Category Archives: Reviews

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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The Right Wrong Thing

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The world of policing is more complicated and intricate than I’d realized from watching cop shows on TV and reading procedurals. Sure Kate Beckett and her team are mandated to see a psychologist when they shoot someone or each other, but somehow the importance of the psychologist and the scope of duty and moral responsibility just hasn’t sunk into my thick brain until reading The Right Wrong Thing. For one thing, those other fictional psychologists are usually bit-part characters used to support the main characters in their stories. In Ellen Kirschman’s series the story is Dot Meyerhoff’s, the consulting psychologist for Silicon Valley’s Kenilworth Police Department.

The Right Wrong Thing is Ellen Kirschman’s second book in the Dot Meyerhoff series following acclaimed Burying Ben. 51SKPzn3txL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Right Wrong Thing exposes readers to the world of the police department: the culture, the politics, and the whys and wherefore’s of police decision, action and the consequences of both. Kirschman should know. She’s worked as a police and public safety psychologist for over thirty years and has been honored with the California Psychological Society’s award for her contribution to psychology. Her experience shines through, illuminating police work in a way that has given me new understanding and a much deeper sympathy for the heroic men and women who take on the job of keeping us safe. I had no idea I would learn so much from a police thriller when Net Galley sent an ARC for review.

Kirschman tackles several of society’s big ticket issues in the book: sexism, racism, police brutality and post-traumatic stress disorder—all through the point of view of dedicated and deeply concerned psychologist, Dr. Dot Meyerhoff. After Dr. Meyerhoff has signed off on her pre-employment psychological assessment, rookie cop Randy Spelling accidentally shoots and kills a pregnant black teen. The doctor is determined to do the right thing by Randy and the department, but Randy, already suffering with PTSD and remorse, proves a challenge to counseling. When she insists on making amends to the victim’s family, contrary to the advice of the department, the consequences are disastrous. Dr. Meyerhoff, against the new chief’s orders is stubbornly determined to uncover what has happened. She puts together a small team of misfit allies to investigate, jeopardizing her career with the department and her life as she closes in on Randy’s killer.

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I admired Meyerhoff’s right-on assessments of the situation and her sometimes brilliant handling of things on the one hand, and I shook my head in disbelief at her sometimes stupid moves and her blatant disregard of her superior. The dichotomous aspects of her personality are part of what make middle-aged Dot Meyerhoff an interesting character. She’s intelligent, caring, dedicated, reckless, and stubborn and questions herself the way we all do over a glass of wine. I’d like to sit down and chat with her about—anything. The conversation would be sure to take turns I’d never see coming and I’d come away seeing a new side to the issue. She’s guided by a strong sense of justice and not afraid to go against convention to follow it, even when she’s clearly erring. Dot Meyerhoff is flawed like the rest of us, but she’s willing to speak her mind when it’s unpopular, be kind to people who work against her and learn from her mistakes—although I expect Dr. Meyerhoff will be just as stubborn and reckless in solving her next case. I’m counting on it, in fact.

After a densely packed, fact-laden opening, I found I couldn’t put The Right Wrong Thing down. Kirschman’s experience and deep knowledge of human behavior shine through her plot and the emotion packed into this novel grabbed me and kept me reading. This is what is important to her. Kirschman states in her biography, “writing mysteries allows me to explore the hidden complexities and emotional costs of being a clinician.” Interesting, no? Kirschman is teaching readers about her world and learning from herself at the same time. It’s bound to pay off in the books to come.

Since I read The Right Wrong Thing it’s been voted a finalist in the Fiction: thriller/adventure category of the USA Best Book Awards. Congratulations to Ellen Kirschman. And thank you Net Galley, I might not have chosen a procedural-style thriller from the shelves, but I’m looking forward to the third of this fascinating and instructive series.

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Turn to the Sun

5121eFu6ZuL._AA160_-1JC Miller’s latest novel, Heliotrope, has been called “a coming of age story for the ages.” And it’s more than that. Heliotrope is a story about finding one’s path in a complicated world and finding peace in one’s own skin. It’s about finding a place we belong.

For Kit Hilliard, home is a place to escape. She goes as far from the dusty, brown desert town of her shattered childhood as she can, to attend college in the lush green world of 1975 Arcata, California. “Kit’s vision filled with green, quenching the arid ground of her birthplace, softening the brittle places in her heart. Eager to reinvent her life and thirsty for uncharted ground, Kit opened up like a flower turning to light.” But on the cusp of her senior year and graduation, her world begins to shift.

Kit falls in love with her senior seminar professor, Jonathan Wakefield. But Jonathan, a best-selling author, is not who he appears to be. He is another escapee. “He’d actually believed a geographic adjustment could cure him, but now he realized his affliction was permanent.”

True to the spirit of the times the jug wine, marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms flow freely. After a dinner party goes awry, Kit flees to the comfort of her buddy, Milo, and makes a discovery that shocks her. Betrayed and embarrassed she lashes out in revenge.

Remembering her moral compass, Kit tries to make amends. Jonathan takes a hard look at his life and finds no loving net awaits him back home. With Kit’s graduation looming and Jonathan’s teaching contract coming to an end, the future is uncertain. They must recognize and embrace whom they are, both the beautiful and the ugly, and create the lives they yearn for.

As in all of JC Miller’s work, the writing is both straightforward and lyrical. Miller is adept with figurative language and can root into the deepest recesses of her characters for truth. She’s got her pen on the pulse of humanity. Her characters are likeable, real, and experience the full range of human emotions. The story unfolds naturally in a smooth, organic progression, leading the reader to a satisfying and hope filled conclusion.

Heliotrope is a book to think about. First, it takes place in my own era of “coming of age” and I often found myself reminiscing about my college days. I compared experiences with Kit and remembered my professor, Lenny. But mostly, Heliotrope made me think of the rocky paths we must tread to find a place to belong in a complex and ever-changing world. Heliotrope will resonate with anyone who has experienced the bruising of coming to terms with life and remembers the pain and joy of finding oneself at any age.

By the way, I absolutely couldn’t put the book down!

JC MILLER

At the launch of The To-Do List February 1, 2015

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The Killing Vote

The Killing Vote Cover

My Medicare card arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago. I’ve joined the ranks of the federally insured. Medicare claims to serve 50 million recipients—now 50 million one. But turn on the news; Social Security and Medicare systems are going broke. What will America do? Northern California’s writing team, Bette Golden Lamb and J.J. Lamb, give readers a chilling solution to the problem in The Killing Vote, a near-future political thriller set in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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The Killing Vote opens with the intentional bombing of the offices of CORPS, the Coalition of Older and Retired Persons. A volunteer, is severely injured. Meanwhile, retired journalist and current political blogger, Ted Yost, is on his way to meet CORPS head, Nathan Sorkin to talk about the D.C. rumor that there may be a move to scuttle Medicare—or at least significantly cut its funding. But Sorkin is convinced Hygea, the health insurance giant is behind the bombing and convinces Yost to investigate.

The story is told from each of the characters involved on Hygea’s Galen Hospital ethics committee to introduce and push the bill through Congress: the lobbyist, W. Wade Wilson, the Washington officials, and the team working to stop the vote. The bill will save Medicare billions. Why keep old, poor patients alive when they have no hope of recovery and no one to go home to. Galen Hospital has already selected the first two patients to be euthanized, one the volunteer injured at CORPS.

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As Yost’s team closes in on the conspiracy, bill stakeholders start making bolder moves, even kidnapping Yost’s wife. A senator is blackmailed to attach the bill to one she is presenting in the final session before the winter break. It’s going to be rubber-stamped into law. As time runs out, each character reveals his or her true feelings as the horror of this proposed bill comes to light. Things start going wrong and the major stakeholder turns to desperate measures. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book, so let me say that I locked all the doors and turned on all the lights in the house then stayed up all night reading.

I don’t know if it’s because that little red, white and blue Medicare card with my name on it has me feeling old and powerless, but The Killing Vote really frightened me. The language and voices are believable. The characters could be folks I know. Hygea/Galen Hospital’s procedures to develop and introduce a bill to save Medicare billions are straight out of the corporate boardroom, and the dirty Washington politics are in the news everyday. In fact, with the Presidential debates, Medicare is a hot topic. “First of all, I’m not for phasing out Medicare,” A republican presidential hopeful told NBC Nightly News anchor, Lester Holt after a debate in August. “I said that we needed to reform it so that it exists for people who are anticipating getting it later on, and then I laid out exactly what that would look like.” Sounds reasonable and far-sighted, doesn’t it? But read The Killing Vote—you’ll get the true picture.

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IN EXTREMIS

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I just received my copy in the mail. It’s the second novel from Napa Valley author David Ainsworth. In Extremis is a powerful and frightening look at the world we may be inhabiting in twenty years if we continue to exhaust our limited resources of fossil fuels. A love story set in the era of “peak oil,” Vincent and Grace rekindle their failed marriage as the oil dependent U.S. begins to fail through its lack of foresight and planning and its policies of consumerism, greed and oil imperialism.

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Vincent is a Marine attaché at the Beijing Embassy and his ex-wife, Grace, is launching her journalism career when the rolling blackouts and transit delays begin. They are reunited through Grace’s connection to a controversial senator and his jet when the western U.S. electrical grid is shut down by a cyber attack from China and all transit, crippled by oil scarcity, is grounded—just when Vincent needs a ride home.

As the plot unfolds, Vincent’s high moral values are compromised, as it becomes clear that an element in the U.S. Government is up to no good. He is confused and outraged by what he sees happening and finds common cause with Grace, who has evolved into a strong and capable woman. As America cascades into economic collapse the two unite to uncover the conspiracy, but the effects of “peak oil” intervene in the form of superpower political responses, including cyber warfare, and the couple must navigate through the growing dystopia to save themselves and find their hopeful future.

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In his precise, crisp prose, Ainsworth weaves oil history and politics through the story, making In Extremis both believable and chilling. Let’s face it, we enjoy the books that resonate with our own perceptions, yet tell us something new. The book certainly informed me of many things I didn’t know, both through the characters’ voices and narration.

The writing is intelligent, logical, and persuasive. Reading In Extremis is an experience in cutting through comfortable denial and coming face to face with the hard reality of our futures when the oil runs out. It’s going to be way worse than the “oil shortage” of 1973. If you aren’t making changes yet, this political thriller is going to get you out of your easy chair and into action—and I don’t think driving a Prius is enough.

I’ve given In Extremis a big fat A. Ainsworth read parts of it in our writing workshop at Napa Valley College and I’m honored to have helped edit the book. Although I’ve read a draft, I can’t seem to put the published book down!

Ready to read? In Extremis is available from dog ear Publishing on Amazon or via the author’s website,  http://www.davidainsworthbooks.com.

Tell him Ana sent you!

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The To-Do List by J.C. Miller—A 5 Star Read

The To-Do List published January 2015 by Booktrope Editions December, 23, 2014

The To-Do List published January 2015 by Booktrope Editions December, 23, 2014

By JC Miller

We meet Ginny Cooper in her kitchen where she’s contemplating a stale donut and negotiating the day’s calorie count with herself. Her husband, Cal, browbeats her for her weight and she dumps the donut into the garbage, belittled. Her two kids don’t offer her any more respect than Cal, and her tedious job in a town that is dying doesn’t offer Ginny any relief. She needs an Arbys. But she’s a busy woman—she needs a list to keep track of the myriad details of her day: Buy milk, walk the dog, clean the garage, kill Cal.

Ginny remembers a time in college, before she and Cal met when she was self actualized and she wants to become that woman again. That woman didn’t manically count calories or soothe herself with Arbys. That woman wasn’t a doormat for an uncaring and arrogant man. She fantasizes about meeting someone new who will affirm her and joins an on-line dating service, but she submits a photo of someone else.

Ginny’s journey to empowerment is rough at times, bittersweet at times, and inspiring at times. Readers may feel impatient for her false starts and back-sliding, but ultimately Ginny takes charge of her own happiness. This is a story that doesn’t come with a predictable ending, but it delivers satisfaction. Her last to-do-list might read:

  1. Breathe
  2. Relax
  3. Smile

And she’s sure to do just that. Even if the garage still needs cleaning.

At the launch of The To-Do List February 1, 2015

At the launch of The To-Do List February 1, 2015

The To-Do List and JC’s other books, Believing in Bigfoot, and Vacation are available through Amazon

I loved them too!

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Patsy Ann Taylor Reviews: Week by Week–A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts & Meditations

Week by Week, A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts & Meditations by Amber Lea Starfire is filled with just the kind of information needed to help beginning journal writers get started and will fuel the imaginations of more experienced writers. The quotes that open each section are worth the purchase. But Amber Lea Starfire offers much more in this inspiring, well-structured book. She provides prompts and exercises that even fiction writers will find helpful in creating the interior lives of characters. This book is a gift to anyone who wishes to step into the world of self-expression through journaling or memoir writing.

Reviewed by Patsy Ann Taylor

Amber Lea Starfire and Patsy Ann Taylor

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