Hypnosis is for Hacks, by Tamara Berry****

Eleanor Wilde is a sham medium, a fraud who’s used her dramatic talents and the trust of her clients to bilk them. But lately things have changed; she has received intelligence from the great beyond, specifically from her deceased sister. As a businesswoman that now resides in a small town in the UK and doesn’t want her neighbors to hate her, she’s shifted most of her business to herbal cures and such. As it happens, this doesn’t keep all hell from busting loose.

My thanks go to Kensington Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Eleanor–you may call her Ellie—is the protagonist in a satirical cozy mystery series, and this is the fourth. I read and reviewed the first two, but somehow missed out on the third. The first two took place in a tiny village where the ruling family lives in an honest-to-goodness castle. She went there, in the first in the series, to conduct a bogus séance, but instead fell in love with Nicholas, heir to the estate. Now the castle is in need of serious repairs. It’s summer, and the castle is hot enough to be uninhabitable, and so Ellie accompanies the elderly Vivian, matriarch of the castle, to the seaside. Her brother Liam, who is visiting, joins them. And once there, all sorts of things go wrong. We have a menacing, possessed doll that reappears in or near Ellie’s room, no matter what she does to destroy it, and a sinister figure from Ellie’s checkered past shows up as well. And of course, of course, of course, Ellie witnesses a murder shortly after arriving, but nobody will believe her.

I came away of two minds about this particular installment. The thing I’ve appreciated most about this series is that Berry’s writing is hilarious, and whenever an obvious plot device is utilized, it’s done in such an over-the-top manner that we can imagine the author winking and guffawing. Nothing here is to be taken seriously. In the past there’s been very little character development, and I was okay with that, because I wasn’t looking for great literature; I was looking for a laugh.

Here I find some changes. There’s less humor, although two particular bits, one involving lobsters and another involving, per the title, hypnosis, made me snicker. But I also find more character development. Realistically speaking, a series can’t last long if there’s no character development, and so I’m pleased to see Berry adding a bit of depth, but at the same time, what I really want is to laugh out loud. We live in tense times, and there’s a growing body of evidence that we live longer if we laugh. A silly, escapist novel that lets us forget current events entirely for a brief while, forget our own troubles, whatever they may be, and sit back and howl at what our clever author has cooked up, is worth more than many can imagine.

Nonetheless, this story is better by far than most of what’s out there within the humor genre, and I recommend it to you. Now…where’s that cat?

Autopsy, by Patricia Cornwell*****

Autopsy is number 25 in the Kay Scarpetta series, the first forensic thrillers ever to see print. This series began in 1990, and I have read every single one, but this is the first time I’ve scored a review copy. My thanks go to William Morrow and Net Galley.

When the series began, Scarpetta was the chief medical examiner in Virginia. When last we saw her, she was working in Massachusetts, but now she’s come full circle, brought back to her old position in order to root out corruption and restore the office to the integrity it held when last Scarpetta was in charge. She didn’t expect it to be easy, and it surely isn’t.

There are long running characters that have been so well developed over the years that I almost feel as if I would know them on the street. Her husband, Benton Wesley, holds a sensitive position within the FBI, and the necessary secrecy and sudden need to pack a bag and go somewhere has led to marital tension over the course of the series, but not so much this time. Kay’s niece, Lucy, is more like a daughter; she has been estranged from her mother at times, a high-strung, self-absorbed woman that looks out for number one every minute of every day. The mother—Dorothy—is now married to Pete Marino, with whom Scarpetta has worked closely for the length of the series, and they live nearby.

At this juncture, new or inconstant readers may wonder if there’s any point to jumping into a book this far into the series. I read it with that question in mind, and whereas you won’t have the background and depth of context that faithful fans possess, you can understand everything that happens here; Cornwell doesn’t burden the reader with assumed knowledge.  And if you are a new reader, likely as not, you’ll find yourself headed to the library or bookstore to pick up others from this series. It’s that addictive.

The only background information that might make a difference is that from the outset, Kay’s whole family (except Dorothy, of course) fears for her well-being. A murder occurs in the area, and the victim is a neighbor of Pete and Dorothy’s. Immediately, there’s this sense of urgency, and it’s more than one would ordinarily expect. A neighbor has been killed; the circumstances are weird, and we don’t know whodunit; everyone is edgy about personal security, and again—especially regarding Kay’s safety. So let me help you out, if you’re new: over several of the most recent episodes, someone has attempted to kill Kay, nearly succeeding more than once, and though the occasional thug has been caught, the schemer behind the attempts is still out there somewhere. The narrative makes no specific references to any of this, which I appreciate. It’s obnoxious when a book costs as much as new books do these days, for the author to insert what amount to advertisements to buy her other books. But for those not in the know: If the beginning seems a little overwrought, that’s why.

Add to this that the old guard is still entrenched in Kay’s workplace, with people whispering behind her back, and her secretary clearly plotting against her. She’s just arrived, but she is on the back foot, trying to find out what’s going on and who can be trusted, and trying to establish her own authority without making enemies unnecessarily. As I read, I find myself urging her to assert herself. Because to me, Scarpetta isn’t a fictional character at all. I believe in this character, and I believe in Benton, Lucy, and Marino, too. I’ve known them longer than a lot of people I see in real life, after all.

Those of us that read a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and so forth become accustomed to timeworn plot devices. I have a little list of things I hate to find in books of this genre, and Cornwell avoids them all. There is no alcoholic protagonist that just wants a drink, a drink, a drink. There’s no kidnapping of the protagonist and stuffing her in the trunk (or backseat, or whatever,) nor does this happen to any of her loved ones. Scarpetta is not being framed for a murder she didn’t commit, nor is anyone she loves.

Instead, we get an autopsy in outer space, supervised remotely by Scarpetta. How cool is that?

One other aspect of this book, and this series, that I love, is that there is just enough interesting information included about forensic investigation without the story turning into some tedious science lecture, as I have found in books scribed by Cornwall’s imitators.

The pacing is swift, the dialogue crackles, and a new character, Officer Fruge, is introduced. Hers is the last word in the book, and for some reason, it made me laugh out loud, a first for this series.

Welcome home, Scarpetta.

Game On! by Janet Evanovich****-*****

Stephanie Plum has been my constant companion for decades, but she never seems to get any older. We should all be so lucky!

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Stephanie is a bounty hunter, working for her cousin Vinnie’s bail bond service. She tracks down no-shows, takes them to have their hearings rescheduled, and collects a commission. Her mother wishes fervently that she would get a normal job such as a bank teller, or just go ahead and marry long-time boyfriend Officer Joe Morelli, and keep house and raise kiddies. But Stephanie is long on independence, and she’s short on marketable skills, and so this is what she does. And we readers are well aware that she wouldn’t be half this hilarious as a housewife, so we cheer her on.

In an interview, author Evanovich said she had lit on the idea of a bounty hunter protagonist because the writer doesn’t need a background in legal matters the way that she would if she used a cop, detective, or lawyer. The primary skill required of a bail bonds enforcer is lying, and she felt she had a good grasp of that one.

You gotta love it.

There have been a few wobbles in the series, and a moment (long ago) when I thought perhaps it was played out. But like her intrepid protagonist, the author rallied and came back stronger than ever.

Can you read this book if you haven’t read any of the others in the series? Yes. Yes, you surely can; but you are most likely going to want to go back for the rest once you do so.

There are a few things that strike me as I read this one. I suddenly find myself wondering why Stephanie doesn’t seem to have women friends. She’s lived in Trenton—in the Burg—her entire life, so shouldn’t she have a few lifelong pals? But by the end of the story, I realized that her work buds are her go-to girls. Lula gets into a scrape and leaves what little she has to Stephanie (but of course, Lula pulls through. I don’t feel like this is a spoiler; since when would a riotously funny writer like Evanovich off a main character?) Connie is a distant relative, but she’s also a friend.

I also find myself, like other reviewers, wondering about the sanitized language and decreasing vocabulary levels. We’ve been drifting in this direction for awhile. At the start of the series, profanity was used by the people and in the situations where you’d expect to find it. The overall language level was accessible to anybody that finished eighth grade. Over the last several episodes, however, it’s been drifting downward. Now, apart from one “damn”, I found nothing, although the euphemisms are stellar (“What the fork,” “What the Hellman’s Mayonnaise,” “Son of a bagel.”)  And the overall vocabulary level is now down to about fifth grade. If it goes any lower (see the author’s other series,) I may not be interested anymore, but as it stands, it’s fast, it’s snappy, and I’m in.

The usual elements—escorting Grandma Mazur to viewings at the mortuary; exploding cars; men surprising Stephanie when they let themselves into her locked apartment; dinner with Stephanie’s parents; a geeky witness, or victim, or possibly even an offender, that Stephanie takes under her wing; and the red-hot Joe Morelli are all present and accounted for. Stephanie’s mother has been drinking heavily every time Stephanie gets into a dangerous scrape, and Evanovich has been toying with some character development in her direction. I hope she follows through.

The tension of Stephanie trying to decide between Morelli and the mysterious Ranger is over, for now, at least, and it was getting old, so I applaud this development. She knows that Ranger will never marry her, and there’s a lot he’ll never tell her. She knows Morelli. They grew up together, and they understand one another. Marriage, maybe not yet; but Joe is the one. She’s tempted by others in this installment, but for once, she behaves herself. Good.

Whereas this series isn’t the magnificent literary accomplishment attained by some mystery Grand Masters, and it doesn’t try to be, I rate it as five stars in the humor genre. It made me laugh out loud on page two, and though I read quite a lot of books each year, those that have made me howl this year can be counted on one hand. It’s a more valuable characteristic than some might guess, especially during these tense times.

Highly recommended to those that need a good laugh.

The Joy and Light Bus Company, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

“Connections with others were what made life bearable…We all need reassurance, she thought. We all need people to tell us that everything is going to be all right, even when it is not, and that we should not worry, even when we clearly need to be concerned about something. We are only human, after all, and that is why reassurance is so important to us. That is undoubtedly well known.”

I am not generally fond of cozy mysteries, yet I love this series hard. I told a friend—who works as a therapist—that the #1 Ladies Detective books are the cheapest therapy on the planet, and she agreed.

My great thanks go to Edelweiss and Penguin Random House for the review copy. This charming tale will be for sale November 16, 2021.

As is usual, we have two equally important story lines woven into a single narrative. The detective story has to do with a client—a most unpleasant fellow, but a client, nonetheless—that has come to the agency looking for help with his father’s will. His father is still alive, but not entirely himself anymore, and is planning to leave his valuable home to his nurse. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are enlisted to dig up information about this woman, and to see if anything can be done to reverse his father’s decision. The second storyline concerns Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who has decided to invest in a dubious-sounding scheme to turn secondhand buses into a bus service. Mma Ramotswe is horrified, because in order to invest the necessary sum, it will be necessary to take out a bank loan, using the building that houses the businesses—Matekoni’s auto repair, and Ramotswe’s detective agency—as collateral. There’s also a smaller thread involving human trafficking of small children locally, and as usual, it is dealt with tidily and in a most entertaining fashion.

The book begins with Mma Ramotswe wondering what makes men happy. This is a tricky way to start a book, given the current social climate especially. Many readers, women in particular, are sensitive to having a male author write about a female character’s fervent longing to make her husband happy. The internal monologue could use some tightening up here, and that’s unusual for this writer. However, this passage is near the beginning, and once it’s done, the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

What is the alchemy that makes this series so successful? Certainly at the start, there was the novelty. It’s unusual for an English-language series to be set in Botswana, or at least, it was when this one began. But it takes a lot more than that to sustain a series over so many years.

For me, the gentle humor goes a long way. I also appreciate the depth of respect for working people that shines out of every book in this series. Mma Potokwane, who runs the orphan farm and is Mma Ramotswe’s closest friend, reflects on the squabble over the old man’s will. “Rich people are always forgetting that they are only rich because of the work of others. They do not dig their money out of the ground, you know, Mma.”

Also? There are a lot of us out here that are also “traditionally sized,” and we love seeing lovable, successful characters that look, to some extent, like ourselves.

There’s the notion that people are inherently good—try finding that in your average noir detective story—and also, the idea that ordinary people can and should intervene to the best of their ability when they see wrongdoing. “Sometimes those people simply did not see what others could see; sometimes their hands were tied; sometimes they felt threatened. And all of that meant that there were times when it was left to people like them, a private detective and the matron of an orphan farm, to do what had to be done.”

This story, however, is singular in that both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi manage their husbands through deception. Grace Makutsi reveals that she gets her husband, Phuti, to take his vitamins by stirring them into his breakfast tea without telling him. Precious Ramotswe, when unable to persuade Matekoni not to apply for the bank loan, sneaks around behind his back, looking for a way to kill the deal without his knowing it. Neither of these things leads to marital disaster, yet I find myself wondering whether these things may come back on them in a future installment.

The fact that I find myself feeling concerned about the marriages of two women that are fictional, fictional, fictional says a great deal about Smith’s capacity to develop characters with depth and breadth.

I can talk about this series, and these characters, and this book all day. I’ve already come close to it. But the best way for you to appreciate it is to get this book. It comes out in a week, so I suggest you order a copy now. Highly recommended.

Unfinished Business, by J.A. Jance*****

Judith Jance has done it again. Unfinished Business is the sixteenth in the Ali Reynolds series; not only does she weave a compelling, tightly plotted tale, but she may have broken new ground with the role technology plays in solving crimes within the storyline. Add a sprinkling of social justice issues, and what emerges is an unmissable novel. My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Ali is a former journalist, but now she and her husband, B. Simpson, own and run a cyber security firm called High Noon. B. is a nice enough fellow, but we see very little of him. Most of the time he is away on business, leaving Ali to flex her badass crime solving muscles, and providing her with a healthy chunk of disposable income that makes it easier. Other continuing characters are Cammie and Stuart; Frigg, the AI entity operating out of High Noon; and Bob and Edie Larson, Ali’s parents. Our two new characters are Harvey “Broomy” McCluskey, who is a serial murderer, and Mateo Vega, a second-chancer newly out of prison and in High Noon’s employ.

The best long-running mystery series are ones that go deep into the character of the chief protagonist and sometimes others, as well. When you think about it, there are only so many interesting crimes; only so many credible motives; and only so many believable plots an author can spin that involve only the mystery at hand. What makes the most successful ones stand out is the investment the reader has in the character and her life. Jance works her characters like a champ. Within this one, we have multiple interesting side threads. Ali’s parents are aging, and although she is more than willing to support them and advocate for them, they don’t tell her everything. They are independent and intelligent. They treasure their dignity, and their privacy. Sometimes this combination spells trouble, and so it is here. We see Ali trying to juggle the ever-changing aspects of the business while B is out of town, along with health issues facing her father, who won’t talk about them; one of her children gives birth; and then there are issues with her employees.

Point of view shifts between chapters, and so we first meet Harvey, who is a resentful, entitled jerk who has murdered his mother and gotten away with it. Unfortunately, Harvey is also a tenant of High Noon’s, and he’s in arrears on his office rent. No one at High Noon knows that he is dangerous; they figure he’s a deadbeat, and he has to go. Ohhh, honey, look out!

We also meet Mateo. Mateo has spent 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. His public defender told him the plea deal was the safe bet, and so he took it. He could have been released early if he’d expressed remorse, but nobody and nothing could make him say he did it when he didn’t, so he rotted there for his entire youth. But while inside, he continued to study technology, and earned an online degree. Now he’s released, comes out with skills, and is hired by High Noon.

I love the way Jance uses all of these characters, and the thread involving Cami is particularly interesting.

I read and reviewed most of the recent books in this series, and in number 13, I called this author out for making all of the bad guys in the story Latina or Latino, and all the good guys Caucasian, except for Cami, who is Asian. It’s great to see how she’s turned it around. The social messages here—the broken prison system; issues with keeping the aged safe; the difficulty former prisoners face in starting a new life; and of course, violence against women—are all progressive ones, and none of them hijacks the plot or slows it in any way. In fact, this novel is among Jance’s best, and that’s a high bar to meet.

Highly recommended.

The Nameless Ones, by John Connolly*****

Connolly has written the creepiest, spookiest, best written novel you will see this October. The Nameless Ones is #19 in the Charlie Parker series; my thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book goes up for sale October 26, 2021.

The series continues a conflict that began earlier in the series; that said, you can jump in here anyway. However, once you read this one, you’ll want to go back and pick up the others, or at least, say, the last five or six leading up to it. That’s all to the good, since Connolly can’t write as fast as you can read. Perhaps if you collect them you will be entertained until his next one comes out.

Unlike any of his other Charlie Parker stories, Parker plays a relatively peripheral role, with his two massively popular assistants, Angel and Louis, up front, with Louis having the lion’s share of the action. These two, who have served as Parker’s investigators and at times, as his body guards, are interesting characters. They do not love the law, but they do love each other. Angel is recovering from cancer treatment and Louis is in search of vengeance. Someone they had hired as a liaison in Serbia has been murdered, and the man’s last act, when he saw the walls closing in, was to wire a substantial sum into Louis’s account. Louis, in turn, intends to use that money to terminate the men that terminated his colleague. Stranger still, he is supported—in a massively unofficial manner—by the FBI. He doesn’t like it much, but there they are.

There’s a new character named Zorya, who is dead, but hasn’t crossed over. “She was a creature of the cold and dark. Zorya had winter blood.” She is physically small, and in a hoodie she is generally accepted by bystanders as an adolescent. She has attached herself to one of the men Louis is hunting, and has clairvoyant gifts. But what’s particularly interesting is her relationship to Jennifer Parker, the murdered seven-year-old daughter of Charlie. Jennifer has appeared to her father on a number of occasions, sometimes providing him with critical information. Now Connolly has decided to develop Jennifer, who has obtained a fair amount of power and authority on the other side of the veil. When Zorya targets Charlie, Jennifer targets Zorya. This is one of the coolest gambits I have seen in years, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book. But let’s get back to this one, since that’s what I’m supposed to be doing here.

New readers should prepare for a good deal of violence, and the most graphic and horrific shows up right at the beginning, so if you read it and aren’t sure you can stay the course through the end of the book, take heart. Lots more people are going to drop dead, but the most nightmarish details are up front. Nevertheless, it’s not something I read directly before sleeping.

The intensity and horror are nicely broken up with humor; the dialogue featuring Louis, Angel, or both positively crackles. I laughed out loud more than once. A pair of secondary bodyguards, the Fulci Brothers, whom Angel and Louis have deputized to watch out for Charlie at one point, are also welcome additions, and in no way resemble the pair that hired them. Sure enough, they save Parker’s butt. When the police arrive and Parker tells them only the bare minimum, the detective in charge reminds him that his would-be assassins may try again. “The Fulcis won’t always be ready to come to the rescue with a tire iron and a bear head.” (!!!)

As always, Connolly deftly employs a huge number of characters, and yet I am able to keep all of them straight. He keeps the time sequence linear, and this helps the story flow and keeps the players and events from becoming entangled.

If you’ve followed this review to this point, you have all the stamina you need to enjoy this exceptional novel. True, the book is longer than my review, but Connolly writes a lot better, too.

Highly recommended!

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead*****

Ray Carney has a foot in both worlds, and he isn’t given to thinking too deeply about that. As the son of a badass criminal, he considers that he has turned out quite respectably; yet, when Cousin Freddie occasionally brings a consignment piece of jewelry to his store, he doesn’t ask many questions about its history. Thus begins a slow, steady slide, from being a mostly-straight retailer, to a mostly-crooked fence. But oh, what a glorious story it makes!

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

The first time I read Colson Whitehead was when The Underground Railroad was published five years ago. It was unquestionably a work of genius, but it was also a fair amount of work to read. Then The Nickel Boys came out, and when I finally found a copy, it was well written yet so harsh, and at a difficult time for me personally, that I thanked my lucky stars that it wasn’t a review copy, and I gave myself permission to abandon it. So thus far, my admiration for this author has been tempered by the awareness that I would need to roll up my sleeves, or to brace myself, or both.

Harlem Shuffle contains none of that. It’s told in linear fashion, beginning in the late 1950s and ending in the late 1960s. The writing is first rate, as one might anticipate, but it’s also an unmitigated pleasure to read.

Our protagonist, Carney, has married up. His beautiful wife Elizabeth comes from a family with lighter skin, higher social position, and a good deal more money. Elizabeth loves him, but she has expectations. As his young family grows to include a son and daughter, the pressure increases. But let’s not kid ourselves; this isn’t just about Carney supporting his family:

“If he got a thrill out of transforming these ill-gotten goods into legit merchandise, a zap-charge in his blood like he’d plugged into a socket, he was in control of it and not the other way around. Dizzying and powerful as it was. Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw…The thing inside him that gave a yell or tug or shout now and again was not the same thing his father had. The sickness drawing every moment into its service…Carney had a bent to his personality, how could he not, growing up with a father like that. You had to know your limits as a man and master them…His intent was bent but he was mostly straight, deep down.”

Freddie comes to Carney with a plan: he and his confederates intend to rob the Hotel Theresa, which is the pride of Harlem, the place to stay for Negro patrons of breeding and taste. It was almost sacrilege; and yet, it would also be a fantastic take. Would Ray Carney put out some feelers to find out who could move the sorts of valuable baubles that might be found in the hotel safe? Ray tells him of course not. No no no no no. A thousand times no! And then, he commences doing exactly that.

There are several aspects of this tale that make it exceptional. Whitehead resists the amateurish urge to fall back on pop culture of the period, instead imparting the culture and the pressures of the time more subtly. Racism against Negroes (the acceptable term of the time) by Caucasians; racism by light-skinned Negroes against darker ones, such as Carney; cop violence against all of them; the difficulty faced by Harlem merchants that want to carry first-class products but must first persuade snooty Caucasian company representatives; protection rackets endemic to Harlem, run by Negro criminals as well as cops, so that envelopes had to be passed to multiple representatives every month; and a plethora of other obstacles, stewed into the plot seamlessly, never resembling a manifesto. There’s Whitehead’s matchless ability to craft his characters, introducing each with a sketch so resonant that I had to reread them before moving on; highlight them; then go back and read them a third time after I’d finished the book. My favorite secondary character is Pepper, an older thug so terrifying that even the cops wince when they’re near him. And then there are brief shifts in point of view, and again, my favorite of these is Pepper’s.

Carney isn’t a brilliant decision maker, but he is an underdog, and he’s a survivor as well, and both of these things make me cheer him on. I haven’t had so much fun in a long damn time. When events escalate, Carney finds himself rolling a corpse into a fine carpet, and I can only hope that he chose a relatively cheap rug, because otherwise, what a waste! Those that love the genre mustn’t miss this book, filled with everything anyone could ever want in a noir-style crime novel. Do it, do it, do it!

Another Kind of Eden, by James Lee Burke****

James Lee Burke is a living legend, a novelist who’s won just about every prize there is, and whose published work has spanned more than fifty years.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Another Kind of Eden is a prequel to Burke’s Holland family trilogy. The time is the 1960s, and protagonist Aaron Holland Broussard is in Colorado working a summer job. He falls in love with a waitress named JoAnne, but there are obstacles to their happiness everywhere he looks. There’s a charismatic professor that won’t leave her alone, a bus full of drugged-out young people that have fallen under his influence, and of course, there’s corruption among the local wealthy residents, which is a signature feature in Burke’s work. Aaron is a Vietnam veteran, and he has residual guilt and grief that get in his way as well. He’s got some sort of an associative disorder, though I am not sure that’s the term used; at any rate, he blacks out parts of his life and cannot remember them. He also has anger issues, and he melts down from time to time; there’s an incident involving a gun that he forces a man to point at him that I will never get entirely out of my head, and kind of wish I hadn’t read.

I had a hard time rating this novel. If I stack it up against the author’s other titles, it is a disappointment; a lot of the plot elements and other devices feel recycled from his other work, dressed up a bit differently. But if I pretend that this is written by some unknown author, then I have to admit it’s not badly written at all. By the standards of Burke’s other work, it’s a three star book; compared to most other writers, it’s somewhere on the continuum between four and five. Since I have to come up with something, I decided to call it four stars.

All that being said, if you have never read anything by this luminary, I advise you to start with one of his earlier books–almost any of them, actually.

Steel Fear, by Brandon Webb and John David Mann*****

Steel Fear is the first in a series by Brandon Webb and John David Mann. It’s billed as a “high-octane thriller,” and that’s what it is. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

Before starting the novel, I flipped to “About the Authors,” which is at the end of the book. Webb is a retired SEAL himself, boasting a list of awards as long as your flippers. He is a top level frog, which is a combat diver, and he not only is trained as a sniper, but has been in charge of training other snipers. Suffice to say, he is qualified to write a book like this and knows what he’s talking about. This thriller took ten years to see publication, and a good part of that delay was getting one aspect after another of his description of the aircraft carrier, The Abraham Lincoln, cleared by the Pentagon. Mann is not ex-military, but has an impressive list of achievements in the arts.

Our protagonist is Finn, a SEAL who’s being sent back to the states on The Abraham Lincoln. He doesn’t know why; nobody on the boat does, either; and he cannot reach anyone that can enlighten him. This keeps Finn off balance, the reader doesn’t know whether Finn is trustworthy, so that keeps the reader off balance, too. We meet him when Monica Halsey, a helicopter pilot who is also an important character, is sent to pick him up. Two men approach the helicopter, and they are described as a large man that looks like a mountain lion, and a little guy that looks like a marsupial. Finn is the marsupial, and when I learn that he is a funny-looking little guy, it endears him to me. When we see him disappear on board ship, blending in, seeing and hearing things he isn’t meant to, it’s all the more impressive. I still don’t know if I should like this guy, yet I do.

The crew is reeling from a horrible, unexplainable accident that took the lives of a helicopter crew; soon after, there is a suicide, and then another. Suicide, we learn, is at epidemic levels in the military, and so at first, most people don’t question it; but both suicides are a little too similar, and Halsey smells a rat. So does Finn.

At the outset, there’s a great deal of description of the aircraft carrier, and at first I feel impatient to get on with the story, but soon I can see that the setting is very important, and the description is necessary to understanding it. Webb does a fine job with it, and it’s a good thing, because when I ran a Google search for images, I got mostly air.

National security indeed.

The chapters are very short, and the point of view changes constantly, with Finn and Monica occupying more space than other crew members. Between the shifting viewpoints; Finn’s anxious attempts to find out where he’s going, what his status is, and why he’s being sent away; and Monica’s urgent need to know why her friends are dead, and if anyone else she cares about is next, I am kept on the edge of my seat. Still more deaths follow, and by the halfway mark, my heart is beating a little quicker, and I know better than to let myself read it at bedtime. Fortunately, despite the deaths, which continue of course, there isn’t a lot of gore, and I happily made this book my lunchtime companion. Once I got near the climax, there was no putting it down till the thing was done.

I tend to be leery of books written by military folks, because sometimes there’s a right-wing overtone to the prose that grates against my own values. This isn’t a problem here.  Instead, this is a rock solid opening to a promising new series, and I can’t wait to read the next one. Highly recommended to all that love the genre.

Thief of Souls, by Brian Klingborg**-***

I was invited to read this mystery, and my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. I am always looking for something a bit different, and this sounded like it would be. And it is, but it’s not.

Here’s what I mean. A woman has been murdered in a particularly ugly, grisly manner. A hot shot cop who’s been buried in a backwater where nothing ever happens gets the case. Because he is clever and ambitious, he digs more than most cops might, and voila! Turns out this could be the work of a serial killer! But there are higher-ups in the force that would rather have a quick solve than an accurate one. Obstacles! And next thing you know, the cop is in danger too.

Yawn.

Okay. Now, take this same tired thread and drop it in China. With resonant characters, compelling use of setting, and some word smithery, it might come alive, and in the hands of a master storyteller, we might not even notice that the story’s bones are nothing new. Instead, I came away disaffected and mildly depressed. I quit at the sixty percent mark and didn’t even go back to look at the ending, which for me is unheard of, particularly in this genre.

I am no fan of the Chinese government, but the steady flow of negativity wore me down, not to mention the lack of strong character development. We know right away that Lu is a rebel, and as the story progresses, we also know that Lu is a rebel. At the start, we sense that the government, both local and national, is corrupt; as we near the climax, we also know that the government is corrupt.

What, in this story, is worth saving?

I thought it would be fun to see how an investigation works in China, and what sort of rights—or lack thereof—form the contours of the legal system. I came away sensing that the author doesn’t know all that much, either. There’s no Bill of Rights there, surely, but I knew that much going in.

I don’t have to have lovable characters to enjoy a mystery, but there does, at least, have to be someone interesting. Give me a complex, well-developed villain, for example, and I’m a happy camper. But there’s none, and I’m not.

So there you have it. Thief of Souls is one more sad case of an intriguing book cover and title promising more than it can deliver. If you want this book now, it’s for sale, but I would advise you to get it cheap or free unless you have a big stack of money sitting around that you were thinking of burning in the backyard. Otherwise, maybe not.