Book Reviews: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes and Surrounded by Witnesses by Jeff Foster

hidden-bodiesHidden Bodies
Caroline Kepnes
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8562-2
Hardcover

Joe, narrator and protagonist of this turbulent novel is arrogant, smart, clever and well educated. He is also misogynistic, athletic, immoral, talented and a serial killer. As an adept seducer of women, he travels the nation, expounding on his distorted philosophy, scamming various people and murdering those who get in his way, often for the flimsiest of reasons. He is an extremely engaging modern character.

The story begins in a New York bookstore and ends in a California lockup. In between, Joe rambles both physically and intellectually about the human condition, about relationships and about what he should do next. And he pursues a distorted nihilistic philosophy of life that leads him into a morass of morally questionable actions that take place in often unusual and well-described locations. Yet he is a charmer and as pursued by his chronicler, author, Caroline Kepner, he is successful in persuading a great many people to buy at least some of his arguments and actions.

Of course, it is the skill and talent of the author that helps persuade us to continue to pay attention to this most reprehensible of characters and to give his oft-times hare-brained philosophizing serious consideration. A well-conceived, finely written effort that somehow seems peculiarly relevant in today’s world.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 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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surrounded-by-witnessesSurrounded By Witnesses
Jeff Foster
North Star Press, January 2007
ISBN: 978-0-87839-258-0
Trade Paperback

The novel has an interesting premise: a Muslim terrorist scout team is heading for the middle of the middle west in order to set up some kind of attack. They travel as a family and with typical short-view planning, come down from Canada into the Upper Midwest during the height of winter. This of course means blizzards, disruption of timing and attendant growing rage from the family’s controllers.

The novel centers on the family’s interaction with an intensely rural Minnesota family of taciturn Scandinavians. Swede and Heidi and their children are the epitome of type. Manifold difficulties rise to hamper the progress of the terrorist unit toward their intended target. The novel is replete with high tech maneuvering which at times gets in the way of human interaction and the pace of the novel.

I was bothered by the remote language of the narration, disconcerting shifts of points of view and a few clichéd characters. That said, the story line is interesting, but at 330 pages, this trade paper novel could have benefited from some judicious editing. At times the language including the dialogue is stilted and awkward. Those caveats aside, this is an enjoyable novel, worth a few hours of leisure.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, May 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.

Book Review: Blue Moon by Wendy Corsi Staub

Blue MoonBlue Moon
Mundy’s Landing Book 2
Wendy Corsi Staub
William Morrow, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-06234975-0
Mass Market Paperback

Mundy’s Landing is famous for the murders that occurred years ago.  Three girls were found dead in three different houses and the murderer was never found.  The houses came to be known as the Murder Houses.

Even though they had second thoughts about purchasing a “Murder House”  they went ahead and bought the house.   Annabelle Bingham and her husband Trib were thrilled with all the room the house provided for the couple and their son Oliver.  The couple felt they could put the bad memories of the house behind them.

That is hard to do in Mundy’s Landing particularly at the time of Mundy’s Landing Sestercentennial Vault to be opened in 2016.  People are gathering to see the town and stare at the Murder Houses which isn’t making Annabelle Bingham very comfortable but living where she does she is bound to have tourists coming around.

But girls are disappearing again in Mundy’s Landing.  No way could the killer of years ago return but it seems there is a pattern being followed and there will be murder before the festivities are over.

I am anxiously awaiting Book 3 Bone White.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, July 2016.

Book Reviews: The Guise of Another by Allen Eskens and License to Dill by Mary Ellen Hughes

The Guise of AnotherThe Guise of Another
Allen Eskens
Seventh Street Books, October 2015
ISBN: 978-1-63388-076-4
Trade Paperback

Following the success of his debut novel, The Life We Bury, author Allen Eskens has produced another winner. Intelligently constructed and almost perfectly written, this dark, dangerous and fast-paced noir thriller will be an example to study for budding writers in the genre.

The story begins with an auto accident in which a man abruptly dies on a highway in Minneapolis. Award-winning detective Alexander Rupert, facing a potentially troubling appointment with a grand jury, suddenly discovers a possible way out of his dilemma. If he can solve the mystery of the deceased James Putnam, who appeared to have fallen to earth fully formed a mere three years before, he might escape serious censure.

His case takes him to New York, and entanglement with a company engaged in government contracted black ops. He returns to Minneapolis, carrying the seeds of an insidious conspiracy. The plot is up-to-date, the action is relentless and the characters are consistent in their language and actions. While the outcomes, different for different characters, may become fairly obvious, the author is clever and fresh in his resolutions. This is an excellent novel and will be welcomed by readers of black arts, conspiracy theories, and multiple merciless murder.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 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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License to DillLicense to Dill
A Pickled & Preserved Mystery #2
Mary Ellen Hughes
Berkley Prime Crime, February 2015
ISBN 978-0-425-26246-7
Mass Market Paperback

Piper Lamb fled her job at a New York state tax office and opened a shop, “Piper’s Picklings,” in upstate Cloverdale. She sells pickles, spices, and canning equipment, has met Will Burchett—a tall, blond Christmas tree farmer—and life couldn’t be better.

The town is excited about the arrival of a semi-pro Italian soccer team, which will play a tournament against an all star team from Cloverdale. It turns out the coach of the Italian team was once an exchange student at the local high school, and all the high school girls had a crush on him. All the boys envied his position as a star on the soccer team.

All these years later, he’s still a flirt, and stirs up resentment among the women and their husbands. When the Italian’s body is found in a farmer’s dill field, everyone suspects a jealous man did the deed. Piper is shocked by the murder, and her shock grows when her ex-fiance, lawyer Scott Littleton, comes to town with a surprising announcement. For fans of foodie mysteries, like Laura Childs and Diane Mott Davidson. Of course, recipes are included.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, September 2015.

Book Reviews: As Night Falls by Jenny Milchman and Dance of the Bones by J. A. Jance

As Night FallsAs Night Falls
Jenny Milchman
Ballantine Books, June 2015
ISBN 978-0-553-39481-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Sandy Tremont has always tried to give her family everything. But, as the sky darkens over the Adirondacks and a heavy snowfall looms, an escaped murderer with the power to take it all away draws close.

In her isolated home in the shadowy woods, Sandy prepares dinner after a fight with her daughter, Ivy. Upstairs, the fifteen-year-old—smart, brave, and with every reason to be angry tonight—keeps her distance from her mother. Sandy’s husband, Ben, a wilderness guide, arrives late to find a home simmering with unease.

Nearby, two desperate men on the run make their way through the fading light, bloodstained and determined to leave no loose ends or witnesses. After almost twenty years as prison cellmates, they have become a deadly team: Harlan the muscle, Nick the mind and will. As they approach a secluded house and look through its windows to see a cozy domestic scene, Nick knows that here he will find what he’s looking for . . . before he disappears forever.

Opening the door to the Tremont home, Nick brings not only a legacy of terror but a secret that threatens to drag Sandy with him into the darkness.

As Night Falls is Jenny Milchman‘s third book set in the Adirondacks area and, with this book, she confirms that no one does a better job at making the weather a major character. The middle book doesn’t really have that focus but Cover of Snow and As Night Falls are simply brilliant in their evocation of bonecrushing cold, enhanced by depths of snow that I’ll never see here in Virginia. And the snow never seems to go away, making me feel as though I’m buried in a snowbank with no hope of escape. And, yet, I’m driven to keep reading because I know the author is going to make it worth my while.

In As Night Falls, Ms. Milchman introduces a new element that I find as compelling as the weather and that’s the house. I just cannot imagine a house that would unnerve me as much as this one does. The heavy silence from room to room, the knowledge that no one would hear if something went wrong with the building or one of the residents had an accident, such as falling down the stairs, or intruders forced their way in is mindboggling to me. I don’t get the allure at all and, if I were Sandy Tremont, I’d have to question my husband’s sanity in wanting to live in such a house, especially when it’s out in the boonies where you can’t even hope that a passerby might notice that something is wrong.

Ah, but this is the beauty of Ms. Milchman‘s work, the ability to make her readers so uncomfortable that they must go on to find out how—or if—her characters will find a way to survive. Where Sandy is concerned, the house and the weather make her circumstances even more frightening than they would have been anyway.

Sandy herself is an interesting woman even before we know the truth of her past. I did find her more than a bit ingenuous, thinking that she could escape it forever, but I understood her wanting to once I knew the facts. Still, although Sandy is the purported focus of the story, it’s Ivy that I really came to love. This girl is just like every other teenaged girl who loves her parents but is trying to find her own place in the world and is fighting to be seen as capable of making her own choices. Ivy resonated with me in many ways, not least of which is the connection she forms with one of the bad guys and her sense of betrayal when she learns her mother’s secret.

Then there are the bad guys. They’re both surprising in that Nick intends to be vindictive and vicious but seems to be a little reluctant while Harlan is sort of a very damaged child with remnants of his once-caring soul. He is a tragedy all by himself. When these two men invade the Tremont home, life will change forever for everyone involved and, between beginning and end, the suspense grabs the reader by the throat. Well done, Ms. Milchman!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2015.

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Dance of the BonesDance of the Bones
A J. P. Beaumont and Brandon Walker Novel
J. A. Jance
William Morrow, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-229766-2
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Years ago, Amos Warren, a prospector, was gunned down out in the desert and Sheriff Brandon Walker made the arrest in the case. Now, the retired Walker is called in when the alleged killer, John Lassiter, refuses to accept a plea deal that would release him from prison with time served. Lassiter wants Brandon and The Last Chance to find Amos’s “real” killer and clear his name.

Sixteen hundred miles to the north in Seattle, J.P. Beaumont is at loose ends after the Special Homicide Investigation Team, affectionately known as S.H.I.T., has been unexpectedly and completely disbanded. When Brandon discovers that there are links between Lassiter’s case and an unsolved case in Seattle, he comes to Beau for help.

Those two cases suddenly become hot when two young boys from the reservation, one of them with close ties to the Walker family, go missing. Can two seasoned cops, working together, decipher the missing pieces in time to keep them alive?

I’ve enjoyed J. A. Jance‘s books for a long time, especially the ones featuring J.P. Beaumont, but hadn’t tried her Brandon Walker series so I thought Dance of the Bones would be a great way to “meet” Walker while spending a little time with Beau.  As things turned out, I sort of bought into their collaboration but, on the whole, it didn’t work as well for me as it could have.

The core of the story is a good one, linking a murder from years past to an ongoing case and also linking two very different locales. The introduction of a group that investigates cold cases off the books is an extra added attraction but I think it also might be at the root of my general discontent because there are just too many people involved to keep track of. Throw in a missing persons case and there’s way too much going on, making things rather cumbersome.

I did like the time Beau is on the page but there’s not enough of him and he actually could have been left out without causing much harm to the tale. As for Brandon Walker, I like him and I like his involvement with The Last Chance so I do intend to go back to the beginning and read more about the Walker family. I should note also that I enjoy learning about Native American lore but a little goes a long way and there was just a bit too much of it in Dance of the Bones, to the point of being distracting.

When all is said and done, the mystery parts of the novel kept me interested but they were overshadowed by the weaknesses I’ve mentioned. I’ll say, however, that every author makes the occasional misstep and, for me, this one was it but I think many readers will be very pleased with this outing. As for me, I’ll look forward with great anticipation to Ms. Jance‘s next book, Clawback, which happens to be in the Ali Reynolds series and is due out in March 2016. While I wait for that one, though, I think I’ll check out No Honor Among Thieves, the novella that brings Ali and Joanna Brady together. Maybe this alliance will suit me better 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2015.

Book Review: Blood Red by Wendy Corsi Staub

Blood RedBlood Red
Mundy’s Landing Book One
Wendy Corsi Staub
William Morrow, September 2015
ISBN No. 13: 978-0-06-23497-3-6
Mass Market Paperback

Rowan and Jake Mundy have left New York City and moved to the small town of Mundy’s Landing, their hometown. Mundy’s Landing is famous for its scenery as well as a string of century old unsolved murders. The Mundy children Braden and Kate are away at college. The youngest son Mick still lives at home and is in high school.

When the family moved back to Mundy’s Landing Rowan felt she was escaping from a mistake she almost made that could have ruined her marriage. Now the mistake has been brought back to haunt her in the form of a package received containing 13-burnt cookies. Such a strange gift but Rowan knew exactly what it meant.

The Mundy’s neighbor in New York was Rick Walker who was a stay at home husband while his wife worked. Rowan and Rick became close since they spent so much time together doing activities with the family. Rowan was baking cookies and was stopped from almost giving in to Rick’s advance when the buzzer on the stove went off and the cookies were burnt.

Rowan is a red head and there have been some recent murders involving victims with red hair. It appears that Rowan may soon be one of the victims if she doesn’t solve the mystery of who is sending the anonymous packages. Rowan discusses the problem with her sister Noreen who has her own troubles and doesn’t have much advice for Rowan except to be honest with her husband Jake.

Rowan’s son Mick is interested in a girl at school who also has red hair and when she disappears, he is questioned since he has been leaving her some secret Santa gifts.

Rowan’s problem is finally solved in the end but not without injury to a family member. I am a big fan of Wendy Corsi Staub and have read most of her books but there was one part of the book that was not brought to a conclusion at the end of the story. This may be because it will be a start for the second book in the series but I did not like the way the incident was just dropped.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2015.

Shorts Reviews: Half-Life by Tina Ferraro and The Last Second by Robin Burcell

Half-LifeHalf-Life
Tina Ferraro
Leap Books, March 2015
ISBN 9781616030261
Ebook

From the publisher—

Half a life is not worth living.

Probably not a good idea to take advice from your dead twin sister. High school sophomore Trisha Traynor and friends have played the Halloween mirror game for years, the one that’s supposed to show a glimpse of the guy they’ll marry. But no one’s ever seen anything.

Until tonight—when Trisha is gob smacked by the candlelit arrival of her long-deceased twin sister, instead of her crush, Kirk Maxwell.

In a voice and vision that only Trisha can hear and see, Chessie claims to be back on a compassionate journey. Trisha fears she’s gone nuthouse crazy. But she nonetheless follows the instructions Chessie outlines in their nightly conversations, until she finds herself stepping across some ethical lines, and probably ending all chances with Kirk.

When a sisterly showdown ensues, resulting in the shattering of the mirror, Chessie’s gone again, and a heartsick Trisha sets about righting her recent wrongs. That is, until she stumbles upon the real reason Chessie had come back and the most important glimpse yet that the mirror could never predict.

One thing really struck me about Half-Life that doesn’t often happen with books, young adult or otherwise. I connected with Trisha in a major way because she and I had a lot in common if you just forget the facts that she doesn’t actually exist and that there is about a 50 year spread going on. Pah! Minor details! Now, I didn’t have a twin who died as a young child and I’ve never seen a ghost in a mirror or anywhere else but I was a 14-year-old girl when I had my first kiss and my first boyfriend and, my goodness, the memories and the feelings of my 14-year-old self all came flooding back.

Trisha’s home life is just shy of normal. Her mom has never been able to come to terms with Chessie’s death so Trisha, her little brother and her dad all have to tiptoe around her, not even daring to talk openly about Chessie. That all makes it even more critical that the rest of Trisha’s life—school, friends, potential boyfriends, etc.—stay on an even keel. Unfortunately, her BFF, Abby, has pretty much dropped her because she has a boyfriend and a neighboring schoolmate is pressuring Trisha to do something she knows is wrong. Oh, and what is she going to do about those two guys, the DDG (Drop Dead Gorgeous) Kirk and Chadwick, and her ghostly sister?

Half-Life is a sweet story with a little bit of intrigue and I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is my introduction to Tina Ferraro‘s work and I just may have to try some more 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2015.

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The Last SecondThe Last Second
Robin Burcell
Witness Impulse, December 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-2273734
Ebook

From the publisher—

Covert agent Zachary Griffin and FBI Special Agent Sydney Fitzpatrick are sidetracked from an ongoing investigation to follow up on a potential lead. In a small Arizona border town, gunrunning and drug trafficking into Mexico are a part of the landscape—but not when they’re orchestrated by an officer in uniform. At least that’s the story told to agents Griffin and Fitzpatrick.

But the dirty cop is now missing, and his sister says he’s innocent, a victim of a corrupt police department. She is convinced they set him up to take the fall, then killed him, and she can prove it—with help from a highly unusual witness. Suddenly an open-and-shut case seems anything but, and the clock is ticking as Griffin and Fitzpatrick take on an entire police department in a deadly match that could go up in smoke at the last second.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read any of Robin Burcell‘s books, not because I didn’t want to but just because I have a mountainous TBR that never gets any smaller. Anyway, I’m very glad that I picked up this short story because it reminded me of how much I really do like Sydney and Zach.

At first, the case seems to be relatively simple: a dirty cop, Calvin Walker, working with the Mexican cartels, might be the person who can lead Sidney and Zach to the head of the operation, a gunrunning ex-CIA agent named Garrett Quindlen. Trouble is Calvin has disappeared and may be in possession of a lot of explosives. Finding him is problematic until they hear about a special witness named Max.

I really enjoyed this story. As short as it is, Ms. Burcell has packed a good deal of action and suspense into this reminder that this is an author well worth reading. I hope that, by the time I catch up on her work, a new book will be coming out, either in this series or Kate Gillespie’s or, what the heck, something entirely new 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2015.

Book Review: Adrift by Paul Griffin

AdriftAdrift
Paul Griffin
Scholastic Press, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-70939-2
Hardcover

Reading Adrift is like floating on the ocean, basking in the sun one minute; being tugged under icy, churning waters the very next. It’s a kick-ass story delivered in an almost detached voice, packing a powerful punch. It’s gritty and raw, in a naturally understated kind of way. The story of two guys living on the border of Brooklyn and Queens with summer jobs in Montauk, selling cold drinks and ice-cream on beaches starts quickly, gaining momentum as it unfolds.

The brother-like bond between the boys is easily evident early on. Subtle suggestions of a shared, sinister moment are intriguing. An impulsive gift of slightly melted Klondike bars to three strangers (one of which is a beauty with a heart-stopping, crooked smile) immediately integrates two very different worlds and forces them to embark in a volatile, enthralling, seafaring expedition.

“Five of us went out on the water that night. None of us
came back whole and not all of us came back.”

The story is, quite simply, stunning. A cunning confirmation of the importance of perception is rare and remarkably well done here. Reaching conclusions quickly, accepting the “obvious” answer when studying only one, very limited, view can be disastrous. The snippets of correspondence among law enforcement, searchers and rescuers interspersed with the narrative are shocking and scary in their simplicity.

Mr. Griffin weaves a wicked good tale; flirting with foreshadow while revealing bits of the characters’ past, creating a web of questions, confusion and abruptly apparent answers. With a diverse cast of captivating kids, an epic and mysterious escapade-turned-mission, and authentic dialogue, Adrift will have mass appeal. Appropriate for the middle-grade reader but too broad to be limited, Mr. Griffin’s upcoming survival story will be an awesome addition to anyone’s Summer Reading List.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2015.