Book Reviews: The King of Fear by Drew Chapman and The Vulture by Frederick Ramsay

The King of FearThe King of Fear
A Garrett Reilly Thriller
Drew Chapman
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4767-2591-8
Trade Paperback

A rousing episodic thriller with thoughtful implications for today’s economic world. Smoothly written and discerning readers can tell after just a few chapters that the author has written for series television. The structure of the novel falls neatly into segments with alarm, partial resolution and danger or abrupt cliff-hanger, every few chapters. That isn’t a bad thing, even if it gets predictable.

Readers of thriller fiction and television crime series aficionados will recognize many of the characters assembled in these pages to help the protagonist, Garrett Reilly, meet and best an insidious foreign plotter who is attempting to destroy America’s economy in one massive attack. The novel ranges over the entire world allowing readers to experience both spare and flowery location descriptions and to introduce a large number of unusual and talented characters. Character descriptions with background information is plentiful throughout the book as are a large number of competing organizations.

Lead defender, Garrett Reilly, is wanted by the FBI and the New York Police as a person of interest in the murder of the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. While dodging law enforcement, Reilly goes back to work for the Federal government as the only economist with the talent and intelligence to possibly save the nation’s economy from this massive attack. He leads a group of rag-tag hackers, thinkers and off-the-grid creative young people called Ascendant, a secret government experiment in cyber exploration.

It all has the frightening feel of reality and real possibility. A good solid thriller.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, April 2016.
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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The VultureThe Vulture
An Ike Schwartz Mystery #10
Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen Press
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0476-0
Hardcover

This tenth book in the Ike Schwartz series sends Ike and his college president wife Ruth into turbulent hiding from a wealthy, vengeful oligarch. A huge bomb destroys the sheriff’s vehicle and soon another explosion of a large propane tank eliminates his cabin in the woods where his wife, Ruth, is said to be hiding. Ike and Ruth are believed to be dead.

The cliché, ‘ripped from the headlines,’ is very appropriate here. A ruthless, obscenely wealthy oligarch who believes himself to be the savior of a failing nation, has created a kingdom on a huge private tract of land. From this base he hopes, one day, to launch a government takeover. The kingdom is located in, of all places, Idaho. Martin Pangborn’s radical racist militia has been dubbed the Fifty-first Star. He is the classic case of the public ultra-conservative hiding the most despicable of slimy self-indulgent beings. The intellectual duel between the sheriff of Picketsville and the bad guys is almost biblical in its structure and resolution.

All the characters fans of the Ike Schwartz crime novels will know are here, and they all have important roles to fill in weaving together a host of fibers aimed at entrapping Mr. Pangborn. Pangborn has been at pains over the years to corrupt and insert law enforcement personnel, ordinary murderers, civic officials at various levels, up to the Senate of the United States. So, the plot is tangled, textured and complicated. Or at least the moves to resolve an up-to-the-minute plot are so.

Anyone reading this fine novel who is aware of public affairs in this country during the last decade will recognize some of the incidents and many of the players. Fast-paced, filled with emotional ups and downs, the author has fashioned an excellent and enjoyable reading experience.

As is usual, I received a free copy of the novel from the publisher with no expectations whatsoever.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2015.
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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Teeny Reviews: Joy to the Worlds by Maia Chance, Janine A. Southard, Raven Oak and G. Clemans, No Honor Among Thieves by J.A. Jance, Peril by Ponytail by Nancy J. Cohen, One Year After by William R. Forstchen, and Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes by Karin Slaughter

Joy to the WorldsJoy to the Worlds
Mysterious Speculative Fiction for the Holidays
Maia Chance, Janine A. Southard, Raven Oak and G. Clemans
Grey Sun Press, November 2015
ISBN 978-0-9908157-6-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

What do you get when you mix mystery and speculative fiction, then toss in the holidays for good measure? A mobster Santa, genetic hanky-panky, Victorian villages, time-travelling detectives, a Krampus, eerie bell spirits, and more–this collection of short cross-genre fiction is the perfect counterpoint to traditional holiday reading!

Joy to the Worlds brings together eight short works that explore mysteries across time and space. Ranging from dark dystopian worlds to comedic retro-futures, four diverse writers find new ways to combine these disparate worlds.

This collection stars national bestselling mystery author Maia Chance, who dazzles with humor and folklore; IPPY award-winning science fiction author Janine A. Southard beguiles with unexpected time-travel science; science fiction and fantasy bestseller Raven Oak offers a look into the gothic past; and for a whole new perspective, debut fiction author and art expert G. Clemans dives into the intersections of creativity and mystery.

Whether you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, mystery, Christmas, noir, gothic, or folktales—this collection has something for you.

I tend to shy away from anthologies because I don’t much like coming to the end of a short story I really like, wanting it to be a full-length novel, but Joy to the Worlds interested me on first glance because I knew and liked two of the authors’ work but had never tried the others. This seemed like a good opportunity to return to familiar writers and meet a couple more.

Tyson Wallenstein, a dead detective trying to prove himself—he’s only been dead a year so he’s the newbie of the group—sets out to investigate a man’s death without all the trappings of a living detective (no forensics, no DNA, etc.) in the first story and I was immediately captivated. Was it an accident? Murder? Is the prosthetic leg attached to a high heel a clue? Why does mistletoe seem to be everywhere?

In another story, a young American named Odysseus Flax is overcome with motion sickness while traveling by train through the Alps and jumps off the train in a little village called Kiefertal. There he encounters the underbelly of Christmas during Krampusnacht when a very rich man decides to scare his obnoxious little boy and Odysseus learns there is much he does not know about what’s real or not real in this picturesque little town.

Four authors with four very different choices of genre and style offer two stories each that entertain in an unexpected way, giving the reader a slightly askew look at the holiday season. What better way to be introduced to authors you haven’t tried before?

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

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No Honor Among ThievesNo Honor Among Thieves
An Ali Reynolds/Joanna Brady Novella
J.A. Jance
Pocket Star Books, November 2015
ISBN 978-1-5011-3559-0
Ebook

From the publisher—

“A semi’s gone over the embankment.” The call wakes Sheriff Joanna Brady in the middle of the night, but what brings her fully alert is the rest of the story. The driver didn’t drift off to sleep and cross the center line—he was shot, multiple times, by someone with serious firepower. And when the truck crashed through the guardrail, its payload wound up scattered all over the road—boxes upon boxes of Legos.

Legos that are being tracked by B. Simpson’s security firm to reduce black market sales—and Ali Reynolds is just the woman to get to the bottom of the crime. She has the tech and the intel to follow the money (or, in this case, the Legos), which makes her a valuable asset to Joanna’s team. Soon these two strong women realize that they’re not just sharing a case, they’re kindred spirits—which is paramount, because the killer they’re up against is anything but child’s play.

A new Joanna Brady story is always a treat to my way of thinking and, in No Honor Among Thieves, we get the best of two protagonists, Joanna and Ali Reynolds. So much fun!

Other characters are just as enjoyable, Kendra, B. and Cami just to name a few. One of Ms. Jance‘s particular strengths lies in creating characters you can develop a connection with and I never feel overloaded with names to keep straight other than a few of the very minor players.

Who knew LEGOS are actually a hot product on the black market? Yes, those little plastic things you make cool stuff with go for high prices once a set is retired, much like other collectibles, and that’s what brings Ali into the investigation. Her husband’s security company has been hired to shadow LEGOS shipments to try to identify the sources of the black market commodities and B. sends Ali to the scene to check out the identification chips on the LEGOS packages, hopefully to figure out why a midsized truck was carrying the toys on back roads. What she and Joanna find, though, only adds to the puzzle of why someone wanted to kill the driver in such a spectacular fashion and, before it’s all over, a gigantic mistake is made.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

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Peril by PonytailPeril by Ponytail
A Bad Hair Day Mystery #12
Nancy J. Cohen
Five Star Publishing, September 2015
ISBN 978-1432830984
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Marla and Dalton’s honeymoon at an Arizona dude ranch veers from dangerous to downright deadly faster than a horse headed to the corral. With her husband’s uncle–the resort’s owner–on the suspect list for murder, Marla races to prove his innocence. She hopes her blind trust isn’t misplaced, especially when she learns their relative has secrets he’d rather keep buried. As the bodies pile up, she digs deep to find the killer. With her new family in jeopardy, she’d better figure out who’s adding to the spirits haunting a nearby ghost town before someone she loves is hurt.

The very idea of the girly-girl Marla honeymooning at a dude ranch was funny enough to make me want to read Peril by Ponytail, latest in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries, and I found myself highly entertained by the scenario. Marla is her usual snoopy self (although, as can be expected, quite rational about it) and feels compelled to investigate when her uncle by marriage becomes a murder suspect in the midst of a series of mishaps at the ranch and a nearby ghost town.

The relationship between Marla and her police detective husband, Dalton, is appealing, partially because they respect each other’s abilities in investigating crime. Marla is no ditzy woman who thinks she knows better than the police; rather, they work together comfortably.

Secrets abound, motives keep cropping up and danger seems to be everywhere but there’s fun to be had watching Marla do her thing. She might want folks to think she’s annoyed by the interruption to her honeymoon but those of us who’ve been following her adventures for years know better, don’t we? 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

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One Year AfterOne Year After
William R. Forstchen
Forge, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-7653-7670-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The story picks up a year after One Second After ends, two years since the detonation of nuclear weapons above the United States brought America to its knees. After suffering starvation, war, and countless deaths, the survivors of Black Mountain, North Carolina, are beginning to piece back together the technologies they had once taken for granted: electricity, radio communications, and medications. They cling to the hope that a new national government is finally emerging.

Then comes word that most of the young men and women of the community are to be drafted into an “Army of National Recovery” and sent to trouble spots hundreds of miles away.

When town administrator John Matherson protests the draft, he’s offered a deal: leave Black Mountain and enter national service, and the draft will be reduced. But the brutal suppression of a neighboring community under its new federal administrator and the troops accompanying him suggests that all is not as it should be with this burgeoning government.

Six years ago, I read One Second After by this same author and was struck by how well Mr. Forstchen created the world that would exist immediately after a devastating EMP attack and during the following year. Black Mountain, NC, became a microcosm of the self-destruction and the triumph over extreme adversity that would inevitably follow such an event, made even more realistic for me because I’ve been to the real Black Mountain and could easily “see” what went on. All these years later, it remains one of my favorite post-apocalyptic novels despite a few flaws and I hoped the author would someday let us know what happened to the survivors of Black Mountain.

Finally, I heard earlier this year that the sequel was coming out and I jumped right on it. Let me just say I was not the least bit disappointed and found the premise of a bureaucracy run amok to be completely credible. After all, there are many people in this world who think they should be in charge but I also have no trouble believing the people of a small town would come together in an effort to do what’s right and best for their neighbors while still trying to help those outside the community. Setting this story in a small town was the perfect thing to do because the reader really gets to know the people and develop a strong connection that isn’t as likely in a densely-populated area. This sequel focuses on what the survivors would do after the initial emergency, what choices they would make going forward. One Year After is a gripping novel although, by the nature of the beast, it doesn’t have the riveting impact of the first book. Still, I’m really anticipating the third book, Unite Or Die, due out in September 2016.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

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Blonde Hair, Blue EyesBlonde Hair, Blue Eyes
Karin Slaughter
Witness Impulse, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-2442819
Ebook
Also available in mass market paperback

From the publisher—

“A beautiful young girl was walking down the street―when suddenly…”

Julia Carroll knows that too many stories start that way. Beautiful, intelligent, a nineteen-year-old college freshman, she should be carefree. But instead she is frightened. Because girls are disappearing.

A fellow student, Beatrice Oliver, is missing. A homeless woman called Mona-No-Name is missing. Both taken off the street. Both gone without a trace.

Julia is determined to find out the reasons behind their disappearances. And she doesn’t want to be next…

Karin Slaughter‘s name always comes to my mind when I hear the word “thriller”. She’s a bit too realistic for some readers but I love her work and had been anxiously awaiting her new standalone, Pretty Girls, when I saw that there was a prequel short story, giving us the backstory of one of the Pretty Girls characters. I tend to read prequels after the fact even when they’re actually offered before the primary novel so I was especially eager to grab Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes.

When bad things happen to young women, they’re frequently blonde with blue eyes as that seems to be a favorite type for bad guys. What’s interesting about this particular blonde is that she knows girls have gone missing and she’s frightened for herself, as any rational person would be, but she’s still determined to write the story that will focus attention on the supposed abductions. In doing so, Julia puts a target on her own back…or is it possible the danger is closer to home?

All in all, this is an excellent lead-in to Pretty Girls.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

 

Book Reviews: The Devil on Chardonnay by Ed Baldwin, Lethal Lineage by Charlotte Hinger, and The Prince of Risk by Christopher Reich

The Devil on ChardonnayThe Devil on Chardonnay
Ed Baldwin
Brasfield Books, September 2013
ISBN:978098929719
Trade Paperback

Ed Baldwin is a retired U.S. Air Force surgeon with many years in grade and a wide range of service duties and it shows. It shows in the authenticity of the research and the actions of the many characters that people this thriller. There is a list of characters that is helpful, but it fills two pages on my reader.

This excellent novel would have been improved by judiciously editing out about 3,000 words. That said, I found the novel to be a good read, mostly well-paced but at times the inclusion of in-depth background and history in large chunks tended to stall the narrative, just like a small plane attempting to climb at too sharp an angle.

The plot in its fundamental essence concerns an attempt by obscenely wealthy forces to produce a vaccine for one of the most deadly tropical diseases known in a way that will give a large pharmaceutical firm absolute and highly lucrative control of the disease cultures and the vaccine. International in scope, when news of a new outbreak of Ebola reaches Washington, the government moves rapidly to send troubleshooter and fighter jock Boyd Chailand into action. His task is to identify those on the ground and the lab developing the cultures, the sources of their funding and the ultimate recipient of their work.

The story takes us from Washington D.C. to East Africa, to the Azores and South Carolina. Some of the characters are fascinating, Raybon Clive, Davann Goodman and Neville St. James, among the most interesting. Some of the confrontations—and there are many—are exciting and truly action-packed. Some of the murders—and there are several—seemed gratuitous and almost casual. In addition to all the action there are lovely moments of introspection and appreciation of the natural beauty of the Azores and tropical Africa. I find the novel to be a mixed bag and I recommend it with reservations. The title of the book is just unfortunate.

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

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Lethal LineageLethal Lineage
Charlotte Hinger
Poisoned Pen Press, March 2011
ISBN:978-1-59058-837-6
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

This is an amazing novel. Almost from the first line, one is interested, entertained, and enthralled. Lottie Albright is a first-class protagonist, a bright, wealthy, well-educated woman with a healthy measure of community sense and human empathy. The fact that she’s now living on the isolated windy plains of northwestern Kansas, second wife of a widowed farmer, only enhances her claim on the reader’s attention.

The author writes with such clarity, precision and verve, one is swept into the lives of these people with intimacy, with love, and with a clear eye on the realities of life in this place in the Twenty-first Century. As isolated as they are, and feel themselves to be, the citizens of four sparsely-populated counties will be touched in tender and horrific ways by larger events happening continents away beginning with a confirmation in a new Episcopal congregation meeting in a new church.

The novel’s sojourn into the world of historical research, especially Albright’s struggle to deal with the surprises of family history projects is a fascinating and relevant subplot. The characters are all well-laid on and consistent in their roles. All in all an outstanding effort.

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

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The Prince of RiskThe Prince of Risk
Christopher Reich
Doubleday, December 2013
ISBN: 978-0-385-53506-9
Hardcover

Mr. Reich illustrates here some of the difficulties of genre labeling in Crime Fiction. You might classify this as a flawed character study with too much bad dialogue and too little depth. You might, on the other hand, classify this as a strong legal thriller that takes a few minor liberties with the law while positing a terrifying possibility. Then again, because the story is essentially about a high-roller hedge fund manager, you might consider this an intriguing inside look at the world of the big-time gambling community we call Wall Street.

Regardless of classification, the novel has some serious problems as well as many excellent moments. In order to understand the enormity of the threat posed by the author, readers will have to wade through several background explanations of the way the world’s financial operations connect and work. For some readers that will be eye-opening. For others, tedious.

Bobby Astor is the high-flying multi-billionaire protagonist who begins as the unknowing stand-in for the puppet master who’s purpose becomes abundantly clear, to not only create financial chaos, but to destroy the American financial community. Part of the plan involves a physical attack somewhere at some near time. That threat opens the novel and underlies the rising tension that fuels the pace of this novel. There are echoes here of earlier tidier crime novels from Emma Lathen.

Enter Bobby Astor’s ex-wife, a top FBI agent in charge of counter terrorism in the New York Area. Finding and stopping threats before the fact instead of after the act is her mission. Alex is a gorgeous, driven, stone killer. Her intense desire to excel and bring down terrorists wherever they may be moves her to violate a number of federal and state laws and too frequently defy her superior.

The author does attempt to soften the hard-edged images of these two intensely driven individuals. They have a teen-aged daughter, but she is never on stage and her influence on her parents in this story is minimal. Some of the narrative which explains in great detail financial maneuvering at these billion-dollar-levels could have been profitably shortened to maintain the rising pace of the novel. The concluding chapters, while logical and satisfactory, have a mild feeling of a pro forma wrap-up. Not a bad story, but given the alarming core premise, somewhat disappointing in execution.

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

 

Book Reviews: Death Echo by Elizabeth Lowell and Money to Burn by James Grippando

Death Echo
Elizabeth Lowell
Avon, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-16442-7
Mass Market Paperback

International intrigue is at the heart of the plot which joins Emma Cross, former CIA operative and now with St. Kilda’s Consulting, and Mackenzie Durand, former Special Ops leader, the only survivor of his team in its last mission.  Now a transit captain, he picks up a brand new yacht, the Blackbird, offloaded from a container ship to bring to a small port where it is to be fitted out.  Meanwhile, Emma has been looking for the yacht’s twin, the Black Swan, for an insurance company since its disappearance.

The two are thrown together when all the intelligence agencies pick up vibes of an impending terrorist act against a major U.S. urban center. It is not known whether the threat is biological, chemical or nuclear.  So Mackenzie becomes the captain of the Blackbird, with Emma as “first mate,” on a voyage through the inland passageway on the West Coast of Canada, ostensibly to bring the ship to its new owner.  It is quite a trip.

The descriptions of the passageway, the tides, weather and difficulties of steering a ship under various conditions are graphic and exciting.  And despite all the dangers from the sea and adversaries, love finds a way.

Recommended.

[It should perhaps be noted that the pb edition has also been issued in a larger trim size, ISBN 978-006204484-6.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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Money to Burn
James Grippando
Harper,2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-155631-9
Mass Market Paperback

By combining the issues of market manipulation and identity theft, James Grippando has raised some interesting questions in this somewhat flawed but timely novel.  This reviewer’s reservations, which admittedly are probably in the minority, apply to whether or not the premise that a single hedge fund could actually bring down a thinly disguised Goldman Sachs without steps being taken by the New York Stock Exchange or the Securities and Exchange Commission stepping in to stop naked selling of the brokerage’s stock is valid.

Nevertheless, legal issues aside, it makes for a provocative tale, especially in view of recent events in the financial world. Essentially the plot involves a 35-year-old star of the venerable Wall Street firm Saxton Silvers, Mike Cantella, who discovers on the night of his birthday that all his accounts have been transferred to an offshore bank and he is left without a penny.  At the same time, these funds are used to short the firm’s stock, driving its price down, and continued pressure pushes the firm into bankruptcy.  Further, other events point to his involvement in the demise, as well as in subsequent murders.

The story is over-plotted, with all kinds of devices including spyware on cell phones and computers, enigmatic e-mails from unidentified sources, FBI probes, corporate espionage, and a wife of four hours who disappears and is presumed dead, eaten by a shark, not to mention a second wife who complicates Mike’s life while he is fighting to clear his name.  And to wrap up, introduction of the Madoff Ponzi scheme seems a bit gratuitous. Nevertheless, the novel is an entertaining read, and does have some useful insights into today’s financial picture.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.