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.

The Power Couple, by Alex Berenson****

Alex Berenson has done it again! I first read his work when I found a galley for The Prisoner, the eleventh in his John Wells series. When I saw that this stand alone thriller was available, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.  The Power Couple is a fast read and a fun one, and I recommend it to you.

Rebecca (call her Becks) and Brian Unsworth are type A achievers, and both work for the federal government; she is a spy, and he is a hacker. But like so many couples, the similarities that brought them together are getting in their way now. With their children, Kira, who is nineteen, and Tony, who is younger, they take off for Europe to let off steam and spend quality time together. Maybe.

Early in the story, Kira is abducted, and from there forward, the pacing is perfect. Now and then Berenson pulls us back a bit as he shares sketches from their pasts that lead up to this event, but each reminiscence is brief, and the shift between points of view and time periods adds to the suspense. We see their lives through the perspectives of all except Tony, who is a minor character. In the end, Kira is the one we like best. (Trust me.) There’s not a lot of character development, but this isn’t that kind of novel.

I don’t want to give more away, because if I kill any surprises, you won’t enjoy the story as much; what I will say is that even if your own marriage is less than perfect, it is a shining beacon of integrity and affection when contrasted with that of the Unsworths.

This book is for sale now, and just right to take on vacation with you.

Mother May I, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

Joshilyn Jackson is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted to see that she has another novel coming out this spring. My heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley, Harper Audio, and William Morrow for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

One of the things I love about Jackson is that she recognizes and includes social class as a large factor in the lives of her characters. I am initially sorry to see that her protagonist, Bree Cabbat, is married to a wealthy man, but once the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the story won’t work any other way. Although Bree is rolling in it now, she grew up poor, the child of a single parent that took her back-to-school shopping at a Goodwill two towns over from their tiny Georgia town, carefully making sure that Bree’s classmates not recognize their own castoffs when Bree wore them. Later, theater classes helped Bree refine her accent to make her more employable; acting lessons helped her project the carefree confidence that is common to young adults whose families have money.

Now she is married to Trey, a man “who’d grown up with Scooters and Biffs and Muffys.” As the story progresses, there are frequent subtle reminders of this; Trey has a gun safe; Trey has a bottle of whiskey, a gift, that cost over two thousand dollars; their daughters are in an upscale school with a nice theatre program, and their daughters are enrolled in extracurricular activities like Quiz Bowl and Robotics. Yes, our Bree has come up in the world, alrighty. And so when their baby is kidnapped out from under her very nose, naturally Bree’s assumption is that there will be a ransom, and that she and Trey will pay it.

But this time, she is oh so wrong.

When the call comes, it turns out to be a very elderly woman bent on exacting revenge against Trey’s business partner, who is also his cousin. Bree must do exactly as she says, because if she sees any sign of police, “I’ll break his flimsy neck…I’ll twist his little head right around backward.”

Dear God.

 This story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let me go till I was done with it. I was initially approved for the audio version, and by the time I was given access to the print version, I had finished the first galley. Ordinarily, when something like this happens, I write my review, submit it to both places, and figure my work is done here. But for Jackson I do due diligence and more, and it’s a pleasure to read her book twice, so I did. And while both versions are excellent, I give a slight edge to the audio version. Print is a desirable medium anytime one is reading any mystery, because sometimes we want to flip back to check a detail or two. But Jackson always records her own audio books, and so I know the interpretation of the reader is always completely consistent with the writer’s intention. And in this case, the key side character—Marshall, an ex-cop that was married to Bree’s best friend, now dead—has a distinctive voice that comes through somewhat in the printed version, but much more plainly in the audio. I love the way she voices him, and although Marshall isn’t the protagonist, his role in this story is critical. The narrative shifts between Bree, who speaks to us from the first person limited, and Marshall, who comes to us in the third person.

The story carries an added social justice component: it’s MeToo on steroids. The things we learn about the men in the story add complexity, and though there’s a trigger or two here, I suspect most female readers will find the denouement deeply satisfying. I do.

The ending would ordinarily be deemed over-the-top, but because I believe the characters and story so completely by the time we get there, I also believe the resolution.

The one thing I would change here, if I wanted to be picky, would be to find a way to inject some of the epic laugh-out-loud humor I have enjoyed in Jackson’s earlier books. But that’s a tall order, given the intensity of this one.

One way or the other, this book is guaranteed to be one of the year’s very best. Don’t let yourself be left out. I strongly recommend this book to you, even at full cover price.

The Bounty, by Janet Evanovich and Steve Hamilton**

This book is the seventh in the Fox and O’Hare series. Our protagonists are Kate O’Hare, who is an FBI agent, and Nick Fox, a conman. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. While this book isn’t my cuppa, there will be readers that enjoy it. One way or the other, it goes up for sale on Tuesday, March 23.

The first six books of this series were cowritten by Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. There’s no explanation for why Goldberg is out and Hamilton is in, but the switch may account for some of the inconsistencies between the earlier books and this one. An example: Kate and Nick were tight in the earlier stories, and yet somehow, they can’t stand each other now. There’s no reason given for the change, so I have to assume it’s an authorial quirk; I have to say, not an original one.

The premise is that the pair are hot on the trail of a massive cache of Nazi gold; also pursuing this treasure is criminal organization known as The Brotherhood. Kate and Nick are charged with finding the gold and bringing The Brotherhood to its knees.

Before they are even off the plane, I have questions. For example, since when does the FBI have authority to do this sort of thing abroad? In cases of terrorist attacks on American citizens, sure. But treasure hunting on foreign soil? And since when does any law enforcement body send two officers to bring down an entire organization? You can see my point.

But this is the sort of story that one can only appreciate by suspending disbelief and buying the premise. The whole thing has something of a James Bondian flavor to it, consisting of large amounts of chasing, hiding, climbing, leaping, and in between, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. There’s a fair amount of derring- do; there’s a parachute, a grappling hook, lock picks; you name it. The element that distinguishes it from other such books is that both Fox’s and O’Hare’s fathers get involved.

For me to enjoy a novel from this genre, I need either a well-crafted story with literary merit, including character development, (i.e., James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, John Connolly,) or else some form of well-executed humor. There are a fair number of wonderful satires out there, and of course, there’s the series that made Evanovich famous, the Stephanie Plum numbered series, which have hit more than they’ve missed and almost always make me laugh out loud more than once. In reading The Bounty, I don’t find these things.

However, not every reader has the same preferences that I do. This is a fast read with accessible vocabulary—my inner snark popped out at one point, and my galley has a note when the word “independence” is used: “Wow, four syllables!”—a linear story line, and an easily followed plot. I could see hauling something like this to the hospital when you’re going to have surgery and your attention span won’t be up to par. And then there’s the consideration of interest. Some want to read action, action, action, and if the story were more realistic, we’d probably be reading about paperwork, reports, and endless months cultivating a contact that proves to be useless. Not entertaining.

Even so, I can’t recommend this book for general audiences, or even for those that like the series.

A Small Town, by Thomas Perry*****

This is a super fun read. An entire small town is undone by a prison break that leaves so many townsfolk dead that those that remain mostly just move away. The chief of police is a woman that lost her family and her boyfriend, and she decides to take herself on a black op to find the guys that did the killing and remove them from the map. The town council quietly backs her by steering a Federal grant aimed toward law enforcement toward her project.

I got the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and Christina Delaine does a sensational job as narrator. Cops that act outside the law are a sore spot right now, especially within the US, but Perry and Delaine drop me right into a make-believe time and place. It helps that the bad guys are Caucasian. I also like having the protagonist be a tall woman, bucking the trend toward tiny-firecracker female cops and detectives. The things she does on her mission seem more plausible for a tall woman, and Perry doesn’t knock himself out to make her seem adorable. In addition, there’s never a slow spot from start to finish, and never a moment when the mood is ruined by a detail done wrong. It’s about as perfect a thriller as you can get. Highly recommended, particularly in audio.

The Unwilling, by John Hart*****

This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.

The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.

And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.

The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.

The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.

But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.”  And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”

But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.

For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.

There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.

So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.

Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.

Highly recommended.

Serpentine, by Jonathan Kellerman****

This is the 36th entry into the Alex Delaware series, and it’s still going strong. Lucky me, I read it free. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. It will be available to the public February 2, 2021.

Milo Sturgis, the only gay detective in Los Angeles, has been ordered to take up a very cold case. Money talks, and big money talks loudest. A massively wealthy young woman wants to know what really happened to her mother, and who her biological father was. Ellie Barker was raised by her stepfather, who left her everything, and now that he’s gone, there’s no reason not to go digging for information about the things he didn’t like to talk about. Milo does an eye-roll and reaches for his phone. He thinks it would be better to have a psychologist along, and so once again, Alex joins him on the case.

The case is a complex one, and it also holds a lot of surprises, especially at the end. There’s a side character named Winifred Gaines, “equine laugh” and all, that I enjoy greatly.

I’m going to use this opportunity to share some reflections on the series as a whole. At the outset, clear back in the single digits of the series, the focus was mostly on Alex, and on children. Since Kellerman is a child psychologist, this format gave him an excellent chance to showcase his professional knowledge by incorporating troubled children or adolescents into the plot. I always learned something when he did this, and it was riveting.

Over the course of the series, children have become thinner on the ground. Perhaps this is because Kellerman has used up his reserves, but I don’t think so, somehow. It’s a mighty rich field, and as far as I know, he has it all to himself in terms of long-running series. This time, there are a few references to how children might behave under particular circumstances, and there’s a brief mention of a custody case Alex is working on, which is not central to the plot, but I nevertheless learned something just from the tiny little fragment he snuck into the story. I fervently wish that he would incorporate more child psychology and less kinky sex into his series now. If that makes me sound like a bluestocking, I’ll live with that.

What he has done that I like is build Milo into a more central character. Earlier in the series, Delaware was the central protagonist, and he and his girlfriend Robin—the sort of girlfriend that seems more like a wife—had some ups and downs. They separated at one point, then reunited. It did make them seem more like real people to me. Now, both of them are static and bland, but they provide a neutral backdrop for us to see Milo in action. And I have to admit, it works for me. Right from the get-go, Milo, who has a large appetite, comes lumbering into Alex and Robin’s kitchen, flings open the fridge, and starts making himself the mother of all sandwiches, and I realize that I am smiling widely. What an agreeable character! There’s a point about a third of the way in, where another guy stands up and Milo takes his seat, and “the couch shifted like a lagoon accommodating an ocean liner.” I just love it. There are a couple of allusions toward the end that hint that Milo may be experiencing some health issues that are common to large folk, but there’s no way that this character will die; not unless Kellerman wants to kill of his protagonists as part of an authorial retirement.

When all is said and done, this is a solid mystery from a solid series. Can you read it as a stand-alone? You can. However, you may become addicted and find yourself seeking out the others as well.

Recommended to all that love the genre.

The Searcher, by Tana French*****

I was bewildered at first why my fellow reviewers are so stingy with their ratings for this novel, which I fucking LOVE, but then I realized, it’s because of expectations. Those that are looking for a seat-of-your-pants thriller or heavy, heart-thudding suspense won’t find a lot of it here. However, if you love strong contemporary fiction and/or literary fiction, here it is.

I was turned down for the galley, and so I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons as soon as it became available. (Serious wait list; no surprise there.) I finished it this evening, and although I have other books on board, this is the one I keep thinking about. I’m particularly taken with the character named Trey, who is at least as important here as the protagonist.

That said, once again, this is not from the Dublin Street series, which I also love; it’s a stand alone novel, and an excellent one at that. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I will say this: thank you, Ms. French, for not hurting the beagles.

The narrator does a splendid job.

Highly recommended.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.