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.

Review: Lullaby Road won’t lull readers to sleep

By G. Robert Frazier

Long road trips tend to lull many people to sleep, but there’s no time for sleep for trucker Ben Jones in James Anderson’s newest novel, Lullaby Road ($26, Crown). If you’re a reader along for the ride, you might find yourself staying up late, too.

 

Lullaby Road

Lullaby Road
James Anderson
$26, Crown
ISBN: 978-1-101-90654-5

From the moment he puts his truck into first gear, Jones is caught up in one conundrum after another, proving that life is like a road—full of twists and turns, stops and starts, peaks and valleys, and a slew of unusual characters. Jones and several characters—including motorcycle-loving hermit Walt and wooden cross-carrying preacher John—may be familiar to readers of Anderson’s first novel, The Never Open Desert Diner. But there are plenty of new faces to get to know, too.

 

Set along desolate Highway 117 in Utah,  Jones spends his days delivering anything and everything the big shipping companies send his way. But Jones’s latest pickup is his most bizarre yet: a young child and her protective guard dog, left at a fueling service station for him with a cryptic note: “Please, Ben. Bad trouble. My son. Take him today. His name is Juan.”

Jones could easily turn the child over to the police, but his complex code of ethics prevents his doing so, resulting in even more “bad trouble.” Add to the mix reports of a crazed driver looking to run others off the road, a hit-and-run that leaves John the preacher clinging to life, a convenience store owner ready to blow away anyone who attempts to rob him again, and a former flame who wants Jones to take care of her own daughter for the day, and Jones is left longing for the lonely, desperate life of the road he used to know all too well.

If that seems like a jumbled mess, isn’t that how life really is? Admit it, most events aren’t sorted out one at a time, but are heaped one upon the other as they each run their course. Somehow, Anderson manages to juggle all the plot threads and characters with ease as he keeps the lens sharply focused through Jones’s point of view.

Many readers may prefer a more focused, linear tale, but it’s easy to get swept away by Anderson’s colorful prose, evocative setting, and unusual situations.

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

Katie Ganshert’s ‘Life After’ a deeply moving story of survivor’s guilt

By G. Robert Frazier

Tragedies resulting from accidents, shootings, bombings, or even natural disasters often result in stories about the victims lost: who they were, what they did during their lifetime, the dreams they’ll never achieve.  In Life After ($14.99, Waterbrook), the new novel from Christy Award-winning author Katie Ganshert, the story surrounds the lone survivor of a train bombing in Chicago and the lives of those left behind. It is a novel that is deeply moving and enthralling from the first page.

Life AfterThe novel picks up almost a year after the fatal bombing that claimed the lives of twenty-two people. Survivor Autumn Manning was injured in the blast but survives, if living with twelve months of grief and survivor’s guilt can be called that. Autumn spends much of her existence after the bombing asking “why?” Why did she survive when so many others did not? Why did God allow such a thing to happen? They are the same questions many of the families of the other victims also ask.

When she unexpectedly encounters Paul Elliott, the husband of one such victim, and her daughter, Reese, her life takes an even more complicated turn. Both Paul and Reese are also struggling  to “move on” from their loss in different ways, causing increased tension between them. Reese convinces Autumn to put together an enduring tribute to the victims of the bombing, but Paul resists, fearing the truth about his relationship with his lost wife will come to the fore.

Katie GanshertGanshert’s prose is simple, poignant, and above all emotionally stirring. The story moves swiftly, alternating between Autumn and Paul’s point of view. If it loses any steam it is when the novel veers in the middle to recount some of the testimonials from other survivors’ families. Fortunately, such diversions are short-lived and the emotional conflict between Autumn, Paul, and Reese rightfully takes center stage again.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Review: R.G. Belsky scores a direct hit with Shooting for the Stars

by G. Robert Frazier

One of the most common pieces of advice for authors is to write what you know.

R.G. Belsky knows journalism.

shooting-for-the-starsA former managing editor for NBCNews.com and the New York Daily News, Belsky has used that career of skill sets to create a thoroughly authentic investigative reporter in Gil Malloy. In his second adventure, Shooting for the Stars (Atria, 2015), the tenacious and oft-times cynical Malloy is convinced the murder of a local television personality is intrinsically linked to the thirty-year-old unsolved murder of Hollywood movie diva Laura Marlowe.

Malloy is perhaps more akin to Mike Hammer, James Rockford, or Jake Gittes with a nose for news and a knack for getting in trouble. You just don’t see many reporters of his ilk anymore.

His tenacity soon rankles his editor, an assortment of suspects, and even a local mob boss. With each new interview, Malloy uncovers a new name or a long buried secret leading to a whole new line of questioning and ample plot twists. More than enough to keep readers rapidly flipping pages.
While the thickly layered mystery is riveting in itself, Belsky heaps on a healthy dose of sharp-tongued dialogue and shrewd wit. But at the same time, he reveals a more vulnerable side to Malloy, who suffers from occasional anxiety attacks and a troubled love life.

Shooting for the Stars is the followup to The Kennedy Connection, but readers don’t have to read the first book to enjoy this outing. Malloy’s next mystery, Blonde Ice, is already drawing rave reviews across the internet.

A winner of the 2016 Claymore Award presented by the Killer Nashville writer’s conference, Belsky is an author to watch.

View all my reviews

Books: Pavone steps up the pace with intriguing spy thriller, The Travelers

By G. Robert Frazier

New York Times best-selling author Chris Pavone’s third outing, The Travelers (Crown Publishing, $27), is his best yet. Once again, Pavone mixes spies with seemingly ordinary people, throws in some exotic locales and intriguing situations, and yields a thrilling page-turner.

The TravelersUnlike his previous efforts – The Expats and The Accident – which were both good in their own ways, this one races along at an exciting clip. Pavone, who can get a bit wordy at times, sheds much of the literary style of writing he excels at to tell a more straightforward, tightly written novel.

Some may miss the lyricism, but as a thriller reader, the story is paramount.

The Travelers follows Will Rhodes, a globe-trotting travel writer by day who suddenly finds himself entangled in a complex web of deceit and subterfuge on an international scale. It is on one such routine assignment for his magazine when Will commits a transgression that he cannot so easily erase: he cheats on his wife by having sex with a beautiful woman, Elle Hardwick. Elle, as it turns out, is a CIA operative and basically blackmails Will into joining the ranks or risk his already tenuous marriage.

Will, who is somewhat overwhelmed at this point, acquiesces and so begins on a whirlwind training regimen in which he learns how to follow people, how to recognize if he’s being followed, and how to defend himself should the need arise, which it does. Pavone could have lingered over the training curve for quite a while, but fortunately doesn’t, opting instead to keep the story moving in new directions.

Soon enough, Will is officially on assignment, running missions for Elle even while trying to maintain his cover as a travel writer and caring husband. Even as Will plays a dual role, he doesn’t realize the duality of roles unfolding all around him. It seems that everyone in this story has something to hide, from his wife to his boss to Elle herself.

It all may seem a bit excessive and far-fetched, but the best thing to do here is just go with it. Enjoy this book for the twists and turns and the fun it offers in trying to figure out who’s who. If you give it too much thought, that would just ruin the fun.

All of it comes down to a rousing finale that will leave you hoping to see these characters again.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Books: Dive into a summer of suspense

Readers looking for a great escape from the everyday routine during their vacation will find it in five of the most offbeat thrillers to hit bookshelves this summer. Whether it’s an alternate history in which slavery never ended or a television reality show turned survivor tale, these books will keep readers turning the pages on the plane or on the beach.

Read about Everything I Don’t Remember, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Underground Airlines, All Is Not Forgotten and The Last One now at Bookpage

 

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Never-Open Desert Diner evokes mystery, suspense

by G. Robert Frazier

Hidden in plain sight, in the wide open expanse that is the Utah desert, lie mysteries best left alone.

DThe Never Open Desert Dinerelivery truck driver Ben Jones, for the most part, heeds that warning and largely respects the privacy of the desert’s oddball collection of characters on his route near Price, Utah. That is, until he encounters and becomes enamored by the mysterious woman hiding in an abandoned model home.

That’s the setup for James Anderson’s suspenseful debut novel, The Never-Open Desert Diner (Crown, $26).

The colorful cast—including a roadside Jesus, a motorcycle-loving hermit, and a pair of brothers lying low the law—are as unique as the setting itself. Each has a past and secrets to keep as they eke out their existence under a hot desert sun, far removed from internet and TV and other modern conveniences of life.

Ben typically keeps to himself as much as his customers, but his infatuation with the new woman on his route, Claire, changes everything.

Part love story, part suspense-mystery, Ben is drawn to Claire like no one else in his life. Everything about her mystifies and entices him to learn more about her, despite his better judgment.

Naturally, her past—an overbearing husband and her role in the theft of a priceless cello—threaten to catch up to her. Before long, Ben is swept up in a dangerous game of hide and seek.

Anderson crafts simple yet eloquent prose as he delves into Ben and Claire’s growing relationship and slowly ramps up the suspense as Claire’s husband closes in. A few subtle twists take the novel in a surprising new direction and ups the ante for the misanthropic cast.

Somewhere along the way, the story gains some of its intrigue from a terrifying secret at a once famous desert diner, now closed, and the lonely hermit who lives there.

The book evokes a powerful sense of place that echoes the loneliness and loss of the main players. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes brutal, Anderson recounts events with color and verve, making this a unique and largely satisfying page-turner.

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

Book Review: McGorin ‘Dusts Up’ more trouble for Detective Carrick

by G. Robert Frazier

Detective Doyle Carrick is a magnet for trouble. The hero of Jon McGoran’s latest novel, Dust Up (Forge Books), Carrick is at home with his girlfriend when a complete stranger appears frantically pounding on his front door, only to be shot down in cold blood.

Dust-Up_Cover-copy-200x291Homicide Detective Mike Warren embraces the easy way out by wanting to peg the crime on the victim’s wife, Miriam Hartwell, whom Carrick saw driving away from the scene. Fortunately for readers, the truth is a lot more complicated, as is often the case with Carrick’s adventures.

Carrick is urged to back off the investigation and let Warren handle things, but it’s not that simple. Miriam seeks him out again and fills him in on a biotech cover-up of a tainted food program in Haiti.

McGoran keeps the action moving at a frantic pace in a series of tautly written chapters that will have you turning the pages long into the night.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Review: The Passenger by Lisa Lutz a study in do-overs

The Passenger

Have you ever wanted to just run away and start over as someone else? The main character in Lisa Lutz’s new novel does just that — time and time again.

You can read my review now at BookPage.

Review: Buckle up for Philip Donlay’s latest, Pegasus Down

by G. Robert Frazier

Before you crack open Pegasus Down (Oceanview Publishing), the new novel byPhilip Donlay, you better buckle up: You’re in for a hell of a ride. This action-thriller soars from start to finish with page-a-minute suspense and thrills to keep you riveted to your seat, just like an on-screen summer blockbuster.

Pegasus DownDonlay drops readers, and one of his main characters, right into the fray in his opening chapter as a CIA-operated Learjet crashes behind enemy lines somewhere in Eastern Europe. On board are Special Agent Lauren McKenna, code name “Pegasus”, and a recently liberated American scientist who possesses technological plans for a new stealth jet capable of delivering a nuclear device.

McKenna manages to swim free of the wreckage, and must immediately go on the run from foreign forces and a terrorist group that will stop at nothing to obtain the technology.

Read my full review at Killer Nashvillle.