Review: The Silent Witness – Amanda Steele #3 (Carolyn Arnold)

The third in the Amanda Steele series opens with a bang, so to speak. In the wee hours of the morning, Angela Parker nudges her husband Brett and tells him there’s someone in the house. While he investigates, she gets their very young daughter Zoe, then hides in the closet. She hears Brett being shot, and then with dread, waits her turn as the intruder discovers her.

Steele is called to the scene, and she and her team (plus everyone else who shows up at a murder) move around the interior of the house, looking for anything to give a clue as to who these people are, what they did for a living, and if they recently mad someone incredibly mad. They quickly realize that Zoe is not there – not in the closet, not behind mom in the closet – and think perhaps the intruders have taken her. The child is about the same age as Steele’s daughter was when she died, and eventually Steele finds the girl in a wicker basket at the foot of the bed.

Zoe, for her part, traumatized by what she’s seen and heard, does not speak – thus, the silent witness. Much of the first third of the book revolves around Steele gaining Zoe’s trust and getting her to talk and Steele’s own, constant, inner thinking about how she misses her daughter and doesn’t want to get close to Zoe. Despite this, she does wind up taking Zoe in, since the girl is likely in danger.

The team pulls the strings of the investigation, eventually pulling in a connection to another case involving a sitting rep in the city, a hotel seemingly in the middle of nowhere, another unsolved murder, and corruption under their noses.

The pacing is fairly taut, and the writing is fine – no major bumps except the drumbeat of Steele insisting to herself that the kid will be put into the system, that she can’t handle it, and so on. That did get a little old by about the 60% mark, but it eases up toward the end.

The end…I’m not a big fan of bad guy infodumps at the end. But we get one, and not a bad shootout to go with it, which kind of made up for that.

Solid three out of five stars.

Thanks to Bookouture and Netgalley for the reading copy.

Review: A Change of Circumstance – Simon Serrailler #11 (Susan Hill)

A Change of Circumstance reminds me of the repositioning sails cruise ships do, to move, free of passengers, to another location to begin ferrying people in a different area.

This is listed as a mystery, but it’s more of a domestic slice of life book about Simon and his family, and Brookie and his family, and Cat and all the DCs, and poor Mr Lionel, and the Chinese herbalist, and the junkie found dead of an OD/contaminated batch of heroin and a couple of animals and Olivia and whether Simon is going to get with Rachel and ugh.

The crime is laid out, so there’s no spoilers in place by saying if you’ve read Oliver Twist, you’ve read this story before, only better in that book, because this crime is an homage to that. There’s even an Olivia to help get any non-literary heathens up to speed on where they could track down the OG version.

Seriously, though, I really didn’t care about Simon at all. This is the first book in the series I’ve read,but if the writing is like this in all of them – sometimes ending a chapter very abruptly, almost as if there’s something that’s been left out, or hopping between two or three heads without any break to help us figure out whose head we’re in now – I won’t be going back to book one, as I do with many other series, and I definitely won’t be picking up/requesting the next one. The latter I really, really do not like: head-hopping only works if it’s done well. This was not. The story was fractured and quite unenjoyable for that reason alone. Put all the rest in between all the domestic stuff, and it’s a sandwich not worth eating.

Two out of five stars.

Thanks to Abrams/Overlook Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Joan is Okay (Weike Wang)

Workaholic doctor Joan, the titular character, takes us to China to begin things in Joan is Okay. Her father has died, and she muses as she meets relatives she has not seen for over a decade, that here, in China, she is seen as an American. Not much for her to do in a strange place full of strangers to her, so she flies back to the US, where her Chinese-American heritage marks her as Chinese.

Joan resumes her duties as attending physician in the ICU. We see her interaction with workmates Madeline and Reece, and her inner self tells us she prefers the world of the medical ICU, with its machines and beeps and codes, to the other ICUs (surgical, for instance, where the doctors’ handwriting is worse than any other, according to Joan).

There came a point where I wondered if Joan’s reticence and focus was a byproduct of Asperger’s syndrome, or if it was simply a byproduct of a solitary, introverted child who became a solitary, introverted adult. I don’t think it matters all that much: Joan is intelligent, sometimes witty, and often wryly observant, and that makes the book a good read.

The doorman of her apartment building takes a shine to her, asking about her health, her love life; later, when a resident moves in across the hall, he asks if she has fallen in love with Mark the neighbor yet. I found this rather creepy, to be honest.

Mark, for his part, increasingly invades her life, and sad to say, she lets him do it: as he acquires new stuff, he gives her his old stuff. Books he’s read, a tv, furniture. This culminates into a party in her apartment at New Year’s, Mark having set the entire thing up using the spare key she’d given to him. I found this also to be rather creepy as well as annoying, and in the end, so does Joan. Her passivity finally gives way, and after fleeing the party to her brother’s place in CT (where her mother is also staying for an extended visit), she returns and installs a deadbolt on her door. Good call, Joan!

There are brief breaks in the narrative where Joan explains written Chinese and what symbols are combined to mean what words. At the first one, I was a bit confused, but as they popped up here and there, I realized that Joan is explaining to us some of the things she might be feeling if she were NotJoan (who might not be quite as reserved as Joan is), and they also serve as respites from some of the heavier moments in the story.

I expect anything published from the end of this year moving forward to have something in it about COVID, and this is no different, especially since Joan is a doctor: the beginnings of rumbles come at the end of the book, eventually turning into the flood of patients we’ve all seen and read about. Joan herself, and her two workmates, come down with it. She survives, returns to work, and deals with the brutal reality of having to help patients talk to their loved ones via tablet. There’s a memorable scene with Earl, one of her patients, and it’s both heartening – he is giving his wife the things she will need if he dies – and dreadful, because we know in those early days, the odds were not good, just as they are not now in certain circumstances.

Joan, however, knows herself and her place. And Joan is okay.

4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up. Recommended. I read it in one sitting, today.

Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: All That Remains (Sheri Lewis Wohl)

It pains me to do this, but two stars out of five.

I normally reserve that for the end of the review, but I thought I should just get it out of the way.

All that Remains is billed as a paranormal romance with a mystery at its heart, which I don’t normally read. I thought I’d take a chance on it, since it’s billed as a romance/mystery. I’d see if it is, and if this one would break out from the pack of those I’ve read before, all of which I’ve not liked.

It is not, and it did not.

First, the story: a killer on the loose who gnaws on the bones of his victims after he has killed them. OK, so here’s our mystery. Who is he and why does he do this. Well, he’s a werewolf. Literally, a werewolf. And the mystery is torpedoed less than 20% into the story by switching to him and his POV. Then it just becomes a catch me if you can story between the POVS that I just didn’t like because there’s no story there. He’s a psychopath with zero redeeming features, no tragic backstory, and leaves clues all over the place. So much for being smarter than the rest of the pack.

If the mystery had been a real mystery, even with paranormal elements that didn’t come to light until toward the end of the book, that would have been better, with o without the romance tied in.

Second, the romance: if the author had made the book primarily about the romance between the two female leads and developed that aspect more, tamping down the “mystery” into something else, the book would have been much improved. As it is, their romance just isn’t there in the sense of what the romance genre expects.

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

Review: The Accused – Charlie Cameron #4 (Owen Mullen)

This is (I think) the fourth book in a series. I’ll say that this time, it would have helped to read the previous books to figure out PI Charlie Cameron’s history with his two friends and with the big bad guy, Sean Rafferty. That said, it can (and does, mostly) stand on its own, with enough fill-ins to not make it terribly confusing.

Charlie is approached by two women, separately, to help them with an issue. One is Kim Rafferty, the bombshell trophy wife of psychopathic gang leader Sean Rafferty who wants to leave him, and the other has a surprising connection to a man just released from prison, convicted of killing that same woman’s husband.

Thus we begin two separate story arcs: Rafferty’s is told from multiple viewpoints: Sean, Kim, a gangster from Portugal, the woman who runs Sean’s brothels – but not Charlie’s, as he declines. The other is told primarily from Charlie’s and Dennis Boyd’s. Charlie agrees to take the second, but very early on, he decides that maybe Boyd is guilty – one of the witnesses, for instance, who Boyd swore was lying on the stand, is found dead the night after Boyd is released. The optics of that, as far as Charlie is concerned, are terrible.

After meeting with Boyd, though, he agrees to help. Having the second witness of three turn of dead, too, is problematic, but Charlie realizes he was wrong: it does appear that Boyd, who had been sleeping with the man’s wife, and was the most likely killer, may be innocent after all.

Charlie’s no slouch, either. He doesn’t spend his day behind a computer, tapping away. He’s on the streets, chasing down clues, finding people, and sometimes pissing off his pal who is with the police. When he says he’s taking a case and will work it, that’s exactly what he does.

Not a lot of plot details in this review, as the entire thing would need to be spoilered.

The writing is quite good, and while sometimes Charlie can be a bit of a smartass, can’t we all? Dialogue has no issues – no one is working overtime to be cutesy or coy, or occasionally witty. It flows nicely, and even a few rapidfire sections are not difficult to follow.

The dual stories are both interesting in their own right, although the Rafferty storyline was wrapped up in just a handful of pages, including a somewhat not easy to believe escape at the end, which was a bit out of sorts for the book until that point. There’s a kind of, maybe, cliffhanger on that one, but I can’t say why, lest I spoil it. The Boyd story – well, you’ll just have to read it, and I recommend you do if police/PI mysteries are your thing.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Boldwood Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.



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.