Books: Campbell’s latest disappoints; Tobey thrills, Bain delivers again

by G. Robert Frazier

In between the books I review for BookPage, Chapter 16 (Humanities of Tennessee), and Killer Nashville, I do manage to squeeze in a few other reads from time to time. Below are a few reviews for books I’ve read this year not included on those sites.

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell

I was thrilled when I received an advance reader copy of this book from Flame Tree Press. Ramsey Campbell is a master of the horror genre, so I dived right into this novel, expecting heart-stopping chills and scares that would keep me up at night.

the-influence

Campbell sets the stage quickly enough as Queenie, the matriarch of the Faraday family, dies, setting in motion a series of bizarre events. Queenie asks to be buried with a lock of hair from her great-niece, 7-year-old Rowan, with whom she has a strong rapport. Rowan’s parents, Alison and Derek, and Alison’s sister Hermione, who was traumatized by Queenie as a child, argue over the Queenie’s odd request, but Derek ultimately allows it. Soon after, Hermione is discovered dead.

Rowan, meanwhile, seems to be taking on some markedly different traits, including a condescending attitude toward her classmates and a growing aloofness toward her parents. A new friend, Victoria, who coincidentally shares Queenie’s real name, also begins to have a strange influence over Rowan and eventually appears to take Rowan’s place in the family.

Has Queenie’s spirit leapt from beyond the grave? Will Rowan be able to escape her great-aunt’s influence and return to her rightful place in the family?

Campbell’s writing is darkly atmospheric and mysterious, building slowly in intrigue and suspense. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a slam bang horror opus like I was hoping for, but more of a slow-burn novel with subtle creeps. Not that that’s a bad thing, it just isn’t my thing, so I was ultimately a bit disappointed.

The God Game
The God Game

The God Game by Danny Tobey

I’ve never been obsessed with gaming. Sure, I used to play Sonic the Hedgehog on my Sega Genesis console and I used to play NHL hockey video games, but I never got sucked into the whole gaming world. I bought a Wii game console once – it’s still connected to my TV – but I haven’t used it in years. I just don’t have time for it.

The God Game

I don’t even like movies based on video games. Not even Ready Player One could change my mind.

So, a book about gamers was not really on my list of must-reads, but since St. Martin’s Press decided to send me an advance reader copy of Danny Tobey’s The God Game, I was obliged to read it.

Billed as a dark thriller, the book follows several teens who become obsessed with a video game created on the dark web and controlled by a mysterious artificial intelligence that believes it’s God. Tobey wastes no time in establishing that this isn’t exactly a compassionate god, though, as when the boys ask the game why there is war, it responds: “Because killing feels good.”

The deeper the teens delve into the game, it becomes abundantly clear that they aren’t playing the game, the game is playing them. Before long, it forces them to do dark deeds at its behest or suffer serious consequences in their real lives.

Tobey creates a typical teen cast – characters subjected to bullying by their peers or dealing with various pressures of growing up – which lends authenticity and depth to the story, then sets them loose in a fast-paced, high-stakes adventure ala Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. There are some fun scenes and it never gets boring, though it does plod toward a somewhat predictable outcome.

Murder She Wrote: Trouble at High Tide by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain

Mom was a big fan of Murder She Wrote, and I must admit I liked the show too. Yes, it was formulaic. Yes, it was quite tame as far as murder mysteries go. But somehow it was always an entertaining diversion.

MSW Trouble at High Tide

After Mom passed, she left her collection of Murder She Wrote novels to me and I’ve been trying to read at least one a year as a sort of tribute.

Trouble at High Tide was another fun read in the series with Jessica Fletcher stumbling upon a body on a Bermuda beach during a vacation (doesn’t she always?). At the same time, the local police are caught up in a series of brutal Jack the Ripper-style killings. Whether the cases are related in some way remains to be seen.

Jessica and an old friend, Inspector George Sutherland, investigate all the requisite suspects, uncover a slew of secrets, and get dangerously close to the killer. Donald Bain, whom I met at a Killer Nashville writing conference prior to his death, expertly captures the essence of the TV series sleuth.

Magic, mystery garner Jean Rabe honors

Jean Rabe may not be a household name, but it should be. Chances are, if you are into gaming, if you are into fantasy, if you are into mysteries, you’ve encountered her byline atop a story or two. Check your bookshelf, and you just may find her stories or novels in your collection. Her latest novel, The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge, has just hit bookstores, while the author was just named a grandmaster by theInternational Media Tie-In Writers. Jean was gracious enough to speak with Story By about the award and her career, as well as share some timeless writing tips.

Congrats on being named a grandmaster by the International Media Tie-in Writers. What an accomplishment! You posted on Facebook and in your newsletter that you were “dancing” over the news. Has it sunk in yet? What does this achievement mean to you?

Jean Rabe 4

Jean Rabe, International Media Tie-in Writers Grandmaster

I never expected to win an award like this; there is no higher honor a tie-in writer can achieve. I still don’t consider myself in the same league as a Grandmaster. I’ve been on the USA Today Bestseller list several times, but I never hit New York Times. I’ve been published in lots of languages in lots of countries. I’ve been in the game lots of years. I’ve just never considered myself a “big deal.” The award is typically presented at the San Diego Comic-Con, a huge venue with well more than a hundred thousand attendees. Despite my fear of crowds, I would have braved it to get the Faust. So maybe it wasn’t a bad thing, the virtual presentation, kept my knees from knocking too much. I am so incredibly honored to have been handed the Faust, an award for doing something I’ve loved and enjoyed. I still am in disbelief.

When did you get the writing bug and how did you get your start? Who are some of your influences, past and present?

I started writing fiction in second grade. I always loved stories, sf in particular when I was a kid. I told my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Burleson, I wanted to be a paperback writer—she’d asked everyone what they wanted to do when they “grew up.” She said my plan wasn’t practical and that maybe I should consider being a nurse or a teacher. I won some writing contests in grade school and high school and got a bachelor of science in journalism. So I’ve been writing a lot of years … newspaper reporter, game designer, and editor, and now a full-time novelist. Maybe I’ve always had the bug; I can’t imagine doing anything else. Mrs. Burleson was wrong.

My influences. Hmmmmmmm. Mark Twain, love reading his stuff. Byron and Shelley and Keats, really like the English old masters. Louis L’Amour. Also: Elmore Leonard, Gene Wolfe (who was a very good friend of mine), Andre Norton (a very good friend and co-author), Ed McBain, Joe Haldeman, James Lee Burke, and W.P. Kinsella, to name some. I’m influenced by a lot of people; I think all writers are.

How did all of that lead to you writing media tie-ins?

DragonlanceAfter writing for three newspapers (and deciding I wanted to do something else), I took a job at TSR, Inc., the then-producers of the Dungeons & Dragons game. I worked as the head of the RPGA Network (Role Playing Games Association), and later as an editor and a designer. TSR published game-related fiction and occasionally had open tryouts. I submitted ideas, outlines, and sample chapters and finally one year I scored! It took me three rewrites … it was my first novel, after all … and Red Magic came out in 1991. It’s a Forgotten Realms tale set in the land of the Red Wizards of Thay, a creepy and powerful bunch. After that I wrote a couple of choose-your-adventure books…which are tough to write, then I managed to land in Krynn with Dragonlance, where I fit the best. Three standalones there, and three trilogies, several landing on the USA Today Bestseller list. After leaving TSR I still wrote Dragonlance, but I added a few Shadowrun titles, and I got to play with Rogue Angel for quite a few books. As for tie-in short stories Twilight Zone, Transformers, Metamorphosis Alpha, Pathfinder … I even got to write a Star Wars tale.

What are some of the challenges of writing characters and places in someone else’s world? Are there certain restrictions or guidelines you have to play by with each series? How do you keep it all straight and maintain the tone of each series?

There are a lot of restrictions and guidelines. You have to respect the property and its characters and stay true to what already exists. People read tie-ins because they are fans of the property—be it a TV show, roleplaying game, computer game, movie, comic book, etc., and they want more of a particular world. You have to honor the “sandbox” you are playing in, and treat it with care. There is a lot of competition to land a tie-in, and many authors were New York Times Bestsellers before they landed their tie-in gigs. If a tie-in author doesn’t stay true to the subject, he won’t get another chance … too much competition out there. Some properties help their writers, handing over “bibles” and world books. A good tie-in author reads other books in the line for flavor and background. One of the things I did with Dragonlance was to create a spreadsheet containing the characters I used. I filled in the details for canon characters, then I added the characters I was creating from whole cloth. I was fortunate with my Dragonlance trilogies that I got to craft the main characters for the sagas and sprinkle in the veteran heroes and villains as the plot merited.

What is your favorite story or novel you’ve written among all of your media tie-ins and why? What is your favorite series to write in and why?

My favorite character is Dhamon Grimwulf, who I took through two Dragonlance trilogies and a standalone. I tortured the poor soul, but he came out a hero in the end. I have two favorite media tie-in projects: my goblin trilogy—Goblin Nation. I love writing characters who are other than human, and I had a boatload of them to craft. The goblins and hobgoblins were born from whole cloth, and I based some of them on dogs I’d had through the years. Because the goblins were a slave race I gave them an odd speech pattern: they didn’t use “I and me” because they didn’t have a real sense of identity, they were property. Tough to write the dialog, and frustrating when a copyeditor at the last minute threw in some “I and me” here and there and I couldn’t do anything about it. Anyway, I liked taking my cadre of goblins from slaves to the masters of their own destiny and setting up their nation. Made me feel all fuzzy inside. My other favorite tie-in was a Shadowrun novel called Shadows Down Under, which I set around Canberra, Australia, where I visited many years back. I’d made notes when I was there, saved postcards, and subsequently sent the characters to the nifty places I’d traipsed through, and past some questionable spots, too.

A few years ago you began writing your own mystery series of novels. Your fourth novel in the Piper Blackwell series has just been released. What were some of the challenges of making the transition to your own original works?

The Dead of Jerusalem RidgeSo many of my tie-ins were original works, set in established worlds. The real transition for me was in swapping genres. I’d been writing fantasy and science fiction, and I wanted to jump to a new spot on the shelf—mysteries. I’d been reading mysteries for a lot of years and just wanted to try my hand at writing them. A former news reporter, I’d covered courts, crime, plane crashes, assorted things, so I had a good background for mysteries. And I’d written a true crime novel with F. Lee Bailey, When the Husband is the Suspect. The problem was being in a new pond. I didn’t know editors in the genre, so I had to start from scratch. Then agents told me they liked my writing, but that my books were cozy police procedurals and they’d have a tough time selling them. So I formed Boone Street Press, and I hire an editor, copyeditor, layout guru, cover artist, and publicist … all the things a traditional publisher does. It lets me write my cozy police procedurals, or uncozy-cozies as some call them. And I don’t have to wait years from when I send it off until it might show up on a shelf. Indie publishing fits me fine.

Which do you like best? Writing tie-ins or your own original stories? Will you continue to write media tie-ins?

I love to write … so both! Lately, my tie-in work has been short stories for fantasy roleplaying games, going back to my roots. I adore writing short stories, as they are a lovely break from long fiction. But the original stories I’m writing now are my property, and that’s a big thing to me. I own them. And I’m responsible for them, producing, promoting … my babies. I have two originals outlined and I’m partway into writing both. I need to pick one and crank on it. And I need to start outlining a fifth Piper Blackwell book—I already have some idea nuggets.

Now that you have been named a grandmaster, what’s your next big goal as a writer? A Shamus, maybe?

The Bone ShroudHa! I wasn’t expecting the Grandmaster nod, that oh-so-coveted Faust. I certainly don’t expect any more awards. This past fall I took first place in the Illinois Author Project adult division for The Bone Shroud, a standalone thriller I set in Italy. I didn’t expect that one either. Awards are just surprises to be treasured. Icing on my writing cake.

What advice would you have for new writers, regardless of age, trying to break in?

I could expound on that question for days. I used to manage the Gen Con Game Fair’s writing track and so scheduled many topics on that question, but I’ll take a quick stab here.

There are more than one million books published a year. Most of that because self-publishing is an option now, offering an alternative to the big houses. So you’re competing in a huge market. Make sure your book is clean—well edited, has no wasted scenes, and is filled with memorable characters. To that end, take advantage of writing programs available on the internet—blogs, classes, online workshops all designed to help hone the writing craft. I have more than forty novels and more than one hundred published short stories to my credit. And I still read writing advice blogs and books and take classes. Never stop learning. Never stop trying to improve.

Make sure your shelf has some essentials: Strunk & White, Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook, a good dictionary, thesaurus, and maybe a dictionary of word origins. Why physical books? So you don’t have to shift screens to consult an online reference book. Curl up with a dictionary some night and just read it. Highlight words that sing to you and that you want to put in your writing.

Follow posts about which agents are looking for clients and what type of books they specialize in. Read blogs about which publishers are buying, or educate yourself on all aspects of self-publishing. Consider attending a writing-focused convention: World Fantasy, World Horror, Killer Nashville; there are a lot out there … many doing virtual seminars because of the pandemic.

Write every day … even if you have something you’d rather do. And read each day, too, even if it is just a chapter; it keeps you thinking about stories and words.

My biggie: Always carry a notebook. Buy one of those small chunky ones at the Dollar Store, a size that’ll fit in your pocket. And take it everywhere. I see abandoned buildings during my travels that I want to describe; people—how they are dressed, walking, talking; cars; all manner of things. I fill my notebook with stuff I want to sprinkle in my fiction. And a notebook is handy for jotting down plot ideas. Always carry a notebook.

Follow Jean at:

American Hero: Remembering John Lewis

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Congressman John Lewis, 1940-2020

Note: With the loss of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis on Friday, I thought it would be appropriate to honor with him with an article I wrote for BookPage in 2016.

By G. Robert Frazier

It is appropriate as we enter Thanksgiving week to express our gratitude to the people who have influenced our lives in one way or another or who have made sacrifices on our behalf so that we may live better.

This past Saturday, I was fortunate to be among hundreds of Nashville-area residents able to give thanks to an American icon, Georgia Congressman John Lewis. (More than a hundred others were unable to get into the packed auditorium at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School.)

A graduate of American Baptist College and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Rep. Lewis was a leader in the Nashville student-led, nonviolent sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and helped lead the Selma to Montgomery March as part of the voting rights movement in 1965.

His account of the events make up the pages of a historical comic book trilogy, March, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. March: Book One is the citywide Nashville Reads pick for 2017. The third volume in the series just won the National Book Award for young people’s literature and garnered him honors as the Nashville Public Library Foundation’s Literary Award winner for 2016.

Regardless of age, it is a story everyone should read.

“When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes,” he told the racially diverse crowd, which greeted him with a standing ovation. “Martin Luther King would be very proud of this audience. You look like the makings of a beloved community.”

Lewis recounted the challenges and incidents of the civil rights movement, including many of his 45 arrests for civil disobedience along the way.

“I didn’t like segregation,” Lewis said. “I didn’t like racial discrimination. I didn’t like riding the broken-down buses to school.”

As a child, he grew up listening to the message of civil rights pioneers like Rosa Parks and King, whom he would eventually meet. “They inspired me to find a way to get in the way, and I got in the way. . . . By sitting down, we were standing up,” he said.

Lewis still sits down when necessary. This past summer he inspired a sit-in on the floor of Congress itself.

“We still have a distance to travel,” he said.

He implored today’s youth to carry on the fight for equality and justice when needed.

“When you see something that is not right, not just, you have a moral obligation to stand up,” he said.

But most importantly, he said, “We must come together as one people. Not just as an American house, but as a world house. . . .  Just love everybody. Love is a better way. Be kind. Never hate. Keep the faith. Never, ever give up.”

He stressed a need to set a path to citizenship, adding that “Pope Francis said we are all immigrants. We all come from some other place.”

Following his lecture, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry presented him with a collection of recently discovered photos and images of his first arrest records in Nashville from 1961, 1962 and 1963.

“I hope these photos remind you of what you have done and the legacy you have left us,” Barry told him, adding, “I thank you for your message of peace, I thank you for your message of love, but most of all I thank you for your message of kindness.”

The photos will go on display in the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library.

“It’s here in this wonderful city where I really grew up,” Lewis said of his return to Nashville. “The first time I got arrested in this city, I felt free. I owe it all to this city. I feel more than lucky—I feel honored and blessed. I came to say thank you.”

No, sir, it is we who are honored and blessed. It is we who say, “Thank you.”

The Last Scoop’s reporter tenacious, razor-sharp

By G. Robert Frazier

I’d love to see Clare Carlson in the White House Briefing Room.

The main character in R.G. Belsky’s new novel, The Last Scoop, she’s tenacious, razor-sharp, asks tough questions, and doesn’t back down from anyone. President Trump would likely try to silence her by claiming she’s “fake news,” but Clare isn’t the type who would take it sitting down. She’d snap back until, a) she loses her White House press credentials or b) sends Trump running back to the Oval Office with his tail between his legs.

The Last Scoop by R.G. Belsky
Oceanview, $26.95, 9781608093571

That’s not to say that Clare doesn’t have more than a few faults.

Her brash style makes more enemies than friends. She’s no good when it comes to sustaining a romantic relationship (she’s been married and divorced numerous times). She can be deceitful when it comes to getting what she wants. And she isn’t above lying to her long-lost daughter, though with good reason.

Journalists are, by nature, supposed to be impartial observers, dedicated to detailing the day’s news in matter of fact, unbiased fashion. But Clare’s first-person narration easily draws readers into her world while showing her real feelings and emotional reactions to events.

In other words, she’s human.

In The Last Scoop, all of the above comes into play as Clare gets caught up in an investigation left unfinished after the death of her mentor, Martin Barlow. Clare feels somewhat guilty about turning her back on Martin since her move to the big city of New York where she is now a TV news editor and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.

To make amends, at least in her own mind, she takes up Martin’s last story: uncovering a serial killer who has left bodies in his wake for decades. Her nose for news and relentless pursuit of the truth soon finds her butting heads with her boss, the local district attorney, and the FBI.

Belsky, who marks his third novel with Clare as protagonist and fourteenth novel overall, has crafted another a fast-paced mystery. As a former metro editor with the New York Post and managing editor at NBC News, Belsky knows the news biz and it shows clearly.

While I was a bit disappointed to learn the identity of the serial killer – I’ll only say that I feel it’s become a bit of a cliché in the mystery genre in the interest of giving away spoilers — one thing you can be certain of, Clare Carlson is anything but fake news. Here’s hoping Belsky has another scoop or two for Clare to expose in future novels.

Waggoner’s Mouth of the Dark a weird read

Tim Waggoner writes some weird stuff.

Mouth of the Dark

Mouth of the Dark
Tim Waggoner
Flame Tree Press
 240 pages, $14.95
ISBN-13: 978-1787580114

One of his latest, The Mouth of the Dark from Flame Tree Press, is a perfect example of just how weird. What starts as a missing person story quickly morphs into an other-dimensional romp against bizarre creatures and crazed killers. Check logic at the door and suspend your disbelief, because this shit gets crazier by the page. And that’s a good thing, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Waggoner’s story focuses on Jayce Lewis as he pounds the pavement in search of his adult daughter, Emory, who has been missing for eighteen days. No one seems to know anything about her or care, for that matter, further frustrating Jayce and amplifying his sense of desperation. Even his estranged wife isn’t all that concerned. But Jayce presses on, believing if he can find her, he might also be able to reconnect and strengthen their relationship.

Things take a bizarre turn, though, when he encounters a pair of teens more intent on protecting their “meat” than in helping him. Only the timely intervention of a mysterious woman named Nicola, who scares them off with a jar containing “the screams of a hundred dying men” prevents them from carving him up and putting a premature end to his search. Weird, huh?

And that’s just for starters. Things get weirder. Really weirder.

Before long, Nicola leads Jayce into an otherworldly Shadow realm, where its denizens cower in fear from something called the Harvest Man. Jayce should be scared out of his mind, if he hasn’t lost it already. Anyone else would be. But with Nicola’s help, he’s able to navigate the strange realm and confront the Harvest Man, as well as the monster inside him.

Further explanations, which probably wouldn’t make much sense anyway, may ruin the overall plot. Suffice to say, rarely a page passes without some new revolting twist to squirm at. This one’s strictly for fans of hardcore horror and dark fantasy, so be warned. But also rest assured, you’re in the hands of a Bram Stoker Award-winning author. Weird as that may sound.

The Guest Book lifts veil on family’s life of privilege, elitism

Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book is a beautifully written and emotionally captivating novel about one family’s bonds, secrets, and their lifetime of privilege and high society coming to an end.

The Guest Book

The Guest Book
Sarah Blake
Flatiron Books
448 pages, $27.99
ISBN: 9787250110251

Beginning in the mid-30s, the novel follows the lives of socialites Kitty and Ogden Milton and continues with their children and grandchildren to contemporary times. After a horrific tragedy in which Kitty loses one of her young sons, Ogden purchases an exclusive estate on an island off the coast of Maine to reconnect with his wife and reinvigorate their marriage.

His plan works as Kitty ultimately snaps out of her shock and misery and falls in love with their new home. But their elite lifestyle, particularly the racist attitude they thinly hide beneath the surface,  ultimately haunts the family in the ensuing years. Kitty rejects a plea from a Jewish refugee to keep her young son on the island, a Jewish man attracted to one of her daughters draws their scorn, and a black friend is never fully accepted into their midst, as his missing name in the guest book attests.

The novel alternates narratives between Kitty,  her daughter and granddaughter, as each generation develops deep affection for the island getaway and their upscale lifestyle. But as the family’s money begins to run out and rising costs just to maintain the island become overwhelming, the only solution appears to be selling the island. Only Kitty’s granddaughter fights to preserve the family getaway and its family secrets.

Blake’s evocative writing creates a poignant snapshot of a lifestyle of high society, privilege, and elitism slowly being washed away by a changing society, the fight for equality, and decency.

Thanks to Flatiron Books for providing an ARC of this book.  

 

From the frontier to international conspiracies, adventure awaits

From historical adventures to spy thrillers, the characters and situations in these books will leave you thrilled and deeply moved.

Fall Back Down When I Die – Joe Wilkins

Fall Back Down When I Die

Little, Brown
$26.00
ISBN 9780316475358

Twenty-four-year-old Wendell Newman is having a rough go of things when we first meet him in Fall Back Down When I Die, the heart-wrenching debut novel from Pushcart Prize winner Joe Wilkins. Wendell lost his father at an early age, his mother has just died after a long illness that’s left him with overdue medical bills, he owes back taxes on his parents’ property, and he has less than $100 in his bank account. His life is as bleak as the “bruised and dark” mountains of Montana in which he lives.

When a social worker unexpectedly places Wendell’s 7-year-old nephew into his care after the boy’s mother is incarcerated on drug charges, Wendell has good reason to fall further into despair. The boy, Rowdy Burns, is traumatized himself. He won’t speak, is “developmentally delayed,” and he has uncontrollable fits. But Wendell, who remains haunted by his father’s violent death years ago, sees something of himself in his young charge and a chance, perhaps, to give Rowdy the life he couldn’t have.

Wilkins  details the pair’s growing bond and sense of hope with vivid, heartfelt strokes, while ultimately asking if it’s possible to escape the fate—and the land—they were born into.

Read the full review at BookPage

Last Night – Karen Ellis

The Lost Night – Andrea Bartz

Last Night

Mulholland
$27.00
ISBN 9780316505697

The Lost Night

Crown
$27.00
ISBN 9780525574712 

One night can change everything. For better. For worse. Forever.

The characters in two new novels from Karen Ellis and Andrea Bartz experience the immediate and long-term ramifications of ill-spent nights to drastic effect. In Ellis’ novel, Last Night, the distinctly different lives of Titus “Crisp” Crespo and Glynnie Dreyfus intersect in unexpected and unfortunate ways when they attempt to purchase weed from a shady supplier. Meanwhile, Lindsay Bach struggles to piece together the fleeting memories of a tragic night ten years earlier in which a college friend, Edie, committed suicide in Bartz’s The Lost Night. Both novels offer mystery, suspense and unforgettable characters caught up in situations that swiftly spiral beyond their control.

Read the full review of both novels at BookPage.

Never Tell – Lisa Gardner

Never Tell

Dutton
$27.00
ISBN 9781524742089

Flora Dane, the tough-as-nails survivor of a traumatic kidnapping, is back in Never Tell, the twisty new thriller from the always reliable Lisa Gardner.

For the unfamiliar, Flora leapt into readers’ hearts in Gardner’s 2016 bestseller, Find Her. In Never Tell, Flora, though still haunted by the abuse she endured while captive to Jacob Ness for 472 days, is working as a confidential informant for the Boston Police Department. But when businessman Conrad Carter is shot dead at the alleged hands of his wife, Evie, Flora’s past trauma comes racing back.

Gardner gives plenty for readers to ponder as Flora’s ordeal is only part of the myriad mysteries and surprises in store in her latest novel.

Read the full review at BookPage.

Cherokee America – Margaret Verble

Cherokee America

HMH
$27.00
ISBN 9781328494221

Set shortly after the Civil War in 1875, Cherokee America by Margaret Verble revolves around Check Singer and her journey from Tennessee to Cherokee land in Oklahoma. The story also follows her extensive family, including her ailing, bedridden husband, Andrew, and their five children—Connell, Hugh, Clifford, Otter and Paul, ranging from school-aged to grown up—as well as their hired help, assorted friends and neighbors. Check’s mission throughout is simply getting through the day with only a modicum of trouble, but with the ready admission that “trouble breeds trouble.”

Verble ably balances an impressive cast and multiple storylines, taking  time to explore each’s feelings and tribulations, with Check at its grounded center. Readers shouldn’t expect to fly through these pages at breakneck speed, but rather enjoy a more leisurely pace that will leave them wholly immersed in Check’s world.

Read the full review at BookPage.

American Spy – Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy

Random House
$27.00
ISBN 9780812998955

Lauren Wilkinson’s debut novel, American Spy, chronicles the life of a black woman recruited to the CIA during the height of the Cold War. The CIA needs Marie to get close to and undermine Robert Sankara, the revolutionary president of the tiny West African nation of Burkina Faso.

At first, Marie is reluctant to accept the job, but her desire to make something more of her life—and perhaps her despair over the mysterious death of her sister—convinces her otherwise.

Taking on the task becomes more than complicated, however, when she develops a real affection for Sankara, who will eventually father her two boys, thereby causing her to question her loyalty to the U.S. and its policies.

Read the full review at BookPage.

Junction, The Sky Woman shirk alien war stories for old-school sci-fi fun

One look at the science fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million shows that war is king. After the success of such books as War of the Worlds, Starship Troopers and Star Wars (yeah, it was a book, you know), it’s only natural that every sci-fi book on the market tries to replicate that excitement. Even Star Trek, which is fundamentally supposed to be about discovering “new frontiers and strange civilizations,” has become obsessed with battles between Klingons, Romulans, and the Borg.

Junction

Junction
Daniel M. Bensen
Flame Tree Press
Hardcover: 9781787580961
Trade PB: 9781787580947

So, it was refreshing to read a couple of books recently that attempted to put some of the wonder of sci-fi back onto the written page. Junction by Daniel M. Bensen and The Sky Woman by J.D. Moyer (both from Flame Tree Press) get accolades in that respect.

Junction literally throws its human cast into a strange new world when a wormhole suddenly opens in New Guinea, allowing access to another planet just by stepping through a gateway between worlds. And The Sky Woman pits a woman from an orbiting ring station around earth into the middle of a post-apocalyptic civilization.

Naturally, complications arise in both novels.

In Junction, an international cast, led by Japanese nature show host Daisuke Matsumori, runs into trouble when their plane goes down in the alien landscape miles from their makeshift base. With little food or chance of being rescued, the group must trek through a bizarre world of unnatural creatures to get back to safety. The danger intensifies and the casualties mount up with each new region, or “biome,”  they enter. The story felt a little like that old Jules Verne novel, Mysterious Island, filled with imagination, fantastic creatures, and imaginative feats of survival.

The Sky Woman

The Sky Woman
J.D. Moyer
Flame Tree Press
Hardcover: 9781787580435
Trade PB: 9781787580411

The Sky Woman had a John Carter of Mars feel to it, as our hero is dropped into a land of barbaric tribes, only to learn that it will take more than her advanced technology to escape. Throw in a few giants and a psychic ghostlike phenomenon known as “the gast” and it was easy to get caught up in this adventure.

That said, both novels also had a few shortcomings. Junction seemed to fall into a rut of getting repetitious as the group faced new creatures from one chapter to the next, while The Sky Woman took an unexpected turn midway through the novel by wasting time with more of the ring station dwellers.

But in a sci-fi field where war seems to define the genre, the originality (or old-school familiarity, if you will) of both tales made them enjoyable reading alternatives.

Thanks to Flame Tree Press for providing advance reading copies on both titles.

 

International intrigue abounds in Heads You Win and The Moroccan Girl

International intrigue and suspense abound in a pair of new novels from British novelists Jeffrey Archer and Charles Cumming.

Heads You Win

Heads You Win
Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin’s Press
$28.99, 480 pages
ISBN: 9781250172501

In Heads You Win, Archer boldly weaves two parallel tales in the life of Russian refugee Alexander Karpenko, imagining in one storyline what if he escaped to London and what if he escaped to America in the other. The concept unravels in alternating chapters after the initial setup in which Alex and his mother, Elena, must escape Communist persecution by the KGB in 1968 Leningrad following the “accidental” death of his father, Konstantin. The only way out is aboard one of two cargo ships, with their destination coming at the flip of a coin.

In both stories, the pair must build new lives for themselves in their newly adopted countries against considerable odds. But Alex’s mathematical prowess and sharp mind, coupled with Elena’s expert cooking skills, give them the edge they need to excel and ultimately flourish. In America, Alex’s expertise helps position himself as a successful entrepreneur. In London, Sasha (as Alex is called), rises to a position of power in Britain’s Parliament while Elena becomes a restauranteur. “Both” men successfully navigate minor challenges along the way, but it is not until each decides to make a fateful return to Russia three decades later that things take a drastic and surprising turn – one which can’t be divulged here or it would ruin the entire reading experience.

The alternating stories may initially frustrate readers who are used to more traditional novels. But Archer’s skilled prose ensures that those who stick with this sprawling epic and its dual protagonists will be in for a stunning, and politically timely, conclusion.

The Moroccan girl

The Moroccan Girl
Charles Cumming
St. Martin’s Press
$27.99, 368 pages
ISBN: 9781250129956

In The Moroccan Girl by Cumming, bestselling author Christopher “Kit” Carradine is recruited by mysterious MI-6 Agent Robert Mantis for a “simple” job while attending a literary festival in Morocco. His task: finding Lara Bartok, the ex-girlfirend of Ivan Simakov, the deceased founder of revolutionary terrorists Resurrection. Kit naturally questions why he’s been recruited for the job, to which Robert replies that “writers on research trips provide perfect cover for clandestine work. The inquisitive novelist,” he explains, “always has a watertight excuse for poking his nose around.”

Whether gullible or just eager to be a part of a “real-life” spy adventure like the kinds he writes about, Kit readily goes along with the mission. It’s only as the suspense, mysterious characters, and double-crosses stack up that Kit begins to question his decision, as well as the legitimacy of the mission itself. Coupled with a growing attraction to the target of his quest, Lara Bartok herself, Kit’s world becomes increasingly complicated and dangerous.

Cumming keeps the action fast-paced and the twists unexpected, while building a budding romance between Kit and Lara. Ultimately, with Russian assassins closing in, Kit must decide who can he trust.

Killer Nashville alumni deliver the thrills

One of the exciting things about attending writers’ conferences is discovering authors whose works you might never otherwise experience. Such is the case with authors R.G. Belsky, Baron R. Birtcher, and Danny Ray Lindsey, who have each enjoyed award-winning success at Killer Nashville with the following books.

Yesterday’s News by R.G. Belsky

Yesterday's News

Yesterday’s News
R.G. Belsky
Oceanview
$16; 343 pages
ISBN: 9781608092819

Clare Carlson, the main character of R.G. Belsky’s Yesterday’s News, does what any good journalist does: she asks lots of questions and she doesn’t stop asking until she gets answers. Such persistence garnered Clare a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage fifteen years ago into the disappearance of eleven-year-old Lucy Devlin. So, when the case nears its anniversary, Clare’s instinct for asking probing questions kicks in all over again.

The news director for Channel 10 News in New York , Clare quickly jumps back into the role of reporter in a quest to learn once and for all what happened to Lucy. She also promised Lucy’s mother, Anne, she’d never quit trying to find her, so there’s that. And for added incentive, Anne, who Clare learns is suffering from a terminal bout of cancer, also claims she has new evidence.

Clare begins with a simple interview with Anne, then follows the string of clues from there to the murders of six other children found in an unmarked grave, to additional witnesses and/or suspects, including Anne’s estranged husband, a local politician who previously oversaw the investigation, and a motorcycle gang. Some are more cooperative than others with their answers, some open the door to new lines of inquiry, and some seem to be holding back secrets that Clare is determined to uncover. Clare, who narrates Yesterday’s News, has secrets too – secrets that propel the story in unexpected directions.

As cold cases go, the trail to the truth heats up quickly, creating a riveting page-turner for readers.

Belsky’s own years as a journalist are evident, but he’s also a skilled novelist. Clare’s resolve and emotional desire to finding Lucy make her a sympathetic and likable heroine. Her secrets make her flawed and real.

Fistful of Rain by Baron Birtcher

Fistful of Rain

Fistful of Rain
Baron R. Birtcher
The Permanent Press
$29.95; 288 pages
ISBN: 978-1579625184

“I’ve got bodies stacking up like cordwood in this county, and I’d like for you to explain your involvement.”

In other words, Sheriff Ty Dawson isn’t happy and he isn’t about to take “I don’t know anything” for an answer. Dawson, who became the somewhat reluctant sheriff of Meriwether County at the end of Baron R. Birtcher’s previous novel, South California Purples, has adroitly grown into the role in his latest outing, Fistful of Rain.

Last time, Dawson found himself contending with outlaw bikers, dope dealers, and wild mustangs while simply trying to tend to his own ranch and decompress from service in the Vietnam War. This time around, a reclusive hippie commune and a local politician hellbent on driving them out of the community collide, leaving a trail of vandalism, arson, and violence for Dawson to clean up.

Set in the mid-1970s in rural Oregon, Birtcher paints a vivid sense of place and time for readers, proving that no place went untouched by the turbulence and unrest gripping the nation’s populace. Birtcher keeps the novel moving at a brisk pace, yet lingers in all the right spots to allow his characters, and readers, time for insight and reflection.

Serial Justice by Danny Ray Lindsey

Serial Justice

Serial Justice
Danny Ray Lindsey
Danny Lindsey Books
$14.99; 286 pages
ISBN: 9781732744103

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Serial Justice, the new novel from Danny Ray Lindsey, is its bad guys. They are, after all, supposed to be the good guys.

And before you worry about spoilers, don’t. The novel makes no secret about who is pulling the trigger in each murder or who is calling the shots behind the scenes. Heck, the book blurb itself spells it all out for you.

What Serial Justice does is turn the crime novel on its head by making vigilantes out of characters who should otherwise be sworn officers of law and order.

The two culprits in a rash of killings involving convicted sex offenders are, in fact, retired law enforcement operatives. Both are following the secret directives of the head of the FBI’s Sex Crimes Division, Cliff Nolan, a 40-year veteran who is dying of cancer, and later his two successors who he lets in on the plan. The plan, by the way, is simple: exact final judgment on sex offenders released from prison after serving minimum sentences.

The novel follows cops-turned-killers George and Penny as they crisscross the country in their RV seeking out their targeted parolees and plan their demise. Their expert skills and tactics enable them to carry out each execution with cold-blooded efficiency, leaving nary a clue nor witness behind that can identify them to local authorities. The pair even review their murderous exploits with detailed “After Action” reports to help make sure they left nothing behind that can be traced to them.

Of course, the trail of bodies eventually garners the notice of a pair of honest investigators in the FBI, Jim Dawkins and Joan Kesterling. As they race from murder to murder in search of clues, Nolan and his partners quietly monitor them in case they get close. It’s not until the pair enlist the help of a group of computer analysts at the FBI that the pieces to the puzzle begin to take shape.

Lindsey, who won the Killer Nashville Claymore Award, has crafted a fascinating police procedural that will leave you questioning which  side you should be on: justice or vengeance?