A Trio of Teeny Reviews @ajhackwith @AceRocBooks @DeanStPress @GrandCentralPub

The Library of the Unwritten
A Novel from Hell’s Library #1
A. J. Hackwith
Ace, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-98480-637-6
Trade Paperback

In a unique way of looking at what Hell must be like, there are books that never got finished, or even started, by their authors and someone—Claire—has to be in charge of those books. Why? Because the characters in those stories can escape and create havoc, of course 😉

When one particular hero goes on the run, looking for his creator, Claire is in hot pursuit along with her assistant and a demon. They all soon discover they’re really on a quest to find a particular powerful artifact, the Devil’s Bible, that Heaven also wants and a fallen angel is determined to redeem himself by recovering. If Claire and her crew don’t find it first, Heaven and Hell are likely to explode into war with Earth caught in the middle.

To put it simply, I loved this book that’s full of adventure, mystery, humor and a wealth of marvelous beings and, when it comes time to re-read it—and I’m very sure I will—I think I’ll try the audiobook for a fresh take.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2019.

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The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye
The Anthony Bathurst Mysteries #3
Brian Flynn
Dean Street Press, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-913054-39-7
Trade Paperback

Gentleman sleuth Anthony Bathurst and Scotland Yard’s Chief Detective-Inspector Richard Bannister work together to discover how three separate cases are indeed not separate but intertwined to a fare thee well. Blackmail, murder, indiscretions, thievery, hidden identities and a “magnificent blue-shaded emerald”…all come together clue by clue in this delightful traditional mystery full of red herrings that had me coming and going, always eager to follow the next lead.

Aficionados of Golden Age mysteries will want to get their hands on this long-forgotten book as soon as possible. You might say it’s criminal that Brian Flynn‘s works fell into a black hole many years ago but, now that new editions of some of his titles are being released, we all have a chance to savor a journey back in time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2019.

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Old Bones
Nora Kelly #1
Preston & Child
Grand Central Publishing, August 2019
ISBN 978-1538747223
Hardcover

We’ve met Nora Kelly before in some of the Pendergast novels and I’ve always liked her so I’m delighted she has her own series now. Along with Nora, we meet another character from the past, Corrie Swanson, who used to be a Goth teen with purple hair and attitude. Her connection to Pendergast when he hired her to drive him around during a case led her to become an FBI agent and she’s still trying to corral her mouthy rebellious streak.

When historian Clive Benton convinces archaeologist Nora Kelly and her employer, the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, to undertake a search for and excavation of the Lost Camp, an offshoot of the Donner Party’s known snowbound locations, no one expects the FBI to intervene in the dig on site. Agent Corrie Swanson has been investigating the possible ties among a string of grave robberies and a missing person and has, perhaps precipitously, connected them to the dig. Her arrival at the site leads to a shutdown and murders and she and Nora are forced to work together to find the killer(s).

Although the identity of the killer(s) was a bit too predictable, I thoroughly enjoyed Old Bones and relish the promise of more collaborations between Nora and Corrie with a little Pendergast thrown in 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2019.

A Few Teeny Reviews

thrice-the-brinded-cat-hath-mewdThrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
A Flavia de Luce Mystery #8
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-345539960
Hardcover
Audible
Unabridged Downloaded Audio Book
Narrated by Jayne Entwistle

From the publisher—

In spite of being ejected from Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is excited to be sailing home to England. But instead of a joyous homecoming, she is greeted on the docks with unfortunate news: Her father has fallen ill, and a hospital visit will have to wait while he rests. But with Flavia’s blasted sisters and insufferable cousin underfoot, Buckshaw now seems both too empty—and not empty enough. Only too eager to run an errand for the vicar’s wife, Flavia hops on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, to deliver a message to a reclusive wood-carver. Finding the front door ajar, Flavia enters and stumbles upon the poor man’s body hanging upside down on the back of his bedroom door. The only living creature in the house is a feline that shows little interest in the disturbing scene. Curiosity may not kill this cat, but Flavia is energized at the prospect of a new investigation. It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one’s spirits. But what awaits Flavia will shake her to the very core.

My favorite pre-teen sleuth (although this is not a series targeting young readers) is back home in England at her beloved Buckshaw but her return from Canada is not a completely happy one what with her father lying very ill in the hospital. At loose ends, Flavia goes in search of something to occupy her mind and a dead body is just the ticket. As precocious as ever, Flavia sets out to prove that this was murder but she’s unprepared for a shattering event. Not precisely a cliffhanger, this event makes me want the next book yesterday.

As always, narrator Jayne Entwistle is Flavia de Luce to a “T” and kept me captivated from beginning to end.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

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michelangelos-ghostMichelangelo’s Ghost
A Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery #4
Gigi Pandian
Henery Press, October 2016
ISBN 978-1-63511-069-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

A lost work of art linking India to the Italian Renaissance. A killer hiding behind a centuries-old ghost story. And a hidden treasure in Italy’s macabre sculpture garden known as the Park of Monsters… When Jaya’s old professor dies under eerie circumstances shortly after discovering manuscripts that point to a treasure in Italy’s Park of Monsters, Jaya and her brother pick up the trail. From San Francisco to the heart of Italy, Jaya is haunted by a ghost story inexorably linked to the masterpieces of a long-dead artist and the deeds of a modern-day murderer. Untrustworthy colleagues, disappearing boyfriends, and old enemies—who can Jaya trust when the ghost wails?

Jaya Jones is one of the most appealing protagonists I’ve come across in recent years and each book is better than the last. She’s an academic, an historian interested in unique artifacts, and she loves chasing after treasures even though she’s usually reluctant at first. In short, Jaya is a modern-day Indiana Jones, just not quite as much over the top, and I love her for that. Adventure is just around every corner and I happily go along with her on every treasure hunt.  Of course, there’s a mystery or two or three to be solved, including the question of how her former professor died, and having her brother and his girlfriend along this time adds to the entertainment. Oh, and the cherry on top is the secret romance between Jaya and Lane, the man with a thieving past. All in all, Michelangelo’s Ghost is a tale not to be missed.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

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the-stranger-gameThe Stranger Game
Cylin Busby
Balzer + Bray, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-235460-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When Nico Morris’s older sister mysteriously disappears, her parents, family, and friends are devastated. But Nico can never admit what she herself feels: relief at finally being free of Sarah’s daily cruelties.

Then the best and worst thing happens: four years later, after dozens of false leads, Sarah is found.

But this girl is much changed from the one Nico knew. She’s thin and drawn, when Sarah had been golden and athletic; timid and unsure, instead of brash and competitive; and strangest of all, sweet and kind, when she had once been mean and abusive. Sarah’s retrograde amnesia has caused her to forget almost everything about her life, from small things like the plots of her favorite books and her tennis game to the more critical—where she’s been the last four years and what happened at the park on the fateful day she vanished. Despite the happy ending, the dark details of that day continue to haunt Nico, and it becomes clear that more than one person knows the true story of what happened to Sarah. . . .

There isn’t anything more devastating than the disappearance of a child, the not knowing and the endless questions, but how much worse is it when a family member is not entirely sorry that child is gone? Nico is a normal young girl who misses Sarah and yet can’t help feeling relief that she doesn’t have to contend with her sister’s bullying and meanness anymore but, of course, that natural reaction is loaded with guilt. How Nico and her parents cope and her feelings of inadequacy because she can’t fill the gaping hole are an engaging study in how the ones left behind handle…or don’t…such a terrible scenario. When Sarah miraculously returns, Nico’s search for the truth ratchets up the tension and leads to almost unbearable suspense.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

Book Review: The Odd Fellows Society by C.G. Barrett

The Odd Fellows SocietyThe Odd Fellows Society
C.G. Barrett
Ink & Image Media II, November 2015
ISBN 978-0-9884419-3-4
Trade Paperback

A thriller that begins and ends with a chicken is something that has to capture your attention. Santiago Torres, a Jesuit priest in Washington, D.C., is supposed to meet his historian friend, Jasper Willoughs one February evening, but is instead handed a live chicken by an Asian woman. Since Jasper is notorious for being impulsive and late, Santi is at first more concerned that it looks like snow – and what on earth to do with the chicken –  than he is about Jasper’s well-being. Exasperated and cold, Santi leaves the meeting place, because as headmaster of a prestigious private school, there’s no way he can miss the parent-teacher meetings he has scheduled. But sadly, it turns out that this time Jasper is a no-show because he has died.

I think it would be impossible to read this book without thinking about The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. There are many similarities: an overt society, the Jesuits, are heavily manipulated by a covert shadow group, the Stewards; Jasper has left treasure hunt style clues for Santi to follow; there is a gorgeous and clever love interest; there’s a focus on research and academia; and interesting facts about the history of Washington and its monuments and buildings are woven into the storyline.

The Odd Fellows Society has a much more good-natured and humorous tone interspersed with all the drama, though, and I felt much of its strength came from its warmth. It’s a complicated thriller, not just because of the mystifying clues that Jasper has left, but also because of all the different themes and sub-plots that Barrett packs into the narrative. During the course of his adventure, Santi struggles to understand his difficult relationship with his FBI brother, Nico, and he tries to battle the seemingly unchangeable racism within his school. As well, Santi experiences constant tension in his role as a priest versus his obligations as a teacher and an employer, and especially in his long-time romantic love for his old friend, Abby.

This book was a lot of fun. Santiago was a very human character, doing his best but often baffled about what his next steps should be, and so easy to relate to. Next to Santi, my favourite characters were his blunt secretary, Pearl, and her irreverent computer whiz son, Bradley. This is an ambitious novel that avoids being sprawling, or too much like a comic book, because it’s filled with romantic yet imperfect characters doing unexpected things. Barrett successfully combines seriousness and entertainment in a very fast-moving thriller in The Odd Fellow Society, where nothing is exactly what it seems – not even the chicken.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, June 2016.

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: Brooklyn Bones by Triss Stein, Highball Exit by Phyllis Smallman, and Nightrise by Jim Kelly

Brooklyn BonesBrooklyn Bones
Triss Stein
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0120-2
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

Erica Donato has a difficult personal life:  Her mother has passed away, she is estranged from her father after he moved away to Arizona with the new woman in his life, her husband died in a tragic accident at age 26, leaving a 24-year-old widow and three-year-old daughter, now fifteen, and she is trying to raise a teenage daughter on her own. Erica is a historian, in grad school, and working in a museum on a part-time internship, receiving a small paycheck and getting academic credit for the work.

During the course of extensive renovation work in her century-old house in one of the less-upscale parts of Park Slope, Brooklyn, a skeleton is found, hidden behind a wall, apparently that of a young girl, and it appears to have been there since late in 1972.  Both Erica and her daughter, Chris, become determined to try to ascertain who the girl was and why she died.  Her daughter says “I feel like I found her so I owe her something.  I feel like she wants me to find out about her.”  Erica agrees, thinking about “this refuge that no longer felt so safe, where a girl my daughter’s age had seemingly disappeared a long time ago.  I didn’t want to think about who must have been looking for her way back then, or the terrible sadness if there was no one to look.”

As the two start to investigate the history of the house, bad things start to happen to people in their lives, both of long standing, and new ones, and Erica is repeatedly warned to stop asking questions, to her and her daughter’s peril should she fail to do so.

The tale is an intriguing one.  The book seemed to sag a bit in the middle, but quickly picks up again, and I found this a very interesting novel, one that makes me want to read more from this author.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2013.

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Highball ExitHighball Exit
Phyllis Smallman
Touchwood Editions, November 2012
ISBN 978-1-927129-79-1
Trade Paperback

Billed as “a traditional mystery series serving Jack Daniels instead of tea,” this is the fifth in Phyllis Smallman’s Sherri Travis mysteries.  The protagonist, who co-owns a restaurant/bar with her lover, Clay Adams, is going through difficult financial times in the current economy, and uneasy romantic times in her relationship with Clay.  As the book opens, “Aunt” Kay arrives at Sherri’s house in a police cruiser, and tells Sherri that her former waitress, 21-year-old Holly Mitchell, has been found dead, in what the police declare to be a suicide:  There was what appears to be a suicide note with an empty highball glass sitting on it; it is their belief that she washed down some pills with a strong drink.  Three months behind in mortgage payments, and terrified that she will lose the Sunset Bar & Grill, she finds a temporary solution to that problem when Aunt Kay persuades her to look into the young woman’s death, made more urgent by the fact that there is no sign of Holly’s baby, telling her that she will take care of the outstanding payments if Sherri will give her a week of her time.

Now thirty-one, Sherri’s life had not been an easy one:  Married when she was 19, she had survived the murder of her cheating husband, been kidnapped by a psychopath, and now takes martial arts classes, goes to the shooting range, and is never without her can of pepper spray, in spite of all of which she regularly suffers from panic attacks.  Her current inquiries puts her life in danger from totally unexpected quarters, as she enters a world of drugs, sex workers, and perversion, but she is determined to get to the bottom of Holly’s death and to find her baby.

The book is filled with interesting characters, starting with Elvis, “the only egret in all Florida who preferred hotdogs to fish;” feisty “Auntie” Kay, who had known Sherri from the age of five; Sherri’s father, Tully, and Sherri’s former mother-in-law, Bernice, who are now romantically involved, to Sherri’s consternation.

This was a thoroughly entertaining novel, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2013.

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NightriseNightrise
Jim Kelly
Crème de la Crime/Severn House, February 2013
ISBN: 978-1-78029-033-1
Hardcover, 244 pp., $28.95

This was a book that I enjoyed immensely, despite the fact that at times it moved rather slowly for me, probably because many of its frames of reference were unfamiliar, coming as I am from the “other side of the pond.”  Even extending to the title, although I supposed it was meant to evoke the opposite of sunrise, and is defined by the author at one point as the moment when one sees “the first star clear in the sky.”

Philip Dryden had been a Fleet Street reporter, a job he’d left for one on the local paper to be near his wife.  I found him to be a very original protagonist, one made very human and vulnerable when, on the opening page, he is introduced to the reader as the father of an infant son, following somewhat traumatic circumstances:  His wife “had been badly injured in a car accident a decade earlier – – trapped in a coma for more than two years.  She would never completely recover.  They’d been told a child was impossible.”    But, almost miraculously, here he was.

Also in the opening pages, Philip is told by the police that his father has just been killed in an auto accident, the body burned beyond recognition, only the vehicle itself providing the identity of the owner.  This is a second near-impossibility:  His father had died 35 years before, drowned during the floods of 1977, the body swept away and never found.  The thought that he might have survived and simply chosen not to return to his family is, to say the least, stunning.

There are other story lines here, and a faint suspicion allowed that somehow they may be linked..  A West African man, seeking asylum in England but being forced to return to Niger, has been refused, without explanation, the return of the body of his infant daughter, buried, he is told, in an unmarked grave, and he and his wife seek Dryden’s help.  Then there is the mystery behind the murder of a local man whose already dead body had been hung from an irrigator in an open field.  When another murder occurs, a very personal one for Dryden, his efforts to solve these crimes are redoubled.

The novel is very well-written, suspenseful, and with a totally unexpected ending.  This is the sixth book in the series, but the first one I’d read.  I was happy to discover it, and shall definitely look for the previous entries.  This one is certainly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2013.