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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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.

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Book Review: Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley

Down the River Unto the Sea
Walter Mosley
Mulholland Books, February 2018
ISBN: 978-0-316-50964-0
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he was framed for assault by his enemies within the force, a charge that landed him at Rikers.  A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter.  Broken by the brutality he suffered and committed in equal measure behind bars, King leads a solitary life, his work and his daughter the only lights.   When King receives a letter from a woman who admits she was paid to frame him years ago, he decides to take his own case: finding out who on the force wanted him disposed of – – and why.  As King embarks on his quest for the justice he was denied, he agrees to help a radical black journalist accused of killing two on-duty officers who had been abusing their badges to traffic in drugs and prostitutes in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.  The two cases intertwine across the years, exposing a pattern of corruption and brutality wielded against the black men, women and children whose lives the law destroyed. To solve them, King must outrun dirty cops, outsmart craven lawyers, and above all protect his daughter from the underworld in which he works.  All the while, two lives hang in the balance: King’s client’s and his own.

 

Our protagonist’s memories of his early/earlier years are mostly painful:  “the apartment building where I lived with my mother, brother, and sister after our father was sentenced and before I was old enough to run away.”  More recently, the memories are of his days incarcerated in Rikers:  “I’d been at Rikers for only thirtynine hours and already four convicts had attacked me. There was a white adhesive bandage holding together the open flesh on my right cheek.” He thinks:  “Just a few days and I’d switched allegiances from cop to criminal.  I thought that was the worst thing . . . but I was wrong . . . It’s a terrible fall when you find yourself grateful to be put in segregation.”  When he is, unexpectedly, released after about 3 months, he is allowed to shower and shave and “I saw my face for the first time in months in the polished steel mirror next to the small shower where I cleaned up.  Shaving revealed the vicious gaping scar down the right of my face.  They didn’t always offer stitches at Rikers.”

That experience colors everything that follows in this fascinating and, at times, horrifying novel from Walter Mosley, whose writing is always riveting.  At this point in his life, the brightest and most beloved thing in Joe’s life is his 17-year-old daughter, Aja-Denise, who is equally devoted to him.  Her mother, now Joe’s ex-wife, has remarried, but Joe is closer to Aja than ever; she helps him run his detective agency, where he is determined to find out who framed him.  His daughter’s latest endeavor is to attend “a special school in this Bronx church where good science students teach at-risk kids how scientists do experiments.”  Obviously, Joe couldn’t be more proud of her.

The author’s descriptions of his supporting players are always wonderful and fully descriptive, including Joe’s elderly grandmother and her boyfriend of the day, a man worth eight hundred seventy-nine billion dollars, described as a gun enthusiast and a pacifist too.  His investigation brings him to a meeting with a man who “weighed well north of four hundred pounds.  He could have willed his face to be sewn into a basketball after he died; it was that large and round,” and describes himself as “a man who didn’t even trust his own clients, a man who had experienced betrayal on almost every level.”  When his “visage was still too cop-like,” he undertakes some small superficial changes till “the transformation was now complete.  Rather than a Cro-Magnon cop I was a Neanderthal nerd.”  I will leave it to the reader to discover all the other joys of Mr. Mosley’s writing for him/herself.  The book is everything one has learned to expect from this author, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2018.

Book Review: A Welcome Murder by Robin Yocum

A Welcome Murder
Robin Yocum
Seventh Street Books, April 2017
ISBN: 978-1-63388-263-8
Trade Paperback

Steubenville, Ohio, residents come front and center in this engaging if somewhat rambling novel of drug dealing, infidelity, teen-aged pranks, civic wrong-doing and, of course, murder. Hence the title. While the title refers to a single death, several other characters would be cheerfully done away with by many readers.

That doesn’t take anything away from the delightful atmosphere created by the author with fine, accurate writing and an insouciance rarely found in crime fiction. Johnny Earl is a BMIT, a big man in town with a spectacular athletic career in high school and serious prospects for a pro career in baseball. A knee injury wipes that out and Earl returns to Steubenville where he fashions a new career selling cocaine and other illegal drugs.

Busted, he serves seven years. Now released, Earl returns to his home town intent on retrieving a large stash of cash he secreted in a bolt hole in case he had to leave town quickly, a plan interrupted by Earl’s arrest and imprisonment.

Several of his school classmates, a wandering wife or two and various law enforcement agencies tangle over his maneuverings and then, the man who nailed Earl is murdered. He is a most hated man and there are several suspects from the Sheriff, a classmate of Johnny, to the sheriff’s wife, Earl‘s lover, and two convicts Earl encountered while in prison.

Those two are neo-Nazis, planning to create a separate white male-dominated nation within the boundaries of the United States. They are after Johnny’s cash stash.

Eventually things get sorted, the FBI agents are sent packing, as are the nasty neo-Nazis, the killer is revealed, and….well, does Johnny get his cash? Read the book. I recommend it.

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: Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall by Hannah Dennison and Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck

Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall
A Honeychurch Hall Mystery #4
Hannah Dennison
Minotaur Books, May 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-06549-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When the only copy of Ravished, Iris Stanford’s new manuscript, never arrives at her London publisher’s office, her daughter Kat investigates the tiny local village post office, where it appears the package never left the building. Iris is on tenterhooks―not only is her novel gone with the wind, but she’s deathly afraid that Muriel Jarvis, the postmistress and notorious busybody, will expose her secret identity as the bestselling romance writer Krystalle Storm. Meanwhile, Muriel has her own problems with the sudden death of her husband Fred, which has left her heavily in debt. In the spine-tingling climax, both past and present collide as Kat fights for her life and those she holds most dear, dancing once again with the dark forces lurking behind the grandeur of Honeychurch Hall.

I think I’ve found my new one-of-my-favorites British cozy/traditional series (although I’m apparently the last in my local book club circle of cozy readers to get around to trying it). I’m not bothered by reading out of order and, while I expect my purist friends would disagree with me, I really think this is a good starter. The author does a nice job of dropping in those little tidbits you need to understand prior activities and her characterizations of the people are as full as I could ask them to be. These people are just downright funny and a little bit crazy.

However, murder has been done and somebody has to pay attention. Since Kat is one of the very few levelheaded folks around, the task naturally falls to her. There’s a local copper (named Cropper), of course, but he’s overrun by Lord Rupert as well as Kat and her mum, Iris, when it comes to looking into the death of the centuries-old skeleton found in a sewer line trench. It’s all curiously coincidental considering the upcoming English Civil War re-enactment and, before long, Kat finds herself in the midst of a plethora of mysteries including Iris’ missing manuscript, a suspiciously behaving man in possession (momentarily) of a vastly expensive doll, a prison escapee, and, oh, another body.

There’s a good deal of silliness here—how can there not be with such wacky villagers—but I truly loved this book. Kat’s a great sleuth, although there are no easy denouements, and she has mastered the art of dealing with all these people. I can just imagine driving through the countryside and coming across this lovely little place. What fun!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2017.

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Bad Boy Boogie
A Jay Desmarteaux Crime Thriller
Thomas Pluck
Down & Out Books, March 2017
ISBN 978-1-943402-59-5
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

When Jay Desmarteaux steps out of from prison after serving twenty-five years for murdering a vicious school bully, he tries to follow his convict mentor’s advice: the best revenge is living well.

But questions gnaw at his gut: Where have his folks disappeared to? Why do old friends want him gone? And who wants him dead?

Teaming with his high school sweetheart turned legal Valkyrie, a hulking body shop bodybuilder, and a razor-wielding gentleman’s club house mother, Jay will unravel a tangle of deception all the way back to the bayous where he was born. With an iron-fisted police chief on his tail and a ruthless mob captain at his throat, he’ll need his wits, his fists, and his father’s trusty Vietnam war hatchet to hack his way through a toxic jungle of New Jersey corruption that makes the gator-filled swamps of home feel like the shallow end of the kiddie pool.

This is one of those times when you can’t help sympathizing with the bad guy; after all, he’s served his time so why is he now facing these unexpected troubles? And since law enforcement isn’t interested in helping him find answers, how is he going to? Clearly, he’ll have to form what current slang would call a posse and what a group of misfits these are!

To understand Jay, we’re taken back to his unhappy childhood that, even so, had times of normalcy—young love and friendships as well as conflicts with bullies—and we learn what caused the teenaged Jay to commit the ultimate act of violence. Perhaps the “friends” that didn’t support him then are the ones that want him out of town now, except for the mayor who has his own reasons. A bright point, maybe, is the connection he makes with high school sweetheart Ramona but Jay is driven by a need to settle things in New Jersey before he heads to Louisiana, the place he really wants to be.

Jay is a complex man and the author truly brings him to life, this ex-con with a hard outer shell that’s slightly penetrated by the life he finds on the outside after 25 years on the inside. There’s a considerable amount of graphic violence, including sexual, here but it’s understandable although this man’s sense of justice is often very different from yours and mine. This is a book that could have resided in the old black & white, hardboiled days just as well as today and I suspect I’ll remember Jay and his story for a long, long time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2017.

Book Review: Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Cafe by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

Second Helpings at the Serve You Right CafeSecond Helpings at the Serve You Right Cafe
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs
Linden Tree Press, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-9898601-6-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

What if the world didn’t want you to go straight? Out on parole after almost ten years in prison, Emet First is repairing his shattered life. He has friends, a job, and his first date in a decade. The young woman, Mercedes Finch, is lovely but wounded. When her deranged brother learns about Emet’s past, he will stop at nothing to destroy him–and suddenly Emet has everything to lose.

It’s impossible to say what I love most about this book—the characters, the book cover, the setting, the story, the author’s writing—so I’ll say this: Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Cafe is a charming, delightful tale of what I call comfort fiction and the author gave me a few short hours of escape at a time when I really need it. The title is pretty close to perfect also as it alludes to the second chances people sometimes need and there are several characters in this story that do indeed get those second chances. What they do with them is another facet of the tale.

I occasionally have a coffee date with a friend (one of my volunteer reviewers, actually) and I SO wish this cafe was real and existed right here in our town. It’s a wonderful spot for all sorts of people and Eden Rose is the kind of proprietor who can make even a curmudgeon feel welcome. Her willingness to hire an ex-con fits right in with her personality and yet she shouldn’t be mistaken for a patsy. This is a woman who cares about people and takes steps to make their lives better. A case in point is a couple who act as her taste testers, a small part of the story that’s quite endearing.

It’s largely because of Eden Rose’s support of Emet, as well as his own sense of honesty and humility, that gives him the nerve to ask Mercey out on a date and what happens after he tells her the truth about himself is all about whether or not they can make things work. Cheering them on from the sidelines, I thoroughly enjoyed going along for the ride. Thank you, Ms. Jacobs 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

Book Review: L.A. Rotten by Jeff Klima

L.A. RottenL.A. Rotten
A Tom Tanner Mystery #1
Jeff Klima
Alibi, May 2015
ISBN 9781101882733
Ebook

From the publisher—

As an expert crime-scene cleaner, Tom Tanner charges big money to carve out bullets, mop up fluids, disinfect walls, and dispose of whatever’s left of whomever was unlucky enough to require his services. For a handsome young ex-con determined to stay out of trouble, it’s practically a dream job—until he discovers a grisly pattern to his work: a string of gruesome murders at a cheap motel chain, always in Room 236.
 
While prying into a serial killer’s nasty scheme, Tom finds himself with a sharp-witted strip-bar waitress plastered to his side—and his conscience. Even more surprising, the killer starts prying into his life, luring Tom into a twisted friendship. As Tom struggles against his adversary’s wicked whims, risking the lives of the few people he holds dear, bodies pile up everywhere he turns. With a psychopath calling the shots, Tom has little choice but to clean house once and for all.

I’m usually very good at picking books I’m going to like but, every once in a long while, I blunder and I surely did with L.A. Rotten. Does that mean I think this is a bad book? Absolutely not, just that it’s not the right book for me.

I did check it out first as much as I could before signing on for the blog tour and didn’t see anything to put me off. Once I started reading, the first few paragraphs were pretty gruesome but not beyond what I expected—this is, after all, about a guy who cleans up crime scenes and, by the nature of the beast, such a job is frequently going to be gory and messy. The more I read, though, the more I realized the publisher’s description that accompanies the book is just not clear enough for a potential reader to make a choice. Yes, I expect violence in a story involving a serial killer and I expect gritty language in a mystery labeled by other readers as “hard-boiled”. I did not expect to actively dislike the protagonist or to be confronted with very graphic, explicit sex, both action and language, on top of increasingly gory crime scenes. It was all just a bit too much for me.

My feelings about the protagonist did ease up by the time I finished the book but he’s still not one of my favorite guys, by any means. He feels inordinately sorry for himself and his circumstances but he’s entirely responsible. Rather than do whatever he can to improve his lot, he chooses to indulge in activities to make him forget his life and why, for heaven’s sake, does he think all cops are out to get him? Surely, the LAPD has better things to do than harass an ex-con who did his time for a drunk driving death.

There is one character I liked quite a bit, Ivy. I can’t really say why but she appealed to me in a number of ways and she was a big reason I didn’t DNF the book.

I also found the storyline compelling. It makes sense to me that a crime scene cleaner could be the first to see a pattern and I didn’t find it odd that Tom would feel a need to look into his suspicions. In fact, Tom is much more credible as a sleuth than many other amateurs. (Amateur might not be exactly the right word since an ex-con certainly has more practical crime-solving knowledge than many other non-professionals.)

I should mention also that the actual construction of the book—grammar, formatting, etc.—is quite good. Having read a number of books by this publisher, I was not surprised at all that this one was so nicely edited.

Bottomline, for the right reader, this is a good entry in the hard-boiled crime fiction field and the author certainly has the background to make his storytelling as credible as you can hope. I think many will enjoy L.A. Rotten.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2015.

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About the Author

Jeff KlimaJeff Klima is the author of The Dead Janitors Club and L.A. Rotten and is the cofounder of Orange County Crime Scene Cleanup.

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Book Reviews: Doubleback by Libby Fischer Hellmann and Steeled for Murder by KM Rockwood

DoublebackDoubleback  
Libby Fischer Hellmann
Bleak House, October 2009
ISBN: 978-1-60648-052-6
Hardcover

Dynamite. It is not unusual for an author of crime fiction who has them, to bring together two or more protagonists from different series. It is less usual for the blend to be this successful, particularly when the two women involved are as different as are private investigator Georgia Davis, late of a North Shore (Illinois) suburban police department, and commercial television producer, Ellie Foreman. One is single, the other divorced with a teen-aged daughter.

Davis is a classical tough female investigator, although she lacks enough experience to avoid some fairly obvious traps the author throws at her. Foreman, on the other hand, the more cautious but more experienced mystery solver, is a good stay-at-home worrier. The point being the two women play well off each other. One of the interesting twists is the way the two become involved in this nasty thing.

Foreman drags a reluctant Davis into an investigation of the kidnapping of a child, little Molly Messenger. Davis knows the police have far better resources to handle this, but Foreman is persistent. Later, as the tension winds up and the question of why Molly suddenly reappears, her mother, an IT manager at a big local bank, has a questionable accident, and then her boss has a similar mishap. Suspicions rise and very quickly, PI Davis take the bit in her teeth, in a manner of speaking. The tables are turned and Foreman is unable to restrain her new friend from haring off on what is clearly becoming a dangerous case of the highest order.

Born of current mid-east activity, the novel carefully blends first and third points of view in a way that enhances the action and the mystery. This is a fine example of a novelist who stretches her talent and her vision to create a fast-paced, enthralling work of fiction. I for one hope we see more of these two competent women working together.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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Steeled for MurderSteeled for Murder
A Jesse Damon Crime Novel
KM Rockwood
Terpsichore/Musa Publishing, April 2012
ISBN 978-1-61937-859-9
Trade Paperback

Life is tough when you’ve been in prison for a murder you didn’t commit. At the time it seemed the best deal to make and now that you’re out, what do you do? This is the story of one such man and his struggle to get his life together after incarceration. Of course, there are countless obstacles, and everywhere he turns, there’s the potential of returning to prison.

Just trying to make his life the best he can after being in prison for close to twenty years, Jesse Damon has found a good job at a steel fabrication plant. Unfortunately, he runs afoul of a murder and the cops eye him as the number one suspect. When the detectives in charge of the investigation just won’t seem to let him be, Damon decides he needs to find the real killer. In the process he becomes involved with the dead man’s wife and kids, a co-worker and her children, and various suspicious individuals, some of whom seem to think Damon might want to continue in whatever shady deal the murdered man had going.

I enjoyed the atmosphere, subdued, veiled, which fit the winter season. It showed reality, that life is not rosy for the ex-con. But Damon’s character is essentially good despite his conviction. There’s hope and promise in this story. The murder mystery almost takes a back seat to the character development but knowing Damon was innocent, kept me reading to find out the truth. Good, tight writing by a knowledgeable author. If more Damon mysteries are on the way, then the series has the potential to be a winner.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, September 2013.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.