A book for mystery fans and anyone who likes a well-written story



Independent review of The Peacekeeper’s Photograph

By ML Doyle

The Peacekeeper’s Photograph is an excellent book — easily one of the best I’ve read this year. It’s more solid proof that independent writers are publishing some of the best, and most important books today.

The Peacekeeper’s Photograph shows up in Amazon’s Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, but it’s far more than a mystery. It’s also an honest, deep portrayal of a strong, smart woman in a horrible situation. Despite all evidence to the contrary — a successful military career, proven abilities as a photojournalist and editor, and the proven ability to perform coolly under enormous pressure.

The story

Deployed to the peacekeeping (or peace-making) mission in Bosnia in the 1990s, Master Sergeant Lauren Harper returns to the trailer that serve as her quarters and work space, to find one of her soldiers, Specialist Virginia Delray, strangled to death. The military police investigators immediately place Master Sergeant Harper at the top of the suspect list. Not only did Harper have opportunity as the victim’s roommate, the Specialist was strangled with Sgt. Harper’s belt. To top it off, several people overheard Harper say she was going to “kill” Delray in frustration with the woman’s incompetence.

From this point, the plot involves a typical mystery story: the wrongly accused person must find the real killer, despite opposition from the official investigators and the doubts of her superior officers. As Harper pushes forward, she finds more and more disturbing facts implicating senior members of the U.N. peacekeeping force in what looks like a complicated human trafficking scheme.

The solution to the mystery lies in photographs the victim took, and in pictures taken of her by two British journalists. These include pictures still hidden in Delray’s camera, which becomes the Maguffin (to borrow Hitchcock’s term) of the story.

The characters

Characterization is where Doyle really shines. She skillfully brings not just Harper, but every major and minor character to life. They’re more than just believable, they’re captivating. I found myself caring very much about how Sergeant Steele would get along, and I found myself feeling more and more contempt for Sergeant Harper’s commanding officer, Colonel Neil McCallen, as I read on.

Doyle the author skillfully builds the complete portrait of the victim, Virginia Delray. Our first impression is that she’s a ditz, a lightweight who doesn’t take her job seriously enough. She seemed never to have provided a useable photograph, and did not write particularly well, either, even though she was posted to the public relations detail.

But through the story, the author gradually builds a more detailed picture of a complex, if flawed person. What’s fascinating, too, is the POV character, Sergeant Harper’s growing appreciation of Delray, and the way she deals with her feelings of guilt for having failed her soldier. Harper’s internal challenge is to deal with growing self-doubt as she learns whom she can trust.

And Harper’s final actions at the climax of the book made me admire her, and the author.

Style

ML Doyle’s writing style is smooth and tight, yet rich with a clear depictions of settings, people and events. There’s not a spare adverb, nor a misstep in her descriptions. She’s a pro, and her own history in the military provides the essential accuracy in the details.

Get this book

The Peacekeeper’s Photograph will appeal to a lot of readers: mystery fans, readers who want stories about strong women, military stories and more.

But most important, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph is a book you should read if you like good books.

5*****

Find it on Amazon

Find it on the Author’s website

Independent book review: 5* for Ghost Star



Ghost Star is a rollicking good space opera for young readers. Anyone from reading age to mid-teens will enjoy it.

Plot

Nolo Bray, a member of the Ruam race from the planet Tac, is the most elusive smuggler the galaxy. The book opens as his ship, the Ghost Star is finally caught and boarded by the Lingering Death, a moon-sized cruiser of the Imperium, which is ruled by the monstrous Nell. The Nell are humanoid, but much bigger than Terrans and equipped with blade-like foreclaws on their wrists.

Only one crew member remains hidden in a locker. Galen Bray, Captain Nolo’s teenaged son, watches on video as Mohk kills his father and orders the execution of the rest of the crew. But he decides to keep Bray’s young daughter, Trem, alive as a prize to deliver to his commanders in the Nell home world.

Teenaged Galen waits until the Imperium marines leave the ship, then manages to frees the smuggler ship from its tether to the Lingering Death. He’s helped by one last robot, Hex, and by the AI of the Ghost Star, which has the personality of his long-deceased mother, Bartrice — something that he doesn’t appreciate at first.

But in escaping the Imperium, Galen flies too close to a real ghost star, or black hole. There, he finds an ability he didn’t know he had. Time slows for him, allowing him to guide the ship down a plasma tube, where he discovers a planet inhabited by the last remnant of his race, the Ruam.

Surprise follows surprise. His father was the last living Ruam lord, making Galen now a lord. The smuggler Ghost Star is actually a Ruam battle cruiser disguised with scarred outer plating. It was the Nell who started a war against the Ruam, killed their home world of Tac and wiped out almost the whole species.

The pace never lets up. Galen gathers a crew of Ruam on a mission to rescue his sister. However, they first have to find a device to keep their planet from falling into the black hole. Along the way, they visit the Ruam homeworld of Tac, and an artificial moon called Zed that’s a smugglers’ haven. Think the island of Tortuga from Pirates of the Caribbean, in space. It’s there that Galen finds his long-lost aunt, Eria.

Characters

This book has everything you want in a science-fiction adventure: lots of action, a fast-moving plot, hairsbreadth escapes and lovable characters. I have to admit, Hex is my favourite. Eschbacher manages to create a personality with the perfect combination of modesty, eagerness to help, and a bit of dry humour that keeps him from being obsequious.

Eria is a badass warrior intent on killing as many Nell as she can in order to save her niece. And Burr, the Ruam’s chief scientist, is a blast. I can absolutely picture him as my high-school physics teacher.

As the villain, Lord Mohk is perfect. Evil oozes out of his every word. He kills for pleasure, maims for discipline, sends thousands of his own soldiers into almost certain death in the hopes that some of them might be able to carry out his will.

The author

Eschbacher is a professional writer with a long career in children’s television. His style shows it: snappy dialogue, lots of humour, the right amount of sadness and a dash of teenaged hormones allow young readers to identify with the main character. Get to know more about Roger on his website and blog.

If you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced sci-fi adventure, or know a young reader who is, get this book.

5*

 

Run and Hide by Alan McDermott



An independent book review

Alan McDermott knows how to push all the right buttons for the action-thriller reader.

The author of the fantastically successful Tom Gray series has crossed the Atlantic for his new series focused on the new character of Eva Driscoll: brilliant, beautiful and highly effective special operative for the CIA who’s been forced to go rogue.

Add in a quick trip to London to recruit some favourites from McDermott’s Tom Gray series—Alan Harvey (my favourite), Sonny Baines, Len Smart and Tom Gray himself—and you’ve got a guaranteed thriller.

As we can expect from McDermott, the plot starts in high gear and doesn’t let up. We meet the protagonist, Eva Driscoll, waiting for a hit on someone we soon learn is her late brother’s old army buddy. Rees Colback, though, is not without resources of his own, and thrills readers with a powerful, daring escape from government-sponsored assassins.

Thus begins an adrenalin-fueled escape and a journey across the U.S.A. And in the inimitable Alan McDermott style, the stakes get as high as they could possibly be as Driscoll finds her opponent is not just the President of the U.S.A., but the power behind the throne.

This being an Alan McDermott thriller, Driscoll is not without her shortcomings and downright faults. That’s part of the thrill and the tension. It makes her more believable and, it must be admitted, likeable as she comes to terms with the darker aspects of her past.

But don’t worry about the ending: McDermott has left the door open for a lot more thrilling adventures with Eva Driscoll, Rees Colback, and I hope Sonny, Len and Tom.

5 *****

Find it exclusively on Amazon.

Visit Alan McDermott’s website and blog.

Seb Kirby, master of the unreliable narrator: An independent novel review



Here the Truth Lies review

independent review of Here the Truth LiesSeb Kirby has once again hit it out of the park.

Seb Kirby has proven he’s a master of the unreliable narrator. In his 2016 novel, Sugar for Sugar, Kirby presented Issy Cunningham, a woman who wakes up with no memory, but is implicated in a murder. Kirby managed a difficult literary trick, in teasing out the true story bit by bit in a way that compelled readers to keep turning the page (or swiping the screen). His previous novel, Each Day I Wake, is about a man who has no memory other than nightmares of young women dying gruesome deaths. (Read my review.)

With his new novel, Here the Truth Lies, Kirby returns to the theme of the unreliable narrator in journalist Emma Chamberlain. At the beginning of the book, she sees a ghost in her bedroom late at night. We soon learn she’s drinking way too much whiskey, and she’s obsessed with chasing down an 18-year-old story that her boss doesn’t want her to.

While those details make readers doubt whether they’d ever hire Emma Chamberlain for any job, Emma soon finds an old photograph that makes her wonder: is she really Emma Chamberlain, or has she taken over someone else’s identity? More clues compound her self-doubt, but without giving the story away before the plot demands.

Kirby brings back his London detectives, Detective Sergeant June Lesley and Detective Inspector Stephen Ives, the investigators from Sugar for Sugar. They’re not typical of the mystery genre. Ives is a crusty, gruff and easily irritated middle-aged detective. Lesley is cool, smart, younger, and more comfortable with the changes in the culture. But while they work together effectively, they don’t necessarily like each other. It’s a refreshing change from the typical cop-buddy style.

The author also introduces a chilling villain in multiple killer Evan Cargill. Former military, former mercenary, he’s a hulking, driven and terrifying character.

The review

Bestselling author Seb KirbySeb Kirby has a easy-reading, fast paced style that puts the reader exactly in the situation with the characters. I loved reading about real places in London, and I felt what his characters felt. He is skilled at letting readers see through his characters’ eyes. And he knows how to keep the tension high.

This is Kirby’s strength: originality. His stories are not derivative, and while he respects the forms of the mystery-thriller genre, you cannot predict where the story is going. He gives the reader plenty of clues, and crafts seamless plots without glaring coincidences.

And as if that’s not challenging enough, Kirby also decided to publish Here the Truth Lies first in paperback, and in e-book form after a couple of months. It’s a marketing tactic, not a literary one, but it does add to the workload. It will be interesting to see the results.

Well done, Mr. Kirby. Another excellent novel.

5*

Get it exclusively on Amazon.

Visit Seb Kirby’s website and blog.

Independent book review: Still Life with Memories series



By Uvi Poznansky

I have recently discovered the books of Uvi Poznansky, and she has written a remarkable series of books. Together, they tell one unified story, but from multiple points of view. The author does a remarkable job of capturing each individual voice

Still Life with Memories is about Lenny and Natasha Kaminsky, and about the way Natasha’s illness affects the whole family over a long time.

Natasha is a concert pianist and composer, hailed as a genius, and Lenny a soldier and intelligence operative.

They meet and fall in love, and Lenny says he cannot believe his luck when Natasha accepts his proposal of marriage. After the war, they return to the States and settle in Santa Monica, California. Natasha tries to re-start her music career, but shelves it when she becomes pregnant.

She becomes a piano teacher while Lenny pursues his own career, and Natasha’s enormous white piano fills up most of the living room in their small apartment.

But before many years pass, Lenny starts to notice something is wrong with Natasha. She has increasing memory lapses, which also affect her playing. Gradually, she loses the ability to play the piano. Lenny becomes despondent over the gaps Natasha’s memory and the damage it inflicts on their relationship. Lenny begins recording interviews with Natasha, then transcribing them in an effort to write a book about their life together.

Then he meets Anita, a teenaged girl who looks astonishingly like a young Natasha. Anita sets her sights on him as her best chance for a better life than her mother could give, and Lenny falls for her. Natasha, as fragile as she is, leaves Lenny, but seems to come back more than once.

 

But when Lenny makes Anita pregnant, the marriage is over. Not only does Natasha leave Lenny for good, so does their son, Ben, who is one year older than Anita.

The most remarkable thing about Poznansky’s series is that she tells it from different points of view.

Anita, who first appears in Lenny’s life as a teacher, is the narrator of book 1, My Own Voice. In Book 2, The White Piano, Ben, Lenny’s son is the PoV character. Lenny then takes over the narrating for the rest of the series, and we get to put the pieces together of Natasha’s real story.

Natasha is the most interesting character in the series. She’s a highly talented artist and, it turns out, was resourceful and effective during the war. The way that the author slowly reveals her story is sometimes anguishing, sometimes teasing, but always fascinating.

And the author perfectly captures each PoV character’s voice as she does this: the calculating other woman, the angry son, the guilt-ridden husband.

Still Life with Memories also reveals the ephemera quality of memory, through the differences in details that each character remembers about their interactions.

Battered by fate

Poznansky shows how each of us tries to be master of our own fate, but we are at the same time victims of an often cruel universe, dealing with things that we could never have seen coming. In book 4, Marriage Before Death, Lenny wonders how it is that some of the soldiers on the battlefield die, while other survive, and whether his time is up. And in other volumes, he tries to make a new life for himself and his family, but suffers setback after setback. When Anita finds him, he seems powerless to turn  her away, even though he tries.

Anita is more skilled or talented at surfing the maelstrom of life. She rises from an impoverished single-parent household, without much education, and catches a successful man—one who can give her things she could only dream of as a girl.

Ben recoils when he learns of his father’s affair with a girl younger than himself, drops out of school and leaves for Rome. When he returns, he also finds attracted drawn against his will to Anita, the woman who replaced his mother in many ways.

A couple of flaws

I find myself equally unable to resist Poznansky’s storytelling style. While she perfectly captures each character’s individuality, at the same time she writes in a style that seems at once fresh and old-fashioned. She has, I think, also captured a prewar literary voice that is refreshingly distinct from the mass-produced style you can find in today’s commercial bestsellers.

But the books are not quite perfect. There are a couple of flaws.

First, Lenny seems to be an incompetent intelligence operative. In Marriage Before Death, he wanders behind enemy lines with ease with little purpose or mission, and gets caught almost immediately.

Also, the timing seems a little off. If Lenny is in his 20s during the war—and it seems he is—then I’m having trouble working out the timing for when he meets Anita in Santa Monica. She describes Lenny as being in his 40s, so that would take us to the mid-sixties or at best early 70s. However, Anita plays a song from “the sixties” as if it were really old. Somehow, the timing just seems a little off there.

Overall

This is a wonderful series, a richly colourful portrait of the intersecting, overlapping and mutually supportive and destructive lives. It portrays the intricate relationships of family, of the ways we intentionally and unintentionally hurt the people we love, and how what we do to each other ultimately creates the people they, and we are. It’s not quite perfect, but then neither are we.

Well done, Ms. Poznansky

4*

Find Uvi Poznansky’s work on

Visit her website.

Independent novel review: The Jossing Affair



By J.L. Oakley

This is an amazingly good book.

The Jossing Affair reminds me of Dr. Zhivago: it’s a story that helps us understand a world-changing, vicious conflict through a close focus on a few people caught in it. At its heart, it’s actually a realistic love story.

Janet Oakley is an author I admire. She has a clear, simple style that puts the reader right into the story and brings the Norwegian landscape and seas to life.

Like me, she writes historical fiction set in places and eras that most people would consider obscure. When most of us think of the Second World War, I don’t think the Norwegian occupation and resistance comes top-of-mind. We know something about it, like the word “quisling,” meaning a treacherous person who cooperates with the enemy, from the name of Norway’s collaborator Minister President Vikrun Quisling. But I think few in the U.S. or Canada are really familiar with the history, the resistance inside the country or the acts of the Norwegians who escaped the country to continue the fight from the U.K. and elsewhere.

Here’s the situation: in 1944, Norway has been suffering Nazi Germany’s brutal occupation for four years. Tore Haugland is a teacher who escaped to Scotland, then along with other Norwegians, trained in espionage under the British before coming back to Norway’s west coast. There, he assumes an identity as Jens Hansen, a deaf-mute fisherman. His false disability leads most people in the village of Fjellstad to assume he’s also slow-witted.

But Haugland/Jensen has another role: he sets up a secret radio transmitter to communicate with the Allies, and helps coordinate the “Shetland Bus”—secret transportation across the North Sea, smuggling out escapers and bringing in resistance fighters, weapons and supplies.

It’s the most dangerous kind of work, because jossing, or “patriot” Haugland is up against smart quislings, including Norway’s second-worst war criminal, Henry Oliver Rinnan, head of a Norwegian Gestapo unit.

As Haugland goes about spying, he meets Anna Fromme, known as “the German woman” or simply “the Woman” in the village. People assume she’s a quisling, because she is German, and shun her.

But Anna is the widow of another jossing, Einar Fromme, who was arrested, tortured and executed by Rinnan. Of course, Anna did not know anything about her husband’s resistance activities. Even though she moves to the tiny village of Fjellstad after his death, suspicion that she had something to do with it follows her.

Haugland knows who she is, and feels a deep attraction. But he feels he cannot act on this attraction because that would expose both of them to great danger.

A highly skilled author

The tension in this book starts high, and steadily gets higher. That’s something that requires skill on the part of an author. Oakley keeps raising the stakes as the resistance’s missions become more dangerous, the Gestapo gets closer, the Germans retreat in Russia, Poland and France, and Haugland and Anna fall deeper in love.

By the second half of the book, it’s clear the Germans are losing the war. But there’s not a lot of Allied action in Norway in 1944—in fact, Norway was the last country to be liberated from the Germans, days after V-E Day. And despite the fact they know there is no way they can win—or maybe because of it—the Germans and the quislings get more and more brutal.

I love the way that Oakley wove real historical elements into this story. Rinnan was a real person, and Oakley describes his physical appearance perfectly. Other historical characters appearing in the book include Rinnan’s right-hand man, Karl Dolmen, and Conrad Bonnevie-Svendsen, a priest, minister for the deaf and resistance leader.

Doing this is not easy—I know. I marvel at the historical research that must have gone into this book. When I met the author last year, she told me about her trip to Norway specifically to do research for this book.

Congratulations, Janet Oakley, on the accomplishment of The Jossing Affair. It’s historically accurate (as far as I can tell), interesting and exciting; a rich story with strong, fascinating and utterly believable characters.

5 *****

Find it on J.L. Oakley’s website, or buy it today from Amazon.

Independent author successfully juggles A Case of Sour Grapes



Independent book review

A Case of Sour Grapes by Gae-Lynn Woods

I know that I am SO not the target audience for this book, but I have to say I enjoyed every page, every sentence, every word—even words that I had never encountered before, like “Blahniks.” A Case of Sour Grapes made me laugh while it kept me flipping pages—or more accurately, swiping my iPad’s screen—right to the end.

A Case of Sour Grapes is a “companion novel” to Gae-Lynn Woods’ Cass Elliot Crime Series, which so far comprises The Devil of Light and Avengers of Blood.

Like the other two books, A Case of Sour Grapes is set in the fictional Forney County in East Texas—a setting fairly boiling over with tension, secret cults, hidden domestic violence, child abuse, sexual violence and just about every dark vice there is.

Cass Elliot is a tough, smart detective on the Forney County police department whose intelligence, courage and very supportive family get her through dangerous situations—but cannot protect her against a sexist, close-minded and defensive boss, the County Sheriff, nor against getting raped and scarred at some point before the books’ opening. Author Gae-Lynn Woods is just as tough and honest as her character, daring to go into some of the darkest corners of the human soul.

And then there’s the protagonist and narrator of the book at hand, Maxine Leverman.

Maxine is brave. Or at least impulsive. And she’s smart enough to notice clues, find connections in databases and solve a mystery. But while she’s Cass Elliot’s best friend, she is definitely no Cass Elliot.

(Yes, the author does know about, and refers to, the sixties and seventies singer of the same name.)

Maxine is a thoroughly 21st century woman, who knows her shoe and dress designers, grape varieties and when it’s time for scotch. She makes no pretenses about sex or the men she’s attracted to, and is ready to proposition them when she wants to. She’s also learning the Texas criminal code, the regulations governing private investigators, and how to aim a handgun. Safely.

The story of A Case of Sour Grapes begins on Maxine’s first day working at the Lost and Found Detective Agency, owned by her aunts Kay and Babby. While Maxine is studying for her investigator’s license, she’s supposed to be doing administrative work at the office. Of course, when everyone else is out at lunch, Maxine answers a phone call from a new client, Blue Ivey, owner of the Cedar Bend Winery. Mrs. Ivey has lost her husband. She knows he’s not dead, because he keeps spending money on her credit cards, but she has not seen him in weeks.

The case gets progressively more strange, dark and funny at the same time. Maxine’s talents as a sleuth become apparent as she finds the missing husband’s multiple identities—and wives.

It’s not all fun and games, though. There are multiple murders, a long-lost child, and let’s not forget Poison Ivy and the Dismembered Bunnies. Okay, that part made me laugh out loud.

Author Gae-Lynn Woods

Woods is a skilled literary juggler to keep all these flaming torches aloft at the same time. She pulls off a story that is thoroughly engaging and satisfying on all levels: plot, characters, setting, humour, tension and action.

Bravo, Ms. Woods! Let’s get another title on the electronic shelves, shall we?