Book Reviews

The Final Enemy by Dan Petrosini

Not Hard Science Fiction; More Like Sensationalized Fantasy

The Final Enemy is the story of Jack Amato, a newly graduated reporter who is writing obituaries for a Keokuk, Iowa, newspaper, waiting for the scoop that will lead to fame and fortune.  And when he makes a far-fetched connection between a meteorite that lands near his home and the cessation of death – and the connection proves real – he has his exclusive.  What follows, however, is not what he expected from fame and immortality.

The story gets high marks for vividly portraying humanity’s fight for survival in this apocalyptic tale.  It becomes gruesome and gory in places as the government tries to tiptoe its way through the landmines of population growth, the loss of spirituality, and widespread famine.  They often misstep and Jack is quick to cover the human suffering.

But unfortunately, the problems with the story are many.  Take for instance the fact that Jack’s second major scoop is that overpopulation may result if there is no death.  Wouldn’t anyone conclude that after about 30 seconds?  Jack’s rise to fame seemed like the daydream of a fifteen-year-old, not that of a protagonist in an apocalyptic thriller.  Additionally, for a “hard science fiction” book, the genre indicated on Amazon, most of the science-related material is treated with a wave of a hand.  It’s a new “element” but its atomic number is never found.  It emits some type of energy, but the type is never known.  It ends death, but the only hypothesis suggested is that cells continue to divide forever.  But cellular senescence (loss of function) increases mortality after maturity, it doesn’t cause it.

Human nature is also dealt with the poorly.  When the connection to immortality is proven, everyone demands to be exposed – there is widespread rioting to get close, even though the side effects aren’t known.  Even though the long-term effects aren’t known.  Even though it doesn’t restore people, it just keeps them from dying.  Would people really clamor for immortality if they had to live with a growing list of infirmities forever?

Admittedly, several of these limitations stem from the fact that when I read hard science fiction, I was expecting a story that builds tension and suspense by blurring the line between technical knowledge and a theoretically possible fiction.  If this is what you are seeking, you should look elsewhere.  However, as a fantasy about population growing out of control and some bizarre countermeasures by a beleaguered government, it yields a descriptive, surprising tale, if not always believable.



The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The End is a Gem

The Late Show introduces a new Michael Connelly character, Detective Renee Ballard who works the night shift in Hollywood, aka the Late Show.  Although a new character, Ballard immediately shows allegiance to the familiar Harry Bosch credo, everybody counts or nobody counts, as she commits herself to three cases that are likely to fall through the cracks if she drops them at the end of her shift.  And so, she doesn’t, putting her at odds with police policy and perhaps more importantly, department politics.

Ballard is well developed as the driven detective, bending the rules when they will and breaking them when she feels she must.  I’m not a big fan of either perfect protagonists who never fail or the heroes who are so flawed that it’s hard to know whether they succeeded or their demons did.  Ballard is perhaps a bit closer to the latter than I would prefer, as her dedication to the underdog approaches reckless obsession in places.  But I have to say, that made for excellent pacing as the plot moves from looks into her unusual and disquieting past to scenes of tense action, gut-wrenching in places.

There seem to be a few scenes where things occur somewhat conveniently – developing the initial lead on the case involving the assault on the prostitute is an example.  And in places, Ballard seems to be moving faster than teams of detectives working the same issue.  But overall, Connelly continues as the master of the police procedural.  The book is filled with the jargon and terminology of the field, giving the book a strong feel of authenticity, of being in the moment.

And, without giving a spoiler, all I can say is that the end is a gem.

So, overall, if you have ever enjoyed police procedural mysteries and particularly ones with strong, well-defined female leads, I don’t see how The Late Show could miss for you.  I know it was a hit with me.


Dead Close to Reality by Jennifer Bull

A tense, physical plot in a well-paced read

Dead Close to Reality is the story of Cora Winters, computer geek, and her attempts to unravel several mysterious deaths connected to a high-tech, virtual reality game.  In a generally well-paced story, somewhat grittier than a typical YA mystery/thriller, she battles virtual as well has real enemies in a constantly shifting landscape of friend and foe, dead and alive.

Dead Close to Reality bears many of the hallmarks of a YA mystery/thriller, e.g., young protagonist, largely missing or ineffectual adults (unless they are villains of course), little or no sex.  But this book goes a bit farther on violence than I consider typical.  That’s not to say it was graphic, but violence was frequent and often intense.  If you’re looking for a somewhat more ‘physical’ YA yarn, this one will fit nicely.

The pacing was good, although the author did repeat some themes a bit much.  Cora’s complaints about a ‘nuisance’ male friend, Derek, was an example.  But overall, the story flowed well and held my attention to the end.  As for character development, Cora represented a strong, intelligent, and independent female, all great qualities.  But there is a fine line between strong and headstrong for no reason, and Cora’s unwillingness to trust anyone became somewhat tedious.  If her self-reliance had succeeded, it might have made more sense.  But the author used frequent reversals of fortune to keep tension high, making me wish Cora had used more of her intellect to discover her real friends and develop better plans.  She was likeable as seat-of-the-pants gutsy and tough, but not much of a tactician or strategist.

The main factor that kept me from becoming fully immersed, however, was the lack of attention to making the story seem real, or at least near-future real, rather than just ignoring implausibility for plot convenience.  There was something like a half-dozen deaths connected to the game, but there was no public outcry.  There was no media frenzy.  There was hardly any police presence.  And at one point, 20-30 people were being held against their will in a cave, but an individual connected with law enforcement told Cora she had to hang on until he could get enough evidence for a conviction.  Huh?  Simply put, the story lacked the confluence of tragic coincidence or unforeseen circumstances that the best authors find to tie your stomach in a knot, rather than make you scratch your head.

Overall, the story has some holes and a heroine that could often use her smarts to better effect, but it’s still a tense, physical plot in a well-paced read.


Liberty’s Last Stand by Stephen Coonts

As a Story, It’s Great; As a Precautionary Note, It’s Muddled

In Liberty’s Last Stand, President Barry Saetoro’s uses the cover of terrorist attacks to declare martial law, adjourn Congress, suspend the constitution, and jail his detractors.  He wants to be dictator of the United States.  There’s also a political message in the book, a precautionary note about liberal, left-wing politics.  That message, however, becomes extremely muddled, significantly detracting from an otherwise outstanding thriller.

Politics aside (if you can do that), this is an extremely well written story.  It grabbed me in the opening scenes with good action and interesting characters, and it never let go.  Series figures Jake Grafton and Tommy Carmellini are featured and right in character.  But we’re also introduced to a host of new players, and Coonts does an admirable job developing them and making them feel real.   Plot twists and suspense aren’t highlights of this book; it’s clear where it’s going from the outset.  But Coonts keeps the tension building and uses a few, well-placed misdirects.  There is one plot flaw, at least for me.  It was much too convenient the way Grafton organizes resistance that appears after the coup but claims he couldn’t have done the same beforehand.  And he’s Director of the CIA?  Really?

With the rather consistent references to left-wing politics and their devastating effect on the country, the thriller aspect of the novel almost takes a back seat to the politicking.  That’s unfortunate, not so much because it occurs, as many authors decry a variety of excesses of that harm society.  But the problem with the politics in this book was that the message got quite muddled because Saetoro wasn’t a left-wing politician.  He was a fascist.  Even with the varying and conflicting meanings of left and right-wing, Saetoro was a right-wing wolf in left-wing sheep’s clothing, complete with delusions of absolute power and a chosen race.  His claims to typical left-wing causes were a ruse.  To him, climate change was a means to keep the masses under his rule, not a way to save the planet.  And because of that, all the diatribes in the prose and dialog about left-wing politics, all the attacks on Saetoro’s label rather than the man, became tedious sermonizing.

Overall, it was an extremely well written, political thriller, but in the end, trying to tie the condemnation of left-wing politics to someone who wasn’t left-wing became too tiring.


A Case of Need by Michael Crichton

Not Crichton’s Best Work…Not Even Close

A Case of Need is the story of Dr. John Berry’s efforts to clear his fellow doctor and friend, Dr. Arthur Lee, after a teenager in his care dies from an illegal abortion.  My first thought for a title for this review was, ‘You’ll need a scorecard to follow all the characters in this somewhat preachy, meandering plot involving an obstinate doctor who wants to play detective but has no idea how the criminal justice system works.’  But that seemed a bit long.

As mentioned above, the story deals with abortion and the need to broaden/relax the laws.  So, depending on your political and religious leanings, you may find the story anywhere between contemporary and thought-provoking to depraved and immoral.  Be advised.

Beyond the ethical position it takes, there is a story here with some suspense and good pacing.  The suspense is provided by assembling a myriad of suspects and digging into the background of several witnesses, many of whom have their own secrets – drug use, infidelity, self-destructive behavior, deceitfulness.  And surprisingly, Berry, with no authority and only some vague background in the Military Police, unearths all of this information singlehandedly.  But after doing so, he doesn’t understand he has more than enough to raise reasonable doubt; then he doesn’t want to use this information because it’s too “dirty;” finally, he complains that the lawyer didn’t use it aggressively enough.  The only consistency I could find in Berry was that he always wanted to play it alone and as a result, the circumstances that pitted him against the world were of his own making.  That behavior doesn’t gain my empathy and tends to make my mind wander to other books I could be reading.

As a long-time Crichton fan, I thought I’d always be able to recommend one of his stories.  I was wrong.  My advice, look elsewhere for your reading entertainment.


The Killdeer Connection (Lawyer David Thompson Series Book 1) by Tom Swyers

A Shaky Plot and Somewhat Preachy Dialog Limits this Book’s Appeal

The Killdeer Connection is the story of lawyer David Thompson’s struggle to clear his name after he is falsely accused of killing an acquaintance, Harold Salar.  And when a possible link to terrorism comes up, Thompson is fighting for his life.  One of his main clues?  A cryptic message in Salar’s will that says, ‘always follow the killdeer’ – a message that has a host of meanings, both symbolic and literal.

Swyer is an excellent writer – one who is particularly adept at creating visual descriptions that convey the underlying psychology of a situation, as well as the physical scene.  The initial meeting at Baxter & Chadwick, lawyers for the oil industry, and at the oil field in Williston, North Dakota, are particularly good examples.  If there is a flaw in these descriptions, it’s that they do tend to be overly long and in some cases, misplaced.  The scene where Thompson and a friend, Jim, are watching dust particles, until Jim chases them away with a hand is an example of the latter issue.  I had a hard time picturing why anyone would be doing that.

Thompson as the protagonist was cast as the man who tried to do it all himself, tending toward sarcasm and deceit as his tools.  When he wasn’t making excuses or telling half-truths to everyone from his wife to the FBI, he was preaching about the dangers of transporting oil by rail – complete with statistics.  True, it is dangerous, but he wasn’t comparing its pros and cons against pipelines or alternative energy.  He was sermonizing and those sections became ponderous.  By the end, Thompson was transformed by his experiences…maybe.  But even at the conclusion, he was grandstanding and reveling in his moral stands.  I never came around to liking him.

One of my biggest concerns, however, was that the plot was shaky.  For example, physical evidence links Thompson to the murder scene when he clears a spot and sits down near the body.  While that is odd enough, at least two later scenes have him running into the apartment holding his breath because the smell is so bad, even though the body has been removed.  The notion that the FBI would consider Thompson a terrorist based on the evidence they had seemed ludicrous.  That they would even think terrorism was a motive given the nature of the crimes was not believable to start with.  How could Salar have left the clues he supposedly did when he was being accosted?  Why did Salar put Thompson in such an awkward position when his objectives could have been accomplished many other ways?  Etc.

The author has some reveals at the conclusion that tie up some loose ends, but several of the apparent twists involve revelations that have little to do with the story.  Many other questions that are germane, however, remain unanswered.


Repository by Ela Lond

A Near-Future YA/Cozy Mystery with A Somewhat Predictable End

Set one hundred years in the future, Repository is the story of Maya Bell, an eighteen-year-old university student who stumbles across an apparent murder.  Teaming with a classmate from high school who’s now a policeman-in-training, Damien Cain, they pursue the case as it grows from an isolated incident to a major conspiracy built on a heinous disregard of life.

Repository has the feel of a young adult or cozy mystery even if it’s not classified that way (it’s in the Mystery/Thriller, women and amateur sleuth genre on Amazon).  That feel suits the story well, as much of the excitement comes from the optimism and enthusiasm of youth.  Why call in backup or carefully stake out a potential crime scene when you can rush in unprepared?  But that feel also dampens some of the emotion when its needed.  On discovering the atrocious nature of the crime they were investigating, the comment was that it’s “…horrible and really disgusting.”

Maya was easy to like as the over-achieving, guilt-ridden student turned sleuth.  And other than the immaturity that seemed extreme in places, Damien was as well.  Pacing was good, although there seemed some unnecessary repetition.  Overall, the plot was somewhat predictable; it was fairly clear from about the middle of the book what was happening and how it would end.  The details getting there, of course, were unknown and the author does an admirable job keeping the reader immersed to the end.

As a story set one-hundred years in the future, Repository provided a somewhat ‘mixed bag’ of future technology.  One gadget that was featured was wearable computing in the form of glasses – a tech novelty that may have already come and gone.  And a lot of the technology seemed 2017 era – emails and dishwashers – or not as far along as you might expect, e.g., androids could be distinguished from humans because of their unsynchronized lip movement.  In 100 years, really?  But there were androids and an Artificial Intelligence with a personality chip, the latter being a lot of fun.

So, if you’re a fan of well-written, YA/cozy mysteries and don’t mind a somewhat predictable finale, you’ll enjoy Repository.


Liberty Boy by David Gaughran


The Historical Context is Excellent; the Fictional Story, Not So Much

Historical fiction is, obviously, part history and part story.  Liberty Boy did well in creating the look and feel of the period (the British oppression and Robert Emmet’s uprising in 1803 Ireland), but the accompanying fiction had the feel of a formulaic romance.  I was hoping for more.

Liberty Boy conveyed a feeling of helplessness and oppression that seems appropriate to the period.  The nature of home life, work, social interactions, and political intrigue in this part of the world and time all felt true.  Simply put, the book made a period in history that I knew little about come to life, as good historical fiction will often do.

The pacing of the story was OK to a bit slow with some repetition or unnecessary emphasis, and yet, the book was a quick read.  Perhaps that’s because it’s relatively short.  Character development was good.  I particularly enjoyed Kitty Doyle, who is brash, aggressive, and daring, which of course, stirs the pot in her world.  Development of Jimmy O'Flaherty, on the other hand, started well, but by the end, he seemed both too good and too rudderless to be real.

The plot that went with the history, however, was the primary letdown for me.  In general, it followed a well-worn recipe for romances – keep the potential young lovers apart through a series of misunderstandings, poor timing, and chance events to build emotional tension.  And then…  Well, to finish that thought would give away the ending, but it’s one of the two possible – they get together or they don’t.  But either way, the storyline already felt stale.

So, while the romance was somewhat trite and predictable, the feel of the period comes through at nearly a gut level, making Liberty Boy a worthwhile read.


Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Solid Characters in an Implausible Plot

I like plot, reading for the tension, suspense, and unexpected twists that the best authors can craft. For me, characters are in books largely to move the plot forward. But characters can also be captivating, as Since We Fell reminded me. Unfortunately for this book, those fascinating and nuanced individuals populate a plot that was often unbelievable and always convenient.

Rachel Childs, the protagonist of Since We Fell, felt real to me and quite easy to like. In the early chapters, Lehane paints her as a woman who is utterly alone – emotionally, psychologically, and physically. By the middle of the book, she has suffered her on-air mental breakdown and is a virtual shut-in. She is a well-developed, complex character through these sections. Her final transformation seemed a bit over-the-top to me, but extreme situations might call for reaching into the depths of one’s psyche and drawing on capacities rarely seen.

Although a bit slow paced initially, I generally enjoyed the author’s writing style, particularly some of the visual similes. This type of comparison is easy to overuse, but Lehane hits a good rhythm. And the end is action packed.

The weakness of the book, however, was the plot. It simply strained credibility too much for me to remain immersed in the story. There are several, specific scenes that were questionable, e.g., an interaction between Rachel and a detective or several scenes involving the villains. Those, however, could be written off as a necessary stretch of the imagination. But it was the primary ‘twist,’ the turning point in the story that came about two-thirds of the way through the book that pushed the story beyond believability. While it forced me to re-characterize much of the action, which good twists will do, it also made everything that had and would happen convenient and generally trite.

Overall, I loved Rachel’s climb back out of self-doubt and despair. If you’re a reader who values character development and vivid prose even when not fully supported by plot, you should enjoy Since We Fell.


The Obsidian Chamber (Agent Pendergast series) by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


A Good Read for New Fans; Not So Much for the Long-Time Ones

For the fans of the Pendergast series, and I count myself among their number, The Obsidian Chamber brings together several familiar figures in a well-written and generally entertaining chase.  But that strength is also its weakness, as the plot seems a bit well-worn.  The old gang keeps coming back from the dead to pursue much the same agenda as before.

In general, I enjoy Preston and Child’s writing.  Their prose flows smoothly and quickly, and I soon become immersed in their stories.  And their primary characters are always interesting, each with their own flaws and often with strange and mysterious roots. 

But these pros don’t offset several weaknesses in this book.  First, one of the “twists” was bringing Pendergast back from the dead (mentioned in the authors’ synopsis).  To avoid a spoiler, I’ll just say he is not the only one, and two resurrections in one book is at least one too many.  Second, for those familiar with the characters, Constance’s abduction would seem a bit implausible both because of the setting and her past history with the abductor.  But even without previous exposure to the series, Proctor’s race to her rescue would seem ill-considered.  And finally, again for the long-time readers, The Obsidian Chamber does little to further the series, as the book brings back an animosity that’s driven several of the previous novels.  If there is a positive, at least none of the main characters dies, so we don’t have to expect another miraculous return from the grave.

Overall, new readers to the series will find The Obsidian Chamber entertaining.  It’s a well-written, fast read, with only a few questionable coincidences or actions to mar the flow.  But for the long-time reader, these glitches are magnified, especially in the context of a theme that’s not really new.


Hyper by John A. Autero

Don’t You Love It When a Plot Comes Together?

There are books that end with threads still hanging.  There are the ones that tie it all up, but you saw the finale coming after the first 20 pages.  And then, there’s the ones that sneak up on you with a finish that makes you rethink the whole story.  They’re fun.  Hyper is one of them.

Hyper is a whodunit, set in the future and on a station in deep space.  And with a limited cast of unusual characters (seven of them), guessing the killer is possible…even quite likely, as the body count continues to rise.  But giving the killing spree context was the real twist for me, and when the author sprung it, I admit making that admiring nod.  He got me.  And when it happened, I saw several of the characters in a new light.

In general, the pace of the book is good, as the story moves from death to death at a nice clip.  There are some deliberate flashbacks that seemed to interrupt the flow, but even those apparent diversions made sense by the end.  The violence is intense and gruesome; the book is adult reading.  Character development is adequate, although a bit stereotypic around people like the “thug from the south side of Chicago” (author synopsis).  But the individuals are interesting and easily distinguished, allowing the story to flow readily.

With its future setting (the year 2061), the technology gave me some pause.  It seemed to range from futuristic (space stations and cyborgs) to 2017-era manufacturing, communications, and computing systems.  In some ways, it seemed like ‘steampunk,’ except that the technology inserted into the dystopian future is not Victorian-era steam gauges and engines, but the maze of pipes, tanks, and compressors of today’s manufacturing world.

Overall, for a somewhat grisly whodunit all tied up neatly with a thought-provoking climax, I recommend Hyper as a fun and fast read.


Book Review:  The Negative’s Tale by R. Leib

A Story in a Story and Both Are Good

OK, it’s not really a story in a story, but rather, a story with some extended flashbacks.  But the last flashback nearly stole the show for me – thus the title.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The Negative’s Tale is the story of Allon Wu, a rare ‘negative’ who can tap into the psychic abilities of others, e.g., their clairvoyance, telepathy, etc.  When the Vice Admiral of the Space Guards, Allon’s wife, can trust no one else to unravel a mysterious death on the Kostya station, she calls on her reclusive, somewhat burned-out husband for help.

One of the early flashbacks develops Allon’s character and introduces us to his world by way of his psychic skills, martial arts, and science training.  I found it fascinating.  But as I said above, it was a final flashback that rivaled the main plot.  It involves Allon’s exploits on a hostile planet inhabited by a psychic, crustacean-like species.  It is a fast, fun, and highly descriptive sequence, bound to leave the reader with some strange and entertaining images.

The primary plot – investigating the death of Bertie Lindermann – is a more traditional murder mystery.  It even ends with a scene in which Allon confronts the suspects in a big reveal.  But like the flashbacks, the author has saved a few twists for his primary storyline, just to keep us readers guessing.

For me, the integration of science fiction and mystery in The Negative’s Tale was handled perfectly, with enough touches of advanced technology, the paranormal, and ethical/cultural issues to appeal on many different levels.  It’s a story well worth the read.


Book Review:  To Conquer Heaven by Felix Long

An Outstanding Story, but It Takes Some Persistence

College buddies Jeremy Wang and Brett East team up with Dr. Saffiyah Halcyone, Egyptian archaeologist, to search for the lost tomb of the first emperor of China, Shi Huang Di.  Joined by the mysterious Jin, the threesome face the perils of rivers of mercury, terracotta warriors, and a quicksilver dragon in order to stop the emperor before he can rise again and continue his quest To Conquer Heaven.

I found this story nothing short of outstanding in the way it weaves history, folklore, science, and magic into the plot.  Desperate to conquer death, the first emperor of China calls upon the Egyptians and their expertise on the afterlife.  That, in turn, brings into play stories such as the curse of the Pharaohs and historical characters such as Howard Carter and Aleister Crowley.  Coupled with the mythical figure of the Monkey King in Chinese folklore and the tyrannical legacy of Shi Huang Di, author Felix Long has a great deal of violence, magic, and mystery with which to work.  And he weaves all these threads into a conclusion, a feat I was not certain was possible mid-story.

Writings from the Tao Te Ching, the foundation of Taoism, introduce each chapter.  It’s basic form of declarations, followed by contradictions to stimulate thought, seemed to be continued into the novel.  The chapters when our explorers first enter the tomb are filled with contradictory situations, with Jeremy, a doctoral student, and Saffiyah seeking science-based explanations for what appears to be magic.  In some cases, science gets them out of a jam.  But when it doesn’t, magic is there as the backup.  It’s a fascinating interplay.

Character development in the story gave me some pause.  For an Egyptian archaeologist and a doctoral student, there was not much planning and forethought for their adventure.  And giggling and ‘horseplay’ were more common than I would have expected.  Even the budding romance seemed to come out of nowhere.  But overall, these were secondary issues.

More troubling for me was the writing style.  Clearly, there are passages that are beautifully worded and highly evocative.  Take for example: “The sheer delight of survival was trickling away behind her, like a melting candy coating revealing a seed of cold panic in her breast.”  Very expressive, but any technique can be over-worked.  And analogies are.  Then, there are phrases that seem complex for no apparent reason, e.g., ““There was a subliminal susurration on the edge of the audible spectrum.”  As far as I can tell, that just means there was a soft rustling.  It’s clearly a matter of taste, but for mine, the prose was unnecessarily dense, requiring some persistence to complete an otherwise outstanding tale.

If you’re drawn to adventures that cleverly mix history, myth, science, and magic, especially when they are of a Chinese and/or Egyptian origin, To Conquer Heaven is a treat.  You just need to be a bit persistent.


Book Review:  Through Shade and Shadow (Shades and Shadows Book 1) by Natalie J. Case

Stage Setting, with a Fair Dose of Action

Through Shade and Shadow felt very much like setting the stage – that is, establishing the characters and building parts of the fantasy world before the protagonists become engaged in the main conflict.  But as stage setting goes, this book did pretty well as the action was fast, although it was not always as immersive as I might have liked.

The violence in Through Shade and Shadow was the result of bigotry and intolerance, after a mass murderer was identified as a Shade.  Shades were previously considered a mythical species with supernatural healing capabilities, so the hatred that erupted was from a fear of those who are different.  To reinforce that idea, the author had the persecution extend well beyond the Shades and the other fantasy species (Shadows, Shifters, Sages) to many other groups and organizations.  Over the course of the story, blacks, immigrants, synagogues, gays, Planned Parenthood, and others were attacked, often with horrific results.  While the use of these examples brings to mind real world events, the breadth of the persecution seemed generally unrealistic.  Even the story’s references to extreme religious close-mindedness, hatemongering on the political front, and violent military stereotypes did little to make these events seem more than a listing of historical intolerance.

The book spends some considerable time developing the lifestyle and gifts of the two primary characters, Mason Jerah, a Shade, and Alaric Lambrecht, who is a Shadow.  Both are being thrust into roles much greater than anything they had experienced before and it is easy to feel their growing pains.  Beyond these two individuals, the author expounds on a variety of other fantasy species and their gifts – the ability to feel another’s emotions, to see another’s thoughts, to plant thoughts, to create false appearances, to control fire, to control light, and so on.  While variety may generally add interest to a story, when so many supernatural capabilities are available in a fantasy world, creating obstacles becomes a matter of explaining why a gift doesn’t work and eliminating problems just takes the right gift at the right time.  The creation of tension and its resolution starts to feel artificial, subject completely to the stage of the story.

So, while the plight described in Through Shade and Shadow will, unfortunately, bring to mind many real-world events, the breadth of the persecution and the lack of boundaries on supernatural gifts tends to render the story somewhat strained.


Book Review:  As Wings Unfurl by Arthur M. Doweyko
SciFi Action with Meaning on Several Levels
When the reader first meets Applegate “Apple” Bogdanski, he is “…looking forward to nothing and hoping it will arrive soon,” as the author’s synopsis puts it.  But then, he and two other reluctant heroes become involved in a battle with an alien race for no less than the survival of humanity.  Despite how trite that may sound, As Wings Unfurl has enough action, differing themes, and twists in the nature of the combatants to make it an interesting read.
As Wings Unfurl is on the high end of the action-and-pacing scale.  From the first scenes in which Apple stops a mugging, only to wake up later to be hailed as a hero, the fights come fast and frequent.  And they’re battles that can be viewed from multiple perspectives – as a war between good and evil, including some with religious overtones; a battle between humanity and aliens; a fight within a person for self-respect; and a battle to prove that mankind can evolve to something worth saving.  The last battle ground, in particular, is mentioned frequently and started to feel a bit overworked by the end.  There is also the issue that the physical battle left casualties, but too often, these dead returned to fight again.  That type of misdirection is better not repeated as often as it was in this book.
Part of the pace of the book is driven by changes in setting, with the story taking place in New York, Tibet, and London.  But while the author does an admirable job of crafting vivid descriptions of each locale, the movement often seemed abrupt and haphazard.  When flashbacks to other areas, e.g., Vietnam, were added, shifts in the setting became difficult to follow and on occasion, jarring.
The characters were developed gradually throughout the story, and Apple becomes fairly well-defined as the war hero who can’t accept his failures along with his valor.  Other supporting characters – Shilog, Yowl, and Angela – are less well developed, perhaps in part because they represent cultures/species with which most readers will be less familiar.  This fact may also be partially responsible for why the attraction between Apple and Angela felt rushed and poorly founded.  But whatever the reason, it felt underdeveloped.
So, for a SciFi tale with lots of actions and some interesting twists on the characters involved and the nature of the battle, As Wings Unfurl makes an enjoyable read.


Book Review:  Over Shadowed (Over Cast Series Book 2) by K.W. Benton

Teenage Angst & Fantasy Creatures – Who Knew the Mix Could Be So Funny?

Generally, I start my reviews with a one or two sentence summary of the story.  But for Over Shadowed, the crux of the book is not so much in the multi-threaded plot but rather, the interplay of teenage angst and what it means to be a maturing witch or werewolf or faery on top of that.  The result is always entertaining and is often hilarious.
So, take the ‘normal’ worries of a teenage girl according to this novel – am I pretty, just what’s up with boys, can I survive another year of school – and add to it being a member of a fantasy species, or being turned to one, or being mated to one, and you have some idea of the fodder author K.W. Benton has to work with.  The dissonances that occur are further highlighted by the protagonist’s sense of humor.  At one point, Nat wonders if she could “…get a master’s degree in sarcasm.”  I’d say yes, in any of the most prestigious schools that give one.  And her BFF, G.J. doesn’t do bad in that department either.
Added to the human/fantasy species, coming-of-age story line, the book has a number of more dramatic plot elements.  Nat has become a bridge to the Shadow World, threatening to bring some not so nice hijackers back with her when she returns to Earth.  Her parents are so concerned that they flee.  People are being gruesomely murdered.  And more.  But the problem with having so many plot threads is that it is difficult to develop them fully.  Sometimes, the transition from one crisis to another occurs mid conversation.  Additionally, the tongue-in-cheek way the characters treat these life-and-death matters makes it difficult for the reader to take them seriously.  Admittedly, this balance is a problem whenever humor and drama are mixed, but the interplay here becomes somewhat more jumbled than I would have liked.
Finally, Over Shadowed is the second book in the series and I did not read the first.  While I you can read this book as a standalone, I suspect I missed out on quite a bit of character development.  In particular, the author’s synopsis mentions that Drake was Nat’s nemesis, which must have been developed in book 1.  This fact would help explain some of Nat’s behavior in book 2 that had me scratching my head a bit.
So, while the delicate balance of drama and humor might have been done better, the humor comes on strong and makes Over Shadowed a quite worthwhile read.


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 his 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.


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.


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 over 100 of those 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.



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.


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.


Book Review:  Ice Rift: An Action Adventure Sci-Fi Horror set in Antarctica by Ben Hammott

A ‘Slasher Film’ in Book Form

As I was reading Ice Rift, I kept thinking it had a number of similarities to a ‘slasher film.’  In particular, I was thinking of that scene where the so-to-be-victims are deciding if they should hide in the basement, when that is exactly where the psychotic killer does his thing.  And you keep thinking, don’t go to the basement, don’t go to the basement…and of course, they all go to the basement.  In this case, I was thinking, don’t go into that alien space ship with the malfunctioning door…but they all go in.  Could you really expect anything good to happen after that?

Of course, there are differences between this book and a slasher film, one of the prime being that instead of a single, psychotic killer, you have waves and waves of man-eating, space aliens.  And therein lies one of my concerns I had about this book – pacing.  It was over-paced with space-monster attacks for most of the story.  The constant parade of odd-looking, yet consistently predatory aliens made me numb after a while – almost to the point of chuckling when a new variant appeared.  Even the strangest, most bloodthirsty monsters can become repetitive.  And like one of the characters in the story, I started wondering, where are the cuddly puppies and kittens?  I will give the author credit, however.  He did come up with some ingenious ways for these various species to kill their prey.

The theme of near constant human-alien battle made character development problematic.  Whenever the scientists trapped inside the ship paused to reflect on life or the wonders of the technology or each other, it seemed grossly out of place.  Is this really what they would do in the 30 seconds between narrow escapes?  A budding romance between two characters seemed particularly strained to the point of breaking – I don’t think the bulk of the plot left any room for sex.

There were a few issues in the writing – typos, grammar, etc. – but not many that I noticed.  Sentence structure in places was unusual and the dialog seemed quite stiff on occasion.  But overall, the book was well written.  It is written as third person, allowing looks inside the heads of the characters.  But interestingly, once or twice, the reader was given a peek inside the mind of the main, space-alien ‘villain.’  Personally, I wished the author had either used that technique more or not at all, because the limited use was jarring and left a inconsistent picture of this being.

Overall, readers who enjoy slasher-type stories, recast in a space-alien setting will like Ice Rift, unless the constant parade of monsters wears too thin.
 
 
 




Book Review:  A Meeting of Clans:  A Misfits and Heroes Adventure by Kathleen Flanagan Rollins

Realism with Touches of Mysticism in a Great Story

A Meeting of Clans is the story of two groups of pre-historic wanderers (clans) who discover they are not the only people in Southern Mexico 14,000 years ago, and what happens when they discover each other. 

As I read the book, there were a number of ‘isms’ that came to my mind, including realism, mysticism, and empiricism.  First and foremost, the book tries to give a realistic picture of life 14,000 years ago.  Today, we have to dodge traffic and avoid our boss when he/she is in a bad mood.  The individuals in this book had to dodge stampeding mastodons and avoid hungry saber-toothed tigers.  The world has changed, just a bit, and Rollins does a great job in describing the nature of those differences.  But she does so in a way that also reveals some significant parallels to modern-day life – a drive to understand and control, a need to belong, a drive to explore.

The book is also sprinkled with magic and mysticism.  In some cases, the myths are well-known; in others, they are less common but with a familiar feel.  And they add a spice to the story.  The author is giving us a view into the minds of these peoples and the ways they perceived the world.  (Unless, of course, you believe these events really happened as described.)

But the ‘ism’ that captured my thoughts in A Meeting of Clans is empiricism, e.g., the role of systematic observation in the formation of ideas.  It is a matter of academic debate exactly what science and medicine the peoples of the Ice Age would have mastered – even the possibility that humans inhabited this region 14,000 years ago is not known with certainty.  But Rollins weaves an interesting story around clans with considerable skills ranging from medicine and dentistry to astronomy.  Would people of this era have these skills?  Or would they still be so focused on meeting their biological and safety needs that no one could devote the time needed to understand the movement of the stars?  Would someone with a broken leg be nursed back to health or would they be abandoned because they put too great a strain on the group?

Finally, as this book is part of a series, I’ll mention that this novel is self-contained and so, you could read it without reading the previous books.  However, as someone who read one of the two previous books, I can say that I felt much more comfortable with the clan that I knew from the previous reading compared to the peoples that were new to me.  The familiarity gets you into the story more quickly.

A book such as this in the magical realism genre may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it’s yours (or you want to dip your toe into this literary style), I can recommend A Meeting of Clans as a well-written and engrossing example.
 
 
 
 



Book Review:  The Body on the Barstool by Lolli Powell

The Body on the Barstool is a cozy mystery about Ricki Fontaine’s discovery of her dead ex-husband one morning in her bar and her efforts to find the killer.


Writers of cozy mysteries forego two of the primary marketing draws of many books – sex and violence – putting more pressure on…well, everything else.  The Body on the Barstool delivers on all these fronts. 


The pacing and suspense are good, as Ricki moves from suspect to suspect, never really letting the reader settle on anyone.  As I tried to out-guess the author, I found myself suspecting just about everyone before the truth came out.  Development of the setting is excellent.  I felt like I could draw a map of small-town Ohio where the story was set.  Character development was also strong.  As the story is first person, all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Ricki, in particular, come to life.  And she has a few.


But the aspect of this story that really sold me was the humor.  Sense of humor is idiosyncratic, but the author hit mine perfectly – Ricki’s sardonic view of herself, her friends, and her world kept me laughing until the very end.  If you can read how Ricki felt about crying in public or her description of the police detective investigating the case and not at least smile, you’re a tougher audience than I am.

So, if you are a fan of cozy mysteries, and especially if you like characters with a somewhat sarcastic view of life, you’ll enjoy The Body on the Barstool.  I know I did.      


Book Review:  The God’s Eye View by Barry Eisler


Theme:  A; Character development:  C
At the center, The God’s Eye View is about balancing the government’s need to monitor its citizens in order to deter terrorism and the rights of the individual to privacy.  There are, of course, any number of these balancing acts in our daily lives – in medical research, in the use of military power, in the use of force in policing, and so on.  But the monitoring vs. privacy tug-of-war will continue to gain momentum as time goes on due to the meteoric rise of surveillance technology.  It is, quite simply, a theme for the times and for the future, and for that reason alone, The God’s Eye View is a worthwhile read.

Of course, the author has the government, in the form of NSA Director Theodore Anders, so far beyond the point of equilibrium in this balancing act, there is never any question of government vs. individual.  It’s more a question of which individuals will live and which will die in Director Anders’ quest to keep his last technological marvel out of the public’s gaze.  Pitted against Anders is Evelyn Gallagher, the developer and primary analyst on NSA’s camera and facial recognition network, just one small cog in the overall NSA surveillance machine.  And with strict compartmentalization of information, Evie has no way to know just what she is up against.
The story is very well written, producing a fair amount of adrenaline in my bloodstream that served no purpose other than keeping me awake to the wee hours.  There were a couple of ideas that were somewhat overworked, e.g., Evie is a divorced, working mother who would do almost anything to protect her son.  But overall, the flow of the story was good.  For those who are squeamish, the violence is somewhat graphic, although consistent with the plot.  By comparison, the sex was also somewhat explicit, but I’m not sure what the grope-by-grope description did to further the story; it seemed out of place and serving no purpose beyond checking another box in a commercial success formula.

My primary concern with the book, however, was in the development of the characters.  Every author uses stereotypes as a crutch.  Readers immediately recognize the boring accountant or the timid librarian.  But usually, that method is reserved for secondary characters when depth is unnecessary, saving the author a lot of stress on the wrists.  But in The God’s Eye View, it felt as if there were few characters that were not primarily stereotypes.  It ended up feeling like a world inhabited by caricatures, rather than people.  But even so, that limitation did not outweigh a well-written plot and a timely theme.
Overall, The God’s Eye View is a solid read, significant because over time, technology-driven surveillance has the potential to give the government absolute power over the populace.  And we all know that if power tends to corrupt, what absolute power will do.     


Book Review:  The Predator and The Prey by K.C. Sivils



The Hard-Boiled Genre Recast to Future, Outer Space


The Predator and The Prey is the story of police Inspector Thomas Sullivan’s efforts to catch a serial killer and stop the theft of living-saving medicine on a distant mining planet, Beta Prime, 200 years in the future.  If you’re familiar with the fictional characters of Philip Marlow, Mike Hammer, or Sam Spade, and you put one of them in a future, outer-space setting, then you have a pretty good idea of the feel of this book.


Like the characters from the hard-boiled literary genre mentioned above, Inspector Thomas Sullivan is an antihero, more interested in justice than the letter of the law.  He’s also damaged, riddled with remorse for his failures.  To accommodate a character like Sullivan, Beta Prime is not a sleek, technologically advanced world – his ‘lead with your fists, rather than your badge’ attitude would not fit easily in an advanced society.  Rather, Beta Prime is lawless and corrupt, again somewhat paralleling the typical setting of the hard-boiled genre – the 1920-30s prohibition era and organized crime.  For me, recasting the typical hard-boiled crime story into a future, outer-space setting worked quite well.


The book, however, did have a few shortcomings.  First, there were some small but quite persistent tics in the author’s writing.  Word repetition was particularly problematic.  At one point, the author uses the word ‘evil’ five times in six, consecutive sentences.  Certain themes and thoughts are also repeated unnecessarily.  Some occurrences of either of these minor missteps is understandable, but the frequency of them made staying immersed in the story difficult for me.


Second, the author tended to take what should have been subtle nuances in a character’s make up and push them to the point of breaking.  Sullivan’s tendency toward feeling remorse is one example.  By the end of the book, he is blaming himself for just about everything that goes wrong.  An initially complex character became distorted by unnecessary emphasis on one trait.  The character of the serial killer took a similar route, as he seems almost supernatural by the end.


The interested reader should also note that this book contains somewhat graphic violence against children.
So, for fans longing for the days of Philip Marlow, Mike Hammer, and Sam Spade, you may be able to satisfy that urge with The Predator and The Prey, if you’re not easily distracted by minor writer’s tics and some rather heavy-handed character development. 


 
Book Review:  Wired by Douglas Richards

A Fun Read…but Maybe Too Much Voila Science

Wired is story of brilliant genetic engineer Kira Miller, who is accused of a diabolical bioterror plot, and ex-special forces operative David Desh, who is tasked with finding and stopping her.

Let me jump right to the conclusion.  If you’re a fan of fast-paced thrillers with plenty of twists, you’ll like Wired.  The novel is one of Richards’ first books and follows a formula that he repeats later, i.e., a world-changing technology developed for altruistic reasons has a dark side and the protagonist(s) must find a way to make sure it is not used for evil.  But even so, Richards puts a great deal into this novel besides the pace and twists – a bit of romance, some thought-provoking science, and even some light philosophy (meaning of life, existence of God kinds of topics).

Several other reviews have mentioned the lack of depth in the characters, and true, the author does use what has become the techno-thriller stereotypes – a scientist years if not generations ahead of his/her peers and a special forces/military/spy type, also far superior to his peers in his combat/investigative skills.  Yes, this kind of combination is a bit trite, but it still makes for some fun reading from time to time.  And Richards does it well.
For me, the primary downside of this book was its use of what I’ve called voila science – something so far removed from current theory and research as to make anything possible.  Yes, Richards’ twists are very good, but if you step back and consider the possibilities arising from the technology, there are countless others that were also possible and equally surprising.  In effect, when anything is possible, nothing is surprising.  But giving Richards his due, he does pick an interesting path through the alternatives.

I would suggest that if you want a good introduction to Douglas Richards’ work, this is a great place to start.  Fun, fast, full of twists…and some material to think about as well.
 
 
 
 
 


Book Review:  Darktown by Thomas Mullen

A Solid Mystery Set in the Pre-Civil Rights South



Set in 1948 Atlanta, Darktown is the story of two of that city’s first black police officers (Boggs and Smith) who investigate the death of a young black woman when no else seemed to care.  In the process, they run afoul of Dunlow, a brutal, racist white officer, while Rakestraw, Dunlow’s young partner, seems caught in the middle in this confrontation.

Darktown’s depiction of the life of blacks at this time and place is, simply put, gut-wrenching.  White officers are free to abuse the law, and the excesses that are portrayed are difficult to read.  But it is, in my opinion, worth the emotional effort.  Layered on top of this taut look at race and the law is a murder mystery.  While the core of the mystery seemed a bit predictable, Mullen added enough twists in the details to make it a worthy addition to the historical setting. 


The pacing was good, although I have to admit to some difficulty getting started.  Early on, the book seemed to be disconnected anecdotes and loosely related asides.  But soon the threads came together and the tension ramped up considerably.  The final dozen or so chapters are particularly action-filled and tension-producing, with one exception.  Mullen added one scene that seems to mislead the reader, and it felt somewhat cheap in the midst of an excellent finish.  But otherwise, it was a fully, white-knuckle finale.

Overall, I'd suggest readers prepare themselves for some emotionally difficult reading and then, by all means, make the effort.  It's an excellent book. 


 Book Review:  Too Close For Comfort (Knight & Culverhouse) by Adam Croft

Too Close for Comfort is the story of DS Wendy Knight’s investigation into a serial killer who, according to the title and the author’s synopsis is ‘too close for comfort.’

In general, the story is well paced.  Of course, if you are going to find a serial killer who is on a one-victim-per-day killing spree in 182 pages, you’ll have to keep moving.  The dialog was good.  For the American reading audience, you’ll need to do a few mental translations and brush up on British law enforcement acronyms, like DS.  I found most online, but was stumped by a few.  Nonetheless, the intent was always clear.

Character development could have used some work, as what we were told about people often seemed at odds with their behavior.  For example, in the first few pages, Knight’s reaction upon hearing she is part of a murder investigation seems inexplicable given what we were told of her aspirations and life history.  I also found some of the characters’ interactions unusual.  The friction between Knight and Culverhouse, in particular, was much more than good-natured workplace ribbing, to the point of being dysfunctional and juvenile in places.  But for me, the greatest limitation in the book was the level of the mystery/suspense/tension.  It was low.  Knowing that the serial killer is close, and having a protagonist whose attachments you can count on one hand – and use only two of your fingers doing so – gives the author little latitude to create tension.

Overall, Too Close for Comfort is a quick read with good action and pacing, but you’ll need to deal with some predictability and some inconsistencies in character development.


Book ReviewEverest Rising by M.D. Kambic

Everest Rising is the story of geophysicist James Von Kamburg and a team of scientists who travel to the Himalayas in an attempt to understand why Mt. Everest seems to be rising, among other unusual phenomena observed in the region.

The novel is noteworthy in its aim to combine science and philosophy, and in particular, metaphysics, in a single, thought-provoking, beginning-of-a-new-reality technothriller.  Consistent that aim, the author provides some highly descriptive text, particularly in the last third of the book, for the birth of that new age.  That writing task alone is daunting.  But while the author’s efforts to depict a new order are admirable, I found several distractions in his style.  First, he tends to overuse technical jargon and flowery prose.  People ‘cogitate’ rather than think and when someone dies, they are ‘losing synaptic energy.’  Some unique turns of a phrase make for great reading, but to go for them continually makes parts of this book ponderous.  Also, separate thoughts are often combined with one embedded in another with dashes – a writer’s tic for this author – making parsing of the sentences difficult.  Some additional respect for the simple, declarative sentence would have helped.

The characters of James Von Kamburg and Jared Griffon were well defined, if somewhat unidimensional.  James was the scientist blinded by a single passion and Jared was the win at all costs businessman.  Maggie, James’ wife, was more complex as she seemed in some ways to parallel the story’s theme – a student in science who turned to art and whose visions/dreams became primary elements in the story.  These three also formed something of a love triangle in a backstory that was extensive, yet seemed to add little to the primary plotline.

The objective of intertwining science and metaphysics is obviously ambitious, and for me, the book fell short, primarily because the plot became much more reliant on the metaphysics than the science.  It was, by the end, a new reality with new laws of physics triggered by a “mechanism buried since the beginning of time” (author’s synopsis).  There is a smattering of modern technology from fields like seismology, geology, geophysics, and the like, but these tools had virtually nothing to do with the story.  And while concepts like dark matter and transuranic elements are mentioned, there is no consistent scientific thread driving the narrative.  While I have little background for this claim, I believe the goals related to philosophy were more fully met.  If the story didn’t call into question the very meaning of existence, it at least significantly blurred the distinction between being alive and not.

In the end, Everest Rising rests heavily on an analogy between what is happening to the earth and what happens to living organisms, and whether this analogy is thought-provoking or only mildly entertaining fantasy probably depends on where you fall in the space between applied science and metaphysics.
 



 Book Review:  Deadly Stillwater by Roger Stelljes



Some good, some bad, and (you guessed it) some in between


Deadly Stillwater is the story of Detective Mac McRyan and the rest of the St. Paul Police Chief’s ‘boys’ and their efforts to solve a double kidnapping.  Unfortunately, my review will be all over the map, as there are parts of this book that are extremely well done, parts that are mediocre, and parts that I simply did not care for. 


The good news first.  I found the suspense in this story to be outstanding.  In part, this is due to the heinous nature of the crime.  But even so, the author did an admirable job of keeping my stomach in a knot, as the finale approached relentlessly.  The pacing was excellent.  There are really no downtimes, although there is some seemingly unnecessary repetition of ideas.


In the so-so bucket, I would put character development.  Many of the characters were largely stereotypes, making them and some of the dialog feel stale in places.  But, the players were generally likable, if not all that real.  Parts of the plot were also a bit high on the unbelievability scale, such as a programmer hacking multiple secure databases and creating complex data correlations on the fly.  Consequently, I found myself thinking ‘yeah, right’ from time to time.  But overall, the level of exaggeration was acceptable as a spice that complements the stew, rather than overpowering it.


The bad news, in my mind, was the concept of a hand-picked set of detectives, “the chief’s boys” as they were known, who worked outside the law.  I’d like to say that this team of detectives was presented as antiheros, but the feel of the book was more in the vein of ‘the ends justify the means.’  While I have enjoyed some novels where the protagonist dispensed justice when he/she had no faith in the judicial system, the boys found the law too cumbersome during their investigations, i.e., do whatever’s necessary to find the bad guys.  I have a hard time seeing this idea as heroic and this distaste tended to taint the story for me.
So, overall, if you are OK with a vigilante style of criminal investigation, Deadly Stillwater weaves a tense, well-paced yarn with somewhat stereotypic characters.


Book Review:  Game Changer by Douglas E. Richards



The new trite in technothrillers?

Game Changer is a near-future science thriller, as brilliant neuroscientist Rachel Howard and Secret Service agent Kevin Quinn rush to stop a madman intent on using a game-changing technology to his own evil ends.

The book is well-paced, filled with narrow escapes and numerous twists.  While the general theme – the good and bad of messing with people’s memory – comes through from the very beginning, Richards provides an early twist that caught me off-guard and sets the tone for the rest of the book.  If there is a downside on pacing and plot flow, it’s that these general reversals of position become a bit repetitious, i.e., the good guys think they have everything in hand until we find that the villain is still a step ahead, over and over.  One or two fewer reversals would have worked for me.

Douglas Richards is a master at blurring the line between cutting-edge scientific research and suspenseful fiction, which is always a winner with me.  Nothing increases the pucker factor like not knowing whether I need to be on guard now…or if I can sleep tonight.  But I was also reminded that this technique achieves its full impact only if the reader knows something of the relevant science, and in this case, I was not aware of some of the specific neuroscience developments he was building upon.  So, as strange as this may sound, I got an even greater appreciation for the book by reading the author’s note at the end and checking some of the references.  If you are a techno-geek like me, I recommend it.

Perhaps I am reading too much in this genre, however, as I am becoming somewhat tired of heroes who are so atypical as to be more unreal than the technology that is supposed to be at the center of the suspense.  Take neuroscientist Rachel Howard.  Being a neuroscientist is somewhat distinctive by itself.  Then take the fact that she is so brilliant that she is by all accounts years ahead of her peers – yes, years – but is still humble and personable.  I realize that no one wants to read about the exploits of their neighborhood tax accountant, but a story with a few characters that weren’t super-geniuses or beyond world-class athletes or super-secret spooks might be nice.  Six-sigma personalities have become the new trite of technothrillers.

Even taking into account these minor peeves, which are probably mostly unique to me, I still found Game Changer a completely fascinating read, making me wonder anew which of the many variants of this game-changing technology we will see in our future.  Because, it will be one of them.


Book Review:  A Cup of Murder (A Roasted Love Cozy Mystery Book 1) by Cam Larson

Generally, I read books with a fair amount of tension – anything from murders to end-of-the-world kind of stuff.  But occasionally, I like to give my stomach a break from the constant stream of acid and read a cozy mystery.  A Cup of Murder is one such book.  It is the story of Laila Rook, the barista at Roasted Love coffeehouse, who investigates the murder of the owner of a rival shop when her boss, Jacob, becomes the prime suspect.

True to the cozy mystery genre, A Cup of Murder places the emphasis on untangling competing theories about a crime, while minimizing violence and sex.  And so, it’s a relaxing, easy afternoon or weekend read.  The characters are generally well developed, although not complex.  The pacing is good.  Laila moves from suspect to suspect, theory to theory at a rate that generally holds your interest.  There were a number of other reviews that mentioned grammatical errors, and while I am not oversensitive to this issue – and commit my fair share of these blunders – I was not distracted from the story by grammar, making me wonder if these comments were based on a previous edition.

With the emphasis on mystery, rather than visceral stimulation or gut-retching gore, a cozy mystery needs to weave believable conflicting theories, or a story like this one becomes just coffee with cronies while they play detective.  In this regard, I believe A Cup of Murder could have done more.  Putting Jacob in the role of the prime suspect seemed a bit of a forced fit from the start.  And several of the alternative suspects were a bit of a stretch as well, which left the actual murderer.  In general, it seemed somewhat predictable. 


So, if you are a fan of the cozy mystery genre and don’t necessarily want your own deductive skills challenged too much, you’ll find A Cup of Murder a nice, comfortable read.  And you can save your antacids for the next read.



Book Review:  Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

Set in 2066, Saturn Run is the story of the race between the United States and China to reach an alien space station and obtain the advanced technology that is expected to be there.
In general, the book starts a bit slow.  Much of the first part involves the description of the various people on the mission and in the government on the ground.  It provides the fodder for the rest of the story, in somewhat of a systematic and plodding way, and unfortunately, with some unnecessary repetition. After the introductions and when the alien spacecraft is sighted, the government team transitions quite quickly from the threat to humanity that the alien technology poses to the threat to dominance that getting to Saturn second poses.  At that point, I asked myself, would we really dash off to an alien space base without considering self-defense more fully?  I was surprised that the government did not want to know more about the aliens and their capabilities before they went on what might become essentially an interplanetary burglary mission.  But that race forms the basis for the story.
The authors’ synopsis loosely compares this book to The Martian.  I can see that.  Both are based in space and require solutions to nearly impossible engineering problems for the characters to survive.  The big difference to me was that the issues in The Martian are related to ones that everyone can identify with – having air, growing food, making water…  I have a much harder time relating to the problem of dissipating 600-degree Celsius heat, which was the central concern in Saturn Race; however, the solution seems reasonable and ingenuous, although the means to encapsulate the molten metal so it does not form drops (rather than sheets) seems a bit of smoke and mirrors.
But other than the solution to this central engineering problem, the technology of 2066 seemed to have changed little.  The viewing technology – vids and screens – seems almost unchanged from today.  We seem to have no Artificial Intelligences onboard or working issues groundside as far as I can tell.  Implants seem to be something like cochlear implants – they seem to be hearing pings and communications.  And so on.  I guess I expected to see more tech of the future based on current trends and less of what we have today.
While there was some suspense and tension in the first part of the book, it ramped up quite a bit for me in the last half, and I particularly liked the series of twists at the end.  Every time I thought the crew had covered every eventuality, something unexpected happened.  Additionally, the book hit one of my sweet spots – specifically, avoiding the use of totally made-up, non-science that is required to save the day in many science fiction stories.  Don’t get me wrong – total fabrications can be fun and entertaining.  And something beyond current state-of-the-art is needed in any story.  But for me, to move beyond fun and into being a really absorbing read, you can’t pull the world away from the brink of destruction solely on the weight of a completely unbelievable capability.  It’s too cheap, too easy.  The authors avoided that pitfall.
Overall, early on, I was not sure I was going to get into this book.  But some of the tech caught my interest, and then, the way the tension and suspense built, I ended up liking it a lot.  I believe other fans of science thrillers will as well.



Raven's Fall by Lincoln Cole


Raven’s Fall is the second in the World on Fire Series by Lincoln Cole. 
One question readers often ask about a series is, do I need to read the books in order.  In this case, I would highly recommend that you do.  This work extends our understanding of a couple of the main characters, Abigail and Haatim, as well as our feel for the Council.  The foundation in book 1 is important to these developments.  And besides, you only need to see the acclaim book 1, Raven’s Peak is achieving, to know that it’s the place to start.
The first book used a formula featuring action, supported by some good character development and a touch of humor.  Raven’s Fall, on the other hand, delves much more deeply into the mystery and suspense of our demon-plagued world.  Most of this tension is created through the storyline, as unfinished thoughts and events that don’t quite add up fuel our interest.  But there are also occasions where, for want of a better description, we’re told there’s a mystery.  It occurs in conversations of the ilk, ‘you wouldn’t be mad if you understood.  So tell me.  No, I can’t, it’s too dangerous.’  These more blatant proclamations that there’s more than meets the eye are somewhat overused for my tastes.  But most of the mystery is resolved by a strong, action filled finale.
I said ‘mostly resolved’ because the book does end with a cliff hanger.  For readers that prefer books of a series that are self-contained, please be forewarned.
From book 1, it is clear that Abigail is somewhat reckless and clearly not bound by rules not of her making, i.e., the laws of the Council.  In Raven’s Fall, we learn much more about how flawed she might be.  Haatim, on the other hand, continues to adhere to his principles…at least for now, and achieves his successes through a combination of blind luck and knee-jerk reactions when he has no time to think.  He also engages in a series of mental debates with himself, which is fine in principle.  But sometimes, he goes back and forth so much that ‘paralyzed by indecision’ seems to fit his personality better than analytic.  And some of the dialog also involves these protracted debates.  When this happens, the story can drag a bit, but it generally moves at a good pace. 


We also get a more complex view of the Council, which seemed largely stodgy and out of touch with reality in book 1.  But in Raven’s Fall, it’s clear that their members are both more in-tune and more flawed than we might have thought.  It almost gets to the point where picking the protagonist and antagonist from the cast of characters is impossible, they all have their pros and cons.  Well, I guess the demons are always bad, but the good guys?  Not so much.
Personally, I loved that fact.  There’s no one white knight, which in thrillers is often the young, handsome Navy Seal turned brilliant neuro-surgeon after running an orphanage for 5 years.  Raven’s Fall offers us a wonderful quagmire of personal strengths and weaknesses, abilities and flaws, good intentions, successes, and utter failures. 
So, if you are a fan of stories of the occult and the battle between sometimes and in some ways good vs. always and utterly evil, you’ll love Raven’s Fall.
   
Blackout by David Rosenfelt


Blackout is the story of New Jersey state police officer Doug Brock, who in the course of an unauthorized investigation into notorious criminal Nicholas Bennett, is shot, falls from a balcony hitting his head, and goes into a coma.  When he awakens, he has amnesia, and so, he must relearn whatever made him such an irresistible target…while hopefully, saving the day before getting shot again.
Gun battles.  Dangerous knowledge about notorious criminals.  And yes, even some romance.  Blackout has a lot going on, so you won’t be reading long without encountering another challenge to be met and conquered.  And consequently, it seemed that the pages flew by; a couple of nights, and this one was back to the library.  Blackout also has a nice touch of humor, with a series of ‘lost my memory’ quips: ‘This is the best sandwich I’ve ever had.  Of course, I don’t remember having any sandwiches before yesterday.’  If there was any downfall in the humor, it was that Rosenfelt might have stuck with this basic formula a bit too long.  It was somewhat stale by the end…at least as long as you don’t get amnesia half-way through the book and get to enjoy it anew.
But my more general concern about the story was that, despite the continuous flow of events and characters, it felt somewhat trite.  The loose cannon detective with a death wish.  The trusty partner, faithful to a fault.  The jilted lover that our hero only wants after she is gone.  And even the twists – one was foreshadowed, one was predictable, and a third seemed like the end of about 20% of every TV police show.  I guess in bringing together so much well-worn territory, perhaps Rosenfelt created something unique.  But the tension was never fully there for me, because in its parts, it seemed to move to an inevitable conclusion.


Overall, the predictability of the story was mostly offset by the pace, making Blackout worth a couple of your reading nights.  Just don't expect to be laughing all the way through.


The Simple Truth by David Baldacci

The Simple Truth is the story of Rufus Harms, who recovers his memory 25 years after being convicted of killing a young girl.  That memory, however, proves his innocence, touching off a series of events involving smuggled documents and clandestine meetings, chases and gun battles, tense emotional drama, and yes, more murder.
Balducci does a good job, keeping the tension and suspense high.  While those seeking to aid Harms in clearing his name are known, only gradually do we learn of the forces united against him…often at considerable cost to the heroes.  Character development is good, as Rufus Harms comes to life.  The characters of John Fiske, a former cop and current lawyer, and Sara Evans, US Supreme Court clerk, however, are a bit murkier, as their love story, in particular, seems strained in the context of the ongoing action.  And the pacing is excellent, as the story flows from family arguments to murder to courtroom debates seamlessly and relentlessly.
To me, however, the most thought-provoking aspect of the novel was Balducci’s characterization of the US Supreme Court.  Who knows how accurate it might be, but it rings of truth, where relatively young clerks yield considerable power, justices horse-trade for votes for their favored causes, and justice for the case takes a back seat to setting enduring precedent.  The action kept me tense enough; this additional layer was gravy.

So, for fans of legal thrillers and murder mysteries, The Simple Truth will keep you on the edge of your seat to the final page…and maybe long after.



The Scorpion by John A. Autero


The Scorpion is the story of a government cover-up and the efforts of three friends to reveal the truth about it to the public.
The book has good pacing and action.  Right from the first chapter, the reader is placed into a suspenseful and rapidly evolving situation.  Character development is good, as you get a solid feel for the traits and dispositions of each of the friends, both through the story and by way of anecdotes from their past.  The latter form of familiarization, however, continued well into the novel and after a while, it seemed somewhat distracting to the main plot.  Similarly, noting that the main figure drove with his hands at 10 and 2 to illustrate, I assume, his careful nature, became somewhat redundant by the end of the book.  But overall, the characters seemed realistic and quite believable.  And as is often a plus for me, the author dips his literary toe into some advanced technologies, including two that are primarily extensions of current research and a third that is more futuristic, substantially adding to my enjoyment of the yarn.
My primary concern about the book involved what seemed to be an internal disconnect in the plot.  Specifically, the cover-up described in the book involved a project that had consumed ‘trillions of tax dollars,’ implying a long-term, manpower intensive project.  It also involved technology that would be easily discoverable by the public at large.  And yet, it was secret, attesting to the measures the government must have taken to keep it hidden during development and deployment.  The friends, however, learned of the situation when computer equipment from that project was discarded and was being sold on eBay or dumped in public landfills…without being erased.  It was this disparity between portraying the government as both extremely efficacious most of the time and as incompetent as the Keystone Cops in this specific case that troubled.  I suppose it’s possible…but it would be unusual.
Finally, a word to the potentially interested reader.  Depending on your political leanings, you may characterize the primary protagonist as a patriot, bringing governmental corruption to light, or an anarchist, undermining solid public policy.  In the case of the cover-up in this specific story, the governmental corruption being revealed was clearly one of self-centered and morally bankrupt behavior.  But in the main protagonist’s musings about what to do, much more controversial topics are mentioned, e.g., the government’s right to require people to wear seat belts.  Depending on your leanings, you may or may not have difficulty getting behind the main character as a folk hero.
So, for readers who enjoy tales of governmental conspiracies, laced with high tech undertones, and the efforts of others to bring these excesses to light, you will find a good story in The Scorpion.

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Personal by Lee Child

Personal is one of the Jack Reacher series, for those readers of Lee Child who might be reading this review.  And as such, the main protagonist, Reacher, takes on nearly impossible odds, using his considerable analytic and street-fighting skills to…well, if I tell you the outcome, you won’t need to read the book, right?
In the first third or so of the book, I thought this might end up being my favorite Reacher story of all time, and I have read a lot of them.  But by the end, I can say it was OK, but certainly not top of my list.  As always, I enjoyed the action.  The way Reacher analyzes each brawl, punch by counter-punch, is always interesting.  And as always, I greatly enjoyed the way he dissected the situation, finding patterns and conclusions where I might have seen half of them (giving myself the benefit of the doubt).  And as is often the case, Child left a final twist that I had pretty much overlooked…until Reacher laid it out.  It was a typical Reacher story, well done…for the most part.
My quibbles are small, but concerning.  First, the initial text, and the dialog in particular, was terse.  He kept mentioning the ‘Socratic Method’ in these quick-hitting, back-and-forth exchanges.  Initially, it seemed OK, but as the plot unfolded, it seemed to be more meandering, less pithy, and as a result, the story became a bit tedious.  Later, as the tension built, it seemed that Child transitioned to longer, more complex prose and dialog.  I am not sure if this is a specific technique to show or produce a feeling of urgency, but it seemed to help some.

Second, Reacher always faces long odds.  It’s part of his appeal – to pull off victories in the face on nearly insurmountable obstacles.  But in this case, the opposition seemed so broad, varied, and capable – well, it stretched the bounds of credibility just a bit too much.  Obviously, this is a fine line, but one that Child seemed to cross in the case of this story.
So, if you're a Reacher fan, or a fan of action thrillers where analytic skills and street smarts are pitted against Herculean challenges, you'll get enjoyment from Personal.


251 Things to Do in Tofino: And it is NOT just about Surfing by Kait Fennell and 9 others
When the opportunity to review this travel guide came along, I responded as I often do when faced with important blogging and book reviewing decisions.  I thought, ‘Why not.  Haven’t done that before.’  And I’m glad I did.
First, let me say that this book is definitely appropriate if you are going to or thinking of going to Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.  On the other hand, it’s probably not helpful if you aren’t going there…and it might even upset your well laid plans, because you’ll probably be tempted if you read this guide.
Numerous other reviews have, rightfully, lauded the book’s fun nature and extensive detail, so let me take a different approach to this review.  Personally, I believe you can get a feel for the book (and the area) by looking at the topics in the appendices.  This is where the authors provide the names, phone numbers, and websites of the Tofino businesses.  But surely, you say, there is more to the book than the town’s commerce…and there is, including some of the locals describing what Tofino means to them.  But bear with me, if you will, because in addition to an appendix on restaurants (of course), you will find appendices on Bear Watching, Bicycle and Scooter Rentals, Bird Watching, Campgrounds and Hostels, Canoeing, Sea Kayaking, Sport Fishing, Surfing and Stand Up Paddle, and Whale Watching.  And somehow, the authors still found the need for an appendix called ‘Other Activities.’ 
Let’s face it.  If you like the splendor of the outdoors, and more specifically, the temperate rainforest variety, you’ll probably love Tofino.  And the book will give you everything you need to make that happen.


The Blue Ridge Project by Neil Rochford

The Blue Ridge Project develops three seemingly unrelated stories: Andrea Nox is a detective who is trying to solve a murder/suicide; Robert Duncan is a freelance journalist who stumbles on the biggest story of his life; and Frank Mortimer is the demented son of a rich and powerful family who is just trying to tame his demons. Only in the conclusion do we learn what these seemingly distinct lives have in common…and it’s not anything good.

I tend to have a weakness for any story based in part on science and technology, and this one is. In fact, some of what is described is not as far-fetched as is implied, and the tension could have been increased considerably, for me, if the tech had seemed more realistic and less like quackery. But kudos for the tie to current science nonetheless. The story is also well paced and delivers consistent action – there’s never a dull moment. Some of the action seemed unnecessarily gory; I really did not need such intimate detail on the physical traumas inflicted. But this is a personal preference, and others may find that the blood and guts adds to the tension.

There were, however, a couple of downsides. First, the characters and plot lines tended to be unbelievable in places. Most everyone in law enforcement seemed to be hard-drinking and prone to violence. At one point, a police Captain instructs a detective to kill someone and the detective has no qualms with this guidance. Later, this detective suspects someone of a horrendous crime, but that does not stop her from getting drunk and going to bed with him. And a site that is the home to clandestine experimentation is guarded by a system that kills anyone within range. Just what is going to happen when a school bus driver accidently makes a wrong turn? There were just too many bizarre people and situations to allow me to fully immerse myself in the story.

But the primary limitation for me was that the crux of the story, the glue that was to tie the three story elements together was never fully developed. It is almost as if this integrating theme, the experimental technology, was only there so that three, otherwise unrelated short stories would appear to be connected.

So, for fans of well-paced and occasionally gory action with some vague technology underpinnings, The Blue Ridge Project should meet your interests well.


The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton



The Second Life of Nick Mason is the story of, you guessed it, Nick Mason, who agrees to an unspecified contract with criminal mastermind, Darius Cole, in exchange for getting released from prison 20 years early. The subsequent requirements of that agreement, however, push Mason to actions he never thought he would commit.


Steve Hamilton, the author, is a great storyteller. Over the first third or more of the book, he recounts how Mason came to know Cole and why Cole chose him as the individual he would spring from prison to do his bidding. He also describes the events that led to Mason’s imprisonment with Cole, slowly building the suspense and tension.

But for me, the plot starts to go awry beyond that point. Mason, as an antihero, if that is what he is meant to be, never quite fits. Most antiheros are morally ambiguous, but Mason seems morally bankrupt. He seems willing to be carried further and further into depravity. He knows it’s wrong to steal cars, but it’s a life. He knows it’s a bad idea to expand into robbery, but he does. He knows he should not be working with partners who carry guns and tend to panic, but they are his friends. And when he is caught, sent to prison, and sprung by Cole, he continues his descent at Cole’s direction, while making excuses and lamenting the loss of his life and his daughter. He seems rather pathetic.

Hamilton also seems to shift ground a bit. Early in the book, Cole is portrayed as extremely powerful, as evidenced by the way he gets Mason out of prison. But later, when a new threat arises (I’ll leave that threat unnamed to avoid a spoiler), Cole is seen as somewhat weak, as he only has Mason and one other to do his bidding. Then at the end, Cole becomes all powerful again. It all seems pretty thin, the way power seems to shift with little more than the exchange of threats.

Nick Mason may emerge as an antihero we can get behind, but for now, he's not there yet.


Hinterland by Neil Carstairs


Hinterland is the story of an old man, Aref, who brings a demon back from the Hinterland, a place between life and the afterlife. But when the demon brings friends with him, and they get out of control, no place in London seems safe.

For those of you who prefer your ghost stories fast-paced and gory, Hinterland will be to your liking. I’m not sure there’s one death in each of the 30 chapters, but it certainly felt that way. And some chapters, of course, have many more than one. Generally, that style worked, but there was a section near the middle where characters seemed to be introduced, merely so they could be killed in some new, gruesome way. Those chapters felt a bit forced. I would not necessaryly expect character development to be strong in a book that features this much action, but several of the characters (JJ, Harry, Elaine, Sural, and even Sean to a degree) were likeable, and by the end, I was pulling for them. (Of course, you need to be careful forming ties to characters in a book when they are dropping like flies.)

For my tastes, there were a few issues with the writing. I some places, to evoke a feeling, the prose seemed a bit strained. Part of this may be due to the differences between British and American use of words or scenes, but some of the descriptions seemed odd. To say that the shadows of blowing trees looked like ‘demented cheerleaders at some nightmare game,’ for example, does not particularly engender dread in me. Second, while several characters were well developed, I had trouble understanding Aref. He did not seem bitter enough to unleash a demon on London just from spite. But if not spite, why? The loss of a few hundred or a few thousand of your neighbors is not going to endear you to those that are left. And finally, stories of the supernatural will always progress of their own logic – that’s the definition of supernatural, right? But some of works in this genre seem to establish bounds, or rules if you will, about the strengths and weaknesses of the foe. In this book, these bounds seem ephemeral, as prayer sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, or light killed one type of demon but not another. Unfortunately, the somewhat arbitrary feel to the story is reinforced by the ending, which seems like it could have happened any time after the demons arrived.

For a fast-paced and somewhat gory ghost story – although not necessarily that scary – give Hinterland a try.

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest, nonreciprocal review.


Raven’s Peak by Lincoln Cole


Raven’s Peak is the story of Abigail Dressler, a relatively inexperienced “hunter” charged by a secret society with finding and subduing demons. Faced with threats greater than any she has encountered before, she must ally with Haatim Arison, who is oblivious to his own roots in this peace-keeping crusade. 

Raven’s Peak finds the perfect blend of realism and the supernatural. It might seem that a book listed in the Occult genre need not worry about realism, but I would argue otherwise. Without a connection to reality, no tension is generated, and Haatim Arison feels quite real as the somewhat soft and overindulged recent college graduate. So, when he is plunged into life-threatening situations beyond his comprehension, you can identify. On the other side of this coin, author Lincoln Cole shows great creativity in the development of the supernatural side of the story. As one with a background in psychology, I particularly enjoyed the demon Belphegor…if it’s appropriate to say you enjoyed a demon.

This cast of a clueless human, a somewhat inexperienced hunter, and a collection of essences no one would want to meet on a dark alley move quickly through a fast-paced and exciting plot, making Raven’s Peak a thoroughly enjoyable read.


  

Stillness by Eldon Farrell

Stillness is the story of a small town in Iowa laid waste by a genetically engineered virus and the efforts of an inexperienced CDC doctor, Lynne Bosworth, and an FBI agent, Caleb Fine, to get to the bottom of the outbreak.

Overall, the book is well-written, evoking clear images and strong emotions. Occasionally, the author over-sensationalizes a bit, or pushes the prose to the point of being strained, or provides some asides (e.g., life in a small town) that seem out of place, but these issues are minor. Character development is likewise good, aided to some degree by the fact that several are stereotypical (e.g., the overweight, brutal sheriff). I personally like it when authors give a short physical description of the main characters; it helps me form a mental image. But this book took it a bit farther by providing somewhat detailed accounts of physique and attire (right down to the color and pattern of the ties the men wore). This was a bit much for me. The dialog was excellent. You could almost hear many of the exchanges between friends and family as they fought for survival. There were also some good twists at the end; for the most part, the author keeps you guessing. And finally, I really liked the connections the author drew between what happened in the book and recent genetic research – it was excellent. It gave the story a realistic feel, increasing the drama substantially for me.

The primary weakness of the book was that it seemed to push for violent action, even when it seemed inconsistent or unnecessary to the plot. For example, faced with a highly infectious and deadly disease, people did not barricade themselves in their homes, or even avoid the sick. They were still visiting, interacting, and in one case, joining together to ransack the town. Even the CDC did not see fit to quarantine the ill. As a result, in Stillness, Iowa, population 3000, 410 died in a couple of months; that’s more than the West Nile Virus ever killed in the entire US in a full year. But there were also side stories, involving affairs, domestic violence that ended in death, and torture. None of these subplots seemed to have anything to do with the story, other than being located in the same town. By the end, the violence felt somewhat gratuitous.

Overall, Stillness has good character development, dialog, and suspense, and I suspect it will satisfy most everyone's taste for action, while being a bit overboard for others.

She Never Got To Say Goodbye by Ica Iova


She Never Got To Say Goodbye is the story of Oliva, who in the span of 214 pages is courted, gets married, gets pregnant, sees the marriage deteriorate, is murdered, returns as a ghost, seeks revenge, and with some friends, solves her own murder. It is a jam-packed, but extremely quick read.

The negative in this situation, as you might imagine, is that neither the characters nor the plot are fully developed or internally consistent. Brandon, for example, starts the story as a handsome, caring, and attentive man, but suddenly, he becomes demanding and immature after marriage. A few pages later, he becomes self-destructive after being little more than the bearer of bad news, when any number of other people seem much more responsible for the tragedy he cannot bear. He persists in his self-destruction, believing he cannot break free because he has a family history. Then, with Oliva’s death, he never strays again. The inconsistencies in people that are needed to support a rapidly shifting plot are significant, and never clarified. Similarly, the plot seems internally inconsistent in places. Oliva spends weeks learning to control her ghostly abilities, but Lynn (another spirit) can immediately communicate with the living. Clearly, the author could have developed the characters and tightened the plot in a few additional pages, and the book would have been more impactful if she had.

The positive of this book, however, is that you can probably read it in a day, an afternoon, perhaps even in one evening. In many ways, that’s optimal, because in one or two sittings, the book gives you its full impact. So, if you are a fan of ghost stories and paranormal romance and mysteries (and you do not mind a few loose ends), you can get a quick fix for your interests with She Never Got To Say Goodbye.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest, nonreciprocal review.


The Fireman by Joe Hill


The Fireman is the story of a pandemic that causes human spontaneous combustion and the fight of a small band of the infected for survival in a world that has decided that the only good infected-person is a dead infected-person.

Novels that start with and maintain high levels of action are generally well regarded in popular reviews, and sometimes, this can be a winning formula for me as well. But in a novel of nearly 750 pages, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, which was the case here. I greatly enjoyed the first half of the book, when Hill was introducing a very creepy situation (people spontaneously combusting) intertwined with some related science, both in how the infection was spread and the spores’ effect on the personalities of those infested. To me, this sprinkling of science made the story much creepier and more tense than if it had been completely fanciful. There was still lots of stretching of the bounds, but at the core, there was an element of possibility that kept me immersed.


But after that initial half, the story settled into a battle (literally) within the ranks of the ill, as well as between the sick and the ruthless vigilantes who were not. The disparity in power and politics between infected and not-infected was maintained as the sick never used their knowledge of the spore in their own defense, nor would they stoop to the merciless tactics of the well. On the other hand, those not infected never seemed to get sick – multiple wings of prisoners all became infected, but none of the guards became ill. It seemed that the virulence of the spore varied to fit the needs of the story, and as a result, vigilante Cremation Squads seemed to operate with impunity. But they also operated with impunity from authority, often boasting of their cruelty on public radio. While it seems an oxymoron, the tension became tedious…and somewhat predictable.

Although overly long for my tastes and with some degree of gratuitous violence, overall, The Fireman was a nice blend of science and fiction, producing a creepy and generally enjoyable read.


Stealth Moves by Sanna Hines


Stealth Moves is the story of high school sophomore Liv Smallwood’s efforts to rescue three other teens from the clutches of a deranged kidnapper, Stealth. In true YA fashion, Liv outmaneuvers her older bodyguard, Holly Glasscock, in these attempts, only to place herself in Stealth’s sights. In the end, Liv and Holly must work together, when it’s not at all clear whom they can trust other than themselves.

Overall, this book held my attention, with good action start to finish. Liv’s actions take her from one tight spot to the next, with Holly trying to keep up. The descriptions of Boston, Beacon Hill, and the surrounds were well done; they had the feel of wealth, tradition, and history. And in general, the characters were well developed, although some, particularly Liv, seemed somewhat stereotypical.  

An otherwise well-written story suffered, however, from a rather unlikely plot. Often, adults in books of the YA genre are conspicuous by their absence or are ignored. But readers of any age might have expected at least some leads to be developed when the third teen is kidnapped in broad daylight, on a busy street, even if Liv did not see who did it. Or they might have expected some investigation of the owners of the building where a body was found, which coincidentally, belonged to the kidnapper’s family. Or they might have thought that the psychologist sister of the kidnapper might have suspected that something was wrong with her brother, who also believed he shared his body with his dead twin. Or they might wonder why the US government is buying weapons from an unknown, 20-something year old without any background checks, oversight, or a contract. And so on.

I would be hard-pressed to recommend this book as a taut, well-constructed yarn – there are simply too many plot holes and convenient coincidences. But for fans of the genre, the action and our two heroines’ growth and courage should be enough to entertain.

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest, nonreciprocal review.



Dead Poor (Tom Barlow Detective Series Book 1) by Ian Wingrove

Dead Poor is the story of private detective Tom Barlow’s hunt for the individual(s) who are murdering the poor in a not too distant, dystopian England. It is a dark story, with scenes of graphic violence, but also one that is clever, inventive, and complex...perhaps too complex in some respects.

One of the things I found most interesting about the book was the author’s vision for how law enforcement and their tools and technology might change over a relatively short time. For example, Tom Barlow heads a film crew that is tasked with documenting police efforts to catch the individual(s) responsible for the killings. But his crew is also composed of detectives who augment the efforts of the police, assuring that the film has a ‘happy ending.’ In effect, Barlow’s group represents a combination of two current trends – police reality TV and privatized security forces. And as a result, law enforcement in the novel gains a rather unsavory image, where appearance, political gain, and commerce are more important than truth or regulations designed to protect individual rights. It is also a vision that seems more likely than we might like.

But for me, some of the cleverness of these ideas was obscured by two factors. First, the book was constantly shifting timeframes. The story covers two periods over a year apart – Days 1 to 15 and Days 430 to 432. While the titles of each section indicate the timeframe, the book shifts between these periods many times – 27, if I counted correctly. It became tedious trying to keep track of the status of the investigation as you moved back and forth so frequently, and there were times when I thought evidence was mentioned in the earlier timeframe after it had only been revealed later in the story…but I am probably wrong about that. And second, when you step back and look at the individuals involved in the murders, they are strange bedfellows indeed, with highly dissimilar motives. For me, it made the story seem a bit implausible.

For those interested in an innovative, clever, but complex futuristic crime read, Dead Poor will fill that interest nicely.

The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir


There are a lot of reasons to like The Martian by Andy Weir. The primary one for me was astronaut Mark Watney’s sardonic sense of humor after being left for dead on Mars. Yeah, I’ve read my share of novels where the main protagonist calmly defuses the device that will end life on earth with 0:08 seconds left, while joking to his trusty sidekick about how that was faster than James Bond...who would of course finish at 0:07. Watney’s humor is not like that. He’s all business and science in his fight to stay alive, but without taking it too seriously. How many times in the book does he sum up his chances of survival by admitting that he is f—ked? My kindle search says 57 times. Yeah, he’s living on the edge and knows it, but why whine about it? What will happen will happen; he just wants to put up the best fight he can.

Of course, I was also in awe of Watney’s practical application of science and his inventive use of the resources at hand to overcome what appeared to be insurmountable problems. For fans of mid 80s to early 90s television, he was the MacGyver of Mars. I can’t say I understood all the chemistry, and when he said, trust me on the math, I did, but the ingenuity of many of his escapes was undeniable all the same.

My reservations about the story are few and minor. He overcame enough adversity in the course of the book that by the last few incidents, I felt I was getting a bit numb to the tension. And he seemed to have a nearly endless supply of some incredibly strong resin he used for all types of repairs, along with the ubiquitous duct tape. But none of those minor issues dampened my enjoyment of the story. Perhaps it’s not a literary masterpiece, whatever that is, but it was one of the most enjoyable books I have read in some time.

So, I am going to join the ranks of some 20,000+ other reviewers on Amazon and give The Martian five stars.

 


Past the Last Island by Kathleen Flanagan Rollins 

Past the Last Island is a story set (or at least beginning) in the South Pacific Islands, 14,000 years ago. It is the story of a group of villagers, driven from their island by tidal flooding, who band with others to forge a life at sea, always seeking what lies beyond the edge of the world. The author has categorized this book in the Teens and Young Adults genre, so I need to start my review with a disclosure. I’m neither a teen nor a young adult and haven’t been one for some time…quite a long time. So, I can only say how I, a more ‘mature’ reader found it – and I found it fascinating.

Of course, no one knows exactly what life was like 14,000 years ago, but I believe that the author has probably captured some of its primary elements accurately, including a number of the villagers’ possible superstitions/mystical beliefs and, what I found most interesting, their considerable, growing scientific knowledge. For example, the author speculates that these people may have had rudimentary knowledge of magnetism, allowing them to develop a basic compass and to realize some of its utility. She also touches on their understanding of meteorology, astronomy, and seismology, among other scientific fields, all of which I found intriguing. I also found the author’s account of life at sea interesting, and wish she had speculated even more – just what goes a garden boat, when you may be far from land for weeks?

The writing, and particularly much of the dialogue, is a bit terse, or maybe direct is a better word. I was not sure if this was to support a younger reading audience or to reflect a belief about the verbal capacities of this era. But in either case, it seemed that the descriptions of the events and settings could have been a bit more fully developed. And while it was clear that the villagers were ‘experimenting’ with magnetism, this word never appears in the novel. Some of the most profound conjectures about life at this age are left for the reader to discover, if he or she has the background. It makes me wonder what I missed because I did not realize the significance of the author’s description of events.

But overall, these suggestions are minor, and frankly, I rarely find books that provide the level of technical detail that I prefer. So, in sum, I believe Past the Last Island goes a long way to addressing the interests of anyone who likes speculative and creative accounts of history, even those who can no longer claim to be part of the teen and young adult reading community.



Facing Death by Catyana Skory Falsetti

I am a big fan of stories the blur the line between fact and fiction, whether the book be historical fiction, a science thriller, or as in this case, a mystery. There is something about not being sure just where this line is drawn that heightens the suspense and tension for me. Facing Death provides the fact side of this equation in a big way.

Julia Rawson is a young, relatively inexperienced forensic death investigator, learning her way in the male-dominated world of law enforcement. As such, she is often recalling and applying the research and theory she learned in school to what she is doing on the job. These recollections add an air of authority and realism to the plot, and it was enjoyable learning a bit more about this field. The main character, Julia, is enthusiastic, energetic, and likeable. At several points in the book, she describes a meal she is having at a restaurant or that she has cooked, and the descriptions are always followed by the word, “yum.” Traits like that make her a pleasure to read about and some of the naivety she displays is even more engaging.

On the other side of the fact-fiction equation, however, the author could have given us more. It is only at the very end of the book that there is much in the way of suspense and tension built from the fiction. Of course, Julia is working on unsolved crimes, so there is that mystery. But the plot is mostly ‘another day at the office,’ as opposed to a complex, web of clues or an escalating series of events or the tension of a serial killer about to strike again. The end does provide that tension, but the pace was somewhat slow getting to that point.

If you like learning about forensic science and would enjoy the story of a young woman creating a life for herself among the dead, Facing Death should prove entertaining.



So What Do I Do? by G.J. Griffiths
 

So What Do I Do is a tale of two apparently upstanding citizens who turn greedy. They then hire a ruthless enforcer to manage the actions of two hapless, petty criminals in their get-rich-quick scheme. The caper goes awry, providing a series of twists as the story unfolds.

The book is well written. The prose is descriptive and the characters and settings were generally well developed. Initially, the dialog concerned me, as several of the characters use slang and pronunciations that are a bit tricky for a Midwestern American. But I understood most of it and I got to the point where I enjoyed the conversations more than I expected. (I do admit, however, that even by the end of the book, I am not positive I know what “innit” means...maybe, isn’t it? But given the modern marvels of the eBook, I can tell you that this word occurs 61 times.)

Because the criminals and their motivation are known from the outset, the story revolves around the chase and the continuous degeneration of the criminals’ plans. As the police work is mostly routine (fingerprints, interviews, footwork), my attention was mostly drawn to the downward spiral of the criminal element. ‘Honor among thieves’ was not a phrase they knew, resulting in some interesting twists as the story moves forward.

For me, perhaps the biggest drawback of the book was that the backstory and the background tended to intrude on the plot. All of the detail about climate change, the pros and cons of chemical use in agriculture, moral and practical issues related to neglected and abused children, commercialization of education, and so on, made me wonder how it was all going to be tied back to the crime. And the answer is, it wasn’t tied in. From reading the synopsis, I understand that this book is part of a series, and at least some of this material may be to continue an ongoing backstory. But for the reader picking up just this book, this material tends to dilute the rest of the plot.

Overall, So What Do I Do is something like a cozy thriller. There are a number of folksy, solid citizens, concerned about a range of societal ills, who get caught in the crossfire as a criminal conspiracy self-destructs.

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



What I Did Not Say by B.A. Spicer


What I Did Not Say is a story of a complex web of interpersonal relationships and the tragedy that can arise when even one of these bonds is destroyed. The book is written in three parts. The first is nearly two-thirds of the total and establishes the primary characters and the relationships among them: Jessica (Jess) and Jack, 11 and 12 at the outset; Vera and Terry, Jack’s mother (or mum to be true to the book) and her long-standing friend; and Jack and Vera, mother and son. These individuals and their relationships are admirably described. Of the group, they all felt real, with the possible exception of Jack, who ended up seeming as highly steadfast as he was completely irrational. Overall, Part 1 seemed unnecessarily detailed and somewhat slow, with most of the suspense stemming from misunderstandings or characters deciding to be less than forthcoming, sometimes with little apparent reason.

Part 2 was the trial, where the pace and tension were excellent. The pages seemed to turn themselves. Each of the barristers argued their side of the case eloquently, leaving me guessing as to the eventual outcome.

Part 3 is the delivery of a package some 15 years later. By this part, the overall outcome is known, although questions of motivation remain. And this is where the conceptualization I had developed of Jack in Part 1 ran afoul. I was not quite able to reconcile the way he was portrayed at the beginning with what is implied at the end. But then, perhaps I am reading these implications incorrectly.

The author is an excellent writer, as the prose is descriptive and evocative. At first, having each chapter told as first person from a new character’s perspective seemed strained, but as the chapter title is the name of the speaker, it became more comfortable over time. There is also an occasional abrupt shift in timeframe within a chapter, as a flashback or forward is interspersed without warning. These were somewhat disruptive of the overall story flow for me.

Overall, if you like stories of complex emotional relationships and tragedy that can arise when these fragile bonds are broken, What I Did Not Say should meet your interests nicely.

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



Fatal Eclipse by Dermot Davis


The telling sentence in the author’s synopsis for me is, “Jonathan has to solve the mystery of his own mind or risk losing his wife to the dangerous clutches of a madman.” Yes, Jonathan’s wife, Maria, finds herself not between a rock and a hard place, but caught between two madmen.

Fatal Eclipse is the story of Jonathon’s fight to control his bouts with extreme jealousy, anger, and paranoia, apparently starting on the day of his marriage to Maria. But what is it about marriage that triggers his maladaptive response? Jonathon spends the rest of the book trying to answer that question. Unfortunately, in seeking that answer, he unwittingly makes Maria vulnerable to an even greater threat. With the people and personalities at play by the end of the book, a number of outcomes are possible...few of them good. And the author keeps you guessing which one it will be, right to the end. 


In general, I liked the author’s style, although occasionally, he was prone to some rather dense prose. The author also switched between storylines, paragraph to paragraph within a chapter, particularly toward the end of the book. I did not mind the technique, but something to indicate a switch, like a blank line, might have helped. A larger concern was the pace of the story. Jonathon was prone to declaring he was fully cured after gaining a minor insight, only to be plunged back into fits of rage and jealousy two pages later. The cycle repeats often enough that it becomes somewhat predictable.

Overall, however, the author weaves a taut psychological thriller, placing Maria in a spot much more precarious than just between a rock and a hard place.

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



The Unseen Face by Joannes Rhino

The Unseen Face has the plot of a taut, psychological thriller. James Maddox is slowly self-destructing, as his nights are plagued by a recurring, horrifying nightmare. Only his two friends, Richard and Jennifer, seem to stand between him and complete withdrawal, depression, and perhaps, insanity. The author builds the tension immediately in chapter one by presenting a scene that logically falls near the end of the story. Use of the technique is fortunate, however, as the following chapters, which represent a prolonged flashback, move somewhat slowly. As they unfold, we see James as immature, self-centered, and self-destructive. He is not easy to like, but then, the main character of a psychological thriller will seldom be ‘the life of the party.’ Unfortunately, much of James’ histrionics extend to Jennifer and Richard, so that many of the dialogs in these chapters deteriorate into shouting matches. The ending involves a plot twist, with the story now moving at a better pace. But the final outcome seems predictable at this point, in all but the details.

In general, the plot falls short of its full potential due to a host of flaws in its telling. The dark mood of the initial scenes is reinforced by a series of violent rainstorms, and James seems to be always caught in them...on his bike. An hour riding a bike in New York City in pouring rain in December sounds like the recipe for pneumonia, but this is just one of many suggestions that the author may not be completely familiar with the setting he selected for his tale. As another example, James mentioned being disciplined in high school by getting his hands slapped with a “rattan.” That sounds like grounds for a lawsuit, rather than typical discipline in a NYC high school in the 2010-2012 timeframe. At another point, James mentioned being as forgotten as Neil Armstrong was after his historic walk on the moon, but Armstrong was in fact a very private person and even fought a couple of legal battles to maintain some distance between himself and an admiring public.

Many of the difficulties James faced and solutions he found seemed too convenient. Although now 27, he was still living in his boyhood home, and yet, had so little continuity in his friends and family that no one seemed to know what had happened to him just five years earlier. Additionally, the possibility he was investigating was so heinous that it would have been in the media; I am not sure why he never checked. I found the scenes with the psychiatrist somewhat troubling as well. His counsel had a ‘fortune cookie’ feel to it – too quick, too pat, too generic. He wanted to take objects in James’ dream and give them what might be considered a literary interpretation. An antique chandelier meant that James was looking into the past. Presumably, if it was an ultra-modern lighting fixture, the dream was about looking into the future. The misperceptions of the American legal system, however, were probably the most serious.

Overall, the storyline had great potential that was only partially realized. I came away wondering why the author had chosen NYC as the setting, when the situation James faced and his response could have be found anywhere in the world. For me, it reinforced the old adage, an author should write about what he/she knows.

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



Dancing with the Dead by Charles Freedom Long


My gut tells me that many authors today are experimenting with combinations of what previously would have been separate and distinct genres. But Dancing with the Dead appears to take this trend to new heights, as it seems to me to be a Science Fiction/Fantasy Erotica Thriller...or something to that effect.

It’s not all confusing and overwhelming in its mixture of memes and subjects. For example, I did start to develop a feel for the general cultural norms of a couple of the alien races we encounter. And, in somewhat typical male fashion, I liked the battle scenes toward the end of the book. It was worth most of the effort to get to that point.


But much of the book had the feel of being dropped into book #12 of a long, complex sci-fi series, without any of the background. There were multiple alien races, with varying physical and predominant worldviews. And there were the dead of these races. And there were individuals, including Terrans, with supernatural powers, and a teenager, with powers even beyond them. And the list goes on.

One reviewer likened the book to a “genre stew,” and I like the comparison. But in places, it was more like a mixture of oil and water. For example, much of the plot is based on human greed and long-standing, earth-based ideological hatreds. The fact that we discovered we were not alone in the universe seems to have had no impact on how we see one another. Nor does the technological advances we had experienced. Nor does counsel with the dead...or even being dead, for that matter, seem to have an effect on our perception of...anything, really. It’s hatred and greed, as usual.

In the end, the book brought enough themes together to seem more than just disparate notions to me. It is an attempt at something new and different, which alone makes it worth a look. And it made me wonder...who’ll be the first to write that great dystopian action romance mystery in adult coloring book format; it has to be taking shape on someone’s laptop even now.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



Dymon's Lair by Darrel B. Nelson


Generally, to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I try to use the author’s synopsis as a guide. But in this case, the author sets a very high standard. Most of what is in the synopsis you learn on the cover or within the first few pages. So, I’ll try to tread carefully, while still giving the potential reader some idea if they might wish to look under the cover.

First, the book has much to like. I mean, who wouldn’t like a group of misfit aliens in a rust-bucket cargo ship taking on the despot of Earth? OK, that might sound a little well worn, but it works for me. The author makes the captain and her crew likeable, especially as none are Earthlings, or even humanoid in appearance. And just what would an engineer with 24 hands look like? I also liked the author’s use of humor. At one point, the Captain asks one of the crew if Earth is involved in some type of massive gambling activity. The answer was yes, they call it the Stock Market. OK, yes, that’s a little corny, but it works for me.

It is also worth mentioning to the potential reader that the story is generally dark. Dymon is despicable. But generally, it is dark the way Gotham is dark in a Batman movie – sinister, but with an unreal feel. There are, however, scenes of graphic violence and rape that tips this book into the adult reading category for me.

Early parts of the story felt a bit disjointed or ungrounded. At one point, Dymon was explaining to the President why a completely repressive policy was best for all concerned, when of course, it was only best for Dymon. The argument was so preposterous that I was not sure if the collective IQ of Earth was supposed to have dropped by 50 points by 2065 (the timeframe of the story) or if this is how one speaks to a politician that has been bought, e.g., force them to accept an outrageous story to prove who is the boss. At another point, the Captain decides to let an artificially intelligent robot enter Dymon’s headquarters alone to negotiate their needs, even though they know Dymon is a tyrant. Then, they seem surprised when he tries to blackmail them with what he learned. My estimate of the aliens' IQ also dropped 50 points.

About three-fourths of the way through the book, there is a significant plot twist. And the best twists, in my opinion, are those that make us re-frame and re-interpret everything we have read. This disclosure, however, seemed mostly inconsistent with what had come before. To the author’s credit, he rebuilds (to a considerable degree) a new feel for the characters and the roles they are playing, but I still had trouble reconciling some of the early scenes with the latter revelation.

So, overall, it is a light and enjoyable read, with a sprinkling of graphic violence. And, if you are trying to fit all the pieces together at the end, you may end up with your head spinning a bit.




Undazzled by Chance Maree


One of the downfalls in Science Fiction for me is when the author introduces so much futuristic and imaginative technology that I become numb to it. Of course, the story ends as it does, because there is one more, technological rabbit-in-the-hat that is revealed in the final chapter that makes it so.

And I admit, at one point, I thought Undazzled might be headed down that path, with the revelation of the nature of the Commander’s son. I am not sure why the author included this technology, unless it was to cement our views of the commander and the society from which he had come. But still, it seemed more gee-whiz than necessary to the storyline.

But I also admit that this issue is slight, even in my view. And overall, the story is entertaining, inventive, and tightly woven. It draws creatively from physics, philosophy, psychology, and medicine. I particularly liked the way all these elements were drawn together in the end. Hopefully, humankind is more than what Undazzled suggests it might be, but in any case, it may give you pause to consider our true place in the natural order that is our universe.

For a fun, creative science fiction read, with more food for thought than many in this genre, I recommend Undazzled.


The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

If you are fascinated by the occasional newspaper report on controlling a computer by thought or the latest robot to demonstrate sensitivity to human emotion…or any of the dozens of recent breakthroughs in understanding, recording, simulating, communicating with, or enhancing the mind, then this book is for you.

The primary strength of the book is its breadth. The author provides a glimpse at wide variety of topics and research that generally fall within the realms of cognitive science, computer science including artificial intelligence, engineering, neuroscience, and genetics. This glimpse generally emphasizes the possible, rather than the probable, and usually with an emphasis on positive outcomes. As such, it is an easy, enjoyable survey of a vast and rapidly expanding field.

If the primary strength of the book is breadth, the primary weakness is depth. The author seems to favor the popular, media-grabbing version of research, rather than the more rigorous, academic interpretation. Just to give one example, the author describes the direct brain stimulation research of Wilder Penfield as a means to retrieve “long-forgotten memories in a crystal-clear fashion.” However, even Penfield in latter writing noted that this phenomena was relatively rare, occurring in only about 3% of his cases, and further research indicates that these recollections are more likely constructions of current thoughts and aspects of memories.


I also found the author’s Space-Time Theory of Consciousness somewhat lacking. It is not clear exactly what set of observations or empirical findings the author is trying to explain with this theory. Additionally, in part, the theory suggests that consciousness is related to the number of feedback loops produced by relationships to others. So, the theory seems to suggest that someone with numerous acquaintances to consider (say, a politician) is more conscious than someone who is more involved with the internal life of his/her thoughts (say, an artist). I am not sure I buy that notion.

So, for a light read over a diverse and thought-provoking body of research, The Future of the Mind is hard to beat. But if you want a more thorough understanding of many of these issues, you will need to dig a little deeper into the literature.



Discovery (Hybrid #1) by Emma Jaye


It is often said that in books of the science fiction/romance genre, the romance part usually takes priority over the science fiction. Discovery (Hybrid #1) follows this convention.

Chesara, described as a human/alien hybrid, is much valued for her healing skills. Through touch and concentration, she is able to detect and correct injuries by causing torn tissues and bone to realign, and by changing an array of human bodily processes (pain reception, metabolism). Because of the value of these skills, she has been largely isolated and closely monitored most of her life, with her unique services sold to the highest bidder…until the events of this story.


One of foci of the story is Chesara’s waking feelings for two men – Connor, who has been her long time protector/jailor; and Lord Tenset, part of the ruling class of the world she and Connor visit. It is to the author’s credit that she combines the science fiction and romance elements, at least partially, as the emerging relationships with these men deviate substantially from human norms, both in Chesara’s capacity for polygamous arrangements and in the response of her human lovers. Be aware that the sexual encounters are explicit and graphic, as well as scenes of physical torture, making this book adult reading.

On the science fiction side of the book, the plot is somewhat limited. The ploy that has Chesara and Connor isolated on the planet with Tenset is thin. The science is not futuristic or particularly imaginative, as the planet seems to resemble 15th century Medieval Europe in many respects, with occasional nods to limited technology. Additionally, both the storyline and the final resolution seem predicable.

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy ‘one-off’ romances, with scenes of explicit sex and physical torture. For those looking for imaginative science fiction, however, you may wish to look elsewhere.



Tinsel Time by Emma Jaye


 
Generally, people recognize fate, destiny, and chance as the primary forces that shape one’s life. Tinsel Time, however, introduces a fourth factor – Father Christmas. And of the four, Father Christmas, or as he was nicknamed in the first book of this series, the Big Red Boss (BRB), is by far the most clumsy and heavy-handed. Case in point – this story.

Originally, BRB granted Noah, the main figure of this book, a wish when he was a child. Noah wanted to be popular. The wish, however, backfired as Noah became callous to the feelings of others, and in particular, one Megan Bonham. So, we enter the story when both Noah and Megan are adults. Through hard work and dedication, Noah has achieved his life’s dream of securing a place on the UK national diving team. Likewise, Megan is extremely successful in her scientific business pursuits, and beautiful as well, thanks in part to modern medicine. But because she received no Christmas wish as a child, she wants one now, in the form of revenge against Noah. BRB grants the wish. Ouch!

But to compound Noah’s woes, BRB has already had him fail a drug test, even though he took no drugs, thus creating an opening on the national diving team and filling another child’s Christmas wish. If that is not enough, enter Spencer Ward/Jingle, a fallen Christmas fairy, who preys on mere humans. He makes them his sexual slave, only to dump them coldly when they age. And, he has his eye on Noah. The responsibility for this potential grief also falls at the feet of BRB, at least partially, as he exiled Ward from the North Pole for engaging in some ‘extracurricular’ activities with Mistletoe, another Christmas fairy and the future Mrs. Christmas.


So, with that setting and forces in play, I’ll simply say that the rest of the book is about Tinsel and her fellow Christmas fairies’ attempts to implement RBR’s decisions…and perhaps reduce some of the pain BRB has wrought on Noah, who by all accounts, deserves better.

As they say, the British and Americans are separated by a common language. But even given our different word usage and phraseology, I think many of the places I scratched my head over the prose resulted from simple typos. The book could have used one more pass by an editor. Second, I hope my description of the setting for this story conveys some of the many themes it touches – bullying, fantasy, adult sexual situations, revenge, and although I did not say it before, humor. And while the author’s words brought each of these themes to life, in the end, they seemed to clash. The story felt something like a soap opera with magical beings, heavily overlaid with sex, humor, and societal ills…which I suppose might be the author’s precise intent, even if it does prevent me from tying it all up with a nice, neat conceptual bow.

I was given an electronic copy of this book in return for an honest, nonreciprocal review.



Cloud Storage by Samuel Astbury


For those reading this review in order to decide whether to get a copy of this book, let me suggest the following. Go to any site that provides a preview of the text (e.g., Amazon, Goodreads) and read the first 5 to 10 pages. I suggest this because depending on the type of reader you are, you may love the author’s writing style…or you won’t.

The book is the tale of a somewhat deranged and drug-addled British backpacker who befriends a member of the so-called Japanese Lost Generation, Michi. If you are not familiar with the Lost Generation, they are an estimated 340,000 Japanese men between the ages of 35 and 44, who initially failed to obtain a job in Japan’s lifetime employment system during an economic downturn in 1990s. As a result, they have been marginalized by a life of unemployment or underemployment. Michi also suffered from a condition known as Hikikomori, a type of extreme social withdrawal. He had spent months, perhaps years locked in his room in his parent’s home, before first trying to work and then joining the main character in a trek through Southeast Asia. 

If you are thinking these sound like complex socioeconomic and psychological issues, I would agree. But Cloud Storage is not an academic exploration of these issues. It is not even a coherent exploration, because the storyteller has his own problems. The author’s synopsis says the main character is ‘deranged’, but with all the references to ecstasy and serotonin, the discontinuities in time and thought, and the references to degraded computer graphics in the descriptions of settings, drug use is obviously also a source of distortion.

This all brings me back to my first point – you will probably love the way this book is written or hate it. That is because the way the author tries to bring all these factors into play is by creating text that is more flashes and feelings, rather than tight, descriptive prose. Written in his style, my review would read something like the following: Complex topics. Pain behind my temples. Smell of day old socks. Tapping my thoughts on the keyboard until gravity failed me…

So, after I stopped trying to read and understand each sentence in this book and just started letting the images and feelings flood over me, I enjoyed the story more. As a psychologist, I also found the content quite compelling. Finally, I have great admiration for the author, because a book on these topics and written in this style is an ambitious undertaking. But in the end, the flashes of settings and mood were too repetitive and too mentally taxing to fully immerse me in the story. Complex topics. Pain behind my temples. Time to end.



Crimson Shore by Preston and Child


First, I am a big fan of the Pendergast series by Preston and Child, which is why I deliberated so long on my review of this novel. But in the end, what seems a shift in the main character’s personality and the familiarity of some story themes left me feeling less engaged than I had felt previously.

The novel reads like it was written in two parts. The first, which accounts for about two-thirds of the book, involves solving the theft of the wine collection. Sometimes I wonder if Preston and Child spend much of their time between novels researching vocabulary, because they always seem to find terminology to fit the feel and lineage of the plot. In this case, they use a number of somewhat archaic words to underscore a story with roots in the 1690s. I always appreciate their attention to this type of detail. The shortcoming of this section, however, is what seems to be a shift in Pendergast’s view of the world. He is always been aloof and extremely particular in his tastes in everything from his associates to his wardrobe to the food and drink he consumes. Even so, he usually finds a “diamond in the rough” in the people he deals with, e.g., Carrie Swanson, even when their potential is not apparent to others. But in this book, he seems to become quite snobbish and condescending of nearly everyone. 

In the second part, the plot becomes more violent and darker. It is, in a phrase, more typical Pendergast action. But to some degree, this is also the limitation. Preston and Child seem to have adopted a few specific physical settings to evoke anxiety in the reader and a few methods to explain otherwise inexplicable occurrences, and this part of the book uses a couple that are becoming somewhat well-worn within the series. Having said that, however, there is still enigmatic turn of events at the end that assures that I, once again, will be buying the next installment as soon as it appears as a pre-order.


Molelith By Ed Morawski


By about mid-way through the book, I had one of those creepy feelings. You know, the kind you get where you check the doors twice before you go to bed and you are thankful your significant other is not visiting relatives or on business travel. Molelith definitely got some of my ‘flight-or-fight’ response kicking in, as I read about a series of vampire-like deaths in the Hollywood Hills. The violence is not graphic, but it is effectively described. For me, however, the story could have been more.

The politically correct term for someone like me is probably ‘implausibility-challenged’, because while I understand that you often need to accept something that is unlikely as part of a good tale, I have limits that may be lower than most. In this case, sure, there are beings like vampires. OK, I’m good to go; bring on the nightmares. Oh, I have to accept that a large city, professional police force would form a squad of detectives who are young, smart, and extremely handsome, but who have virtually no experience, several of whom have very unusual traits or worldviews, and then leave them as the only unit investigating a crime of the century for most of the story. OK, maybe. Then, put an attractive, but only slightly more seasoned female sergeant in charge, whose claim to fame is being the “bait” for a killer in a previous case (who, by the way, escaped) and who seems to lack any control over her impulses to bed just about anyone in her squad. Really? Then, you need to ignore several obvious clues, e.g., it took a specialist and two hours of investigating to realize a third person was involved when two murdered women are found securely bound, hand and foot. The depiction of the characters, especially in the first part of the book, and the storyline throughout required that I accept too much implausibility for me to become fully invested in this plot.

It was a quick and easy read. The ending has a couple of twists, although overall, the solution seems somewhat ‘convenient’. So, if you like supernatural horror/crime stories and you want to get carried along with a general feeling of dread and suspense from a rapid series of unusual murders and the resulting public panic in Tinseltown, it can be a fun read.



Holly Berry, Naughty or Nice? By Emma Jaye


If Santa makes a list of books, and not just children, then this one definitely goes on the naughty side of the ledger.


There have been many books I have read where I chuckled to myself, but few where I actually laughed aloud. Holly Berry is one of the later. I greatly enjoyed the author’s clever turns of a phrase and the outlandish inconsistencies between traditional concepts of Christmas and Holly’s perspective on life at the North Pole. About one-third of the way through the book, Holly is transferred to a group of fairies who grant Christmas wishes for adults, in an attempt to find a more suitable working environment for her. Now, the story is more than just laughs, as she experiences a number of human longings and pleasures. At the ripe old age of 3 months (fairies are created full grow), this transition is a bit like giving her the keys to the car, when all she has done is read the owner’s manual. Additionally, as she is a “pain-loving” fairy, as the author describes her, some of those longings are rather kinky and on occasion, tend toward self-destructive.

My primary concerns about the book are twofold. First, the relationship between Holly and Kian, the focus of her Christmas wish assignment, is complex. At times, they are setting ground rules for exploring their S&M relationship; at other times, they are exploring it. And during both, the nature of their feelings change. With all these moving parts, it is difficult to follow when they are acting in role and when they are planning for that role. Second, the story ventures into self-mutilation, albeit at a relatively minor level. I presume the author did this to show that Kian is essential in order for Holly to understand and manage her desires. Even so, for me personally, this is too much darkness for what is otherwise a tongue-in-cheek spoof.



Deadman Bay by Patrick Wayland


When a book cover says, “when the rules are broken, there’s hell to pay” I read the book, just waiting for the other shoe to fall. In Deadman Bay, it does indeed fall, but not until you are about three-fourths of the way through the story.

Up to the point where the main character’s life starts to unravel, the story develops two separated, but related perspectives. First, the author paints a vivid picture of the beauty and pace of island life. In particular, I found the visual images elicited by the story to be compelling. Edward Tache, the main character, is an artist, so you might expect him to be more sensitive to the interplay of light and dark, colors, shading, texture…even the essence of a scene as opposed to only its physical detail. The author does an admirable job of capturing and recreating in words this sense of the world.

Second, Edward’s personality provides a constant push toward the final scene. In large part, the author builds suspense by using Edward’s predispositions to create opportunities for disaster, and the reader is left to wonder when and how. If there is a criticism in this part of the book, it is that in some cases, Edward’s personality almost makes the tragedy, seem inevitable. 


When the shoe does fall, the tension grows further and several scenes are gut wrenching. The author provides a couple of twists at the end, neither of which diminish the impact of the overall plot. It is, in short, a story well told.



Sebastian: The Life of Sebastian and Hanna Greene by Elizabeth Johnson


This is a ‘love conquers all…even the desire to drink human blood’ story.

Yes, Sebastian is a vampire, whose life is changed by his love for Hanna. The author in her synopsis provides an excellent chronology of the main events, which I will not repeat here. Rather, I’ll move to other issues.

Up to the point when Sebastian meets Hanna as a baby, which is perhaps the first one-third of the book, the story is written entirely as Sebastian’s recollection of his life. There is little dialogue, other than a few arguments with his mother, and it reads almost as if Sebastian is reporting on his life, rather than living it. So, despite the darkness of the story, this part seemed somewhat tedious and the text felt somewhat repetitive.

After this first encounter, however, the prose becomes richer, there is more dialogue, and the plot becomes deeper and more evocative. In general, the last two-thirds of the book seemed to flow much more naturally. When Sebastian and Hanna meet as adults (nearly 200 years old for Sebastian, counting human and vampire years, and nearly 18 for Hanna), the author wants to convey the profound effect Hanna has on Sebastian’s psyche. The technique she chose was to have Sebastian appear overwhelmed and generally inept, despite him having some considerable charm in the presence of others. But this approach ended up producing several initial conversations of the ilk, ‘what do you want to do? I don’t know, what do you want to do? I don’t know, I asked you first. Well, I asked you second.’ In general, Sebastian seemed to shift between declaring he could not live without Hanna to announcing that he was fleeing her presence immediately because he was mortified by his failures. So, what was to be a powerful love story was weakened somewhat by an undercurrent of the emotional inconsistency of an adolescent crush.


I liked the ending of the story. I did not notice any mention of a sequel, but there are certainly several directions the author could go, anywhere from continuing as a love story to something much darker, almost in the horror genre. It will be interesting to see if the author goes forward with this storyline, and if so, where it might lead.