Book Review: Dig Two Graves by Kim Powers

Dig Two Graves
Kim Powers
Tyrus Books, December 2015
ISBN 978-1-4405-9192-1
Trade Paperback

Skip Holt’s world as she knew it ended the day her mother died in a car crash [always bringing to her mind a poem she had had to learn in school by Robert Frost].  There is much erudition here, as Skip’s father makes his living “by teaching about the past, the very long ago past.  The Classics, Greece, Rome, Latin.”   Indeed, the novel begins with a quote from Confucius:  “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  And revenge is what this book is all about.  “The classics were all about it – – getting revenge, declaring enemies, going to war.”

From the publisher:  In his 20’s, Ethan Holt won the Decathlon at the Olympics and was jokingly nicknamed “Hercules;” now, in his late 30’s, he’s returned to his ivy-covered alma mater to teach, and to raise his young daughter Skip as a single father.  After a hushed-up scandal over his Olympics win and the death of his wife in a car accident five years ago, Ethan wants nothing more than to forget his past. Skip is not only the light of Ethan’s life – – she is his life. Then, Skip is kidnapped.  A series of bizarre ransom demands start coming in that stretch Ethan’s athletic prowess to its limits, and he realizes with growing horror that they are modern versions of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, demanded in tricky, rhyming clues by someone who seems to have followed every step of Ethan’s career.  To solve the mystery and get his daughter back, Ethan teams up with a force-of-nature female detective, Aretha Mizell, who carries some secrets of her own.  As Ethan races from Labor to Labor, we enter the mysterious abandoned schoolhouse where Skip is being held captive, and we begin to hear the fantastic and strangely heartbreaking story of the kidnapper and his link to Ethan’s past. The clues begin to point not only to Ethan’s athletic career, but to his childhood, and to a family history as troubled and bizarre as those of any
of the legendary, mythic character he teaches.

The novel opens on a late Fall day in New England, the day Ethan turns 39 and receives tenure at the college where he teaches, and where Skip, now 13, has planned a party for him.  Suddenly things take a decidedly ugly [well, uglier] turn, one as to which the reader has been given a hint, with a glimpse of a stalker, “the man with a plan,” and things escalate beyond anything the reader might expect.  The writing is riveting, with one shocking turn at Chapter 31, and the identity of the kidnapper not known until Chapter 55, with the book ending on a somewhat enigmatic note 50 pages later.  A page-turner of a book, it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2016.

Book Review: The Semper Sonnet by Seth Margolis

the-semper-sonnetThe Semper Sonnet
Seth Margolis
Diversion Books, April 2016
ISBN: 978-1-68230-056-5
Trade Paperback

Academic Lee Nicholson discovers a long lost sonnet written by William Shakespeare in an old book, but when she announces the find on a television program, all sorts of evil things happen. First is the murder of the tv cameraman she’d taken to her bed in a euphoric response to the program. The problem is, she is the one accused of murdering him, and soon she is on the run, attempting to prove her innocence before she’s convicted and they throw away the key.

Violent events escalate. More people are murdered, usually right after she’s spoken to them. As Lee realizes the deaths are related to the sonnet, she examines the document ever more deeply. What she discovers is a hidden code, and the final word is Semper, which means “always.” As the plot thickens, she finds the sonnet was written to Queen Elizabeth I’s specifications, with a message for future generations. But also revealed is the presence of what could unleash a pandemic on the whole world and wipe out mankind.

Convoluted? You bet. I admire the way the author unfolds the mystery and the way Lee makes these discoveries. I didn’t, however, particularly admire Lee herself as a heroine. What thinking woman, particularly one supposedly as smart as she is purported to be, would climb into bed with so many men on one night stands? Especially when a basic stranger has already been murdered in her bed? Worse, she accepts yet another man into her life when she already suspects him of duplicity.

Even so, as the story winds down and as the reader flies from the U.S. to London and back and forth, the action ramps up to a high level. The book is well-written, and though much of the story is a bit predictable⏤we’ve seen it before in The Da Vinci Code and it’s like⏤I still enjoyed the way this played out.

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

Book Review: As You Lay Sleeping by Katlyn Duncan

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Book Review: And Then He Was Gone by Joan Hall Hovey

and-then-he-was-goneAnd Then He Was Gone
Joan Hall Hovey
Books We Love, December 2016
ISBN 978-1-77299-304-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Where is Adam? Julie Raynes’ husband has been missing for six months. Devastated and confused, she refuses to believe that he would leave her voluntarily, though her best friend thinks differently. However, her Aunt Alice, a psychic, tells her Adam has been murdered, and when she reveals how she knows this, any hope that Adam is still alive, dissipates.

The police are also beginning to believe that Adam Raynes was murdered. And Julie is their prime suspect. Her life in ruins, Julie vows to hunt down whoever is responsible for Adam’s murder and make them pay for their crime.

In the meantime, David Gray, a young man who was pulled from a lake by a fisherman when he was 9 years old, wakens from a coma after nearly two decades. Unknown to Julie, Adam and David share a dark connection, a darkness that threatens to devour both of them, in a terrifying race with death.

There are very few authors who do suspense as well as Joan Hall Hovey and, oh boy, she’s right on target with And Then He Was Gone. The title gives you a pretty good idea of what this book is about but that person who’s missing is only the core of the story.

The very first pages were enough to make chills go down my spine and, although it’s clear in that early scene what kind of person we might be dealing with later in the tale, Ms. Hovey weaves a tangle of story lines that, on the surface, have nothing to do with each other…and, yet, perhaps they do. The two characters who have lost the most, Julie and David, know nothing of each other beyond what they see and hear on the news and to tie a missing, probably dead, man with a young man awakening from a 19-year coma seems the height of speculation.

Julie and David each have their own crosses to bear and accompanying them on their respective journeys cemented my interest in this book. Julie, of course, is trying to cope with the disappearance of her husband and the knowledge that some are sure she had something to do with it. David, on the other hand, is slowly learning to live again as well as trying to remember things that matter a great deal.

Then there’s that darkness that connects the two and watching a man’s psychosis descend into even deeper evil is what drives the tension and it’s what kept me reading long past bedtime. What that man is capable of is not beyond belief—we’ve seen and heard of it in real life much too often—but observing how a person’s mind can begin to crumble at a very early age and then he can maintain an aura of respectability for years before the evil begins to control him is creepy at its darkest level. And this is why I love Joan Hall Hovey‘s books—she makes me love her characters while I shiver in the night 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2017.

Book Review: War Hawk by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood—and a Giveaway!

war-hawkWar Hawk
A Tucker Wayne Novel #2
James Rollins and Grant Blackwood
William Morrow, December 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-213529-2
Mass Market Paperback

From the publisher—

Tucker Wayne’s past and present collide when a former army colleague comes to him for help. She’s on the run from brutal assassins hunting her and her son. To keep them safe, Tucker must discover who killed a brilliant young idealist-a crime that leads back to the most powerful figures in the U.S. government.

From the haunted swamplands of the deep South to the beachheads of a savage civil war in Trinidad, Tucker and his beloved war dog, Kane, must work together to discover the truth behind a mystery that dates back to World War II, involving the genius of a young code-breaker, Alan Turing…

They will be forced to break the law, expose national secrets, and risk everything to stop a madman determined to control the future of modern warfare for his own diabolical ends. But can Tucker and Kane withstand a force so indomitable that it threatens our future?

I’ve loved practically everything I’ve read by James Rollins because he makes it all such an adventure but I have to admit that I don’t read all his books. Why? Because they’re massive and my zeal for really long books has diminished over the years. The other thing that makes me hesitate is that he sometimes collaborates with other writers, much like James Patterson does, and that can be dicey. On the other hand, I read a lot of reviews of the first book in this series and saw very little to alarm me so I decided to take the plunge with War Hawk, all 544 pages of it (which is a mere 372 pages in the epub edition, another reason I love ebooks).

Besides…there’s a cool dog 😉

It’s hard to think of a braver, more self-disciplined pair than a former Army Ranger and a war dog but Tucker’s goal at the beginning of this novel is to simply enjoy life on the road with Kane at his side. He still has money in the bank from a job he recently did so employment is not an issue but their trip to Yellowstone is aborted when a woman from their past shows up looking for help. A colleague is missing and others have died, leading her to flee with her young son. Jane Sabatello was important to Tucker in their Army days so he doesn’t hesitate but they certainly don’t anticipate the coming confrontation with a man determined to essentially control the world with secrets from World War II and the brilliant mind of cryptanalyst Alan Turing.

And thus begins a wild, tension-filled adventure that takes us into the world of drones and the wondrous albeit frightening things they can do. I imagine some of this is in Mr. Rollins’ and Mr. Grantwood’s imaginations but much has already come to pass in real life, giving this thriller a validity that’s more than a little unnerving. A bit of imagination (I think) comes into play with Kane’s abilities but I didn’t care about that because Kane is such an appealing dog and a great companion for Tucker. The two of them make a fine team and I think I might have to go back and read the first book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2017.

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About the Authors

james-rollinsJAMES ROLLINS is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of international thrillers, translated into more than forty languages. His Sigma series has been lauded as one of the “top crowd pleasers” (New York Times) and one of the “hottest summer reads” (People magazine). In each novel, acclaimed for its originality, Rollins unveils unseen worlds, scientific breakthroughs, and historical secrets–and he does it all at breakneck speed and with stunning insight.

Catch Up with James Rollins on his Website , Twitter , & Facebook 

grant-blackwoodIn addition to his New York Times bestselling collaborations with Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy, GRANT BLACKWOOD is the author of three novels featuring Briggs Tanner: The End of Enemies, The Wall of Night, and An Echo of War. A U. S. Navy veteran, Grant spent three years as an Operations Specialist and a Pilot Rescue Swimmer. He lives in Colorado.

Catch Up with Grant Blackwood on his Website , Twitter , & Facebook

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Book Review: The Distance by Helen Giltrow

the-distanceThe Distance
Helen Giltrow
Anchor Books, July 2015
ISBN: 978-0-345-80435-8
Trade Paperback

In an ambitious debut novel, a former bookseller has written a dark novel, one which mystified this reader.  Is it a crime novel?  A mystery? A Le Carre-type story involving the intelligence community?  Or a mixture of all these genres?

The Distance would seem to contain all the elements of the three characteristics, and therein lies the ambition of the author.  Some simplification would appear to be in order.  The plot is too complicated, the reading too slow and the story unwieldy.  Too bad.  Because it is an interesting tale, and deserves to be read.

The gist of the novel is a tale of a woman, alternatively identified as a London Socialite, Charlotte Alton, and Karla, the head of an enterprise that specializes in, among other things, erasing identities and covering a criminal’s tracks.  One such person is Simon Johanssen, who surfaces after being hidden for years, asking for her help on an assignment to murder a woman held in “The Program,” a prison-like compound where he eventually becomes involved with the victim while hiding from a criminal boss also incarcerated there.

It all comes together at the finale in a perfunctory short wrap-up.  There are few if any clues before the end to establish these conclusions as if they are included merely to end a laborious effort.  A good re-write might have helped, certainly better editing.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2016.

Book Review: Child’s Play by Merry Jones—and a Giveaway!

childs-playChild’s Play
The Elle Harrison Series #3
Merry Jones
Oceanview Publishing, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-60809-191-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Since her husband’s murder two years earlier, life hasn’t been easy for Elle Harrison. Now, at the start of a new school year, the second grade teacher is determined to move on. She’s selling her house and delving into new experiences―like learning trapeze.

Just before the first day of school, Elle learns that a former student, Ty Evans, has been released from juvenile detention where he served time for killing his abusive father. Within days of his release, Elle’s school principal, who’d tormented Ty as a child, is brutally murdered. So is a teacher at the school. And Ty’s former girlfriend. All the victims have links to Ty.

Ty’s younger brother, Seth, is in Elle’s class. When Seth shows up at school beaten and bruised, Elle reports the abuse, and authorities remove Seth and his older sister, Katie, from their home. Is Ty the abuser?

Ty seeks Elle out, confiding that she’s the only adult he’s ever trusted. She tries to be open-minded, even wonders if he’s been wrongly condemned. But when she’s assaulted in the night, she suspects that Ty is her attacker. Is he a serial killer? Is she his next intended victim?

Before Elle discovers the truth, she’s caught in a deadly trap that challenges her deepest convictions about guilt and innocence, childhood and family. Pushed to her limits, she’s forced to face her fears and apply new skills in a deadly fight to survive.

I first encountered the work of Merry Jones almost four years ago and, at the time, I thought there were flaws in The Trouble with Charlie but I still found the tale intriguing and looked forward to future books. Next for me came In the Woods (a different series) almost two years later and, while I didn’t care for that one as much, I didn’t give up on Ms. Jones. Something about her books kept drawing me back and, to my mind, that says a lot about an author’s ability to engage a reader.

Now comes Child’s Play, third entry in the first series and my interest in Ms. Jones has been paid off in spades. This book is the one I consider to be her breakthough novel and I’m truly glad I had the opportunity to read it.

Here we have a dark, disturbing study of the repercussions our actions can have years after the fact, tangled with the impact a troubled home life has on children, sometimes leading to dire events. Elementary school teacher Elle Harrison has to cope with a memory disorder but she remembers Ty Evans well enough, a young man recently released from detention after serving his time for killing his abusive father. When people connected to Ty’s past and present begin to die, Elle can’t help wanting to believe Ty when he insists he’s not the killer but she can’t forget his past nor completely trust him. With continually rising tension and plenty of twists and turns, Elle’s nerves go on high alert but certain truths that come to light are way beyond what she ever anticipated.

I have to say some readers will probably find Child’s Play a bit too violent and emotionally wrenching but I appreciated how Ms. Jones handled some very disturbing topics including the horrifying aspects of true psychosis. For anyone looking for a riveting book you won’t want to put down, this is a fine candidate.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2017.

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An Excerpt from Child’s Play

I was the first one there.

The parking lot was empty, except for Stan’s pickup truck. Stan was the custodian, tall, hair thinning, face pock-marked from long ago acne. He moved silently, popped out of closets and appeared in corners, prowled the halls armed with a mop or a broom. In fourteen years, I couldn’t remember a single time when he’d looked me in the eye.

Wait—fourteen years? I’d been there that long? Faces of kids I’d taught swirled through my head. The oldest of them would now be, what? Twenty-one? Oh man. Soon I’d be one of those old school marms teaching the kids of my former students, a permanent fixture of the school like the faded picture of George Washington mounted outside the principal’s office. Hell, in a few months, I’d be forty. A middle-aged childless widow who taught second grade over and over again, year after year, repeating the cycle like a hamster on its wheel. Which reminded me: I had to pick up new hamsters. Tragically, last year’s hadn’t made it through the summer.

I told myself to stop dawdling. I had a classroom to organize, cubbies to decorate. On Monday, just three days from now, twenty-three glowing faces would show up for the first day of school, and I had to be ready. I climbed out of the car, pulled a box of supplies from the trunk, started for the building. And stopped.

My heart did triple time, as if responding to danger. But there was no danger. What alarmed me, what sent my heart racing was the school itself. But why? Did it look different? Had the windows been replaced, or the doors? Nothing looked new, but something seemed altered. Off balance. The place didn’t look like an elementary school. It looked like a giant factory. A prison.

God, no. It didn’t look like any of those things. The school was the same as it had always been, just a big brick building. It seemed cold and stark simply because it was unadorned by throngs of children. Except for wifi, Logan Elementary hadn’t changed in fifty years, unless you counted several new layers of soot on the bricks.

I stood in the parking lot, observing the school, seeing it fresh. I’d never paid much attention to it before. When it was filled with students, the building itself became all but invisible, just a structure, a backdrop. But now, empty, it was unable to hide behind the children, the smells of sunshine and peanut butter sandwiches, the sounds of chatter and small shoes pounding Stanley’s waxed tiles. The building stood exposed. I watched it, felt it watching me back. Threatening.

Seriously, what was wrong with me? The school was neither watching nor threatening me. It was a benign pile of bricks and steel. I was wasting time, needed to go in and get to work. But I didn’t take a single step. Go on, I told myself. What was I afraid of? Empty halls, vacant rooms? Blank walls? For a long moment, I stood motionless, eyes fixed on the façade. The carved letters: Logan School. The heavy double doors. The dark windows. Maybe I’d wait a while before going inside. Becky would arrive soon, after she picked up her classroom aquarium.

Other teachers would show up, too. I could go in with them, blend safely into their commotion. I hefted the box, turned back to the car. But no, what was I doing? I didn’t want to wait. I’d come early so I could get work done without interruption or distraction before the others arrived. The school wasn’t daring me, nor was I sensing some impending tragedy. I was just jittery about starting a new year.

I turned around again, faced its faded brown bricks. I steeled my shoulders, took a breath and started across the parking lot. With a reverberating metallic clank, the main doors flew open. Reflexively, I stepped back, half expecting a burst of flames or gunfire. Instead, Stan emerged. For the first time in fourteen years, I was glad to see him. Stan surveyed the parking lot, hitched up his pants. Looked in my direction. He didn’t wave or nod a greeting, didn’t follow social conventions. Even so, his presence grounded me, felt familiar.

I took a breath, reminded myself that the school was just a school. That I was prone to mental wandering and embellishing. And that children would stream into my classroom in just three days, whether I was ready or not.

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About the Author

Merry JonesMerry Jones is the author of some twenty critically acclaimed books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been translated into seven languages. Her previous Elle Harrison novels have been THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE and ELECTIVE PROCEDURES. Jones lives with her husband in Philadelphia.

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