a brief suggestion of connection between the young men who robbed and beat Steven, and Quinn, driving a stolen vehicle, who dispatches a prominent winery owner.

Two policemen from Calisto set out to find Quinn who has disappeared into San Francisco and begins a horrifying series of vendettas against the employees of a major crime figure in the city. His primary motive is to find the daughter of the crime figure, a strung-out teenager living on dope and the streets.

Somehow, Steven, now terrified of Quinn, connects with the girl, Teresa, and they flee together. The chase is on. Quinn after the teens, a corrupt cop chasing Quinn, followed by two Calisto cops and everybody under threat from the crime boss and his killer crew.

Complicated, slick maneuvering and sudden brutal murder is the hallmark of this well-designed novel. I lost count of the number of murders, shootings, knifings, beatings and car chase events. Suffice it to write, the novel is excellently conceived, full of abrupt violent action. I give it a strong recommendation of type.

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

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A Case of Vineyard Poison
A Martha’s Vineyard Mystery #6
Philip R. Craig
Avon, July 1996
ISBN: 978-0-380-72679-0
Mass Market Paperback

This novel is part of an extensive series of mysteries set on Martha’s Vineyard.

Vineyard wedding bells are about to chime for J.W. Jackson and Zee Madieras. Zee’s bank account is suddenly one hundred thousand unexplained dollars richer. The bank calls it a glitch, and two days later the money has disappeared. Coincidentally, the college student lying dead in J.W.’s driveway, done in by a dose of locally grown poisonous herbs, recently withdrew a hundred grand from her own account.

Ex-cop J. W. Jackson is intrigued. Intrigue deepens when he is suddenly attacked by a local paramedic. The path he follows introduces readers to a number of interesting characters on the island and a scheme to parlay computer expertise into a massive swindle.

This novel is not as violent nor as action filled as are earlier books in this series. There are several lengthy passages about the island and about fishing. However, the cerebral gymnastics around the solution to the murder are presented in an interesting way and the vividly descriptive passages touring Martha’s Vineyard and fishing, cooking and eating are interesting and judiciously blended with the murder mystery. Craig is a good writer and the dialogue is expertly used to further the plot and provide a pleasant experience for any reader.

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

Book Review: Monsterland by Michael Okon

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Book Reviews: Exo by Fonda Lee, R.I.P. Eliza Hart by Alyssa Sheinmel and The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron

Exo
Fonda Lee
Scholastic Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-93343-8
Hardcover

Peace Day may be quickly approaching, but a battle is about to go down while something more sinister, bigger, bubbles beneath. Tension between the Global Security & Pacification Forces (SecPac) and humans is palpable; the humans’ hatred, disgust and raw fury with the zhree is tangible, yet they plan to celebrate a century of coexistence.  Coexistence applies to the fifteen percent of mankind approved to exist among the zhree.  The remaining eighty-five percent faded into shadows of themselves or morphed into fierce, determined resistance fighters.

Having survived the Hardening process that transforms a zhree-approved human child into an exo, the only son of the Prime Liaison appears as a firmly committed SecPac soldier.  Donovan is confident and unquestioning in his fight against human rebels; until a raid goes wrong.  Held hostage where humans are the apex species, his perspective shifts.  It becomes impossible to see the individuals around him as the cohesive, carbon-copy-collection he has been fighting against.  What he fought for blurs out of focus.  Who he really is becomes crystal clear: not human enough for mankind, “nothing but human” to the zhree. Although it feels as if everything is different now, one thing is very much the same: the entire planet is in danger and Donovan is helpless as a hostage.

Exo is a brilliant example of Science-Fiction feeling oh-so-real.  Ms. Lee packs powerful punches in action scenes, soothes with sympathy in some situations, but bites with wit and humor in others.  Entertaining, empathy evoking, surprisingly relatable and utterly thought provoking, this is a book for everyone; not just Science-Fiction fans.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

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R.I.P Eliza Hart
Alyssa Sheinmel
Scholastic Press, December 2017
ISBN 978-0-338-08762-8
Hardcover

The appeal of the convenient, all-access “…narrow streets on the narrow island of Manhattan” is almost irrelevant for someone uncomfortable (at best) in enclosed spaces. Hopeful that her home state would help her open doors that claustrophobia kept firmly closed, Ellie accepts a scholarship to attend a tiny boarding school buffered by redwoods, opening wide above the Pacific Ocean.

Alone, Ellie explores the other dorms. A parental accompaniment would have been cool, but her issues have taken up too much of their time anyway. She will make friends here, none of these students know of her problems. Actually, she even sees a name she knows and suddenly, Ellie has something to look forward to: reconnecting with Eliza Hart.

Awkwardness should be the worse-case-scenario. Eliza may not have fond memories of her former childhood friend, she may not even remember Ellie at all. Appearing angry and almost personally offended that Ellie dare approach her, Eliza obviously loathes Ellie. In fact, she’s already told everyone on campus that Ellie is a vicious, pathological liar and students should simply steer clear.

Stunned, shattered, struggling with her sanity, Ellie has to know why. Even as Eliza’s body is recovered from the cliffside and speculations swirl around campus, Ellie cannot stop searching for answers. As she uncovers Eliza’s best kept secret, Ellie’s own repression is revealed, changing her perspective on absolutely everything.

R.I.P. Eliza Hart is an outstanding YA novel because, as narrators of their own stories, Eliza and Ellie explain actualities of mental illness in a way that everyone can understand and empathize with. Misconceptions, such as medicine plus therapy equal a cure, are corrected…without sounding like a somber after-school-special. And the awesome element of something decidedly different, redwood burl poachers.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2017.

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The Forgetting
Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-94521-9
Hardcover

Imagine awaking with no knowledge of who you are. You don’t know your name, or age.  None of your surroundings are familiar. The distraught children barricaded inside with you are strangers, but the look of terror covering each little face reflects how you feel. They, too, have Forgotten.

In the white-walled world of Canaan, you carry your life story with you in the most literal way: hand-written in a journal kept close (if not tethered) at all times.  Every moment lived will be written down accurately and truthfully.  When one journal is filled, it is maintained in the Archives. Histories—both individual and collective—are compiled and preserved here; a necessity based on an inexplicable, yet infallible, occurrence that robs the residents of their memories every twelve years.

Every rule has an exception and here, it is Nadia.  Having been a child during her first Forgetting, she still realized how different she was.  She did not Forget.  Admirably altruistic, cunning and courageous, this character could carry the story.  A grudging acceptance to partner with Gray, the Glassblower’s Son, subtly shows her softer side and adds a bit more urgency and suspense to an already captivating caper.

The real scoop is revealed like ripples in a pond. The grab-your-attention-splash of the impending Forgetting expands into a more complex mystery.  Perhaps it is the limited memory, or maybe life without modern conveniences keeps people too busy to ponder, but; no one seems to question the wall around the city.  Again, except for Nadia.  She’s been over the wall and noted differences.  In her city, stone is jagged—as if freshly broken or cut.  The other side of wall has stone that has been worn smooth.  She wonders, “…does the wall protect us, or keep us in?”

Already intrigued by the idea of a periodic, mass-memory-erase, I became completely captivated considering circumstances that could have resulted in the walled city.  My wildest imagination is not even comparable to Ms. Cameron’s creative genius; I was astounded.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2017.