Review: Dark Saturday by Nicci French

Review: Dark Saturday by Nicci FrenchDark Saturday (Frieda Klein, #6) by Nicci French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: thriller
Series: Frieda Klein #6
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 11th 2017
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Thirteen years ago eighteen year old Hannah Docherty was arrested for the brutal murder of her family. It was an open and shut case and Hannah's been incarcerated in a secure hospital ever since.
When psychotherapist Frieda Klein is asked to meet Hannah and give her assessment of her she reluctantly agrees. What she finds horrifies her. Hannah has become a tragic figure, old before her time. And Frieda is haunted by the thought that Hannah might be as much of a victim as her family; that something wasn't right all those years ago.
And as Hannah's case takes hold of her, Frieda soon begins to realise that she's up against someone who'll go to any lengths to protect themselves . . .

My Review:

Dark Saturday is a chilling and compelling psychological thriller. So chilling, in fact, that I don’t recommend staying up until the wee small hours to finish it in the dark. So compelling, that I know the above fact because I got so caught up in it that I stayed up until after 2 am to finish it – then couldn’t fall asleep for another hour. You have been warned!

This is a story about the miscarriage of justice, and the lengths that people will go to in order to make sure that justice stays miscarried. It is also, and just as many of the chills come from this direction, a story about the excesses that a person can be carried to in the throes of obsession.

Dark Saturday is really two stories. One is the story of Hannah Docherty, and that story is complete within Dark Saturday. The other story, which in its way is even more chilling than Hannah’s, centers around Frieda Klein herself.

Hannah’s story is brutal. Thirteen years ago, Hannah, then not yet 20, was convicted of killing her mother, father and little brother, leaving the kind of blood-soaked murder scene that still fuels the nightmares of the cops who saw it, even after all these years. Hannah was sentenced to a brutal psychiatric hospital, where both the staff and her fellow patients, utterly certain of her guilt, punish her every single day.

But the lead detective on Hannah’s case is now under a cloud of suspicion. It has been discovered that he certainly cut corners on some of his cases, and now all of his cases are under that cloud. They might all be righteous, but once a cop bends the law, everything he’s done comes into question.

That’s where Frieda comes in. She’s a psychotherapist, and Hannah Docherty is now certifiably insane, whatever she was all those years ago. Frieda is asked to look into the case, to make sure that if there were any irregularities, Hannah isn’t going to blow the whistle on them. Nobody wants a mass murderer back out on the streets.

Of course, Frieda doesn’t see things quite that way. She goes in with an open mind, and discovers both that there were irregularities by the bucketload in the original investigation – and that the entire hospital is failing to meet even minimum standards of care for Hannah. Even beyond that, the guards and nurses look the other way while the inmates regularly beat Hannah – then refuse to take care of the damage that has been caused.

If, as Frieda begins to suspect, Hannah is not guilty of the crime she was convicted of, then there are a whole lot of people who will need to examine their consciences to discover who the real monster in this situation is. And some of them are more monstrous than others.

But waiting in the shadows lurks a bigger monster than anyone involved in Hannah’s case. Frieda believes that someone is stalking her, just waiting to kill again. Everyone believes he’s dead, and that Frieda just can’t let go.

It’s true that somebody can’t let go, but it isn’t Frieda.

Escape Rating A: I read this in a single day. At bedtime, I was just so into it, I couldn’t stop reading, so I didn’t. Just after 2 in the morning, I turned the last page and was completely blown away. Also chilled to the bone. Hannah’s case is disturbing enough, but the ending, and what it portends for the next book, Sunday Silence, gave me creeps that still haven’t gone away.

I read the first book in this series, Blue Monday, back in 2012 and absolutely loved it. I was looking forward to the next books in the series, all of which I have, but it fell into the “so many books, so little time” vortex and I never got back to them. I need to go back, when I get over the shakes.

The story in Dark Saturday (titled Saturday Requiem on its original release in the UK) is and is not complete in and of itself. Hannah Docherty’s case begins and ends in this book. But, and it felt like a pretty big but, the overall story of Frieda’s personal monster seems to haunt every single book in the series. And it felt like there were a lot of events in the previous books, especially Friday on My Mind, that impacted events in Dark Saturday.

I was still completely absorbed in Dark Saturday, but I think there were details that probably didn’t creep me out enough because I hadn’t read the earlier books. And I’ll admit that’s a rather scary thought. I didn’t need to be creeped out anymore than I already was – but it still feels like I missed a whole lot of nuances.

One of the reasons this one haunts is because it both is and is not what I expected halfway through. It’s fairly obvious early on that Frieda believes that Hannah is innocent of the original crime. And that Frieda is probably right, partly because she knows what she’s doing, and partly because, well, this is her series and the protagonist is usually right in the end. And in mysteries in general, the murderer is never the obvious person. At the time the original crime occurred, Hannah was the obvious person, so it must not have been her. But the way the case resolved did surprise me, and added to the sense of miscarriage of justice that permeates this story.

Just as I said in my review of Blue Monday five years ago – read this one on a sunny day. You’ll need the warmth – and the light.

TLC
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Review: Lockdown by Laurie R. King

Review: Lockdown by Laurie R. KingLockdown: A Novel of Suspense by Laurie R. King
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Bantam on June 13th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A classroom is held hostage by someone with a thirst for revenge in this stunningly intricate, ripped-from-the-headlines novel of rich psychological suspense from the New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell mysteries.
Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School: a day given to innocent hopes and youthful dreams. A day no one in attendance will ever forget.
New York Times bestselling author Laurie R. King is an award-winning master of combining rich atmospheric detail with riveting, keen-edged mystery. Now, in her newest standalone novel of psychological suspense, King turns her sharp eye to a moment torn from the headlines and a school under threat. A year ago, Principal Linda McDonald arrived at Guadalupe determined to overturn the school's reputation for truancy, gang violence, and neglect. One of her initiatives is Career Day--bringing together children, teachers, and community presenters in a celebration of the future. But there are some in attendance who reject McDonald's bright vision.
A principal with a secret. A husband with a murky past. A cop with too many questions. A kid under pressure to prove himself. A girl struggling to escape a mother's history. A young basketball player with an affection for guns.
Even the school janitor has a story he dare not reveal.
But no one at the gathering anticipates the shocking turn of events that will transform a day of possibilities into an expolsive confrontation.
Tense, poignant, and brilliantly paced, Laurie R. King's novel charts compelling characters on a collision course--a chain of interactions that locks together hidden lives, troubling secrets, and the bravest impulses of the human heart.

My Review:

Lockdown was a surprise. In the end, it was nothing like I expected. Also, in the end, absolutely fascinating. Just not in the way that I expected at the beginning.

I was not expecting Holmes and Russell. Not that I wouldn’t love another entry in that series, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Instead, Lockdown is a story that starts out slowly and picks up steam, much as Guadalupe Middle School Principal Linda McDonald starts her day out early but slowly and ends with an exhausted rush at the end of this long and very surprising day.

It’s Career Day at Guadalupe, and Linda expects something to go wrong. Because, well, middle school. Take a whole herd of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, all rushing headlong into puberty at varying rates, mix well and throw them all together into a single steaming pot. It’s a guaranteed recipe for trouble at the best of times and in the best of places. The San Felipe neighborhood that Guadalupe serves is neither. And the varying differences of circumstances and misery that surround the students reflects both on their hyper-hormonal age group and the mostly working class racial melting pot neighborhood that surrounds them.

And in the middle of it all are two long-simmering tragedies. At the beginning of the school year, sixth grader Bee Cuomo went missing, and has neither been found, seen or heard from in the months since. And last year gang-leader Taco Alvarez murdered Gloria Rivas in cold blood, witnessed by two of Guadalupe’s students – Gloria’s sister Sofia and her friend Danny Escobedo. As the school prepares for Career Day, Taco’s trial is also proceeding, while his young cousin, still a Guadalupe student, tries to figure out what he owes to a cousin he both fears and worships.

But as the day moves forward and winds up to its explosive conclusion, the story peeks into the lives of every standout character in the school. That exploration begins with the Principal and her husband, from their surprising meeting in the jungles of Papua New Guinea to his rather murky past as a gun-for-hire. But everyone involved has secrets of their own, from the janitor who keeps the school running in some mysterious ways to the Coach who tries his best to save young boys before their eyes go completely dead to the students themselves.

They say that all happy families are alike, but that unhappy families are each unhappy in their own ways. And we see that here as their worlds collide with explosive violence, and it all goes wrong. But some things, after all, go right.

Escape Rating A-: At first, I wasn’t sure where this story was going. Based on the blurbs, it was pretty obvious that it was going to end in a school shooting, but I’ll admit to being completely misled about the shooter and their motivation until the very end.

And it does go slowly at first. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of tiny, individual portraits to sort through. At the beginning it felt as if the only characters we lingered on long enough to get a clear picture were Linda McDonald and her very mysterious husband Gordon Kendrick. Through Linda’s memories, we see their first meeting, and it’s obvious from the very beginning that Gordon has a very big secret that is finally catching up with him. It takes a while before that secret finally bites him in the ass, and the way that it happens just adds to the drama.

There are a lot of threads to this story. As the focus shifts from person to person, we see the way the wind blows. But there is more than enough misdirection for the reader to think that the explosion is coming from a completely different direction than it actually is.

The school is faced with so many crises, and both the students and their guardians have so many violent secrets. It’s not surprising that something erupts, only the how and the when are mysterious. Even the why becomes a bit obvious early on, or at least the reader thinks it does.

I went down the wrong path for a long time, and at the end was forced to back up and see where I missed the fork in the road. The misdirection was very well done.

While in her Career Day speech McDonald focuses on all the threads that make up the school and its community, the story is about all the threads that make up the tragedy and its aftermath. Once Linda’s day, and the story, get going, it’s impossible to stop until the end.

So I didn’t.

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La FargeThe Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, thriller
Pages: 389
Published by Penguin Press on March 7th 2017
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From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals, psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle.
Marina Willett, M.D., has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer's life: In the summer of 1934, the "old gent" lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow's family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends--or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he's solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it's suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn't believe them.
A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story The Night Ocean); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan -- the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.
As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband's trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City.
The Night Ocean is about love and deception -- about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.

My Review:

Originally, The Night Ocean was a short story written by Robert H. Barlow and H.P. Lovecraft. Mostly by Barlow.

However, this version of The Night Ocean is ostensibly, although not actually ABOUT Barlow and Lovecraft. It’s a Russian nesting doll of a story, with story inside story inside story, all of them told by unreliable narrators, one more so than the others.

And yet, at the same time, much of the story is true – it just didn’t happen to the people who said it happened to them. Or did it?

Charlie Willett committed suicide. Or he didn’t. His journey parallels that of Robert H. Barlow, or it doesn’t. Or that of L.C. Spinks. Or maybe not. Or maybe Charlie just got lost along the way.

His wife (or possibly widow) Marina, finds that she can’t quite let Charlie go. There’s no body, so it is all too easy to imagine that Charlie is still alive. In order to find her closure, or expiate her grief, or both, Marina sets herself on the trail of Charlie’s last days and final quest, and that’s where Lovecraft (and Barlow and Spinks) come in.

Charlie was both a writer and a dream, and one of the things he dreams of writing is about H.P. Lovecraft, that famous, and infamous, writer of horror fiction and Weird Tales. Lovecraft was famous, among other things, for writing about mythical books, notably the Necronomicon, that bane of librarians everywhere. (It doesn’t exist, it never existed, but every generation of Lovecraftians persists in searching libraries for it)

Although the Necronomicon never existed, Charlie dreams of finding another one of Lovecraft’s mythical tomes. And falls into a wild goose chase for an entirely different apocryphal work, the Erotonomicon.

Charlie gets taken for a long, sad and ultimately costly if not tragic, ride. And Marina, whether out of love or guilt, follows along after him.

It’s a strange journey, as weird as any of Lovecraft’s tales, that winds from Arkham to Florida to Mexico City to Parry Sound on Lake Huron in Canada, with stops along the way in New York City, at the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee, and the beginnings of science fiction fandom.

And it’s only when Marina exposes the spider at the heart of this web that she has even a chance at escaping from this very weird tale. Just when she does, it drags her back in. Or does it?

Escape Rating B: This story has so many aspects, that I think each reader is going to be reading a different book, depending on which parts grabbed them and stuck. Like a jellyfish.

A lot of people are going to pick this up because of the H.P. Lovecraft connection, which doesn’t feel quite as large as the blurb makes it out to be. Characters enter this story because of their connection to Lovecraft, but it isn’t really about him. If it’s about anything in reference to him, it’s about all of the friends, fans and controversy that swirls in the wake of his relatively short and continually controversial life.

The part of this story that grabbed me and hung on was the rather deep dive into the early years of science fiction fandom. And even though the narrator of those parts of the story is completely unreliable, the story itself matches historical fact. Those were the people at the center of those early days, and that was how they behaved and what happened to them.

For those of us who have been involved in fandom, even tangentially, it is fascinating to feel like a witness to those early days, and to see people that we knew at the end of their lives as young, ambitious and more than occasionally stupid. Certainly arrogant. But still visionary, even if we never did get our flying cars.

And it is part of the seduction of the book, and of Charlie and Marina Willett that these stories are true, it’s only their setting that’s false. The characters and personalities of those people feels a bit more real than either Charlie or Marina, who in the end become vehicles to tell someone else’s story.

A story that isn’t even really theirs.

I was grabbed and startled by this book early on, when Charlie discovers the surreptitious publication of the Erotonomicon and the absolutely scathing response to it by the scandalized science fiction community. One of those scathing responses is from well-known fan (and author) Wilson “Bob” Tucker in his fanzine Le Zombie. I knew Bob Tucker in the early 1990s, and the quote certainly sounds like him. It was also beyond weird to have someone I knew appear in a book.

Ironically, one of the things that Tucker was famous for was a practice that was named for him, Tuckerization. Tuckerization is the insertion of a real person’s name (and sometimes other characteristics) into an otherwise fictitious story. Today, this is often done for charity. But now that I’ve finished the book, I find it funny that Tucker was himself Tuckerized in The Night Ocean.

Tucker’s appearance in the story added to the verisimilitude so much that I went on my own wild goose chase, hunting for the cited issue of Le Zombie. But that issue is not preserved. So it all could have happened. Just like Marina and Charlie, I too got caught up in the desire to believe this was all real.

Reviewer’s Note: I listed to the audiobook of this one, and I think it made the story more compelling, as the structure of the book is that its variations are often being told by one person to another, rather than being read or happening in the present. However, I discovered when I looked at the print copy that the audiobook narrator left out the footnotes. For those familiar with the history, the footnotes are interesting but not necessary. But a reader who is not already familiar with the early history of science fiction fandom, and admittedly that’s most people, is going to lose some of the context and the verisimilitude by the omission of those notes.

Review: Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten

Review: Who Watcheth by Helene TurstenWho Watcheth by Helene Tursten, Marlaine Delargey
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Inspector Huss #9
Pages: 304
Published by Soho Crime on December 6th 2016
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He watches the women from the shadows. He has an understanding with them; as long as they follow his rules, they are safe. But when they sin, he sentences them to death. A woman is found dead in a cemetery, strangled and covered in plastic. Just a few days before her death, the victim had received a flower, an unintelligible note, and a photograph of herself. Detective Inspector Irene Huss and her colleagues on the Goteborg police force have neither clue nor motive to track in the case, and when similar murders follow, their search for the killer becomes increasingly desperate. Meanwhile, strange things have been going on at home for Irene: first the rose bush in her garden is mangled, then she receives a threatening package with no return address . . .

My Review:

The title of this suspense thriller is a play on a very old Latin quotation: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” That meaning is only part of the story in Who Watcheth. In this case it also carries the connotation of watching from the shadows. In other words, stalking.

And while the stalker from the shadows forms the bulk of this case, in the end, the question of “who guards the guards?” is the one that is left hanging in the reader’s mind, quivering with possibility. And tragedy.

The story here is one that has been told before, in multiple suspense thrillers. There’s a serial killer on the loose. At first the police, in the person of Detective Inspector Irene Huss, don’t know that the murders of women in their 40s are connected. But as the bodies begin to stack up, the investigators hunt both backwards and forwards, to see if they can determine where the crime spree began, and try to zero in on the man the newspapers are calling “the Package Killer” for the way he leaves his victims neatly bundled up.

The conundrum for the investigators is that the killings appear random. The victims are roughly the same age, and are all unmarried, but otherwise they don’t seem to have much in common. It’s begins to seem as if they all work or at least shop at the same mall, but then, so do thousands of other people. It’s not much of a link.

And it doesn’t help them even when they zero in on a possible suspect. Daniel Borjesson is seriously creepy, but creepiness alone is not a crime. Unfortunately. He gives everyone who deals with him a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, and with good reason. But as much as the man touches off every single investigator’s gut instincts, no one can find a real connection between Borjesson and any of the victims, nor can they find any evidence that the man has access to either the car necessary for transporting his victims or the secure and out-of-the-way premises required to prepare his “packages” so meticulously.

Cop shop politics and the bureaucratic obsession with finances force the detectives to let him go. Their mistake is going to be extremely costly in the end. But for whom?

Escape Rating B+: This is a chilling thriller. It is also a very compelling read. I kept going long after the lights were out, which is a mistake. While this isn’t gory, the atmosphere of creeping menace makes for a tough read when the only light in the house is your iPad. But I absolutely had to finish.

This is the 9th book in the Inspector Huss series and is also part of the current wave of Scandinavian crime fiction. My exposure to that particular wave consists of seeing a few Wallander episodes, and this was my first introduction to Huss, but I still enjoyed the book a great deal, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not having read the rest of the series.

On that other hand, the atmosphere of the cop shop and Huss’ relationship with her family reminded me surprisingly of the J.D. Robb In Death series. The investigator’s personal life does find echoes and resonances in her cases, and there are bits about the cop shop and the group dynamics that felt similar across time, place and culture.

In the end, whodunnit is not a surprise to the reader. Much of the compulsion in the narrative revolves around putting the pieces together, and whether the detectives will manage to do so in time. Before the killer strikes again.

And the ending is a stunner.

Review: Her Nightly Embrace by Adi Tantimedh

Review: Her Nightly Embrace by Adi TantimedhHer Nightly Embrace (Ravi PI #1) by Adi Tantimedh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Ravi PI #1
Pages: 320
Published by Atria/Leopoldo & Co. on November 1st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first in a trilogy of whip-smart novels—currently in development as a TV series set to star Sendhil Ramamurthy (NBC’s Heroes and Heroes Reborn)—about a destructive private investigator and his eccentric coworkers, who handle cases so high-profile that they never make the headlines.
Ravi Chandra Singh is the last guy you’d expect to become a private detective. A failed religious scholar, he now works for Golden Sentinels, an upmarket London private investigations agency. His colleagues are a band of gleefully amoral and brilliant screw-ups: Ken and Clive, a pair of brutal ex-cops who are also a gay couple; Mark Chapman, a burned-out stoner hiding a great mind; Marcie Holder, a cheerful former publicist; Benjamin Lee, a techie prankster from South London; David Okri, an ambitious lawyer from a well-connected Nigerian immigrant family; and Olivia Wong, an upper-class Hong Kong financial analyst hiding her true skills as one of the most dangerous hackers in the world—all under the watchful eye of Roger Golden, wheeler-dealer extraordinaire, and his mysterious office manager, Cheryl Hughes.
Thrust into a world where the rich, famous, and powerful hire him to solve their problems and wash their dirty laundry, Ravi finds himself in over his head with increasingly gonzo and complex cases – and the recent visions that he’s been having of Hindu gods aren’t helping. As Ravi struggles to stay ahead of danger, he wonders if the things he’s seeing are a delusion – or if he might, in fact, be an unrecognized shaman of the modern world...

My Review:

As I read Her Nightly Embrace, it felt a lot like I was reading a media tie-in book for a TV series. While there is somewhat of an overarching story, the book is divided into sections that read an awful lot like separate episodes.

Which is completely fitting, as the series is in the process of being adapted for TV, and seems to have been written with that adaptation in mind. Which does not keep the book from being a fun and interesting read.

The cast of characters inhabiting the Golden Sentinels Private Investigations Agency is one of the quirkiest bunch of misfits ever to become private investigators. And Ravi Chandra Singh fits right in – even if he doesn’t believe that he does.

Everyone at the agency, from the owner on down, is on the run from something or other. Not literally on the run, but metaphorically. Ravi is as down on his luck, at least for certain definitions of luck, as the rest of them.

He’s a failed religious scholar, and a recently fired schoolteacher. Neither of which makes him terribly employable in most circles. But he is in debt up to his eyeballs to pay for his sister’s fancy wedding and his mother’s gambling debts, so he tells himself he’s just working at the extremely well-paying and equally morally questionable Golden Sentinels to pay off his overdraft.

It takes a long time, and more than a few cases that head towards Crazytown, before he’s able to admit to himself that he’s as addicted to the chaos as the rest of the shop of misfit toys.

But he is in over his head. Golden Sentinels is the agency that very, very rich people, and occasionally governments, hire when they want to make sure that their problems go so far away that no one ever knows they existed in the first place.

Ravi finds himself learning how the world really works, and it is not a comfortable lesson. He is a moral man who finds himself in the midst of work where the ends always justify the means. He finds himself in the awkward position of keeping the people around him from letting those means get too dirty, and not always succeeding. And never feeling completely comfortable with either the means or sometimes even the ends.

They say that God laughs at our plans. For Ravi, that is literally true. He sees the Hindu gods in the midst of his chaotic life, and they are all laughing at him. And seemingly texting each other about him and what they perceive as his foolishness.

Is Ravi crazy, or are the gods really watching him? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. But if they are, he is giving them a very entertaining show.

Escape Rating B: This is a fun book. There’s not a lot of there, there, but it makes for a very entertaining read.

Her Nightly Embrace reads like a caper story, or actually a collection of them. It reminds me a bit of the TV show Leverage, in that you are never quite sure whether the Golden Sentinels are black hats or white hats, and often neither are they. But they solve their cases with a lot of expensive toys, a bit of sleight of hand, and a willingness to do just about anything to take care of their well-paying clients.

Including the CIA. When Ravi finds out exactly who the Golden Sentinels are in bed with, it sends him on a long, dark night of the soul. He’s still a bit out there through the rest of the book.

Her Nightly Embrace is a story of the loss of innocence. It’s one of those stories about someone not wanting to see how the sausage is made, only to find out in the end that he is the sausage – and so is everyone else.

Ravi’s work is so crazy that he needs his family to ground him. Which they do, and at the same time his parents and his sister are also part of the crazy that drives him. When the agency recruits his on-again/off-again girlfriend, the reader isn’t sure whether it’s because her talents are useful or because it gives them another way of tying Ravi to the agency. And after meeting all the characters, it’s probably a bit of both.

Although their methods can be fairly dark, like Leverage the book does come off as entertaining fluff. Maybe dark velvet fluff, but fluff nevertheless. I am curious to see where the series, both the books and the TV series, take Ravi and the Golden Sentinels next.

Review: Apprentice in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Apprentice in Death by J.D. RobbApprentice in Death (In Death, #43) by J.D. Robb
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, papaerback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, thriller
Series: In Death #43
Pages: 375
Published by Berkley on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Lieutenant Eve Dallas returns in a fast-paced new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author J. D. Robb. 
Nature versus nurture...
  The shots came quickly, silently, and with deadly accuracy. Within seconds, three people were dead at Central Park’s ice skating rink. The victims: a talented young skater, a doctor, and a teacher. As random as random can be.
Eve Dallas has seen a lot of killers during her time with the NYPSD, but never one like this. After reviewing security videos, it becomes clear that the victims were killed by a sniper firing a tactical laser rifle, who could have been miles away when the trigger was pulled. And though the locations where the shooter could have set up seem endless, the list of people with that particular skill set is finite: police, military, professional killer.
Eve’s husband, Roarke, has unlimited resources—and genius—at his disposal. And when his computer program leads Eve to the location of the sniper, she learns a shocking fact: There were two—one older, one younger. Someone is being trained by an expert in the science of killing, and they have an agenda. Central Park was just a warm-up. And as another sniper attack shakes the city to its core, Eve realizes that though we’re all shaped by the people around us, there are those who are just born evil...

My Review:

This was not the book I planned to review today, but I caught a cold and found myself looking for a book that would suck me in and keep me glued to the page from first to last. I needed something that would take me effortlessly out of myself for a few hours. So I listened to the siren song in my stuffed up head and bought a copy of the new In Death book. I’m always happy to catch up with my favorite futuristic cop shop, whether the mystery is a winner or merely a sideshow. I like these people and am always happy to see how they are all doing. Especially Galahad.

The case in this one has a tiny bit of a ripped from the headlines feel, even though the book takes place in a fictionalized 2062. The NYPSD finds itself hunting for an LDSK who is attempting to cover their agenda with collateral damage – a tactic that only leads to more bodies and more clues for Eve and company to investigate.

The acronym LDSK is in use today, in our early 21st century world. And it’s a shame and a sadness that it needs to exist at all. An LDSK is a Long Distance Serial Killer – someone who sets up in a sniper’s nest and picks off their targets from long-range. This is never an opportunistic crime, because it takes weeks and months of planning to scout out and secure potential nests. In order to shoot accurately at such extreme ranges calls for the coldest of cold blood.

The police work in this case involves sorting the tiny grains of wheat from mountains of chaff.

There are very few people who are capable of the hit at the Central Park Ice Rink that opens this story. Three shots, three victims, from high above and more than a mile away. The shooter has to have used a long-range tactical rifle. The skills to use one and the ability to obtain one narrow the possible field. The shooter was either current or former military, police or professional assassin.

Or trained by one of the above.

In a city of urban high-rises and urban density like New York (the city hasn’t changed much in the intervening decades), isolating the sniper’s nest comes down to finding one perfect needle among hundreds of haystacks. Even with the assistance of Roarke’s fancy IT skills, there is still a lot of pavement pounding and door-knocking involved.

A lucky break gets them a suspect. Two suspects. And the race is on to catch the killer before they kill again. And again. But not again.

Escape Rating A-: I’m probably a bit prejudiced about this one. I needed something like this to take me away from my snotty nose and constant cough, and it blissfully did the job for five hours or so. Consider me grateful.

While Roarke’s IT skills help shorten the door knocking and pavement pounding, in the end it is good police work that solves this case, and it feels like the kind of police work that could feature in an early 21st century police procedural just as well as a mid-21st century one.

Search for links among the multiple victims. Figure out what, and who, they had in common. Find the nest. Dig for witnesses, and pray it doesn’t involve any actual digging. Search for a motive, even a twisted one. Keep an open mind so that the clues lead to the killer rather than an assumption about the killer leading to the clues.

And all the while, keep the team together as the chase goes on, the pressure mounts and the body count goes up.

naked in death by J.D. RobbWhat I love about this series, whether the individual case is thrilling or good or just ho hum, is the team and family-of-choice that has gathered around Eve and Roarke, both because of who they are and sometimes in spite of what Eve in particular says she wants. For a woman who began her story in Naked in Death with very little except the job, she has created a surprisingly large circle of people who she loves and who love her in return. Her constant surprise, occasional consternation and unexpected joy that this is so always warms the heart.

This is one of those cases where Eve sees herself in the killer. There but for the grace of God might have gone Eve, and it is something that haunts her frequently.

This is also a case about mentorship and fatherhood, whether surrogate or biological. What makes one man choose to warp his child beyond humanity? What makes one man pick one someone out of the pack to be child, student and legacy? So as Eve chases the killer, she finds herself looking at the relationships in her own life. What made Feeney pick her out of the sea of cops, all those years ago, and help shape her into the officer she is? What made Summerset pick Roarke, and let them save each other? And what made her choose Peabody?

And how the hell did she escape from what her father tried to make her? And why didn’t this killer?

echoes in death by jd robb These are the kind of questions that keep this reader coming back for more. I can’t wait for Echoes in Death, coming in February. A hot book to warm a chilly winter’s night.

Review: Autumn in Oxford by Alex Rosenberg + Giveaway

Review: Autumn in Oxford by Alex Rosenberg + GiveawayAutumn in Oxford: A Novel by Alex Rosenberg
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, suspense, thriller
Pages: 426
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

After being blacklisted for having communist sympathies as a student twenty years before, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Tom Wrought escapes America’s Cold War climate to teach at Oxford. There, he falls in love with Liz Spencer, a beautiful married woman. When Liz’s husband is pushed in front of a train in the London Underground, Tom is immediately arrested for the murder. Scotland Yard is convinced it has its man, as he had means, motive, and opportunity.
Certain of his innocence, Liz hires a young solicitor, Alice Silverstone, to defend Tom. But they discover that Tom’s former secret work as an American spy made him a number of powerful enemies. Russian intelligence, British counterespionage, and even the FBI all may have reason to frame him. If Liz and Alice can find out who is behind the murder, they stand a chance of freeing Tom, but doing so puts all their lives at risk.

My Review:

Autumn in Oxford is a conspiracy theorist’s dream of a novel, set during the period of one of the craziest conspiracies of all – the Red Scare of the late 1950s. It’s even presided over, in a rather perverse way, by the queen conspiracy theorist of all, J. Edgar Hoover.

And once the story gets going, it doesn’t let the reader go.

At first, this seems like a simple thriller. A man is pushed into an oncoming train by a mysterious assailant and is instantly killed. But of course it isn’t nearly that simple.

Tom Wrought witnesses Trevor Spencer being shoved off that train platform and knows that he is in deep, deep trouble. Tom was on his way to a rendezvous with Spencer’s wife. He knows that he has the obvious motive for killing the man, and that witnesses will eventually place him at the scene, especially since the real killer bears at least a passing resemblance to himself.

So Wrought pretty much does everything an innocent man shouldn’t do. He runs out of the station, chasing the real killer. He leaves the scene of the crime in a way that draws attention to himself. He stops to phone his lover to tell her that she should go home to meet the cops, who will inevitably come to give her the “bad” news.

He knows that he didn’t do it. So who did? And why?

And that’s where the fascinating part of this book begins. Not with the recitation of the beginning of Tom’s affair with Liz Spencer, but with what happens next. And with what happened in Tom’s life long before this little mess. All the events and chances that dropped Tom into the soup at this point in time, and why they have all come to a head now and not earlier. Or later.

And all the things that people in high places will do to get Tom both locked up and discredited. The collateral damage of a little murder isn’t even the worst act they commit. But watching Tom, Liz and their attorney unravel the conspiracy, piece by ugly piece, is one hell of a story.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I absolutely loved this book. But it needs an editor. The affair between Tom and Liz is the least interesting part of the entire story. It’s only purpose is to provide the means and method for what follows. And frankly, the reader knows enough about their affair when Tom witnesses the murder that we don’t need the complete rehash. It’s what happens after the murder, and the story that Tom tells of his life before Oxford, that give this story its punch.

And what a punch it is. The Red Scare of the 1950s in the U.S. makes for very bizarre reading from the 21st century. Except where it resonates all too clearly.

Tom flirted with the Communist Party while he was in college. A lot of people did in the 1930s. Tom was also extremely anti-segregation long before integration became remotely accepted. And an awful lot of very important people in the 1930s believed that any challenge to the American status quo, including calls for integration, were automatically part of a Communist plot.

All of this makes Tom an obvious target for the powers-that-be. He’s had the fortune, or misfortune, to be in the right place at the right time to be a witness to history, and to be able to expose the lies and deceits of powerful people. J. Edgar Hoover, in particular, was not known for being merciful to those he perceived as his enemies – whether they saw themselves as his enemy or not.

The story of Tom’s life before the murder is what draws the reader in. And also what provides the motive for the murder. The ways in which Tom ran afoul of people in high places, and the underhanded means they used to strike at him without regard for either collateral damage or irreparable harm to U.S. relations with their post-war allies piles conspiracy on top of conspiracy into an unstable but absolutely compelling house of dirty little cards.

The thrill-a-minute chase at the end provides the perfect conclusion.

Reviewer’s note: I was born in 1957, two years before this book begins. While I obviously don’t remember the historical events that form the backdrop of this story, they were still very much “present” and part of the cultural zeitgeist as I was growing up. It is really weird to see times that I lived through portrayed as “historical” fiction.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m very pleased to say that I am giving away a copy of Autumn in Oxford to one lucky US or Canadian commenter. I really enjoyed this book, so I am very happy to be able to share it!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider Robinson

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider RobinsonMindkiller by Spider Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, thriller
Pages: 246
Published by Berkley on November 1st 1983
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Time Pressure comes a pulse-pounding tale of action and suspense as two men and a woman search for--and find--the ultimate frontier of experience. "The new Robert Heinlein . . ".--New York Times.

Guest Review by Amy:

Norman Kent has had enough of life; his experiences in the war, his failed marriage, his dead-end career…and in the opening words of this tale, he’s ready to end it all. But an unfriendly stranger gets in the way of his plan, and he returns to his apartment, only to find his sister there, whom he’d not seen in years and years. Shortly, she disappears abruptly, without a trace.

Hop forward a few years, and a clever, tech-savvy burglar who doesn’t know his own name finds a woman with a wire in her skull, trying to kill herself with pleasure. He pulls her back from the brink, only to go on a crusade with her against the forces that created the pleasure addiction of “wireheads.”

Spider Robinson’s brain just doesn’t work like the rest of ours, I don’t think; if you’ve ever read any of his Callahan’s stories, you’ll understand; in those books he deals in puns and wild stories, while giving the reader a peek into a community of people where “shared joy is increased, shared pain is lessened,” a notion that has created substantial communities of fans here and there around the digital world (full disclosure: I am a member of one such community). The New York Times’ review of this book pinned the label “the new Robert Heinlein” on Robinson, but as a Heinlein fan, I’m not quite going to agree to that; Heinlein fans will enjoy this tale, and feel right at home with Spider Robinson’s style, but it’s…different, in ways I can’t quite put my finger on.

Something I missed early on in this book was that time was jumping back and forth; we begin Norman’s story in 1994-1995, and are jumping to 1999 for the story of the burglar and the wirehead. Once I caught onto that, things started to make a little more sense for me, and I raptly followed both plots, wondering when and how they would converge, and when an antagonist would appear. Once a name was mentioned in both plots, things kind of clicked into place–no other explanation fits the facts at hand, so if you’re watching for it, you’ll figure it out before our protagonists do. Naturally, if you miss it, Robinson helpfully provides an intrusion between the story lines, in the form of Norman’s ex-wife Lois, to help you pull it all together. The apparent climax is not-unexpected, but even here, when you think you’ve got it figured out, the author gives us a lovely new twist, right at the end. Jarring, yes, but utterly necessary, and provided a way to tidy up several loose ends still dangling.

Escape Rating: A. Unlike Heinlein, who aggressively pursued a world that got better over time, and where characters pushed for that, Spider Robinson gives us a world that has clearly spiralled downward; our heroes show no particular desire to turn it around; they’re just trying to deal with it. There is no ultra-rich Howard Family pulling the strings to make things better, just avarice and dog-eat-dog individualism, easily recognizable in our own world at times. Our heroes are hard-boiled pragmatists, jaded by the world around them; so much so that when the burglar Joe heard young Karen talking about her crusade to go after the inventors of the wirehead technology, he thought she was crazy. But Karen had lived rough herself, and was willing to play hardball to do what must be done, and for reasons he doesn’t quite grasp, Joe joins her, because–for the first time he can remember–he actually cares about someone!

Our cast of characters is well-developed, every one of them with clear motivations, and rich description. Once I got past the time-hopping confusion of the first couple of chapters, I was able to track what was happening, and the story moved along crisply, without a lot of needless embellishment. A little bit of a thriller and a little bit of dystopian sci-fi, mixed in just the right proportions with engaging characters, made this a real page-turner for me. If you’re looking for a classic dystopian novel with a great thriller thrown in the mix, I heartily recommend Mindkiller.

Review: The Lafayette Sword by Eric Giacometti and Jacques Ravenne

Review: The Lafayette Sword by Eric Giacometti and Jacques RavenneThe Lafayette Sword by Eric Giacometti, Jacques Ravenne, Anne Trager
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Antoine Marcas #2
Pages: 266
Published by Le French Book (NY) on June 7th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Gold. Obsession. Secrets. Following the murder of a Freemason brother, Antoine Marcas uncovers unsettling truths about gold and its power to fascinate and corrupt. A priceless sword is stolen and deaths ensue setting the Freemason detective on a case of Masons turned bad. A clue points to mysteries and conspiracy about elusive pure gold, launching a frantic, deadly race between two symbolic places the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. A captivating plot weaves alchemy and the Middle Ages into a modern-day thriller. Part of an international, best-selling series that has sold 2 million copies worldwide, with vivid characters, an evocative international setting, and history darker than midnight. For readers who love ancient myths, secret societies, chilling narrative and modern speed."

My Review:

shadow ritual by eric giacometti and jacque ravenneJust like the first book in this series, Shadow Ritual, The Lafayette Sword reads very much like a thinking person’s DaVinci Code. Only better, because the story in the end is much more firmly grounded in reality and makes much more sense, while still taking the reader on a thrill-a-minute ride.

In this book, we actually begin with three stories. In the 21st century, our hero, Paris Police Detective Antoine Marcas attends a regular meeting of his Freemason Lodge, only to discover not one, but two dead bodies inside the sanctuary. One is an initiate, and one is an old and dear friend. His chase of the killer nearly ends in his own death, but the killer, spares his life at the last moment for reasons unknown to Marcas. He’s heard his assailant’s voice, but the face was masked.

Also in the 21st century, we read the emails of a mysterious cartel code-named Aurora. Aurora’s purpose is to manipulate the price of gold, for the benefit of its members, of course. Aurora buys up the gold uncovered in Shadow Ritual, but it isn’t necessary to have read that book to enjoy Sword.

But if you love thrillers, these are marvelous.

There is also a plot thread in the 14th century. We follow Nicolas Flamel as he is forced to record the confession under extreme torture of a young woman. She accompanied Isaac Benserade to Paris, and her late master was burned to death by the Crown for plotting against the king. In truth, it was all a plot to find Isaac’s book of alchemical formulas. The Crown is broke, and desperately needs a miracle. Turning base metals into gold would certainly qualify as that miracle.

For those wondering why the name Nicolas Flamel sounds familiar, Flamel was a real historical figure, but he is better known to 21st century readers as the creator of the “Philosopher’s Stone” or “Sorcerer’s Stone” that was sought by Voldemort in the first Harry Potter book.

Back to The Lafayette Sword, and, the search for it.

As the story progresses, at first the reader is left wondering why these three threads are bound together in this book. They do not seem connected. All very interesting, but not necessarily converging.

But as Antoine chases the killer, and the secret that the man is searching for, these disparate trails come together. And when they do, the action, and the danger, heat up to boiling point. Or to the temperature of gold fever.

Escape Rating A-/B+: For the first half of the book, the reader is wondering how and why the various disparate plot threads are finally going to come together. At the halfway point, they start to braid together in a way that will keep the reader turning pages furiously until the end.

For those who enjoy complex riddle stories like The DaVinci Code and National Treasure, there is plenty of meat to chew on. The quest for the killer and what is driving him delve deeply into Masonic history, and also into the history of both the American and the French Revolutions.

But like so many good thrillers, we also get a fight to the death both at the base of the Statue of Liberty and among the metal lattice of the Eiffel Tower. Both tourist destinations are linked by a surprising secret.

In the end, however, the mystery comes down to very human motives, and very human reason. Or unreason. One man has gone off the rails, pursuing a secret that for once, really does exist – but can’t be revealed.

We see the chase through the eyes of Antoine Marcas. He is both Freemason and cop, and in this case must parse his divided loyalties in order to reach justice without revealing secrets he is sworn to keep. And we see his internal conflict, not just about the almost opposing calls on his loyalty, but also his doubts and fears. And his abiding concern that his devotion to his duty has taken him away from his son. Marcas is both a dogged investigator, and a deeply troubled man.

And that makes him fascinating to watch. I am looking forward to hopefully next year, or whenever the next of his adventures will be translated into English.

Review: Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

Review: Wilde Lake by Laura LippmanWilde Lake by Laura Lippman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on May 3rd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The bestselling author of the acclaimed standalones After I’m Gone, I’d Know You Anywhere, and What the Dead Know, challenges our notions of memory, loyalty, responsibility, and justice in this evocative and psychologically complex story about a long-ago death that still haunts a family.
Luisa “Lu” Brant is the newly elected—and first female—state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland, a job in which her widower father famously served. Fiercely intelligent and ambitious, she sees an opportunity to make her name by trying a mentally disturbed drifter accused of beating a woman to death in her home. It’s not the kind of case that makes headlines, but peaceful Howard county doesn’t see many homicides.
As Lu prepares for the trial, the case dredges up painful memories, reminding her small but tight-knit family of the night when her brother, AJ, saved his best friend at the cost of another man’s life. Only eighteen, AJ was cleared by a grand jury. Now, Lu wonders if the events of 1980 happened as she remembers them. What details might have been withheld from her when she was a child?
The more she learns about the case, the more questions arise. What does it mean to be a man or woman of one’s times? Why do we ask our heroes of the past to conform to the present’s standards? Is that fair? Is it right? Propelled into the past, she discovers that the legal system, the bedrock of her entire life, does not have all the answers. Lu realizes that even if she could learn the whole truth, she probably wouldn’t want to.

My Review:

Wilde Lake is a book about stories. The ones that last. The stories that we tell each other. The stories that we tell ourselves.

And what happens when someone finally unravels all of the stories that people have told her about her life.

This is, after all, Lu’s story. Lu is Luisa Frida Brant, and at first it seems like she lives a mostly charmed life. She’s just been elected the first female State’s Attorney for Howard County Maryland.

Howard County is a real place, as is Columbia, the planned community that Lu grew up. Even the history of Columbia is pretty much as described in the book. Even Wilde Lake is a real feature of the town. I’ll admit to being completely surprised that Columbia and Wilde Lake exist. They are so planned that I thought they must be fictional, but they are not.

But hopefully not the events that unfold in this story. Even though, or perhaps especially because, they feel typical of suburban life in the 1960s and 1970s.

But the story is Lu’s story. While it begins at the point of Lu’s greatest triumph, it also begins at the point where her whole life begins to unravel. As she relates the story of her childhood, while dealing with her life in the present, we see where all the stories that Lu has been told, and all the stories that Lu has told herself, converge and rewrite the past as she once knew it.

At first we see an almost typical American family. Lu, her brother AJ, and their father, AJ Senior. Lu’s mom isn’t in the picture – she died a week after Lu was born. And AJ Senior is the State’s Attorney, instilling in Lu both her competitiveness and her desire to practice law.

AJ Junior is the one who seems to have the truly charmed life. AJ is charismatic, and everyone seems to love him. At least until he and his charmed circle of friends are violently attacked at their high school graduation party, leaving one young man dead and another paralyzed from the waist down.

In the aftermath, the world goes on. AJ and his friends go their separate ways. But when Lu herself becomes State’s Attorney, the truth about that long ago night, and the events that led up to it, all explode into the light.

And in the end, Lu discovers that nothing that she believed, about herself, about her family, about her life, was remotely true.

Escape Rating A-: I will say that this story builds slowly over much of its length. We are mostly inside of Lu’s head as her version of events travels back and forth from the here-and-now to her memories of her childhood and adolescence and all the stories that she was told. Also, because it is entirely Lu’s perspective, the other characters in the story feel a bit one-dimensional. We don’t really get to know them. Which in its own way makes sense in this story, as Lu discovers that all the things and all the people she thought she knew are not what she believed them to be.

All families tell stories. Sometimes because a child is too young to understand the truth, and sometimes because there is a guilty secret to be hidden. Sometimes both. And sometimes the one morphs into the other as the child becomes an adult and no one wants to air the proverbial dirty laundry now that it has finally been washed, folded and put away.

There was one such story in my own family, not nearly as explosive as what Lu uncovers. But I remember my own sense of shock and the shifting and sifting of memories in light of the new and surprising information. For her, in this story, the revelations she uncovers would have been infinitely more profound, unnerving and identity-rattling.

In the end, the truths that Lu uncovers are like the ending of the movie The Sixth Sense. Once you know that the boy truly sees dead people, you are forced to re-evaluate everything you thought you saw in the film. Once Lu finds out the truth about her family and her past, she is forced to re-examine all of her own memories to see where the truth was hidden from her, and where she hid it from herself.

They say that the truth will set you free. This is a moving story of a woman who finds the truth, and it nearly destroys her.

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