Book Review: A Baby’s Bones by Rebecca Alexander @RebAlexander1 @TitanBooks

A Baby’s Bones
Sage Westfield Book 1
Rebecca Alexander
Titan Books, May 2018
ISBN 978-1-7856-5621-7
Trade Paperback

Archaeologist Sage Westfield is excavating a sixteenth century well near a listed building, Bramble Cottage, on the Isle of Wight. Expecting to find only some pieces of pottery and maybe some animal bones, she and her two students, Elliott Robinson and Stephanie Beatson, uncover human bones. Two skeletons, that of a woman and an infant, are covered under a pile of rubbish. The bones are at least four hundred years old, and Sage is curious to discover how they ended up in the well. There are tales of witchcraft and a haunted house on the property, and a grave with the inscription “Damozel” hidden in the woods.

While Sage works on the dig, she is also facing problems in her personal life. Six months pregnant, she has recently broken up with her married lover, and is planning to raise the child on her own. Marcus, her lover, has other ideas, and keeps inserting himself into her life. While on the dig, she meets the local vicar, Nick Haydon. and can’t help thinking about him.

Told in alternating chapters—the contemporary story of the dig and the story from the 1500s about Lord Banstock’s daughter Viola’s wedding preparations—this book will appeal to readers of Barbara Mertz, Dana Cameron, and Lyn Hamilton. Alexander has a particularly deft way with description; the vicar is described as “handsome in a 1950s, knitting pattern way.”

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, August 2019.

Book Reviews: Black Site by Philip Mudd and November Road by Lou Berney @RoguePhilMudd @LiverightPub @Lou_Berney @WmMorrowBooks

Black Site
The CIA in the Post-9/11 World

Philip Mudd
Liveright Publishing, July 2019
ISBN 978-1-63149-197-9
Hardcover

Here is an eye-opening, compelling inside narrative of our premiere intelligence agency during one of the most upsetting periods in the life of our nation. Remember that the Central Intelligence Agency was not very old when Al-Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and literally shocked the American public to its core. In intelligence and political circles especially, the question arose: is there a plan to protect us against a second attack?

None of the law enforcement and counter-intelligence operations in our government could answer that question with any assurance and the political organizations of the nation were peopled with a lot of very nervous individuals.

Written in the third person, by a former executive in the CIA and at the White House, and also at one time an executive at the FBI, the author has a deep experience with the changing mores and culture of the intelligence world pre- and post-9/11 world. He draws on his knowledge of the important players at all levels from the Oval Office to some of the regular workers at Langley, striving to make sense of ever-increasing flows of information.

The Central Intelligence Agency was never planned as a keeper of prisoners. It had no jails and it had no protocols to deal with high or low value prisoners who had been members of the CIA’s principal target, Al-Qaeda. Author Philip Mudd follows the torturous path of interrogation techniques through the Department of Justice, the politicians and the operators, agents and analysts of the agency, the creation of black site jails and much of the rising and falling tension and shifting attitudes throughout the nation.

From it’s very first incident to the final conclusion this is a riveting exploration of the secret and the prosaic world of intelligence gathering.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2019.
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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November Road
Lou Berney
William Morrow, October 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-266384-9
Hardcover

A powerful, engaging crime novel of unusual breadth and perception: the story is a kind of road novel, involving a savvy canny New Orleans mob facilitator named Frank Guidry and an ordinary Oklahoma housewife and mother of extraordinary grit and talent.

Charlotte, mother of two small girls, is married to a husband who seems stuck in a bottle of booze and she’s frustrated with her work limitations and life in general.

It’s November 1963, and readers may remember what happened in Dealey Plaza in Dallas. The assassination of President Kennedy sends Guidry to Dallas to retrieve an unused get-away-car he assumes was parked there to be used by an assassin. Real life interfered with mob plans and Guidry is expected to clean up loose ends. He divines that he is a loose end to the New Orleans mob and takes a runner.

In Oklahoma, one more drunken episode with her husband and a putdown by the local newspaper editor is the final insult and Charlotte packs up her children and departs for the west coast.

Weather and fate bring these two adults together down the road and new adventures ensue as Charlotte and Frank meet and grow ever closer. The time period is the weeks immediately after the Kennedy assassination and Charlotte still plans to make it to Los Angeles with her daughters. Of course, other forces are at play, other characters have different plans. Carefully and thoughtfully with excellent attention to pace and environment, the author carries readers along and steadily draws us into his unique world.

This is an excellent crime novel in every aspect. NOVEMBER ROAD is not a bang-bang-shoot-up with ever increasing time-sensitive tension. The tension, and there is plenty, lies in the author’s attention to important detail and the smooth artistry of his narration as well as the thoughtful and understandable conclusions.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 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: The Third Mrs. Durst by Ann Aguirre @MsAnnAguirre @midnightinkbook

The Third Mrs. Durst
Ann Aguirre
Midnight Ink, August 2019
ISBN 978-0-7387-6131-2
Hardcover

Marlena Altizer left home as soon as she could—she had a mother addicted to meth and younger brothers and sisters who had different fathers. The children often went hungry and Marlena was raped by one of her mother’s boyfriends when she was eleven. She scraped together enough money to buy a bus ticket to Nashville when she was sixteen and lived on the streets, where she met another teen runaway, Jenny Song. She caught the attention of a talent agent, who got her a modeling job. Her career took off, and she travelled to Europe for modeling jobs and attended classes at a Germany university.

Marlena was determined to find a rich and powerful man, and leave poverty behind. However, the man she found, Michael Durst, was rich and powerful but also cruel, controlling and sadistic. He concocted a false history for her, and arranged for her to be adopted by a Croatian couple. All her movements were watched by henchmen of her husband.  Marlena realized she was in over her head and she couldn’t see a way to escape.

While I enjoy a good tale of revenge, Marlena is not a very likable or sympathetic character. She uses her husband, who gets what’s coming to him, but she also manipulates her bodyguard in a cold and calculating way, who was one of the only people on her husband’s staff who was kind to her.   While she is loyal to her sisters and her friend Jenny, they also become entangled in the dangerous world of Michael Durst. A violent and gritty tale of deception and control.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, August 2019.

Book Review: Watching You by Lisa Jewell

Watching You
Lisa Jewell
Atria Books, January 2019
ISBN 978-1-5011-9007-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret. And everyone is watching you.

As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenaged son Freddie—a prodigy with aspirations of becoming a spy for MI5—excels in observing people and has witnessed Joey behaving strangely around his father.

One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.

Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliam…

In Lisa Jewell’s latest brilliant “bone-chilling suspense” (People) no one is who they seem—and everyone is hiding something. Who has been murdered—and who would have wanted one of their neighbors dead? As “Jewell teases out her twisty plot at just the right pace” (Booklist, starred review), you will be kept guessing until the startling revelation on the very last page.

By now, Lisa Jewell has firmly established herself in the crime fiction field as one of the best suspense/thriller writers today, especially those involving domestic and/or women’s issues. With Watching You, she certainly did not disappoint this reader and, in fact, takes things to another level of creepiness.

Secrets abound in this community and different residents of the neighborhood have varying opinions about their neighbors and even their own families but it’s Tom Fitzwilliam who seems to be at the center of everything. Why is this man, rightfully admired for his headmaster abilities and accomplishments, such a magnet for attention? Which of these neighbors is dangerously obsessed with him?

Ms. Jewell begins her story with a dead body and then backtracks to give the reader glimpses of the previous few weeks and the odd—and chilling—behavior of these people who spy on each other with the precision of a trained professional.  A reader will wonder why do they do so and, just when you think you have a handle on things, the author tosses everything you thought you knew into the ozone.

Pacing is almost frenetic, the characters are diverse in their personalities and in their likeability (or not) and you can’t help wondering if some of your own neighbors might be behaving oddly, perhaps dangerously. The web of lies and rumors that seemed to keep growing had me guessing from beginning to end…well done, Ms. Jewell!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2019.

Book Review: How It Happened by Michael Koryta

How It Happened
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company, May 2018
ISBN: 978-0-316-29393-8
Hardcover

Inspired by an actual event in the author’s hometown, this novel recounts the ups and downs in the life of Rob Barrett, an FBI specialist in interrogations, who is sent to a little town in Maine years after the disappearance of a man and two women.  Barrett finally reaches a witness who confesses to having participated in the murder and disposal of the bodies of a man and a woman in a shallow lake. Unfortunately, when the lake is inspected, the bodies aren’t there.  Barrett insists he believes the confession, but the prevailing view is that it is unreliable because the confessor is a known liar and drug addict. Moreover, absence of the bodies where they’re said to be is further proof.

Barrett is sent to a remote FBI office in the Midwest in disgrace, but the confession still haunts him.  Eventually, he returns to Maine on his own nickel to find the truth, which, of course, is elusive. The story becomes more complex, as he investigates more deeply, and the scope widens.

Michael Koryta has written a gripping tale about a grisly murder and cover-ups and subterfuges to hide a variety of motivations as each layer of the story is unveiled.   It is a novel describing perseverance and investigative skill.  The novel has its origins in a murder investigation which the author covered for his hometown newspaper as a young reporter, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2018.

Book Review: Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Bearskin
James A. McLaughlin
Ecco, June 2018
ISBN 978-0-0627-4279-7
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Rice Moore is just beginning to think his troubles are behind him.  He’s taken a job as a caretaker for a remote forest preserve in Virginia, tracking wildlife and refurbishing cabins.  It’s totally solitary – – perfect to hide from the Mexican drug cartels he betrayed back in Arizona.  But when Rice finds the carcass of a bear killed on the grounds, his quiet life is upended.  Rice becomes obsessed with catching the poachers before more bears are harmed. Partnering with his predecessor, a scientist who hopes to continue her research on the preserve, Rice puts into motion a plan to stop the bear killings, but it ultimately leads to hostile altercations with the locals, the law, and even his own employers.  His past is catching up to him in dangerous ways and he may not be able to outrun it for much longer.

The underlying plot line has to do with the killing of bears so that their galls and paws may be harvested and sold to what apparently is a steady demand by drug cartels’ clients.

Rick Morton is using the name of Rice Moore so his real identity could not be tracked by those trying to find and kill him, apparently not a short list, headed by a Mexican drug gang against whom he had testified a year prior.   (He already apparently had a glass kneecap.)  I was amused when he introduces himself to someone using a name he had picked from the phone book “because he didn’t want to use his real fake name.”  The owners of a cabin Rice is working on wanted to turn the cabin into a guest house for scientists. The people from whom he is hiding are not to be trifled with.  One man they were hunting had his face skinned, then sewed back on, just to “prove they could do whatever they wanted.”  A woman with whom Rice is very close had been kidnapped and then raped.  As Turk Mountain Preserve Caretaker, Rice, who was born in New Mexico and grew up mostly in Tucson, is a target whose capture is always a threat.  Rice is “intrigued by the concept of bear culture,” leading to the reader doing likewise.  Much of this is fascinating stuff, I have to say (although it may not seem that way at first blush).  Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2018.

Book Review: The Negotiator by Brendan Dubois

The Negotiator
Brendan Dubois
Midnight Ink, August 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5401-7
Trade Paperback

The Negotiator by Brendan Dubois brings an interesting new anti-hero to our attention. The protagonist, who uses many names but we never learn any of them, has an uncanny gift of estimating the market value of anything, like a handful of stolen diamonds or a pallet of merchandise that fell off a truck. This useful ability has allowed him to earn a living in the shadows of the crime world, where he is the middleman between a potential buyer and the hopeful seller, the cost of his services being part of the final agreed-upon purchase price. While he himself has committed no crime, those he does business with have and, since he knows one murder more or less means nothing to them, he takes appropriate steps to protect himself. Among other rules he has instituted, he won’t wait long for either party to arrive at the appointed time and place, and he never goes to a private residence to arrange a transaction.

The promise of a very large commission makes The Negotiator break his rule when he’s asked to serve as the go-between for the sale of what appears to be an authentic Old Master oil painting. He and his bodyguard show up at a nice house in an established neighborhood instead of a public place, where they are greeted by an older couple with an offer of lemonade and cookies. Lulled into accepting the situation for what it appears to be, The Negotiator is completely off guard when the older man pulls a gun and kills the bodyguard. The Negotiator escapes, barely, and sets off to discover who the killers are, to understand the motive for the unexpected attack, and to obtain revenge. Like the opening scene of the eventual bloodbath, many of the characters are not who or what they seem to be and sorting them all out takes every bit of skill The Negotiator can summon.

The Negotiator is a fine, fast-moving story with plot twists aplenty, right up to the last page. This book is especially for anyone who misses the Parker saga by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark or enjoys the Wilson series from Mike Knowles. While The Negotiator isn’t quite as cold-blooded as Wilson or Parker — he prefers to avoid guns — he can still toss an inconvenient character under the proverbial bus without a qualm. I am hoping for a sequel.

Reviewed by Aubrey Hamilton, September 2018.