Book Review: The Quiet Child by John Burley

The Quiet Child
John Burley
William Morrow Paperbacks, August 2017
ISBN: 978-0-06-243185-1
Trade Paperback

This is not a novel for the faint of heart. Dark, moving, at times excruciating, the pain author Burley evokes from his characters is a palpable presence through the entire novel. One wonders how many readers have ever been faced with the community disdain and rejection based, not on race, but on more common attributes. And a reader wonders what the response might have been.

In Cottonwood, California, multiple unexpected deaths are occurring. The family of Michael and Kate McCray are beginning to feel isolation as it grows, the odd looks, the loss of friendly interactions, the murmurs behind their backs. McCray is a valued teacher at the local high school. He and Kate have two sons, Danny and Sean. Danny, the youngest, is the focus of the growing community concern. He doesn’t speak. At all.

Kate is becoming ill and the doctors are worried but non-committal. The novel moves smoothly back and forth in time which can at times confuse a reader, but the technique works extremely well to heighten the tension and overall feeling of dread.

One evening, Michael drives the boys to a nearby convenience store and with a startling suddenness the tension rises. The boys are kidnapped. The rest of the story concerns the police attempts to find the boys and rescue them, Kate’s accelerating deterioration, and the rising suspicions from the community.

Ultimately, of course, there are resolutions, nearly all of which are unforeseen and startling in their placement and evolution. Enthralling, mesmerizing and surprising, a dark, moving thought-provoking experience.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, April 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Book Review: The Date to Save by Stephanie Kate Strohm

The Date to Save
Stephanie Kate Strohm
Point, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-14906-7
Hardcover

This succinct story is an oral documentary, delivered in written format.  Quite appealing to this avid reader, it seemed to create the quick, concise medium to appropriately accompany the pace of the plot.  In a kind-of-counterintuitive way, I feel like this is a fantastic format for the wary reader, too.  Essentially composed of conversations, with few notes added; extraneous minutiae is eliminated.  Fewer words means better choices.  Each sentence is carefully crafted and I definitely dig the dialogue.

Students at San Anselmo Prep are stars among California high school scholars, with none so bright as Angelica’s older brother.  Hutch, however; has graduated.  This may very well be Angelica’s time to shine.  Things are already looking up.

The school newspaper’s churlish chief-of-staff has rejected every idea Angelica has submitted.  And yet, she persisted.  Admittedly underwhelmed with the assignment to cover the upcoming Academic Battle, Angelica’s optimism easily overrode the terrible topic to embrace the opportunity.

As any decent investigative reporter knows, one thing leads to another.  The initial inquiry into the Academic Battle shows a more serious scenario.  A school scheduling snafu that cannot have been coincidence is sure to be catastrophic.  Compelled to solve the problem and identify the perpetrator; Angelica nevertheless agrees to help the school mascot when he approaches her with a different mystery, affecting the same date.

Countering the wholly consumed Angelica is Becca.  The determinedly grumpy, blue-haired-bestie is everyone’s fantasy friend.  This fierce non-conformist is a loyal companion bringing balance with her humor and unique outlook.

I found The Date to Save to be a pleasant read with one paragraph in particular that I dearly love, wherein Ms. Strohm articulates a reader’s feelings about books in a way that I want to capture for a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2017.

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: 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.

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.