Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines are a steal

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I only occasionally purchase Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. Not because I don’t want to, mind you, but because I’ve got so much other material to read already (including back issues I still haven’t finished yet.) But, obsessed with reading as I am, when I saw a recent online offer for a dozen double-sized magazines for a measly $16, I couldn’t resist. If you’ve never tried either magazine, and you love a good mystery story, you can’t go wrong with either publication. Some of today’s top authors are featured routinely in the pages of either magazine, and I’ve set my sites  on both magazines for my own short stories to appear one day. (Hey, to be among the best, you have to read the best!).

Do you read short stories? What are your favorite sources for new short stories? Share in the comments section below…

Review: Action heroine peels back secrets, kicks ass in The Mask

Taylor Stevens has created a tough, intelligent action hero in the character of Vanessa Michael Munroe, one in whom many readers will want to spend time with. Munroe’s sharp wit, keen mind, and physical abilities are all evident in Stevens’ new novel, The Mask ($24, Crown Publishers). All of Munroe’s skills come into play as she is thrust into the role of investigator and savior of her lover, Miles Bradford, who is accused of murder while acting as a security consultant for a Japanese firm. With Bradford locked up and awaiting indictment, Munroe is his only hope of getting out of jail. But to find the truth, she must go deep undercover – disguising herself as a man to infiltrate the corporate, male-dominated Japanese society. (Hey, if Bruce Jenner can run around pretending to be a girl named Caitlyn, why not?)

The MaskIt’s an intriguing premise and Stevens does a good job of weaving elements of the Japanese culture into the narrative. Munroe goes from dogged investigator – digging through video surveillance and documents – to all-out action hero as she engages Japanese thugs sent to silence her. The climax sees her taking on more than a half dozen goons on her way to exacting her own brand of justice on the real perpetrator of the crime, making that last twenty pages an exciting payoff for sticking with the book until its end. You don’t want to take on Munroe alone, or at all, for that matter, if you know what’s good for you.

All of that said, the overall experience from reading this book is, it could have been better. The Mask is the fifth book to feature Munroe, although the publishers promise you don’t have to read the others to enjoy it. For the most part that’s true. The case at hand isn’t related to anything that has gone on before; the situation and the villain of the piece are both new to Munroe. But, it’s Munroe herself that seems devoid of personality. First-time readers really get no sense of who she is, how she came to possess the skills she has, what her own personal goals or motivations are. We aren’t privy to how Bradford and Munroe became a couple, why they have such loyalty to each other, or what they may have gone through to reach the state they are in, in this novel.

Backstory usually reads as boring stuff in an action/thriller, but no backstory or deep characterization results in a disconnect for most readers. That was the case here. Of course, readers interested in such things could scurry out to get the first four books in the series (The Informationist, The Innocent, The Doll and The Catch), and maybe that’s by design. I’m sure Stevens and publishers wouldn’t mind that at all. But that sort of defeats the claim that this is a standalone book, then, doesn’t it?

And while the final twenty pages were exciting, along with Munroe’s other encounters with the goons sent to silence her, the in-between bits were decidedly not. Too often I found myself skimming over the pages, looking for more action. Munroe spends far too much time buzzing across town on her motorbike to parking garages, apartments, the airport, coffee shops, and board rooms, supposedly while on the trail of the truth. At other times, Stevens spends page after page with Munroe in deep study of documents or videos in search of clues. The reader, meanwhile, just has to take her word for it as all of this unfolds in a dry, tell-tale format.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Review: What You Left Behind sometimes thrills, sometimes frustrates

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on events in What You Left Behind, the new novel by Samantha Hayes, she throws you a curve. That’s normally a good thing in a mystery-suspense novel. The twists and turns should be enough to keep readers glued to the pages, but in this case it backfires.

What You Left BehindThe book ($25, Crown Publishers) starts on a thrilling note as a pair of thieves out for a midnight joyride on a stolen motorcycle lose control and careen into a tree. The female passenger, who narrates the chapter but is never identified, manages to slip away into the night. The male rider is killed. A suicide note found in his belongings, the fact that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and the lack of skid marks at the scene, lead police to conclude that the wreck was a suicide.

Rather than follow the story of the rider who walked away, and why she didn’t come forward, the novel takes the first of many turns. Instead, we are introduced to detective inspector Lorraine Fisher and her daughter Stella as they spend their vacation visiting with Lorraine’s sister, Jo, in the rural village of Radcote. After a second apparent suicide, Jo and others in the community worry that the death may be another in a spate of suicides of its young people, similar to one that occurred there two years ago. Lorraine eventually begins to suspect otherwise and begins a plodding investigation that really doesn’t go anywhere. She pesters the local police, particularly a former associate she despises, to reopen the investigation.

But even this plotline gets shuffled to the background. Hayes begins another tangent involving Freddie, the depressed teenage son of Jo, who is the victim of cyber bullying. Freddie keeps it all to himself and eventually runs off with a stolen laptop. The laptop contains compromising photos of a pair of locals. Freddie witnesses the murder of another teenager, who, you guessed it, police determine died as a result of a suicide. Lorraine thinks otherwise and her investigation is back on again.

Meanwhile, there’s an autistic man, Gil, in town who sometimes jumps to the fore of the story by narrating several chapters. The reader is led to suspect him of being behind the rash of foul deeds in another red herring from Hayes. Gil even holds Freddie against his will in the latter stages of the book. I won’t give everything away, but Freddie’s life is put on the line in an exciting series of chapters near the end, leading to the eventual truth behind things. Or, so we think, until the epilogue where Hayes adds one final twist.

It wouldn’t be a mystery without a false lead or two and several twists, so in this arena Hayes succeeds. Where she goes astray is in maintaining a constant thread tying everything together. On several occasions it seemed like certain plotlines were simply forgotten for long stretches of time. Lorraine’s so-called investigation pales in interest to Freddie’s story, but Lorraine is supposed to be our protagonist of the tale. By the time everything is tied together at the end, it seemed rushed and somewhat contrived.

And, what’s more, one of the most fascinating plot elements – the cyberbullying of Freddie – is completely ignored. It has nothing to do with anything. I don’t know if that’s a red herring or just a blatant mistake. In either case, I was dissatisfied with the outcome of that plot element and its relation to the rest of the book, especially considering how much time was devoted to the cyberbullying.

Hayes demonstrates she can write with power and authority. The scenes where Freddie’s life hangs in the balance – literally – are top-notch. Unfortunately, the many plotlines, subplots and rabbit trails in the rest of the book complicate and muddle an otherwise entertaining read. Sometimes, simple is better.

I received this book for review from Blogging for Books.