Book Review: The Ballad of Black Bart by Loren D. Estleman

The Ballad of Black Bart
Loren D. Estleman
Forge, November 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8353-2
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Between July 1875 and November 1883, a single outlaw robbed the stagecoaches of Wells Fargo in California’s Mother Lode country a record twenty-eight times.  Armed with an unloaded shotgun, walking to and from the scenes of the robberies for hundreds of miles, and leaving poems behind, the infamous Black Bart was fiercely hunted by James B. Hume, Wells Fargo’s legendary chief of detectives.  Between robberies, Black Bart was known as Charles E. Bolton, a distinguished, middle-aged man who enjoyed San Francisco’s entertainments in the company of socialites drawn to his quiet, temperate good nature and upper-class tastes.

One of the most entertaining of the many entertaining aspects of this novel is that, true to Black Bart’s talents and propensities [he signs himself “Po8,” after all], the author begins each chapter [26 in all], as well as the Afterword, with a four-line verse, wonderful creations all, as is the book itself.  I will quote only the first and last two of these.  Beginning the book, on the first page of Chapter One:  “This is the story of bandit Black Bart; who used the gold country to practice his art.  His brush was a shotgun, his canvas the road, as he painted his way ‘cross the Old Mother Lode.”  And he ends the book with another:  “So here I’ve stood while wind and rain have set the trees asobbin’; and risked my life for that damn stage that wasn’t worth the robbin.”  And before the Afterword:  “My tale it is finished, and my race it is run; but there’s one more confession I owe everyone.  I speak not of inventions, though admit to this crime; I own to the evils I’ve committed in rhyme.”  Everything in between is equally wonderful.

As the book begins, Charles Bolton is described thusly:  “Everything about this man was reserved … A man who drank rarely, smoked not at all, and spent his words as if they assayed out at sixteen dollars to the ounce, was regarded as some kind of sage.”   The man loved gambling, on horse races or prizefights.  That first chapter ends with a rhyme as well:  “Come listen to my story, I’ll not detain you long. A singing and a humming this simple silly song.  ‘Tis of the old ex-convicts, the men who served their time for robbing mountain stages of the old Wells, Fargo line.”

Charles E. Bolton was a mining magnate who knew him only in that capacity.  But one who clung to a shotgun, “a comforting weight in his hands,” when he sets out to rob the stagecoaches of that firm, referred to as “the Company,” of whom we are told “the frugality of Henry Wells and William Fargo was nearly as infamous as their business practices.” His object was only the ironbound strongbox held at the driver’s feet, never harming any passengers in the process.

Sheriff Benjamin Thorn, who’d held that position for 15 years, and Chief of Detectives James Hume are charged with hunting down the robber, and they prove to be worthy opponents of Black Bart.

Another excellent book from this author, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2017.

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Book Review: Blood Ties by Nicholas Guild

Blood TiesBlood Ties
Nicholas Guild
Forge, May 2015
ISBN  978-0-7653-7845-3
Hardcover

A manhunt for a monster, a police procedural and a love story all wrapped up in a thriller sums up what this novel is all about.  Its characters are fascinating, beginning with a serial killer who probably has murdered hundreds of women by torturing them to death in his decades-long career.  More important is his rationale for doing so:  putting them out of their misery (just life on this old planet, a living hell in his view).  The murders were committed all over the country, but the most recent took place in the San Francisco area, where homicide detective Ellen Ridley and her partner, Sam Tyler, become the lead investigators on three related murders (and possibly five all together).

Ridley at first suspects Stephen Tregear, a highly intelligent, charming computer genius and code breaker for the Navy, as a suspect, but soon eliminates him, learning instead that it is his father who is the ogre.  The two form a relationship and with his help the story moves on until father and son confront each other.  It is a study really of psychological insights into each character and what motivations led them to act as they have.

Among the themes that contribute to these manifestations are growing up in an abusive home and why one family member turns out to be a brutal serial killer, while another becomes a highly educated, intelligent person with admirable values who risks his life to save those of others.  The story is well-presented, and moves along at a steady pace, and the reader becomes totally absorbed in a beguiling plot.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2016.

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: Wickedpedia by Chris Van Etten and Deadout by Jon McGoran

WickedpediaWickedpedia
Chris Van Etten
Point Horror, July 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-41587-3
Trade Paperback

 

Cole Redeker is a straight A student, a champ on the debate team, and works at perfecting his pie crust recipe. Such a perfect son that his parents learn to accept his friend Gavin, a slacker who plays bass in an awful garage band. Gavin’s two favorite phrases are “It’ll be fun. I promise.” And “Told you so.”

Cole’s auburn haired girlfriend, Winnie, choir soloist and tennis player, dumps him for Josh, the school’s star soccer player. When Cole discovers that Josh has been copying his history essays from Wikipedia, he and Gavin hatch a plan. History teacher Mr. Drick frowns on sloppy and lazy research, and knowing that Josh is writing a paper on serial killers, Cole plants false Wikipedia articles full of ridiculous facts. When Josh is caught, he is put on academic probation and suspended from the team.

When Josh’s best friend and teammate is discovered dead in the gymnasium, Gavin discovers a Wikipedia entry that foretold his particularly gruesome death. When another friend is partially blinded and burned by poisoned eye drops, Cole realizes that someone is after the students and wonders who will be next.

A good portion of the story is told by Instant Messages among the various students. While the deaths are horrible, the details are not lingered on. Still, not a book for the easily upset.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, September 2015.

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DeadoutDeadout
Carrick & Watkins #2
Jon McGoran
Forge, June 2015
ISBN 978-0-7653-7008-2
Mass Market Paperback

A three-day visit to Martha’s Vineyard to visit an old friend who is working there, keeping track of bees needed to pollinate crops, turns out to be more than Philadelphia detective Doyle Carrick and his girlfriend, Nola, probably bargained for.  They discover the bee population is fast disappearing and the cause is a mystery.  Nola gets a job manually pollinating plants on a farm and Doyle ends up hanging around, then becoming embroiled in helping to solve the situation.

A lesser plot is the love interest: Doyle and Nola’s hot-and-cold relationship; her association with the young, handsome employer, making Doyle jealous; and his relationship with a beautiful female scientist, raising an equal emotion in Nola.  Of course, both these other characters play a vital role in the main plot.

The action is fast and furious, and the plot moves forward at a rapid pace.  And to boot, there are additional facets to complicate the reader’s progress, including high stakes corporate machinations.  (And we probably learn more about bees and genetics than we ever wished.)

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2015.

Book Reviews: Strong Light of Day by Jon Land and Lord of the Wings by Donna Andrews

Strong Light of DayStrong Light of Day
A Caitlin Strong Novel #7
Jon Land
Forge, October 2015
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3512-8
Hardcover

Author Jon Land, in the seventh adventure featuring Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong, once more takes the reader on a breathless thrill ride of a story. As is his method, Land ties Caitlin’s present day case to an operation her father began years ago. Strong Light of Day has its roots in the 1980s–the historical aspect more recent than most of the series, and the enemy, aside from a home-grown psychopath who just might scare you to death, are Russian.

Caitlin is drawn into the story when thirty high school students disappear while on a camping trip. One of the students is Luke Masters, the son of her lover, Cort Wesley Masters. At the same time, not far from the campers last position, a herd of cattle die, with only bones left to tell the tale.

Where are the kids? What happened to the cattle? Why are there dead fields? And why is billionaire oilman Calum Dane and his conglomerate buying the land up? This is the mystery Caitlin has to solve, and she’d better do it quickly because when the Russians join Dane and close in, time is about to run out.

This is a Caitlin Strong novel. Expect a mile-a-minute pace and a high body count. Not that the bad guys don’t deserve it. Expect Caitlin to get a lot of help from a recurring cast of characters, including Cort Wesley Masters, Captain Depper, and especially, Colonel Paz, a seemingly indestructible giant of a man who, through a sort of supernatural tie, has appointed himself her guardian. And thank goodness for that!

With the historical ties played down in this outing, I appreciate the short excerpts from Texas Ranger archives and some of the best researched non-fiction that Land always includes at the front of the chapters.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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Lord of the WingsLord of the Wings
A Meg Langslow Mystery #19
Donna Andrews
Minotaur Books, August 2015
ISBN 978-1-250-04958-2
Hardcover

It’s Halloween in Caerphilly.  Meg, who heads the Goblin Patrol, AKA the Visitor Relations and Police Liaison Patrol, is mildly puzzled to hear that Dr. Smoot’s Haunted House has been burgled. What is there to steal?  She’s more upset when a fake body part turns up in her grandfather’s alligator exhibit during her six-year-old twins’ school visit.  But when two Goblin Patrollers find a real body, she goes into full investigative mode.  Is the body connected to her brother Rob’s latest computer game release? Or to one of the “treasures” in Dr. Smoot’s local history museum? Or to one of the many, many costumed tourists who have flocked into Caerphilly’s town-wide Halloween bash?

Strange occurrences abound, stranger friends and relatives dive in to help out (or not), and Meg copes with everything with her usual humor and competence.  Not even a horde of LARPers and the Rancid Dreads, a truly awful rock band, can get her down.

I’m so glad I got to review this book.  Despite other glowing reviews, I’d avoided the series because I have a thing about overbearing families.  I hate seeing a heroine pushed around. Boy, was I wrong.  Meg’s wildly eccentric family is a delight–to read about, anyway, and seeing Meg deal with their antics is enormously entertaining.  I rushed to the library for Murder with Peacocks and devoured it.  I’m just about done with We’ll Always Have Parrots now, and I have the next two right by my comfy-chair, ready to go.  Thank you, Donna Andrews, for writing such cheerful, funny, fascinating books.

I highly recommend Lord of the Wings.

Reviewed by Marilyn Nulman, September 2015.

Book Review: The Body Snatchers Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

The Body Snatchers AffairThe Body Snatchers Affair
A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery #3
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
Forge, January 2015
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3176-2
Hardcover

In this historical mystery, San Francisco private detectives Sabina Carpenter and her partner, John Quincannon are working separate, but closely related cases. Sabina has been hired by a wealthy society matron whose husband’s body has been stolen from their private mausoleum and held for ransom. John is searching for a woman’s husband whom she suspects has fallen victim to Chinatown’s notorious opium dens. Strangely enough, his case also connects to a body snatching, that of a recently deceased Chinese tong kingpin. The danger in John’s investigation becomes severe when not only the husband is murdered, but John, too, is almost killed.

Meanwhile, complications between the detectives are ongoing as Sabina is dating an eligible bachelor from a prominent San Francisco family and John, who desires Sabine for himself, is terribly jealous. Add in an enigmatic Englishman who insists he’s Sherlock Holmes and the whole affair becomes even more mysterious.

The book is competently written as you would expect from these writing partners, but having read other Carpenter and Quincannon stories, this one seems to fall a little short. I could’ve solved Sabina’s case from the moment she first met her clients, and John’s investigation, though interspersed with more action, was almost as easy. Sherlock Holmes was, and remains, the biggest mystery, while the romance in the book seems forced.

I do love the setting and all the impeccably researched historical aspects. The reader gets a real sense of how old San Francisco used to be, not only as a background setting, but as to how people went about their lives in those days.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

Book Review: The Spook Lights Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

The Spook Lights AffairThe Spook Lights Affair
A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery #2
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
Forge, December 2013
ISBN 978-0-7653-3175-5
Hardcover

Set in 1890’s San Francisco, Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, is unique in that the Carpenter of the agency is female. Smart, able, and relentless in her duties, Sabina Carpenter is a fine character, and more than capable of holding John Quincannon’s amorous tendencies at a distance.

Quincannon is not quite so sympathetic a character. Lots of flaws in this man, including the fact he’s a bit on the greedy side. He also does a lot of smirking, which does become annoying. He’s a good detective, though. A match for Sabina.

San Francisco is almost a character, as well, if one can call a city that. Muller & Pronzini set us down in the town and bring it alive for the reader. From the hell-holes of the Barbary Coast to upper crust socialites on Nob Hill—which brings us to this episode of these two detectives’ continuing escapades.

Sabina is investigating the disappearance of a debutante, who may, or may not have committed suicide while Sabina was watching. But why? That’s the question. Was she murdered? Leave it to Sabina to find out.

Meanwhile, John is hot on the trail of bandits who robbed a Wells Fargo office. With a 10% reward on the line, he’s determined to bring the culprits to justice. All does not go smoothly, of course, what with a character who claims to be Sherlock Holmes butting in. And the thieves themselves are only too ready to defend their evil-doing.

This is a well-plotted mystery appealing to readers who appreciate the old days, as well as those who usually plant their feet in the present day.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, February 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.