Book Reviews: Ink by Alice Broadway and Back Roads by William Bitner, Daniel Boyd and Jason Pell

The Skin Books #1
Alice Broadway
Scholastic Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-338-19699-3

In Saintstone, the destiny of the soul is determined not by a deity, but by the government. From birth until demise, the body is marked to illustrate the life being lived. At death, the skin is flayed, then bound into a book. If the soul is worthy, the book goes home with the family. If not, it is obliterated by fire and the person is forgotten forever–as if everyone’s collective memories merge with the smoke, dissipate, then disappear.

Leora easily understands this definitive divide and especially embraces it when she loses a loved one. An absence so overwhelming can bring even the staunchest believers to rock bottom. Surfacing secrets shove the bottom away, resulting in a figurative free-fall of uncertainty and doubt.

Hearing something often, particularly from people most admired, certainly makes that thing seem true. Perhaps Leora has been purely parroting the comfort and confidence contrived by her firm trust in her faith. As Obel’s new intern, she is shaken when she attempts to answer his apparently innocuous questions, but finds herself floundering.

His queries feel bold, almost blasphemous. Leora has never had reason to doubt the separation of the despicable blank people from the marked, but when called to support her stance with facts and logic, she is speechless, then stunned. Seeing every single thing in a new light can be disconcerting. No longer knowing who to trust or what to believe, terrifying.

Looking at life through Leora’s eyes is humbling. As she adamantly, albeit ignorantly, explains why the evil White Witch, the first blank, does not deserve to be remembered; it begins to be easier to see what actually is, as opposed to what Leora has always been told. Accepting that real knowledge is indeed power, Leora learns, then she plans. The young girl’s tremendous growth, against all odds is enlightening and empowering.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2018.


Back Roads
William Bitner, Daniel Boyd & Jason Pell
CreateSpace, March 2017
ISBN 978-1544194806
Trade Paperback

Definitely distinct, yet stitched with a common dark thread, these short stories flow with an inexplicably familiar feel while featuring fresh frights.  Each author seems to settle back and spin yarns with a natural knack for story-telling that evokes an avalanche of emotions. A strong, soft, somber voice speaks.  Instinctively, I am in.  I felt the crisp cold of the mountain air instantly freeze the inside of my nose, heard the ripples and rush of the rivers and felt my heart in my throat and my body tense as turning the page felt like taking a hairpin curve at high speed on a steep mountain road.

Creatures creep from the dark, formative…to spark a spooky image, while monsters mangle with brilliantly bold detail that may make you squeeze your eyes shut.   Substance makes these shorts stand out, as if the writer has wrung a bit of his soul into the words to sneakily seep into the reader.  In some instances, real-life-right-now social, environmental and health issues blur the line between sci-fi and reality, bringing a chilling sense of foreboding along with the ugly, unfiltered view of cruelty and corruption.

I love that these stories show scenic, wild, West Virginia and portray the people honestly; quietly quashing inaccurate stereotypes; humbly highlighting the genuine good.  To me, this book is a treasure chest filled with rare, remarkable jewels that will bring me pleasure every single time I open it.  I enthusiastically recommend it to voracious readers, as well as reluctant ones.  In merely minutes, engage in a tumultuous, terrifying escape….and I mean that in the best way possible.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2017.


Book Review: The Usual Santas, Foreword by Peter Lovesey—and a Giveaway!

The Usual Santas
A Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers
Foreword by Peter Lovesey
Soho Press, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-775-9

From the publisher—

This captivating collection, which features bestselling and award-winning authors, contains laughs aplenty, the most hardboiled of holiday noir, and heartwarming  reminders of the spirit of the season.

Nine mall Santas must find the imposter among them. An elderly lady seeks peace from her murderously loud neighbors at Christmastime. A young woman receives a mysterious invitation to Christmas dinner with a stranger. Niccolò Machiavelli sets out to save an Italian city. Sherlock Holmes’s one-time nemesis Irene Adler finds herself in an unexpected tangle in Paris while on a routine espionage assignment. Jane Austen searches for the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough’s stolen diamonds. These and other adventures in this delectable volume will whisk readers away to Christmases around the globe, from a Korean War POW camp to a Copenhagen refugee squat, from a palatial hotel in 1920s Bombay to a crumbling mansion in Havana.

Includes Stories By (In Order of Appearance):
Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Martin Limón, Timothy Hallinan, Teresa Dovalpage, Mette Ivie Harrison, Colin Cotterill, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Tod Goldberg, Henry Chang, James R. Benn, Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis, Sujata Massey, Gary Corby, Cara Black, Stephanie Barron and a Foreword and story by Peter Lovesey.

Short stories are not my usual cuppa but, for some reason, I feel differently about it during the Christmas season. Maybe their brevity appeals to me because I’m so busy with other things at this time of year and like to sandwich in a story here and there, more satisfying than just a chapter or two of a full-length novel.

Christmasy short stories can be a lot of fun and those included in The Usual Santas certainly are but some of them are definitely darker and they take place around the world (as might be expected from authors from Soho Press which focuses largely on non-American work). And what a terrific group of authors these 18 are!

From Timothy Hallinan comes a story about Chalee, a street kid in Bangkok who draws a special picture for a younger child and Stephanie Barron takes us back to 1804 Bath, England, telling the tale of sleuth Jane Austen who has been invited to join Lord Harold Trowbridge’s family as they celebrate New Year’s Eve, not anticipating that she’ll become involved in the theft of a magnificent necklace. Mette Ivie Harrison offers a look at a Mormon community just before Christmas when two families’ sons are about to go out on their missions while Peter Lovesey has Fran and Jim Palmer going on a small adventure—supper with the unknown Miss Shivers—where Fran learns a secret from her past, a secret that is overshadowed by an encounter with a very special young man.

Those are just a sample of the gems in The Usual Santas and I highly recommend this anthology to anyone with a fondness for Christmas tales.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2017.


I’d love to send somebody my very
gently used print advance reading
copy of The Usual Santas. Leave a
comment below and I’ll draw
winning name on Wednesday evening,

  December 20th. This drawing is open
to residents of the US & Canada.

Book Review: War, Spies, and Bobby Sox by Libby Fischer Hellmann


War, Spies, and Bobby Sox
Stories About World War II At Home
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herrings Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-1938733970
Trade Paperback

From the author—

As World War II rages across Europe and the Pacific, its impact ripples through communities in the heartland of America. A farm girl is locked in a dangerous love triangle with two Germans soldiers held in an Illinois POW camp … Another German, a war refugee, is forced to risk her life spying on the developing Manhattan Project in Chicago … And espionage surrounds the disappearance of an actress from the thriving Jewish community of Chicago’s Lawndale. In this trio of tales, acclaimed thriller author Libby Fischer Hellmann beautifully depicts the tumultuous effect of war on the home front and illustrates how the action, terror, and tragedy of World War II was not confined to the front lines.

Libby Fischer Hellmann is one of the few authors who can surprise me nearly every time I pick up one of her books. Here, the surprise comes in her clear understanding of the World War II homefront, almost as though she had lived it herself.

Three tales provide a glimpse of how people, especially women, coped with the hardships, opportunities and moral pitfalls here at home while the main attention was on events overseas. Lena, a young Jewish girl, is sent to America before our involvement and makes her way in the world supported by her aunt Ursula and uncle Reinhard eventually getting a secretarial position in a university physics department. That, in itself, seems innocuous but this is the time when scientists are in the early stages of developing nuclear fission and Lena finds herself in a world of trouble.

Mary-Catherine lives in rural Illinois and helps her mother and siblings keep the farm running. When ten German POW soldiers are assigned to work the harvest, Mary-Catherine can’t help being interested by one in particular, a man who gives her the tiniest of smiles. To her, Reinhard is intriguing; to Reinhard, she is an “Irish mongrel” and, in that moment of meeting, a scheme is born that will change Mary-Catherine’s life while another POW will find a new direction.

Life as a Jewish gangster calls to teenaged Jacob Forman but he doesn’t bargain for what happens to a beautiful actress he admires from afar as she starts walking out with the charming gangster, Skull. When Skull invites Jake and his friend, Barney, to work for him as runners, they think they’ve hit the jackpot but can’t help noticing the sad distance that has grown between Skull and Miriam. Not long after, murder and a local Nazi open Jake’s eyes to a world much grimmer than he ever thought.

Once again, Ms. Hellmann has knocked it out of the park and, if you haven’t tried her mysteries and other work yet, this is a good place to start 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2017.

Book Review: No Middle Name by Lee Child

No Middle Name
The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories
Lee Child
Delacorte Press, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-3995-9357-4

From the publisher:  Lee Child’s iconic anti-hero Jack Reacher is the stuff made of legend – a larger-than-life man who is “loved by women, feared by men, and respected by all”.  Now, following twelve consecutive #1 New York Times bestsellers, Child offers the ultimate Reacher reading experience . . . which includes an exciting, all-new Reacher novella, as well as Child’s eleven previously published short stories featuring Reacher. This pulse-pounding collection marks the first time that all of Lee Child’s short fiction starring Reacher has been available in the same place at the same time.  No Middle Name begins with “Too Much Time,” a new work of short fiction that finds Reacher in a hollowed-out town in Maine, where he witnesses a random bag-snatching but sees much more than a simple crime.  In his trademark tight and propulsive prose, Child sets Reacher and his “lizard brain” off for a case where there is more than meets the eye – and Reacher, as always, won’t rest until a wrong is righted.

The longest of these tales runs 68 pages, with most falling between 36 and 53 pages in length, the shortest running 4, 6, 10 and 11, but no matter the brevity or length, these are all tales of Jack Reacher, and that’s pretty much all it takes to make it a must read.  The very first, referred to in the previous quoted paragraph, was written contemporaneously, in 2017; the others between 1999 and 2016.  Reacher’s brother, Joe, makes an appearance more than once, which I found very interesting (Joe has been in previous books).  As readers know, Reacher is a military cop, at present 35 years old, a major with twelve years in, with rare attributes:  He is brilliant, with admirable reserves of intelligence and strengths (both mental and physical, at 6’ 5” and 250 pounds.   In one of the tales, which takes place in Paris, Reacher is 13 years old; in another, he is 16, and in another he is approaching 17.  One story is in Georgia, in 1989.  A few of the stories take place in New York City, primarily in sites in or around area bars in Greenwich Village.  (In another, Shea Stadium is referenced, with, unfortunately, the Mets losing to the Cubs by two to one.  (Full disclosure: I am a die-hard Mets fan.)  But Yankee Stadium gets a mention as well, although without a game in progress.)  And two of the tales take place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, interestingly.

So obviously there is a wide range of geography and time found here, but the most (only?) crucial thing can be summed up in two words:  “Child” and “Reacher.”  And what could be better than that?

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2017.

Book Reviews: A Perfect Manhattan Murder by Tracy Kiely and Closing the Book on Santa Claus by Ron Chandler

A Perfect Manhattan Murder
A Nic and Nigel Mystery #3
Tracy Kiely
Midnight Ink, May 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7387-4524-4
Trade Paperback

If one reads a lot of crime fiction in various sub-genres, categorizing this novel is easy, just read page one. Indeed, the first paragraph will do it. Echoes of the best of the Golden Age mysteries from England, of the sophisticated not-quite-family-fare motion pictures of the late thirties and early forties, are here.

For the lover of the so-called Cozy Mystery, brought cleverly and carefully to the Twenty-first Century, this is a definite winner. For anyone hooked on Michael Connelly, Lee Child, the darker, more explicit often bloodier and more violent modern thrillers and even true mysteries, this novel could be a little disappointing. Still, for a clever plot, sharp, whizzing dialogue among the principals and scene after scene with the moneyed, beautiful people of New York, parading through elegant up-scale venues, I recommend this story.

Nic and Nigel Martini(!) are back in New York. Nic is a former NYPD detective who left the force to join her husband in a private investigator enterprise on the West Coast. They have been invited by a school chum of Nic to the Broadway opening of a play written by another schoolmate of Nic and Harper’s named Peggy McGrath. Readers are introduced to the players and soon, a thorn appears. The thorn is the husband of Harper. He is a prominent, curmudgeonly, popularly disliked, New York theatre critic who doesn’t seem to practice discretion or restraint in his articles. Predictably, he is soon found dead—murdered. His wife, Harper, is of course accused of the deed and Nic and Nigel swing into action to prove Harper innocent.

The pace is upscale, the dialogue is excellent and the author’s descriptions of place and atmosphere greatly enhance the overall feeling. Then, there is Skippy. Skippy is one of the largest and most unusual characters readers are likely to encounter. He is an adorable, lovely giant Bullmastiff. Skippy is three years old and fills up the room when he saunters in and sprawls on the carpet.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2017.
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.


Closing the Book on Santa Claus and Other Holiday Stories
Ron Chandler
CreateSpace, March 2015
ISBN: 9781508434900
Trade Paperback

Author Ron Chandler is a free-lance writer. This collection of nine holiday stories is aimed at people for whom the holiday season can be a bit much. Overwhelming, even. Heavy on the narrative side, the stories are all well-put together with a reasonable cast of varied characters and settings. Readers will find a range of emotional tides, all relating to human relationships and ultimately holiday satisfaction, if not the highest grade of cheer.

Probably the most interesting if bizarre story, is “Inside the Glamorous Life of Lady Plum,” in which the Lady in question experiences a startlingly wide range of life experiences. Like most collections of short fiction, the quality of the writing is a bit uneven, but overall readers should be satisfied. All in all, the slender paperback is a pleasant distraction from the pressures of the season.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, January 2017.
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Hard-Boiled Detective 1 by Ben Solomon

The Hard-Boiled DetectiveThe Hard-Boiled Detective 1
Ben Solomon
The Hard-Boiled Detective, August 2014
ISBN: 978-0692269947
Trade Paperback

Sounds. They’re stuck in your head. A muzzle blast from a .38. Garfield’s rasp. Bogart’s lispy rhythm and Cagney’s high-pitched rants. The sea, restless, running past Key Largo punctuated by blasts of tommy guns echoing off the greasy walls of that Chicago garage on St. Valentine’s Day, so long ago. And of course you remember the looks, the swaying hips, the invitation to whistle from the women who graced and sometimes motivated the greed, the sex and the violence in the hard-boiled crime story.

Well, here they all are, reborn in slinky, sly and quippy dialogue and crashing plot, pulsed by dangerous swinging saps, out of control thugs, cops and robbers. From the slimy Mr. Jupitor to the gunman with the roscoe in the dark doorway behind Jimmy Shin, the action never lets up and the dialogue races on.

Here they are, eleven tales of the hard-boiled, urban warrior, stalking his targets down the soft summer ribbons of asphalt, and always with a smart retort, even as the pistol fires. Ben Solomon has got it just right.

Richard Prather would be pleased, I think.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2015.
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


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.


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.