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?

 

 

Settle down for some cool winter reads

Looking for some hot reads to get you through some cold winter nights? Then look no farther. These books have just the right mix of action, mystery, intrigue, and fascinating protagonists to see you through to spring.

The Widows – Jess Montgomery

Sugar Run – Mesha Maren

the widows

Minotaur
$26.99
ISBN 9781250184528
Published 01/08/2019 

Certain places have a tremendous power to influence people, informing their choices and inspiring their lives, past and present. For the lead characters in two remarkable novels from Jess Montgomery and Mesha Maren, the Appalachian Mountains hold sway.

In Montgomery’s The Widows, the coal mining industry of Rossville, Ohio, in 1925 serves as the ominous backdrop to the lives of Lily Ross and Marvena Whitcomb. The story opens with a catastrophic mining explosion of methane gas that kills Marvena’s husband, John, which is soon followed by the death of Lily’s husband, Sheriff Daniel Ross, at the hands of an escaped inmate.

While Marvena fights to unionize mine workers for safer conditions and better wages, Lily assumes the mantle of acting sheriff in order to track down and apprehend her husband’s killer.

Inspired by the real lives of Ohio’s first female sheriff, Maude Collins, and community organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, The Widows is told in alternating chapters from the two women’s points of view. This is the first book published by author Sharon Short under the pseudonym Jess Montgomery, and her writing is brisk, yet it lingers long enough to indulge readers with beautiful prose along the way.

sugar run

Algonquin
$26.95
ISBN 9781616206215
Published 01/08/2019 

In Maren’s debut novel, Sugar Run, characters looking for a fresh start are also drawn to the Appalachian Mountains, specifically a tiny village in rural West Virginia, where fracking and drug running have all but replaced coal mining and moonshining.

The novel follows two eras in the life of Jodi McCarty, with the bulk of the story set in 2007 as she tries to acclimate to freedom after 18 years in prison for manslaughter.

An accomplished short story writer, Maren makes her debut count with emotionally charged prose and a sense of the yearning we all have for home.

Read the full reviews at BookPage.

Scrublands – Chris Hammer

scrublands

Touchstone
$26.99
ISBN 9781501196744
Published 01/08/2019

In Chris Hammer’s explosive thriller, Scrublands, a mass shooting committed by a preacher, around whom rumors of child sexual abuse swirl, and the discovery of two murdered backpackers a year later add up to an enthralling mystery for reporter Martin Scarsden.

Amid the blistering heat of the Australian outback, Martin’s initial assignment is to write about how the community of Riversend has endured the year following preacher Byron Swift’s five-person killing spree on the front steps of his church. But as soon as Martin begins asking questions, he soon realizes that previous reports about Byron’s motive—that he was a pedophile—were wrong.

The drought-stricken town and its denizens harbor dark secrets, all of which slowly begin to come to light the further Martin’s investigation takes him.

An award-winning journalist himself, Hammer skillfully guides Martin through a series of interviews with the reluctant townsfolk to get to the truth.

Read the full review at BookPage.

The Last Breath – Danny Lopez

the last breath

Oceanview Publishing
$25.95
ISBN 978-1608092970
Publication Date: October, 2018

Take a deep breath and hang on. Danny Lopez’s new novel, The Last Breath, is a riveting, old-school whodunnit/private investigator novel that’ll leave you gasping for air.

Set on Siesta Key, one of the barrier islands off the coast of Sarasota, Fla., the novel once again revolves around down-and-out journalist-turned-investigator Dexter Vega, who made his debut in The Last Girl.

Lacking a steady paycheck and desperate for work, Vega is easily convinced to turn his journalistic nose for news into investigative work for a private client, eccentric real estate mogul Bob Fleming, who believes his son, Liam, was murdered.

Lopez’s prose is fast-paced and addictively fun. Vega comes across as a typically cynical journalist, a terrible father to his daughter, and is easy to dislike, but he quickly grows on you the more you get to know him.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Fugitive Red – Jason Starr

fugitive red

Oceanview
$26.95
ISBN: 9781608093144

Jack Harper isn’t the brightest protagonist you’ll meet in a crime novel this year. In fact, he makes a lot of bone-headed decisions that serve only to get him into deeper and deeper trouble — like being suspected of murder, for instance. Yet for all of that, readers of Fugitive Red, the new novel from Jason Starr, will want to stick with his story just to see if he gets what he deserves or if he can somehow wriggle out of the fix he’s in.

Seeking something that can restore his happiness, Jack stupidly seeks solace through a digital online dating site and a fantasy relationship with a woman known only as the titular Fugitive Red. At first, his “fling” amounts to nothing more than flirting. But the more he becomes fixated on Red, the more his desire for a real relationship grows. Red entices him further when she suggests a real-life, clandestine rendezvous, a proposal Jack readily accepts.

But when Jack gets to the arranged meeting spot, he’s shocked to discover the object of his affections has been brutally murdered.

Starr, who has written fourteen previous crime thrillers as well as stories for Marvel and DC Comics, keeps the action quick and the twists plentiful in this suspenseful read.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

 

 

 

Catch up on my latest book reviews

I’m a bit behind in posting links to my book reviews to this site, so let’s catch up! All of these reviews are posted in full at BookPage. You can visit my BookPage review page to access all my reviews or just follow the links below to read about the individual books. Enjoy!

The Line That Held Us

The Line That Held Us

The plot of David Joy’s third novel, The Line That Held Us, is simple: A man accidentally kills another man and tries to cover it up with the help of a friend, while the murdered man’s brother seeks vengeance on them. The complexity of the novel comes in Joy’s evocative language, his unforgettable characters and how he weaves themes of family, friendship and justice throughout this darkly engrossing Southern crime noir.

Rust and Stardust

Rust & Stardust

All Sally Horner wanted was to fit in with the cool girls at school. What she got instead was two years of harrowing captivity at the hands of a sexual predator. Author T. Greenwood recounts Sally’s real-life plight in Rust & Stardust, a shocking crime novel about the famous real-life 1948 abduction that inspired Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and the film that followed.

Whiskey When We're Dry

Whiskey When We’re Dry

Western novels are cool again, and Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison is a perfect example of why. Set in 1885 in the heart of the Midwest, the novel shirks the traditional white-hat-versus-black-hat shtick for a more grounded, emotional view of life on the range. In this instance, we experience the wild country’s hardships thorugh the eyes of 17-year-old Jessilyn Harney as she wrestles to find her place in a man’s world.

Red White Blue

Red White Blue

Red White Blue, the new novel from screenwriter Lea Carpenter, is an intriguing, albeit challenging, read. Intriguing in that it revolves around a woman’s exploration into her father’s life — and death — as a CIA operative. Challenging in its narrative structure, which briskly alternates between two points of view over a series of short, nonlinear chapters. But for lovers of spy novels, it’s more than worth the read.

The Boy at the Keyhole

The Boy at the Keyhole

Nine-year-old boys can have active imaginations. Left alone, without a mother or father and int he care of a doting but well-meaning housekeeper, that imagination can easily reach extremes, from incredible fantasy to irrational terror. Such is the case for the impressionable Samuel Clay, who yearns for his mother constantly and can recite the exact number of days she has been gone to the United States, in Stephen Giles’ intensely gripping thriller, The Boy at the Keyhole.

November Road

November Road

Novels revolving around the assassination of John F. Kennedy have become a genre unto themselves. There are plenty, and likely even more conspiracy theories to boot. So at first take, November Road, the new thriller from author Lou Berney, may seem like just another book to add to the stack. Berney, though, is not just another author. Through gorgeous prose, the Edgar, Macavity and Anthony Award-winning author elevates an otherwise simple cat-and-mouse story into a heartfelt journey of hope and discovery for two characters running from their pasts.

Bonus: Don’t miss my interview with Lou Berney!

Mycroft & Sherlock

Mycroft and Sherlock

Mycroft and Sherlock, the new novel by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with an assist from screenwriter Anna Waterhouse, sees the Holmes brothers in their first joint investigation, which involves a series of brutal murders, cryptic Chinese glyphs and the opium trade. But what’s even more entertaining is watching the Holes brothers try to outdo each other with their deductive reasoning.

All right, that’s it for now. But keep watching this site and BookPage for upcoming reviews of The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco, The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem, Sugar Run by Mesha Maren and The Widows by Jess Montgomery!

Stay up all night with these new thrillers

By G. Robert Frazier

Summer may be over, but these five stories of mystery, intrigue and horrific happenings are just ripe for cool October nights.

Cabin at the End of the World

Morrow
$26.99
ISBN 9780062679109
Published 06/26/2018

What begins as a fun, relaxing getaway at a New Hampshire lake for 7-year-old Wen and her dads, Andrew and Eric, turns into a terrifying ordeal of survival in The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. When the trio is visited at their cabin by four mysterious strangers—Leonard, Adriane, Redmond and Sabrina—their familial bond is put to the ultimate test. “We are not going to kill you, Wen, and we are not going to kill your parents,” promises Leonard, the smooth-talking leader of the visitors and an alleged bartender from the Chicago area. He goes on to explain: “The four of us are here to prevent the apocalypse.” But to ensure that happens, Wen, Andrew or Eric has to die, and they must choose among themselves who it will be. The unusual deal thrusts the family into a tense moral dilemma that tests the limits of their love. Tremblay won the 2015 Bram Stoker Award for A Head Full of Ghosts and may be on his way to a repeat with the chillingly good The Cabin at the End of the World.

Read my Q&A with Paul Tremblay.

DON’T DIG TOO DEEP

Lying in Wait

Scout
$26.00
ISBN 9781501167775
Published 06/12/2018 

What secrets do a mother and her son keep, and how far are they willing to go to protect those secrets? These are just two of the questions facing Lydia Fitzsimons and her son, Laurence, in Lying in Wait, set in 1980s Dublin. Lydia explains on page one that her husband, Andrew, “did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.” It’s off to the races from there. Within short order, 18-year-old Laurence—who recently had sex for the first time with his girlfriend and endures bullying every day at school because of his excess weight—discovers Annie’s body buried in their backyard. As Laurence wrestles to learn what happened and how his parents could have done such a thing, Lydia goes about her business as if nothing happened. Elsewhere, Annie’s twin sister, Karen, begins a meticulous investigation into her sister’s disappearance. Events cascade toward a collision as the trio’s stories unwind in alternating chapters. Author Liz Nugent, whose debut novel, Unraveling Oliver, earned high critical praise, has upped her game here with a darkly twisted tale of murder, lies and secrets best left buried.

AND THE CREDITS ROLL

Watch the Girls

Grand Central
$26.00
ISBN 9781538760840
Published 07/10/2018

Sibling rivalry and Hollywood obsessions collide in young adult novelist Jennifer Wolfe’s adult fiction debut, Watch the Girls. From the start of her acting career, Liv Hendricks (formerly known as child actress Olivia Hill) has been pushed at every turn by her domineering mother, Desiree, and has lived in the shadows of her successful sisters, Miranda and Gemma. Then Liv’s career reaches a dead end when Miranda goes missing. Years later, after a bout of alcoholism and being ousted from a reality series, Liv decides to reignite her career by filming her own detective web series. Her first case: find the missing daughter of auteur Jonas Kron, whose horror films have earned him a cult-like following. Liv follows the trail to Kron’s California hometown of Stone’s Throw, where fans are converging for an annual film festival in Kron’s honor. With bitter townsfolk, a none-too-helpful sheriff and Kron’s crazed followers to contend with, Liv discovers that finding the truth will be a challenge. When Liv’s younger sister Gemma also goes missing in the haunted woods of Stone’s Throw, the stakes intensify. Wolfe incorporates text message exchanges into the more traditional first-person narrative to create a novel that reflects today’s social media-obsessed world. Fast-paced and fraught with suspense, Watch the Girls unravels like a perfect summer-night movie.

WELCOME BACK TO CAMP

The Last Time I Lied

Dutton
$26.00
ISBN 9781524743079
Published 07/03/2018

Riley Sager, who made a splash with last year’s Final Girls, returns this summer with another tense thriller. Whereas Final Girls followed the plight of the sole survivor of a horror movie-like massacre whose past comes back to haunt her, The Last Time I Lied follows Emma Davis in her quest to find her friends, who disappeared in the dead of night during a camp outing 15 years ago. Emma, who has become an accomplished New York artist, is invited to return to Camp Nightingale as an art instructor and sees it as an opportunity to learn what really happened that night. The past has a way of repeating itself, and it isn’t long before Emma suspects she and her new camp companions may be in as much danger as her lost friends. The tension ratchets up with each chapter, leading to a suspenseful showdown. Like Final Girls, The Last Time I Lied has all the earmarks of a campy Friday the 13th-type horror flick, but Sager elevates the story with a strong lead character and a grounded, realistic threat.

MONEY WON’T SAVE YOU

The Banker's Wife

Putnam
$27.00
ISBN 9780735218451
Published 07/03/2018 caption

In case the previous thrill-a-minute reads are a little too intense, or readers are looking for a more intellectually stirring, sophisticated mystery, The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger may fit the bill. A former financial analyst and corporate attorney, Alger brings her real-world experiences to bear in this novel about the world of global finance, insider trading and corruption. After Swiss banker Matthew Lerner’s private plane bound for Geneva crashes in the Alps during a storm, his wife, Annabel, is left to piece together her life and, perhaps more importantly, the mysteries he leaves behind—namely, an encrypted laptop and a client who doesn’t want Matthew’s secrets getting out. At the same time, journalist Marina Tourneau is enlisted to obtain a USB drive containing highly sensitive materials from a Luxembourg courier that may reveal the whereabouts of long-thought deceased financial schemer Morty Reiss. Along the way, Marina discovers a financial web with far-reaching implications, inevitably bringing the two storylines together. With global settings, covert government agencies and intricate plotting, The Banker’s Wife reads like an old-fashioned international espionage thriller. But Alger’s talents keep the plot digestible for readers while her female protagonists provide strong, smart alternatives to this typically male-dominated genre.

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. 

Reviews: Spillane, Deaver, Wolff novels provide summer of thrills

If you’re looking to spice up your summer reading with thrills and mystery, look no further than these three titles:

A life for government secrets

Beside the Syrian Sea

BESIDE THE SYRIAN SEA
By James Wolff
Bitter Lemon Press 
$14.95
ISBN 9781908524-980
Publication Date:  May 15, 2018

Information, as Jonas Worth equates it, is “a currency more sought-after than cash.” Worth, a British intelligence worker, knows this firsthand. But he faces a weighty moral dilemma: Can he trade his access to government secrets to the terrorist organization of ISIS, even if it means saving the life of his kidnapped father?

Author James Wolff, who is himself a former British government worker, poses that question for his main character, Jonas, in his gripping debut spy thriller Beside the Syrian Sea ($14.95, Bitter Lemon Press).

At first, Jonas’s own government, along with the Foreign Office and the police, implores him to simply be patient: “It’s a waiting game.” He is told in no uncertain terms that the people holding his father will eventually come under the control of more moderate forces who in turn can be persuaded to release their hostages without paying a ransom, which is against British government policy.

But after three months of anxious waiting, Jonas’ patience wears thin.

Set in Beirut, Wolff masterfully pulls off this complex modern-day spy thriller in convincing fashion.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville

Lincoln Rhyme returns

The Cutting Edge

THE CUTTING EDGE
By Jeffery Deaver
Grand Central Publishing | $28.00
978-1455536429
April 10, 2018

Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs are back for another head-scratching puzzle in Jeffery Deaver’s newest novel, The Cutting Edge. This one – the fourteenth in the series to feature the intrepid, quadriplegic detective – begins with a shocking triple murder during an apparent holdup in New York City’s diamond district–where diamonds are cut from raw stones into tiny, expensive baubles.

When a witness walks in on the murders in progress and is almost killed before he can get away, the novel becomes a game a cat and mouse as both the murderer and the cops race to find the witness first. As Sachs follows the physical clues, Rhyme, assisted by a team of officers, examines video evidence that can help track the potential witness, who, naturally, doesn’t want to be found by anyone.

 

Deaver’s prose is straightforward and the action comes fast and furious. Tight chapters keep readers from getting bored.  And there is more to the story than just solving the crime.  The reader will also benefit from a master class full of information about the diamond industry as well as an inside look at the lives of diamond cutters.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Mickey Spillane lives again!

The Last Stand

HE LAST STAND
By Mickey Spillane
Hard Case Crime | $22.99
9781785656866
March 20, 2018

The grand master of mystery/pulp fiction and creator of private detective Mike Hammer may have passed away in 2006, but fans marked what would have been his 100thbirthday on March 20 with a new novel. Billed as his final completed, unpublished novel, The Last Stand hits bookstores courtesy of Hard Case Crime.

While it’s not the gritty, in-your-face detective noir Spillane was famous for, and Hammer is absent from its pages, The Last Stand is nonetheless an entertaining adventure.

The novel begins when pilot Joe Gillian’s BT-13A  plane inexplicably loses power during an old-timer’s cross-country junket, forcing him to land in a desert somewhere in the U.S. But it’s the discovery of an unusual glass-like arrowhead of unknown substance and origin that provides the mystery, and impetus, for the remainder of the story. The shard draws the attention of both ruthless businessman Maxie Angelo and a cadre of federal agents, all of whom want the shard and any similar artifacts at any cost.

Combined with his trademark sharp dialogue and simple prose style, he keeps the tale moving at an entertaining clip.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

 

Review: Tatjana Soli recounts dangerous lives on American plains

Our lives are always one step from being displaced—and replaced—by something new and unexpected, and it’s up to each of us to determine if and ultimately how to adapt. Tatjana Soli, the bestselling author of The Lotus EatersThe Forgetting Treeand The Last Good Paradise, weaves two such tales together in her stunning new historical novel, The Removes.

The Removes

THE REMOVES
By Tatjana Soli
Sarah Crichton 
$27.00 
ISBN 9780374249311 
Published 06/12/2018

Beginning during the Civil War and continuing into the height of the Indian wars in the 1870s, the novel follows two women whose old lives are forfeited—one by choice, one not.

In the case of 15-year-old Anne Cummins, her life-changing event occurs when Cheyenne warriors brutally attack her homestead, killing her parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, before taking her captive. Facing starvation and abuse from her captors, Anne quickly learns to become useful to the tribe’s survival—or else she may be “quickly dispatched.”

Libbie Bacon, by contrast, voluntarily gives up a life of refined luxury as the daughter of a small-town judge to marry flamboyant Civil War hero and longtime beau George “Autie” Armstrong Custer, even going so far as to accompany his half-starved, desperate troops to the bloody fields of battle. Heralded as heroes at the conclusion of the war, Libbie and Autie face removal once again with the assignment to the 7th Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas, trading their fame “for the empty prairie, crude clapboard buildings, and poor rations.”

“It was a reckoning,” Libbie mused. “As if their pride had grown out of proportion, and they were being slapped down into their places.”

For these women, with devastating losses on both sides of the war and with their own lives in horrific turmoil, “it seemed easier to die than to live.” But neither Anne nor Libbie is the type to give up, even as their lives ultimately race toward an unavoidable collision on the frontier. Soli’s novel is both gut-wrenchingly violent and heart-wrenching, but above all, it’s an unforgettable journey of loss and hope.

Review: Warlight’s hero grows up amid the secrets, wreckage of war

Warlight

WARLIGHT
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf 
$26.95 
ISBN 9780525521198 
Published 05/08/2018

Learning who you are and, perhaps more importantly, who you are meant to be isn’t easy. Nathaniel Williams, the young hero of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, spends much of his adolescence and later years pondering this.

The author of the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, Ondaatje confounds his 14-year-old protagonist from the outset when the boy’s parents announce they are going away for a year and that he and his 15-year-old sister, Rachel, will be left in the care of a strange acquaintance known as the Moth, a man they are certain is a criminal. In 1945 England, at the end of World War II, Nathaniel and Rachel must adjust to their newfound parental abandonment and accept the Moth’s warning “that nothing was safe anymore.”

As narrated through Nathaniel’s intimate firsthand perspective, the siblings test their new guardian by rebelling at school. But instead of meeting a stern lashing for their behavior, they are surprised by the Moth’s calm understanding and protective demeanor. Equally surprising is the cast of unusual characters associated with the Moth who wind up staying at their house, including Norman Marshall, better known as the Pimlico Darter, a smuggler and racer of greyhound dogs.

The siblings drift further from each other as Nathaniel finds a surrogate father in the Darter and Rachel is drawn closer to the Moth. Events cascade with the surprising return of their mother, Rose. But this isn’t a cheerful reunion, as her abandonment and silence about her secretive service in the war have a profound effect on her children and leave more questions than answers—questions that plague Nathaniel well into adulthood and long after his mother’s death.

Contemplative and mysterious, Warlight is utterly engrossing.

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage.

Review: Charles Frazier makes long-awaited return to the Civil War

by G. Robert Frazier

Varina

VARINA
By Charles Frazier
Ecco 
$27.99 
ISBN 9780062405982 
Published 04/03/2018

The First Lady of the South, Varina Davis, made the best of her life one day at a time. Her only other option—to take her own life with the tiny revolver given to her by her husband, Confederate President Jefferson Davis—was one she chose not to embrace.

Told in a nonlinear fashion to one of her long-lost children, renowned author Charles Frazier’s new novel, Varina, recounts her life both before and after the nation’s bloody Civil War in mesmerizing fashion. Her journey begins as a teenager when she marries the already widowed “Jeff” Davis as a matter of convenience, believing that doing so will result in a secure lifestyle on his Mississippi plantation. Through periods of on-again, off-again romance, Varina and Davis have several children. She even rescues a black child, James Blake, from a beating and makes him part of the family.

When Davis enters politics and is appointed president of the Confederacy, Varina’s complicity makes her equally culpable. With Richmond falling to Union forces, Varina is forced to take the children and flee south. Varina relates the group’s slow, arduous travels on the country’s back roads, contending against inclement weather, disease, roving brigands and bounty hunters. In an uncertain time when refugees—“hungry, desperate rebel soldiers and freed slaves alike”—are unsure what is to become of them, Varina inspires her family to “just keep going one more day and one more day after that.”

Frazier, best known for his National Book Award-winning novel Cold Mountain, returns to form with this emotional and often harrowing depiction of a complicated woman. While Frazier paints Varina as a strong mother and staunch defender of her husband, he skillfully shows the consequences of her complicity in Davis’ decisions. Frazier contrasts that with her later life as a writer in New York as she strives for the reconciliation of a fractured nation, even if it means admitting “that the right side won the war.”

Note: This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Charles and I are not related.