Book Review: The Deep End by Debra Purdy Kong

The Deep EndThe Deep End
A Casey Holland Mystery #4
Debra Purdy Kong
TouchWood Editions, September 2014
ISBN 978-1-77151-093-6
Trade Paperback

Casey Holland, the protagonist in this series by Debra Purdy Kong, in which this is the fourth entry, “a criminology student and an experienced security officer,” has just started her first shift as a volunteer at Fraserview Youth Custody Center, a juvenile detention facility just outside of Vancouver housing 25 youngsters, supposedly only for a few days each.  Soon after her shift starts, she is startled to find that a friend’s 15-year-old grandson, Justin, is a resident there.  Then, later on that same evening, Mac Jorgenson, the 230-pound man in his late fifties and the director of the facility, dies right in front of Casey, from an apparent heart attack, although it develops that the circumstances were suspicious.  A helluva way to start a new job – – and that’s only the beginning.

Casey’s life is not without its own drama:  Her boyfriend, Lou, who she’d known for over ten years, had moved in with her two months ago.  32 years old, she is the legal guardian of a 13-year old girl, Summer, a “surly, self-absorbed teen,” whose mother is incarcerated, serving a life sentence for 2nd-degree murder.

Fraserview is somewhat shabby, with insufficient staff in the evenings, and is rumored to be on the verge of closing within the next several months.  Casey is a criminology student and an experienced security officer, but finds herself challenged here when there is a second death and rumors of illegal activity, and is fearful that Justin may be either involved, or in danger himself.  There is no lack of suspects, and Casey feels it her duty to try to find out the truth, fearful for Justin’s safety.

Casey is a very interesting protag, and though I had not read any of the prior entries in the series, the author fills in the background and the history of the characters, so that was not a problem, and I found the tale very absorbing.


Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2015.

Book Reviews: Freaks by Kieran Larwood and Long Gone Man by Phyllis Smallman

Kieran Larwood
Chicken House, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-47424-5

A delightfully charming read, brimming with genuinely unique characters, who stumble onto an epic mystery and later embark on a fabulously frightening, daring adventure to solve it; with the entire tale brilliantly set in London, in 1851.

The most unlikely of pals, our cast of characters have been tossed together due to circumstances far beyond their control. Despite the vast differences among them, and deplorable living conditions; they offer support and form a formidable team.

Sheba, the sweetest, kindest, most compassionate little wolf-girl to ever walk the earth, narrates for us. Luckily, we have only a glimpse of her time caged with a sickly two-headed lamb for company before she is purchased to join a much larger Freak Show. Her new family consists of a spirited, smart-mouthed, bitter Monkey-Boy; Mama Rat, the pipe-smoking sweet-natured woman that appears to communicate telepathically with her “babies”; six giant rats that prove ingenious and endearing; Moon Girl, the soft-spoken, but surprisingly deadly ninja; a gargantuan hulk of a man, Gigantus and undoubtedly the most ornery, mischievous horse that has ever existed.

If this hasn’t piqued your interest, the mystery certainly will. Our freaks aren’t the lowest rung on the ladder in London during these times. Mudlarks are beneath them. These people spend entire days trolling the filthy, slimy banks and bottom of the polluted Thames River searching for any scrap that could be sold for a penny or two. When the mudlark children begin disappearing, no one would care, if Sheba hadn’t met Till.

The tiny, filthy mudlark stole into the show, marveling as Sheba, captive in her cramped quarters, frightened away grown men. For one fleeting moment, there were simply two little girls chatting. Sheba’s heart had never been so full as when Till slipped a chipped marble into her small, furry hand.

What follows is a quick-paced, exciting escapade that reveals a plan so sinister and devious, this reader was floored. Packed with action, compassion, engaging and humorous dialogue and a mystery beyond belief, this is certainly one of the coolest books I’ve read.

Although this is written for Middle Graders, and I am no longer even a “Young” Adult, I was completely immersed, in part, I think, because (as a teen) I actually visited a traveling Freak Show. I am curious to see how today’s American 10 – 14 year olds view this obscure concept. The astute addition of the author’s notes detail that, while this is a work of fiction, the deplorable conditions of London during this time were very, very real. He generously includes pictures of London Street Children, along with brief biographies of historic figures mentioned. The combination of a truly ingenious, remarkable story; supported with stranger-than-fiction facts of a time so long ago it seems unfathomable, makes this a fabulously superb book that will be a treasure to any reader.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2014.


Long Gone ManLong Gone Man
A Singer Brown Mystery
Phyllis Smallman
Touchwood Editions, September 2013
ISBN: 9781771510301
Trade Paperback

From the very first sentence, readers will sense they are in the hands of a master storyteller. With discerning eye and sensitivity to the feelings of a stressed woman, we land in a decrepit Dodge van laboring up a narrow, twisting, fog-enshrouded mountain road toward an unknown destination and what is meant to be a long-overdue confrontation. The driver is Singer Brown, a down-on-her-luck itinerant street busker with a history of travel and living on the street, of singing curbside for the change of passers-by. Like many of her ilk she’s had her ups and downs, including club gigs with bands as well as solo stands. As she struggles tensely up the mountain road we learn of a long-festering hatred that drives her on toward this mountain peak on an island off the British Columbia coast. Glenphiddie Island is home to a band leader singer Brown encountered many years ago far to the south in Taos, New Mexico.

When Brown finally reaches her destination, toward the top of the mountain, she encounters another highly stressed woman holding a gun, a woman whose husband, the band leader, lies dead of a gunshot to the head. Readers will already have had some intimation of layered mystery and several relationships in disarray. Members of the band Vortex, all of who live in proximity, are fading into career-ending oblivion, yet their controlling leader holds them in iron fingers.

There are other strands, bits of which are revealed chapter after chapter, including a stirring love story. Readers will have to pay attention as the suspense builds and more and more relationships and conditions are revealed. One never understands completely or sees the entire nasty web until the fog is finally swept away and the true character of all the players is revealed in a classic confrontation.

I thought the author could have done a bit more with the location, an area of spectacular vistas and seascapes, and surprising if minor actions involve some police figures. A few wisps of foggy threads are left to the imaginations of readers. The changeling, enigmatic central figure of Singer Brown is precisely characterized with murky strength and occasional clarity of purpose. She is a wonderfully sympathetic figure. I look forward to more from this excellent writer.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, February 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Reviews: Brooklyn Bones by Triss Stein, Highball Exit by Phyllis Smallman, and Nightrise by Jim Kelly

Brooklyn BonesBrooklyn Bones
Triss Stein
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0120-2
Also available in trade paperback

Erica Donato has a difficult personal life:  Her mother has passed away, she is estranged from her father after he moved away to Arizona with the new woman in his life, her husband died in a tragic accident at age 26, leaving a 24-year-old widow and three-year-old daughter, now fifteen, and she is trying to raise a teenage daughter on her own. Erica is a historian, in grad school, and working in a museum on a part-time internship, receiving a small paycheck and getting academic credit for the work.

During the course of extensive renovation work in her century-old house in one of the less-upscale parts of Park Slope, Brooklyn, a skeleton is found, hidden behind a wall, apparently that of a young girl, and it appears to have been there since late in 1972.  Both Erica and her daughter, Chris, become determined to try to ascertain who the girl was and why she died.  Her daughter says “I feel like I found her so I owe her something.  I feel like she wants me to find out about her.”  Erica agrees, thinking about “this refuge that no longer felt so safe, where a girl my daughter’s age had seemingly disappeared a long time ago.  I didn’t want to think about who must have been looking for her way back then, or the terrible sadness if there was no one to look.”

As the two start to investigate the history of the house, bad things start to happen to people in their lives, both of long standing, and new ones, and Erica is repeatedly warned to stop asking questions, to her and her daughter’s peril should she fail to do so.

The tale is an intriguing one.  The book seemed to sag a bit in the middle, but quickly picks up again, and I found this a very interesting novel, one that makes me want to read more from this author.


Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2013.


Highball ExitHighball Exit
Phyllis Smallman
Touchwood Editions, November 2012
ISBN 978-1-927129-79-1
Trade Paperback

Billed as “a traditional mystery series serving Jack Daniels instead of tea,” this is the fifth in Phyllis Smallman’s Sherri Travis mysteries.  The protagonist, who co-owns a restaurant/bar with her lover, Clay Adams, is going through difficult financial times in the current economy, and uneasy romantic times in her relationship with Clay.  As the book opens, “Aunt” Kay arrives at Sherri’s house in a police cruiser, and tells Sherri that her former waitress, 21-year-old Holly Mitchell, has been found dead, in what the police declare to be a suicide:  There was what appears to be a suicide note with an empty highball glass sitting on it; it is their belief that she washed down some pills with a strong drink.  Three months behind in mortgage payments, and terrified that she will lose the Sunset Bar & Grill, she finds a temporary solution to that problem when Aunt Kay persuades her to look into the young woman’s death, made more urgent by the fact that there is no sign of Holly’s baby, telling her that she will take care of the outstanding payments if Sherri will give her a week of her time.

Now thirty-one, Sherri’s life had not been an easy one:  Married when she was 19, she had survived the murder of her cheating husband, been kidnapped by a psychopath, and now takes martial arts classes, goes to the shooting range, and is never without her can of pepper spray, in spite of all of which she regularly suffers from panic attacks.  Her current inquiries puts her life in danger from totally unexpected quarters, as she enters a world of drugs, sex workers, and perversion, but she is determined to get to the bottom of Holly’s death and to find her baby.

The book is filled with interesting characters, starting with Elvis, “the only egret in all Florida who preferred hotdogs to fish;” feisty “Auntie” Kay, who had known Sherri from the age of five; Sherri’s father, Tully, and Sherri’s former mother-in-law, Bernice, who are now romantically involved, to Sherri’s consternation.

This was a thoroughly entertaining novel, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2013.


Jim Kelly
Crème de la Crime/Severn House, February 2013
ISBN: 978-1-78029-033-1
Hardcover, 244 pp., $28.95

This was a book that I enjoyed immensely, despite the fact that at times it moved rather slowly for me, probably because many of its frames of reference were unfamiliar, coming as I am from the “other side of the pond.”  Even extending to the title, although I supposed it was meant to evoke the opposite of sunrise, and is defined by the author at one point as the moment when one sees “the first star clear in the sky.”

Philip Dryden had been a Fleet Street reporter, a job he’d left for one on the local paper to be near his wife.  I found him to be a very original protagonist, one made very human and vulnerable when, on the opening page, he is introduced to the reader as the father of an infant son, following somewhat traumatic circumstances:  His wife “had been badly injured in a car accident a decade earlier – – trapped in a coma for more than two years.  She would never completely recover.  They’d been told a child was impossible.”    But, almost miraculously, here he was.

Also in the opening pages, Philip is told by the police that his father has just been killed in an auto accident, the body burned beyond recognition, only the vehicle itself providing the identity of the owner.  This is a second near-impossibility:  His father had died 35 years before, drowned during the floods of 1977, the body swept away and never found.  The thought that he might have survived and simply chosen not to return to his family is, to say the least, stunning.

There are other story lines here, and a faint suspicion allowed that somehow they may be linked..  A West African man, seeking asylum in England but being forced to return to Niger, has been refused, without explanation, the return of the body of his infant daughter, buried, he is told, in an unmarked grave, and he and his wife seek Dryden’s help.  Then there is the mystery behind the murder of a local man whose already dead body had been hung from an irrigator in an open field.  When another murder occurs, a very personal one for Dryden, his efforts to solve these crimes are redoubled.

The novel is very well-written, suspenseful, and with a totally unexpected ending.  This is the sixth book in the series, but the first one I’d read.  I was happy to discover it, and shall definitely look for the previous entries.  This one is certainly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2013.