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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Visitor’s Room by E.H. James

The Visitor’s Room by E.H. James
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Paranormal, Mystery
Length: Short Story (10 pages)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Don’t go asking questions you don’t want to know the answer to, especially when you're on a psych ward, and even you begin to question your sanity.

If Amy thought this day on the psych ward would be just like any other she would be sadly mistaken. For although everything seemed normal, well as normal as a place like that could be, there was something that was not quite right. That she couldn’t put her finger on it only made it all the more perplexing. But the real question was, should you go asking questions you aren’t prepared to hear the answer to?

Sometimes the biggest mysteries are packed into the minutia of daily life: a dripping faucet, a terry cloth robe.

It’s difficult to create a memorable protagonist in such a short story, but author E.H. James did a fantastic job sketching out Amy’s personality and even a little bit of her backstory. You’ll shudder through her pain, confusion and unshakable curiosity as you follow her tale.

Just enough information is provided about the secondary characters to enhance the mystery. Had the author decided to expand this concept into a full-length novel these characters could have easily been fleshed out into more complex individuals but for a story this size these characters were perfectly described.

To be honest I figured out the twist early on but the clues were so subtle this in no way dampened my enthusiasm for the plot. It was even more interesting to read it a second time and pick up on a few more clues that I hadn’t noticed the first time around!

I still wonder what happened to Amy, her friend Angela and the rest of the characters after the end of The Visitor’s Room and I’ll be paying close attention to the author’s future projects. There's room for a sequel here and even if the author decides not to write one I’m excited to read stories about other characters.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Visitor’s Room. Your only regret will be that you didn’t discover such a talented writer sooner.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Caves of Etretat by Matt Chatelain

The Caves of Etretat by Matt Chatelain
Publisher: Matt Chatelain
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (300 pgs)
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Poinsettia

Canadian bookstore owner Paul Sirenne is thrust into a quest for answers when his parents are found murdered, their bodies cut up into the letters H.N. A note sent before his father's murder drives Sirenne to seek out the roots of a long-forgotten family secret.

He heads to the town of Etretat, France, on the trail of a hundred year old mystery hidden in the pages of 'The Hollow Needle', by Maurice Leblanc. Together with Leblanc's great-granddaughter, Sirenne unearths puzzles, codes and historical mysteries, exposing a secret war for control of a cave fortress in Etretat's chalk cliffs.

'THE CAVES OF ETRETAT' is the first in a four-book epic adventure following Paul Sirenne, an average man unknowingly manipulated into becoming the key in the final phase of a complex conspiracy spanning millennia. Inextricably woven into history, the series re-writes everything we know in a non-stop rollercoaster of a ride where nothing is ever as it seems.

Does the self proclaimed “armchair detective” have what it takes to solve a very real and life altering mystery?

One of the things I like most about The Caves of Etretat is that Paul is an ordinary guy who's called to do extraordinary things. Paul perfectly embodies the term “armchair detective.” He's extremely smart and loves solving complex mysteries and puzzles, but Paul has never really ventured beyond his comfort zone. Paul is forced to take action when his parents are murdered. It isn’t long before what starts out as a murder mystery is revealed to be a multifaceted secret spanning hundreds of years that directly involves one of the twentieth century’s most notorious men.

Once Paul realizes the magnitude of his discoveries, he's overwhelmed by the responsibility he's being called to shoulder. It would have been completely understandable if he had wanted to walk away from it all. Instead, Paul shows some real backbone and presses on. I’m absolutely certain that he's exactly the sort of man who can bear the secret of the caves. Not only is he intelligent, but he's also thoughtful and loyal. He carefully considers the consequences of his actions before making any moves, but he still manages to get himself into several scrapes. The scene involving the car chase is particularly memorable. All these traits make Paul a great character. However, the icing on the cake is his relationship with Raymonde, Leblanc’s great granddaughter. I found myself smiling as Paul blushed and stumbled over his words when trying to explain his situation to her. Their tender romance plays out in such a simple and realistic way that it truly helps ground the story.

Out of all the secondary characters, O’Flanahan is certainly the most fun. He's brash and a bit overbearing at times, but he means well and is a good friend to Paul. O’Flanahan’s outspoken attitude sets off Paul’s more introverted personality very well, and I look forward to reading more about him in the coming books.

Mr. Chatelain obviously spent a great deal of time writing and researching this story. Everything seems to be very well thought out in order to make the theory about Hitler and the caves sound plausible. All the information is organized so well I was able to follow his reasoning without any serious moments of disbelief.

The pacing of The Caves of Etretat is also very well done. The majority of the plot involves Paul reading or discussing the secret of the caves with various characters. When it seems as if the plot might get a bit bogged down by all the dialogue something exciting happens to shake things up a bit. This mix of research, action, and looming sense of danger from the murderer is perfectly balanced and keeps the story moving at a nice pace.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Caves of Etretat, and I will certainly be looking for the next installment in the series. Long after I had finished reading, I was contemplating the theories presented in its pages and wondering what would happen if they turned out to be true. Anyone looking for a great conspiracy theory filled to the brim with suspense should definitely check out The Caves of Etretat.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn

The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn
Publisher: Penguin
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full length (368 pages)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Azalea

The phone rings. It's your daughter. She's been dead for four months.

So begins East Texas police dispatcher Ian Hunt's fight to get his daughter back. The call is cut off by the man who snatched her from her bedroom seven years ago, and a basic description of the kidnapper is all Ian has to go on. What follows is a bullet-strewn cross-country chase from Texas to California along Interstate 10- a wild ride in a 1965 Mustang that passes through the outlaw territory of No Country for Old Men and is shot through with moments of macabre violence that call to mind the novels of Thomas Harris.

911 dispatcher Ian Hunt receives a call from a fourteen-year-old girl–his daughter Maggie who’s been missing for seven years and declared dead. Before Ian can get more than a rudimentary description of his daughter’s kidnapper, the phone is snatched from the girl’s hand. Ian begins a hunt for his missing daughter that will cover not only the East Texas community where Ian lives, but also a mad chase along the Interstate 10 to California. Can he reach her in time?

Jahn’s theme is not new, but he gives life to an otherwise predictable plot by infusing life into his characters. Thrice divorced dispatcher, Ian Hunt has foibles aplenty, but he has a determination to find the only precious thing he has left in his empty life–his daughter Maggie. Henry, the villain, is a truly disgusting man, but Jahn provides a fascinating glimpse into the criminal mind that raises Henry from the stereotype. Even Henry’s dim-witted wife Bea is portrayed with a pathos that makes the reader both despise and pity her. Henry’s twisted loyalty to Bea and his hideous determination to give her what she lost are hard to stomach in this tale of a young girl who has lived as a captive practically under the noses of the local police. I was at first reminded of news stories where young women had been held captive. This is different, and Henry’s motives are not those of Elizabeth Smart’s or Jaycee Dugard’s kidnappers. Only the compliant wife lends any similarity to Maggie’s story.

Despite Maggie’s unusual strength of character which seems unbelievable given her confinement, Jahn’s fast-paced plot keeps the reader turning pages and suspending disbelief. I appreciated the viewpoints of several characters, however, I was put off by the present tense storytelling style. Also–and I do not take off for formatting since the version I read may be a NetGalley problem, not occurring in the printed book–I found point of view switches hard to follow without asterisks or other hiatus indicators.

Warning: there is macabre violence a plenty in this story of blood, bullets, twisted love and torture. Gripping, moving, well-crafted, but not for the faint of heart. Still, Jahn has crafted a terrific thriller that shows the criminal mind at work. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My Learned Friend by Heather Parker

My Learned Friend by Heather Parker
Publisher: Untreed Reads-Fingerprints
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (17 pgs)
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Stephantois

When James Whitman moves to a small village in the English Lake District, he thinks he is leaving the world of crime behind him in the courtrooms of Manchester. Surely folks here wouldn’t find themselves in need of a good defense lawyer – even one of the most highly respected in the land.

Yet, when an old lady dies in mysterious circumstances, James finds himself working to protect a young boy accused of her murder. A local social worker, Katy, becomes his unlikely ally, and the pair begin to investigate. They soon discover life in the isolated village may not be as peaceful and innocent as it seems...

If you’re a fan of mysteries with a British setting I know you’ll enjoy My Learned Friend. Ms. Parker did a wonderful job with the description of the village where this story takes place. I felt as if I was there and getting to know each of the characters as she introduced them.

I especially liked the way the author told this story and how it unfolded in just seventeen pages. It felt longer and I mean that in a good way. Ms. Parker packed a lot of story into this short read. As with any good mystery I kept wondering what would happen next. What I really liked was she had me guessing who was going to be the victim of the crime. It was a surprise, and then I found myself wanting to read on to find out who did it.

And to add even more layers to this story, she added a touch of romance that was enjoyable, too. This is a quick and very fun read for anyone who likes a good whodunit with a cast of British characters and a country setting.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cook the Books by Jessica Conant-Park and Susan Conant

Cook the Books by Jessica Conant-Park and Susan Conant
Publisher: The Berkley Publishing Group (Penguin)
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (243 pgs)
Heat Level: sensual
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

This Gourmet Girl has to take the heat-because she just can't get away from the kitchen.

Chloe Carter desperately needs a job, so she takes one assisting a cookbook writer. Unfortunately it stirs up painful memories of her ex- boyfriend Josh, who left her for Hawaii. While compiling a book of recipes from Boston's top chefs, she comes in contact with one of Josh's friends, Digger. Chloe manages to stay cool until later she finds Digger's apartment charred-with Digger in it.

Not believing that an expert chef would die from a grease fire, she sets about looking for Digger's killer. But things get sticky when the tragedy brings Josh back to Boston-and back into Chloe's life.

Jealousy, bad food, good food and a lot of frazzled nerves weave their way around the mystery of who cooked the cook. I never realized chefs led such frenetic and dangerous lives until I opened up Cook the Books and discovered how different restaurant kitchen life can be.

This is a mystery series that's ongoing but this is my first time tasting the adventure. I didn’t feel too lost because the author provided just enough back story for a new reader to understand that there's some serious water under the bridge between the main female protagonist, Chloe, and a man who, for a bit of the story, is in the background, Josh. I can’t label him a hero because he’s not the focus, he’s more like a side kick with romantic overtones. His character does stir the pot a bit and shakes things up so a reader can see Chloe in action.

Chloe is the eye of the storm and the winds of chaos seem to swirl about her character. The ambiance of the food world never abates and is a solid and steady theme throughout the book. The premise of finding a job to support a bad habit is believable, and having so much responsibility heaped upon one person’s shoulders is a breakdown waiting to happen. Good thing the heroine has a few good friends and some seriously effective distractions to keep her mind occupied. Unfortunately, they’re not the good kind.

The mystery is who killed one of her chef acquaintances. I don’t believe he was a true friend but he was a person in her circle who perhaps readers might have met in previous books in the series. It was interesting how the search for clues was handled. I wasn’t flooded with a lot of misdirection and red herrings. It was left to my finding out important clues when Chloe got them which made a lot of sense since this story is told in first person point of view. If the heroine didn’t get it, neither did I, until the author wanted us to.

The odd thing is how the culprit was in plain sight. So was the motive but not the means or the opportunity. I never clued in how those things tied together. It was only when Chloe was presented with crucial parts of the picture from an unexpected source that everything started falling into place. Even then it didn’t seem possible. But, human nature being its quirky self, it made sense once all was revealed. It was tragic in a way and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the criminal. It begs the question about circumstances and predilections towards an unbalanced psyche. I still say criminals make the best actors because the victims never see it coming.

The vibes between Chloe and Josh seem to be vibrant but drawn out. He made a huge mistake and he’s in the dog house. But the mystery of whodunit doesn’t allow for the silent treatment. The external conflict propels the two towards open communication that hints how all is not lost for Josh; he’s got a lot of work ahead of him but Chloe still has him on her radar. The romantic elements are there so it adds a little spice and lightness to the dark drama and suspense of finding their friend’s killer.

Cook the Books is an entertaining, light and zippy mystery with a lot of character. Most of the book is about Chloe and how she starts off doing something so basic and innocent and how it ends up spinning out of control onto a path totally unforeseen. Readers are teased with all these great sounding food dishes but the authors have guaranteed that our taste buds will join in on the fun by giving us the actual recipes so we can experience our own gastronomic adventures. I liked Chloe’s friends and found the fact that she’s still learning about herself interesting. The writing was good, the pace steady and the dialogue was insightful into the characters.

All in all Cook the Books is a fun read and it makes a person wonder just what is it going to take to iron out the relationship between Josh and Chloe. Guess I’ll have to read the next book and find out what new mayhem dogs the heroine’s steps. Should be good!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Maniac by Patrick Whittaker

Maniac by Patrick Whittaker
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (247 pgs)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Aloe

There are some people you should never allow inside your head.

The seaside town of Chadham prides itself on being sleepy. Until Maniac turns it into the murder capital of Britain.

Detective Inspector Harry Nyman is the world’s most reluctant policeman. He’d much rather be playing jazz than investigating crime. Unfortunately, murder sets its own agenda.

As the body count rises, it becomes clear the murderer has an ultimate goal: to destroy Harry Nyman.

It didn’t take Harry long to figure out the murders were related in some form. He never expected the killings to be related to him, though.

This author writes a hard hitting story that's very graphic in describing the death scenes and sexual depravity of a demon controlled personality. The story is both horrifying and intriguing. This wasn't a book I could set aside and go on to something else. I had to keep turning the pages, hoping to find out who and how they had done what they were doing. The answer is almost unfathomable…

Harry is between women right now. He has a good relationship with the mother of his child but they live separately. He's just investigating ugly cases and trying to figure out why the killer can remember doing the killing but can’t remember why. They make mention of a controller in their minds called “Maniac”.

This is a psychological brain twister. Mr. Whittaker writes a very convincing story with paranormal forces coming into play. What Harry got involved with in his youth comes back to bite him later in life. Someone close to him hates him and he has no idea. This author makes you frown as much as Harry does while he tries to find a common denominator and a true cause for the deaths. I felt like I wanted to help Harry figure it out. However, when I began to understand the author’s premise for the story I was really glad it was Harry in that situation and not me!

The ending shocked me. Even more astounding is the fact that Harry is waiting to come back for more. There’s a potential for a sequel to this book. The first novel was very energized and horrifying. I would expect the next one will continue in that vein. I’m going to watch for Harry. This author hooked me with his fast moving scary story.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Curse of Nilofer by Rekha Ambardar

The Curse of Nilofer by Rekha Ambardar
Part of the Anthology - Vampires, Zombies, and Ghosts, Oh My!
Publisher: No Trees Books
Genre: Mystery, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (18 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

offers an archaeology tale of an Egyptian queen whose mummy and tomb hieroglyphics hold the key to an ancient mystery and wield a power that extends beyond the grave.

“As Egyptologist makes a discovery that takes him through the ancient mists of time.”

What price would you pay to make the discovery of a lifetime?

Miles Cramer is an easy guy to like. I quickly understood his motivation for continuing to explore his incredible discovery even when he makes a series of bad decisions and under-reacts to some pretty frightening events.

The first half dozen pages of The Curse of Nilofer were excellent. I really appreciated the detailed descriptions of his surroundings. Ms. Ambardar makes you taste the dust in the air, feel the oppressive heat and shiver in empathy when an ordinary expedition begins to shimmer into something else entirely.

The tension builds exquisitely slow and Miles’ reaction to what is happening around him soon reveals his strengths and weaknesses as an individual. It isn’t easy to characterize someone over the course of a few conversations but it soon felt like Miles was an old, dear friend instead of a fictional character in a short story.

This story had all of the elements of a truly frightening tale but unfortunately they never quite congealed into what the beginning foreshadowed.

A supporting character suddenly fades out of the narrative which I found disappointing. I had expected him to reappear at some point and was left wondering how two men who shared such a unique experience could lose touch so abruptly.

There were also some editing issues that drew my attention away from the plot. They were minor but repetitive and at one point I found myself looking up how something should have been worded instead of continuing to read. This story showed such promise in the beginning, I wish I could have given it more stars.

In spite of the few problems I had with this novella, I couldn't stop reading. I had to know how it how it would end and to see if Miles' friend would reappear. The plot is interesting and could easily be expanded into a full length book. In fact, I truly hope it is.

If you like understated suspense and a plot that builds to a slow climax you will enjoy The Curse of Nilofer.