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Terminal (A Lomax and Biggs Mystery)
Terminal (A Lomax and Biggs Mystery)
by Marshall Karp
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.99
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully welcome return of Lomax and Biggs, May 10, 2016
As much as Detective Mike Lomax really doesn’t want to undergo his prostate exam, finding himself in the middle of an active shooter situation is not the way he’d have preferred to get out of it. Yet, in perhaps the ultimate case of being in the wrong place at the right time, Lomax springs from the exam table and responds, complete with backside hanging out of a flimsy exam gown, to the unmistakable sound of shotgun fire in the medical office complex where his doctor is located.

He arrives just in time to witness the shooter kill himself while standing over the body of the doctor he’s gunned down. Investigation reveals the shooter, Cal Bernstein, was terminally ill with a brain tumor, and though there was no connection between him and his victim, a fertility doctor, it still seems like an open and shut case.

That is until a sharp medical examiner brings another case to the attention of Lomax and his partner, Terry Biggs. What first seemed like an unfortunate car vs. pedestrian accident, the pedestrian having been both intoxicated and in the street at night, needs a second look when the medical examiner finds a wound inconsistent with the trauma one would expect from the impact of a vehicle. Things takes a turn for the decidedly sinister when Lomax and Biggs learn the driver in that accident is also terminally ill, with stage IV lung cancer, and that he and Bernstein attended the same support group.

The harder Lomax and Biggs tug on the strings surrounding the cases, the bigger the puzzle that starts to unravel. Though it seems clear someone is hiring terminally ill people to commit acts of murder in exchange for a huge payment to their families, who is doing the hiring, and why, is the real mystery.

Terminal, the long awaited fifth entry in Marshall Karp’s Lomax and Biggs series, finds the LA detectives back better than ever. Biggs’s non-stop humor is in full effect, his trademark wry observations and one-liners used, as always, as his way of communicating truths and emotion he finds a bit too hard to deliver straight-up. Not that he’s incapable of going toe-to-toe with someone when needed, be it the deputy mayor meddling in their investigation for political reasons or their Paleo diet obsessed lieutenant, who removes the candy machine, and Biggs’s beloved Skittles, from the break room.

For his part, Lomax is dealing with multiple issues on the personal front while trying to still give the investigation its due. He and his girlfriend have their hands full taking care of the precocious eight-year-old daughter of a friend who has traveled back to China to be with her dying mother. It’s a situation that’s particularly poignant for Lomax, as he and his deceased wife were never able to have a child of their own. Complicating matters, it turns out that prostate exam was the least of his medical worries, his doctor having found some alarming results in Lomax’s blood work.

As the story unfolds, Karp keeps all the plates spinning and balls in the air, seamlessly weaving the personal events into the professional in a way that raises the stakes of the investigation beyond merely solving a series of crimes. It all makes for a wonderfully welcome return of Lomax and Biggs. And while I certainly don’t begrudge Karp for pursuing the highly successful New York Times bestselling NYPD Red series he co-authors with James Patterson, I do selfishly hope it’s not a another six years before we get to visit with Lomax and Biggs again.

Surveillance (A Chris Bruen Novel)
Surveillance (A Chris Bruen Novel)
by Reece Hirsch
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.46
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cut Above the Run-of-the-mill Thriller, April 2, 2016
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There’s a saying that no good deed goes unpunished, and surely something similar to that has to be top of mind when Ian Ayres walks into the San Francisco law firm of Chris Bruen. A so-called “ethical hacker,” someone who hacks into companies at their request to test their cybersecurity and show them where their weaknesses are, Ayres found far more than he bargained for on his last job.

While conducting what he thought was a routine security probe, he came across information that indicates the existence of a highly classified, top-secret government organization, one which has apparently developed a program called Skeleton Key that can break any form of encryption. Unclear whether the program is on the company’s servers intentionally or if they’re being hacked/surveilled, Ayres brings his discovery to their attention. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

When the company that hired Ayres not only cuts all ties with him but denies having hired him in the first place and accuses him of hacking their system, Ayres knows he’s stumbled onto something far out of his league and that he desperately needs help. Enter Chris Bruen. A former Department of Justice cybercrime prosecutor, Bruen is well known to those in the hacking community, and it’s him Ayres turns to for help. Along with his partner, Zoey Doucet, a former black-hat hacker turned ethical hacker, Bruen has literally just opened the doors of his new private practice for the first day of business when Ayres shows up on the doorstep with his problem, and a whole lot of trouble in tow.

Not wanting to talk in an enclosed space he’s not vetted, Ayres gets Bruen to take a walk with him, during which he relays his story. Initially skeptical, any doubts Bruen has about how serious a rabbit hole Ayres has uncovered are put into stark perspective when upon returning to his office they find two dead employees…and an ominous dark-suited man intent on adding Bruen and Ayres to the body count. And with that, Surveillance, the third entry in the Chris Bruen series, is off to the races.

Fortunately, Doucet was not in the office when the assassin showed up, but her and Bruen being in separate locations when the time arises for them to run, and run now without looking back, means they are scattered in different directions for the majority of the book, each dealing with their own set of problems. Of course, it’s a pretty big set of problems when staying alive means trying to stay one step ahead of a foe who has the ability to tap into every email, phone call, CCTV feed, bank card transaction, or Internet usage you engage in. Heading up the hunt for Bruen, Doucet and Ayres is Sam Reston, a longtime NSA vet now heading up a team at The Working Group, the deceptively innocuous name for the deeply under the radar government agency responsible for the Skeleton Key, and which is desperate to keep its existence secret.

Author Reece Hirsch, himself a partner in an international law firm and co-chair of its privacy and cybersecurity practice, is very familiar with cybersecurity and the lengths people will go to in order to keep secrets. Hirsch has put that practical knowledge, and some serious research, to good use in developing the character of Chris Bruen. By giving Bruen a background as both a teen hacker and former DoJ cybercrime prosecutor, Bruen comes to the table with a unique perspective, able to see things from both sides of the cybersecurity issue. It makes for a compelling lead, as Bruen is not always sure he’s doing the right thing, questioning whether he’s on the proper “moral high ground” as the complex issues of privacy, hacking, and leaking of information ill-gained but arguably crucial to the public’s well-being continually evolve.

And while Surveillance does not lack for a heaping helping of high-tech gadgets and information, as well as globetrotting action—by the time all’s said and done Bruen, Doucet and Reston have been as far-flung as California, Mexico, Ecuador and Russia—it’s the way Hirsch brings those moral questions in to play that elevate Surveillance, and the entire Chris Bruen series, above the run-of-the-mill thriller.

An Empty Hell (Jackson Donne)
An Empty Hell (Jackson Donne)
by Dave White
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.46
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Immensely compelling, March 11, 2016
It’s been a year since former NJ cop turned private investigator Jackson Donne was involved in a case that ended with two men dead and Donne pegged by law enforcement as the killer. (Not Even Past) Though on the face of it evidence did seem to indicate Donne was responsible, the reality of the situation was far more complicated. Unfortunately, Donne is persona non grata with the local police, who hold a serious grudge against him for his actions while a member of their ranks. So, rather than stick around and try to explain Donne decided a change of scenery was in order.

Now, the lifelong Jersey resident finds himself using the name Joe Tennant and working as a handyman in a small town in Vermont, living pretty much off the grid and isolated from all but a few locals. It’s a situation that’s far from ideal, but one Donne has come to accept as the way things need to be. Trouble seems to have a way of finding Donne, however, and the first hint of it occurs when the owner of the small motel where Donne works is abducted. Donne makes the mistake of indulging his investigator instincts and pokes around the motel, where he comes across information that leads him to believe the abductor wasn’t only after Donne’s boss/friend, but that Donne is a target too.

Unbeknownst to Donne, there’s also trouble brewing back down in Jersey. It seems members of Donne’s old narcotics unit are being knocked off one by one. Concerned Donne is the one doing it, one of the remaining members of the unit hires private investigator Matt Herrick to track down Donne. Things take an unexpected turn when, shortly after he’s hired, Herrick finds himself the target of a seriously disturbed individual seemingly bent on tearing down Herrick’s life brick by brick… unless he finds Donne and turns him over.

And with that, An Empty Hell, the latest installment in the Jackson Donne series from Derringer Award-winning author Dave White, is off and running.

Himself a Jersey native, White has in the past steeped the Donne series in all things Jersey, from intricate details about the locale to making use of the state’s notoriously corrupt political system. An Empty Hell finds both Donne and White stepping outside of Jersey a bit, and it’s a welcome change of pace. Placing Donne in an environment foreign to him forces Donne to operate in a way that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and leads to Donne doing things he might not otherwise, and that arguably aren’t the wisest course of action. That makes for hard times for Donne, but good reading for readers.

The addition of Herrick to the mix also ups the dramatic stakes. Just as Donne carries around the burden of his past and the mistakes he made and bridges he burned, both of which lead to people whom Donne cared about dying, Herrick is also wrestling with serious demons. Ex-military, Herrick was put in a position while serving in Afghanistan that forced him to commit an act that relentlessly haunts him…and that made him vow to never again carry a gun.

Together, Donne and Herrick make for two very flawed, yet immensely compelling characters—men living in their own personal hells on earth, both one small step away from having nothing left to lose. When their paths finally cross in An Empty Hell, the fireworks are a given. The only thing left to sort out is who’ll be left standing once the smoke clears.

Bad Citizen Corporation
Bad Citizen Corporation
by S.W. Lauden
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.49
53 used & new from $8.03

5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderfully complicated, and accomplished, piece of writing, March 1, 2016
"I’ve lived through every second of my life and I still don’t know how I got to exactly this moment.” — Greg Salem

Greg Salem can be forgiven for being a bit confused about the state of his life. After all, he’s traveled a bit of an unusual path. Currently an East Los Angeles police officer, once upon a time Greg was known as Fred Despair, punk legend/lead singer of the band Bad Citizen Corporation (BCC). Though he’s pretty much kicked the excesses of his former punk lifestyle, Salem’s still a bit of a square peg in the round hole that is the police department. When he’s not on the job, Salem still appears occasionally with BCC for special one-off gigs, and also enjoys indulging his passion for surfing.

It’s an interesting balancing act, one that starts to unravel after Salem is involved in an on-the-job shooting. Though Salem swears the young sexual assault suspect he corned in an alley after a foot pursuit reached for a gun in his waistband, by the time backup reached Salem an agitated mob of citizens had formed and no gun was ever found. Put on suspension while the investigation and consideration of indictment unfolds, Salem seeks solace in a gig with BCC, only to have that go horribly off the rails when his best friend Ricky, BCC’s lead guitarist, is shot dead during a melee at the club where BCC is playing. Now, Salem is haunted by two deaths, left wondering if there is anything he could have done to prevent either. Knowing he can’t get involved in the official investigation of his own case, Salem vows to do right by his best friend and get to the bottom of his murder.

Complicating matters, friends of the kid Salem shot aren’t content to wait for the outcome of the official investigation—they are actively stalking and harassing Salem, bent on handing out their own brand of justice. Needing some off the books backup, Salem enlists the help of BCC’s former drummer, Marco, despite Marco’s ongoing drug habit, a situation that threatens to test Salem’s hard fought for sobriety. And as if that weren’t enough, Salem’s good friend, and old flame, Junior is having problems with her real estate broker ex-husband that require Salem’s intervention. It all makes for a helluva messy state of affairs that’s going to require Salem to dig deeper than he ever has if he’s going to sort it all out.

Taking at first what appear to be several very disparate setups — Salem’s on-the-job shooting, Ricky’s nightclub murder, Junior’s problems with her ex — author S.W. Lauden deftly weaves each plot thread together into a stunning tapestry of a novel. Things that initially seem completely unrelated are slowly revealed to all fit together in ways both Salem and the reader discover together bit by bit as the story unfolds. Along the way, Salem is forced to reevaluate his life, both the past that brought him to where he is, as well as what he thought he wanted for his future. Without consciously intending it, Salem ends up discovering just as much about himself as he does the truth behind the shooting in that alley and the murder of his best friend.

Bad Citizen Corporation is a wonderfully complicated, and accomplished, piece of writing. That it’s Lauden’s debut full-length novel is quite impressive, and serves notice that he will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Mixed Up With Murder (A Dani O'Rourke Mystery Book 3)
Mixed Up With Murder (A Dani O'Rourke Mystery Book 3)
Price: $9.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting and educational, a rare and welcome combination, March 1, 2016
"I’d love to. It’ll be a nice break from the routine.” — Dani O’Rourke

On one hand, Dani O’Rourke, chief fundraiser for the Devor Museum in San Francisco, can be forgiven for thinking a trip back East to serve as a consultant at a quaint New England college sounds like a pleasant distraction. On the other hand, Dani has an unfortunate history of finding herself caught up in highly irregular situations… ones that usually involve dead bodies. (Murder in the Abstract | The King’s Jar).

Not one to turn down an interesting professional endeavor—the consulting job involves overseeing the donation of a large art collection, as well as a twenty million dollar endowment—Dani heads to Lynthorpe College in Bridgetown, Massachusetts for what is billed as a straightforward one-week review. She’s there less than a day, however, when it becomes clear there is some dissension amongst the bigwigs at the school about the terms of the donation.

It seems the donor, school alumnus Vincent Margoletti, while never outright accused or indicted, has been involved in some business deals during his climb to wealth that some have found shady at best. And for some strange reason he’s pushing the college to accept the donation immediately, before Dani’s vetting process is completed, with a not so implied threat of its withdrawal otherwise.

Before Dani can have a sit-down with the college’s vice president most concerned about the donation, the man turns up dead on the local golf course, apparently drowned in one of the water hazards. When a second death occurs barely a day later—also someone working on the donation project—Dani has no choice but to accept the fact she finds herself, once again, mixed up with murder.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can give to author Susan Shea is that even though I’m someone who doesn’t normally read so-called cozy mysteries, I absolutely adore the Dani O’Rourke series. Then, for my money, Shea’s writing wonderfully skirts the line between traditional cozy and straight-up crime fiction. Though the violence is not gratuitous and there is no profanity to speak of, neither does the action all conveniently take place off-stage, either. Dani, much to her chagrin, finds herself up close and personal with both bodies and suspects. And just as the O’Rourke mystery plots manage to keep one foot on either side of the cozy/traditional crime line, so does Dani herself. While not a police officer, bounty hunter or private investigator, neither is Dani some eccentric homebody with a wacky quirk who sets out to poke her nose into amateur sleuthing. She’s an intelligent professional who works in the extremely high-stakes world of contemporary art. She doesn’t seek out the situations she gets mixed up with, but neither does she turn into a shrinking violet either.

Shea, herself active as a non-profit executive for over two decades, brings first-hand knowledge of how things work in that world to her writing, which, when combined with a smooth infusion of information about how a multi-million dollar art collection and endowment donation process unfolds, makes for reading that is both exciting and educational, a rare and welcome combination. And though I highly recommend all the Dani O’Rourke books, you can jump right in with this one if you’re new to series, so go ahead… get Mixed Up With Murder.

Ice Chest
Ice Chest
by J.D. Rhoades
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.52
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wildly creative and entertaining ride, March 1, 2016
This review is from: Ice Chest (Hardcover)
Clarissa Cartwright isn’t entirely sure how she ended up being the “It Girl” for Enigma lingerie’s newest fashion line, nevertheless she finds herself heading out on a multi-city tour, ready to be the face of the company. Of course, considering she will be sporting a jewel-encrusted bra worth over 5 million dollars in diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, it’s not likely many people will be looking at her face anyway, gorgeous as it may be.

Paragon Security’s Charles “Chunk” McNeill and his partner, Zoe Piper, have been tasked by Gareth Gane, promotions manager for Enigma, with keeping both the so-called “Fantasy Bra” and the Birds Of Paradise, what Enigma calls the models in their show, safe. It’s a bit of a challenge considering the number of people traveling with the production, not to mention the local personnel at each tour stop, but McNeill is a twice-decorated police veteran turned private security operative with over twenty years’ experience. Even the most experienced security professional, however, can’t account for every possible situation, especially when there are wild cards involved.

Enter Atlanta-based thieves and con artists Rafe Valentine and L.B. Gordon. Valentine’s nephew, Branson, happens to work in the kitchen at the hotel hosting Enigma’s Atlanta tour stop, and with Branson in place as the inside man, combined with Gordon’s underworld connections, Valentine thinks he’s finally on to the score of a lifetime. Ambitious but not crazy, the idea is a quick snatch (of Cartwright) and grab (the Fantasy Bra), with little to no violence involved—get Cartwright, take the bra, let Cartwright go, sell the stones, be set for life. An unexpected detour happens on the the way to easy street, of course, or else we wouldn’t have much of a book.

And once things go off the rails, they do so in spectacular fashion given that Cartwright’s boyfriend, Mario Allegretti, whom she’s actively trying to dump, happens to be the son of a New Jersey mob boss. Throw in a washed-up British comedian with a penchant for off-color humor who’s hired to MC the fashion tour but decides he can score a major comeback by going wildly off script, a former fashion model turned tour supervisor who has a few surprising tricks up her sleeve, an endearingly misguided “Moose” of a thug, an incredibly handy Hello Kitty Taser (yes, you read that right), and a couple of pissed-off twins who happen to be eunuchs (yes, you read that right, too), and the stage is set for an immensely enjoyable heist caper gone wrong.

Ice Chest, the latest release from Shamus Award-nominated author J.D. Rhoades (Jack Keller series), has an early Coen brothers vibe about it, combing laugh-out-loud humor with outbursts of violence, which often have a dark-humor quality to them. Think Raising Arizona meets Fargo meets Ocean’s Eleven… against the backdrop of an over-the-top Victoria’s Secret-style fashion show. Valentine, Gordon and crew may not be the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they can still cut, and there’s no question Jersey boy Allegretti and his adviser, Paul Chirelli, are as dangerous as it gets. Chunk McNeill and Zoe Piper are as opposite as people can be in almost every way, but Rhoades’s sharp writing and witty dialogue ensure they not only fit together as partners like hand in glove, but that they are also able to seamlessly welcome an unexpected new member onto the team at a run when things go seriously sideways and all hands are needed on deck.

Smoothly combining humor and serious high-stakes action is tricky business, as is keeping a large cast both interesting and clearly sorted out, but Rhoades handles the setup and execution with ease, taking both his cast and readers along for a wildly creative and entertaining ride.

Not Even Past: A Jackson Donne Novel
Not Even Past: A Jackson Donne Novel
by Dave White
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.20
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4 of 4 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: $20.31
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9 of 9 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: $9.59
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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

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.

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