Book Review: A Portrait to Die For by Radine Trees Nehring

A Portrait to Die ForA Portrait to Die For
Radine Trees Nehring
Dark Oak Mysteries, January 2016
ISBN 978-1-61009-222-7
Trade Paperback

Carrie McCrite and her husband Henry King have had several adventures that have brought them both close to danger and now Henry has put his foot down.   He is insisting that Carrie stop getting the couple involved in criminal activities.  Carrie has a habit of noticing things that others might overlook and so she has managed to get the couple in some tight spots.   Carrie has promised that she will abide by Henry’s wishes.

That promise lasted just about as long as it took Carrie to get to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art where she was volunteering.  First she ran into a woman who was trying to get away from a man and she asked Carrie to say she had gone the other way.

As Carrie wandered around the museum viewing some of the new items she stopped to study “Twins With Daisies” by Marie Forneau. This was part of the items on loan from Port View Historical Society’s collection.  Carrie immediately noticed what she took to be a discrepancy in the picture but decided to keep it to herself.  Valerie Knight, the museum’s director of communications requested that Carrie speak with Maylynn Brewer, a reporter, who was interested in Carrie’s observations as a volunteer.

The two didn’t hit it off right away but that changed when Maylynn suddenly disappeared.  It turned out that Carrie’s son Rob was an old friend of Maylynn’s. In addition, Catherine who is engaged to Rob was also acquainted with Maylynn.   Rob also informed Carrie and Henry that Maylynn had a twin brother who had some problems that arose from his duty in the service overseas.  In spite of all the promises not to get involved, Carrie and Henry are trying to find out what has happened to Maylynn and how it might be connected to “Twins With Daisies” since Maylynn had also mentioned noticing a discrepancy in the picture.  Rob and Catherine decide to join in the hunt for Maylynn and soon they are all four in more trouble than they ever thought of.

I enjoyed this book and looking forward to more from this author.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, September 2016.

Book Reviews: A Ton of Gold by James R. Callan and Defy by Sara B. Larson

A Ton of GoldA Ton of Gold
James R. Callan
Dark Oak Mysteries, January 2013
ISBN 978-1-61009-118-3
Trade Paperback

James Callan’s book, A Ton of Gold, is a fast-paced adventure story set in Texas between Dallas and a small rural community where people know their next door neighbor’s name and folk tales run rampant. How much of a folk tale is true and how much is fantasy? Some people don’t know the difference. When the tale of a wagon load of gold lost in a rural lake falls on the ears of dangerous men, their desperate measures to find the gold include intimidation, murder, kidnapping and firebombs.

Crystal Moore, a young computer programmer, is caught up in the actions of men who believe the tale and will stop at nothing to find the gold. Her life is turned upside down when her beloved Nana’s estate is attacked and Nana goes missing. With the help of Crystal’s handsome boss and loyal co-workers, they set out to find the men responsible and discover the truth of the tale.

Overcoming her own insecurities, Crystal must face challenging encounters with the killers. Encouraged by her courageous ability to deal with the killers, she gains the personal strength to stand up and defend her intellectual accomplishments in the workplace.

Discovering the truth behind the folk tale is the major plot of the story, but I found the subplot of how Crystal deals with a bitter and crushing defeat in her personal life the most interesting part of the novel.

James Callan’s novel, A Ton of Gold, is well-written, has a compelling storyline and believable characters. Highly recommended reading for adventure readers.

Reviewed by Elaine Faber, January 2014.
Review originally posted on Amazon.

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DefyDefy
Sara B. Larson
Scholastic Press, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-59758-6
Hardcover

I very much wanted to like Defy, a Young Adult fantasy debut from author Sara B. Larson. The premise recalls some of my favorite books, from modern classics like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna to recent bestsellers in the vein of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. Orphaned in the brutal war that is consuming her country, teenager Alexa Hollen is forced to disguise herself as a boy. “Alex” turns out to be an exceptional swordfighter, and rises to a place on the palace guard. Tasked with protecting the arrogant Prince Damian from a conspiracy of powerful sorcerers, Alex is drawn into a dangerous plot that just might save the kingdom.

Unfortunately, Defy didn’t work for me. The chief problem is the conception of the protagonist and the conflicts that she faces. Alex may be intended as a “strong female character,” in the sense that she is a skilled fighter who learns to be even better over the course of the book. However, physical prowess isn’t enough to make a main character effective when she is never in the position to make any important choices or to drive the direction of the story in any meaningful way.

Throughout Defy, Alex reacts to choices made by others. Most of the suspense in the novel comes about because other characters refuse to tell the protagonist what is really going on. Alex repeatedly comments within the narration that no one will answer her questions, and as a reader I understood how she felt.

Usually when an author plays this kind of game, I assume they are covering for the fact that the answer to the mystery isn’t very interesting. However, in this case, it turns out there’s a lot of compelling stuff going on behind the scenes. This makes the choice to withhold the truth from Alex (and the reader) for most of the book puzzling. There’s a good story hiding in Defy. First-time novelist Larson may just not have found the best way to share it, yet.

As it is, the only thing Alex has to focus on for most of the book is whether she loves Prince Damian (the guy who keeps lying to her) or her comrade-in-arms Rylan (the guy whose seduction strategy consists of whining because she isn’t his girlfriend already). There’s nothing wrong with having romance in a fantasy novel, but it’s a good idea to give some sense of what the characters see in each other. In this case, Alex seems to like both boys solely because they’re physically attractive. That’s better than the guys, who instantly fall for Alex as soon as they find out she is biologically female. I’m not being facetious. “I realized you were a girl” is literally the only reason that either of them gives for liking her.

It is possible that Alex may actually be the only girl that Rylan and Damian know, and this leads to a note about some extremely disturbing content in the book. (Consider this a warning for discussion of sexual assault). You see, Alex’s main motivation for joining the guard is not that she wants to be a soldier, but that girls are routinely sent to “breeding houses” where they will be systematically raped. This is bluntly stated several times in the book, and while there aren’t any graphic scenes, several very young girls are depicted being prepared for sexual slavery.

I’m not here to police what makes appropriate reading material for Young Adults. Still, Defy‘s use of systematic rape as a plot device strikes a particularly sour note in light of the types of content that are missing from the book. Alex laments that she can’t be with the prince because he couldn’t marry her. It never crosses this teenage girl’s mind that sex might occur outside of marriage. Likewise we are repeatedly told that Alex’s male suitors didn’t start liking her until they knew she was a girl. Despite the gender-bending premise, nary a hint of homosexual attraction is presented as a possibility.

I’m not saying that this novel needs to contain gay romance or premarital sex, but it seems a little ludicrous that neither idea ever occurs to Alex, even in passing. I don’t know if the author, editor, or publisher makes these decisions, but the idea of rape being more acceptable content for a teen audience than consensual sex is a value judgment that ought to be reconsidered.

The writing in Defy does show some promise: Alex’s voice is strong, and the basic plot is well-constructed in a way that kept me turning pages. Furthermore, there is a lot of possibility in the world that Larson has created, which makes me interested in what kind of stories she will be able to tell in the future. Overall, though, Defy doesn’t live up to its potential, and I can’t recommend it.

Reviewed by Caroline Pruett, January 2014.

Book Review: Scrafitto by Steve Scarborough

Scrafitto
Steve Scarborough
Dark Oak Mysteries, July 2011
ISBN 9781610090216
Trade Paperback

Welcome to sunny, idyllic Quepos, Costa Rica! The beach is full of tanned bodies, the Pacific Ocean beckons, the mountain scenery includes an active volcano. Just beware of scorpions, caiman, and…murder. In his debut mystery, Scarborough brings blood and violence to paradise. The burden to find the killer falls upon one man who just wants to leave his past behind, but when have you ever seen THAT happen?

Ex-homicide investigator Mitch Sharp is happy doing landscape and tourism photography. He has a few friends and a new love interest. But when someone starts attacking women, slashing bodies and spattering blood, Mitch is slowly drawn in to investigate. His obstacles: a lackadaisical police chief, a gung-ho hotel contractor worried about tourism, his own struggle with anger management, and, most important, no leads. Aided by a group of artist friends, Mitch starts gathering evidence. The attacks escalate to murder and his friends are, one one one, falling victim. Mitch must rely on his skills as a photographer and a former investigator to find the killer.

When an author knows the subject matter, in this particular story, photography/art, the book is that much more interesting. This has a little bit of everything. A foreign locale, scenery, a little romance, unique characters, plus, the all important murder mystery. The descriptions spark the imagination and the action brings you to the brink of tension. Scraffito is a fine first effort by a an author worth keeping your eye on.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, March 2012.
Author of Night Shadows and Beta.

Book Review: A Case of Hometown Blues by W.S. Gager

A Case of Hometown Blues
W.S. Gager
Dark Oak Mysteries, July 2011
ISBN 9781610090179
Trade Paperback

They say you can’t go home again. For an ace reporter, maybe it’s a case of you shouldn’t go home. Gager’s latest book about Pulitzer Prize nominee Mitch Malone is chock full of small town scandals, lies, secrets, and of course, murder.

Malone has been hired by his hometown paper to conduct a series of seminars to improve the local reporters. He is reluctant to return to Flatville because of memories of tragic events. The day after he arrives, his dream girl from high school is found murdered and the police chief, a former bully, arrests him for the crime. With a little maneuvering from a friendly attorney, Mitch is released and along with the newspaper’s publisher’s daughter, he starts tracking down his owns suspects and leads. However, by doing so, he peels the lid off of secrets spanning back to his youth, including facts about his parents and their deaths, and the tragic end of a childhood friend.

This is a quick read with short chapters. A very well written story with no profanity, quick action, a little emotion, a bit of dry humor, and a collection of characters with energetic personalities. Fans of the series should enjoy this third installment and will look forward to book four.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, November 2011.

Book Reviews: Messages by Weyman Jones, Angel Lost by F. M. Meredith and Hell To Pay by Wendy Corsi Staub

Messages
Weyman Jones
Five Star Publishing, 2010
ISBN No. 978-1-59414-879-8
Hardcover

Mike Lyons cannot believe that his mother is guilty of murder but a jury says she killed her lover, Alex Reed.  He is so convinced that he decides that he will prove her innocence.  Mike’s mother owned a company called Power Meetings.   Alex worked for the company and traveled giving inspirational speeches to various groups.

Mike contacts his father who he has not communicated with for several years.   His conversations with his father reveal a side of his mother that comes as a surprise to Mike.  Mike knew that his mother had contacted his father when she arrived at her home and discovered the body of Alex Reed.   His father told her to call the police immediately but she didn’t do that and now she has been convicted of murder.

An animal rights group had threatened Mike’s mother and Mike feels sure that this group had something to do with the murder of Alex Reed.  Mike makes a decision to travel to the Caribbean resort, the last place Alex Reed was seen alive.

Messages has a number of strong characters and a lot of excitement.  The story is somewhat confusing at times but all becomes clear in the exciting conclusion.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, October 2011.

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Angel Lost
F. M. Meredith
Dark Oak Mysteries, February 2011
ISBN No. 978-1610090056
Trade Paperback

The small town of Rocky Bluff in Ventura County is abuzz with excitement.  An angel is sighted in the window of a downtown store.  Residents gather to view the angel and give their opinion as to the reason the angel has appeared.  Most agree that it is a miracle but no one knows how the angel happened to appear.

There’s also a lot of excitement regarding the forthcoming marriage of Officer Stacey Wilbur and Detective Doug Milligan of the Rocky Bluff Police Department.  The wedding has been planned down to the smallest detail with Stacey’s family and friends all pitching in to make Stacey’s wedding a day to remember.

Abel Navarro, Stacey and Doug’s fellow worker, has a lot on his mind.  Abel’s mother is beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s.  The new addition to the Rocky Bluff Police Department, Vaughn Aragon, a transfer from Los Angeles, is having  second thoughts about requesting the transfer to Rocky Bluff.  Vaughn is haunted by a shooting that happened in Los Angeles but is not comfortable enough to share his experience with his fellow officers.

However, there is more going on than the angel miracle and the personal happenings of the officers in the close knit community.  The department has received several complaints about an early morning jogger who is flashing women on the beach.  When Stacy takes on the job of attempting to catch the jogger, she runs into more trouble than she ever expected.

This is the seventh book in the Rocky Bluff series.  The book can be read as a stand-alone.  Many of the characters have been highlighted in previous books in the series and readers will be glad to see their return.  Although a lot of the book dwells on happy events, there is plenty of crime going on in Rocky Bluff to keep the readers glued to the book.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, March 2011.

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Hell To Pay
Wendy Corsi Staub
Avon Books, September 2011
ISBN No. 978-0061895081
Mass Market Paperback

Jeremy Cavalon and Lucy Walsh Cavalon are happily married and expecting their first baby.  This should be a happy time for the couple whose past has brought much happiness to both the Cavalon and the Walsh families.  Someone from the couple’s past has plans for the new baby.  Jeremy and Lucy would be horrified if they had any hint of what was in store in the weeks ahead.

Jeremy’s grandmother, Sylvie Durand, recently passed away.  Sylvie’s body was discovered in the bathtub in her lavish apartment at The Ansonia in New York City.  It appeared that Sylvie just passed away while bathing.  There were no clues to lead anyone to believe that her death was actually a murder.

Jeremy and Lucy received an eviction notice and suddenly had to find a new place to live.  The eviction notice was unexpected and Christmas was just around the corner.   The couple decided to move into Sylvie’s vacant apartment.  There was no way of the couple knowing that the eviction had been carefully planned by someone who needed the couple in Sylvie’s apartment  and cameras had been set up in Sylvie’s apartment so that every move the couple made could be documented.

The person from the couple’s past is believed to be dead but that is far from the truth.   Not only is their stalker alive but also a mental case that feels God is giving directions and the stalker is merely doing God’s will.

This book is terrifying and the suspense builds to a dramatic climax.  The Walsh and Cavalon families were first introduced in Live To Tell.  Their story continued in Scared to Death.  If you haven’t read the first two books, the author gives enough background that Hell To Pay is an enjoyable read.  I’ve read all three books and can recommend the series as an exciting one with many surprises.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, October 2011.