Blackman’s Coffin by Mark de Castrique

Blackman's Coffin by Mark de CastriqueBlackman’s Coffin is the first book in a new series from Mark de Castrique, author of the outstanding ‘Buryin’ Barry’ series. Blackman’s Coffin introduces us to Sam Blackman, a former Chief Warrant Officer in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Detachment who, having lost part of his left leg in Iraq, is currently rehabbing at a V.A. hospital in Asheville, N.C.

Shortly before he is set to be discharged, both from the hospital and the Army, he meets fellow vet and amputee Tikima Robertson during one of her visits to the hospital. Knowing of his investigative background, Tikima offers Sam a job with the security company where she works and promises to visit again in a couple of days. After several weeks pass with no word from Tikima, Sam follows up with her company only to learn that Tikima was murdered, her body having been pulled from the French Broad river with a gunshot to the head.

Sam subsequently receives a call from Tikima’s sister informing him that her sister’s apartment has been ransacked, and that she thinks she knows what the intruders were looking for… a journal from 1919 which recounts, among other things, the murder of the Robertsons’ great-great-grandfather, Elijah, who was also found in the French Broad river. Tikima had hidden the journal under the dust jacket of another book and left a note on it indicating that the journal was intended for Sam’s review. Feeling a sense of obligation to the woman who had reached out to him, Sam agrees to help investigate Tikima’s murder.

The plot, which deftly interweaves the modern day murder of Tikima with that of her great-great-grandfather Elijah, manages to include a great deal of history about Asheville, the Biltmore Estate and Thomas Wolfe (an Asheville native, and who does factor into the story), all without ever slowing down the pace of the story. As with his Barry Clayton series, which is also set in North Carolina, the characters in Blackman’s Coffin are so well written the reader immediately feels as though they’ve known them forever, and both the behavior and dialog of even the most bit player rings true.

If you’ve never read Mark de Castrique’s work before, Blackman’s Coffin is a great place to start.

To learn more about Mark de Castrique, Sam Blackman and Barry Clayton, visit Mark’s website

On Edge by Barbara Fister

Traveling while on leave after being injured in the line of duty, Chicago cop Konstantin Slovo finds himself drawn into the investigation of a serial killer who is preying on children in a small Maine town, first by being picked up as a suspect, then being grudgingly consulted by the local PD.

Slovo finds himself torn between wanting to help and wanting to get out of town as fast as he can, a decision made more complicated by the wildly varied reactions (suspicion, hatred, friendship, both professional jealousy and admiration) he receives from the locals. In the end, Slovo finds that confronting the town’s demons is the only way he will be able to confront his own and move on.

I found the writing to be refreshingly “real” and straightforward; all the people have believable reasons for their behavior and motivations, things don’t always go well for the “hero”, and there are no wild caricatures or stereotypes to be found.

To learn more about Barbara Fister and her books, visit her website.

City of the Sun by David Levien

City of the Sun by David LevienThough this was a good read and I don’t regret having picked it up, ultimately there was just something…. lacking. The premise is obviously a gripping one – child disappears while on paper route and the parents’ attempts, with the help of PI Frank Behr, to find out what happened – but the way it unfolds is rushed and somewhat hackneyed.

The early scenes between the husband and wife post disappearance are well done, but later scenes with just the wife come across as afterthoughts or throwaways. As does, in fact, the presence of many of the secondary characters, especially Behr’s former boss at the police department.

It was as if Levien was following some formula that “required” there to be a petty, semi-competent, vindictive authority figure for his lead to bang heads with. The romantic aside was equally by-the-numbers and forced. If this is indeed to be a series, there will be more than enough time to delve into Behr’s romantic / social life.

Frank Behr definitely has promise as a series lead, but I believe the gushing comparisons reviewers have been making to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole are a bit premature. A better comparison in my opinion would be Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (complete with Behr’s 6’6″ size), though Behr has in no way proven himself (yet) to be as emotionally complex or intellectually sharp as Reacher.

The bottom line is that Behr simply did not have enough of a chance to shine in this book, with the secondary characters taking up more space than necessary, at the expense of Behr’s development. There has been a second book in the series published, but I can’t say I’ll be rushing out to get it.

The Noticer by Andy Andrews

The Noticer by Andy AndrewsMaybe this book just wasn’t my thing, but I found it to be an incredibly simplistic, thinly veiled rip-off of books like The 5 People You Meet In Heaven (which I wasn’t so fond of either). The book is basically a collection of scenes / stories that involve the mysterious character “Jones” – The Noticer – visiting people at different times in their lives when they are experiencing difficulties of one sort or another to help them “step into the light” and get on the right path.

This, Jones makes it sound so unrealistically easy, is just a matter of getting “perspective” on life… well, if it was that easy no one would need it pointed out to them, would they? And while Jones does make some valid observations to those he encounters about the things he “notices”, they all seem more like common sense than any great insight.

The Jones character, who never ages and who appears as “Garcia” to Hispanics and “Chen” to Asians, is obviously supposed to reflect how Christ / religion can be all things to all people but, again, I found it to be presented in a very simplistic, almost condescending manner.

I think the underlying goal of Andrews’ book, to get people to “notice” things around them, understand how their actions impact others, and to show their appreciation to those who make or have made a positive impact on their own lives is a laudable one. I just found the book itself to be something more suited to grade school age children than adults given the simplistic way it goes about delivering its message.

Cold Heart by Chandler McGrew

Cold Heart by Chandler McGrewAt the book’s opening Houston cop Micky Ascherfeld survives a brutal shootout with two heavily armed robbers; her partner does not.

Burned out and full of self-doubt, Micky visits a remote Alaskan village to recharge & ends up staying. Her refuge turns into a nightmare when one of the town’s residents goes on a rampage that threatens to wipe out the village unless Micky can stop it.

Great wintry Alaskan setting, smart character behavior, amazingly well portrayed opening shootout, and there’s even a nice map of the village included for you to follow the characters’ movements as they play their deadly game of hide-and-seek.

To learn more about Chandler McGrew and his books, visit his website.

Obedience by Will Lavender

Obedience by Will LavenderI had read so many great reviews about this book when it was published that I was really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. The writing is decent, and the premise is very intriguing:

When the students in Winchester University’s Logic and Reasoning 204 arrive for their first day of class, they are greeted not with a syllabus or texts, but with a startling assignment from Professor Williams: Find a hypothetical missing girl named Polly. If after being given a series of clues and details the class has not found her before the end of the term in six weeks, she will be murdered.

However, I was unable to suspend belief to the level necessary to really “buy” this story for several reasons:

1) I just don’t see 18-20 year olds actually caring as much about the fictional Polly presented in a college course as would be needed to get as sucked down the rabbit hole as they do.

2) The advancement of the plot depends on WAY too many “coincidences” / events happening at just the right time, in just the right location and, on at least one occasion, something most would consider logical behavior NOT happening.

3) As involved as the students get in the mystery, they leave several very obvious avenues of inquiry unexplored (because, of course, doing so would derail the whole story).

4) There is no way as many people could be “in” on things as are required without someone tripping up or, conversely, no way as many people could be clueless to such elaborate events unfolding in (supposed) secrecy around them.

5) There are several events that, even after the book is wrapped up, don’t make sense in context of the given explanation / conclusion.

Perhaps others will not be as “demanding” as I am about characters’ behavior and the suspension of belief required, but I was disappointed that a premise that could have delivered so much came up so short.

Benjamin’s Parasite by Jeff Strand

Benjamin’s Parasite by Jeff StrandAt any given moment, the human body contains millions of parasites. This is the story of just one. A really, really nasty one.

There may well never have been a bigger understatement in the history of official book summaries. Combining horror and comedy in such a way that neither overpowers the other is a delicate operation, but it’s something author Jeff Strand has demonstrated time and again he is a master of doing with surgical precision. And you gotta know when a book starts with a meat cleaver rampage that things can only go in one direction intensity wise, and Strand doesn’t disappoint.

After attending the funeral of one of his students, the perpetrator of the meat cleaver rampage in fact, high school teacher Benjamin Wilson begins to feel, well… odd. At first the changes affecting Benjamin are merely an inconvenience; namely, the inability to control his cravings for sex and candy. But hey, how can more sex and candy really be a bad thing, right? There are also stomach pains, however, which Benjamin initially writes off as the result of the massive candy consumption.

Except that the pains don’t go away when he goes cold turkey on the candy, they actually get worse. Considerably worse. So much so that, after collapsing at work with incapacitating pain, Benjamin ends up in the hospital, where he receives the news he has an intestinal parasite… one that x-rays reveal looks like “a squid monster” much to Benjamin’s horror. Surgical removal being the only option, Benjamin is prepped for surgery and whisked to the OR. And this, folks, is where business picks up and things go seriously awry.

The Reapers by John Connolly

The Reapers by John ConnollyThose familiar with John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series are already acquainted with Louis & Angel; a hitman and burglar respectively, they usually serve as secondary characters to Parker’s lead. In The Reapers, Louis and Angel finally take center stage and the result is… mixed.

While I enjoyed the book tremendously, being a big fan of Angel I couldn’t help but come away somewhat disappointed at the lack of attention given to his character’s history. Louis’ youth and path to becoming a hitman, a Reaper, is explored beautifully and extensively, yet we were given nothing more about Angel in this offering than had already been alluded to in previous Parker outings.

Angel is such an interesting character in the way that he often serves as a bridge between Parker and Louis, as well as acts as Louis’ conscience on occasion, more about him and his history would have been more than welcomed.

Still, the story, which revolves around an event from Louis’ early years as a Reaper coming back to haunt him, is strong (duh, it’s Connolly) and the little appetizer tastes of Louis and Angel we normally have to settle for are finally served up here as a satisfying full course meal.

To find out more about John Connolly, Charlie Parker and Louis & Angel, visit Connolly’s website.

Pressure by Jeff Strand

Pressure by Jeff StrandIf you’ve not previously read anything by Jeff Strand there couldn’t possibly be a better place for you to start than with his new release, Pressure. Though Strand is the author of over a dozen books, with the publication of Pressure Strand has taken his already incredible talent to another level entirely.

What would you do if your best friend turned out to be a sociopathic killer? One who was obsessed with you and everything about your life? That’s the situation Alex faces when his friend Darren becomes increasingly manipulative and violent over the course of their relationship.

Starting when they meet at boarding school, Pressure follows the twisted relationship between Alex and Darren as it builds from kids being cruel, to young men pushing boundaries, to adults who end up in the fight of their lives, figuratively and literally, against each other.

Pressure is aptly titled, because the pressure in this book builds relentlessly… almost to the point of uncomfortableness at times it is so skillfully written. Strand pushes Alex to the brink over and over, seeing just how much he and the reader can take, before finally pushing him over the edge for a climactic showdown that will leave you both stunned and impressed at its unflinching, uncompromising resolution.

Pressure is available from Leisure (ISBN: 978-1428515833).

Jeff Strand is the author of over a dozen books, including Pressure, Gleefully Macabre Tales, Wolf Hunt, The Sinister Mr. Corpse, Mandibles, Dweller, Benjamin’s Parasite, Fangboy, The Severed Nose, Draculas (with F. Paul Wilson, Jack Kilborn and Blake Crouch), Kutter, and the Andrew Mayhem series among others. To learn more about Jeff, visit his website.

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Flipping Out by Marshall Karp

Flipping Out by Marshall KarpFlipping Out is the third book in a wonderful series by Marshall Karp featuring LAPD Homicide Detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs. If you haven’t read the first two yet, never fear. Karp’s style of writing is such that you can jump right in and hit the ground running… then go back and order books one and two, The Rabbit Factory and Bloodthirsty.

Flipping Out revolves around a group of women who form a business to renovate and “flip” houses for profit. Lomax & Biggs are called in when a member of the house-flipping group, who was also the wife of one of their fellow detectives, is murdered at the location of the group’s most recent house-flipping project.

Before Lomax & Biggs can figure out whether the victim was targeted because she was a police officer’s wife or because she was a member of the house-flipping team, a second murder occurs, also of a woman who was a member of the house-flipping team and a police officer’s wife. Clearly, Lomax & Biggs have their hands full with a serial killer, and from there the pursuit is on in a race against the clock to catch the killer before he/she can work their way through the entire house-flipping team.

It’s not easy to write a book that is both edge of your seat mystery as well as laugh-out-loud funny, but Karp pulls it off effortlessly. The black humor banter between Lomax & Biggs is razor sharp, and the one-liners fly fast and furious. But beneath the surface jocularity there is real depth to the characters in Karp’s novels. Even the most bit player comes across as three-dimensional, and Lomax & Biggs are fully realized characters, wonderfully painted in a million shades of grey… there is nothing “stock” about these Hollywood Detectives.

Far from putting it into cruise control for his third book, Karp just keeps getting better. This is easily the most complex mystery of his three offerings to date. The “who” of the “who dunnit?” is never obvious, and even when you think you’ve got it figured out Karp manages to serve up a wicked curveball of an ending. If you like mysteries, police procedurals, characters with depth, and laugh-out-loud writing then look no further… Flipping Out has it all, and then some.

Flipping Out is available from Minotaur Books (ISBN: 978-0312378233).

Flipping Out is the third book in the Lomax & Biggs series, following The Rabbit Factory and Bloodthirsty. To learn more about Marshall, visit his website.

Afraid by Jack Kilborn

Safe Haven, Wisconsin. Population 907. . . 906. . . 905. . .

Afraid by Jack KilbornNothing ever happens in Safe Haven, Wisconsin, a sleepy little town isolated from neighboring towns by thick woods and accessible by only a single road in and out. And that’s the way the 907 residents of Safe Haven like it… until that idyllic isolation turns into their worst nightmare.

On a peaceful evening under a hunter’s moon an explosion lights up the sky as a helicopter carrying a Red Ops military unit crashes into the woods just outside of town. The Red-Ops team is made up of psychopathic killers who have been scientifically enhanced and specially trained to exploit their individual perversions for military objectives. Unfortunately for the town’s residents, the Red-Ops team survives the crash, descends upon the town, cuts them off from the outside world, and unleashes utter destruction on everyone and everything in their path.

In the face of brutal circumstances thrust upon them, ordinary people are forced to confront their beliefs and to look deep within themselves to see what they are really made of. What does the lifelong supporter of Amnesty International do when violence threatens her child? How does the fireman who has never had to do anything heroic in his sleepy little Midwestern town react? And if you’re the Sheriff who’s old and alone, beaten and broken, do you give up and lay down, or do you keep putting one foot in front of the other because people are counting on you to do so? Such are the soul testing situations the hapless people of Safe Haven find themselves facing.

The relentless pace and extreme terror of Afraid are the hooks being used to promote this book, justifiably so, but if you focus a little deeper there’s much more going on here than just a scary story. Kudos to Mr. Kilborn for creating a genuinely terrifying story that actually has depth to go with its death and destruction.

To learn more about Jack Kilborn, visit his website.

Kiss by Ted Dekker & Erin Healy

Kiss by Ted Dekker & Erin HealyAfter a brief set up chapter, the story’s heroine, Shauna McAllister, is involved in a car accident that leaves her in a coma for months. Why is this relevant? Because Shauna’s father is one of the leading Presidential candidates and, prior to her accident, Shauna came upon information which, if true, would destroy everything her father has worked to create and derail his campaign.

However, after coming out of her coma Shauna finds herself suffering from amnesia; she doesn’t remember any of the potentially damaging information she was planning to confront her father with. Yet, during the course of trying to reconstruct her memories she has to deal with various shady characters who think she knows / remembers more than she does and who have a decided interest in her never regaining those memories. From the boyfriend she doesn’t remember, to the doctors who treated her with experimental drugs during her coma, to the uncle who seems to be a bit more than just her father’s business partner and advisor, Shauna’s every move is shadowed and she doesn’t know who to trust.

The “catch” of the story is that, as a result of her accident, Shauna discovers that she has acquired the ability to read and steal people’s memories. She first discovers this while kissing her alleged boyfriend (hence the book’s title), but later comes to learn she has to do little more than touch someone to utilize her new talent. Unfortunately this potentially interesting plot device is never fully utilized. The story twists and turns around on itself in an attempt to seem complicated, but really just spins its wheels with a main character who, even having a recent coma as an “excuse”, engages in far too many questionable – if not downright ill advised – activities.

I had heard such great things about Ted Dekker, but I was tremendously disappointed with this offering. Maybe co-author Healy had more influence on the overall tone of the book than he did and I should give one of his solo efforts another try, but this was not what I had expected.

Rachel’s Tears by Beth Nimmo and Darrell Scott

Rachel’s Tears by Beth Nimmo and Darrell ScottRereleased to coincide with the 10 Year Anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Rachel’s Tears explores the Columbine tragedy through the prism of the incredible life of Rachel Scott. Rachel, who lost her life on that fateful April 20th, was a person of extraordinary courage and faith.

Everyone knows, or should know, the basic story surrounding the shootings at Columbine High, but reading about how deeply those fateful events affected a single family presents the tragedy in a different light, one that is incredibly powerful and, at times, painful to read. Rachel Scott was killed during the massacre at Columbine, yet she met her end as she lived her life, with a sense of peace, grace and acceptance, all made possible by her unwavering faith in God.

Looking back at Rachel’s journals, it is apparent that she was a young person of uncommon strength, confidence and faith. It is also apparent that as early as 11 months prior to the shootings Rachel had a sense that her time on earth was short… she actually wrote a journal entry stating she knew this would be her last year. Yet, she went on to thank the Lord for her time, promising she had lived life with a sense of urgency and purpose, getting as much as she could out of the time she had been given.

The overriding themes explored in this work, faith, forgiveness, and finding the strength to carry on in the face of unspeakable tragedy are unquestionably powerful. As demonstrated by Rachel’s desire to start a “chain reaction” of love by practicing random acts of kindness and compassion, as well as her affirmation of her faith in God even when literally staring down the barrel of a gun, they become almost painfully moving and life affirming.

Few ever achieve the level of peace and acceptance with their lives that Rachel did, nor do they experience such a purity of heart in their desire to be spiritual and establish a personal relationship with God… the story of Rachel’s life, and the ripple effects of it on all those whose lives she touched, is both humbling and motivational.

The Unseen by T.L. Hines

The Unseen by T.L. HinesThe premise of the story, a man (Lucas) who lives vicariously by spying on people from inside walls, duct work, and crawl spaces, making up complicated histories/lives for them in his mind, sounds interesting enough. Add in the wrinkle that he runs into a group of people called the “Creep Club” who seem to share his peculiar interest. Throw in the twist that our “hero” has a mysterious background (was he really an orphan? was he part of some weird scientific study he can’t remember?) and is being pursued by some shadowy government organization, “mad” scientists and even the Chinese and this should be great, right? Wrong.

Some how, some way this manages to be unbelievably boring! The book at times goes for pages and pages with no character interaction whatsoever, only tediously detailed descriptions of what the main character is seeing and thinking. This might be ok if Lucas was charismatic or compelling in some way, but unfortunately he’s just…. boring. He has no home, wandering from building to building setting up his bivouac in perfect position to spy on his chosen subject. He has no family or friends and works at a menial job as a dishwasher. There is absolutely nothing about him that inspired me to “connect” with him, which is rather ironic considering he explains his behavior (to himself) as searching for that “electric connection” that he gets every so often while spying on someone who seems to sense him watching them.

The conclusion was unsatisfying and, ultimately, I found the book to be much ado about nothing once all was said and done. It wasn’t “bad” per se, just not my cup of tea.

Holding Fast by Karen James

Holding Fast by Karen JamesThough their time together didn’t start until somewhat later in life and was cut tragically short, it is clear that Karen and Kelly James were soul-mates who were simply meant to be together. Holding Fast is the story of Karen’s and Kelly’s lives together, culminating with the recounting of the tragic climbing accident on Mount Hood that took the lives of Kelly and his two climbing partners. Though the outcome of the true life events that are the subject of this book are known going in, that in no way detracts from the power of the story.

The outpouring of support, both from rescue personnel and those offering prayer and emotional support, was overwhelming and heartwarming to read about. Because Kelly had a cell phone, Karen and the rescuers were able to have intermittent contact with Kelly and knew, for the most part, exactly where he was on the mountain. Unfortunately, extreme weather conditions made it impossible for the rescue team to mount a successful ascent to Kelly until it was too late.

Karen’s recounting of the phone calls she was able to have with Kelly while he was trapped on the mountain are brutally honest and reflect the conflicting emotions she had while doing so; blessed to be fortunate enough to have an opportunity for a last goodbye, yet devastated to hear how clearly he was struggling and deteriorating, both knowing he would not be coming down off the mountain alive.

It is truly ironic that Karen’s great-grandfather, George William Barrett, also died in a climbing accident, something she didn’t know until after Kelly’s death. However, unlike her great-grandmother who “died of a broken heart” six months after Barrett’s death, Karen called on her faith to get her through both the harrowing days spent trying to rescue Kelly and the void left when he died. Her story should serve as an inspiration for all those who’ve lost someone under tragic circumstances.