Archive for September, 2013

January Thaw by Jess Lourey

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

January Thaw by Jess Lourey

Well, here we are again with January Thaw by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink, 2014) the ninth in The Murder-By-Month series, happy as can be, all good friends and jolly good company in Battle Lake. It being Minnesota, it’s snowing. Mrs Berns is acting like Cassandra and predicting the thaw to release the town from winter’s icy grip even though everyone knows spring won’t arrive until March. Christmas has passed with the garlands stored for next year’s celebrations along with the left-over candy canes for Halloween. Mira James has finally taken the plunge with Johnny Leeson (several months too late, some may say), a local attorney actually employs her as an investigator when the need arises (although she’s not yet formally qualified as a PI) and, given the way Death has pursued her over the last eight books, there’s been a lull. Yes no dead bodies for at least a week. For those of you who enjoy this series, you’ll understand this is worth an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey

As a “full-time” occupation, librarianship still holds her in its deadly thrall although she’s tempted to bid for the local franchise as a mortician. That is until she and Mrs Berns answer the call of a kitten mewling in an alley. Some people are just born suckers as Police Chief Gary Wohnt is quick to point out. Then there’s Kennie the town’s Mayor and her narcoleptic dog who’ve decided to branch out into plant healing. And finally, we get to the Winter Wonderland festivities (surprisingly, the town has a lake — can’t think how that happened) which Mira is to write about wearing her part-time journalist’s hat for the Battle Lake Recall (there will be questions asked at the end of this review to see how much you remember). To add to the celebrations, thanks to the work of Carter and Libby Stone, the Prospect House and Civil War Museum is formally to open its doors to the public. After this, everyone is due to jump on the lake with their boots on and skate to their heart’s content — yes, the ice really is that thick in Minnesota, particularly when the lake is on the shallow side. After a night’s consumption of alcoholic anaesthetic, brave townies then crack the ice and jump into the lake to prove their vital bits won’t drop off when exposed to water during the winter months. Except, as you would expect, everything has to be put on hold when Mira finds another body (which, unfortunately, albeit temporarily, includes a pullback from hot sex with Johnny). Fortunately, there’s always a Nut Goodie to ease sexual tensions, even the unwelcome ones.

This is another delightful conflation of murder, mystery and light-hearted banter as our intrepid investigator, ably assisted most of the time by her geriatric sidekick, sets off to untangle murder, drug trafficking and a cold case from the past. With the possible assistance of a previously unrecognised ghost, our dynamic duo make new friends, look after old ones when they get hurt, and practice their breaking and entering skills (not so much of a challenge when you know where the spare key is kept). The result solves the various cases in hand and advances the cause of justice across the generations. In the process, we see more of the town of Battle Lake and watch a new calmness replace our heroine’s uncertainty. Those of you following this excellent series will know she’s been not a little traumatised by events in the last few months and is distinctly twitchy about life — not even being prepared to risk sleeping on top of the bed in case the sky falls on her. But with mature words of wisdom from Mrs Berns and a new shoulder to cry on when a bereaved mother and two young children come into town, she manages to rediscover some of the gung-ho self-confidence that went missing from her life before Christmas. January Thaw therefore sees her beginning to emerge from the winter emotional cave where she’s been hunkering down. In the end, she’s charging into danger again like none of last year ever happened. This is good to see. The residents of Battle Lake were worried about her and we readers get to see a newly restored heroine ready to face the next month’s challenge, whatever that may be.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see:
December Dread
November Hunt
The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

NightZone by Steven F Havill

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment


NightZone by Steven F Havill (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the nineteenth in the Posadas County Mystery series. To say that I’ve come to the party late is one of the all-time understatements. Sill, having missed the first eighteen, I can at least finally arrive with my apologies to the host for being so late. As a senior citizen, books like this are good for my morale. Too often, modern books show those of an older age profile as being close-to-death and therefore on-the-scrap-heap of life until we have the decency to go off to wherever we’re going (and not before time). Here we’ve got former Posadas Sheriff William K Gastner. He’s a sprightly seventy-four years young, and has more knowledge and experience in his little finger than the cohort of younger law enforcers who’ve replaced him in this area of New Mexico. Other books by the author set in the same location feature Undersheriff Estella Reyes-Guzman who replaced Gastner when he retired, cumulatively giving us an ever more detailed view of life in this part of the American West.

This time, our insomniac retiree is up on a mesa, enjoying the peace and solitude of the night sky when he sees as flash of light some twenty miles away. Minutes later, he’s calling in both a fire and a vehicle running across the prairie below him. When he sees the power has gone out in the nearby township, he realises this is all probably connected. This brings tragedy because a police officer stopping a suspect vehicle some miles away is shot dead. When the authorities arrive to put out the fire, they discover someone has chainsawed the utility poles, bringing down the power lines. A body has also been left behind, not quite decapitated by one of the falling poles. Just taking this opening fifth of the book illustrates the beauty of the author’s approach. There’s wonderful pace in the narrative, moving us rapidly through the set-up, but our prudent driver moves safely across the nighttime landscape as the youngsters go barrelling past him at 100 mph. Younger officers may offer him a steadying hand on difficult ground as he walks the ground, but speed of physical travel does match acuity of mind and calmness in the face of difficulty.

Steven F Havill

Steven F Havill

The apparent trigger for this excitement is the proposed development of a major astronomical radio telescope and tourist centre by wealthy Miles Waddell on the mesa at his ranch. The power lines cut supplied the site which, if and when it’s complete, will be called NightZone. And with all the crazies likely to be hostile to developments out on the prairies that might enable “them” to listen in to what they are saying or doing, Miles offers the job of security supremo to our candidate for an early grave. Fortunately for him, there’s a professional organisation bidding for the work. At least he can talk with the lady who’s making the pitch and offer an opinion. And, in the midst of all home-grown terrorist threats, there’s another shooting which happens as the town is building up for the return of its prodigy son — a brilliant pianist who’s required to go through a baptism of public performances as part of his education and training regime.

Not having read any of the previous books, I wasn’t quite sure which way the plot would develop. After the initial excitement, it seemed to be shaping up for a mystery approach with the old guy helping the youngsters out in a police procedural. But it fairly soon becomes apparent who they are looking for and it becomes an almost straight thriller for the key sections at the end. On the way, we continue the metanarrative of the lives of the local citizens and learn more about our hero’s interest in the history of the old West. At this point, I raise a vaguely questioning hand to signal a pause. Like this protagonist, I’m retired but pride myself on being fit for my age. I was on board for all the early activity. What was attempted and achieved seemed perfectly credible. But towards the end, I felt he was not only irresponsible but also physically more durable than is strictly credible. Don’t get me wrong. What happens is all standard fare for the heroes of thrillers. Indeed, if I had not known this was about someone who’s seventy-four years old, I would have been calmly congratulating the author on a job well done. But I’m afraid I end up feeling faintly dissatisfied. With his physical limitations and at his age, I think he might have been a little more circumspect. Or perhaps this is just me being a killjoy. If he was more circumspect, there would be less thrilling stuff going on and the excitement quotient would drop. And that would never do if you were in the business of writing thrillers. So NightZone should be counted a success. Not only does it advance the broader narrative arcs about the local citizenry as we look forward to the twentieth book in the series, it also gives our old guy a case he can really get his teeth into.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine (2013)

September 28, 2013 2 comments

Elementary poster

This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this episode, you may wish to delay reading this.

When a series is going to return (Elementary: Season 2, episode 1. Step Nine), there’s a moment when you wonder whether you should start watching again. Although the last season was less than perfect (indeed, at times, it was awful), there’s still some curiosity to see where the scriptwriters will take the characters this time around. For all the faults of the show, the emerging partnership between Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) was interesting. This time, the billing is we’re going to spare no expense and film on location in London. Sherlock is going “home” as it were.

So the prologue in what’s supposed to be Highgate Cemetery is an appalling piece of melodrama and populated by English actors speaking in a way only achieved for American consumption. This is the ultimate in unnatural accents. Meanwhile, Sherlock and Watson are tracking down a criminal who’s communicating with his minions using pinions, i.e. by using pigeons of the carrying variety. What better way is there to hide the messenger in plain sight and how clever of Holmes to be able to follow the flight of a bird across a city to just the right stretch of pedestrianised area within a park to which, even more remarkably, this stupid pigeon feels it must fly to return home. This is not what I wanted to see as an opening. Two incredibly absurd scenes in quick succession. Anyway, having arrested the pigeon wrangler, Holmes receives a telephone summons to London where his ex-police buddy — it’s Gareth Lestrade (Sean Pertwee) of the Yard from the Arthur Conan Doyle canon — needs an ‘elping ‘and with his accent from a British actor able to speak more proper on the small screen.

So the backstory is that Holmes was working anonymously and Lestrade’s reputation got puffed up beyond the limits of his ability. Then, without Holmes to guide him, he’s come unstuck. To show we’ve arrived in London, we have Oasis blasting out of the taxi’s sound system as we do a whistle-stop tour of tourist highlights like the Houses of Parliament, i.e. it’s one cliché after another to the music of a band from Manchester. Amazingly, DCI Hopkins (Tim McMullan) has nothing better to do than stand outside New Scotland Yard waiting for Holmes and Watson to arrive. Formalities of the welcome over, we come to the case itself. It seems Lawrence Pendry (Rufus Wright) called the police claiming he’d fought with someone who’d broken into his home and killed his wife. He only had five minutes or so until the police responded (even though he seems to have been in a country estate some distance from civilisation). The police searched diligently but found no gun. Ergo the husband was innocent and Lestrade was falsely accusing the innocent son of a media mogul who owned enough newspapers to shred the detective’s reputation and get him suspended.

Jonny Lee Miller and Rhys Ifans

Jonny Lee Miller and Rhys Ifans

At what’s presented as 221B Baker Street (not the real address which does exist), the Holmes boys get together again with Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) who got to redecorate the “apartment” in his brother’s absence. While Watson sleeps off the jet lag, Holmes walks straight to Lestrade who’s drowning what’s left of his sorrows in a Greenwich pub and is persuaded to look into the case. So now we veer off into near-future science fiction with a plastic gun from a 3D printer which was dissolved and hidden as a pint of milk in the fridge. At least we’re on the frontier of the possible. It’s possible to download the CAD file called Liberator and, with the right hardware, use it to manufacture a gun for just a few dollars. Except the resulting guns are dangerous both to the person aimed at and to the person holding the weapon, i.e. they can kill or, if they explode, maim the hand of the person holding it.

The title of this episode is Step Nine. Following the road to recovery from addiction, Holmes is supposed to apologise to those he has wronged. In this case, put simply, that means rescuing Lestrade and not killing Mycroft who blows up the furniture and accumulated stuff from 221B which he had lovingly stored. After the brothers have bonded, Holmes and Watson get into a train to go back to America — it’s the new trans-Atlantic tunnel (following on from the novel by Harry Harrison). I think Step Nine is a step too far into absurdity. I don’t mind less than credible elements so long as the underlying mystery to be solved is interesting. In this episode, everything was subordinated to the “London experience” and the rest followed along limply behind with Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) getting all of ten seconds screen time to show they had not been terminated from the cast. Had he seen this, Arthur Conan Doyle would have turned in his grave.

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013).
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 17. Ears to You (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 22. Paint It Black (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014).

Now You See It by Jane Tesh

September 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Now You See It by Jane Tesh

Now You See It by Jane Tesh (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the third in the Grace Street Mystery series. Although I never actually lived in a commune or squat during the 1960s — I was born middle-aged and could afford a roof over my head with comfortable furniture and my own choice of people wandering in and out — this book plays with the notion that a group of people living together will either fall into Satre’s model of Hell or find themselves operating as a continuous self-help group — which may seem like Hell for those on the receiving end of the help. In this developing series, we’ve got a small group aching for therapy and living together in a big oldish house on Grace Street. In theory, the six of the seven pair off but, as in all series, the path of true love, etc. The lesser mortals are Angie and Rufus, followed up the human evolutionary scale by Camden and Ellin who have psychic powers and produce an ESP show respectively. This leaves us with David Randall who’s deep into grief because of the death of his daughter, but hankers after Kary. And Fred who’s old and should really be in a home, except the Grace Street house has become home for him.


As a private investigator working out of his bedroom, Randall gets hired by a stage magician who hid a box as part of a bet only to find it gone when he returned. Such unexpected tricks are part of the trials and tribulations encountered in the world of magic. This proves there’s always a catch — that’s the one on the inside of the box used by the client’s twin brother who was thinking of becoming an escapologist. But, for some reason, when they open that box they find the dead body of the escapologist manqué. This is odd because he should have been able to escape since he knew where the hidden catch could be found. So now David Randall has to solve a two-box problem. One apparently stolen from its secret hiding place in the magic club and the other a locked-box murder with a body that shouldn’t have been inside (unless someone put it there, of course, and not in a magical way). These box cases have to fit around the missing diamond bracelet belonging to Sandy Olaf unless, like magic, the bracelet turns up in the missing smaller box, conveniently solving two of the cases with a drumroll and single Ta Dah!

Jane Tesh and her muse

Jane Tesh and her muse


In the midst of all this investigating, there’s confusion and dismay as the new financial backer for the cable show celebrating psychic powers insists his wife takes over as the host. This is alienating everyone connected with the show. Obviously the show needs the money to survive, but the production crew value their independence more. This connects back into the world of magic because the son of the inconveniently rich sponsor is a wannabe magician who’s completely talentless but auditioned at the magic club where the body was found in its box. Now is that a coincidence, or what? Which leads to an equally coincidental and even more irrelevant memory of a faintly comic British television series called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) set in and around London and only occasionally showing scenes shot in Camden in which a private investigator solves crimes with supernatural help.


Without being a flat-out comedy mystery, Now You See It is a very pleasing fun read, the pages intermittently bursting into life with people talking in idiosyncratic ways or there being a wry sense of humour underlying some of the situations. Indeed, the whole plot is somewhat ironic because Camden is a genuine psychic and he helps Randall investigate a group of magicians. Of course, the solution to the three crimes is mundane, i.e. not supernatural, but there is actually a sense of magic about the way the whole thing is put together. Even the identification of the bracelet’s final resting place is nicely managed. So Jane Tesh delivers an ingenious set of puzzles to solve, explores the backstabbing world of amateur and professional magicians, and leaves a smile on your lips when the final piece of the puzzle slots into place at the end. There are also some romantic resolutions but our PI remains on the shelf for now. Hopefully, he can make further progress through the five stages of grief in the next book in the series.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 1. Pilot

September 26, 2013 3 comments

Marvels Agents of Shield

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2013) Season 1, episode 1 is trying to do something inherently difficult. We have had decades of Marvel Comics and, more recently, successful films. To expand on the universe through a television show is asking a lot. First, it must be consistent with the universe as existing fans know it, but the episodes must be accessible to newcomers who think Marvel is a brand of powdered milk. It must also avoid trampling on the toes of the existing film franchise. It would be embarrassing if the television series accidentally foreshadowed some of the themes due to appear in the next film. Then there’s the problem of characters crossing over from the cinema to the small screen. Some of the stars of the big screen might be too expensive for a television production. And finally there’s a terrible burden of expectation. Of late, the film producers have managed to reinvigorate the Marvel universe. It will be a challenge to the television producers on a smaller budget to maintain the standard.

So how does the first episode play out? Well the first mountain or molehill depending on your point of view is the survival of Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). He’s been the right-hand person to Nick Fury in both Thor (2011) and The Avengers (2012) but, in the latter film, he died. Except here he is and, immediately the writers confront the elephant on the screen and give an explanation. Then, when he’s not in hearing range, the “people-in-the-know” say they hope he never finds out what actually happened. Yeh, well, it’s a solution. So Agent Coulson is back in the saddle and putting together a team to deal with all the new weird stuff after the Battle of New York in the film. This means Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) drives the bus, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is the good-looking one who fights well but is not overendowed in the brain department, Skye (Chloe Bennet) is the superduper hacker, Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) is a geek and one half of the science team with Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge).marvels_agents_of_shield_640_large_verge_medium_landscape

The first thing to note is the international character of the team. The science division is British (they ask for less money to ply their trade than comparable American talent) while the bus driver is from Macau with exposure in Hong Kong (even cheaper). This keeps down costs and spreads the distribution load because although Chloe Bennet was born in Chicago, her father is Chinese and she already has a mainland Chinese fan base thanks to her international singing career. This is television program marketing 101. Always cram in as many different racial and cultural groups as possible when casting.

Now on to the plot. This must necessarily be thin because we’re in team gathering mode and meeting the cast is more important than any meat in the plot — that can come in later episodes. So we’re in supersoldier territory courtesy of Captain America. The potential hero in this episode has been treated with some of the still unstable physical enhancer. As in other plots, people with this type of chemical in their bloodstream can literally explode. Fortunately, with an all-British science team on the job, it’s the work of only five minutes of screen time for them to find a way of defusing the bomb. Such are the wonders of British science in the Marvel universe. Frankly, the ending is overly sentimental and feel good. The whole point of Marvel is that not everyone can be saved. I hope this is not a precedent for future episodes. This has all been too easy. Yes it had fun moments and some of the special effects are quite cool, but when it came down to the basic plot mechanics, we were in cliché territory most of the time. This means I’m in holding mode. I can see some potential in the team members, but the initial performances were of neutral quality. For now, they are devices being moved around for the convenience of the plot. If the scripts allow them to come to life and they have some complexity, the series may become watchable. All we can do is wait and see.

For a review of other episodes, see:
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 2. 0-8-4
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 3. The Asset
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 4. Eye-Spy
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 5. Girl in the Flower Dress
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 6. FZZT
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 7. The Hub.

Sleep With the Lights On by Maggie Shayne

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment


So here we go with a rare event. I read and reviewed Wake to Darkness which is book 2 in the series. It was sufficiently interesting to justify seeking out the first in the series which is still available to review. Even though it meant reading them out of sequence, we now come on to Sleep With the Lights On by Maggie Shayne (Harlequin Mira, 2013), the first outing for Rachel de Luca, famous author and self-help guru. She’s an interesting woman. At the age of twelve she lost her sight through corneal dystrophy and, in a sense, she’s never recovered from the emotional trauma. Inside, she remains embittered yet, by exploiting the tragedy, she’s been able to convert her good looks and ready intelligence into a money-making machine. Having studied the patter used by gurus of the past, she’s now published six books and regularly appears on talk shows to promote them. As a public persona, you can’t beat the calm and confident way she peddles her “bullshit” and interfaces with the world. Privately, she rages at people, particularly when she’s not getting her own way. Now Tommy, her brother, has gone missing and the police don’t seem too keen on moving Heaven and Earth to find him. This is stretching her patience to breaking point. Distracted by an exchange of view with the officer behind the public desk, she leaves the police station and is knocked down as she steps into the road. Fortunately, the car is driven by Detective Mason Brown and, if you were going to pick someone to knock you to the ground, you couldn’t hope for anyone so good looking. Ah such are the wiles of the romance writer.


But the prologue has shown us a serial killer disposing of his thirteenth body. Apparently he likes to batter young men who look like his son Jeremy to death with a hammer. This puts him in a relaxed mood to go home to his wife and his two sons. So here comes the kicker to get the plot moving. The serial killer is Eric Conroy Brown, adopted brother of said good-looking Mason. This is ironic because Mason and his partner Roosevelt Jones are the ones tasked with investigating the disappearance of twelve people. With his life unravelling, Eric decides to commit suicide, timing it so that his brother walks into the room just as he pulls the trigger. Books such as this aim for maximum melodrama. Meanwhile back at the hospital, Rachel has given her statement to the police and is joined by her sister Sandra, mother of Christie and Misty. No, wait, the bullet from the .44 Magnum didn’t kill Eric. Everyone’s now heading to the hospital, sirens blasting their warning of approaching monster. Except loyal brother Mason has snatched up the suicide note and the immediate evidence of serial killing. He wants to protect his sister-in-law and their two children from the shame. Now to perfect the set-up, Eric’s body is harvested for useful organs and Rachel gets the corneas. Although it’s somewhat convoluted, this is a rather pleasing way of launching off into paranormal territory.

Maggie Shayne

Maggie Shayne


When two “young” people are set on a trail to potential romance, there must always be hurdles to overcome. The path to true love. . . So even in the conventional romance, a match between a woman recovering her sight after twenty years and a detective on a guilt trip of his own devising, is going to be hard work. “I might have knocked you down and broken some ribs, but I gave you my brother’s eyes.” is not the most exciting basis on which to start. But in this instance, it’s what Rachel “sees” with the serial killer’s eyes that really gets things moving. It’s a fairly standard horror trope for transplanted organs to give the donor a potential influence over the host body. For example, Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison has an arm and foot replaced after damage in battle. So he can now salute with both arms and finds himself influenced by the personalities of the donors, parodying The Hands of Orlac (1924). In this instance, she’s having visions as dreams/nightmares with her eyes the point of view to see the murders of young men with a hammer. Better still, the killer knows she can see his work. That means she has to die.


There’s nothing new in the world. Somewhere, sometime, someone else has come up with the same idea for a plot. I’ve “seen” or read multiple versions of this plot idea before. This is not a criticism and, more to the point, there are no copyright or plagiarism issues involved. Once an author sets out into the realm of the supernatural or science fiction, there are hundreds of years of people storytelling with similar themes. Possession or influence stories are common because they explain sudden changes in personality and behaviour. X is taken over by a supernatural beast or alien and, while under that being’s direction, commits various crimes or behaves in inexplicable ways. This book represents a pleasingly different way of telling the story given Rachel’s slightly nonstandard character. Because she’s learned the workings of the world as both a sighted and a blind person, she “sees” or senses things in a different way. Indeed, while blind, she was somewhat notorious for surprising people with a supposed ESP ability. Actually she was very good at drawing inferences from nonvisual information: particularly smells and sounds. Now she can see again, she becomes a very good investigator/detective because she literally sees the world without too many preconceptions. There’s still novelty in sight and so she sees some things as salient when ordinarily sighted people would take them for granted.


Overall, Sleep With the Lights On is far more successful than the sequel. There’s a more natural flow to the plot with the supernatural nicely integrated into the text without being overdone. The tone is more consistent as it shifts from potential “horror” themes surrounding serial killers to supernatural stalkers. The development of the relationship between the two leading characters also feels relatively less forced than in other romance-tinged thrillers. Although I think it rather obvious how the plot will work out, the mystery element being less important than the thriller and romance elements, the entire package means the lack of surprise is not a problem. This is an enjoyable supernatural thriller or, if you prefer, paranormal romance.


For a review of the sequel by Maggie Shayne, see Wake to Darkness.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo

September 25, 2013 1 comment

Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo

Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo (Severn House, 2013) is the eighth Maggy Thorsen Mystery and it invites us to consider the most desirable characteristics for that perfect cup of coffee (those of you blessed with a suspicious turn of mind will understand the seven previous titles are all relevant puns). The series in general and this book in particular, all begin with the aroma which alerts the other senses something good is on the way. Then we get to the body, i.e. the feeling the coffee has in your mouth or, if you prefer, Maggy Thorsen together with Brookhills County Sheriff Jake Pavlik with a murder victim on their hands. As the process of consumption begins, there must be elements of viscosity as the thick liquid lingers indulgently on the tongue before disappearing into the pit below for absorption into the gut. This delightful sensation stems from the solids produced by grinding and the oils extracted during the brewing leading us to conclude the best coffee, like the best novels, has a balance between sweetness and acidity, producing a rich and complex flavour.


Sandra Balzo has injected lightness into the milk to produce a frothy brew with a sprinkling of wit, humour and a little absurdity to create a slightly nutty aftertaste, the whole concoction leaving me in a mellow and satisfied mood. The aroma builds as we join Maggie and Jake booking into the hotel where the crime writers convention is to be held. The sly observations introduce us to the first evening’s event which is a short train journey in the spirit of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. We meet everyone of note on the bus to the station with their real-world names nicely alliterative to the characters from the novel so we don’t forget who everyone is. Then it’s off into the Everglades in a push-me, pull-you train where alien invaders eat the ‘gators or eat the food the ‘gators would eat before the reptiles can get at them — actually that’s confusing because the aliens are Burmese and African Rock pythons released into the wilds by pet owners who couldn’t cope with the little monsters which were becoming alarmingly big.

Sandra Balzo

Sandra Balzo


With the train leaving the station, we’re off on what should be a three-hour jaunt into the wilderness with the prospect of a murder to solve before the victorious sleuths are allowed to eat the celebratory cake. Except, as is required in books like this which depend on crimes for our heroic detectives to solve, there’s a real life murder with the cake knife — presenting a real challenge to those who wish to eat the cake but have nothing to cut it with save the sharpness of their wit. Such are the perils of those who organise events or conferences for creative people where petty jealousies and major disagreements combine to produce a hopefully only metaphorically murderous atmosphere.


This being a rerun of the Agatha Christie situation of a small group of people trapped on a train, the problem for the author is to decide how rigorously to follow the plot of the original. In this case, there’s a very nice balance with most of the people on the train having a motive for wanting this particular individual dead (so they all did it, right?) while there are wildly inventive moments that completely undercut the spirit of the original. It’s so artfully done: the fact the detective duo might debate whether to call the witnesses into the dining car for interview in the same order as in the novel, simply typifying the delightfully elaborate game being played — like trying to work out how far along the track they are. The other pleasing demonstration of good judgement is understanding the need to keep extended jokes short. Although we pivot rather neatly into a faintly absurd thriller ending, the explanation of whodunnit and why is clear and persuasive. Then it’s all over bar the shouting to the barista for more of the same.


For the review of another book by Sandra Balzo, see Hit and Run.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne

September 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne

Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne (Harlequin Mira, 2013) is the second instalment in the story of Rachel de Luca, author of a very successful series self-help books, and Detective Mason Brown. They think each other hot. In the first in this series, Sleep With the Lights On, they slept together once. As this starts, they have decided to cool off. That hasn’t stopped the detective from asking her help in solving another case. So how does this work? She may be writing books promoting the idea that positive thinking solves all problems, but that’s just a way to make money. At heart, she’s a cynic and less than convinced anyone actually benefits from reading and following the advice of authors such as herself. But, after she receives a corneal transplant to cure her physical blindness — she was blind from the age of twelve — she starts to experience “visions”. Yes, she sees vicious crimes as they are committed. This makes her “useful” to the detective and not just in bed.


Well this is another jump into the deep end of paranormal romance. As a man, exploring this subgenre is fascinating because it shows me how women see the world and evaluate threats in their environment. Having now read the work of three leading proponents in quick succession, I’m now able to offer some working definitions. For this I make no apology. I’m essentially selfish, writing these reviews as much to get my own thoughts straight as to inform my readers. At a simple level, I think authors in this subgenre are writing supernatural horror novels with only a dilute horror element. Whatever fantasy element is included is subordinated to the romance. So, as in this story, the couple meet each other again after a short separation. They continue to be powerfully attracted to each other but, for reasons which no doubt sounded good to each of them when they separated, their relationship is on hold. This forces readers to wait until circumstances change enough for them to get back to the hot sex they so enjoyed the last time around. Whether they will be able to live happily ever after depends on how many books there are in the series and how the romantic element will play out if they become a stable couple.

Maggie Shayne

Maggie Shayne


I suppose the distinction from urban fantasy is the emphasis in the plotting. From the label, the fantasy in urban fantasy is dominant whereas the romance in paranormal romance gets the dominant role. This is not to say the setting for a paranormal romance cannot be in a city and feature supernatural abilities corresponding exactly to fantasy stereotypes. But the point of the stories is to achieve an optimistic outcome from the couple’s courtship rituals. They are good people who stand against the evil of this world and, in emotional terms, they earn rewards by defeating evil, no matter what form it takes. Hence, these books are not “love” stories with dark or horrific opponents who “get in the way”. The traditional horror story doesn’t always end well for the primary characters. They often get get maimed or killed. The paranormal romance has unfair or, sometimes even malevolent, circumstances to navigate but, when the immediate adventure ends, our couple will have survived more or less intact, but not necessarily in a permanent relationship. This contrasts traditional “love” stories in which the couple usually marry and sail off into the sunset expecting a secure and happy future.


So back to Wake to Darkness in which one of the other people who was in the transplant program which produced her “magic” eyes, has disappeared. We all know there’s no such thing as a coincidence. The question is whether she can use her sight to “see” someone who’s a victim of crime. Fortunately for the plot to work, she begins to have dreams where she’s in the head of women and men who are being killed for the organs sourced from the same body. These dreamed experiences in real time describe a sadistic murder from the victim’s point of view and then carefully stop before they get too graphic. In a sense this is justified because our heroine has learned her role is not passive. No matter what the circumstances, she’s to use the time to collect information about where she is and precisely what’s happening. In the first scenario she’s drugged and her pancreas is removed. In the second, the killer comes at her from behind and takes her left kidney. This gives both the detective and readers tantalising details, but nothing substantial in the preliminary stages of the investigation. Having gone through the set-up, the couple then does the “thriller” slasher movie thing. He thinks she will be safer if she hides. Playing the part of the male protective figure, he arranges for her and her niece Misty to go to an isolated skiing resort in the Adirondacks. Then more family join them. Hey, like that’s going to work out well when the snow comes and they get trapped with a sadistic killer who’s come to collect the eyes that restored her sight. And then, before they set off and just to ratchet up the tension, there’s an attack. . . This is going to be a great Christmas.


Although it may look as if I’m poking fun at this, there’s tremendous craft in the writing which nicely balances the romance against the thriller elements. The supernatural is, for most of the book, largely understated which helps to retain some degree of fictional credibility — it would be far too intrusive if our heroine was always receiving dream messages as if she could tune in her eyes like television channels. All of which leaves us with the mystery element. This is quite strong. The degree of analysis to include or exclude suspects is satisfying. The whodunnit is pleasing with a not unreasonable motive for the murders. Put together, this makes a good package, perhaps if only because it’s a mystery thriller romance with only nominal supernatural stuff going on. If I had a criticism, it would be that there’s a slight disconnect in tone between the first third of the book with the “horrific” dreams coming in, and the remainder which is almost entirely supernatural free with merely routine murders. Indeed, the book would work without any supernatural elements because what she “sees” is not relevant to catching the killer. Were it not for the first book, this could have been written as a straight thriller. But I’m prepared to forgive that and accept this as an enjoyable, even though romantic, read.


For a review of the first in the series, see Sleep With the Lights On.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Persistence of Memory by Winona Kent

September 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Persistence of Memory_CVR_LRG

Long ago, when I ran a slush pile, there were unfortunate moments when I knew after the first page the book wasn’t going to be good enough to even think about saving. It’s sad to make such snap judgements but, when the command of English is tenuous, the plot is only possible savior and the lack of coherence in the language usually means the plot is not going to stand up. It’s therefore disconcerting to report that I almost didn’t bother to read beyond the first page of this book but eventually read it to the end. In this case, it’s not to much that the words are actually wrongly selected. It’s just that, in context, they don’t make quite the sense the author obviously intended. However, having decided the judgement of the small press should be trusted, I persisted. There are some distinct linguistic oddities in the pages that follow, but the meaning communicated becomes more clear as we progress.


Persistence of Memory by Winona Kent (Fable Press, 2013) offers us a time travel story which, in a sense, parallels Lost in Austen. By one of these magical manipulations of physics, we have an exchange of two women across time. Both are widows and, to the casual observer, physically identical. One explanation of the phenomenon might therefore be that the minds of the two women are exchanged. This would bring the book more in line with classics like Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which deal with time travel as more a mental than a physical process. Naturally, the woman who comes forward is rather confused by the modern world but adapts remarkably quickly, while our doughty modern woman, armed with a little knowledge of what has gone before, finds it relatively easy to fit into the past (once she’s found the privy, of course). Even her mobile phone fits in, readjusting its local time to 1825 — that’s some smart phone, lady! And it also gets a signal from the local landmark tree which persists into the future. This gives her a mechanism for co-ordinating the effort to keep history on its designated path. Or, if you want to get technical about it, the knowledgeable woman from the future must avoid changing history and thus, courtesy of the grandfather paradox, prevent herself from returning. The only problem is to decide what history is to be preserved. As you can imagine, not that much day-to-day detailed has travelled the almost two-hundred years into the future. There’s just the broadest outline and even that’s a little fuzzy around the edges.


We’re therefore invited to see the book as a form of mystery novel in which our sleuth from the future has to understand precisely what’s required in the past and then nudge events in the right direction to get the desired results. Unfortunately, a sequence of crimes is committed including murder, arson (both punishable by the death penalty), robbery, fraud and failing to invent a workable water closet. This range forces the plot to vary quite widely from the need to establish who’s who in the family tree to the alarming prospect that the future has been changed by the murder. At this point, I need to dispel any assumption you might have that the plot works in a strictly logical way. For it all to come out right, there has to be some major cheating (or if you want to be scientific about it, some major anomalies have to be introduced into the tachyon stream). Yes, there’s some cod science floating around which doesn’t particularly impress. The tree as a network broadcast tower is also a really bad idea. As an outsider, I can confidently say the book would have been immeasurably better if events were left as a near-death experience including a major hallucination about time travel. When the poisoned tree fell down, the key document could have turned up to resolve matters and leave everything ambiguous. Having actual time travel with real-time cellphone conversations across two-hundred years denies everything science fiction is supposed to be. It turns the book into a romance-tinged fantasy and denies it any chance of real success.


Putting everything together, Persistence of Memory is a short novel, i.e. slightly more than 76,000 words* and although it’s obviously intended as an SFnal time travel piece, it’s really a fantasy with a romance element and written in rather wooden prose. In my opinion, there’s a good story waiting to be told but the editorial service from the small press let the author down. Anyone with any knowledge of science fiction would have understood the major problems with the plot. The prose should also have been rescued by proper editing.


* I’m indebted to the author for giving me the actual word count. I had estimated this as novella length and have amended the text.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Crimson Rose by M J Trow

September 22, 2013 1 comment

Crimson Rose by M J Trow

Crimson Rose by M J Trow (Severn House, 2013) is the fifth in the current series featuring Kit Marlowe as a detective. This is paralleling Mark Chadbourne’s slightly different take on the playwright as a spy in a supernatural version of Britain (see The Scar-Crow Men), and following in the footsteps of Ged Parsons who wrote four Christopher Marlowe Mysteries which were broadcast on BBC Radio in December, 1993. Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s something rather attractive about purloining an historical character who both had a reputation as a rather clever individual and probably also spied for the then English government. If an author is determined to appropriate someone from the real world, it’s a big step forward to pick someone a little exceptional.M J Trow


In this book, we have a double appropriation. Kit is about to launch Tamburlaine, part 2 (they didn’t do trilogies in those days) and, to show magnanimity to potential rivals, one Williams Shakespeare is recruited as an actor. It’s his responsibility in a pivotal scene to take up an arquebus and excite the audience with the uncertainty of whether he can actually get it to fire. Exactly as rehearsed, he hits his mark on the stage, the gun is fired, and a woman falls dead in the audience, a bullet hole in her neck. This is something of a surprise to all in the audience and completely devastating to Shakespeare who finds himself thrown in jail along with the arquebus — in those days, any object causing the death of a human was forfeited as a gift to God. Actually the history of the deodand is fascinating, particularly when the railways arrive with the possibility of mass casualties. For reasons that escape me, the arquebus given to Shakespeare to use on stage actually contained a bullet. Even in those uncivilised times, I suspect that was too dangerous a level of realism to bring to the stage. What if the playwright-in-making had inadvertently shot one of the cast?


As we read through this book there are some terrific anecdotes and just enough detail to a establish the context for the action but, at best, the characterisation is sketchy. We meet quite a lot of people but there’s little or no background supplied. It’s all in the moment as we’re expected to fill in the stereotypes as moneylender, corrupt official and so on. I’m not against this in principle. Some authors make the plot the dominant feature in their work and leave the rest of the work to the readers. Indeed, even a luminary such as Agatha Christie was occasionally guilty of this, churning out some mechanical plots and moving named characters around until the right result came out. But Crimson Rose is thin as historical fiction and saved only by quite a pleasing sense of humour, a jealous spat between playwrights as a subplot, and an ingenious murder plot given the level of technology available to the Elizabethans. Like many methods for murder, this depends on circumstances singularly unlikely in the real world, but it’s a clever idea and the result makes for an interesting puzzle to solve. Indeed, it all fits together like a snaphaunce, plus the chance to work “fifty shades of grey” into the plot to show current awareness. Given there are several jokes about codpieces and Shakespeare sleeps safely with his landlady’s sister, there might be a case made to describe this as a rollicking good late-mediaeval read. Except that might not quite be the right designation of era and there’s absolutely nothing explicit about the book. It just chugs happily along, crossing off the suspects as we go until there’s really only one person left (or possibly two). The motive for all the fatal excitement is pleasingly a necessary feature the time and would happily make the basis of a play (or two). We even get a veiled reference to a bear in hot pursuit stage left. Put all this together and Crimson Rose is great fun with a nicely constructed plot to paper over the slightly thin historical detail.


For a review of another book by M J Trow, see Traitor’s Storm.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


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