Book Review: Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

Disappeared
Francisco X. Stork
Arthur A. Levine Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-94447-2
Hardcover

Existence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico requires a combination of courage, vigilance and restraint.  The typical work-day commute equals exposure to potential harassment and harm.  Truly dangerous, totally unavoidable.  Students don’t have the luxury of focusing on academics or sports.  Families need financial support.

Emiliano attends his high school classes and participates on his soccer team, but he focuses on family and ‘his’ Jiparis.  Intelligent, innovative and driven, Emiliano creates a small business of collecting hand-made folk art from his pseudo-Mexican-Boy Scouts, which he sells to small shops. The Jiparis’ families receive the bulk of proceeds, of course, but Emiliano’s cut helps at home and his business has been noticed.

A journalist with El Sol, Emiliano’s sister writes a weekly column about the city’s missing girls.  Sara had shared her own story of loss, writing of the day her best friend was kidnapped.  Friends and family members of other missing girls responded to her article, and Sara was assigned a weekly column.  After reporting progress, Sara was stunned when she was ordered to drop the investigation and the article.

Emiliano becomes acquainted with several of the city’s successful businessmen and his views seem to shift.  Hard work is nothing without the willingness to get “a little dirty”.  A person can only truly move up, in this world, when illegal activity is going down.  Clearly, everyone is doing it; but it takes Emiliano time to realize how closely it is all connected.

Mr. Stork deftly displays the complexities of life in Mexico, even as he highlights the hope, strength, determination and compassion in the people that call it home.  Disappeared is a fictional story about Mexico’s missing girls, but the fact is, hundreds of Mexican women do disappear in this border city every year.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2017.

Book Reviews: City of Halves by Lucy Inglis and A Specter of Justice by Mark de Castrique

City of HalvesCity of Halves
Lucy Inglis
Chicken House, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-82958-8
Hardcover

What a way to start your day. Lily who lives with her barrister father in a London suburb, is a pretty proficient computer hacker and is currently helping Dad on a case. She’s looking for a forger whose identity can help free an immigrant woman her father is defending, who is facing imprisonment and deportation. When Lily snags some video footage from one of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras that are all over London, it shows what she thinks is the forger near a spot where he’s dropped papers in the past. She has time to check out the area because school isn’t in session.

When Lily reaches the alley where she saw the footage, she’s attacked by a two-headed dog that nearly kills her. The mystery figure she saw in the video appears, killing the dog and carrying her back to the large building where he lives. Despite her protests, the heavily tattooed boy named Regan, uses an ancient medical book to figure out how to give her an emergency blood transfusion from his own arm. When Lily tries to refuse because she has an extremely rare type, he informs her that she’ll die unless he does and he knows that she’s Type H. She begins to feel better almost immediately. Even more startling is the fact that all of her injuries have completely disappeared even though her clothing is still soaked by her own blood.

Thus begins an extremely well crafted combination fantasy thriller and romance that involves an evil government agency, a host of supernatural creatures (bandogges, dragons, wraiths, banshees, plague carriers, a man whose hands create fire, snake people and others too numerous to list here), lies from the past and threats aplenty to London, some natural, others supernatural.

As Lily and Regan slowly fall for each other, they have to figure out how their relationship fits into an ancient prophecy, avoid her getting captured by the government and learn where the girls and various mythical creatures who are being kidnapped have been stashed as well as for what purpose. None of these are easy, making this book a real page turner. It’s a perfect blend of urban fantasy and romance with mystery elements. While the ending is satisfying, there’s that delicious hint of a sequel in the future.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, October 2015.

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A Specter of JusticeA Specter of Justice
A Sam Blackman Mystery #5
Mark De Castrique
Poisoned Pen Press, November 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0472-2
Hardcover

A strong, well-conceived story takes readers into some dark corners of the American judicial system. The concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” serves us well, except when it doesn’t. Criminal defense lawyers are wedded to the idea that they should bend every legal effort to protect their clients and use the system to see their clients go free, even the guilty ones. Should they? Even if they know their client is guilty? What about possible consequences of freeing a violent perpetrator?

Ours is not a perfect system but it is better than any alternative yet devised by the mind of mankind. These are questions raised in this enthralling story of lawyers, investigators and policemen all caught up in a web of deceit, murder and manipulation that has roots more than ten years old.

Sam Blackman and his lover and partner, Nakayla Robertson, join forces with a local group of boosters to create a fund-raiser to help twin orphaned boys. There are murky legends of ghosts, suicides and spectral happenings in Asheville, North Carolina, as there are about most cities. An evening tour of sites with costumed hosts seems innocent enough until the real dead body of one of the fund-raiser participants is abruptly injected into the proceedings.

Thereafter Sam and Nakayla are beset on all sides as they try to decipher obscure and musty clues, helpful and resistant witnesses, old and current case-loads, all told in neat, carefully constructed cleanly delivered prose. This novel is a clean, intense and fast read with some excellent characters and relationships that will leave many thoughtful readers with some difficult questions to ponder. I recommend this novel with no  reservations.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 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.

Book Reviews: Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig, and The Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse by Nina Post

Sorrow's KnotSorrow’s Knot
Erin Bow
Arthur A. Levine Books, November 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-16666-9
Hardcover

How many times have you asked “Why?” only to be told (with a bit of exasperation) “Because, we’ve always done it this way!”  From the outside looking in, this can be frustrating, a non-answer.  It doesn’t explain a thing and it seems somewhat defensive and stubborn.  Of course, if you have “always done it this way”, and there are no obvious repercussions, the old “if it ain’t broke…..” adage may seem more than adequate.  With that philosophy, there would be no progress, no improvements, we would become stagnant.  The devil’s advocate may wonder, what is wrong with that?  Well, Sorrow’s Knot shows us.

I finished this book awhile ago, but writing this review has been challenging. I could almost write two different reviews—both hugely in favour of the book.  It is truly fantastic.  The unique and subtle life lessons were spot-on and welcome.  As an adult (chronologically), a mom, a short-time former educator and self-proclaimed promoter of the written word; I find this to be a stand-out book.  On the other hand, the book loving, adolescent inside of me just thinks it is a kick-ass story.

First, the appeal to the intended Middle-Grade audience: allow me to gush about the Rock-Star-Quality characters.    Otter, Cricket and Kestrel are unique and likeable, individually; but as the tightly knit trio, they are outstanding! I want to hang out with Kestrel, be her BFF.  She is my new heroine.  I could spend days completing menial tasks if Cricket was there to tell me stories.  The friendship among them surpasses all, including the laws that their people have forever lived by.  Together, they face mystery, intrigue, love and death.

Strengths exhibited by Kestrel, a female ranger, are more real, and therefore way cooler, than the modern-day vampire.  Sweeter romance will not be easily found.  In their world, okishae, said to mean mate, pair, knot.  It is the exception, not the rule.  Okishae lasts a lifetime.  Two humans choosing to love each other, exclusively and forever, is not just rare, it is strange.  That which is feared, The White Hand, is a brand-new (or newly introduced) creepy, eerie and scary entity.  The vagueness surrounding it adds to the mystique and makes for a bone-chilling tale.  As their sheltered life begins to unravel, Otter and Kestrel are faced with decisions that will impact, not just them, but the entire population of Westmost and potentially beyond.  Unceremoniously joined up with a complete stranger in Orca; the ladies will be forced to choose where to place their trust.  Should they accept Orca’s wild tales or continue believing what they’ve always been told?  The many twists and turns are thought-provoking and entertaining, making this one of the grooviest books I’ve read this year.

Now—a quick adult-themed note: I love that the village is mostly women, that a monogamous relationship is an oddity, that a Story-Teller plays such a vital role in the community and that the adolescents are so strong, smart and capable.  Most of all, I loved the purity and loyalty that came with their friendship.  These might not leap out as attributes to the intended audience, but the strength and solidarity that they lend to the story will not be missed.

Coming out in November, just in time to kick off your holiday shopping, this would be a welcome gift to any reader.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2013.

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The Passion of the Purple PlumeriaThe Passion of the Purple Plumeria   
A Pink Carnation Novel  
Lauren Willig
New American Library, August 2013
ISBN 978-0-451-41472-4
Trade Paperback

The story opens in Paris with Gwendolyn Meadows, part of the intrepid Pink Carnation spy team, crouched on a balcony outside a room occupied by opera singer, Aurelia Fiorila, and the notorious Tallyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister. They are hatching a plot whereupon Aurelia will play the spy in Britain. Gwen, of course, carries the news back to her employer and friend, Miss Jane Wooliston, who is known in certain circles as the Pink Carnation.

Meanwhile, Colonel William Reid, late of the East India Company, has just arrived in England with plans to build a home for himself and his two daughters, whom he sent to England ten years previously when his wife died.

Gwen and William meet on the doorstep of the girl’s school attended by Jane’s younger sister and William’s youngest daughter, only to discover the two girls have disappeared. Have they been kidnapped? Has someone taken Agnes Wooliston in order to flush out the Pink Carnation? Or is something else at work here? Why is Lizzy gone too?

The set-up sends Gwen and William on a wild chase seeking the girls. A sultan’s treasure is involved, stolen by one of William’s sons. The plot carries forward with non-stop action, fine-tuned characterizations, and excellent descriptions. And that’s just for starters.

Author Willig’s builds her two main characters with snappy, laugh-out-loud dialogue. The situations are both madcap and serious. Yes, I know. Both. The story building reminds me of some of Georgette Heyer’s lighter and more amusing farces, only Willig is funnier. I’ll certainly be reading more of Lauren Willig’s spy series. The only thing I found not to love was the insertion of some chapters that take place in the present day. Those chapters seemed to me to break the spell set up for William and Gwen.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, October 2013.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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The Last Condo Board of the ApocalypseThe Last Condo Board of the Apocalpyse
Nina Post
Curiosity Quills Press, February 2012
ISBN: 978-1-62007-016-1
Trade Paperback

Kelly Driscoll is a bounty hunter for hire tasked with finding one suspect within a 500-apartment condominium. Finding him within two days will be pretty spectacular but that’s her job and she’s gonna do it. But there are more to these residents than meets the eye. Will she find her suspect in time and claim all her expenses?

To be honest, I couldn’t really get into this book at all. Even writing the short synopsis above took an age because quite simply, I didn’t care about the story, mainly because it was so manic throughout that I don’t know if I got it in the end. Ask me what it was about and I’ll struggle to tell you accurately because there are a myriad of characters all running about acting strangely and seemingly without purpose and certainly without sense. The only thing this achieved was to confuse and add unnecessary complexity to the story that made me want to just give up. Reading page after page about condo meetings is agonising and boring. I guess it was meant to highlight how this weird group of characters get distracted from their original purpose but I could have easily done without it, or at least had a very edited, shortened version. It felt like filler, just very, very boring filler.

Put it this way, the story is too haphazard and convoluted to actually work. It lacks direction and purpose and lurches from thread to thread with too many stops and starts. 61 chapters in a 250 page book is too many in my opinion and only add to the manic atmosphere of the story. While I understand that the book is supposed to be detailing the advent of the apocalypse, having to cling to the plot with a death grip does not make for pleasant reading and in the end, the story wasn’t strong enough for me to even care. It ends very abruptly as well which in this instance was a blessing for me when I realised that I didn’t actually have another 25 pages to read. But, abrupt endings are never a good idea anyway. Teasing and tantalising the reader with an open ending or cliffhanger is good, dropping the story like a hot potato is bad. Since the book contained a preview of the next book titled The Last Donut Shop of the Apocalypse, I’m pretty sure this is aiming to be a series. However, I didn’t even bother to read the sample chapter so indifferent was I to the first title and I certainly didn’t dip into the other sample chapter of One Ghost Per Serving either. This book needs a darn good editor and extensive rewriting before it will hit any bestseller lists. As it is, I won’t be recommending it to others.

Reviewed by Laura McLaughlin, August 2013.

Book Reviews: Resolve by J.J. Hensley, A Delicate Truth by John Le Carre, and Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley

ResolveResolve
J.J. Hensley
Permanent Press, April 2013
ISBN: 978-1-57962-313-5
Hardcover

This debut novel probably tells the reader more than he/she wants to know about running a marathon and the various Pittsburgh neighborhoods in which it is run, but it ties together the plot of several murders. Dr. Cyprus Keller is the protagonist.  He is a professor at a relatively undistinguished Steel City university and is one of several academics forming a running group in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

When one of his students is found murdered, he becomes part of the police investigation.  And then several more murders occur, and he is a common denominator.  Deeply involved, he undertakes his own investigation into the crimes, and as a result is an active participant in the developments that arise.  Early on, he discloses that he will murder one person during the marathon, and as the race progresses, the reader awaits the act and how Keller proposes to get away with the deed.

Each chapter begins with a description of the various phases of the 22.2 mile race, sometimes dropping a clue, others just describing the neighborhood or the pain of running.  The summary is then followed by a narrative of events leading up to the novel’s denouement. It is an interesting technique.  While a reader can become bored by a lot of minutiae, the novel is cleverly written and for a first effort deserves praise.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2013.

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A Delicate TruthA Delicate Truth
John le Carre
Viking, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-670-01489-7
Hardcover

In the present atmosphere of clandestine operations, the result of which the public has been ill-informed and too often kept in the dark, John Le Carre has fashioned a novel built around a bungled black op covered up for three years.  The story begins with the hatching of “Operation Wildfire,” comprising British special force soldiers and American mercenaries employed by a private company.  The aim is to capture an arms dealer who, according to intelligence, is to visit the British colony of Gibraltar.

A Foreign Office functionary is selected to be the on-the-spot eyes-and-ears for a minister of Her Majesty, nominally in charge of the operation.  Like many such actions, it results in failure, but is declared a total success, despite the fact that two innocents are killed and the subject never captured.  Three years later, various persons, directly or tangentially, separately begin to question the silence and attempt to uncover the facts.  The promised “transparency” never seems to arrive.

After a somewhat muddled beginning, in which Mr. Le Carre jumps all around, a bit confusing to the reader, he begins to move the plot straightforwardly and with dispatch.  The author raises the basic question of right and wrong, also lambasting the use of private armies to wage “little wars” around the globe and old boy networks where mistakes are covered up and witnesses bought off.  A topic that is, unhappily, very timely.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2013.

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Deadly HarvestDeadly Harvest
Michael Stanley
Bourbon Street Books/Harper Paperbacks, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-06-222152-0
Trade Paperback

In this, the fourth Detective Kubu mystery, a new character, detective Samantha Khama, joins the Botswana CID, the only female on the police force.  And immediately shakes things up, insisting on an investigation into the disappearance of young girls.  After initial misgivings, Kubu takes her under his wing, and together they uncover what appears to be the harvesting of human parts for muti, a witch doctor’s potion customarily made with plants and herbs and possibly animal parts, which is supposed to enhance a person’s power or luck.

The plot follows one murder after another beginning with that of a leading opposition politician, followed by that of two young girls. Obviously a serial killer is at large, and Kubu and Samantha have their work cut out for them.

This is a grisly story, rich in detail.  Written by a team of two that is quite knowledgeable of southern Africa, they have created a memorable cast of characters, and it remains to be seen how they will develop this latest, terrific, addition to the Kubu series.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2013.