Book Reviews: Can’t Look Away by Donna Cooner, Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo, and The Bones Beneath by Mark Billingham

Can't Look AwayCan’t Look Away
Donna Cooner
Point, August 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-42765-4
Hardcover

From an outside perspective, Torrey Grey is your typical 16 year old in today’s age. She thrives to be popular, focuses her time on fashion and makeup, and social media are her go-to’s. But when her sister is killed by a drunk driver while filming her latest video blog – and the worlds finds out – she discovers celebrity status on the internet can make you or break you.

When I first started reading Donna Cooner‘s book, I was apprehensive about reading a modern day take on a teenager’s life. But as I continued, there are so many themes that Cooner covers. Sisterhood is a main theme, as Torrey is trying to hold on to the memories of her sister, Miranda. By combining in the celebration of the Spanish holiday el Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Cooner shows that grief and acceptance of the loss of a close family member as Torrey’s family try to pick up the pieces of their life after moving from Colorado to Texas. One of Cooner‘s bigger themes is the presence of bullying and cyberbullying, from students making fun and commenting on a student who may be seen as different to the norm of society, to strangers blaming Torrey for the death of her sister when a video leaks of the moments before the accident. Torrey deals with all of these themes as she struggles to decide if popularity and being seen with the right cliques are really the most important things in her life anymore.

While some of the characters seem “too-good-to-be-true,” Cooner manages to keep her main themes alive throughout the novel and presents a solid take on a teenager living in today’s world. I enjoyed the book more than I expected to, and was glad to see somebody take on these heavy themes and relate them to issues many teenagers may be going through today.

 

Reviewed by Kristina Akers, September 2014.

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Phantom LimbPhantom Limb  
A Daniel Rinaldi Mystery
Dennis Palumbo
Poisoned Pen Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-4642-0254-4
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

Author Dennis Palumbo is an experienced writer of screen plays, short stories and crime novels. It shows in this episodic story that features his protagonist, Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, a licensed psychologist and consultant to the Pittsburgh, PA police department. This fourth adventure pits the good doctor against a macho cabal of former military who formed up in Afghanistan and took many of their less savory skills into the criminal culture of Western Pennsylvania.

Dr. Rinaldi has an initial session with the younger wife of a local extremely prominent businessman. She professes a need and a decision to commit suicide that very evening. Dr. Rinaldi, in attempting to dissuade the woman, is drawn instantly into a convoluted interesting plot to extract millions of dollars from her wealthy husband. Inevitably, Rinaldi is required to deliver the ransom and things go seriously awry.

There are some stalwart continuing characters who return from earlier books in this novel. There are some predictable scenes. Overall the novel is very well written and there are several scenes of excruciating high tension and exciting action. There are clever lines and some well-thought-out twists, and, unfortunately for this reviewer, just a little too much predictability in the structure of the plot. I really like Daniel Rinaldi. I like his style, his attitudes and the moral strengths displayed in this novel. And I like the books of his creator.

 

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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The Bones BeneathThe Bones Beneath
A Tom Thorne Novel
Mark Billingham
Atlantic Monthly Press, June 2014
ISBN: 978-1-8021-2248-3
Hardcover

Tom Thorne returns in the twelfth novel in this series.  Most of the action takes place over a period of three days, set in a remote, isolated and nearly inaccessible island off the Welsh coast, said to be the resting place of 20,000 saints (in addition, that is, to King Arthur).  (This appears to be a very real location, one ‘steeped in myth and legend,’ and is a very real presence in the novel.)  Tom is brought here as part of a very ‘un-spiritual pursuit of long-dead murder victims,” a prisoner escort operation.

Many years ago, and only briefly, the island was the site of a home for young offenders.  Two of these were 17-year-old Stuart Nicklin, and one Simon Milner, the latter of whom never left the island alive. His murder was never solved, and only now Nicklin has claimed to have killed him, and offered to lead the police to the place where Simon’s bones were buried so long ago.  The condition being that the man who had arrested him ten years earlier, Tom Thorne, be the one to take him there to identify the site. Nicklin is thought to be one of the “most dangerous and manipulative psychopaths” the police had ever encountered.  The suspense inherent in the situation leaves the reader waiting for the other shoe to drop.  And waiting.  And waiting.

Somewhat jarringly at first, there are flashbacks to the time, twenty-five years earlier, when the seeds of the current action were laid, and when the boy whose bones were at the core of their search was killed.  And there are also scenes, at the outset in a Prologue and then every hundred pages or so, that appear to be contemporaneous, their connection to the main plot difficult to discern.

It may be obvious that I felt that the book could have benefited from some tightening, but in retrospect perhaps I should have had more confidence in the author, because the conclusion was very exciting and unexpected.  It may be that the bar being set so high by this author in the preceding books made it a tough act to follow.  My current reservations aside, I will certainly look forward to the next Tom Thorne book.

 

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2014.

Book Review: Dead Men’s Harvest by Matt Hilton

Dead Men's HarvestDead Men’s Harvest
Matt Hilton
Harper, November 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-222530-6
Mass Market Paperback

Martin Maxwell, former Secret Service Agent, was nicknamed the Harvestman. Joe Hunter along with his best friend Jared Rington made Maxwell pay for his crimes but the government covered up his identity and buried him under the name Tubal Cain. The government, thinking he could be rehabilitated put him in prison as Prisoner 1854 thinking that the Harvestman could never escape but the government was wrong. Now Prisoner 1854-Tubal Cain-the Harvestman is loose and out to get even.

Joe Hunter is staying with Imogen, Kate Piers’ sister. Joe was in love with Kate but Kate died trying to protect her sister. Two men, Ray Hartlaub and Charles Brigham, CIA agents, show up unexpectedly to take Joe to the cabin of Walter Conrad. Joe is informed that Conrad is dead. He had been killed at the cabin. Someone had been killed at the cabin but Joe wasn’t buying the story that it was Walter and Joe insisted on seeing Walter and was taken to him.

Tubal Cain was looking for Joe’s brother, John, who had been injured in the original fight where Tubal Cain was captured. Walter had already sent a party out to find Jared Rington to work with Joe but Rington was not to be found. Joe was able to find him but Tubal Cain had reached Rington first. When Joe located Jared he was in no condition to chase down a killer. Joe took Jared to a safe place to recuperate and went about the business of stopping the monster Tubal Cain.

Dead Men’s Harvest is action packed. The reader is in for more than one surprise before the monster Tubal Cain is put to rest.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, March 2014.

Book Review: Pros and Cons by Jenna Black, Dragonflies: Shadow of Drones by Andy Straka, and The Reluctant Reaper by Gina X. Grant

Pros and ConsPros and Cons
The Nikki Glass Series
Jenna Black
Pocket Star Books, February 2013
ISBN 978-1-4767-0010-6
Ebook Exclusive

From the publisher—

An original eNovella in the acclaimed Nikki Glass urban fantasy series, taking place between the events of the novels Deadly Descendant and Rogue Descendant.

As a living descendant of Artemis the Huntress, private investigator Nikki Glass knows how to track someone down—but this time, her latest case leads to unexpected revelations of lies and betrayal…

I’m a big fan of crossgenre books, especially when the crossing is crime with dark fantasy. Supernatural detectives rock my boat, you might say, so I’m always interested to find a new (to me) series. Pros and Cons fits the bill very nicely, even though it’s not the beginning of the series; this novella is actually the third publication in the chronological list but is not labeled as #3 because it’s not a full-length novel. To my way of thinking, a mid-series novella or short story is a perfect way to introduce a new reader to that series and it certainly worked its magic on me.

I love the idea that Nikki Glass is a descendant of Artemis because, after all, what is a private investigator if not a huntress? I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a really good taste of Nikki’s story because there’s not much about her cohorts in this novella. That’s OK, though, because I needed to know that the crime element of this series is not just a throwaway side story to the paranormal theme. Nikki is a bona fide detective and I can learn more about her friends and colleagues, as well as her romantic life, when I delve further into the series.

In Pros and Cons, Nikki takes on a “normal” case to give her an excuse to stay away from her supernatural environs for a little while but, early on, she realizes that something is not quite right about her new client. All the mythological trappings were lingering off to the side and I fell in love/like with Jack when he got involved. Jack is a descendant of Loki, the Norse trickster god who’s fun and devious and more than a little bit of a bad boy. Jack was the icing on the cake of a decent little tale of crime and I’ll be glad to see these folks again when I go back to book #1, Dark Descendant. I have some catching up to do!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2013.

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DragonfliesDragonflies: Shadow of Drones
Andy Straka
LLW Media, May 2013
ISBN 978-1-4756-0204-3
Ebook

From the publisher—

Out to seek justice for their comrades-in-arms, a former Army helicopter pilot and the soldier who saved her life find themselves drawn instead into a web of government intrigue and peering micro drones.

Raina Sanchez is plagued by nightmares. She can’t erase the memories of being shot down in Afghanistan, of losing her foot in the crash, and the death of her commanding officer. When asked by an ex-military contact to participate in a secret drone operation with ties to the war, she jumps at the chance to exorcise some of her demons.

She joins Tye Palmer, the decorated ex-infantryman who rescued her from the flaming wreckage of her Kiowa chopper. As civilian private investigators, together they embark on a sensitive, risky effort: using cutting-edge, micro air vehicle drones in an attempt to expose the son of media mogul Nathan Kurn as a campus rapist.

But as Raina and Tye come closer to the truth about Kurn and his powerful allies, Raina’s loyalties take a potential detour when she begins to understand a chilling reality. In a world where surveillance devices as small as tiny insects are being piloted into places most would never imagine, public and private forces both large and small are maneuvering to control them with inevitable consequences. For Raina and Tye the danger didn’t end when they finished their military careers—the threat has just begun.

Disclaimer: I have known Andy Straka for years and his previous books are among my favorites. That has not affected my review of this book.

As noted above, I know Andy and appreciate his writing but Dragonflies: Shadow of Drones is very different from his earlier work and must be considered in a different light. In all honesty, my feelings about it are quite mixed.

The premise of the story is quite engaging and I especially appreciated the way the author allows his protagonists to be confused about what’s really going on.  Too many thrillers, in my opinion, have characters who never seem to get ruffled and always have a finger on the pulse, so to speak. I’m quite sure black ops and intelligence communities, even high-powered corporations, have a better understanding of the situations they encounter than a layman would but it sometimes reaches the level of incredulity or, at the very least, a raised eyebrow. In Dragonflies, Raina and Tye are frequently caught in the middle of plots that don’t quite come together for them and I like that; it makes them very human and not so superhero-ish.

I was also intrigued by the whole idea of these extremely tiny spying devices and that experienced pilots would be needed to fly them. What a scary thing to contemplate! I don’t think I’m of enough interest to anyone to ever be a target but this certainly would be a formidable and potentially very damaging tool in the wrong hands. Having them be used in both private investigative work and by rival government factions in Dragonflies highlights how invasive they could become.

Raina and Tye are interesting characters but a bit too shallowly drawn to get to know them very well. Actually, we know more about Raina than Tye but I imagine we’ll get to know both of them much better as the series continues.

And that brings me to my last, and most adamant, opinion. I HATED the ending of this book.  I don’t mind cliffhangers but this one is beyond the pale and, if I had known it was written in serial style, I would not have read it until at least the second book, and maybe the third, was available. While I can get past any other faults in this book besides this one, I imagine other readers will be more accepting, especially those who like the TV cliffhangers that happen from week to week—and this has, in fact been optioned for TV. As for me, I probably won’t read any more installments until several are available.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2013.

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The Reluctant ReaperThe Reluctant Reaper
The Reluctant Reaper Series, Book One
Gina X. Grant
Pocket Star, June 2013
ISBN 978-1-4767-2868-1
Ebook

From the publisher—

Life for Kirsty d’Arc might not be perfect, but it’s far from hellish. She likes her job, has a great BFF, and truly admires Conrad, her boss. But when she dives in front of a lunatic’s blade to save him from certain death, she finds out Conrad isn’t so admirable after all. In fact, he’s traded her soul to the Devil! 

While her body lies comatose on the Mortal Coil, Kirsty’s spirit is dragged straight to Hell…which is not quite the fire-and-brimstone abyss she’d expected. In fact, the place is quirky, wacky, and not without charm. Desperate to reunite body and soul before her time runs out, she seeks out allies, earning the friendship of a powerful drag demon, a psychic server, and, most importantly, Hell’s civil servant. But what of her growing attraction to Dante, the sexy Reaper with a flair for romantic language—can she forgive him for scything her soul?

Stuck in the netherworld, Kirsty vows she’ll do everything on her postmortem bucket list, starting with getting her life back and ensuring that Conrad has Hell to pay!

Oh, my, I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had me smiling, chuckling. sometimes outright guffawing on every single page but Gina X. Grant has accomplished that very feat with The Reluctant Reaper. This is just one of the funniest books ever and here’s the weird thing—a LOT of the humor involves puns and I have never been enamored with puns. Until now.

Kirsty D’Arc has just been accidentally reaped by a guy named Dante who carries a scythe and struck her with it instead of her boss who was supposed to die. Since it was an accident, though, Kirsty is not exactly dead, more like undead (but not of the vampirish sort). Kirsty has no choice—she has to go to Hell and appeal her “death”.

Hell, it turns out, is full of interesting surprises, including Charon who ferries the river in full drag and a small, very cute kittenish animal who is actually a real life gargoyle. Her name is Jenni, short for Jenni-fur because she sheds so much. Then there are the vicious little creatures called gee-gnomes who can alter your DNA. Most are sort of countrified-looking except one that seems to be more sophisticated,  known as a “metrognome”. Dante himself is a 700-year-old poet—yes, he’s THAT Dante.

Ms. Grant also has a great time skewering the very things we all love to hate, like this:

“Reaping is a precise art. It must occur only at the exact hour, preferably the exact minute, as ordained by Death. Or by our new software system, MS Death 2.0.”

“You have Microsoft products in Hell?”

Figures.

Kirsty’s adventures in Hell keep her busy while she’s waiting for her trial but, when that finally comes, she’s in for a rude awakening. Will she be able to go back to her life or will she have to stay in the afterlife even if she isn’t really dead? Will she have to give up the hunky Dante? Will she really have to do something useful with her life?

I can’t help it, I loved this book and can’t wait to read the next one, Scythe Does Matter. Thank heavens—oops, Hell doesn’t appreciate that saying—it’s already on my Nook.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2013.