Review: “Play Dead,” Angela Marsons

Pros: I really like Kim as a character; mostly good plotting
Cons: Really? We’re still on gender-identity trauma leading to psychopathic behavior?
Rating: 2 out of 5

Angela Marsons’ Play Dead (Detective Kim Stone Book 4) focuses on Kim Stone, an irascible detective who rubs everyone the wrong way. She picks up a case in which a body was found at the Westerley body farm; a woman was suffocated by having her mouth filled with dirt after taking a fair amount of head trauma. Not long thereafter a second body shows up–but the killer was interrupted and they managed to save the woman, although she has amnesia now. Kim needs to find out what connects the bodies–and fast, before more turn up.

 

Duncan, our unnamed almost-corpse’s boyfriend shows up and identifies her as Isobel Jones. He also mentions that she’s actually married and having an affair with him. The police basically say, ‘oh, okay, thanks’. They never look into Duncan as a suspect; I’ve had the impression that you always look at family and significant others first. Also it never occurs to them to notify her husband! Talk about sloppy police work and an obvious plot hole!

It becomes obvious early on that the killer (who gets his own stereotypical monologues) is a male whose mother wanted him to be female, which lead to a traumatic experience at his school. There are also tea parties and dolls involved. It wasn’t that long ago that I read another thriller with an extremely similar bad guy, even including the dolls; once again there’s the notion that gender-related trauma creates psychopaths. I’m sick of seeing books that make that cause-and-effect connection. We should be past that by now.

Psychologist Ted, whom the cops call on for help, makes a few magical-seeming connections from very little data. He’s a bit of a deus ex machina. This isn’t the first place in the book where the book hand-waves important information.

The only thing that appeals to me in this novel is Kim. She’s irritating, but not in a way that makes me question her ability to function in her job. Watching her work is interesting and unusual and I enjoyed it.

 

Book provided free by publisher for review
Expected publication date: May 20, 2016

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Review: “My New Family,” Alec John Johnson

Pros: Fascinating premise
Cons: Clumsy writing
Rating: 3 out of 5

In Alec John Johnson’s My New Family a man who loses his family begins to obsess over the family next door. He starts small, watching them from his darkened windows at night, and then escalates to actually entering their house. Only Hazel, the wife of his ‘new family’ realizes that something is wrong.

 

There are a few out-of-nowhere hunches in this book, and one case where it seemed like two people shared a dream. Since there’s no other indication of the paranormal in the book, it was a bit odd. I’ll also say that the denouement of the story tries too hard to create the creepy ‘it isn’t over’ vibe, but it made no sense unless there’s a supernatural trigger going on. There was no indication of any such thing.

The characters–at least our main character and Hazel–had some depth to them. Oddly, I don’t remember coming across the main character’s name. That’s a little clever; it could contribute to a ‘this could happen to anyone’ vibe. The children were mostly accessories.

The writing is a bit clumsy. Words missing; bizarre bits of word substitution (like ‘tenor’ when the word wanted is ‘tenure’); some things that just don’t make sense as stated. There’s a habit of over-describing. The main character stops while on a walk to describe every last detail of the front of the house, when the details come out more naturally shortly afterward when he approaches the house. The reader ends up reading the same details over again, ‘telling’ once and ‘showing’ the next. We only need one of those two, and the latter is much better.

So to sum up: too much telling vs. showing; clumsy wording that could have used an extra edit; good premise and plot execution. It’s an okay book, but not great.

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Review: “Mutation,” K.R. Griffiths

Pros: Potentially interesting world
Cons: Details that don’t add up
Rating: 3 out of 5

In K.R. Griffiths’ Mutation (Wildfire Chronicles Vol. 4) (Also available bundled: Wildfire Chronicles: Volumes 1-4), our heroes find an old castle occupied by Darren, a wilderness guide, and the people he’d been guiding for when the world changed. Everything looks great, but there are signs that the people living with him are scared. Also, there’s a thirteen-year-old Infected girl who’s chained in the middle of town. Unlike most Infected, she can speak. And she seems to be keeping the Infected at bay around the town–they’re unwilling to come near her.

 

John wants to ditch Michael’s group. Rachel’s traumatized and brittle; Jason mostly isn’t mentally present (more trauma), and Michael’s a paraplegic now. Not to mention the two young children who need looking after. They’re tying him down and making his life more risky. On the other hand there are some benefits to teaming up, and John can almost certainly outrun his fellow travelers should the need arise.

I would have liked more information on how the Infected girl is so clear-headed, and particularly why the other Infected are staying away from her. Many of the changing details of how the infection works are inadequately explained or telegraphed.

This installment is of course called mutation. This is where we discover that Victor’s attempt at making the infection skip him (by making it not work on his blood type), actually results in mutation. This is why we’re finding occasional outliers among the Infected who can talk, who don’t really seem infected at all, or who seem to have super-powers. (IMO, Jake’s too powerful.)

There’s a military garrison near our heroes’ new home, and the commander, Colonel Hopper, is your standard 80s-movie issue insane military leader. One of his less brave souls, Nick Hurt, plans to steal the helicopter and escape. We couldn’t really leave the military out of this series entirely.

In a ridiculous example of small world syndrome (which should already be used up by Claire and Michael reconnecting), one of the characters turns out to be Alex/Jake’s bio-mom, although that doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere.

Note: some of the characters in this series do seriously depraved things to other people. If that isn’t something you’re up to handling, then move on to another book.

I semi-enjoyed the series, but I think I’ll stop here with book four. If you aren’t as nit-picky as I am and don’t mind flat villains, then you might like this series more than I did.

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Review: “Psychosis,” K.R. Griffiths

Pros: Interesting stuff going on
Cons: Jake is over-the-top
Rating: 3 out of 5

K.R. Griffiths’ Psychosis (Wildfire Chronicles Vol. 3) also available as part of a bundle Wildfire Chronicles: Volumes 1-4, continues our story of the not-quite-zombie apocalypse. Claire–Michael’s daughter–finally shows up, so we get to see her and Michael trying to find each other. Alex is a new character, but he’s really here so his evil other personality, Jake, can throw a spanner into the works. For some reason the bad guys know who he is and how to get him, and have decided that unleashing his psychotic self using the infection would be a good thing. (I’m starting to see why nothing has gone to plan for the bad guys.)

 

For some reason, the Infected are unable to swim. I can buy that with zombies, but we’ve already seen that the Infected in this series are smarter than zombies. The fact that they can’t deal well with thunder at least serves as a nice reminder that they’re sensitive to sound.

Why is it that in nearly any story like this, there’s a parent trying to find their child, and despite probably one-in-a-million chances, they always manage to find each other? At least there’s plenty of tension to Claire’s story; it quickens the pacing nicely. But the plot arc is so familiar that it was a given how it would end. I do love that eight-year-old Claire uses her experience playing Tetris to find her way out of a bad spot.

The Infected are starting to communicate with each other using humming noises, and now they’re developing purposeful herds. There isn’t much about how or why this is happening, but it’s a nice difference from most other similar tales. We find out that even animals are infected–a rat bit Jason, but nothing happens with that. If the infection is zoonotic, shouldn’t we see it passing to humans from animals in addition to passing to animals from humans? We do see interesting variations on the infected, such as a woman who appears outwardly normal but, following a bite from one of the Infected, can ‘feel’ where they are.

Jake is a horrific character. He is straight-out evil. He’s a rapist and killer who’s now been given something like the abilities of the Infected–another truly stupid call on the part of the cabal of bad guys. The story certainly doesn’t assume any intelligence on the part of powerful and wealthy people, which makes it hard to understand how they got to the point they’re at. We’re talking about thousands of people secreted away on nearly twenty bases around the world. That had to take some serious smarts to set up, particularly since with that many people involved it shouldn’t have been able to remain a secret before the world went to Hell.

There are some very good metaphors and similes that struck me as fresh and original. I wish there’d been more of that quality of writing in this installment.

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Review: “Decanting a Murder,” Nadine Nettmann

Pros: A mystery made for wine lovers
Cons: Some foolishness and unlikable characters
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In Nadine Nettmann’s Decanting a Murder (A Sommelier Mystery), Katie Stillwell is a sommelier who’s just failed her certified sommelier exam. She’s reconsidering whether she wants to try again at the next opportunity, and gets thoroughly sidetracked when her best friend, Tessa, gets accused of killing Mark, the owner of a particularly well-known winery. Katie becomes determined to prove Tessa’s innocence, no matter how many stupid and dangerous things she has to do along the way.

 

Tessa is thoroughly unlikable, self-centered, bitchy, etc. I think we’re supposed to be able to empathize with her over a past experience in which she took the blame for one of Katie’s illegal ideas. Instead, I couldn’t really believe that the Tessa we’re shown now was the same Tessa who willingly let herself get charged with a theft she never committed. She completely fails to take anything involving the mystery seriously. Katie wasn’t all that great either–she didn’t have as much depth as I would have liked, and didn’t show emotion well, which again, made her hard to empathize with. My greatest problem with her, though, was the way she handily strong-armed her way into Detective Dean’s investigation, then totally failed to tell him about events that are relevant to the case and of import to her. For example, a truck tried to run her off the road and apparently she didn’t feel this merited reporting. What?! Not only is that stupid in general, but the event presumably had to do with someone trying to run her off from her investigation, which could have given Dean a clue. Now, Dean I liked, so I wish he’d been more of a main character than the other two were. Although his judgment in bringing Katie along on everything seemed dubious at best despite the fact that he and Katie flirt.

You’ll certainly get more out of this book if you’re into wines, but I don’t think a lack of that knowledge would prevent a reader’s enjoyment. In that case it just serves as an interesting look into the world of wine-tasting and judgment. I enjoyed that quite a bit.

The mystery was interesting, but there were some small holes here and there, and I had so much trouble believing that Katie could get away with everything she was doing. I wish the characters had been more compelling, because there’s an interesting story here.

 

NOTE: Book provided free for review by publisher.
Expected publication date: May 8, 2016

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Review: “Madelyn’s Mistake,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Madelyn is a fascinating character who gets into all the trouble.
Cons: Some small bits of confusion
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I’ve been waiting for Ike Hamill’s Madelyn’s Mistake ever since reading Madelyn’s Nephew. I’ve enjoyed the Ike Hamill books I’ve read so far, but the Madelyn series is by far my favorite. She lives in a world where mysterious ‘Hunters’ kill anyone who hasn’t learned the tricks to avoiding them. And by kill, I mean they take a person apart from the outside in. The group of people Madelyn has (somewhat reluctantly) joined up with knows the tricks. They keep a bonfire burning, which seems to mesmerize some of the Hunters and keep them busy for a while. People try to avoid falling into set patterns when they move around. If they hear the clicking sound that heralds the Hunters’ approach they go to ground just as quickly as they can. Hunters can also be attracted by sound, making it difficult to use vehicles. Life has become a terrifying thing in which every move is calculated to stay alive as long as possible. But the community Madelyn lives in is trying to go one step further: they want to find a way to make certain areas entirely safe, or find ways to disable and/or destroy the Hunters. That’s going to be much harder than they thought–and no one expected it to be easy.

 

Ryan is the guy in charge of various experimental programs the community is working on. Well, and some they’d likely never have approved of. I’d say he’s insane, but he seems to have gone sly-insane which is much more interesting. Some of his people’s projects work but end up costing a lot of lives. Other, more secretive, projects could get the whole community killed by Hunters.

Malty is a nearly-forty-year-old mechanical doll. So many horror authors would go with the creepy doll theme and leave it at that, but Hamill does one better. I can’t get into it because it will spoil some of the revelations. I’ll just say that things seemed standard creepy-doll for a short while, but it turns out that she has a very interesting agenda and actually has a ‘real’ personality.

We needed to be reminded as to what ‘Optioners’ were earlier in the book. I couldn’t for the life of me remember since I read the first Madelyn book a while ago (and I have a really bad memory). There are some parts of the book that might have made a little more sense or had a bit more emotional resonance with that reminder.

Part of what I love about Madelyn is that she’s totally and utterly her own person. She’s also prone to trying to solve any problem with a gun–it’s the hammer and all problems look like nails. She has her own kind of smarts, and it doesn’t mesh well with the community’s. If it weren’t for the fact that her nephew Jacob is living there–and that Madelyn has happened into a quasi-relationship of her own–she would undoubtedly still be on her own.

The story enthralled me to the point that I put off watching the latest S.H.I.E.L.D. episode by a few hours, and that’s an accomplishment! I seriously want to read the next installment and hate having to wait!

There were a couple of minor places where I felt some confusion (like that caused by not being able to remember what Optioners are), but they weren’t a big deal. It might help to remember to re-read Madelyn’s Nephew before Madelyn’s Mistake.

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Review: “Admiral,” Sean Danker

Pros: Fantastic characters; entertaining and engrossing!
Cons: I’d like to know a little more about what happened pre-story
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Admiral (An Evagardian Novel), by Sean Danker, gives us thrills and chills with a nice dollop of humor. The point of view character (told in 1st person) is the titular “Admiral,” as identified by the labeling on his stasis pod when he awakens to a severely damaged ship. He and three young, just-graduated military members have to figure out what happened, where they are, and how to survive on what they have. Deilani is suspicious of the Admiral right away, even though he insists that it’s an honorary title. Still, Salmagard and Nils fall fairly naturally into obeying the Admiral, leading to a certain amount of suspicion and confusion all the way around. Unfortunately, the ship somehow ended up way off course and crashed into a largely unknown planet, so our heroes don’t know what they’re up against, don’t know whether they can count on rescue, and don’t know what sort of native life forms they’re likely to run up against.

 

Firstly, since I’m in Maryland I have to say, with regards to the giant crab-like aliens, that the characters doubtless would have fared much better against them had they brought along some Old Bay. Now that I have that out of the way…

I love the characters in Sean Danker’s Admiral. Deilani is terribly suspicious of the Admiral, and not without reason. He makes no claims to authenticity–he simply uses his ‘honorary’ rank to keep the team working together and constantly pushing towards things that might help them make it one more day, one more hour, as things give out around them. Deilani is, thankfully, both confident and competent, so she has depth beyond calling the Admiral out. The Admiral is certain Salmagard has figured out his identity, so it’s a good thing she seems content to keep quiet and follow his lead. As for Nils, the techie of the group, he’s all “yes, sir” until Deilani’s suspicions get hold of him. After all, it looks as though the ship they crashed in was sabotaged, as was the Admiral’s stasis pod. Also, none of them expected to find themselves on this ship.

The four struggle to survive on the ship, which gets a little tense at times. It’s a nice way to build things up slowly in the beginning as we get to know our characters. Finally they can turn their attention toward figuring out how to leave. The ship they’re in has had a huge hull breach–they won’t be taking it anywhere. But it appears that there are colonist ships out there as well–this provides a whole additional level to their battle for survival. After all, there’s no way they can go outside without protective gear and oxygen, both of which won’t last forever. The pacing gradually builds as the danger does, as always leavened by a dose of humor from the Admiral. By the time we meet the aliens, the tension is cranked to maximum.

Pacing, characters–it’s all fantastic. I would have liked a bit more about what happened previous to the first page, and perhaps a few more hints as to the Admiral’s identity before the end, but those are very small complaints. All in all I very much enjoyed reading “Admiral”!

 

Book provided free by publisher for review
Expected publication date: May 3, 2016

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Review: “I Let You Go,” Clare Mackintosh

Pros: Fascinating story with deep characters
Cons: This needs trigger warnings; depressing
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Holy hell. Never has a book needed trigger warnings (for me personally, at least) more than Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go. This is the kind of story for which the over-used term was created. If you aren’t ready to read some extremely detailed emotional and physical domestic abuse, do not read this book. If anything I found the emotional abuse so much harder to read; there’s too much reality there for me. If you have led a life of domestic bliss and tranquility, however, this might be just the book to help you understand the dynamics of emotional abuse, and why it’s so insidious.

It was a dark, rainy day, and a woman let go of her five-year-old son’s hand for just a moment, with their house right across the street. The boy ran out into the street and was struck by a car that turned around and took off rather than staying to take any kind of responsibility or to help the boy who got hit. Eventually the case goes cold, but there are two members of the police who continue working the case in their spare time.

We also spend time following a woman named Jenna as she moves out into the middle of nowhere, giving up on her sculpting career, but starting a new career in photography. She’s wary and skittish, and glad to be away from people. She’s just started a promising relationship with a veterinarian named Patrick when her life comes tumbling down around her ears and the police come looking for her.

 

The characters have a ton of depth to them. The depiction of an abuser and his victim are spot-on, and it gets unapologetically in-depth into the manipulation and the physical and mental harm. It even gets into the head of the abuser, which was probably the hardest part for me. While we’re waiting to find all of this out, however, the author also does a great job getting into the minds of the police (the story takes place in Britain, just so you know which laws you’re dealing with). Ray and Kate make a great team, with just a little bit of emotional confusion going on.

I found most of the book, particularly once we get into the abuser’s head, to be not just dark, but beyond dark into depressing. I almost didn’t finish it because of that. It’s an extremely well-written book, mind you. It deserves the high score I’m giving it. But for goodness’ sake, make sure you’re up to what you’re about to read.

The abuser and his victim took over so much of the book for me, that I don’t have much to say about what came before. The book is extremely well designed with excellent pacing, complex characters, and genuine fear for what will happen.

 

Book provided free by publisher for review
Expected publication date: May 3, 2016

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Review: “The Blood House,” Amy Cross

Pros: Engrossing, tense
Cons: Well-used concept
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Blood House, by Amy Cross, is ultimately about a house that eats people (well, sort of). It’s a well-worn horror trope, but I enjoyed watching it play out. It includes a long-dead madman inventor, a more-than-stubborn teenager Jenna, a perpetually broke husband Owen, and a wife Helen who tries to keep the peace. Owen is running from his creditors, and decides that an inexpensive rental out in the middle of nowhere would be just the ticket. Jenna is more than a little outraged that he sprang this on her and her mother and that they got no say in it.

 

The Blood House is novella-length, which worked for me. If you’re going to wrap your entire piece around a trope, then you might as well move quickly through the familiar parts and concentrate on the window-dressing: your characters. I thought the family was presented well–it was easy to dislike shiftless Owen, but also easy to understand his unfailing optimism that things would get better. I could feel poor Helen trapped between her husband and her daughter, and Jenna is beyond angry–she’d like her mother to leave her father. For a small family in a short novel, they had more depth than I expected.

It takes little time before the house begins to creep out its new tenants. They already know there was a mysterious murder there 75 years ago (bodies never found, but the blood had gone everywhere). No one had rented it in that time, and the creepy person renting out the house (Mr. Daniels) said that its owner (the inventor) had laid out very specific instructions for when and how the building was to be rented out. Because of that, the family is getting a really good deal on the rental. In a normal longer version of this story we’d see the tenants very, very slowly warm up to the fact that the house is a killer. Instead, since this is a novella, we can jump almost straight into the understanding and application of the meat of the story. At least it means the reader doesn’t sit there for an hour going, “why do these idiots not realize something is wrong?”!

There are a few oddnesses in the narrative–for example, a bizarre, long narration of a key turning in a lock.

I won’t detail this, but I will say I liked the end and how it was handled.

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Short Take: “Last Resort”, K.R. Griffiths

Pros: Chilling
Cons: Short, and it all seems too one-sided
Rating: 3 out of 5

K.R. Griffiths’ Last Resort is a novella that takes place in the world of Griffiths’ Wildfire Chronicles. it’s a short read, but interesting. Shane and his wife Kelly have gone on vacation, a chance to re-connect. But when she confesses to infidelity, Shane hates everything having to do with her. He tries to drive them home through the storm, but an eagle smashes their windshield and they’re trapped at the lodge.

It’s crazy-time, as eyeless grizzly bears chase them and devour anyone that they find. Very gradually Shane and Kelly’s problems seem more and more irrelevant in the face of almost certain danger. The phones have all gone out. There’s no internet or electrical power or television. The lodge is in the middle of whiteout conditions, where you can’t even see the danger until it’s right on top of you. If it weren’t for occasional screams and shots. Shane and Kelly wouldn’t have even known something terrible was going on until it was too late.

The ‘zombies’ of this tale aren’t standard zombies. They’re still mortal and you can still kill them in the normal ways. They’re alive, they just appear to have had portions of their brains turned off.

A few details are off. They know the creatures hunt at least partially by sound, yet the characters compromise their hiding place in a noisy fashion.

It’s an interesting tale in which someone out in the middle of nowhere, without the news, could be caught out in the zombie apocalypse.

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