Review: A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men, and Fraudsters (Railey Jane Savage)

I generally love books about swindles, cons, and assorted grifters, no matter the time period – after all, Bernie Madoff is just Charles Ponzi with internet access.

Neither of those men play a part in this book. Not including Ponzi was an interesting omission, as the book covers selected people and incidents between 1850 and 1950 and Ponzi was active within that period, but perhaps that’s because so much has been written about him that having another swindler in line to step up to the spotlight was a good call.

While the book covers other con men and women and their schemes, the most fascinating one for me was the one that leads the book: Gordon Gordon, the supposed Lord of Glencairn, from Scotland, once he flees England to America, first trying to swindle people with land deals in Minnesota, and moving from there to New York This is mainly due to him interacting with many of the biggest power brokers of the gilded age. Among them were Horace Greeley (“Go west, young man!”) and shady mogul Jay Gould, whose was up to his eyeballs in his own scandal in the Erie Railroad, and who was so desperate he went along with what could only be termed a fantastical scheme cooked up by Gordon Gordon, and wound up just another mark. As Gordon Gordon’s con plays out, another figure pops up, although briefly: Diamond Jim Fisk. This was at a time when those various power brokers were trying to corner the gold market via claims in Alaska. Why did this please me? Because I have read and reviewed a book solely about that attempt called A Most Wicked Conspiracy (I gave it five stars, it’s excellent).

The others, comparatively, didn’t grab me the way the Gordon con did, but that were all readable and interesting in their own way – and likely things most people have never heard about. The last chapter, dealing with the faked Drake disk – supposedly set by Francis Drake as he circumnavigated the globe, came in second for me, and I felt rather badly for the man who was basically pranked by so-called friends. I thought that was rather nasty work.

I realize the ebook version sometimes has its issues with ARCS and their formatting, but the formatting was atrocious., with giant, bold text at random places, giving the publisher name, but also sometimes containing a piece of a sentence, and in the middle of the page. The beginning of each chapter gives the date, place, amount of the con and the things it involve (free hotels, jewels, cash, etc), and the main assorted players. These were also often formatted poorly, and I hope that is repaired prior to publication.

Overall: four out of five stars.

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

Review: Dead Point – Maggie Blackthorne #1 (LaVonne Griffin-Valade)

Finally, I read the first in a new series instead of bouncing in at some point into it!

This is the first Maggie Blackthorne novel, and a terrific story it is. Sgt. Maggie Blackthorne finds a pair of ne’er do well brothers poaching a deer. She’s unable to bring them in, and intends to turn it over to the Fish & Game officer who shares the Sheriff’s Office space in the sparsely populated and large county that is their jurisdiction. Before she can do that, however, she receives a panicked call from one of the brothers that ends abruptly with a gunshot.

Blackthorne finally finds the location from which the brothers have called only o find both them and their dog murdered. Thus begins a rather engaging mystery, with a female main character who doesn’t feel the need to pretend to be younger than she is, or waste time looking in a mirror every chapter and fretting she looks any differently than she does. It’s rather refreshing, really.

She does have an abusive ass of an ex-husband who is also now her boss. He turns up a couple of times, but he works in another city and fortunately, we don’t have to see much of him. In the course of her investigation, it turns out a new man – someone she’s known for practically forever – has some romantic interest in her, and refreshingly, it isn’t a jump into bed on the first date sort of thing. Instalove just isn’t for me except in certain genres where it’s expected.

The investigation itself winds on, putting Blackthorne and her squad into contact with quite a number of possibly suspects, including some oddball man and his sons (and a couple of tough guys), who want to raise cattle naturally, an incapacitated patriarch, as well as a couple more dead bodies.

Blackthorne is dogged and intelligent, and the book finishes up well enough for me to look for the sequel.

A solid four out of five stars.

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

Review: In The Spotlight (Lesley Davis)

Talk about instalove!

Actor Cole has left the successful tv series she’s been starring in to take a part in a new movie that’s being made. She’s being paired with up and coming actor Eris. The latter is new, but she’s delighted to be in the movie with Cole.

I know it’s a trope of the genre – after all, the two main characters need to get together, and quickly, or at least be intrigued by one another – but the two in this book have broken all land speed records, by talking about settling down, grandkids, and how they’re soulmates before we’re too long into the story.

We watch the two go through the typical things people go through, and also get to meet the side characters: Aiden, who has written the screenplay for the movie, her fiancee Cassidy, also an actor, and Mischa, the best friend and rather a third wheel to everything. I must admit I found them a bit more interesting than the two mains – not that the mains are not interesting, but sometimes reading a lot of lesroms in a row (four ARCs in a row for me to review, this time around) sometimes renders the two mains and their happiness subordinate to the other things going on.

What else would be going on? A crazed stalker, who has been shipping Cole on the tv series she was in, and who is convinced that she an change Cole’s mind to get her back on the show. We already know the identity of the stalker, so there isn’t a lot of “whodunnit” in this. The only question is how far she’ll take it.

Overall, a decent enough book to keep one occupied for a few hours. I found out after reading it that this is apparently the second book in a series. As is my fashion, I have not read the first, and I have no idea if it would inform this had I, but it can stand alone.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Bold Stroke Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Dark Roads (Chevy Stevens)

Hailey McBride is sent to live with her aunt and her aunt’s husband Vaughn – a cop nicknamed Ice Man, who has a few (a lot) of dubious practices – after her father dies after going off he side of a mountain. She’s terribly unhappy about her father, about Vaughn, an obvious narcissist and controller of everything that goes on in the house. Hailey, for her part, wants nothing to do with Vaughn, but has to put up with his creepy uncle bit until she makes her escape with the help of Johnny, her friend and confidante, and fellow dirt biker.

All of this is set against the background of a very real, very current, and very disturbing backdrop: the disappearance of hundreds of missing Indigenous girls and women in Canada over a span of decades. Read up on the Highway of Tears for more information.

Prior to Hailey’s escape, she had befriended Amber, a waitress at the local diner. When Vaughn sees all the pictures of the two of them together, he predictably goes ape and forbids Hailey from going to the camp site at the lake, where most of the local kids hang out.

During Hailey’s escape, she sneaks over to look at a litter of puppies a farmer’s dog has had, wishing once more she could have had one at the house (Vaughn said no, of course). One of the puppies trails after her and will not leave, no matter how much she tries. So Hailey and Wolf wind up off the grid in an old and forgotten cabin. Johnny had stocked it in advance, and she and Wolf live off this, and what she can gather from the secluded area surrounding them.

She occasionally comes off the mountain, and horrifyingly discovers Amber, dead for a couple of days, at the lake. She calls it in anonymously, then waits, only to find Vaughn driving in and walking directly to where the body lies. She flees back into wild, and her section of the book ends when she and Wolf have to fend off a cougar, and Wolf is seriously injured.

The next part picks up with Beth, Amber’s sister. There’s a bit about their parents, who are decidedly religiously odd almost to the point of caricature, but soon we’re following Beth to Cold Creek, to see what she can find out about Amber’s death. The diner is down a waitress now, and she takes the offer of a job to work there. She runs into Vaughn fairly quickly, and gets the creep vibe from him, just as everyone else does.

To go further would be to spoil some excellent moments from the end of the book. I’ve also left out quite a bit from the beginning for the same reason. Vaughn is in fact quite creepy, and he has zero redeeming qualities about him, which makes him a bit of a one note villain. There are plenty of villains to choose from, though, and a number of heroes emerge as well.

A solid four out of five stars.

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

Review: The Bucket List РJohn Adderley #1 (Peter Mohlin and Peter Nystr̦m)

John Adderley, FBI agent and all around suave dude, helps take down a major Nigerian drug trafficking group, and then heads into witness protection after being shot. His mother, who lives in Sweden, sends him a packet containing information related to the arrest of his brother, also in Sweden, for the murder of a young girl. It’s a cold case, now, and his mother insists that his brother is innocent. Instead of sitting around, waiting for the case against the Nigerians to wind its way through the legal system – and petty much blackmailing his boss – Adderley heads to Sweden to look into the case of Emile, the subject of the cold case.

Generally speaking, I really do enjoy Nordic noir. This was….ok. The idea of it was good: guy born in Sweden is taken by his father to the US, joins the FBI, goes undercover to bust up a drug ring, then goes to Sweden, undercover again under another name, to help with a cold case. It’s rather unusual, but I can go with it.

The book switches between 2009 and 2019, telling the backstory of Emile’s murder, and Adderley’s progression from undercover FBI agent to undercover cold case investigator in Sweden. The first half is chocked with quite a lot of first date information: who Adderley is, who the people around him are, and the situations both in the US and Sweden. I expect this from the first book in a new series, so I won’t ding it for that.

I will, however, ding it for taking up the entire first half of the book. We don’t need to know every single little detail – the descriptions of everything take forever to get through, and the book doesn’t really pick up the pace until about the 60% mark (on a Fire tablet).

In addition, Adderley is supposedly scare of a Nigerian hi team coming after him and the other FBI agent who was embedded in the same cell. But he dresses in (impeccable) suits and drives an American muscle car all over the place while at the same time ensuring that people remember him due to the way he acts an how perilously close he comes to revealing that he has been in contact with his family,which is a no-no, per his new Swedish handlers.

More bodies pile up, and I will give give credit to the authors for having a number of suspects, all with motives that could cast suspicion on them to be the culprit. The real culprit, though, is eventually caught, and Adderley and his Swedish handler do an absurdly ridiculous thing with him and the dead girl’s father.

Overall, it’s a good enough read that I’ll put it down with three stars.

Thanks to Abrams and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Watching Darkness Fall: FDR, His Ambassadors, and the Rise of Adolf Hitler (David McKean)

Decades after WWI, the US people, and most of the US government, truly believed in Woodrow Wilson’s insane and unworkable isolationism stance. I understand the wish to not be dragged into some war that’s not yours to fight, but the US and everyone else on the planet have been globalists almost as soon as (most of) the map had been tentatively finalized. Backbiting Ambassadors too interested in their own machinations on higher office don’t help.

Watching Darkness Fall is primarily the story of FDR – both a Wilsonian politician and charged with pulling the U out of the Great depression – and four of his Ambassadors, posted to offices in Europe. Of the four included in this book, only one seemed to understand the threat posed by Hitler in Germany, and the great conflagration he would cause: William Dodd. He warned FDR, early and often, that Hitler was going to be a problem to our allies (especially Great Britain and France) and potentially the world at large. The others – Breckenridge Long in Italy, William Bullitt in Russia and subsequently in France, and Joseph P. Kennedy – either heaped praise on a fascist while acting like a tourist (Long), wrote what amounted to love letters to FDR (seriously!) and constantly painted a pretty picture for him, even while things were falling apart, and had the audacity to think he could speak for the US or French(!) government when the leaders fled France, all the while angling for a job as head of the war department (Bullitt), or were anti-Semites, particularly uninterested in the plight of Jews in Germany (Long and Kennedy).

It isn’t an easy read, particularly to start; there are names and history and political dealings thrown at the reader in order to set the stage. Presumably anyone reading this would have a basic understanding of the runup to WWII. If you do not, it will likely be fairly rough sailing, at least until all the characters are in place.

Once that’s complete, however, it’s easy to see – through letters, diaries, newspapers, and official government issues – just how ready some were to allow Europe and possibly even Russia go up in flames because no one really wanted to hear any bad news from abroad, much less help our own allies fight against a maniac. It’s especially troubling to read Bullitt’s missives. He was grossly unqualified and unprepared for the duty he accepted. Equally disgusting was Long, who deliberately held up visas for those fleeing to the US, especially Jews and even children, and Kennedy, who urged FDR to make people with Hitler.

The book ends rather abruptly, but by that point, I was tired of all of them and quite glad of it.

Five stars, no doubt in my mind.

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

Review: Firepower (John Cutter)

We know the story: ex-Special Ops guy trying to fulfill his dying pal’s wish runs into trouble and uses his brains and his brawn to do it.

Vince Bellator is the ex-SpecOps person in question, and while hiking in the woods and minding his own business, he encounters three white supremacists who should have stayed in bed that day instead of challenging him. When I realized Bellator would be punching nazis and white supremacists, I automatically gave it another star. as I am a huge fan of that.

Bellator realizes that there’s lot more going on here that your usual idiots playing nazi in the woods, so decides to infiltrate the group. He does this, and begins gathering intel, determined that this particular group of nazis will be taken down. His problem, once in, is how to get the information out.New members are scrutinized very carefully, and no one is allowed to keep weapons on their person except those charged with security.

Along the way, Bellator finds an unlikely companion within the compound who is more than she seems. They realize that these nazis are arranging a large-scale, coordinated attack on some government officials – and now they have to stop it.

I won’t go further than that for spoilery reasons, except to say that I bet Bellator wished he were Spider-Man crawling up the face of a cliff at a point late in the book.

There’s quite a bit of suspended disbelief required, but I think that there’s at least a little in every book, no matter the genre. Fans of this kind of book will enjoy it, no doubt.

Four out of five stars from me.

Thanks to Lume Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Hell’s Half Acre, Coffin Cove #2 (Jackie Elliott)

Hell’s Half Acre is the second book in a series that takes place in the cheerily named Coffin Cove, I have not read the first book, but this gives enough background that it is unnecessary.

Coffin Cove is a tiny town in Canada, rife with the sort of issues that tiny towns have, and where almost everyone knows your business. The number of characters is large, but they are not all dumped on the reader at once.

Coffin Cove has elected a new mayor and ousted the guy who was mayor for what seems like forever – and like Kwame Alexander, seemed to think that in his position he could grift off almost any deal to enlarge his real estate empire.

Meanwhile, the new mayor has plans: revitalize the town to bring in more business and more tourists. Then the former mayor’s son goes missing, and Andi Silvers, disgraced big newspaper reporter turned small newspaper reporter in Coffin Cove is assigned to cover the investigation.

There are a number of twists and turns, and quite a deep dive into the town’s past – including why there is an area of land within the town called Hell’s Half Acre.

The RMCP is called in to assist, and it seems as if the lead investigator has a bit of history with Andi in the last book. Some of that background is provided to ensure the reader has a good picture of their relationship.

When a body turns up in the area of Hell’s Half Acre, it’s clear that the body belongs to the former mayor.

Meanwhile, a stranger appears in town, presumably a developer looking for projects within Coffin Cove. And, the body count starts rising.

Andi continues to investigate the disappearance just as the police do, and that investigation reveals some very nasty things about the small town – as anyone can tell you, sometimes the most sordid tales come from small towns.

The book reaches a crescendo as the good guys close in on the bad guys.

It’s a solid book, with a nice characterization of Andi and her reinvention as a small town reporter. Some of the other characters don’t get much more than broad strokes, to let us know of they’re nice or not, and (seemingly, to me) how sad or not we should be at their deaths. I also had issues with some of the writing. I think it could have been tightened up just a tad, and there were some redundant or “telling us again, in case we missed it”, identifying Summer as the mother of Jade, the new mayor in one chapter, and then in the very next, telling us again “Summer was Jade’s mother.” Yes, we know,because we’re already been told.

The culprit is pretty easy to see, and if the reader pegs the bad guy early, the rest of the book is still good, to watch the net close in.

I’m giving it four out of five stars.

Thanks to Joffe Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Bonds of Blood, DI Dani Stephens #4 (Rob Sinclair)

The Bonds of Blood is book four in the DI Dani Stephens series. As is fairly usual for me, I have not read the first three; however, I had no issue piecing together what came before, and the book works fine as a standalone.

We open with a rather gruesome murder – the blood and gore is kept to a minimum, but we get the idea without it. A man and woman, killed in their bed in the dead of night.

DI Stephens is working another case when this one comes up: a man who beat another man to death after the second man ran over and killed the first man’s son while they were out biking. This issue – determining what level of intent was involved on the part of both men runs through the book as a subplot.

Stephens is then called out to the scene of the murder that opens the book. It’s a bit close to home for her, as she and her fiancee suffered a similar attack, but lived.. Still, she tackles the case with her team, and discovers that the murdered couple owned a development business, buying properties and creating new housing. As Stephens and her team delve more deeply into the business, they find that the company is burning through money. During the investigation, they also find a will, notarized and signed by a lawyer, and another will, unsigned and undated. The difference between them revolves around how much a portion of the business each of their four children receive.

Their kids are really somewhat of a mess. The daughter is married and they run a competing company in real estate development. One son is of course the one who is rather flighty and undependable. One son has a gambling problem, and owes a lot of money to an illegal gambling front that extended him credit. The last son works in the company business with the father, and is displeased with the way the company is being run and the money it’s losing on each project. All are good candidates for motive, and Stephens and her team sort through the entanglements of the family to get to the truth.

The book moves back and forth in time, and is told both from the viewpoint of Stephens and from the viewpoint of the father, Terry, as he goes through trying to keep his business afloat. This back and forth does not make the book hard to follow, but it does give the reader some vital information that will allow them to crack the case if they are observant.

I’ll give this a solid four out of five.

Thanks to Canelo and NetGalley for the reading copy.