Review: Head Shot – Marko Zorn #2 (Otho Eskin)

Marko Zorn is back in this followup to 2020’s The Reflecting Pool, the first book in the series, which I reviewed here – one year ago exactly to when I finished reading Head Shot. Something probably interesting only to me.

Zorn is the same cop now as we was then: not carrying a gun, being snarky, not always telling people what he’s doing, and meeting up with shady characters. While it is helpful to get a feel for Zorn’s character by reading the first book, it is not at all required, as Head Shot can be read as a standalone.

The book opens with the murder of an actress, with whom Zorn was intimately familiar years ago. It’s a classic locked room mystery: the actress said her final line, and went to her (prop) dressing room to commit suicide in the play (it’s Hedda Gabler, for those who know Ibsen). Strangely, she flubbed her last line before going off the stage. A shot did ring out, but when the stagehand goes into the room, the actress is dead on the floor, a pistol by her right hand, and a gunshot wound to her left temple. There are no windows in the room, and only one door, which no one saw open after the end of the scene, when the actress was supposed to go backstage when the lights were down. Zorn is not assigned to the case, but his partner Lucy is.

He also goes to a meeting with Cyprian Voss, who often gives him side jobs to do, and pays well for him to do them. The assignment from Voss? Protect Nina Voychek, Prime Minister of Montenegro, which is on an official state visit.

Zorn has been asked by the Secretary of State to do the same task, as it was requested by the Embassy itself. When he tries to point out he is not trained as a bodyguard or close protection detail, he’s overruled and told to suck it up and do it anyway. At the Embassy, a frightened young woman presses a paper into his hand. On it, a series of numbers. He assumes it’s a coded message of some kind. He gives her his card and asks her to call him. She doesn’t, as the next time we hear about her, she’s dead, too, after being strangled.

There have already been assassination attempts against Voycheck, and the suspicion is that it’s a hired gun called Domino, who has an impressive success rate. Turns out, Zorn has had assassination attempts against himself as well, but for what reason, he does not know.

Things become a bit hectic in Zorn’s world at that point: he’s checking on the security covering Voychek (the lead FBI agent wants nothing to do with him and flatly tells him he isn’t welcome), and bouncing between that and the case of the murdered actress and is told by a supervisor and another cop that he isn’t welcome there, either). Is there a connection between the two cases? Maybe, maybe not.

The action picks up and we follow Zorn as he checks in with a hacker and gives him the message to decode, checks in with Carla, director of the FBI, who also wants him to protect Voychek, also paying him to do so. He doesn’t mention that he’s already being paid by Voss.

As Zorn puts the pieces together, more bodies show up. and there are plenty of suspects to go around. Eccentric or no, do any of them hold some answers to the slew of questions Zorn has about the cases?

Head Shot is a fast read, not because it’s boring and the temptation to skim is there, but because it is quite good, and leaving aside a few of the things that require more suspension of disbelief than is usually required, the things that happen and the actions of the various characters is completely consistent with the story’s own internal logic.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Oceanview Publishing and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: No Witness – Cal Claxton #8 (Warren Easley)

Cal Claxton, former prosecutor in LA, now current one man show in Oregon, has been busy since I last encountered him (in Matters of Doubt). His niece joins him when Gertie, his accountant, becomes ill.

He also has another assistant, Timoteo Fuentes, a DACA recipient, who has convinced Cal to hire him. Timoteo wants to become a lawyer, and the first part of that involves a lot of filing and research. The first big case he sees come into Cal’s office, however, is one that hits too close to home: his sister’s murder.

It is not necessary to read books one through seven to get here as this does stand on its own; however, to fully understand why Cal quit the big city and moved north, it is helpful to have read them.

Timoteo, his sister, and the entire extended family are undocumented, which makes investigating the case much harder – no one in the community wants to talk to a big white dude who is also a lawyer, especially potential witnesses.

Perseverance pays off, though, and Cal is on the case. But nothing is simple, and as injuries and bodies pile up, the investigation becomes more dangerous for everyone.

As with Matters of Doubt, I’ll note that those who fall on the more conservative side of the aisle will be unlikely to enjoy this book. Cal is clearly what those sorts of people would call a social justice warrior, their voices dripping with derision.

Cal has a good heart and a better head. The investigation is fairly straightforward – although Cal has stopped turning up at every dead body before it’s even cold, so that’s a change of pace from the last one I read.

I’m giving it a solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

 

Review: Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away (Ann Hagedorn)

An infiltration of the Manhattan Project by a Russian spy should be fascinating. Sleeper Agent tries to be compelling, but doesn’t quite get there.

George Koval, raised as an all-American boy in Iowa, returns to Russia with his parents after the Russian Revolution, convinced that with the Tsar gone, the country would be on the right track and the anti-Semitism would be tamped down. Alas, they were to be disappointed, but that is another story.

George, a brilliant student, is recruited by Soviet intelligence to return to the US, and he does. At first, not a whole lot happens, but eventually, he is tapped to join the teams at Los Alamos and work on the creation of the first nuclear weapon.

He’s a diligent spy, happy to be a patriot for his parents’ country, and provides his handlers with the information he has stolen. But it isn’t a great life, being a spy in the middle of this particular setting, and he is under enormous stress. There are a ton of details about everything in this book, at times to its detriment. This is not one of those times.

George, knowing that it’s about time to wrap up his stay, flees back to the USSR in 1948, well before the US even knew he was a problem. But as can be the case when spies come in from the cold, he is neither celebrated nor the recipient of great wealth.

It’s a five star story, but a three star read. Too often the story gets bogged down in minutiae, times at which I was hoping for fleshing out different parts of the narrative. It falls a bit flat comparatively to other books of this nature.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Echoes of Fate – Echoes Trilogy #3 (Cheryl Campbell)

A fine closing out of the Echoes trilogy.

After returning home from three years of a diplomatic mission, Dani is ready for some downtime. She finds that Catherine Houston, in command in Maine, has allowed her desire for more power lead her to murky and dangerous waters. Aunt Hattie, along with Mary and Dani, sabotage a lab where normal humans are being injected with Echo DNA, to try and create hybrid humans who can regen after being killed, as Dani does, and how the Wardens (the bad guys) do.

Speaking of the Wardens, the CNA is looking to finish them off and drive them the areas of Canada they’ve taken. Houston got lucky when Dani showed up in Boston and the fight went the CNA’s way, with Houston getting the credit for the win, but since then, her record has been rather mediocre, which is slowing her down from further rising in the ranks.

When they’re looking over the best place to attack the Wardens, Dani is not in agreement with Houston’s plan, and suggests an alternate target and strategy. However,they have no current information on enemy strength in that area. General Ramos agrees with the plan, and decides to lead a recon team himself – an exceptionally bad idea.

It’s also Oliver’s birthday, and although he is not yet of age, Houston decides there has been an error in his records, and that he’s a year older than he is. She orders Oliver and three other teens to be taken to boot camp, and from there, to be thrown into battle.

Meanwhile, there’s been no word from Ramos, and he is presumed missing. Dani is sent to go after him, along with Mary, Miles (who she’s been sleeping with for the past three years, after her last regen), and two others.

That sets up the remainder of the book quite well, and I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers. I’ll say this: there were a few things that happened that I never thought would happen, and that takes some guts for an author to do, so kudos to Ms Campbell for that.

The only ding I’m giving is for some extended passages of introspection that slow down the action a bit. Even with that, I’m still giving it five out of five stars. It’s a terrific series.

Thanks to Sonar Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Barbed Wire University: The Untold Story of the Interned Jewish Intellectuals Who Turned an Island Prison Into the Most Remarkable School in the World (Dave Hannigan)

In 1940, Britain gave in to hysteria and fear, rounded up Germans who were in the country, assigned them a classification ranging from not a real threat to extreme threat, and put them into internment camps – just as the US would do with Japanese-Americans later. They did this even for those people who had been in England for decades, and even if they a) posed no real threat and b) were contributing to the British war effort.

On the Isle of Man, that resulted in one of the most remarkable collections of intellectuals at the Hutchinson Camp. Writers, musicians, educators, artists, journalists – all were kept on the island, behind barbed wire.

The book details many of the more well-known internees, and how they made their way to England as Hitler’s grip on Germany tightened. Often, those escapes were made under dangerous circumstances and many came after a first meeting with the Gestapo, to ensure there wouldn’t be a second.

We get to see the day to day lives of those locked up for no good reason, and the lengths some would go to keep creating their art behind the wire. To keep themselves busy, they also began what could only be called one of the best universities in the world: the experts among them gave talks on their particular expertise, and demand for something – anything – to do was so great, they would often give the same lecture multiple times to meet demand.

The end of the book highlights some of the internees, where they landed once released, and how they went about the remainder of their lives.

The narrative is compelling while not being overly stuffy, and the book is impeccably researched. It’s an excellent addition to WWII history, and a history not told nearly enough.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Rowman and Littlefield, Lyons Press, and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Brock Steele – Sphere (Alex Bloodfire)

If you took the Jason Bourne books and mixed them with the movie Total Recall (the original one, with Arnie), you’d get this book.

This is not to say it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. It does hold together in its world, mostly, by a thin logic. The issue I have is that Brock Steele is 90% reactive and is only meaningfully proactive in the last 30 pages-ish. There isn’t a lot of tension – he doesn’t really ever seem to be in real danger – but there is a whole lot of driving around. We all know how I feel about that.

Brock Steele, six months out from an attack by persons unknown with a baseball bat, and three months out from a medically-induced coma, is working as a trainer at a gym, but doesn’t remember anything prior to being in the hospital. From the tenor of things, it doesn’t exactly seem like he’s been trying all that hard to figure out why he was attacked or who he is. He’s living a life, hates his boss, has a crush on a young woman named Sarah, and in general seems rather ordinary.

One night at a party, someone spikes his drink. Instead of collapsing at the party, he runs out into the night, collapsing there instead. This seems to be the catalyst for the rest of the book, and his quest to figure out who he is.

Steele’s being followed by some shady characters as he winds his way from place to place, often injuring himself along the way, either by fighting or by banging his head or fists against walls during nightmares, which was rather odd.

Along the way, Sarah is fired for trying to help Steele get his medical records – a doctor hilariously tells him that he is not entitled to his own records, which made me roll my eyes – and wouldn’t you know it, she’s a computer hacker. Steele’s buddy Ty, whom he does not remember, is a prolific car thief, getting them various rides so the three of them can drive all over the place. It turns out that the people after him want a thumb drive that apparently has some incriminating information on it. What’s that information? Who knows?

Steele roams around and speaks to a bunch of different people, but never seems to get any significant information until someone late in the book lays it out for him and the reader. At the end, Steele does the infodump duties by suddenly remembering everything and explaining what’s on the drive and why it’s bad news for the bad guy.

Eventually, he meets the bad guy and they duke it out over a bridge Steele’s been avoiding. He suddenly remember why that is, too, and just when he has the bad guy on the ground, instead of finishing him, he goes over to retrieve a gun he knocked out of the bad guy’s hand, setting things up for another book.

Overall, I’m giving it 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3, because internally, it’s at least consistent, if not always believable.

Thanks to BooksGoSocial and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Perks of Loving a Wallflower – The Wild Wynchesters #2 (Erica Ridley)

This book two in a series – something not on the cover. As is becoming a regular occurrence for me, I have not read the first. Based on the ending of this one, there’s likely a third brewing somewhere. This does serve as a standalone, however, and there aren’t many issues with knowing what came before except a few passages that are explained/thought about by the characters.

Philippa York, the daughter of a well off but untitled family, is an intellectual and rapidly reaching her sell by date. Her mother is furious that she failed to marry a duke – this occurred in the last book, and there is enough context given here to understand at least that it didn’t go through. What’s a mother in Regency England to do? Work on finding her someone else to marry, who has a title and money, of course. For her part, Philippa despairs of finding a man who stirs anything within her.

Tommy (Thomasina) Wynchester is a master of disguises and has been pining for Philippa for at least a year. They apparently met during the previous book, but Tommy didn’t have the guts to talk to her. These days, Tommy disguises herself as Aunt Wynchester, a regular attendee at Philippa’s salons. Tommy is much braver when dressing up as someone else, and decides to dress up as Lord Vanderbean. While riding in the park, she speaks to Philippa and her mother, charming Philippa and at least not causing her mother to go ballistic.

Successful in the enterprise, Tommy continues to act as Tommy, and enters into a bargain with Philippa: Tommy will help Philippa find a suitable, titled man to marry by pretending that Tommy is wooing Philippa – after all, many people want most what it seems they can’t have.

This works about as well as one might think, and eventually the charade breaks down, with Philippa rightfully accusing Tommy of deceiving her and Tommy not able to offer up much of a defense other than she wanted to be close to Philippa because she loved her.

There’s a subplot that exists only to scuttle Philippa’s engagement to a man with a title her mother approves of, involving the breaking of a cipher, done by one of the members of Philippa’s salon and the credit for which is claimed by her cousin, the man to whom Philippa is now engaged. The entire Wynchester family gets involved to help gather the evidence to prove it is not his prize to claim. I’d have liked more on this, but it’s a romance primarily, not a mystery.

Readers of Regencies in particular and romances in general will probably like this quite a bit. Ridley is a well-known historical romance author and knows how to weave a tale. My only real quibble is that the Wynchester clan doesn’t seem to have a dud among the bunch, and Tommy herself doesn’t seem to have many, if any, flaws beyond a crippling sort of stage fright as it relates to speaking to Philippa as herself and not Lord Vanderbean. Other than that, she’s confident in everything that doe does.

For those who worry about such things, there are several sex scenes in the book; they are not terribly explicit, but if you like your sex scenes to be off the page, you may want to skip those pages.

Overall, a solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Forever/Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Murderers Creek – Maggie Blackthorne #2 ( LaVonne Griffin-Valade)

Maggie Blackthorne is back, patrolling her area, considering moving in with Duncan, who she started dating in the previous book, and generally keeping the peace.

When her ex-husband JT shows up, it’s an unwelcome surprise. He has been demoted in between the last book and this one due to some sexual harassment claims. Maggie wants nothing to do with him and snaps at him to get to whatever it is he wants. He’s getting married, has become a Catholic, and want her to sign an annulment paper, to dissolve their marriage in the eyes of he church, even though they’re already divorced. She signs away, kicks him out and goes about her day.

The first item of the day is a pair of oxy addicts, reported to be in their area. The second, in conjunction with the first, is Dave Shannon’s stolen truck. It’s a fairly good call that the junkies have stolen it, because they’ve left their junker where his truck had been.

Then, the big one: JT has been found by a couple of tourists, dead. His throat has been slit and he had additional stab wounds. Bizarrely, his left ear is also missing. Detective Al Bach arrives as does Ray Gattis, the medical examiner. Maggie is a suspect, of course, since her and JT’s marriage had been rocky, to put it mildly. She’s also told later that JT’s new fiancee is pressuring the local State office to look into Maggie as the killer, and later that an IA case has been opened.

Attempts to find the pair of junkies prove unsuccessful until Janine Harbaugh, a volunteer fire watch lookout, calls into let Maggie know that she’s seen the truck weaving in and out of the forest, stooping, then moving again. Maggie gets to the area, driving through the forest, following the strange trail they’ve left.

Unfortunately for them, hey drive right over the edge of an embankment and are killed. Now Maggie has the task of figuring out why they were in town, where they thought they were going, and what they were looking for.

The resulting investigations of JT’s murder and the truck theft results in the two investigations coming together as actually the same case.

Meanwhile, Hollis and his wife are going through a tough time, Al and Ray are not really dating any longer, and Maggie has a bit of a secret she’s keeping from Duncan. The reader who is paying attention will guess that without any trouble at all.

Everything comes to a head at the end of the book, with a couple of confessions and a standoff with a disturbed man on top of the courthouse.

The only ding I’m giving this book is the road atlas tour we get whenever Maggie drives somewhere. I’ve said in previous reviews that I really don’t care how people get from point A to point B unless there is something important about the route. There are a couple of instances we do need to know about in this book, but the rest are useless to people like me or to people who have never been in the area (and sometimes those are the same people).

Four out of five stars, and another solid outing for Sgt. Maggie Blackthorne.

Thanks to Severn River Publishing and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Hitler Years: Disaster 1940-1945 (Frank McDonough)

The Hitler Years: Disaster 1940-1945 is the companion to The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939, which I previously reviewed.

As with ‘Triumph’, Disaster is a strict, chronologically presented layout of the events from 1940, when Hitler was at the apex of his power, to 1945, when Germany was defeated and Hitler committed suicide in Berlin.

I’ll caution that this is not a narrative nonfiction work. The two books taken together could form a large collection of references about what was happening on what day in what year in (primarily) Germany’s sphere between 1933 and 1945. If you haven’t read the first volume,it isn’t a huge issue as long as you have some kind of base understanding as to how the world got to where it was in 1940.

It’s a terrific addition to the field, and I’m giving it five stars, just as I did with the first volume.

One note I will make is that the e-ARC was a terrible mess. Letters are missing from words, entire dates are left out, and it was a tremendously difficult and tedious read to get through it. I’m not dinging it for this, as it is an advanced copy, and it comes with the territory. It was, however, disappointing that it was so very, very bad in this regard.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Matters of Doubt – Cal Claxton #1 (Warren Easley)

This is book one of a series that was originally published between 2013 and 2018. The books are being reissued – it’s always nice to come across another series I’ve not read. For those interested, it’s told in first person by the main character.

Former bigshot Los Angeles prosecutor Cal Claxton quits his job, moves to his cabin in Oregon, and hangs out a shingle as a small, solo legal operation after his wife commits suicide.

A young man appears in his office, asking Cal to find out who murdered his mother, an investigative journalist who was working on a big story. The man is homeless and an artist who goes by the name Picasso on the street. Cal brushes him off and Picasso angrily storms out of his office.

It wouldn’t be a jaded prosecutor finding his heart if Cal doesn’t change his mind, and so he does: he tracks down Picasso at a free clinic in Portland and offers to look into the circumstances surrounding the murder. Picasso has a ready-made villain in his mother’s murder – specifically, he believes that his mother’s boyfriend is the culprit. Cal has to rein him in a bit and caution him to not go after the man when there isn’t enough evidence.

Unfortunately for Picasso,but good for the book, that man is found dead. By Picasso. Cal happens to be arriving at the house just as Picasso is leaving. Did he kill the boyfriend? I’m not giving it away.

Cal has people he can ask for help, including Nando, a Cuban emigre with a fashion sense that sounds like it would have been at home in the 70s (at least in my mind). Nando knows other people who have specialized skills, and al uses Nando a lot – but Nando doesn’t work for free, and those ills start adding up.

Someone really wants to know what Cal is finding (or not) and Cal’s laptop, his own clients’ files, and Picasso’s material that he had entrusted to Cal are stolen. The only thing he now has to go on are some of the notes he made and what he remembers from the files.

There’s a romantic subplot involving the (obviously) super attractive doctor who runs the clinic. There’s also some conflict with a woman who runs an escort service, one of her employees who wants to break free, and a giant Russian dude who doesn’t like Cal all that much.

As Cal works his way through the case, we also get to see through his eyes various social issues: homelessness, inadequate healthcare, drug abuse, indifferent police officers, sex trafficking, a lack of mental health services, especially for veterans, and suicide by cop. Conservatives are not going to like these parts at all, so if you’re in that group, you might want to pass on this one.

Cal also finds that there are multiple divergent paths on this case that dovetail into one by the end of the book.

I have a few issues with the book. One is Cal’s name. Cal Claxton just doesn’t roll off my tongue. Two, virtually every side character Cal encounters is quirky or weird. there are people in the world who are just normal people, working through their days. Three, how is it that Cal always seems to be around when a dead boy is discovered? It’s rather odd, but maybe that’s his quirk.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Reflections on gardening, cooking, and life