Book Review: Dark Places by Reavis Z. Wortham

Dark Places
A Red River Mystery #5
Reavis Z. Wortham
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0422-7
Hardcover

Names come to mind when I read another Wortham Red River novel. Names and words like Rooster Cogburn and John Wayne and fundamental American attitudes. This author taps all those and more. His observation and understanding of how ordinary everyday American folk, the roots and bedrock of our nation, react in extraordinary circumstances; how they cope with subtle and alarming evil forces. Law enforcement? Sure, but developed from the very same basic beliefs and attitudes of the wider populace. This is a series of novels that will revive readers’ beliefs in the rock-solid foundations of the American way of life.

That said, Pepper and Top, the teen-agers being followed in this series, are restive. Close cousins for years, we find Pepper pulling away and longing for new horizons, such as running away to San Francisco to be a flower child. Without Top. It was a time of the rise of the hippy culture, free love and drugs.

Meanwhile, as storm clouds gather over Texas, murder, robbery and wholesale manipulation take place in the county. Ned Parker, Pepper’s granddad, leaves his constable’s post in Center Springs, Texas. He’s still troubled by a slow-healing stab wound in his belly, but when Pepper disappears, likely with a poorly thought of local boy, Ned decides to find her and bring her home. This chase forms the core of the novel which contains another thick plot line about the disappearance of two visiting businessmen looking to buy land in the area. Pepper’s uncle, currently the sheriff, is on this one.

The rain comes to the region and the law enforcement attempts to find the two missing men and deal with various other problems are hampered by frequent heavy rain. The author masterfully weaves the weather and other climate systems into the narrative and while this novel progresses more slowly than earlier novels, the level of satisfaction readers receive is substantial. In sum, a most satisfying and involving read, crowded with well-developed fascinating characters.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2018.
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: Cold is the Grave by Peter Robinson

Cold Is the Grave
Inspector Banks Novels #11
Peter Robinson
William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2016
ISBN: 978-0-0624-3128-8
Trade Paperback

Stranger things have happened, but when Chief Constable Jimmy Riddle asked Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks for a favor the world didn’t stop turning.  Neither man liked the other, and the antagonism between them was more than apparent.  But Riddle recognizes that Banks was good at what he does and is discreet, and that is what he needed.  It seems that his daughter had left home some time ago, and there was no word from her.  Banks is asked to find her in London, talk to her, and reassure her parents that she’s OK.

But Banks does more than that, in just over a weekend.  He not only finds her, but he brings her home.  And the consequences flow from this simple task.  And then a series of murders takes place, and Banks finds himself in the middle of not only a murder investigation, but also in the midst of his chief antagonist’s private life.  Meanwhile, Bank’s own private life begins to take some dramatic turns as well.

As are all he novels in the series, this book is finely nuanced, well-written, and filled with twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of the seat.  Enough said.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

Book Review: The French Impressionist by Rebecca Bischoff

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Title: The French Impressionist
Author: Rebecca Bischoff
Publisher: Amberjack Publishing

Publication Date: December 6, 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult

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the-french-impressionistThe French Impressionist
Rebecca Bischoff
Amberjack Publishing, December 2016
ISBN 978-1-944995-02-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Rosemary is fifteen and gloriously free, on her own for the very first time. Part of an exchange program for aspiring artists, she arrives in sunny southern France with a single goal: she doesn’t plan to leave, ever.  She wants a new life, a new family, and a new identity. But her situation, crafted from lies big and small, is precarious.

Desperate to escape haunting images from her past and a stage one helicopter parent, Rosemary struggles to hide her lack of artistic talent and a communication disorder that has tormented her all her life. She believes her dream of a new start will come true, until she unwittingly finds herself enveloped in a decades-old mystery that threatens to ruin her only chance for success.  Determined to stay, Rosemary must choose whether or not she’ll tell the biggest lie of all, even if it means destroying the life of someone she cares about.

Dramatic, heartwarming, and full of teenage angst, The French Impressionist perfectly captures the struggle of those who feel they have no voice, and also shows the courage it takes to speak up and show the world who we really are.

It’s an odd thing about this book…I liked it but I kind of didn’t so much but then I’d go back to liking it. I think it’s because, while I’m really sympathetic with Rosemary’s frustrations with her communication difficulties and a smothering parent, I also find her rather annoying, hard to like. I also couldn’t really believe a 15-year-old would be able to pull off a stunt like this and she’s such a messy mix of street smart and childish, having apparently no remorse about all her lies and the inevitable consequences.

Then again, I appreciated the author’s attention to Rosemary’s disability and how it affects her and the people around her. Ms. Bischoff clearly understands what this girl’s world is like and her writing style is fast-paced and appealing, making it easy for the reader to feel what Rosemary feels, to walk a mile in her shoes, as it were.

Ms. Bischoff also has a talent for evoking the best of the setting in Nice, the vivid beauty and the cultural ambience that makes me want to visit. Although I don’t care a whole lot for this young girl, I do think her emotional growth during the story and the reader’s comprehension of how difficult it is to cope with speech disorders make The French Impressionist worth reading.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

About the Author

rebecca-bischoffRebecca Bischoff currently resides in Idaho with her family and works as a speech-language pathologist. She loves helping others, especially kids and teenagers, discover their own unique voices and learn to share who they are with the world. When she isn’t writing, she loves to read, spend time with her kids, and make awkward attempts to learn foreign languages.  She is drawn to all things both French and Italian, used bookstores, and anything made out of chocolate.

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Book Review: A Hundred Hours of Night by Anna Woltz

A Hundred Hours of NightA Hundred Hours of Night
Anna Woltz
Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-84828-2
Hardcover

For this reviewer from the American Midwest, the premise that a fifteen-year-old female runaway from Amsterdam could or would fly to New York City, be admitted, and navigate the city on her own is hard to swallow. However, the girl is questioned, she had carefully prepared, and the story happened before the current terrorist scares. In this day of Google Maps and websites for everything, it’s possible to suspend disbelief. I realize that the history of the United States is filled with young teens who came to our shores with little more than the clothes on their backs to seek opportunity and adventure.

Emelia is in love with New York City, and when her father causes a scandal that threatens to ruin her life in the Netherlands, she uses his credit card and all the resources available to her to escape to what she deems the greatest city in the world. She has a plan, of sorts, but when she reaches her destination, everything begins to go wrong. Hurricane Sandy arrives on her heels, and it takes courage and a gradual need to relinquish some of her deep-seated fears and beliefs for Emelia to survive. Also, the help of new friends.

Anna Woltz’s latest YA story of one young girl’s coming-of-age journey is a compelling page-turner. The characters are complex, and each of their stories is intriguing. When their part of the city goes dark after the storm, we feel the cold and how the dark transforms the world the kids know. Each chapter brings a new problem or a new decision so that we want to keep reading to find out how it will end for these particular teens coping with Hurricane Sandy’s devastation as well as their own inner conflicts. Even with my limited familiarity with Manhattan, I could imagine the extreme dark and the struggle for basic needs in a city environment devoid of all the benefits electricity provides—even running water.

Hurricane Sandy’s destruction and its aftermath are scary, sad, exciting, and instructive. Nature trumps technology. The author employs scenarios created by the hurricane to create a story that teens can love while they learn about lives and problems beyond their own.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, June 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections, Furtive Investigation and Nine LiFelines, the first three Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: Deviant Acts by J.J. White

Deviant ActsDeviant Acts
J.J. White
Black Opal Books, November 2015
ISBN: 978-1-626942-85-1
Trade Paperback

A road novel, a saga that takes readers from Charlotte, North Carolina to Vermont, New York, Mexico, Albany and many points between. We follow an inept former marine who was booted from the service for various illegal acts. Now a civilian, Jackson Hurst has become a destitute low-level criminal, doing and selling drugs, burgling his neighbors and driving his mother slightly mad.

But Jackson Hurst has a singular asset, a very wealthy aunt who needs his help to locate her adopted daughter, Cheryl. She’s willing to pay Jackson a lot of money, finance the search and even set Jackson up as a private investigator, a job for which he appears to have no particular talent, if he will just find Cheryl Ebert and bring her home.

Naturally with his troubles and knowing he’s hunted by several law enforcement agencies, he agrees to find Cheryl and bring her back to the Vermont mansion. And so the story begins. And now we start to learn that Cheryl is not merely a runaway. She’s been a member of the Weather Underground. The novel begins in 1973 and ends in 1977. The road trip is long and littered with nearly every deviant act one can imagine one human perpetrating against another, mostly violent and costly.

The plot is convoluted and clever, the author’s writing style is sometimes puzzling and shifty, but it’s fair to observe that his style serves the novel well and once readers become comfortable, it should prove not to be a problem. The novel raises some troubling questions and because of that and Hurst’s sometimes cavalier approach to certain deviant acts like killing, some readers may be uncomfortable. That said, I found Deviant Acts to be a worthwhile reading experience and do recommend it.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 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 Reviews: Still life with plums by Marie Manilla, Danger Comes Home by Judy Alter, and Plan X by Rory Tate

Still life with plumsStill life with plums
Marie Manilla
Vandalia Press, October 2010
ISBN 978-1-933202-60-0
Trade Paperback

Still life with plums is a collection of short stories wherein Ms. Manilla shatters a couple of commonly held, preconceived notions.  I am fairly knowledgeable in the literary world.  I know the lingo.  A short story is like a novel, it has a beginning, middle, and an end, like a novel does; it is just…..shorter.

I treasure short story and essay collections for those times when there is but a small, stingy window of opportunity to read.  Particularly, I love that I can enjoy just a little bit, then move on to That Which Must Be Done without a longing look at a partially finished novel, quietly beckoning me back.

Not so, in this case.

First, Ms. Manilla’s collection of short stories is equivalent to a bag of Lays’ potato chips…..I can’t be the only person that remembers the “Betcha can’t eat just ONE!” commercials.  Despite the fact that the stories are completely stand alone, I could not read “just one” story at a time.  Instead, my vegetable soup boiled over, clothes wrinkled in the dryer, and at one point, I am pretty sure I let the shower “warm up” for about a half an hour, because…. I. Could not. Stop. Reading.

Each tale is totally different from what I’ve come to expect in a “short story”.  These yarns don’t have a nice beginning, identifying a goal with a tidy, closure-type ending.  Rather, the reader is treated to a glimpse into a story well under way.

For example; the very first story, “Hand. Me. Down.”, captures but a moment, in the day of the life, of a family as they pile into the station wagon (with paneling) to retrieve a relative from the train station.  In 18 pages, I was moved beyond belief.  I was in that car, sharing an identical background with this family, I was invested and immediately empathetic.  Sadness and rage battled inside of me as I turned the pages, knowing that no matter how the story ended, I knew how the lives of the car riders would end up.  How does Ms. Manilla do this?  I do not know.

Every single story in this collection is just as engrossing.  The main character, Lucky Baby, from Crystal City, is so remarkably crafted that I simply can’t get her out of my mind.  The woman that came from less than nothing made no move to have such a fabulous life, she “lucked” into it….well, sort of.  Actually, her willful determination to hear only the positive allowed her to create her warm, fuzzy place in her world.  She manages to become so set in her resolve, that everyone around her compulsively feeds this image.  I find this devastating, and I can’t stop the internal battle of wanting to seek this fictional person out for a giant hug, or a well-earned shoulder-shake.  That part doesn’t matter. My point is, more than two weeks and four books later, Still life continues to haunt me.

Treat yourself and/or a friend, with this captivating, fascinating collection of stories. I promise that you will be glad you did.  Me, well, I’m counting down the days until June 17, 2014 when Ms. Manilla’s Patron Saint of Ugly is released.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2013

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Danger Comes HomeDanger Comes Home
A Kelly O’Connell Mystery
Judy Alter
Turquoise Morning Press, July 2013
ISBN No.9781622372478
Trade Paperback

Kelly O’Connor is a mother, a wife, and a real estate salesperson, with a nose for trouble.  Kelly is lucky in that she has some very good friends who help out in a pinch and Mike Shandy, her husband, is a police officer who lends a hand when necessary.

Kelly’s current project is attempting to convince reclusive diva Lorna McDavid to allow her to list Lorna’s residence or at least remodel.   So far the only thing she has convinced Lorna of is that Kelly is more than capable of doing her grocery shopping and any other chores Lorna thinks up for Kelly to handle.

When Kelly begins to discover that food items in her own home are missing she goes on alert and finds that her daughter Maggie has a young girl with wrinkled clothes and stringy hair stashed in the family’s guest house.  When Kelly talks to the two girls, she discovers that Jenny Wilson is terrified of her father and has run away from home and Maggie has taken her in.  It seems that Jenny’s father, Todd Wilson, is supposedly in some kind of banking business and strange men come to the house at night to conduct their business.  Todd also has been violent with Jenny’s mother Mona.

Keisha is Kelly’s assistant and friend and is willing to step up and help Kelly not only with Jenny’s problems, but to try to find out what is going on with Joe Mendez, another of Kelly’s protegees.  Joe is running around with his former gang friends and his wife is terrified.  Keisha also steps in to help out Kelly with Lorna McDavid.

Mike helps in any way he can without putting his job as a police officer in jeopardy.  Judy Alter has given this reader a fun read and I know any friend of Kelly’s would never have a dull moment.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, March 2014.

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Plan XPlan X
Rory Tate (Lise McClendon)
Thalia Press, June 2013
ISBN: 978-1490384009
Trade Paperback

Let me start by stating plainly this is a terrific novel. It is riveting, moving and deals sensitively with the regeneration of the soul of a young infantry Second Lieutenant from Montana. Cody Byrne is our main character, back from a tough tour in Afghanistan where she had a close encounter with an IED. Rescued, she returned undamaged in body but torn in soul, to a town where she is becoming a respected police officer.

It develops that her father whom she doesn’t know, works for a mysterious British agency and her brilliant mother a scholar, long separated from Cody’s real father, appear to have questionable roles in a convoluted, international plot.

A bomb destroys a lab at Montana State University in Bozeman. Cody Byrne is assigned to track down the family of one of the victims, a British national member of the faculty in literature. His name is Agustin Phillips. Augustin Phillips is a name known to Shakespearean scholars.

Cody soon discovers that little concrete knowledge about Augustin Phillips is to be had in Bozeman, Montana. His personal records are spare, suspiciously so. All of that makes Cody Byrne, a conscientious cop, all the more focused on finding and notifying his deceased relatives.

The trail ultimately leads Cody first to Quantico, then to The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and London and the hallowed stone halls of some of the world’s great institutions of higher education. In addition we are treated to some interesting insight into the murky workings of several dark security agencies. And all the while questions of Shakespearean authenticity looms over the entire plot.

Now, I admit to being a Shakespeare groupie. I tend to skate over problems in anything directly related to the Bard. And there are problems. At times, the author’s interest in the psychological dimensions of Cody’s family situation interfere with the forward progress of the story, or maybe it’s the other way around. Characters seem to show up at times when they are vital to assist Cody. She is rescued by outsiders perhaps too many times. But she is strong and  perseveres and, importantly, she begins to see how her relationship with her parents affected some of her life decisions and now, how the reaffirmation of family ties is hastening her healing.

There are a lot of ends in this novel, some of which are loose and some of which are tied up very satisfactorily. The cover is not indicative of the circumstances of the novel and was a poor choice. Nevertheless, the tension persists in fine form, character exposition is excellent and I was very satisfied with this unusual crime novel.

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

Book Review: The Traz by Eileen Schuh

The Traz
Eileen Schuh
Kastle Harbour Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9869388-0-1
Ebook/Smashwords
Also available in trade paperback and other ebook editions

Katrina is a brilliant child. She’s almost a teenager but her world is about to be turned upside down. Her family has never been the most functional unit but it was all she had, until now. Since everything has changed she has to rely on her wits and cunning to survive in a completely new world, a world of bikers.  Just who is Shrug? Will Chad keep his promise? And will she ever make her father proud?

The Traz is book 1 of the BackTracker series and the story revolves around a young girl called Katrina who ends up being dragged into a murky world of drugs and a dangerous biker gang called The Traz. This book is certainly full of threat and danger but I feel it could have been improved by making the lead character of Katrina a little bit older. It was difficult to conceive that a 12 year old girl would be living with a dangerous biker gang without any intervention whatsoever from her legal guardians. I also thought it was miraculous that she lives the entire year without ever being assaulted in any way. She’s the only female in the compound, surrounded by men who don’t have the highest regard for women. Yet no one ever touches her, all because Shrug has told them not to yet he frequently leaves her alone, sometimes for days at a time.

I also didn’t understand why each chapter began with a location and time of day. It was distracting and not important to the storyline and actually made the book seem stuttered. The thing is, the book is well written with a good pace to it so it flowed well by itself. These snippets of additional information only detract from it overall. Sometimes it was obvious what was really going on and the book ends extremely abruptly, which I found annoying, but I still enjoyed reading it. These faults are ones picked out by my old fuddy-duddy self who has seen a bit of the world. My teenage self however, would have loved this title and the well developed characters that you somehow cared about. I’m sure teenagers will enjoy reading it and it could be a new series with a lot of potential.

Reviewed by Laura McLaughlin, November 2012.