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Not Even Past: A Jackson Donne Novel
Not Even Past: A Jackson Donne Novel
by Dave White
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.26
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Click andwatch. Her life depends on it, February 1, 2016
The last time readers saw New Jersey-based ex-cop turned private investigator Jackson Donne (The Evil That Men Do) things were decidedly rocky, serious problems with both his family and his profession having reared their heads. Now, three years later, Donne has turned the corner. He’s deep into the process of earning his degree, having gone back to college after being forced to leave the private investigation business, and is engaged with a wedding date looming. Things are going well.

Until Donne gets an email that completely blindsides him, turning life as he knows it forever upside down.

At first it appears to be some weird spam with a click-bait subject: Click and watch. Her life depends on it. Normally, Donne would know better than to click on links in strange emails, but the email also contains an eight-year-old photo of him graduating from the police academy—there is some level of personalization there. Against his better judgment, Donne follows the link, which leads him to an ominous video of a woman bathed in spotlights bound to a chair in an empty room, battered and screaming for her life. It’s a sight that would be disturbing enough on its own, but what makes the hair on the back of Donne’s neck stand up is that he knows the woman…and had thought for the past six years she was dead.

And it’s not just any woman, but Donne’s former fiancée, Jeanne Baker. Problem is, she was officially declared dead following a fiery car accident six years ago, her identity having been conclusively established through DNA testing. That, plus his inability to get the video to replay, causes Donne to hit a brick wall when he tries to get the FBI involved, and the local police still hold a serious grudge against him for his actions while a member of their ranks—they aren’t going out on a limb over a legally dead woman on nothing more than Donne’s say-so.

The only person Donne can enlist to help, Detective Bill Martin, Donne’s ex-partner, comes with baggage of his own; he, too, had a thing with Baker and resents Donne with a passion on numerous levels. Still, he loved Baker as much as Donne did, and together they form an uneasy alliance to try and get to the bottom of the video and rescue Baker. But as creepy and weird as the email and video seem to be on the surface, it turns out there are sinister things afoot that run far deeper and wider than either of them could ever possibly have expected.

Not Even Past, the third entry in the Jackson Donne series, finds Derringer Award-winning author Dave White on top of his game and going strong. A New Jersey native himself, White weaves local flavor into the story in a way that brings the setting to life, and has cleverly taken advantage of the all too real word of corrupt New Jersey politics to raise the stakes beyond that of merely a missing person. In White’s skilled hands, strands as far flung as the New Jersey university system, Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, and a just plain power-hungry politician get woven together to form a dastardly web in which Donne and Martin find themselves entangled.

Structured in three sections, each of which takes its name from an event/slogan in recent New Jersey politicking, Not Even Past begins with a tremendous jolt of adrenaline, downshifts to an incredibly slow burn during which the tension becomes almost unbearable given the situation Donne finds himself in, then ratchets the action back up for a breakneck finish.

Make no mistake about it, both Donne and White are back in a big way, and the ending of Not Even Past opens the door to an intriguing shift in the tone of the series in coming books (An Empty Hell—Polis—February 2016).

The Night Charter
The Night Charter
by Sam Hawken
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.77
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A welcome breath of fresh air in a genre overflowing with testosterone and clichés, January 12, 2016
This review is from: The Night Charter (Hardcover)
For ex-combat medic Camaro Espinoza, doing the right thing is more than a lofty concept—it’s the way she lives every day of her life, and the standard by which she evaluates every decision she makes. To be clear, in Camaro’s mind doing the right thing and doing what’s legal are not necessarily the same, and as such Camaro has accordingly had her fair share of trouble over the years.

A particularly bad bit of it in New York City roughly a year ago ended with five men dead and Camaro relocating to a low-profile gig in Miami. Acting as captain and sole crew member of a fifty-foot Custom Carolina charter boat, Camaro takes groups out for catch-and-release deep-sea fishing excursions.

Things seem to be going fine for Camaro, until ex-con Parker Story shows up. Parker wants to book Camaro for a night charter for himself and a few friends. Only thing is, they aren’t looking to fish. They want Camaro to run them out to just off the Cuban coast to pick up a special passenger. Initially reluctant, Camaro finds it difficult to turn Parker away once she finds out he is a single father to a teenage daughter, and that his associates have made it clear things won’t go well for Parker, or his daughter, if he doesn’t make the charter happen.

The pickup actually goes smoothly, but that’s the last time anything does in The Night Charter, the newest release from author Sam Hawken. Acting as living example of the old saying there is no honor among thieves, Parker’s associate, Matt Clifford, gets greedy and botches the handoff of their passenger, and from there Camaro is drawn into an ever-escalating web of double crosses and betrayal. Not content to have Camaro simply caught between Clifford’s band of mercenaries and the anti-Castro insurgent group he’s pissed off, Hawken also throws the FBI and a tenacious Miami detective into the mix for good measure, then has the story unfold against the neon-soaked backdrop of Miami and its thriving Cuban-American community. The end result is a sizzling, high-stakes series of showdowns that push Camaro to the very brink of her considerable abilities.

Camaro Espinoza is a welcome breath of fresh air in a genre overflowing with testosterone and clichés. The key to what makes Camaro truly “click” as a character is that instead of either playing up the fact she’s female or having her behave exactly the way a male protagonist would, Hawken deftly straddles the line between the two, writing Camaro in a way that is, in many aspects, genderless—she’s a person who just happens to be female, put in the position of having to deal with some seriously bad people bent on doing her and others (who are innocent) harm. And rather than approaching the situation with a macho, badass, “hero come to save the day” attitude that is typical of the genre, Camaro simply sees the situation as something that is, that has intruded upon her life and sense of order, and accordingly must be dealt with. Not so she can play the hero, but so that she can be right with her own conscience.

Though this is her full-length novel debut, longtime readers of Hawken have previously had a chance to get to know Camaro in a series of novellas. A bit of the backstory from those novellas finds its way into The Night Charter, so readers do get a feel for the rough and tumble approach to life Camaro lives by, including the facts she was in the military for twelve years, served several tours in Iraq, knows her way around weapons, and is more than capable of handling herself in hand-to-hand combat. Add those details to Hawken’s skill as an author—the man has been twice nominated for the CWA Dagger Award—and the possibilities for Camaro are virtually limitless.

I am excited to see where Hawken takes Camaro going forward, which we already know includes a second novel forthcoming from Mulholland Books and, hopefully, the reissue of those novellas in the not too distant future.

New Yorked (Ash McKenna)
New Yorked (Ash McKenna)
by Rob Hart
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.95
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4.0 out of 5 stars “New York is not a city. It is an idea.” — An idea that Hart nails in this atmospheric mystery, October 28, 2015
“New York is not a city. It is an idea.” — Ginny

Ashley (Ash) McKenna is a man molded and driven by ideas. As a boy growing up on Staten Island, Ash would sit with his firefighter father in the wee hours of the night listening to the emergency scanner, his dad patiently explaining to him what all the mysterious calls and codes meant. Watching his father go to work, both as scheduled and spontaneously in response to some of those emergency calls, Ash formed strong ideas of duty, honor, and responsibility. And when his father was killed on 9/11 while attempting to evacuate people on the upper floors of the World Trade Center, Ash was branded with the idea of sacrifice. And loss.

So when Ash pulls himself up out of the depths of a blackout drunk one afternoon only to learn that his longtime friend and unrequited love, Chell, has been murdered, his whole world comes crashing down around him. The loss he feels is complicated and compounded by the message he finds from Chell on his cell phone, apparently left only minutes before her death. She’d reached out to Ash for help, begged him to come meet her because she was only streets away from his apartment and feared she was being followed, and Ash failed—failed to meet his self-appointed responsibility to protect her.

Ash can’t live with that. And he won’t let whoever murdered Chell live with it, either.

And with that setup, author Rob Hart’s debut, New Yorked, is off and running on a relentless hunt through the boroughs of New York City in Ash’s take-no-prisoners quest to bring Chell’s killer to justice, or Ash’s version thereof, and to bring peace of mind to himself. Not a fan of guns, Ash carries with him nothing more than his fists, wits, a deceptively benign umbrella, and an unshakable will to do right by Chell. Along the way, Ash bounces from one colorful character to another—Ginny, the cross-dressing crime Queenpin; The Hipster King, who’s more dangerous than the deliberately ironic title might imply; a community of noir live action role players, who are involved in a very dangerous “game”—some friend, some foe, some frustratingly nebulous as to how they fit into the puzzle Ash is trying to solve.

And if New Yorked were nothing more than the story of a man trying to solve a whodunnit it would still be an entertaining read given the level of detail Hart has devoted to the setting and surroundings. But New Yorked is more than that. Hart deftly weaves the evolution of Ash and Chell’s relationship into the narrative by way of flashbacks, and it soon becomes clear Ash is a man carrying around a lot of anger—over his unfulfilled relationship with Chell, about the events that ripped his father from him, at the changes he sees occurring in his beloved city as it moves from mysterious and alive to sterile and gentrified. It’s an anger Ash has allowed to creep up on and rule his life, driving him to abuse both substances and those around him, while at the same time acting as a yoke that has anchored his life in a stunted rut.

Between the anger, the addiction, and the occasional bad behavior toward someone who doesn’t deserve it, Ash is not exactly a classic knight in shining armor. But neither do his flaws rise to the level of self-pity or distraction. Instead, Hart has created in Ash a character whose life and struggles mirror the evolution taking place in the city itself, both forced to deal with changes that are often unpleasant and unwanted. Sometimes change is neither good nor bad, both bad and good. What change always is, however, is inevitable. And as Hart skillfully demonstrates in New Yorked, it’s fantastically interesting as well.

Billy's Monsters
Billy's Monsters
by Vincent Holland-Keen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.99
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and thought-provoking; a brilliant piece of writing that fires on every cylinder., October 13, 2015
This review is from: Billy's Monsters (Paperback)
For most people, the idea that something is lurking beneath the bed waiting for just the right moment to leap out and grab them is a routine part of childhood, but one that goes away as we grow into adolescence and come to understand there’s no such thing as monsters.

Except…what if there is?

Sixteen-year-old Billy knows all too well that the things that go bump in the night are, unfortunately, real. And that they aren’t confined to either the night or under the bed. You see, not only can Billy see monsters, he’s actually been to the other side, to their realm. There, he received training that allows him to move through our world fully aware of the monsters among us, and which gave him the skills to do what he can to fight those monsters that seek to do more than coexist on our plane. Yet even Billy had no idea just how ambitious some of the more aggressive members of the realm of monsters were, or what they had planned.

Until his chance meeting with a girl named Scarlett.

Sixteen-year-old Scarlett doesn’t believe in monsters. She knows that the human heart is dark enough without the need for “monsters” from another world. She also knows, however, that there’s something different about her younger sister, Hester. So much so, Hester was handpicked to attend the exclusive and prestigious Elderigh College, a school known for turning out heads of both business and state. Hester, on the other hand, is like Billy; she knows all too well that monsters are real. She also knows they seem to be particularly fascinated with her. She’s learned that to avoid their attention she must keep silent, both in word and thought, going through life as much as a blank slate as possible. To open her mind, or her mouth, opens the door to the monsters.

Seeking at first merely to impress Scarlett, as sixteen-year-old boys are prone to do, Billy soon gets drawn into far more than he bargained for as it quickly becomes apparent something quite sinister is afoot at Elderigh College. Too bold, or hormone driven, to back off, Billy is drawn into a battle that pits him, Scarlett and Hester, and a small group of “turncoat” monsters against a vast conspiracy between the two realms, one which threatens to forever break down the tenuous boundary between the monsters’ world and ours, letting loose a plague of monsters onto an earthly plane completely unprepared and unable to resist.

"The realm of monsters was a vicious and alien place. Every beast was both predator and prey, hunting and hunted through forests of pain, mountains of torment and seas of dread. Yet, despite containing sights only glimpsed in the fever dreams of the mad, the realm of monsters was not so very far removed from our own. As one of Billy’s teachers put it, ‘Ours are two realities separated only by the light; with the coming of the dark, the distance between them vanishes away to nothing.’"

As he first demonstrated in The Office of Lost & Found, which was not only one of my top reads of 2011 but which is one of my favorite reads ever, author Vincent Holland-Keen excels at world building in a way few can match. The details and layer upon layer of nuance that comprise Billy’s Monsters are staggering in their depth and completeness. And it’s not just a bunch of wacky, made-up stuff thrown together—it all makes sense, in a way things so foreign arguably have no business making sense.

In Holland-Keen’s skilled hands, not only do the intricate but earthly details of castle-like Elderigh College come to life (Holland-Keen’s rendering of the college below), but so does the strange and disturbing realm of monsters, which is depicted with such confidence and clarity that it seems perfectly normal for a world to exist where people can be captured and slowly devoured inside a painting until nothing of them is left except a colored residue mistaken for paint—all while a near-perfect copy of them is set loose in the world to pursue ill intentions.

As do the characters and settings in the book itself, Billy’s Monsters cleverly manages to straddle more than one world. On the surface, it’s a straight-up fantasy book, one that hits the sweet spot that allows it to be enjoyed equally by teens and adults alike. On a slightly deeper level, Holland-Keen is clearly playing around with margins and edges, exploring the idea of the spaces between things and how that gets filled. There’s also a subtle yet clear commentary on the darkness that compels individuals to seek out and abuse power, as well as the potentially toxic idea of “specialness” that seems to permeate institutions, both state and private, and which encourages people to behave in self-centered ways not conducive to the well-being of society at large.

Quite simply, Billy’s Monsters is a brilliant piece of writing that fires on every cylinder, as good for pure entertainment as it is at encouraging those willing to look a little deeper to think critically about the world around them and their place/function in it.

The Killing Kind
The Killing Kind
by Chris F. Holm
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.77
107 used & new from $4.97

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wild, pulse-pounding ride with exquisite attention to detail., September 15, 2015
This review is from: The Killing Kind (Hardcover)
FBI Special Agent Charlotte Thompson has an obsession. Over a period of several years she’s been tracking a man she calls the ghost, a hit man she’s convinced is responsible for an unusual string of murders—her ghost only kills other hit men. Neither her new partner nor her bosses at the Bureau are convinced. But as it turns out, calling her quarry a ghost is incredibly apt since, unbeknownst to Thompson, the target of her obsession is dead. Well, on the books he is anyway.

Michael Hendricks was once a member of a covert ops unit sent to perform false-flag missions for the US government. When all but two members of his squad—Hendricks and one other—were killed in a roadside attack in Afghanistan, Hendricks saw it as an opportunity to disappear and start his life over.

Upon finding his way back to the States, Hendricks decided to put his special skill set to use in a way he hopes will help him clear his conscience and earn redemption—he becomes a killer of killers. With the help of his friend, tech wizard Lester Myers, the other survivor of that attack in Afghanistan, Hendricks identifies people who are targets of impending “hits” and offers to take out the hitman assigned the job—for a price: ten times the cost of the hit. People who accept Hendricks’s offer live to see another day. Those who decide to pass, well, their track record isn’t too great when they decide to roll the dice without Hendricks as backup.

Things take an interesting, and potentially deadly, turn for Hendricks when a group that represents the various mob factions throughout the US in matters of importance to them all gets fed up with their hitters getting hit. Their solution? Hire the best freelancer in the world, a creepy, nasty piece of work named Alexander Engleman, a man who savors his job just a little too much, to track down and eliminate the ghost haunting their operations. Complicating matters even further for Hendricks, Special Agent Thompson has finally figured out his pattern and convinces her bosses to turn her loose, which sets the various parties and action in motion on an inevitable course for collision.

It wouldn’t be correct to say at that point The Killing Kind is off to the races, because the truth of the matter is author Chris Holm starts things off at a run right from the opening pages, when the reader joins Hendricks on a hit in progress, and the pace rarely slows down long enough to take a breath from that point on. With a wonderfully adept mix of straightforward prose and exquisite attention to detail, Holm takes both his characters and the reader on a wild, pulse-pounding ride that unfolds from the streets of Miami to the woods of Virginia, with stops in Portland, Maine’s Old Port neighborhood (home base to Lester Myers) and a riverside casino in Kansas City (where a deliciously convoluted and colorful confrontation occurs involving all the parties—with a Hendricks client and his assigned hitter thrown in for good, wickedly messy measure) along the way. The Killing Kind’s climactic showdown is one for the ages, with Holm bringing things to life with such detail and creativity it begs to be put on film…and will leave you casting glances about your house, amazed at the uncommon use some common items can be put to in the right hands.

Previously known to readers for his outstanding, intricately plotted and laced with dark humor urban fantasy meets noir Collector trilogy, Holm has both shifted gears somewhat and at the same time upped his game with The Killing Kind. While the Collector books were universally praised, appearing on scores of “Best of the Year” lists, The Killing Kind’s more mainstream thriller setup has the potential to open new doors for Holm and expand his reader base exponentially. And this would be a good thing for everyone, because if there’s one thing readers could use more of, it’s Chris Holm penned stories.

Gun, Needle, Spoon
Gun, Needle, Spoon
by Patrick O'Neil
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.54
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Work of Tremendous Courage, August 24, 2015
This review is from: Gun, Needle, Spoon (Paperback)
"Whether these memories actually happened exactly as I recall is possibly subject to discussion. Yet it isn’t as if I’m lying, or just sort of making s*** up as I go along. Given a polygraph test I’d pass. In a court of law I’d swear on a bible. And from me to you—this is my truth."

Patrick O’Neil’s truth comes in the form of Gun, Needle, Spoon, a memoir so raw and intimate in its recounting of a life gone off the rails it is sometimes difficult to read, the feeling of being a voyeur bordering on overwhelming. Too often, memoirs about a life as dysfunctional and hectic as O’Neil’s has been end up at one extreme or the other: wallowing in self-pity, or blurring the rough edges into a revisionist romanticism. Not O’Neil.

Using the same wit and wry observation on display daily in his social media, O’Neil matter of factly describes his descent from art school graduate with a burgeoning career in the music industry into the life of a dope addict so broke and strung out he spent time living in a camper shell on the back of a pickup and committing crimes almost daily to support his heroin habit. Along the way he sees friends die from overdoses, lies to, begs, borrows and steals from everyone he knows, including his family, and escalates from simple thefts and shoplifting to armed bank robberies. It’s not many people who can say ending up in jail was the best thing that ever happened to them, but in O’Neil’s case it may well be the truth.

After spending nearly two decades chasing the dragon, and suffering no fewer than half a dozen ODs in the process, O’Neil’s criminal escapades finally caught up with, landing him in jail for over two years while his case worked its way through the legal system. Forced to get straight while inside, O’Neil left the system drug free, but with a new monkey on his back. As part of his plea deal, O’Neil ended up with two strikes on his record—one more and he goes to prison for life. Motivated now by not only the desire to live life unencumbered by addiction but also to stay out of prison, O’Neil has been clean for over fourteen years. The process he went through to get there, first falling to the deepest depths and then climbing out of the hole he’d dug for himself, is a remarkable story of survival.

Gun, Needle, Spoon is a work of tremendous courage, one which strikes a perfect balance between bluntness and beauty—O’Neil is a truly gifted storyteller—and gives readers a peek behind the curtain of a life most have only ever seen in fiction. And as the saying goes, O’Neil’s unvarnished, unsentimental look back at his struggles demonstrates all too graphically that truth is often far stranger, and more outrageous, than fiction.

Killing Secrets: A Nan Vining Mystery (Nan Vining Mysteries Book 5)
Killing Secrets: A Nan Vining Mystery (Nan Vining Mysteries Book 5)
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $3.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A triumphant, satisfying return for Detective Vining, July 23, 2015
“You’re going to be flying solo. You okay with that?” — Sergeant Early

Detective Nan Vining is used to being in situations where she has to fly solo. Both professionally as an investigator with the Pasadena Police Department and as a single mother raising a teenage daughter, Vining has reached a point where she’s learned to trust her instincts and go where they take her.

In Killing Secrets, however, the first entry in the Nan Vining series in five years (Read more from author Dianne Emley about revisiting Vining after such a layoff.), Vining finds herself farther out on a solo ledge than ever before.

The book opens with Vining’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Emily, and her boyfriend stumbling across a gruesome crime scene while out in a city park at dusk. Two people, one of their classmates and a popular teacher from their school, have been killed. As the investigator with the most seniority and experience, Vining naturally expects to be assigned the case. Upon arriving at the scene, however, she’s surprised to learn that two other investigators, one of them extremely inexperienced, have been given the assignment instead.

Her surprise turns to confusion, and then frustration, as the case is handled both in an unorthodox manner and with lightning speed. Someone high up in the PD is apparently in a hurry to chalk things up as a murder-suicide and be done with it. Vining isn’t convinced, and decides to dig deeper.

Along the way, Vining learns that the student, a recent transfer to the area, was a troubled teen whose father committed suicide—or did he? The young man was working with his English Lit teacher, the one who was also killed, on a story that would supposedly prove his father, a former prosecutor who’d been responsible for bringing some big fish down, was actually murdered, his killing staged to look like a suicide. Now, Vining has to find out not only if that’s true, but if history is repeating itself in her backyard.

After a five-year absence, one might think an author would find it difficult to slip back into the skin of a character, but LA Times bestseller Dianne Emley’s return to the Nan Vining series feels as comfortable as slipping on a favorite old sweater. Back is the same confident, capable detective readers of the series have come to know and love. Back also, in spades, is the frustration Vining feels trying to juggle her career and single mom status. Daughter Emily has hit the rebellious, defiant stage at a full run, a situation that would be challenging enough even if two dead bodies weren’t involved.

Adding to the frustration for Vining, Emily’s boyfriend is a cocky smartass, and one with an overbearing defense attorney stepfather and known gangbanger friend to boot. Familiar characters like Vining’s grandmother, who has slipped farther down the Alzheimer’s path, Jim Kissick, Vining’s sometimes partner in both policing and romance, and Kendra Early, Vining’s commanding officer/mentor/friend, are all back, with varying degrees of participation.

It all makes for a complex, challenging and engaging mystery for Vining to unravel, and readers will love tagging along for the ride.

A Murder Country: A Novel
A Murder Country: A Novel
by Brandon Daily
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.02
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4.0 out of 5 stars A tale of vengeance rich with philosophical and spiritual implications, July 17, 2015
The setting: late eighteenth century. The players: three men moving through a violent and unforgiving world, two looking for earthly revenge, one the self-appointed hand of God. The stakes: a quest to understand man’s place in the world and how the power of belief—and a single act or decision—can set the course of one’s life.

Young Josiah Fuller’s life is irrevocably altered when, upon returning home from a multi-day hunting trip, he finds his parents have been brutally murdered. Not content simply to kill, whoever was responsible tortured the Fullers before stringing them up from a tree and burning down the homestead.

Josiah makes a vow to avenge their murders, and sets out on a quest to track and find the person(s) responsible. Along the way, he is forced through his interactions with the people he encounters to deeply examine his life, and to ask the question whether trading his eternal soul for the satisfaction of earthly vengeance is something he’s truly prepared to do.

William Corvin was once a man of violence, but has reformed his life and now oversees his family’s coal mine. When a random encounter with two drifters visits violence upon Corvin’s pregnant wife, like young Josiah, Corvin is forced to confront the question of whether slipping back into his old skin is worth the loss of his peaceful, hard fought for new life.

A man known as The Rider is the thread that weaves the entire tapestry together. Long ago he had a vision, one in which he was tasked with the mission of exacting the Lord’s vengeance on those unfortunate enough to cross his path whom he believes to have sinned against God. The Rider is utterly without pity for those he judges and finds lacking, and before the story’s over each of the players involved will have to confront what he stands for and find out how they measure up.

In a time and place where people are forced to live hard, often violent lives, debut author Brandon Daily explores the concept of whether man is in an almost no-win situation, life’s circumstances damn-near necessitating for survival’s sake that he engage in acts at odds with living a godly life. Is man simply too fragile, his conviction and faith too weak, to overcome his earthly plight? On the other hand, Daily does not let God off the hook either, questioning what kind of god would saddle man with such brutal lives and faith-crushing burdens and still expect them to walk a righteous path.

Make no mistake about it, A Murder Country is not light reading. Writing with a self-confidence it usually takes authors getting several books under their belts to muster, Daily jumps into the deep end with gusto and spins an engrossing yarn that elevates what could otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill, historically set tale of vengeance to one rich with philosophical and spiritual implications. It’s a challenging read, but one you’ll relish both while in it and for some time after.

Price: $4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterful, multilayered narrative - Kostoff should be a household name, June 13, 2015
This review is from: WORDS TO DIE FOR (Kindle Edition)
Raymond Locke is a fixer. His official job title at PR firm Public Domain is public relations specialist, but make no mistake about it, what Locke does is fix problems. Big, ugly, career and business torpedoing problems—the type of scandals that keep the supermarket tabloids of the world in business.

The year is 1986, and in the Reagan-era, greed is good, Iran-Contra fueled American cultural climate, Public Domain has no shortage of extremely rich clients with extremely embarrassing problems to fix before the damage sets in too deeply. Having become something of a rock star amongst fixers for his work on a case involving allegations of impropriety at a daycare center, Locke is known as the go-to guy for the dirtiest of problems. But even Locke couldn’t have imagined just how far down the rabbit hole his newest client’s case would take him.

Lamar Ditell, owner/CEO of Happy Farms, a giant poultry company, has a Grade A scandal on his hands. Previously just a chicken producer/supplier, Happy Farms recently expanded into the fast-food business. Unfortunately for Ditell, over 100 people were stricken with serious food poisoning following the grand opening of Happy Farms’ first two franchises. And while such an outbreak would normally only be an embarrassing bump in the road, one of the victims, a ten-year-old girl, suffers serious complications and ends up in a coma. It still might be a PR hurdle someone with Locke’s skills could easily clear, until both a crusading journalist and a high-profile activist with Hollywood ties latch onto the scandal like dogs with a bone, determined to bring down Ditell and his empire, which had previously garnered bad press for an anti-union incident at Happy Farms’ processing plant.

Things take a turn for the seriously bizarre, and increasingly dangerous, when Locke meets with Ken Brackett, father of the stricken young girl. Himself an employee at the Happy Farms plant—as well as a devotee of an eccentric, reclusive Robert Bly-esque guru—Brackett appears reluctant to throw Ditell/Happy Farms under the bus by engaging legal counsel…but why? Add to the mix some high-profile and powerful political enemies of both Locke and Ditell, and for the first time in his career Locke finds himself in the very uncomfortable position of not riding the wave of spin control, but getting pulled into its undertow.

Words to Die For, the latest from the immensely talented Lynn Kostoff, is a richly layered journey through the mid ‘80s collective American psyche, as personified by Raymond Locke. Though he likes to think of himself as a good person—he loves his wife and struggles to do right by her and their autistic son—Locke has to increasingly confront and wrestle with doubts about his rapidly eroding morality.

***As long as he continued to feel appalled, Raymond told himself, he’d be all right. Appalled kept him from getting lost. Appalled was good. Appalled was the line of bread crumbs he dropped in order to find his way back home.***

Except, as both the Happy Farms scandal and his life start to come apart at the seams, the harder it becomes for Locke to find his way back home, his moral compass seemingly irreversibly misaligned.

Through the lens that is Locke, Kostoff explores a time in America’s history when, seemingly more than at any other, flash mattered over substance, where just the right “spin” on a story was more important than the underlying truth, or its implications, and Americans were all too happy to swallow a good narrative hook, line and sinker as long as they were riding high and feeling good along the way.

Examination of the darkest facets of character are nothing new for Kostoff, his novel Late Rain is a Southern Gothic masterpiece told from four different first person perspectives, but with Words to Die For he raises the bar to another level, presenting a masterful, multilayered narrative that examines where the tipping point of morality is from both a micro (Locke) and macro (American culture) perspective. It’s a sublimely enjoyable, (intentionally) challenging and thought-provoking read, one which has me once again wondering why the hell Lynn Kostoff isn’t a household name amongst readers.

Tequila Sunset
Tequila Sunset
Price: $8.53

5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling look at three lives caught up in border violence, September 24, 2014
This review is from: Tequila Sunset (Kindle Edition)
Matías Segura, a member of the Policía Federal Ministerial in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, has seen more than his share of dead bodies. From gang members gunned down in the streets in broad daylight to mass graves and scenes of unspeakable torture and brutality, dealing with the carnage that flows from the Mexican drug trade has become a part of Segura’s daily routine.

Just across the border in El Paso, Texas, Detective Cristina Salas is all too aware of the atrocities occurring far to close to home for comfort. When in the course of her work with the El Paso Gang Unit she learns of a possible connection between the notorious Mexico-based Barrio Aztecas and gang activity in her city, she is determined to do whatever it takes to make sure El Paso doesn’t become another Ciudad Juárez-style killing field.

Caught in the middle is Felipe “Flip” Morales, a minor criminal who ended up in prison when one of his crimes took a turn for the unexpectedly serious with devastating results. Unfortunately for Flip, while in prison he became indebted to the Barrio Aztecas, who provided Flip with protection from the other gangs inside. Now free from confinement, Flip is far from free of the hold the Aztecas have on him. Though he has the support of a loving mother and the inspiration of a new girlfriend to fuel his desire to go straight, the Aztecas have other ideas for Flip’s future.

How the lives of those three characters intersect forms the basis for multiple CWA Dagger Award nominee Sam Hawken’s Tequila Sunset. The subject matter—the cross-border trade in drugs and guns and its resulting violence—is not new territory, but few have shown the ability to handle the topic with the deft combination of matter-of-fact brutality and despair infused with just enough hope to take the edge off as Hawken has consistently demonstrated in his work. Like his previous forays across the border, The Dead Women of Juárez and Juárez Dance, in Tequila Sunset Hawken does not make the mistake of trying to glamorize the violence. Rather, he tackles the subject head-on, allowing both his characters and the reader to feel the brunt of a culture that threatens to overrun the Mexican side of the border and spill over into Texas.

Unlike in The Dead Women of Juárez, however, where the characters were necessarily hardened and tottering on the brink of losing all hope of a way out, those who populate Tequila Sunset are cut from stronger cloth and are less willing to throw in the towel. Despite the very real threat of being swallowed up by violence and evil, Matías, Cristina and Flip all see the light, both at the end of the tunnel as well as in themselves and (the potential for it) in those around them. They are unwilling to roll over, instead choosing to fight for a better world even at great personal risk. Through their fight, Hawken is able to put faces on an issue that has become so pervasive and amorphous that it threatens to lose its sense of humanity.

The fact is, there are real people on both sides of the border—good people who want nothing more than to lead violence-free, productive lives—struggling with these issues on a daily basis, and in Tequila Sunset Hawken masterfully shows us how three such people step up to the challenge.

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