Perceptive storytelling energized by an admirable protagonist and refined prose.

ARTIFACTS OF DEATH

A MURDER MYSTERY IN UTAH'S CANYON COUNTRY

In the first of the Manny Rivera Mystery series, a collection of rare, valuable Native American pottery leads to deceit and murder.

Deputy Sheriff Manny Rivera is assigned to the case of a ranch hand found with a bullet hole in his head. The deputy, desperate to make up for a previously botched stakeout gig, tracks clues and hopes to solve the murder before the profitable tourist season in Moab, Utah, takes a hit. The killer, meanwhile, is trying to sell Native American artifacts that are apparently worth shooting someone for. He obtained the pottery illegally, on a ranch run by a man who, unbeknownst to Manny, found the body first and moved it to protect a secret. Curtin’s debut novel is easily labeled a murder mystery, but it’s more about the investigation than the whodunit, especially since the killer’s identity and motive are never a mystery. The real question is why Paul, the ranch foreman, drove the body far away from the ranch, a mystery that the author smartly keeps concealed until the end. Manny’s investigation consists mostly of interviews, but following along with the deputy is utterly absorbing and gratifying since he’s essentially the underdog; his intentions are to make amends for his last case and make an impression on the sheriff. Such drive makes Manny refreshingly modest; he’s more critical of his mistakes than anyone else. The same likable qualities are, surprisingly, also shown in Frank, the man who kills the ranch hand. His discharge from the Army is followed by a succession of tedious jobs, and he’s treated poorly by his current employer. A sympathetic person, he’s a man whose greed is a character flaw, not a defining trait, and he clearly feels regret over the murder. Curtin’s descriptions of arid Moab are poetic: a mesa “sliced by a labyrinth of rugged canyons,” the “exquisite silence” of the high desert country and the “plumes of dust” Frank sees as he spots his buyer from afar. Unfortunately, one mystery—the genuine identity of the murdered man—isn’t answered, although perhaps that’s for another Manny Rivera tale.

Perceptive storytelling energized by an admirable protagonist and refined prose.

Pub Date: Feb. 8, 2011

ISBN: 978-1453890851

Page Count: 302

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

Dark and emotionally wrenching, this novel isn’t for those looking for a restful night’s sleep, but readers who crave edgy...

Floats the Dark Shadow

A MYSTERY OF PARIS

Mysticism and dark perversions take over 1897 Paris in this complex murder-mystery romance.

Bohemian artist Theodora Faraday, originally from California, has become associated with an avant-garde group of poets who call themselves Les Revenants. She’s also fallen in love with her Parisian cousin, Averill. Inspecteur Michel Devaux, meanwhile, is investigating the disappearance of missing children, which invokes the wrath of Vipèrine, a Satanist who fancies himself the incarnation of an infamous killer. The Revenants find themselves under the scrutiny of the detective and within the amorphous social circle of Vipèrine. Each chapter adds a level of complexity that intensifies the lively tension within the story; yet the reader is rarely prepared for what’s next. Paris is painted with uncanny realism using masterful splashes of descriptive color against a somber backdrop, while characters move through historical events, such as the Paris Charity Bazaar fire and the admission of women to the School of Fine Arts. The characters develop as their entwined relationships become ever more enmeshed in the shadowy plot woven around mysticism, Satanism and sadistic murders, all of which slowly spirals to a climax. Glimpses into the eye of the storm are shown without blatantly revealing answers to the complex mystery, much of which is shrouded by tortuous relationships. The author has written other mystery–romances under the pseudonyms Gayle Feyrer and Taylor Chase, but this may be her best work to date.

Dark and emotionally wrenching, this novel isn’t for those looking for a restful night’s sleep, but readers who crave edgy murder mysteries will be enthralled.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1937356200

Page Count: 339

Publisher: BearCat Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 9, 2012

Somewhat formulaic but nonetheless fun and atmospheric Southern murder mystery.

THE CLARET MURDERS

A MARK ROLLINS ADVENTURE

A twisty little mystery involving a secret wine cellar.

Mark Rollins is one of the blessed: He’s retired but picks and chooses mysteries to unravel. He’s rich, well-connected and has a cadre of smart, loyal employees who toil at his secret, high-tech intelligence-gathering operation, situated in the backrooms of his women’s health club in Nashville, Tenn. The mystery involves a gorgeous partner in a law firm who’s getting serious grief from a number of the other partners, each and every one “an asshole,” including her ex-husband, her relatives and a local cop who ran over her dog. Collins keeps the story motoring with writing that is frank but not scant, muscular but not tough-guy, something akin to the 1960s TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He artfully drops hints that things are not as they seem, but he can also be clunkily explicative: “I understand Ann. I’ve read David Buss’ work on evolutionary physiology, and according to him…” and strangely abrupt: The victim takes Mark into her confidence though she doesn’t know him from a backhoe. There’s precious little shading of character—each is the epitome of whatever: creep, babe, good guy, especially Mark, who leads a Panglossian, unfettered existence. Still, when the great cache of wine enters the picture and then a roaring storm comes down to swamp the landscape and the cellar, Collins deftly moves the story forward, and frankly, the reader really wants to know what happens to the wine more than Ann, Paul and the rest of the no-goods. Collins has a nice way of evoking Tennessee, its pace and proprieties and politics, from the spicy Zumba rhythms of a local club to the breeching banks of the Cumberland River.

Somewhat formulaic but nonetheless fun and atmospheric Southern murder mystery.

Pub Date: July 19, 2012

ISBN: 978-0982589854

Page Count: 300

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 24, 2012

A quick-paced, emotionally satisfying thriller aimed at the sophisticated YA reader.

WHAT LIES BENEATH

A suspenseful small-town mystery intertwined with a sweet love story lends a new twist to the summer beach read.

Shy, smart, somewhat socially awkward Helena is looking forward to escaping the petty dramas of high school and the drudgery of her waitressing job. Living with her two well-meaning aunts while managing juvenile diabetes, Helena hasn’t had the most typical adolescence, although she does have an agonizing crush on the cutest boy in school. But Helena’s relatively quotidian existence is turned upside down when Payton Meadows, the father of one of Helena’s former tutees, starts stalking her and making threats on her life, accusing her of having a hand in his son’s alleged murder. Is Meadows just delusional with grief over his son’s death, or has he uncovered a conspiracy that involves the people closest to Helena? The sudden appearance of Ben—a dishwasher at the restaurant, suspected drug dealer and conflicted police informant—is a further disruption, especially as Helena begins to uncover some surprising details of Ben’s former life. The reader, privy to Ben’s thoughts, will anticipate some—but refreshingly not all—of the novel’s emotional development. Hamilton has a natural ear for the subtleties of intergenerational dialogue, as well as a gift for efficient, nuanced observation. Although her prose occasionally drifts into cliché and Hamilton repeatedly substitutes vagueness for suspense and then rushes through the climax, there are enough surprising turns of phrase and plot twists to delight the seasoned reader. Knowing that you can’t hurry love, she aptly paces the growing relationship between Helena and Ben.

A quick-paced, emotionally satisfying thriller aimed at the sophisticated YA reader.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2012

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Dog Ear Publisher

Review Posted Online: July 23, 2012

A somewhat predictable but engrossing read with a Da Vinci Code–style central mystery.

BADEN-POWELL'S BEADS

BEAD SERIES: BOOK ONE

Sprung from real-life details about the Scout movement’s founder, this tense thriller is the first in a series concerning the hunt for a string of wooden beads that possess magical powers.

Parsons, an orthopedic surgeon, mingles fact with fiction to concoct the story of ancient beads—a Boer War trophy for Lord Baden-Powell—becoming the albatross around the neck of a modern-day doctor, who finds himself tracked by murderous Zulus. The fast-paced story combines such disparate subjects as Zulu ritual, orthopedic procedure, the Department of Homeland Security and the Boy Scouts. In Memphis, 2005, Dr. David Freeman, a descendant of Baden-Powell’s (fictional) camp surgeon, is in the last months of his residency. A dying WWII veteran insists Freeman take his bead and keep it safe—for good reason, as other second-generation bead-keepers are being beheaded for their talismans. This gruesome fact sets two DHS agents on Freeman’s tail to both protect him and use him as bait to catch the mysterious Zulu pursuers. A flashback to the Boy Scout Jamboree of 1967 fills in the reason for the attacks, although explanation—and demonstration—of the beads’ magical powers hold off for a future installment. The suspense builds as threats, break-ins, news of further deaths and a kidnapping all take Freeman and his girlfriend, Pam Blanchard, perilously close to their own decapitation ritual. The fate of the beads is as gripping as the couple’s. Although Parsons’ writing shines during scenes at the hospital, Freeman comes across as a rather disingenuous doctor who’s lucky to have a resourceful, intelligent girlfriend. Other quibbles include the Arab-American agent’s unnecessary and grating broken English, as well as the disconcerting use of terms that may come across as racially charged. Still, many readers will eagerly await the next book in the series, which will reveal more about the mysterious necklace and its ancient powers.

A somewhat predictable but engrossing read with a Da Vinci Code–style central mystery.

Pub Date: April 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-1618620903

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Tate Publishing

Review Posted Online: July 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

An impressively original take on alternative history.

The Kronos Interference

In this time-travel thriller, debut authors Miller and Manas spin a clever, original variation on a classic alternative history premise: What if it were possible to travel back in time and kill Adolf Hitler?

Jacob Newman, a brilliant scientist and nanotechnology expert who consults with the CIA on projects of national security, receives a mysterious packet containing his German grandfather’s diaries from the 1920s, which detail a failed plot to poison Hitler at the beginning of his ascent to power. Although Newman’s wife is dying of cancer, a global crisis soon takes him from her bedside. An alien vessel has been found on the bottom of the ocean, off the coast of Chile. Inside the elegantly described “cavernous zeppelin shaped” space are eight giant floating monitors—arranged “like some sort of avant-garde Stonehenge”—that show images from horrific moments in human history, including the Crusades and the Holocaust. The ship also contains some strange pieces of alien technology; most notably, a small object the scientists dub the Kronos Device, which, as Newman discovers, facilitates time travel. The scientists soon come to the consensus that someone or something has been sitting in judgment of humankind—and an ominous verdict could be delivered at any time. Inspired by his grandfather’s diary and desperate to afford humankind another chance in the eyes of the mysterious alien power, Newman decides to go back in time and ensure that the plot to kill Hitler is successful, thereby—in theory—erasing the ensuing heinous acts from history. Sci-fi fans will be familiar with what happens next: By interfering with the past, Newman inadvertently creates a future that is far worse. But here the novel displays some unexpectedly creative plotting: Newman’s attempt to undo the damage he’s done involves him in his own mind-bending parallel life, as well as the prospect of a harrowing sacrifice. The prose is unfussy, the pacing appropriately brisk, and the past and future sequences show the authors’ admirable imaginative gifts. Miller and Manas’ tour de force packs plenty of entertainment value, and the ending tantalizes with the possibility of future past installments.

An impressively original take on alternative history.

Pub Date: June 30, 2012

ISBN: 978-0615651620

Page Count: 501

Publisher: Pop Culture Zoo Press

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

Readers willing to enter an edgy, seamy world will enjoy this dark and fatalistic tale.

DEATH HAS ITS BENEFITS

In this hard-boiled suspense novel, an unwitting attorney tracks the sleazy underside of New York City into his home, where it infects his marriage and his life.

Poor Leo. With friends like Tony Benson, who needs enemies? Nonetheless, Leo has enemies—at least that’s what he repeatedly tells Tony, his workout buddy. Unconcerned and dismissive of Leo’s delusional assertion that his boss is out to kill him, Tony moves in on Leo’s wife, Trudy. But an odd incident proves that Leo was actually in his right mind. Then, when Tony’s life is also threatened, he finds he’s losing his own grip on reality. Tony’s cynical attitude remains, however, even as his life goes from bland to black. Author Aiken turned up the testosterone to create this tale of corruption, blackmail and amorality, where few of the characters are likable; the ones who are cut their losses when and if they can. Thugs, strippers, con men and crooked cops make up a roll call fleshed out by nearly sociopathic colleagues; only the women seem to react sensibly and see things clearly. Tony is decidedly unsympathetic: He cheats, disrespects and makes one bad decision after another. He only delves into Leo’s predicament out of a sense of repayment—Leo once saved him from a mugging—rather than loyalty and affection for his longtime “friend.” Yet there’s something riveting about Tony’s slide from normalcy to paranoia to a nadir of his own making. The settings, which Aiken captures in a highly visual style, are equally on the edge of ruin, especially amid the dank odors of the Horror View gym and the spine-tingling creepiness of Pilgrim State Hospital, New York’s draconian, real-life mental institution, where both Leo and Tony find themselves. Told in short, snappy chapters with sharp, wiseass dialogue, the story gains speed about a third of the way through as it builds into a thrilling ride to hell.

Readers willing to enter an edgy, seamy world will enjoy this dark and fatalistic tale.

Pub Date: July 31, 2012

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 281

Publisher: Nightbird Publishing

Review Posted Online: Aug. 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

A page turner of the highest order.

THE FINAL RACE

An intriguing, thought-provoking fusion of medical thriller and apocalyptic fiction.

Physician Chiapco’s debut novel begins with inexplicable outbreaks of deadly diseases all over the southern United States and around the world: brain-eating amoeba, malaria, dengue hemorrhagic fever, etc. With trophozoites (“savage microscopic beasts”) inhabiting the water and hordes of mosquitoes infesting the air, the death count soon rises into the millions; medical infrastructures all over the world verge on collapse. As civilization devolves, unheralded heroes like Bronx Metropolitan Hospital physician Jamal Jackson race to somehow find a way to stop the modern-day plague, which has brought out the worst in human nature—selfishness, brutality and deep-seated prejudice. The pandemic scenario isn’t exactly original, but the brilliance of this storyline comes from Chiapco integrating deeply contemplated scientific speculation (the influence of fossil fuels on climate change and the viability of potential renewable energy sources, for instance) and history (the trans-Atlantic slave trade, racism, etc.) with Jackson’s profound experience with sickle cell disease—his younger brother died from it—and its possible connection to saving the human race. Although the narrative’s multiple-viewpoint structure helps showcase the scope of the looming disaster, it also, in places, slows down the story’s momentum and dilutes some of its impact. Even though Chiapco’s story isn’t character-driven, he succeeds in creating multidimensional players who are integral to the story’s overall arc, like Jackson, meteorology professor John Garrett and even white supremacist Wayne Joseph Tucker. Fans of medical thrillers by Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen and Daniel Kalla (all doctors turned authors, like Chiapco) will find this thematically powerful novel well worth a read.

A page turner of the highest order.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-938223-28-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Mill City Press

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

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