Duel to the Death, by J.A. Jance***

DuelofDeathJance is one of my favorite hometown writers, author of the J.P. Beaumont series and other books, and so I was pleased to see this title offered on Net Galley. Thanks go to that site and Touchstone for the free review copy.  It’s for sale now.

This is the 13th entry in the Ali Reynolds series, and its constant readers will likely want to read this one also. New readers may be a harder sell. Although the novel has some bright spots, it’s slow to wake up and burdened with a number of issues, some of which are deal-breakers.

The opening is slow, and there is a great deal of back story that slows down the inner narrative. If I hadn’t taken a review copy from Simon and Schuster, I would have tossed the book on my giveaway pile and called it quits. But staying with it has its rewards. Though Reynolds is featured in this story and it is set in her home and within the cybersecurity firm she and her husband own, the most important characters here are Stuart, her technical wizard, and the surprisingly charming Artificial Intelligence entity named Frigg that bonds to him. Graciella Miramar, a talented Panamanian hacker and the daughter of a drug lord, is determined to hack into Frigg in order to get the password that serves as the key to a vast fortune in Bitcoins.

I am nearly halfway into the book before I am engaged, but once I am hooked I am in it for keeps.

The immense amount of money Reynolds and  her husband toss around  prevents me from empathizing with them.  A large amount of independent wealth solves a lot of logistical problems for the novelist,  just as it does for the affluent in real life, but Jance is a seasoned writer, and I am disappointed that she takes the easy way out. In addition, the denouement—not given away here lest you decide to read it anyway—strains credibility.

All of the bad guys—we have one female villain, Graciella, and a whole list of her family members and associates—are Latino. All the Latinos, apart from the Reynolds’ domestic employee, are bad people. All the good guys are Caucasian except for Cami, who is Asian-American.  I am disquieted by the portrayal of at least a dozen immigrant characters as “gangbangers”, thieves, rapists, arsonists, and murderers. Particularly given current events and attacks on immigrants’ rights by the U.S. government, this is disturbing.

So if you are a reader who is heartily sick of fiction that wants to appear politically correct, congratulations. Here’s your book; knock yourself out. Everyone else is forewarned.

Unpunished, by Lisa Black**

unpunishedThis novel is the second in the Gardiner and Renner series. I was invited to read and review it by Kensington Press and Net Galley. I appreciate the invitation and have enjoyed other titles published by this house; unfortunately, this particular book didn’t work for me. It is now available for purchase.

The premise is that a man has been found hanging at the office of the Cleveland Herald. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner is called to the scene. Ultimately, she will pair once again with Jack Renner, a vigilante killer that uses his homicide cop skills to enforce his own code.

This aspect of the story is not without appeal. As traditional relationships between the public and law enforcement become more fraught with injustice, it’s hard to relate to a traditional cop, though for the sake of a good yarn, I can pretend. While it is unthinkable, in real life, for anyone to make their own private hit list according to who’s good and who’s not—in the mind of the list maker—it does make for good fiction.

That’s about all the good I found here, though. Stereotypes, women referred to as “girls”, at-risk urban youth all lumped into the category of “gangbangers” and made disposable; these things all set my teeth on edge. There’s some over-long dialogue that is flat, and there’s more information about the production of newspapers than I ever needed to know.

The place I reacted the most strongly was at the beginning, where we get detailed information about neck ligatures that tell whether a body on a rope committed suicide or was strangled and left there to swing. For some readers, I think this will be fascinating. But for those that have been close to someone that died by his or her own hand, particularly in this manner, let this review serve as a neon trigger warning. There’s no scooting past it to get to the story; the forensic aspect plays heavily here.

For fans of Lisa Black’s other novels, of which there are several, this will likely be a welcome read. And perhaps I am a wee bit harsh simply because I have read so much strong fiction lately; every reviewer is susceptible to the urge to compare work. What else is on the table that I could be reading? How good is it? And right now, the answer is that the table is groaning under the weight of excellent literature, and those with limited time and resources can likely find a better book than this one.

Not this book; not this time.

The Windchime Legacy, by A.W. Mykel*

thewindchimelegacyI was invited to read and review this title by my friends at Brash Books and Net Galley; it was one of half a dozen that I could check out. I appreciate the invitation, and the other books in that batch have been read by me already and happily reviewed. This one is different; it has not stood the test of time.

So in other words: no, no, no, and no.

Usually I say it is essential to stick with a book till at least the 20 percent mark in order to get a sense of where it’s going and whether it might redeem itself, but I can’t do that here. By chapter three I am ready to throw things.

When this book was originally published, there was a significant portion of the book-buying USA who would have laughed at the notion that it’s not okay to refer to a woman (in our case, a waitress) as having “a nice set of tits”, or calling her “a piece of ass”. Those same people would have told me not to be so touchy about the “N” word (applied for no special reason to the African-American cook in the restaurant.) Probably I would have heard people say that we should just face the fact that some people talk that way, and that the text therefore reflects reality.

I stuck with it long enough to determine that the demeaning nature of the dialogue was not merely placed to determine the nasty nature of a single protagonist, but both the computer scientist and his adversary and potential recruiter say and think these things.

And for me, that was enough.

Stick a fork in me; I’m done!