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Christmas At The Mysterious Bookshop, Otto Penzler, ed.

Publisher: Vanguard Press

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

There are not many anthologies or collections published these days—perhaps partly to do with the disappearance of the magazines that offered short story writers a forum.   It’s therefore all the more delightful to receive a new collection of short stories, grouped around a theme, and discover how seventeen writers chose to handle it.

The theme is in the title.  All the stories revolve around the festive season, and all of them take place, at least in part, in the Mysterious Bookstore, which editor Penzler owns in real life.  In a case of “the biter bit”, Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder falls in with a predatory bunch as he Gives ‘til it hurts.  In The long winter’s nap , there’s a new spin on fiction’s most famous detective’s only Yuletide case.  If you like a good puzzle and a literary pun, The Holiday Fairy will amuse.  And as you’d expect, Ed McBain’s take on Christmas is dark, with splashes of blood.  And there are thirteen other stories in this book.

If you’ve got a short-story lover on your Christmas list, don’t waste time looking for something else, just buy this collection, wrap it up, and wait for the cries of delight on Christmas morning.  Or buy it right now and read it yourself—and then wrap it up.

I can best end by recycling a sentence from my review of the previous Penzler anthology and say that all readers, whatever their genre of choice, should find a story or three that will be particularly appealing.  “Some are spare and lean; some are comfortably cushioned with detail.  All are entertaining, informative, and enjoyable.”

 

 

 

The Athena Project by Brad Thor

Publisher: Pocket Star

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader

Brad Thor has been called ‘the Master of thrillers’ and THE ATHENA PROJECT should safely give him his tenth consecutive best-seller.

Within the pages of THE ATHENA PROJECT, Thor has produced his most ambitious outing to date.  His novels are always pulse-pounding thrill-rides that clearly show his in-depth knowledge of the workings of government.  More importantly, Thor’s personal knowledge of the inner-workings of the U.S. government and the realization of just how prone to attack we are by our enemies provides extreme credibility to everything he writes.

THE ATHENA PROJECT deals with real events, conspiracy theories and government cover-ups that include:  The Denver International Airport (DIA) that houses an alleged U.S. Government secret beneath it; and, The Philadelphia Experiment – the naval military experiment that took place during WWII whereby scientists working for the U.S. Military (borrowing techniques from a think tank that included Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla) attempted mass teleportation of military personnel and warships.  Also, German General Hans Kammler, who was at the forefront of the Nazi secret projects that allegedly were 6 months away prior to the end of WWII of developing weapons that would have changed the outcome of the war!

These are just the tip of the iceberg of the real events that shape Brad Thor’s THE ATHENA PROJECT.  What is even more interesting is that Thor moves off his regular central character, Special Agent Scot Harvath, and focuses on a group of four females who are members of the group codenamed The Athena Project and operating under the U.S. Delta project.  These four women --- Gretchen Casey, Julie Ericsson, Megan Rhodes and Alex Cooper --- comprise Delta Company’s best and brightest female agents and were originally introduced in Thor’s last novel, FOREIGN INFLUENCE.

Scot Harvath plays a secondary role in this novel and does pop in from time to time.  But this novel belongs firmly to The Athena Project as they undertake the deadliest and most vital mission of their careers.  They are originally tasked with apprehending an Italian arms dealer named Nino Bianchi and turning him over to Scot Harvath and his team. 

Bianchi has had dealings with some really bad guys who are at the top of the terrorist list and major threats to the security of the U.S. and their allies.  Some terrorist attacks that occurred in FOREIGN INFLUENCE led them to Bianchi and his cohorts --- but the big picture game-plan they have in mind could cripple the U.S. and the Western World. 

Following the successful apprehension of Bianchi in Venice, The Athena Project operatives are sent to Zbiroh Castle in the Czech Republic.  There was allegedly an underground facility located beneath the castle that held the secret Nazi projects spearheaded by Hans Kammler.  When U.S. Intelligence gets word that a large amount of machinery may have been cleared out of this underground chamber they need The Athena Project to confirm this and then follow the trail of where the material went and who was behind its’ extraction.

What the team uncovers is beyond description and proof of human experimentation and teleportation is confirmed.  There is direct allusion to the U.S. Military Projects that took place at Camp Hero in Montauk Point, Long Island, whereby scientists attempted many of the experiments found in Hans Kammler’s research.  Everything from mind control to teleportation were real scientific possibilities and now the enemy has obtained the machinery to transport not only humans but also weapons (bombs) to specific targets to the U.S. and their allies --- putting the Western World in an indefensible position and possibly bringing Homeland Security and the Department of Defense (DoD) to their knees.

The female operatives of The Athena Project are all engaging and interesting and Brad Thor himself has spent time around high-end Olympic athletes that many countries have turned to as recruits for their anti-terrorism missions.  This unique group mirrors some of the all-female teams rumored to be recruited by the real Delta Force and Thor felt that female operatives possess abilities to get into situations that male operatives could not.  THE ATHENA PROJECT is an outstanding and very engaging read and may very well be Brad Thor’s best novel since his debut, THE LIONS OF LUZERNE.  I’m sure The Athena Project and Scot Harvath will continue to appear on the pages of future Thor novels and he will be hard pressed to find a more dangerous assignment for them than what they undertake in this novel.  Well done!

 

 

Following Polly  by Karen Bergreen

Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

So there you are, newly sacked from a job you did well and real enjoyed, so what do you do?  You start stalking someone you haven’t seen since college, of course.  Yes, yes; Alice Teakle knows what she’s doing isn’t normal, and she’s going to stop, really she is—tomorrow.   Or maybe the next day.  But meanwhile she dogs Polly Linley  Dawson’s every step, initially out of curiosity about how Polly’s life got to be so perfect, but then to find out why Polly goes to some of the strange places she does, and who  she’s meeting there.  Then comes the day when Alice finds Polly’s newly dead body and through a cascade of errors ends up on the run, hunted by the police.

No money, no home—Alice is in a bad way, but with a bit of luck and the kindness of strangers, she manages to survive.  It’s clear that the only way she’s going to have a normal life again is to find the killer herself, given that the police already think they know who it is: Alice.

Desperate circumstances call for desperate remedies, so Polly starts stalking someone else, the man she’s loved from a distance for twelve years. “Charlie” (not his real name) was another college contemporary, one with whom Alice never had any real relationship, but whom she now believes can help her out of her trouble, if only she dares approach him, if only he believes her.

Alice’s adventures in not-so-wonderland make for a fast-moving, entertaining read, with some amusing turns of phrases.   Joan Rivers liked it; so did I. 

 

 

 

A Crack In Everything by Angela Gerst

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press   

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Susan Callisto is another spritely filly from the Poisoned Pen Press stable, which has been trotting out  an impressive line-up of talent this past year or three.  Susan is a political consultant to would-be politicians in Massachusetts.  She’s got some good ideas, great organisational skills and is intensely loyal, often a rarity on the political scene. 

When Charles Renfrow comes to her office with an offer to manage his campaign for Mayor of Telford, and overcomes her reluctance with a $20,000 retainer, Susan has no idea what she’s letting herself in for.  Niggling doubts about Charles’s motives begin to worry her.  Why has he left getting the petition signatures he needs to the last minute, if he’s really serious about running? Finding the body of Charles’s assistant Torie Moran does nothing to ease Susan’s misgivings, then Charles himself ends up dead.

Susan’s some-time boyfriend Detective Michael Benedict has just come back into her life, and now their relationship is threatened by Susan’s apparent involvement not only in the Renfrow and Moran murders, but also some dirty dealings on the commercial real estate scene—already his boss is making unhappy noises about Michael’s closeness to a suspect.  There’s not much chance of a future for Susan and Michael while suspicion hangs over her.  She is understandably upset that he doesn’t take her word that neither she nor any of her other clients are involved in the murders.  It just gets worse when she finds out that some of these other clients, whom she backed to the hilt, are in fact involved and have motives for murder.

Susan is attacked, her old Italian adopted grandfather is attacked, her friend Roddie’s wife falls to pieces at a critical juncture in his campaign, everything is a mess—and then Susan comes face to face with a murderer, someone determined to kill the person who’s probably the only real innocent in the whole story.

This book has plots worthy of Robert Ludlum in his heyday: there are more twists and turns and switchbacks than a back road in the Great Smokies.  Just when we—and our heroine—think everything is sorted out, along comes another revelation that puts a new and dangerous slant on things.  This is not a book to start reading after supper, not if you have to go to work the next day.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader  

On 1/20/11author Brad Meltzer’s terrific History Channel series --- Brad Meltzer’s Decoded --- they ran an episode entitled: “The President’s Inner Circle”.  This was a reference to the infamous Culper Ring that was a spy ring organized by Major Benjamin Tallmadge under the orders of then General George Washington in 1778. 

What made the Culper Ring so unique was the fact that it was made up almost entirely of common citizens.  Even though much of their work was unheralded, they were pivotal in sending messages about British activities in New York to the Colonial Army during the American Revolutionary War.  The Culper Ring was also responsible for uncovering and helping to take down the traitorous Benedict Arnold before he was able to fully defect to the British side during this war.

I can only imagine that the research involved in this telecast was so interesting and detailed that Mr. Meltzer saw an opportunity to spin off a book based on this very spy ring.  With his latest release, THE INNER CIRCLE, we are taken deep inside the U.S. Government archives and a potential conspiracy that reaches into the very heart of the Presidency.

Does the Culper Ring still exist and, if so, what is their overall purpose in regards to protecting the Presidency?  Archivist Beecher White is about to find this out in a big way.  While overseeing one of President Wallace’s regular visits to the Archives, Beecher believes he sees the President do something out of the ordinary.  Rather than removing something from the Archives --- an act that is even beyond the President’s ability to perform --- Beecher believes that President Wallace may have actually added something to the Archives. 

Before he has an opportunity to investigate further, a security guard and good friend of Beecher’s named Orlando is suddenly stricken ill and dies of heart failure.  Just prior to that, Beecher’s first childhood crush, a young woman named Clementine Kaye, showed up at the archives seeking Beecher’s assistance in tracking down her long-lost father.  Was her visit just coincidental with the actions of the President and the death of Orlando --- or is Beecher simply being paranoid?  Under the guidance of his mentor, a seventy-plus year-old archivist named Tot, Beecher is told to question everything he sees and hears and to trust no one.

Beecher had not really been familiar with the Culper Ring and has no idea what, if any, participation they may have in the tragic events that have happened inside the Archives.  To make matters more complex, Clementine’s long-lost father ends up being the notorious Nico Hadrian --- a man who is imprisoned in an asylum for the criminally insane after making an assassination attempt on the President’s life.  This makes Beecher somewhat suspicious about Clementine’s true intentions with asking his assistance in uncovering Nico.  When Beecher finally has an opportunity to meet with Nico, he finds someone who is both calm and cryptic --- and a bit off.  Beecher is especially concerned when Nico claims he is George Washington and that Beecher is Benedict Arnold!

THE INNER CIRCLE moves at a rapid pace with twists, turns and history coming at you from every angle.  The reader will be kept engaged in trying to figure out this plot as the fact that not one but two possible Culper Rings are introduced along with another group operating directly for the President known as the Plumbers. The Plumbers originated predominantly under President Richard Nixon in the early 1970’s as the team that ran the Watergate affair.  At the conclusion of THE INNER CIRCLE, things with Beecher are left somewhat up in the air.  I’m hoping this means Brad Meltzer is not done with him yet!

 

 

Liquid Smoke by Jeff Shelby

Publisher: Tyrus Books

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

What would it take for you to walk away from everything you ever had, without a backward glance?  Noah Braddock does just that, on the first page of “Liquid Smoke”.

I turned to the glass door and squinted through the reflected bands of rain. My gun lay on the kitchen table. Two surfboards stood in the corner.  Most everything I owned was still inside. I didn’t know what would happen to those things. And I didn’t care.

The second page of the book goes back four weeks to show us how Noah came to walk away from his life on that rainy day.   It started simply enough: Noah and his long-time love Detective Liz Santangelo, were sitting on the patio, finally comfortable with each other after a lot of ups and downs. A strange woman turns up on the beach beyond the patio, clearly watching Noah, clearly wanting to make contact, but holding back.  She finally confronts him when he comes to the water’s edge with his surfboard, and what she says hits him like a ton of cold water in the face.  Russell Simington, the father he never knew, is on death row, and she, Darcy Gill, wants Noah to help her get him off.  She’s sure there’s someone evil behind the evil that’s already been done.

Noah is not interested, he says—but he lies.  Against his will he is pulled into the case, driven to find out what sort of man this unknown father is, why he killed two men in cold blood, why he won’t exercise his right of appeal like any other killer. 

Simington gives Noah one name, Landon Keene, that’s all—but it’s enough to get Noah digging, and the more he digs the more he uncovers.  At a certain point he turns over what he has to the police, and should have stepped away then and let them do their jobs, but something drives him to carry on, with an unimaginably painful result.  After that, there’s no reason for him not to continue, like some latter-day Nemesis.

This is a tough, dark, fast-moving story.  Whether you are a fan of the hard-boiled P.I. genre or not you will be drawn in, compelled to keep reading, all the while seeing Noah headed for disaster like a runaway freight train, and he can see it too—but he just can’t step aside.  One of the best reads I’ve had all year; highly recommended.

 

 

 

The Emperor’s Tomb by Steve Berry

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader

There are many authors currently inhabiting the popular genre of ‘historical fiction’.  You can thank Dan Brown for putting this craze over the top with his terrific novel, ANGELS AND DEMONS as well as his more popular but much weaker effort, THE DAVINCI CODE.  Brown’s successive novels have been watered-down, tepid attempts at the same genre as he has tried too hard to reach too large of an audience and, as a result, stopped producing ‘smart’ historical fiction/thrillers.

I am proud to say that Steve Berry has emerged from the pack and firmly taken the mantle as the best writer of contemporary historical fiction/thrillers today.  With the release of THE EMPEROR’S TOMB, he unveils what is sure to be his ninth consecutive best-seller.  Once again, the protagonist is the former Justice Department operative and now rare book seller in Copenhagen, Denmark --- Cotton Malone.

In addition to having one of the coolest names of current fictional heroes, Cotton also has more than a few tricks up his sleeve to get out of nearly any precarious situation.  His desire to retire to a quiet life of book-selling is once again altered as one of his frequent partners/love interests, Cassiopeia Vitt (another very cool moniker) finds herself on the run from some very deadly Chinese killers.  Cassiopeia, working for both the American and Russian governments is attempting to secure a rare artifact that is sought after by a nefarious Chinese leader who is attempting to become the next Premier of China.  This artifact --- a lamp with mysterious oil inside of it --- is eventually found.  Unfortunately, the skirmish between all of the various factions out to claim this artifact cause it to be damaged and most of the ancient oil leaks out.

What is the ulterior purpose behind securing this artifact?  Why is Cassiopeia risking her life and reputation for a Russian scientist named Lev Sokolov who’s son is being held somewhere in China?  Cotton Malone does not know any of the answers to these questions, initially, but with the prompting of his old boss --- Stephanie Nelle --- he agrees to team with Cassiopeia and Russian double-agent, Viktor Thomas, to work together in rescuing the son of the Lev Sokolov and make sure that the leader both the U.S. and Russia is backing to be the next Premier of China is successful in that venture. 

Underlying all of this political posturing is an ancient secret dating back more than 2,0000 years.  Apparently, the oil in the ancient lamp was symbolic of the natural resource purportedly located beneath the ancient Tomb of the Emperor’s in China.  This seemingly infinite resource could tip the balance of world power considerably.  Lev Sokolov is sought by certain Chinese factions because of the work he has done with both abiotic and biotic oil.  The Western powers have fought war after war in an effort to control the global oil trade.  But what if the Chinese have an infinite source sitting right beneath them?  Steve Berry indicates in his Writer’s Notes a quote from author Raymond Learsy who stated in 2005:  “Oil is not scarce.  We only fear that it is.”

Like Berry’s previous novel, THE PARIS VENDETTA, his novels are getting more frenetically paced, more violent and heading more into Robert Ludlum territory than anything Dan Brown ever wrote.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as THE EMPEROR’S TOMB does not allow the reader a moment to relax --- spinning from one cliff-hanging situation to another.  Berry’s research into ancient China is very present as everything from the writings of Qin Shi to the rumor of the Ba --- a modern-day group of Eunuchs defending their political candidate are quite prevalent.  China has been a country long in turmoil against itself, not being able to settle the long-standing debate between Confucianism and Legalism as well as the battle between Communism and Democracy.  These debates are at the heart of THE EMPEROR’S TOMB.

As a big fan of Mr. Berry’s work, as well as his popular contemporaries (James Rollins, Brad Thor, Raymond Khoury), I have noticed that the fictional version of reality they have each created in their novels have become a world unto itself.  This is found throughout some of their recent novels where mentions of the protagonists from these various authors make it onto the pages of each others novels.  A nice inside joke for the well-read to enjoy.  I look forward to Berry’s next effort and take comfort in the fact that Cotton Malone is out there, fighting the good fight for his country while continuing to promote the value of literacy by running his quaint little rare book shop somewhere on the streets of Copenhagen.

 

 

 

The Reversal by Michael Connelly

Publisher: Vision

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

Connolly is a provocateur, this is now very clear.

The Reversal presents itself as a legal thriller, again combining his two most popular characters, half-brothers Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch (The Brass Verdict). As that, the book is very successful. You’ll be thrilled by the narrative velocity Connelly creates in this story, no doubt about that.

But of course, it’s more. Because Connelly is more. He wants to challenge our thinking about the legal system itself. About the tenents we value so strongly—and rightly—and how we react when they are perverted.

Our Story Begins as Haller is approached to be a Special Prosecutor on the re-trial of one Jason Jessup, recently awarded as the result of re-examination of DNA evidence using techniques not available in the mid-80’s when Jessup was convicted of the murder/dumping of a young girl. We’ve all seen the heart-wrenching stories of falsely-accused inmates freed after long incarceration by the fabulous advances of technology, right?

Jessup’s case looks to be the latest in the series, and the media is all too eager to anoint it as such. But the DA has other ideas, and feels Haller’s reputation as a no-holds-barred-for-the-defense guy creates the perfect counter to the spin. Throw in a little plausible deniability in case of acquittal, and Haller is a perfect fit.

Haller demands his ex-wife, ADA Maggie McPherson, be his second chair and Bosch be his lead investigator, and off we go.

Connelly does a great job blending the continuity of these two characters, we enjoy watching new cousins meet and bond, and we continue to enjoy Connelly’s decision to make Bosch’s daughter such a strong part of that world.  The changes Maddie Bosch brings to Harry’s hard edges are more real for their subtlety.

As Haller, McPherson and Bosch unravel the threads of both the investigation and the trial, Jessup’s character is developed and it doesn’t take long to fully invest the reader in the proceedings. The process is aided by the colors that Connelly brings to the ancillary characters, primarily Sarah Landry, older sister of the victim all those years past, and, of course, a living victim of the same crime. Her journey to testifying at the trial is a solid support beam to what Connelly is building here.

Connelly blends the distinct narrative styles of both series to fine effect in The Reversal, intersecting two of the genre’s most popular characters while maintaining individuality.

Kinda provocative, eh?

 

 

 

Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen

Publisher: Berkley

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

In the latest Royal Spyness mystery, Lady Georgiana escapes the numbing cold and slow starvation of Great Depression-era London for a brief continental adventure which recalls her girlhood of boarding schools and wealth in addition to spooky childhood tales.

Georgie’s school acquaintance Matty has agreed to marry handsome Prince Nicholas and requested Georgie’s service as an attendant, dovetailing with the Windsor family’s firm suggestion that Georgie represent the British royals for the occasion.  Since Georgie finally remembers Matty as “Moony Matty”, no one is more surprised by the invitation than she.  

With an inexpensive but hopeless maid in tow, Georgie looks forward to wearing beautifully described European gowns and accompanying jewels while thinking of social graces rather than how she’ll find her next meal. Traveling to the Transylvanian castle made infamous by Vlad the Impaler, Georgie has the chance to enjoy her upper class stature even as strange things keep happening in the drafty castle chosen by Matty for her wedding.  Georgie can only think of vampires, especially when she notices the ethereal appearance and disappearance of a pale blond man whose presence disrupts her peace of mind even as she involves herself with wedding preparations.

Georgie’s vacation from reality abruptly ends when one of the wedding guests expires at the dinner table across from Georgie.  Hoping to avoid an international incident, Nicholas attempts to keep the boorish guest’s cause of death a secret, while entrusting an old schoolmate of his own to investigate while inspiring Georgie to do the same.  The heavy winter snows which gave the castle a silent, picturesque significance now means that the wedding party is now trapped in Vlad’s castle—with the murderer.

As the fourth Royal Spyness mystery, Royal Blood sparkles as Georgie regains some of the outer trappings of wealth for the wedding while realizing that the economic hardships she’s endured have honed her wits and given her a depth that attracts interesting people to her side.  Georgie uses her independence and humor not only in murder investigations but also in making her own way rather than marrying well or otherwise clutching to social significance.  Author Rhys Bowen sharply contrasts her impoverished reality, complete with her penny-pinching, overbearing sister-in-law, to the glittering, thoughtless parade of castles, state dinners and first-class transportation experienced by her socialite mother and even by Georgie’s best friend Belinda.  Georgie hews to her own devices, her newly acquired self-awareness making her infinitely more capable and resolutely interesting.

 

 

 

 

 

Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer

Publisher: Ecco

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Master carpenter Paul's life has always been a simple one.  And not even his lovely relationships with the extremely renowned spiritual guru Kate and her daughter do much to change that.  Steadfast and honest has been Paul's mantra...until the day he witnesses a man beating his dog in an empty park outside of the city.  After taking matters into his own hands, he finds his life irrevocably changed, and by extension, and without their knowledge of just why in the beginning, so too are the lives of those closest to him.  And just who will break first and how when his truth if finally revealed will be shown in heart breaking detail as this story draws closer to its shattering end.

The big question here is a compelling one.  What does it ultimately mean when a good person makes the worst mistake possible - should we define that person by who they are in total, or by the one act made in haste that can't be taken back?  On the one hand, Spencer's attempt to answer this question might not resolve itself in the way some readers would hope, but on the other, some readers will find the resolution absolutely perfect – well,  if the ending presented could be called such a thing as a resolution.  

A read that beyond anything else is honest and direct; Spencer doesn't hesitate to fill the reader with the same ambiguous and frighteningly disjointed feelings as the characters go through.  It's definitely challenging to read a book that involves one to mentally and emotionally take a stand, especially one that could easily change as the pages fly by. Like life itself, this doesn't attempt to wrap things up in a pretty bow when all is said and done, but instead leaves most of the questions posed still wanting answers.  Beautifully written, readers will enjoy the grace of the read while at the same time feel the angst of confronting the inability to reach a solid conclusion.  It's easy to see why Spencer has succeeded in his previous novels, and why we look forward to his next.