Book Reviews: The Bid by Adrian Magson and Jacqueline by Jackie Minniti

the-bidThe Bid
A Cruxys Solutions Investigation #2
Adrian Magson
Midnight Ink Books, January 2017
ISBN: 978073875043
Trade Paperback

Modern warfare is a featured bit player in this novel of suspense. The story opens a window on a rich theme of warfare and crime in the coming twenty-first century and beyond. Indeed, one of the problems with the novel is the number of possibilities it raises for both criminals and law enforcement.

The target is no less than the President of the United States and the process of funding and carrying out the assassination is a clever idea rooted in very modern financial life. The author, an experienced British crime-novelist, has written over a dozen thrillers, most would be classed as spy or conspiracy thrillers. The action is tension-filled, mostly consistent and relentless. The writing is top-notch, the characters are mostly interesting and/or intriguing and the settings are appropriate.

A business consultant with operations in the US and overseas has a specialized insurance contract on his life. If he goes missing for a short period of time, unusually trained operatives go active, searching for the client and setting up protection for the client’s family. It sounds expensive and I wanted more explanation of the basis for the character, James Chadwick, to buy what must have been an expensive policy. The policy is administered by a company called Cruxys. This interesting security policy allows the writer to introduce a pair of company operatives who soon fly off to the US where most of the action takes place.

Over several chapters we learn that the company seekers, Ruth Gonzales and Andy Vasilk, have unusual and relevant training and employment backgrounds, including the ability to take lives when necessary to protect their employer and themselves. It is easy to see the range of possibilities for this free-wheeling pair to get into trouble and to rescue clients from a wide range of dangerous circumstances.

Were it not for the author’s penchant for slipping strong critical editorial commentary into the narrative voice from time to time, the pace of the novel would make this book truly a compelling page turner. One wonders if there is anything about American life he finds favor for. In spite of these asides, The Bid is enjoyable, attention-holding and well-worth the readers’ time.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

jacquelineJacqueline
Jackie Minniti
Anaiah Press, July 2015
ISBN
Trade Paperback

Jacqueline Falna of the title is a French child, twelve years of age, living in Rennes, France. When the story opens, in 1943, she and her mother have just learned that her father, a French aviator, is missing in action. Now they must cope with poverty, the Nazi occupiers, the coming of American forces all while maintaining a semblance of normal chiildhood.

Jacqueline, bright, energetic, with all the attributes one hopes to observe in a daughter or niece, is desolated by the news, but holds to the thread of possibility that her father may have been captured and will one day, after the war return to their home in Rennes. When a nearby family of Jews is abruptly taken away, the boy, David, remains and is hidden by Jacqueline’s family with help from neighbors.

In a simple, straight-forward style, through the eyes of this twelve year old child, we follow her daily challenges to help her mother find food, keep themselves warm in the winter and for Jacqueline, school and church. The novel is written for a middle school audience but the author’s craft does not pander, assuming readers may occasionally have to struggle with the language and some of the more mature considerations.

This is a fine, realistic novel, very well balanced with tragedy, happiness and it will not only engage readers in this age range. It also provides a way for young people to learn something about World War Two on an important personal level. Finally, after reading the novel, you may want to remind yourself of the name of the author.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 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 Review: The Third Knife by Pamela Boles Eglinski

the-third-knifeThe Third Knife
Catalina & Bonhomme Series #1
Pamela Boles Eglinski
LWF Publishing, October 2015
ISBN 978-0692549087
Trade Paperback

Catalina’s parents send her away from their vineyard farmhouse into the night with a guide to escape the advance of the Germans into Italy. She is sent to find her mother’s relatives in France who can help hide the family’s fortune, a blue diamond necklace that’s been in the family since the French Revolution. Germans are on the trails, however, and the journey doesn’t go as planned. Catalina ends up as a young maquis, a French Resistance fighter.

This World War II tale is three narratives in one. First, it’s the story of a young Italian signorina who escapes from the Germans to France with her family’s fortune around her waist and finds her first love in the process. Next is a passionate story about a group of young French resistance members, the maquis, and their dangerous campaigns against the Nazis. Finally, there’s a tale of French and Italian wines and the vintners who produce the grapes.

We are educated about the period, the land, and the war even as the story pulls at our heartstrings, horrifies us, pulls us into the plot, and leaves us with a lasting impression of characters we learn to love and admire. There are maps and explanations at the end of the book and an introduction to the book, Return of the French Blue, to which The Third Knife is the prequel.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, September 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 Reviews: Blue Madonna by James R. Benn and The Fixer by Joseph Finder

blue-madonnaBlue Madonna
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #11
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61695-642-4
Hardcover

Billy Boyle has received all kinds of assignments in his capacity as a special investigator on Eisenhower’s staff. But few, if any, match the bizarre task before him in the Blue Madonna.  To begin with, he is arrested, tried on trumped up charges and stripped of his Captaincy and sentenced to time in the stockade for black market activities.  (This, of course, a subterfuge to provide a cover story as part of an investigation.)  Then he is sent behind enemy lines to rescue a downed airman who is needed to testify against a black market gang.

No sooner does Billy arrive in occupied France than he finds himself investigating two murders of airmen being hidden in a chateau.  And he even participates in partisan operations, blowing up railroad tracks and bridges.

The Billy Boyle series takes him through various phases of World War II.  This novel takes place as Allied troops sail for Normandy on D-Day, giving the author the opportunity to describe conditions in Occupied France, how the partisans operated, and what was done to return downed airmen through clandestine networks.  The Blue Madonna, a valuable piece of art, is an example of how many Jews and others attempted to prevent the Nazis from stealing their possessions by hiding them in such places as the chateau, which also secreted parachuted Allied fliers.

As were the first 10 books in the series, Blue Madonna is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2016.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

the-fixerThe Fixer
Joseph Finder
Putnam, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-4514-7257-3
Mass Market Paperback

What would you do if by some off-chance you broke into a wall in your home and discovered $3.7 million in cash?  That is the good luck that befalls Rick Hoffman, erstwhile unemployed journalist.  And then the bad luck follows.  Rick begins to wonder where the money came from.  He can’t ask his father, whose house it was, because the latter was left speechless and partially paralyzed by a stroke about two decades before.  Rick was once an investigative journalist, and uses these talents to find answers.

He soon discovers that his attorney father was a fixer, paying off various persons to ward off claims against powerful Boston figures.   And for his efforts he is beaten severely, almost killing him, as was his father before him, to stop Rick from pursuing his investigation.  But he perseveres.

The story moves ahead in a straightforward manner, with each step along the way uncovering additional information, until Rick can prove where the money came from and why.  But more importantly, as Rick explains, he continues because he wants to know how the story ends.  And so will you.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2016.

Book Review: The Darkest Hour by Caroline Tung Richmond

the-darkest-hourThe Darkest Hour
Caroline Tung Richmond
Scholastic Press, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-80127-0
Hardcover

Lucie Blaise becomes a female Indiana Jones or Dirk Pitt as she battles the Nazis in France during World War II. The sixteen-year-old lies about her age and becomes a special agent trainee for the Covert Ops section of the OSS in Paris. She’s unsuccessful at first, despite the intensive training she’s received, but because she’s perfect for the job—a strong, young, French-speaking U.S. citizen—her handler gives her a second chance.

Motivated by the memory of her soldier brother, killed by the German Army, Lucie’s incentive to become a top-notch secret agent and kill German collaborators is strong. Much to her frustration, she is unable to kill without shaking, and that causes her to botch another assignment. She’s put on desk duty.

That boring duty doesn’t last long, though, when an important and urgent situation develops and requires all of the agents to go into the field. Dressed in one of her disguises, Lucie travels to Cherbourg with another young female agent, a person with whom she’s had multiple conflicts. Nothing goes as planned, Nazis are everywhere, and the two young, female super-agents fight and flee from one death-defying situation to another.

The characters are intriguing, the compelling action is non-stop, and the history appears realistic. The author made up the despicable plot described in the story, and the agents and their covert operations facility are fictional. But the characters are based upon the lives of actual women spies who worked for the Allies during World War II and a couple of actual situations.

I didn’t want to stop reading at chapter endings, because I wanted to find out how Lucie and her fellows agents would fare and how they would stop the reprehensible Nazi plot they had discovered. I recommend the thriller.  Of course, for young people who read this historical fiction, several questions bear discussion: is killing considered “murder” when it’s done during wartime, is being a double agent for pay worse or the same as being a double agent for patriotic reasons or to save family members, and is it reasonable that a teenager would be strong enough or have the mental resolve to survive all of Lucie’s adventures?

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, August 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 Reviews: Death Takes Priority by Jean Flowers and World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

Death Takes PriorityDeath Takes Priority
A Postmistress Mystery #1
Jean Flowers
Berkley Prime Crime, November 2015
ISBN 978-0-425-27910-6
Mass Market Paperback

One of my dearest friends works for the Post Office, so I was pleased to find this book about Cassie Millar, who trades life as a manager in the Boston Post Office for a job as postmistress in her small hometown in the Berkshires.  Cassie’s been away for a long time, so she’s only gradually finding old friends and making new ones.  She loves her new job, though, until the day she unlocks the door and finds that someone has stolen several stacks of phone books.  Why?

Then a body turns up in the nearby woods, and Cassie’s lunch date, a handsome antiques dealer, is arrested.  Concerned for her new friend, Cassie starts asking questions.  She finds answers, new friends and some very dangerous people before she’s done.

I enjoyed spending time with Cassie and learning about the workings of a small town post office and will certainly buy the next book.

Reviewed by Marilyn Nulman, December 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

World Gone ByWorld Gone By
Dennis Lehane
William Morrow Paperbacks, January 2016
ISBN: 978-006-235181-4
Trade Paperback

The life Joe Coughlin has lived began in The Given Day as a young man rebelling against his stern police captain father in Boston, and continued in Live By Night as he turned to a life of crime, rising in the ranks to run the rackets in Florida and elsewhere.  Now, World Gone By brings the story to a conclusion.

This segment takes place around the time the United States entered World War II and takes a deep look at Joe’s machinations as he operates between the various elements of society, government and the disparate areas of their less reputable members with whom he comes into contact.  At the same time, we see Joe as a doting father of a motherless son, having lost his Cuban wife in a horrible murder at the end of the last novel.

For all his money and power, the fear of death always pervades a gangster’s life, and the plot has Joe learning that a contract has been taken out on his life, his murder scheduled for Ash Wednesday, less than a week away.  The steps Joe takes to learn of the plot and what to do about it has ramifications for the remainder of the story, which is as about well-written and -plotted as anything recently read.

This novel, as the entire trilogy, is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2016.

Book Review: Willful Child by Steven Erikson and The White Ghost by James R. Benn

Willful ChildWillful Child
Steven Erikson
Tor, November 2014
ISBN 978-0-7653-7489-9
Hardcover

Star Trek meets Futurama in this sci fi send up by Steven Erickson, author of the Malagan Book of the Fallen series. Terran Space Fleet Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback, commander of the Engage class starship Willful Child, is on a routine shake down cruise in search of smugglers. His new crew includes Chief of Security, Adjutant Lorrin Tighe; Chief Medical Officer, a Belkri called Printlip, with six arms and three legs; the beautiful and dark-skinned First Commander Halley Sin-Dour; square jawed and buff Communications Lieutenant Jimmy Eden; Chief Engineer Buck DeFrank; Combat Specialist Galk, a Varekan; and clueless Lieutenant Jocelyn Sticks, who gushes, “Like, it’s all very exciting.” Upon reviewing his crew, Captain Sawbuck “wondered if selecting certain bridge officers on the basis of their file photos was perhaps somewhat careless.”

It’s all good fun when the Willful Child embarks on a journey into Unknown Space, where the original mission is abandoned when the Captain encounters oversexed extraterrestrials, a time machine, and an artificial intelligence with gender issues. Can Captain Sawbuck, the spray tanned leader with the killer smile, save the Affiliation of Civilized Planets from an alien invasion?

Star Trek fans will appreciate the many sly references to the original series, but any science fiction readers who enjoy a large helping of humor, like Robert Asprin’s books, will find much to like about Willful Child.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, September 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The White GhostThe White Ghost
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #10
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2015
ISBN: 978-1-61695-511-3
Hardcover

The Billy Boyle World War II mystery series presents the reader with a double whammy:  A thoroughly researched story about the period combined with an excellent crime tale.  Until this novel, the series has concentrated on the European Theater of Operations where Billy, a Boston detective in civilian life, serves on the staff of General Eisenhower’s Supreme Command, tracing the progress of the war from North Africa through Sicily, Italy and, finally, the Normandy invasion.  For a change of pace, this novel takes Billy and his sidekick, Kaz, to the South Pacific.

The impetus for this sudden development is at the behest of Joe Kennedy, who pulls strings to have Billy investigate a murder in the Solomon Islands.  The reason for Billy’s selection derives from the fact that the body was discovered by Jack Kennedy, who was recovering after the loss of PT 109.  The Boyles and the Kennedys had a history back in Boston and the theory was that if Billy exonerated Jack as the perpetrator it would not be questioned, and if he accused the future President of murder it would be the result of a grudge.

The novel develops into more than a historical recounting or a mystery with a detailed look at the war operations in the Solomons, which were occupied by both U.S. and Japanese forces, on land, sea and in the air.  And a rousing finish with Billy and Kaz in the middle of a firefight between marines and Japanese infantry.  All the novels in the series are equally enjoyable, and The White Ghost is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2015.

Book Review: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

The Dead in Their Vaulted ArchesThe Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
A Flavia de Luce Novel #6
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-385-34405-0
Hardcover
Narrated by Jayne Entwistle
Random House Audio, January 2014
Downloaded Unabridged Audio Book

From the publisher—

On a spring morning in 1951, eleven-year-old chemist and aspiring detective Flavia de Luce gathers with her family at the railway station, awaiting the return of her long-lost mother, Harriet. Yet upon the train’s arrival in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey, Flavia is approached by a tall stranger who whispers a cryptic message into her ear. Moments later, he is dead, mysteriously pushed under the train by someone in the crowd. Who was this man, what did his words mean, and why were they intended for Flavia? Back home at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ crumbling estate, Flavia puts her sleuthing skills to the test. Following a trail of clues sparked by the discovery of a reel of film stashed away in the attic, she unravels the deepest secrets of the de Luce clan, involving none other than Winston Churchill himself. Surrounded by family, friends, and a famous pathologist from the Home Office—and making spectacular use of Harriet’s beloved Gypsy Moth plane, Blithe Spirit—Flavia will do anything, even take to the skies, to land a killer.

I don’t often feel the need to read a series in order but there are a few exceptions and the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley are a prime example. From the beginning, we’ve watched Flavia grow from a very precocious child with a penchant for chemistry to a slightly older and still very precocious child who not only loves chemistry but also can’t abide an unsolved mystery. We’ve felt for her as she quietly lets us know her family with all its “issues” including the emotional distance between her father and all three of his daughters. We’ve come to understand how Flavia tries to cope with never having known her mother and the feeling that there’s a great gaping hole in her life.

And then we come to The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches in which her mother’s body, found after so many years, is coming home and a virtual plethora of mysteries begin. Why on earth has Winston Churchill accompanied Harriet on her final journey? How did Aunt Felicity come to be part of the sad homecoming and why does the great Mr. Churchill ask Flavia if she likes pheasant sandwiches? Who was the man who tries to tell Flavia something he says is urgent?

Of all the Flavia de Luce books, I think this one is the most emotionally wrought and there are so many twists and turns that you really have to pay attention. I ended up listening to the audio book and also reading the print version just so I could pick up on all the little nuances; by the time the end rolled around, I was a little stunned by some of the revelations and I, quite simply, had to get my hands on the next book, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. That review will be forthcoming soon.

As for the audio book, Jayne Entwistle remains one of my very favorite narrators and, in my mind, she is Flavia, bringing her to life and giving the perfect voice to one of the most delightful characters I’ve ever “met”.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2015.