Book Review: Haunting Investigation by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Haunting Investigation
A Chesterton Holte Mystery #5
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Smoke & Shadow Books, December 2015
ISBN: 978-1-943052-01-1
Hardcover

First of all, detective Chesterton Holte is a ghost, and only newspaper reporter Poppy Thornton can see or hear him⏤aside from her Aunt Jo’s old dog and the cat. And the only reason he’s haunting her is because he directly led to her father being executed as a spy during World War I and this is his way of making it up to her.

The year is 1924 and the country is still reeling not only from the war, but from the millions of lives lost to the Spanish Flu. Women are taking jobs usually considered the male prerogative and Poppea Thornton is one of them. She is a budding newspaper reporter, up to now assigned to the society pages as she is one of Philadelphia’s upper crust. But when one of society’s own is murdered, Poppy, to her satisfaction, receives the job of reporting the news. In her duties, she meets a handsome police detective, which serves her well when she becomes the murderer’s target, but it is the ghost, Chesterton Holte, who helps Poppy root out the clues.

Against a whole lot of opposition, Poppy works hard and diligently to make her way in a man’s world.

I liked the characters. I formed good pictures of Aunt Jo, cousin Stacy, the widow, and all the others. The setting is well done. I enjoyed the descriptions of the cars, the attire of the day, and especially, the food and drink⏤lots of drink. And during prohibition, too, wink, wink. However, the murder methods seemed odd to me. Also, there didn’t seem to be any real resolution to the story, ending more with a whimper than a bang. Even so, I enjoyed the journey with Poppy and Holte and Detective Loring. One assumes it is to be continued.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, October 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: Peak Season for Murder by Gail Lukasik

Peak Season for MurderPeak Season for Murder
A Leigh Girard Mystery #3
Gail Lukasik
Five Star, September 2013
ISBN 978-12-4328-2729-8
Hardcover

Door County, Wisconsin, is a vacation spot known for art galleries, live performances, and trendy restaurants. It’s a place where the well-heeled summer people and tourists meet with the locals who live there year round. Leigh Girard, Door County Gazette reporter, is investigating the death of a formerly homeless man, Brownie Lawrence. Brownie’s friend, Ken Albright, is accused of his murder, and while Leigh attempts to prove his innocence, she discovers Brownie had assumed another man’s identity.

The Bayside Theater is a Door County institution, and this season’s cast seems to be shadowed by a past mystery. Twenty three years ago local actress Danielle Moyer vanished after starring in a play. Her body was never found. Nina Cass, the theater’s owner and actress, has hired her ex-husband, actor Nate Ryan, for the season. Ryan, who was one of the players when Danielle Moyer disappeared, is out of rehab and still a heartthrob but his good looks are fading. Former ballerina Gwen Shaw is also one of the players, along with Shakespearean stage actor Julian Finch, and young actress Harper Kennedy.

Leigh is interviewing the cast members for an article, but a series of misfortunes haunt the theatre. On the opening night of the first play, a swarm of bats converge on the stage, causing Gwen Shaw to trip and break her arm. During rehearsal for “Merchant of Venice,” a real knife is substituted for a prop, and Julian is cut.

This is the author’s third Leigh Girard mystery. She has a wonderful feel for language and uses it well to describe the characters and the setting, but doesn’t neglect the plot. Leigh is a character with a lot of backstory, but it is revealed a little at a time, as you come to appreciate her perseverance and curiosity.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, October 2015.

Book Review: Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond by Jayne Barnard—and a Giveaway!

Maddie Hatter and the Deadly DiamondMaddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond
Jayne Barnard
Tyche Books, September 2015
ISBN 978-1-928025-33-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Miss Maddie Hatter, renegade daughter of a powerful Steamlord, is scraping a precarious living as a fashion reporter when the story of a lifetime falls into her lace-gloved hands.

Baron Bodmin, an adventurer with more failed quests than fingernails, has vanished in circumstances that are odd even for him.

While he is supposedly hunting the fabled Eye of Africa diamond in the Nubian desert, his expeditionary airship is found adrift off the coast of England. Maddie was the last reporter to see the potty peer alive. If she can locate the baron or the Eye of Africa, her career will be made.

Outraged investors and false friends complicate her quest, and a fiendish figure lurks in the shadows, ready to snatch the prize . . . at any price.

I stopped reading steampunk a while back, mainly because I got tired of it and I felt as though each one was pretty much the same as the last. Then, one fine day, Jayne Barnard offered me a copy of this book for review and I was immediately drawn in by the title and by this oh-so-wonderful cover. Is that not one of the best covers you’ve seen in a while? And, OMG, the bird! Tweetle-D aka TD is one of the most charming birds I’ve ever come across even if he is made of brass and, quite frankly, Maddie’s snooping would have gotten  nowhere without this very special little sparrow.

Like any intelligent, forward-thinking young woman of her day, Maddie has no intention of writing about fashion for the rest of her career but she needs a miracle to propel her into something more exciting. That miracle kind of falls into her lap when the eccentric Baron Bodmin disappears during his expedition to Egypt in search of a fabulous jewel and his airship is found floating aimlessly without its pilot. Maddie is literally on the spot in Cairo and this is her chance but she has to be very circumspect in her investigations lest her society parents catch wind of her decidedly improper activities.

Keeping the proper rules of conduct in mind as much as possible but allowing for a few daring “missteps”, Maddie and her wonderful TD set off to get the scoop and solve the mystery while they’re at it. How could she possibly predict the twists and turns this inquiry will bring about as a missing person case becomes murder?

Egypt was another lure that enticed me to read Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond. Years ago, many more than I like to think about, I spent a week in Egypt and was completely captivated by the country and its people and it’s one of a handful of foreign lands I really want to visit again. In today’s climate of unrest and violence, that’s not likely to happen, so I enjoy Egypt vicariously through books such as those written by Elizabeth Peters. That love of Egypt was only one of the reasons I wanted to read this book, though, and Ms. Barnard reeled me in with one of the most delightful tales I’ve read in a while. It’s a lovely mix of mystery, science fiction, humor, froth and adventure that can be found in the best steampunk and I can’t wait to read Maddie’s next exploits. Write faster, please, Ms. Barnard!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2015.

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To enter the drawing for a print copy of
Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond
by Jayne Barnard, leave a comment
below. The winning name will be drawn
Thursday evening, November 26th.
This drawing is open to residents
of the US and Canada.

Book Review: Time to Retire by Jon Foyt

Time to RetireTime to Retire
Jon Foyt
CreateSpace, October 2013
ISBN 978-1480075696
Trade Paperback

Looks like the Sunset Gardens Retirement Community may not be the best place for a certain clientele to think about retiring. The codes are uber strict there, and it’s going to take money—sometimes a lot of money—to live there. Especially when rates on just about everything keep going up. The question is, just where is all this money going?

The suicide of a Sunset Gardens Homeowner’s Association board member brings reporter Willy Herbst, not so far off from retirement himself, in to write about the retirement community as a whole. But strange things keep popping up, which draws Willy deeper and deeper into the puzzling aspects of this case. Along the way, Sally Saginaw, a younger intern at his newspaper, is assigned to help him out, and together they uproot some real surprises.

The story drifts a bit. Is it a full-out mystery, or an exposé on retirement communities and the people who live there? Certainly we find that old folks are not immune to learning criminal ways, given the chance. Especially when it comes to money.

Sally is a character who seems to have been added to the story to prove Willy is not quite over the hill, although a romance between them stretches belief. On the other hand, she is on hand to help when Willy, the victim as some of these nefarious folks strike again, is run down by a car.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, October 2014.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

Book Review: Choke Point by Ridley Pearson

Choke PointChoke Point
A Risk Agent Novel #2
Ridley Pearson
Jove, April 2014
ISBN: 978-0-515-15464-1
Mass Market Paperback

In the second novel in what is billed as an “international thriller series” (Risk Agent was the first entry), Ridley Pearson brings the return of John Knox, a man who has a useful ‘cover’ as a legitimate international exporter, and Grace Chu, a Chinese woman who was a former forensic accountant but has “recently proven herself a quick study of computer hacking.” She also holds a master’s degree in criminology from USC and, because of her former training with the Chinese Army, “is no slouch in field ops.” The fact that she speaks five or six languages is only a plus. They are both now occasionally employed by Rutherford Risk, a private security firm.

The book takes place for the most part in Amsterdam, although it opens briefly in Tunisia, where John is plying his trade, that is, until his old buddy David “Sarge” Dulwich finds him and coaxes him to take on a job in Amsterdam. Their long standing friendship goes back to the days when they were both working for a private contractor based out of Kuwait where John saved Sarge’s life, twice (once when the truck in which he was riding was hit by an IED). Both John and Grace find themselves becoming addicted to their new calling, their former professions seeming to have been a waste of their talents, and the adrenaline rush undeniable.

Their new assignment deals with child exploitation. They are joined, in a somewhat ambivalent relationship, by Sonia Pangarkar, a gorgeous reporter working on a story about “the poorer neighborhoods of Amsterdam and the European struggle with immigrants.” More than that, it is about a ring of men “who kidnap ten-year-olds and chain them to posts and make them work 18-hour days” in what are called “knot shops,” i.e., sweatshops where intricately hand-knotted Oriental rug knockoffs are made, with quantity demanded. And that’s the least horrific part of it. Rutherford Risk was called in as the work is seen as “typically unwanted by, or too dangerous for, others.” But Knox and Grace thrive on just that.

Thrillers are not, generally, my favorite sub-genre. But the author’s name beckoned to me. The book is undeniably exciting and suspenseful, densely plotted, and the three main characters very intriguing. It makes for enjoyable, good reading.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2014.

Book Reviews: Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, No Stone Unturned by James W. Ziskin, and The Escape by Kathryn Lasky

MagisteriumMagisterium
Jeff Hirsch
Scholastic Press, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-545-29018-0
Hardcover

A delightful fun read that kept the pages turning quickly. It’s easy to slip back into for those stolen five minute breaks that come along throughout the day. I love how Magisterium gradually pulls you in, without exactly announcing where it is going, through scifi to dystopia and fantasy, all in the young adult world.

We start with Glenn(ora), a 16 year old girl now living with her Dad in the Colloquium, a mostly normal-feeling albeit technologically-advanced world in the future. Even though the book is told in third person, we are limited by what Glenn knows and doesn’t know as we take this journey with her. And her sort-of friend, Kevin – whose differentness I really enjoyed.

There is another world, across the border, known as the Magisterium. I found the Colloquium world more interesting but, for most of the book, we leave it behind. Yet it is the contrast and the struggle between the Magisterium and the Coloquium worlds that gives this book much of its appeal.

Sprinkled throughout the book are some fun imaginative inventions. Now I want one of the gel chairs that mold to my body whenever I sit in it. (Brookstone? Anyone?) I especially loved Aamon – the fulfillment of every child’s fantasy. I would have liked to have more of him.

My only complaint is that when we get to the ending, the writing veered off into the melodramatic and, for this reader, it reduced the emotional impact. Other than that, I liked how the book was concluded.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, May 2014.

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No Stone UnturnedNo Stone Unturned
An Ellie Stone Mystery #2
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books, June 2014
ISBN 978-1-61614-883-6
Trade Paperback


From the publisher:

A dead girl in the woods. Three little oil spots on the dirt road. A Dr. Pepper bottle cap in the shallow grave. And a young reporter, armed with nothing but a camera.

Evening is falling on a wet, gray autumn day in upstate New York. Ellie Stone, twenty-four-year-old reporter for a small local daily, stands at a crossroads in her career and in her life. Alone in the world, battling her own losses and her own demons Ellie is ready to pack it in and return to New York a failure. Then she hears the dispatch over the police scanner.

A hunter, tramping through a muddy wood north of the small town of New Holland, has tripped over the body of a twenty-on-year-old society girl half-buried in the leaves. Ellie is the first reporter on the scene. The investigation provides a rare opportunity to rescue her drowning career, but all leads seem to die on the vine, until Ellie takes a daring chance that unleashes unintended chaos.

Wading through a voyeuristic tangle of small-town secrets, she makes some desperate enemies, who want her off the case. Dead if necessary.

 

I tremendously enjoyed this book. No Stone Unturned is the second novel by James W. Ziskin. I will definitely check out his first Ellie Stone mystery, Styx & Stone.

The story is set in the 1960s and follows young reporter Ellie Stone as she pursues the killer of student Jordan Shaw. Ellie Stone is a tough young woman, who drinks too much as she fights to stay afloat in a male-dominated world. There’s something in her that reminds me of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

Ziskin’s characters are well-developed and believable.

As for the setting, at times I wish the author would have included more details about the 1960s. I feel as if the story could have taken place 10 or 15 years later.

But apart from that a great read.

Reviewed by Anika Abbate, May 2014.

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The Escape Horses of the DawnThe Escape
Horses of the Dawn #1
Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic Press, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-39716-2
Hardcover


Horses of the Dawn
is a well written, fictionalized documentary of the Spanish conquistadors conquer of the New World written from the point of view of the horses that accompanied the soldiers and traumatized the native Americans.

Estrella, the young colt born on board ship, becomes the unnatural leader of the horses when she and others are thrown overboard without regard for their lives to lighten the ship’s load. As they swim to a nearby island, her mother is killed by sharks.

With the aid of her ancestors’ memories, Estrella eventually leads the herd to a grassland paradise. Along the way, they encounter a dangerous jungle full of predators, and are recaptured by the Spanish. Through a series of events, they escape the humans and continue on their successful journey to the land of plenty.

Though I appreciate the writer’s skillful craft and loved that the story was told through the eyes of Estrella, I was amazed from the beginning that the book was directed to 8-12 year olds. The writing style appeared much more advanced than that age appropriate. Added to that, the graphic descriptions of violence the herd encounter via sharks, crocodiles, Aztec human sacrifice, and the violent beheading of one of the horses did not make me think this was a young child’s book.

Ms. Lasky could have written the story of their journey told through Estrella’s eyes, included her leadership qualities, and tossed in some excitement that the horses might have avoided without describing in such detail the terror and trauma this herd experienced again and again before they reached their destination.

I would not recommend this book for a child under 12.

Reviewed by Elaine Faber, April 2014.

 

Book Reviews: The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley and Assignment: Nepal by J.A. Squires

The Osiris CurseThe Osiris Curse
A Tweed & Nightingale Adventure
Paul Crilley
Pyr, October 2013.
ISBN 978-1-61614-857-7
Hardcover

Sebastian Tweed, seventeen-year-old reformed con artist, has dedicated his phenomenal brainpower to foiling the schemes of mysterious evildoers. Octavia Nightingale, Tweed’s best (and only) friend, is an intrepid newspaper reporter, intent on finding her kidnapped mother. Together, Tweed and Nightingale roam the streets of early 20th-century London. It’s the London of an alternate universe, though, featuring sentient automatons, invisibility devices, and “Tesla guns” that shoot electrical rays.

Over the course of The Osiris Curse, the second Tweed and Nightingale Adventure by Paul Crilley, our heroes stow away on a massive airship to Egypt, visit The Great Pyramid (which has been hollowed out and turned into a hotel for the enjoyment of the rich), and discover a hidden civilization inhabited by a (sort-of) alien race. This is the kind of book where Nicola Tesla is murdered by Osiris-worshipping cultists in the first chapter and that’s not even the novel’s big mystery.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Crilley has simply cobbled together every trendy cliché he could think of from neo-Victorian steampunk sci-fi, and . . . truthfully, that seems pretty accurate. Yet this ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach is responsible for much of The Osiris Curse‘s considerable charm. If Crilley stuck to one or two familiar tropes, Tweed and Nightingale might get lost in the crowd of similar stories. Instead, the author throws high concepts together with such maniacal glee, it’s hard to avoid being swept along.

The Osiris Curse, like its prequel The Lazarus Machine, is marketed to young adults, and it might be particularly enjoyable to readers encountering some of its sci-fi concepts for the first time. However, this series should also appeal to seasoned fans of steampunk, Doctor Who, or any of the recent Sherlock Holmes retellings. In fact, the novel’s characters share a connection to Holmes himself. (Holmes and Moriarty are real people in this universe, just as H.G. Wells is really a time traveler.) I don’t want to give the connection away in this review, though, for the sake of anyone who wants to read The Lazarus Machine first; it’s a plot point in that novel, and it’s far too good to spoil.

If you’ve been reading too many novels lately where it seems like nothing happens, this book’s breakneck pace might be just what you need in your life. It’s not all about mindless fun, though. Crilley takes time to address the moral quandaries that the plot raises in a way that manages to be thoughtful without stopping the story dead. The Osiris Curse doesn’t claim to solve all the dilemmas it raises, but that’s another nod to the narrative’s complexity. I’d be glad to see the consequences unfold in future Tweed and Nightingale books.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Caroline Pruett, November 2013.

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Assignment NepalAssignment:Nepal
An Irene Adler Mystery
J.A. Squires
Echelon Press, October 2011
ISBN 978-1-59080-854-2
Ebook

Readers of this review should be aware that this press has published some of my crime fiction and I am acquainted with the publisher, though not with the two authors writing under a single pseudonym.

The protagonist is named Irene Adler. Not the woman who beat Sherlock Holmes at his own game, her modern namesake, a Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology at Boston University. Adler has a demi-cynical outlook on life and it turns out she supplements her income by playing poker; specifically Texas Holdem in the gambling parlors around the New England area. Irene Adler is a bright, smart, single woman, an endearing protagonist.

Her former advisor, a fellow faculty member, prevails on Ms. Adler to travel to Nepal to inquire into the life and times of a former fellow undergraduate student of Irene’s, a Margot Smith, who’s in Nepal doing research on one of that country’s goddesses, one Chwwaassa Dyo. The problem is that there appears to something awry with Margot and her physician husband and Adler is supposed to sort things out. What needs sorting turns out to be only part of the story. Irene agrees to go half-way around the world to see a woman she barely knows. From this most unlikely beginning, the plot drives poor Adler into one complexity after another.

Her assignment clearly has unstated dimensions about which neither we readers nor Irene Adler herself are clear. Now, Nepal is an exotic nation from which assaults on Mount Everest are mounted and the ubiquitous Sherpa play a  important part, as do digital cameras, former Cold War adversaries, political unrest in the country, and a whole series of meddlesome individuals who seem to still show up on the fringes of the former English Empire.

The novel winds its way through a variety of conflicts among wanderers, a boorish American tourist couple, and murder and bomb blasts. At times the narrative suffers from a pedestrian pace and some lapses of editing discipline over the point of view. Still, the story is interesting, Irene is definitely a character to build a series around, the exotic setting in and around Katmandu is, well, exotic, and a satisfactory conclusion is fashioned. I think four stars in too strong a rating, but the novel is more enjoyable than three stars would indicate. Sample the novel and make your own judgment.

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