Thursday, April 20, 2017

What mystery in your own life could be a plot for a book?

This question from Goodreads, in honor of Mystery and Thriller Week (May 1 to May 7), is a tough one, because my life is so humdrum.
I guess there was a bit of mystery surrounding a letter some of my St. Louis neighbors and I found a couple of years ago.  True, it was just an unpaid water bill, but the circumstances were a bit suspicious. 
We were chipping out some old sections of a concrete sidewalk to reclaim a small area for a neighborhood green space when we found the letter.  The bill had been due in March and it was now April.  We didn’t become concerned, however, until we noticed the bill had been due in March two years earlier.  But in thinking back about it now, it was probably because the letter was in the back pocket of a dead man’s jeans that really got us spun up.
The man was later identified as Bill Waite, which seemed about right.  And since he was a scientist working on some type of advanced stealth weapon, one of those three-letter agencies was called in to investigate.  I never realized they were so specialized, until I saw they were from the Bureau of Undercover Munitions.
The BUMs immediately suspected the next-door neighbor, Mary Hopkins, a 77-year-old, retired third grade teacher.  She had no alibi for the two-week period when Bill had gone missing.  There were whole blocks of eight hours or more when the widow claimed no one had seen her.  And since Bill’s girlfriend, Natasha Popov had disappeared about the same time as Bill, she couldn’t vouch for Mary either.  Last we saw, Natasha was driving off in her Ferrari, probably going to the airport to visit her old, dying mother in the Ukraine.  She did that a lot.
Of course, the whole mystery disappeared when the doctors completed the autopsy.  Bill had died of a heart attack.  It was just one of those strange coincidences that he fell in the open trench for the sidewalk at the exact moment that the worker and his six supervisors were all looking the other way…probably watching Natasha drive away, because she always liked to have her top down.
So, with the mystery solved, I guess that won’t work for a book after all, because my life is so humdrum…
Image from The Car Spy - 1997 Ferrari F355 Spider, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18039149

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book Review: The Life Siphon by Kathryn Sommerlot

A Reluctant Hero, Battling Evil Magic…and Himself

The Life Siphon is the first book of a duology.  It tells the story of Tatsu, a reclusive woodsman who is reluctantly drawn into a conflict with a neighboring kingdom.  To save the day, he must stop a magical energy that siphons the life force from every living thing it encounters.

Overall, the story flows well.  With the book’s length – 363 pages – and a tendency by the author to repeat some thoughts for emphasis, I wasn’t necessarily expecting that.  But it was a quick read that easily held my attention, attesting to the author’s skill.  There is also plenty of action, which obviously helps with the pace.  A few action scenes seem a bit well-worn in the fantasy genre, but those are well done.  And there are enough twists in the plot to keep you wondering.

Other than Tatsu, the characters come and go throughout the story, making them feel a bit under-developed…and often a bit mysterious.  There is, however, enough detail in their portrayals to flesh out a supporting cast.  Tatsu, on the other hand, is well developed as the reluctant hero.  He is (for the most part) happy in his isolated life in the woods.  But when he’s implicated in a crime against his homeland, the scene is set for him to be forced into service for the crown.

Apart from the action, a great deal of the book is spent exploring the angst of the reluctant hero.  And for me, this is where the book became a bit muddled.  Sometimes I could not reconcile how Tatsu was acting with what he was feeling (according to our third person perspective or the nonverbal cues).  Or I wasn’t sure what in the story had elicited his emotional response or his change in feelings.  Toward the end, for example, Tatsu becomes overwhelmed with, let’s say, ‘family issues’ to avoid a spoiler.  Yet, in the midst of this, he agrees with the statement that ‘blood doesn’t dictate who you are.’  Admittedly, recounting the doubts and misgivings of a reluctant hero is a way to add tension to a fantasy, but I couldn’t quite make sense of some of Tatsu’s reactions and emotional swings.

Overall, if you are a fan of fantasies, particularly ones with a somewhat conflicted and anxious reluctant hero, The Life Siphon will make a great addition to your shelf.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: Blood Shot by Blake Colby

Its Irreverence Has No Bounds

Is there anything you hold sacred – life, love, family, a good bologna sandwich?  If so, you may not want to read Blood Shot, because it treats everything in life with a merciless irreverence.  Well, everything that is except…basketball.

In a word, I found Blood Shot to be hilarious.  Its humorous exaggerations, most of which were quite politically incorrect, centered on the lack of worldliness of an elite professional basketball player turned private detective named Kable Anderken.  Who else other than the coddled pro wouldn’t understand the purpose of public transportation?  Who else would carry several thousand dollars in his socks just in case he needed to bribe a government official?  Who else would repeatedly drop his wallet and passport on the floor because he was jumping up and down, yelling about a game on TV…and not consider it a problem?  There was hardly a situation that Anderken assessed correctly, because he had never had to worry about pedestrian concerns such as money or career or other people or…well, just about anything else, including staying straight.

There is also murder mystery in the book, with some strangely odd twists and lots of action that result in an array of injuries to Anderken and an ever-rising body count.  And, as you might guess from the tongue-in-cheek nature of this work, Anderken has some success solving the mystery despite his complete lack of aptitude, skill, and knowledge.  How much success?  Well, that would be a spoiler, right?

So, if you’re in the mood for some laughs and you’re not an overpaid athlete who thinks heroin is an over-the-counter drug, then Blood Shot may be the perfect read for you.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Book Review: Raven’s Rise by Lincoln Cole

A High-Octane Finish to a Trilogy?

Raven’s Rise is the third book in the World on Fire series by Lincoln Cole.  I haven’t seen the author use the word ‘trilogy,’ although admittedly I haven’t looked that hard.  But this installment clearly brings to a close a number of mysteries and leaves few characters hanging by a thread…unlike the previous books.  So, yes, it has the feel of the end of a trilogy, while leaving ample room for the same characters to fight new hordes of demons and leave us again gasping for breath.

As I did after book 2, I’ll address the question, are these books standalone or do you need to read them in order?  And I’ll stick with my previous answer – I’d strongly recommend sticking with the sequence.  If nothing else, you’ll miss out on the development of Haatim as a character if you start here, and for me, that was central to the story.

Raven’s Rise is primarily action-oriented, starting from the first chapter, which put my heart in my throat.  The mysteries that were laid out in books 1 and 2 get resolved, often with a plot twist.  But none of the twists seemed to release any tension, as it built continuously to the end.  The author’s writing style is informal, almost as if he is just telling you a story by the campfire.  Of course, with the prominence of evil in these books, the story might not be one you’d enjoy that much at night, far from the safe confines of your home.  The downside of this style, however, is that occasionally the sentences become a bit convoluted.  But with a handful of such situations in a 370-page book, it’s not really an issue – for me, anyway.

No review is complete without some critique, and for me, there were just a couple of areas I wished the story had been handled differently.  First, one of my pet peeves with fantasy/occult books is when all the supernatural conventions of the first, in this case, 2.5 books get violated in the final pages in order to reach a resolution.  This happened, in a way, in that something inexplicable occurred at the end.  But it appeared so late and seemed so tangential that I wonder if it is just the author’s segue to the next trilogy?  We’ll see.  And second, by about 70% of the way through the book, the mysteries had been resolved and the battle lines had been drawn - all that was left was the fight to the death.  But that covered about 100 of the book's 370 pages.  To me, the impact of this book would have been doubled if the finale had been halved.  My heart can only race for so long.

So, for a superior (perhaps) trilogy, featuring some great action, unexpected twists, and plenty of tension to go around, don’t miss this series.  And if you have to read just one of the series, make it Raven’s Rise.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review: Forever and a Night Dark Experiments by Lana Campbell

Twilight meets Grey’s Anatomy

Romance continues to be the most popular literary genre according to most surveys, with paranormal romance being a prevalent subgenre.  Mystery/thriller/suspense tends to come in second.  So how could you go wrong with a Paranormal Romance Mystery?  With a love affair between Tiffany Peebles, a human, and Dr. Christian La Mond, a vampire, in the midst of attacks by an unknown serial killer, that’s exactly where I’d put Forever and a Night Dark Experiments by Lana Campbell.

The basic romance plot is fairly standard, with boy and girl experiencing a strong romantic attraction, then complications ensue – in this case, the girl feeling she doesn’t fit in the boy’s world and that he deserves better.  And the rest of the romance story is them trying to overcome that hurdle.  There is additional spice, of course, as we’re talking about a human and a vampire, so we have twice the suggestive scenes, some of which are rather explicit but always done tastefully.  Running parallel to this story is a good murder mystery.  It’s intense, especially considering the targets of the killer and the author provides a couple of good twists.  In fact, for me, this was the best part of the book – it gave the story an edge that kept me turning the pages.

Christian La Mond as the vampire doctor is a bit stereotypic in everything but his species.  He’s the ruggedly ‘beautiful,’ transplanted Texan in cowboy boots and pickup truck.  Tiffany, on the other hand, is anything but stereotypic.  As a self-described computer nerd, one might think quiet and socially inept.  She is, in a way, but she also has a temper, is an outdoor sports enthusiast, has a sharp tongue, and is somewhat self-centered and emotion-driven in her initial reactions to situations (later retracting her outbursts).  Her maturation is one of the main themes of the story and is quite well done.

There are a few areas where this book could be improved.  First, there are some minor editing issues – sentences with missing words, words used incorrectly, and the like.  These are, as I said, minor, but have a tendency to pull you out of the make-believe world for a moment to reconcile them.  Second, on a more technical level, melding two different genres is always tricky, and there are places where the romance and the suspense in this book seem to clash.  Romantic shenanigans in the same setting as a killing spree requires some delicate balancing.  There is also some unnecessary repetition and a little tightening of dialog and plot would have helped the pacing.

Overall, if you’re looking for a Paranormal Romance Mystery, with some solid roots in the mystery genre and some interesting character development, Forever and a Night Dark Experiments is worth the read.



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

Witty Sci-Fi with a Message

The Box of Tricks has the mind-boggling technology one expects in a sci-fi book, along with the battle between good and evil.  But under all the expected sci-fi trappings, Alistair Potter still delivers well-developed characters and even a message to his readers, all wrapped in humor and wit.

The story centers around Tom Mathers, a mild-mannered, somewhat socially inept taxi driver from Edinburgh.  Thrust into his strange new reality, Tom matures.  But even by the end of the book, his timidity is often the appropriate trait and common sense is generally the correct tactic.  Other than a strong sense of loyalty to friends and a desire to do right, Tom was an everyday hero, and I appreciated that fact.  Romantic interest Suzie and co-protagonist Fanshawe also come across as believable, although toward the riskier end of the scale.

Pacing is also excellent.  The author moves steadily through challenges revealed, skirmishes waged, and alliances formed, saving a few unexpected twists for the end.  The aptness of the pacing is also apparent in Potter’s treatment of his social message about our stewardship of the planet.  It would be easy for that message to become overbearing…but it doesn’t.  The author maintains a velocity that keeps us engrossed and entertained.

I wouldn’t say the book is a laugh-a-minute tome – what American reader would say that about British humor?  But it does have a tongue-in-cheek witticism that was very appealing.  If you want to take the possible end of planet earth completely seriously, you may need to look elsewhere.

Overall, The Book of Tricks felt like storytelling at its best, with solid characters, good pacing, a touch of humor, and a broader message.  It’s well worth the read.