Category Archives: Reviews

Small Town Lies

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Texas Hill Country. Thanks to xtri.com

I was stymied when my niece moved her family to a small town in the Texas Hill Country some years ago. Why would anyone leave the Bay Area for a couple acres of scrub oak and a pickup truck in a town so small you’ve missed it if you yawn? Not that I have anything against small towns. I grew up in Ross so long ago it still retained a small town character. We knew everybody, and people looked out for each other. Eddie’s Ross Grocery and the Sunday social in the Rectory after church were rich in gossip. Officer Flowers kept the peace and investigated crimes—usually something to do with petty theft.

But still—my family has taken up residence in a small town several states away? I didn’t get it—that is, until I discovered Terry Shames’s delightful mystery series set in a small Texas town.

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Congratulations!

Shames won the Macavity Award for best first novel in 2013 for A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first Samuel Craddock mystery set in Jarrett Creek. She has since published The Last Death of Jack Harbin, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, all chronicling the slow as molasses lifestyle and the dark secrets festering below the veneer of peacefulness of this sleepy town.

Shames’s fascination with the town where her grandfather was mayor and where she grew up is clear through her precise documentation of the details of small town life in Jarrett Creek. She’s created a cast of characters that could represent any small American town, yet are inextricably bound to Jarrett Creek, starting with the hero, Samuel Craddock. He’s an unpretentious widower, the town’s retired police chief, who has been called out of retirement after Jarrett Creek runs out of money. He’s old fashioned and gentlemanly, prefers the company of women and his cattle, and is at home sipping lemonade and eating berry-filled buns in his neighbor, Loretta’s, kitchen while she gossips about everyone in town. In fact, she’s a prime source of intelligence when Craddock is investigating a murder.

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It’s Loretta who has her finger on the pulse of the town when Nonie Blake returns to Jarrett Creek after a twenty-year stint in a private mental institution. She’d tried to hang her little sister when she was fourteen. Loretta declares, “She was a dangerous girl and she’ll be a dangerous woman.” Within a week, Nonie turns up dead in the Blake family’s stock pond and Chief Craddock finds few clues. One thing is certain, Nonie was murdered and her reclusive family remains tight-lipped about her, the committal, and why she had come home.

Samuel Craddock’s method of investigation is  from the old school. He’s stumped, and he’s saddled with a rookie cop, Maria Trevino, who comes with attitude and ideas about how police work should be done. Trevino wants to look for hard evidence using methods that make Craddock uncomfortable and worse, make him feel old. He begins to question himself and fears he’s losing his edge to age. It takes some detecting but the two (and a little dog) uncover the layers of lies and cover-ups that go back a generation to finally reveal why Nonie Blake’s murder was necessary.

I fell in love with Samuel Craddock and Jarrett Creek in A Killing at Cotton Hill and the feeling has persisted through five books.  It’s the authentic small-town vibe and the folksy dialog combined with Shames’s adept ability to plot a surprising and quirky murder investigation, coupled with her masterful characterization that makes the series shine. I feel like I’ve lived in Jarrett Creek—and now my darling (and only) niece and her brood (dogs included) live there.

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To read my entire review, please visit:

The Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 32, No. 34, Winter 2016-2017

And be sure to catch up with Terry Shames. Book 6 of the Samuel Craddock Series has just come out:

Excerpted from the Publishers Weekly:  New crime novels delve into policing’s sordid underbelly, merging classic genre themes with zeitgeisty plots By Jordan Foster, Nov 18, 2016 unsettling-crime-thumb

 

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Modern Misterios Set in Silicon Valley

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Read it today!

I believe in serendipity. Throughout the late summer I consumed novels set in Spain in anticipation of my trip. Guidebooks are great for seeing the sights, but novels capture the national character and identify the flavor of a place. Among the books I read were two police procedurals by Antonio Hill and three of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Carlos Ruis Zafón. I noticed something labyrinthine and dark about all the books I read. I imagined Spain as the backdrop for a Gothic novel. Then, just before leaving for Barcelona, I had the opportunity to read the manuscript of Blood Allegiance. As I read this bone chilling crime novel set in Silicon Valley, I felt pulled into a dark world of exotic secrets, overwrought emotions, and tingling suspense. This modern-day police procedural—for me—a metonymy for gloom and horror, that is until the end. Could these crimes happen here? I was again reminded of Gothic tales, and I was sucked right in.

As it turned out, there’s a good reason why Elin Barnes’s novel reminded me of the Spanish writers. She’s from Madrid. Blood Allegiance contains elements of modern Gothic fiction: rationality vs. irrationality, guilt, strangeness within the familiar, monsters (human ones in this book), and abjection. What a master of suspense, twisting her plot in surprising directions as it weaves around the central story creating a maze of relationships, motivations, violence, and secrets: the lead Santa Clara criminalist is found dismembered at a local restaurant and the crime scene is tagged with gang graffiti. Detective Darcy Lynch (who we know from the first two books in this series) is wading into unknown territory when he’s sent on loan to CATCH, the Cross-Agency Tactical California Homicide Unit. But the case carries more weight for Darcy than apprehending the man who slaughtered a colleague. If he fails, he won’t be reassigned to the task force and his career could be over.
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Another member of the unit is gunned down and a drone crashes into a San Jose Police Department helicopter turning the case into a bloody disaster. Lynch must stop one, or two, of the most vicious California gangs before they execute his entire team.

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The characterization is multilayered. Protagonist, Darcy Lynch, and antagonist, Oscar Amaro are complex and individualized. Both are damaged and both have the capacity for “getting the job done” at whatever cost, yet are imbued with deep humanity. The surprise ending showcases these two characters as clouded mirrors of each other. The secondary characters are also rounded: Sorenson, Lynch’s overweight and gritty partner, Quinn, the sergeant with a deep secret that leads him to a crisis of heart, and Chavo Buenavente, of the rival gang and Oscar’s nemesis all have distinct personalities and distinguishable speech patterns. The characters are many, and their relationships are webbed. I found the hierarchy of gang members most interesting and well-researched, as are the portrayals of law enforcement agencies and employees. Barnes does her homework.

Barnes uses language and plot to instill uneasiness and fear in the reader. Her diction is less elaborate and ornate than the Gothic literature of the past. Instead, it reflects the language of everyday life in Silicon Valley in 2017. One reviewer from the Silicon Valley said, “The characters sound and behave like South Bay folks do.” I found the book to be easy to read and authentic in narrative and dialog.

Thematically Blood Allegiance raises serious questions about integrity, honor and the bonds of family and fraternity. It also sheds light on one of elite Northern California’s dirty problems swept under the rug: gangs. There’s a lot to think about after putting the book down—but don’t expect too much pondering during this action packed page-turner!

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I’m not a Spanish Literature scholar, but I’m betting Ms. Barnes was introduced to and influenced by the Spanish misterio (mystery) genre in school: serial novels inspired by Eugène Sue’s bestseller Les Mystères de Paris (1841-1843). The genre is in fact a spin-off of 19th century French Gothic fiction and represents an attempt to explore society in an urban context. The misterios actively participated in the discourses of their day, as does the Darcy Lynch Series. Serial novels like the misterios and the Darcy Lynch Series act as foundational narratives that record the new order of society. The misterios presented by the novels were in part the mysteries of the new society in the 1800s, one that its readers were learning to navigate—just like the new cyber world of our century. It’s been said that [Spanish misterios] are stories of patriarchal systems in crisis and the consequences of social transgression and relevant today.

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The Gothic form is able to articulate the anxieties of society. Blood Allegiance employs the Gothic tropes of family romance, incarceration and contamination to represent the conflicting ideologies of the 21st century. I congratulate Elin Barnes on taking her place in the venerated tradition of the Spanish misterio—21st Century style!

Elin Barnes grew up in Spain. Her father is a film director and her mother a Swedish author (with a past life as an actress).
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After graduating HS, Elin pursued her dream of becoming an airline pilot. When her eyesight impeded her to fly passenger aircrafts, she switched gears and obtained a BA in Philosophy. After a short stint working for a criminal appeals lawyer, Elin returned to Spain to get her MA in International Commerce.

For the last decade she’s worked in technology for companies like, AT&T, T-Mobile, Google, Microsoft, TiVo, and Samsung. She is on the Board of Sisters in Crime Northern California.

Her passions for law, technology, and thrillers inspired Elin to write the Darcy Lynch Series of thrillers set in Silicon Valley, where innovation is always brewing.

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Corpse Pose

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CONGRATULATIONS JAN M FLYNN!!

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Author Jan Flynn hits the high notes with each of the ten tales in this imaginative and entertaining collection of speculative fiction. I love how the author tells a fantastic story as though it were as commonplace as going to the post office. And in the midst of a wild tale, the reader can believe in the well-drawn characters and feel a range of emotions—laughter foremost.

Each story is tight, genuine, over the top—and delightful to read. I found the writing style clean, well seasoned with modernisms, snarky asides and keen observations. The authorial voice shines through the collection, yet each story sounds unique, beginning with Corpse Pose, a darkly humorous yoga fantasy through Walk-in, and an uplifting look at what we do between human incarnations. The tales range from the hilarious, Imp, to Pills, packed with heart touching magical realism, to the psychological horror of 541. While the collection is touted as horror “illumined by the paranormal,” for me, the “humor and heart” elevate these stories from your run-of-the-mill slasher or vampire tales. If you love dark humor, creepy twists, magical realism and pathos, Corpse Pose: and Other Tales will be your go-to fix. I’ve read it twice. One caution, reading these stories might lead to spontaneous laughter and flights of fancy!biypkpret

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Scheduled to Death

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images-4In the 1950s in my Dad’s Buick, motoring south along El Camino Real, I looked for the bells marking the Spanish explorer’s route and drank in the sights outside my window: stately pillared homes, bars and strip joints, restaurants, shops and traffic. I tasted the air laced with salt and chop suey as we passed through the endless neighborhoods to visit my grandfather, a retired Stanford chemistry professor. at his tree-shrouded Kinsley Avenue home in Palo Alto.

Even as a small child I recognized the rarified atmosphere of peaceful activity, co-operation and camaraderie we encountered in Grandpa’s quiet neighborhood and in explorations of the Stanford campus with its courtyards and red tiled roofs. Excitement in Palo Alto still centers on Stanford University in the form of discovering a solution to global warming or graduating the next Einstein. But the academic world suffers the same jealousies, greed, and crime as anywhere else. Just ask Mary Feliz and her amateur sleuth, Maggie MacDonald, founder and CEO of Simplicity Itself Organizing Services.

Maggie, her husband Max and their two teen aged boys have recently moved from the Sacramento River delta into great-aunt Kay’s 100 year old California Craftsman house in the fictional village of Orchard View up the ridge from Stanford University. “Efficient organization” is Maggie’s passion and she’s working tirelessly to settle into her new home and re-build her business in the Bay Area. She’s Scheduled to Death, in the latest Maggie McDonald Mystery by Mary Feliz publishing through Lyrical Underground in January 2017.

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Maggie is aware that her contract with Professor Lincoln, “Linc” Sinclair straddles the line between failure and success for her career in Orchard View. Her client, a Nobel candidate with a brilliant mind and no sense of organization, needs her to cull three generations of furniture and “stuff” in preparation to sell the family mansion, which will be showcased at realtor Tess Olmos’s holiday event, and he’s not answering the door. images-8Maggie looks for Linc in the the backyard where she encounters formidable Boots letting herself into the kitchen. Boots is the director of the Orchard View Plotters Garden Club and manager of the community garden adjoining Linc’s property.

Linc bicycles up with his dog Newton. The group troops up to Linc’s workroom to inspect his progress and find Linc’s fiancée and Maggie’s best friend, Sarah, dead in a pool of water, a frayed electrical wire grasped in her hand.

Acting Detective Lieutenant Apfel, a detective so unlikeable he can’t get along with his canine unit, arrests Linc for murder and Maggie applies her organizational skills to investigating the crime. She’s driven to solve the mystery out of loyalty to her friends, moral indignation over the sloppy handling of the police investigation—and if Linc’s organizing job isn’t finished and the event is canceled, Maggie’s fledgling Simplicity Itself Organizing Services doesn’t stand a chance.

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Scheduled to Death is a delightful cozy mystery with enough twists and surprises to keep the pages flipping. Between the taciturn garden mistress Boots, her cadre of garden assistants, all former foster children, Stanford graduate students and professors, a bloodthirsty pickup truck and a threatening black Range Rover, there are enough secrets and suspects, explosions and crashes, to keep readers guessing until the end when the truth is revealed. Maggie has her own team of helpers including Orchard View Detective Paolo Bianchi, and family friend, Detective Jason Mueller, on medical leave from the department. They’re as unhappy about Detective Lieutenant “Awful’s” handling of the case as Maggie. Even the dogs, Belle, Newton and Munchkin, play their parts in creating the backdrop to returning peace to Orchard View.

Author Mary Feliz has created a realistic and believable town in the Palo Alto hills. That Maggie is not a professor or attached to the University works in her favor. That she’s a professional organizer with a strong family and social life gives her credibility and reasons to be in places bodies might turn up. She’s uber-organized herself, a boon for an investigator, and possesses familiar middle-class values. Maggie is a woman we might count as a friend and know through our clubs, PTA, church, and social circles. You can count on her: “But friends helping friends is what life is all about…” Intelligent, logical, organized, determined, personable, kind and motivated, Maggie McDonald is a character that will inspire readers.

I enjoyed Feliz’s easy-going writing style. Her prose is clear, modern and the story moves at a good pace. She doesn’t bog us down with constant repetitions or explanations, nor is the language too lofty or stiff. It’s just right: enough elevated vocabulary to sound intelligent balanced with enough familiar phrases to make us comfortable. I loved her technique of starting each chapter with an excerpt from Maggie’s notebook. For example,

Chapter 2 begins:

        Whenever you’re working with electrical appliances or systems,                  check at least twice to assure the power is off.

     From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald, Simplicity Itself Organizing Services

I appreciated the clear, logical progression of the plot to a breath-quickening climax. The leisurely tying up of details into a hoped-for happy ending and the possibility for more adventures added to my enjoyment of the book:

“I’ve learned my lesson, honey. I promise.”

“Of course dear,” Max said. But then he snorted, ruining the formal and dignified tone of his statement. “So, where does that leave your interest in murder investigations? They’re becoming a habit with you.”

“What are the odds of another murder happening in Orchard View?”

Yes, what exactly are the odds? High, I hope!

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I congratulate Mary Feliz on her second in a promising series of cozy mysteries set in Silicon Valley. Maggie McDonald is a charming protagonist even if she has a thing for tripping over bodies. In her first book, Address to Die For, the McDonalds haven’t even moved into their new home when Maggie stumbles across her first case. For an organizing diva, murder was not on the to-do list. I’m betting author Mary Feliz, who has lived in five states and two countries, has moving to a science. It’s a headache no matter how smoothly it goes. Feliz’s travels have shown her that life in Silicon Valley, is much different than life elsewhere and she’s become a self-proclaimed advocate of “irony, serendipity, diversity, and quirky intelligence,” bringing these elements into her characterizations.

Feliz is a Smith College graduate where she studied Sociology. She’s active in Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and, of course, the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Find Scheduled to Death on pre-sale at Amazon and kick off your new year with an exciting mystery. Look for Scheduled to Death on January 17th, and congratulations to Mary Feliz on her delightful new series.

Look for Dead Storage in July 2017

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Semper Fidelis

There are days when I yearn to sit at my desk and let the muse wash through me onto the screen. Those are the days I rue participating in so many writers’ groups, reading so many blogs and keeping up with all my writer friends on Facebook. Let’s face it, life itself throws enough in the way of getting a novel written, why join all these groups then volunteer to: be treasurer, chair the 1-day conference committee, sell at the book festival, and edit the anthology? Well, once in awhile the universe answers! 118396635-11070003-1

I’m a member of the Sisters in Crime Guppies group, an on-line chapter of an organization devoted to supporting writers through the mysterious and twisting maze from writing the novel to revising to determining how to publish, publishing and finally marketing our books. It was through Guppies that the universe introduced me to Seth and his author, JB Morris. I was assigned to be Morris’s BETA reader and the assignment couldn’t have been a better fit for me. I’m already looking forward to the next book!

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Both the title of the book and the protagonist, Seth is a war-weary Staff Sergeant of the elite Marine Corps Force Recon, recalled home after six combat deployments to care for his aged and infirm father. Highly decorated, but broken from the losses of war and haunted by the memories of Marines killed, Seth now works as a police officer for the Hillsdale, Ohio police department. Unfortunately, fate hasn’t offered Seth respite from his demons. The Hillsdale Police Department is overrun with dirty cops and Hillsdale is ground zero for a bloody war between Mexico’s Los Guerreros and Halcon Cartels for control of this strategic access to the lucrative Eastern drug trade.images

 After a takedown goes bad, Seth’s mission is to clear the department of the cops who have opened Hillsdale to the drug trade. With the help of a ‘clean’ superior and trusted colleague, Officer Kat MacKenna, Seth jumps into his assignment and begins to uncover layers of corruption. As he and Kat get too close, the drug-selling officers threaten Seth’s father and he fights like a Marine.

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The story is about a drug war and Seth’s healing. Seth is a multi-faceted character. Damaged early in life through living with a mentally ill mother, Seth suffers loss after loss. His wife, Allison, betrays him and dies in an automobile crash. He loses men in Iraq, and fails to save his best friend, Billie, who commits suicide after coming home from Iraq. While Kat and his father are constants in his life, his father is fading and he does not love Kat as she loves him. He grapples with guilt on both accounts and especially for Billy’s death. He doesn’t feel Hillsdale holds anything for him, but honor binds him to his job and he goes after the corrupt cops and both warring cartels with a vengeance.

 Seth is told from the point of view of many characters. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the shifts from character to character might be confusing, but I found the transitions clear and the look inside all the players’ heads to be gripping. In particular the assassin, Angel, a Mexican woman aligned with Halcon cartel, to be fascinating. images-4She truly is the Angel of Death and appears almost as a magical being emerging from the jaguar skin of the ancient Aztec warrior cult of the Cuāuhocēlōtl. Angel and Seth are two sides of the same coin—warriors to the core, deeply principled, and doing a job.images-3

Angel yearns to buy her freedom from the cartel and return to her warrior cult, just as Seth yearns to leave Hillsdale and the police behind.

 

Author JB Morris is a master of the battle scene. He also has a sound understanding of drug cartel culture and operations. My heart pounded with the excitement of the gun battles. Like Tom Clancy, Morris gives his readers in-depth details on weapons and battle. I came away from Seth with loads of information and even a great idea for a shoot-out in my own suspense novels. Readers who like specific details of weapons will find Seth satisfying.

 Morris also does a good job with his character’s voices. Seth’s voice is spare—he’s a man of few words. His superior is more erudite. Angel obviously is speaking English as a second language, although her fluency is excellent. Kat sounds like a modern woman. I appreciated Morris’ tight, spare style. He doesn’t drift into flights of lyrical fancy yet I felt the imagery sufficient to feel like that “fly on the wall” in the scene.

 Seth is an intelligent, layered, and fast-paced thriller that will keep the reader turning pages. There is plenty of action and plenty of character development to offer a rich experience for the reader. When things look bleakest for Seth, a savior appears in the form of a “brother in arms” and if Seth makes it through the “mission” his future may be happier. I’m banking on more books!

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JB Morris didn’t imagine he would become an author, although he began writing poetry in high school. When he was offered a contract for a book of poems, he turned it down, too busy with his career as a funeral director and manager of a cemetery. He served as  a commander in the Army Reserves and went on to working as a TV weatherman, a city council member and a state legislator.

But Morris claims that something was always missing. Other than articles he wrote, he wasn’t working on any novels. Much later the vision of Grace an Unexpected Love filled his head and he began work on his first novel. Now JB Morris fills his time writing romance and thrillers in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Let’s all give him a big hand on the publication of his second novel, Seth. And keep your fingers crossed for the speedy delivery of the next book!

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I Am Providence

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My reading tastes might be described as eclectic but I must confess that I’m pitiably deficient in horror. I do read mysteries and grabbed Nick Mamatas’s I Am Providence when he offered me the ARC to read and review. It turns out the actual mystery plays second to the social predisposition of the group that makes the murder possible. The story is about pulp fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft and his oddball group of contemporary fans: obsessive, insecure, small-minded, and generally weird. It’s told with a droll wit, biting at times, and often laugh-out-loud funny. I remember some of these characters from the last fan conference I attended!

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Alternating chapters, Mamatas tells the story in two points of view. Panossian, the victim, muses on his life, his writing, and H.P. Lovecraft, delivering insight into the Lovecraftian world and his own nature. Panossian’s observations on writers, fans and conferences had me either hooting or feeling a little sick when they hit too close.

 

A narrator chronicles the action from the point of view of Colleen Danzig, the recently acclaimed horror writer, who isn’t “exactly nervous” to attend her first Summer Tentactular, the annual Lovecraft convention held in Lovecraft’s hometown, Providence, Rhode Island. Colleen isn’t sure what to expect, but finds the other writers in the bar, recognizable by the way they “clutched at their drinks with a special sort of desperation. . .” and meets the eccentric group including Panossian, who she’s rooming with during the con. He’s the author of a literary mash-up, which has insinuated him into the fringes of the Lovecraftian community.

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Colleen attends the opening ceremonies, the private themed parties and the midnight visit to Lovecraft’s grave, “A veritable ‘who’s that?’ of horror fiction.” Back at the room Panossian shows her a book, Arkham, bound with the author’s skin. That’s the last Colleen sees of him until she identifies his body at the morgue, his face flayed of skin.

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It’s gruesome but worse, none of the other convention goers care. Other than a bunch of police poking about, the Summer Tentacular continues unabated—even when the next victim is found in the forest where the gang has gone to see if they can discover the burial site of Lovecraft’s cat.

 

No one is allowed to leave the hotel and most of the con-goers are questioned. Colleen is compelled to solve the murder despite that two of the inner circle have been taken into custody. Her investigation may end badly.

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From his drawer at the morgue, Panossian narrates, except he’s in the dark regarding who killed him. He’s alarmed: He hears what’s going on yet can’t speak or move. He’s ready for oblivion. He thought reading Lovecraft would have prepared him for it. “If fiction is a way of inducing an organism to remember experiences it never had, then reading Lovecraft is crucial for understanding the futility of life and the screaming horror of death. . .” He spends a lot of time with unraveling thoughts about Colleen, his relationship to the Lovecraftians and Lovecraft’s work.

 

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H.P. Lovecraft

By the end of the book, Mamatas has spun a new Lovecraft story. I Am Providence is dark and disturbing enough to make Lovecraft proud, but it is also a tongue in cheek romp into a zany subculture. Mamatas’s erudition in the world of Lovecraft shines with his cultivated vocabulary and edgy syntax. I plain enjoyed how his thoughts flowed across the tentacled pages, and have come away with knowledge of H.P. Lovecraft and his work. Did you know in 2005 he was awarded the status of classic American writer with the publication of Tales, a collection of his weird fiction stories?

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If you’re like me and can’t pronounce Cthulhu, don’t worry! I Am Providence is accessible to anyone who loves a thought provoking read, a good laugh, and a look into another world. Oh, and the mystery is great—you won’t see the killer coming. (Hint: it isn’t one of the Elder Gods.)

 Congratulations to Nick Mamatas—I Am Providence has published today!

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Nick Mamatas just might be the new Providence.

Nick Mamatas is the author of six and a half novels, including The Last Weekend (PS Publishing), Love is the Law (Dark Horse), The Damned Highway with Brian Keene (Dark Horse), Bullettime (CZP), Sensation (PM Press), Under My Roof (Counterpoint/Soft Skull), and Move Under Ground (Night Shade/Prime). His latest collection is The Nickronomicon, from Innsmouth Free Press. His novels have been translated into German, Italian, and Greek. Nick is also an anthologist and editor of short fiction: with Masumi Washington he co-edited the Locus Award-nominated The Future Is Japanese (Haikasoru), and with Ellen Datlow he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends (Tor Books). Nick’s own short fiction has appeared in genre publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction and Tor.com, lit journals including New Haven Review and subTERRAIN, and anthologies such as Hint Fiction and Best American Mystery Stories 2013. His fiction and editorial work has been nominated for the Bram Stoker award five times, the Hugo Award twice, the World Fantasy Award twice, and the Shirley Jackson, International Horror Guild, and Locus Awards. His writing guide Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life (Apex Publications) has been excerpted in The Writer, and he has also published two joke/reference books: Insults Every Man Should Know and Quotes Every Man Should Know (Quirk Books).
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Expect Deception

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Philadelphia, PA, May 1943

The clock struck ten o’clock that Wednesday morning. A clairvoyant, a  medium, a crystal ball reader, a seer of ghosts and a nurse with healing      hands sat around the polished, antique table in the Hamilton House   mansion library, now their conference room. The stormy weather that heralded America’s entrance into the war had finally passed. Balmy breezes crept through the opened French doors allowing exit to a flagstone   patio and extensive estate grounds. They—the Operation Delphi team—were the White House’s top-secret psychic defense against Nazi mind control. (From Expect Deception)

 Sound far-fetched? According to author, JoAnn Smith Ainsworth, there really was a top-secret U.S. military branch comprised of psychics during World War II. And I believe her because I believe in all this woo-woo stuff—I have proof.

Let me explain. In the 1980s I kept books for an environmental firm and one of the principles studied at the John F. Kennedy University at night where she researched the possibilities of mind over matter. She and her advisor had developed a tone machine that sounded when a subject thought about the sounds. She couldn’t make the machine sing—but I could. I never learned to fully control my ability, but I became proficient in remote viewing (my boss would look at something, call me and I’d tell her what it was.) She never had to call to change our appointment!

I never achieved the same levels of psychic ability as U.S. WAVE Livvy Delacourt, or perhaps I’d be working for the government instead of writing book reviews. Ainsworth certainly makes the job of psychic sound exciting, and for readers of WWII novels, she gives a riveting story of espionage and treachery set in an era of polite national determination.

A sequel to Expect Trouble, Ainsworth pits Lt. Livvy Delacourt and the Delphi team of paranormal investigators with an undercover German wizard, Deryk Fergus, who is performing regularly as a USO magician. He is involved with the Nazi group der Mumm and when he is ordered to eliminate the Philadelphia-based Watch and sabotage supply ships bound for Europe, he is certain he will be rewarded with entrée into Hitler’s inner power circle.

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After the team attends his performance at the local USO, things start to go wrong and they must investigate a baffling sickness at NAMU, the U.S. Navel Aircraft Modification Unit, then the sabotage of Dock 2 and the Liberty Ship carrying needed supplies. At the same time Fergus attacks Livvy and her superior officer, US Navy Commander Barrington Drew II. Acquainted since high school, Livvy and the Commander are reunited through the Delphi Unit and romance buds, although Livvy’s attention is on stopping Hitler’s psychic spy. The stakes are high. Not only might she lose Trey and her friends, she might lose her own life. And worse, the Nazi’s might gain the upper hand and win the war.

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Aside from Ainsworth’s unique premise, I found the spells, powders and other magical elements used in the story to be fascinating. I dog-eared the page that tells about the wall of psychic red roses Livvy’s mother (yes, it runs in the family) constructed to protect her from school bullies. Wouldn’t it be a cool trick for writers to protect themselves from all the rejections? Later, we learn some of the ingredients of the evil spells Fergus casts. It appears the author did her homework.

The attention to detail and setting is also a sign of sound research. I felt like I’d been dropped into 1943 and imbued with wartime zeal. Our country rallied behind the war effort, even as the war changed life, as Americans had known it, especially women’s lives. The era seems simpler, more innocent, but the allies faced a supreme evil and Ainsworth captures both the mores of the times and the urgency of the horror facing the world. At the book’s climax, Livvy faces the demon and the hard decisions that comes with leadership. I don’t want to give a spoiler, but I’m betting there’s another book to come.

 Expect Deception is written in a straightforward style with the feel of a cozy mystery, although it’s what I call a soft thriller. Livvy’s job is to stop evil rather than solve a mystery and while violence is included in the book, the author doesn’t graphically describe every awful action or use language that might be offensive to some readers. The language is the language of the 40s, slightly formal yet seasoned with idioms of the day. Descriptions are sufficient, but not over drawn and the setting feels authentic.

imagesI found each character has a unique personality according to his or her role in the story, and while we see Livvy, Trey and Fergus most, the rest of the team come alive in their scenes. Fergus was my favorite after Livvy. I like a villain and he fills the bill. That he was given a point of view added dimension to the plot. I also enjoyed Fergus’s niece who shows some mettle and sincere caring for her evil uncle at the end.

 Lovers of World War II stories will enjoy this book, as will folks interested in the paranormal. If you like both, this novel is for you! Give Expect Deception a try. It’s out today in all the usual places. Check out Goodreads for links to your favorite bookseller.

images-3If you like it, why not help JoAnn Smith Ainsworth with her launch? Join me at http://www.publaunch.com/campaigns/expect-deception to help make the launch of Expect Deception a success, and give JoAnn Smith Ainsworth a hearty “congratulations” on publication of a delightful sequel to the Operation Delphi Novels.

 

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Terror in Taffeta

27107d_9b6f70f5dd2f407e9192ba64917f528cAlthough I planned my own Wine Country destination wedding: our front yard, I do hold a smidgen of destination wedding experience. I’ve attended two weddings in Mexico. The first was held in a crumbling monastery tricked out to resemble a wedding fairyland with an inch deep path of white roses leading to the altar arranged and tented atop a ruin with forested green mountains as a backdrop.

At the second, held at Mexico’s largest rancho, which historically extended from central Mexico east and west to both coasts, guests arrived by helicopter (a president, perhaps?) to dine, drink and dance all night in the courtyard after Mariachi 2000, played a private concert following the ceremony. What I remember best at both was the free-flowing tequila—until the tequila donkey ran dry, that is. The rumor in town the next day claimed Valle de Bravo to have run dry after father of the bride grabbed the donkey and made a midnight tequila ride.

I don’t remember what other disasters occurred, but I’m certain no one died, (even if a few guests did snore under tables) everyone had a grand time and Chris’s and Alejandra’s wedding planners went home with excellent recommendations and cell phone numbers of prospective clients.

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Templo de San Francisco, San Miguel de Allende

That’s how it should have been for San Francisco based wedding planner, Kelsey McKenna who has created a perfect wedding for Nicole Abernathy and Vince Moreno in the two hundred year old chapel in the Mexican colonial town of San Miguel Allende. But as Father Villareal pronounces the couple “husband and wife” bridesmaid Dana, collapses into a floral arrangement at the altar, stealing the couple’s thunder—truly a wedding faux pas.

Kelsey handles the disaster with grace and professionalism as she ushers the crowd toward the tequila donkey, but soon discovers that Dana hasn’t passed-out from too much fun at the bachelorette party. She’s dead. Kelsey has a responsibility to her client to deal with the problem, but the difficult mother of the bride, Mrs. Abernathy, insists she cover it up so Nicole and Vince’s big day isn’t ruined: she paid for a wedding after all, not a funeral. That is, until Mexican police arrest Nicole’s sister, Zoe, and “mom-zilla” declares the situation falls under the “dreadful, unforeseen situations,” clause of Kelsey’s contract. With help from her friend, wedding photographer Brody Marx, she reluctantly takes on the police’s job of finding the killer, sifting through a line-up of potential suspects—Dana has treated everyone in the wedding party poorly, including trying to trick her ex-boyfriend, attending with his new date, into marrying her

Dana’s room has been tossed, and police claim Dana was poisoned and Zoe is guilty. Brody hacks Dana’s records found wrapped as a wedding gift and finds financial information pointing to new suspects. She’s threatened, convincing her of Zoe’s innocence, and with the help of her old boyfriend, now a resident of San Miguel, she goes on a fact-finding mission back to the states. All she wants is to get back to San Francisco and her work, but problem–solving is Kelsey’s forte and she can’t leave Zoe in a Mexican jail with the killer running free. Or face the career-destroying wrath of Mrs. Abernathy if she fails.

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Funny, smart and on trend, Marla Cooper’s debut novel, Terror in Taffeta, is a winner. Cooper’s quirky characters, twisting plot and delightful, competent wedding planner-turned-sleuth would be enough fun for any cozy mystery reader. But this novel is a precisely crafted example of the genre, oozing humor, realistic finger-snapping dialog, an intricate and believable plot, and a sharp heroine we instantly like and trust. It may be the wedding from hell, but Kelsey McKenna demonstrates true professionalism and determination. If your attendant keeled over at the altar would your planner have stuck around to solve the murder? Kelsey proves herself to be empathetic and brimming with integrity. She’s a quick thinker and no quitter. Besides, she knows how to throw a great party.

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thanks spearmintwedding.com

I love Cooper’s fresh, modern prose, her well-balanced action and that she surprised me at the end with motives and a murderer I never saw coming. Jerrilyn Farmer, author of the Madeline Bean series says it all, “Like a perfect margarita, Marla Cooper has blended up a tart and delicious Mexican-set bridal mystery for her wacky and charming cozy debut, Terror in Taffeta.”

Terror in Taffeta may not be the first writing from Cooper. She says she “was astonished when she realized people could actually get paid to write things. So she switched her major from business to advertising—much to the relief of her accounting professor—and began her career as an advertising copywriter. After moving to San Francisco, she became a freelancer so she could take advantage of perks like working in her pajamas.” She’s written everything from advertising copy to travel guides; in fact, she found her inspiration for Terror in Taffeta while ghostwriting another book on destination weddings. And this first novel proves Cooper is one to watch—and I bet we haven’t seen the last of Kelsey McKenna. I don’t know what the next destination will be, but I’m sure Cooper will treat us to another roller-coaster ride through clues and suspects served up with elegantly catered red-herrings and tequila shots. (I’m still thinking about that tequila donkey.)

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Thanks  nydailynews.com

But don’t take my word for it; Janet Cantrell, bestselling author of the Fat Cat Mystery series has the best advice: “Drop your plans and read this new series starring Kelsey McKenna, witty and resourceful wedding planner extraordinaire. This wedding planner will win you over!”

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Marla Cooper

Congratulations—it’s publishing day!

March 22, 2016

 

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Art and Crime—A Perfect Pairing

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Art evokes emotion within the beholder and that emotion isn’t always pretty. A work of art can soothe us, make us laugh, cry, or long for something lost—and art can send us spiraling out of control to possess it. Art is also big business, both legitimate and nefarious. It isn’t surprising so many stories emanate from the art world. Art can mask a multitude of secrets and make a person rich and dangerously powerful, something Danielle O’Rourke, chief fundraiser for San Francisco’s Devor Museum of Art and Antiquities, is reminded of the hard way in Mixed Up with Murder. 

On the recommendation of Geoff Johnson, the Devor’s board chairman and board member of Lynthorpe College in Bridgetown, Massachusetts, Dani O’Rourke is hired to facilitate the acceptance of a valuable art collection and the twenty million dollar endowment to support it from wealthy class of 1970 alumnus, Vincent Margoletti. It’s an important gift that will enhance the college’s reputation and everyone wants a speedy and legal settlement of terms. That’s the problem—Margoletti made his billions brokering Silicon Valley tech deals and is known to play an angle if it will get him ahead. Dani is there to watch the school’s back.

 imagesDani begins information gathering with Gabby, a researcher in the Development office who provides her with files and a tour of the art gallery, but appointments are postponed and Dani is stood up by her key contact, Larry Saylor. Saylor turns up drowned in a pond on the golf course. Dani is pressured to sign off on the gift, as the college atmosphere turns dark. To confuse matters, Dani’s wealthy ex-husband is in the area for a class reunion and hounds her to attend functions, she and her boyfriend aren’t connecting, her Devor work is piling up and she’s losing her intern to a permanent job offer.

IMG_1605Dani and Gabby uncover irregularities with the deal, and when a terrible event strikes too close for comfort, Dani makes finding answers personal. She is followed, threatened, accused and held against her will as the plot twists to its surprising climax.

 Mixed Up with Murder is an engaging, smart read in part because author Susan C. Shea gives readers an insider’s look at the business of fine art. It’s a money-driven world where the wealthy and the highbrow play for high stakes. The other part of the equation is Dani O’Rourke, a polished, witty, and sharply intelligent professional who knows her job and how to read people—skills needed to part donors from their money to support the San Francisco museum. She really has only one foible: Dani attracts trouble. She’s written with depth and humor, making her a thoroughly delightful protagonist. I’m dying to know what will happen with her love interest in the next book.

As well crafted as the protagonist, the plot moves in surprising ways. It never lags and I couldn’t predict the turns. Shea’s writing style is smooth, clear, informative and never redundant. It’s obvious that Shea respects her readers and trusts us to understand the text without dumbing-down the language or overwriting to impress us. The story flows through concepts, images and dialog in a natural and logical progression.

Mixed Up with Murder is the third in the Danielle O’Rourke series. I don’t know how I missed the first two books, but I’ll be going back to catch up with this strong, smart character and her compelling world of art, money and murder.

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Author Susan C. Shea

P. S.

I want to than Susan C. Shea for providing me with an Advanced Reader Copy and congratulate her  on today’s (2/2/16) launch of Mixed Up with Murder. Reading this book has been a pleasurable experience on every level. Did I mention I couldn’t put it down? I’m ranking Dani O’Rourke right up there with my favorite sleuths: Phryne Fisher, Laurel McKay, China Bayles, and Aimée Leduc. They’re all different, but they’ll all smart women, driven to use their wit and wits in heroic ways.

 

 

 

 

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A Dangerous Game in a Mysterious World

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I’ve always loved spy stories, from my first Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy right on through Dad’s shelf of Cold War political thrillers, which we devoured and discussed. I’m sorry he’s not here to share Diana R. Chambers’s Stinger with me. He would have ranked it in his top ten favorites, right up there with Robert Ludlum, Len Deighton, Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth. And, like me, I think he would have loved the audio version.

Stinger is my idea of the classic spy thriller: a shadow world populated by people who aren’t what they appear to be with hidden identities, hidden agendas, and lies enough to obscure the trail for even the most dogged of investigative readers. The twists and turns of the tightly-woven plot, kept me sitting in my car listening long after I closed the garage door. At times I completely forgot I was listening to fiction as my heart raced up to one suspense-filled peak after another. The story could be true.

Several reviewers have dubbed Stinger a romantic spy thriller. There is a romantic element, but what drew me in was the political intrigue seemingly taken right from the historical record of the Soviet-Afghan War in the mid 1980s. Set in Central Asia at the border of Pakistan and the mountainous tribal nomad region of Afghanistan, the action opens with the disappearance of six U.S. Stinger missiles that have secretly found their way to Peshawar. The Stingers are in high demand. The Soviets want to keep them from the Afghan Mujahideen, Pakistani and Chinese dealers want to sell to the highest bidder, the Afghani freedom fighters desperately need advanced weaponry, and the U.S. must want something.

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Rogue CIA officer Nick Daley is charged with keeping an eye on Robin, a San Francisco journalist, looking to make her career through her interview with her former lover, now an Afghan Mujahideen leader, but Nick’s reasons for wanting to find the mujahideen leader differ. A tragic love triangle forms and is played out against manipulation, swindle, drug deals, murder, betrayals, ambush, courage, loyalty, and the history and culture of this Muslim region. It’s a dangerous game in a mysterious world that comes together in a surprise climax and ending.

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Stinger is more than a finely crafted political thriller; it helped me to understand Afghanistan’s recent history and the Taliban’s rise to power. I knew little about Afghanistan or the role both the Soviet Union and the US played there, and even less about its conflict with Pakistan. The depth of Chambers’s research impressed me. It’s obvious she knows her stuff. The story is concise yet rich—just the right amount of action and narrative, perfectly balanced with images that lead the mind in unexpected directions. Her language is straightforward yet often lyrical, and her ability to describe her setting is superb. I’ve come away from the book feeling as though I’d really visited Peshawar and traveled the Silk Road. I can smell the dust and cooking fires, tea, and the oily heat of the weapons. Her characters have depth and distinction. Even secondary characters are crafted to stand out individually. I came to like Nick Daley as he revealed himself and his motivations. I look forward to meeting him again.

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Actor and voice-over artist Charles Kahlenberg is the reader of Stinger. His deep sonorous voice added depth, mystery, excitement and plenty of tension to the story. I listened to the book twice, first just for the reader’s voice and again to catch-all the details I’d missed. Listening to a well-interpreted book is like seeing a film even as you watch the road—I do most of my audiobook listening while I drive. Kahlenberg is a professional actor with credits going back to his first role in the Coal Miner’s Daughter. His gorgeous voice has been heard internationally on TV and radio in countless commercials and he’s appeared on TV and in films.

If you are interested in recent history and want to understand more about how Afghanistan got to where it is today, read Stinger. If you’re a lover of Casablanca-style love affairs, read Stinger. If Cold War-style spycraft is your thing, read Stinger. And if you just want to try something twisty, shocking, and fast-paced—try Stinger. Does it show that I loved this book? I’m giving Diana R. Chambers and Stinger five stars and I just downloaded The Company She Keeps, the next Nick Daley adventure. It hasn’t been recorded for audio so I’ll read it on my Kindle. I’m betting it’s another five-star read—I’ll let you know.

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