Payment In Blood

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Thomas Lynley, at 34 years of age, is a detective inspector with the CID at New Scotland Yard. He is very good at his job and well respected amongst his peers. And, in this book, that is the start of his troubles. For Thomas Lynley is a peer. He is Lord Asherton, the eighth Earl of Asherton, to be exact. And his presence is commanded by the upper echelon of the Yard when Stuart Rintoul, Lord Stinhurst, sixteenth or seventeenth Earl of Stinhurst, finds himself at the scene of a murder.

Lord Stinhurst is a prominent London producer and has contracted with Joy Sinclair, a renowned true crime writer, to write an original play for his troupe, a group that has been working together for almost 20 years. Script approved, Stinhurst has Sinclair, his main troupe and a media writer assemble at his widowed sister’s estate in Scotland.

Accompanying the leading lady is her husband/agent. And Stinhurst has brought his wife and spinster daughter. The director has also brought along a guest, the daughter of yet another earl. To complicate matters, the supporting actress is divorced from the lead actor. And she is also the sister of Joy Sinclair. But the sister and Sinclair are estranged, since Sinclair had an affair with the sister’s husband, that leading actor, precipitating their divorce. On top of all this, Sinclair was the fiancée of Stinhurst’s son prior to his death. And let’s not forget the widowed sister, the maid and the handyman. Needless to say, tensions are high in this soap opera.

Then Joy Sinclair announces that she has made a few revisions to the script. When the group begins the read-through, they discover very quickly that the “revisions” constitute a full-plot rewrite. Sinclair, with her true crime bent, has altered the original script to expose some very nasty skeletons in the Stinhurst family closet. The read-through devolves into a brawl, after which all parties retreat to parts unknown within the mansion. The next morning Joy Sinclair is found dead, a dirk driven through her neck, skewered to the mattress.

Enter Thomas Lynley, ordered to investigate in a jurisdiction in which he has minimal authority and in a jurisdiction that has not officially requested Yard assistance. While this situation confuses Lynley, nothing prepares him for what happens next. Upon arriving at the estate, he finds out that Lady Helen Clyde, one of his closest friends and the woman he has come to love, has spent the night in the room next door to that of the murdered woman, having begged off spending the weekend with him. He then finds out that she is actually spending the weekend with the director of the play, Rhys Davies-Jones.

Lynley goes off the rails, betrayed in more ways than one. For the first time in his career, he is determined to force the evidence to fit his needs instead of letting the evidence lead what way it will. And his need is to make that director, that man who slept with Helen, that man whose fingerprints are on one of the keys to Joy Sinclair’s room, the murderer of Joy Sinclair.

Elizabeth George has written a mystery that has an entire cast of suspects hating not only the victim but each other. As the sub-plots twist and twine, we are hard pressed to decide just who murdered the woman. But one thing we do know, regardless of the evidence discovered or the theories advanced, is that the director, Rhys Davies-Jones, is not the murderer. He cannot be or the author will have destroyed our main protagonist morally, psychologically and professionally. Lynley simply cannot be allowed to win this fight, not this way. And Barbara Havers, his sergeant, with Simon St. James, is determined to save him from himself, even if they have to lie to him to do it.

First published in 1989, with a storyline that occurs in 1988, this book, at the time of this review, exposes us to a 25-year cultural difference. Computers exist in government agencies but only word processors are in private hands. There is no Internet to speed up research nor are there cell phones to ease communication difficulties.

And the legal procedures are vastly different than what we experience today. In our current society, no question is too invasive; no privacy is afforded in a murder investigation. But that’s now, not 1989 when this story was written. So when you read Lady Helen’s reactions to Lynley’s very pointed questions at the beginning of the novel, she is not being a drama queen. She is reacting within the cultural norm of her day when women, particularly titled women, were rarely asked about the details of their sex lives in front of witnesses.

While the murder mystery itself is both convoluted and masterfully crafted, it is primarily a vehicle for the character growth of Lynley, Havers and Lady Helen. As Lynley and Lady Helen spiral downward into self-recrimination and depression, Havers finds her way upward, past her prejudices and the chip on her shoulder. She becomes the glue and the driving force that saves Lynley from being crushed by the politics of the Yard. And just as Lynley and Lady Helen must choose to face some harsh realities before they can face each other, Havers must choose between her career and her mentor.

This paperback edition is 413 pages of small print and tightly spaced lines. That makes it a long read. However, the intellectual and emotional workouts that are fashioned on those pages make it worth the time.

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Shapeshifters Anonymous

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For the last three months, for about three days a month, for Robert Weston Smith, objects have been showing up in the toilet after the daily “sit-down.” Stones, bits of cloth, buttons and earrings, even a dog’s ID tag – these are just not the normal objects one would find “there.” So Weston decides that a trip to the doctor is in order. Thus begins a cute, tongue-in-cheek story about an average guy seeking help when he unknowingly becomes a werewolf.

Having seen Konrath’s books promoted heavily recently, I decided to preview his style when this non-series short story was offered free. And I was not disappointed. The story is quite funny, with a giggle or an outright guffaw inhabiting nearly every page. Weston’s characterization is just deep enough to make the situations in which he finds himself believable. And the dialog is crisp, filled with puns and double entendre and quick repartee.

I have only two minor issues with the story and length is NOT one of them. While the actual story occupies only 80% of the Kindle download, the story has a definitive beginning and ending with a logical progression of plot in between. However, the final status of one supporting character is not cleared up in the end, even though all others are specifically mentioned. I would imagine the omission to be an oversight by the author or else that paragraph became an accidental victim of the delete key. Either way, it was noticeable.

The other issue is that the promotional blurb does not indicate that this is a Christmas story. Reading it at the end of February is all right, but it would have made more of an impression (translate that as incentive to purchase other books by Konrath) had it been promoted during Christmas.

Nevertheless, I will probably never hear the words to the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” without thinking of this story. And I certainly will never look at a donation kettle the same way again.

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Takedown Twenty

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I have no intention of writing a review that summarizes the initial storyline of this particular novel, the 20th in the Stephanie Plum series. If you are this far into the series, you know that there will be two action plot threads: a caricatured bail bonds jumper with a ridiculous name and a Rangeman security issue. The names of the perps change from novel to novel but the basic scenarios do not.

Plus, if you are a long-time reader, you know that there will be one romantic plot line. In this, the names of the perps do not change, have never changed in 20 books and its basic scenario is as stale as week old bread.

And, thirdly, you know exactly when Evanovich jumped the shark with the series – after Stephanie saved Ranger and his daughter from a psychopath in Twelve Sharp. Since that point, we have been presented with inane drivel, no character growth and an inexorable decline into absurdity and slapstick.

Finally, this novel showed a glimmer of hope, a small chance that Evanovich may be returning to her former level of competency. First, the two major action scenes, which I will identify only as the “bridge” and the “basement” scenes, evoked as much bone-chilling terror as any written by a mainstream thriller writer. Secondly, the oft bemoaned issues of “I’ve got to get a different job,” and “I love two men. Which one should I choose?” are actually addressed in a serious manner.

Evanovich actually has Stephanie make the decisions for both her personal and her professional lives that she has needed to make for at least six books. Then, both of those decisions implode about her, bringing her to her knees both literally and figuratively.

And, quite frankly, that is just exactly what would have to happen even at this advanced point in the series. For it to happen otherwise, both plot lines, personal and professional, would have to take a 180-degree twist. And until Stephanie Plum and Janet Evanovich both grow a backbone, that’s just not going to happen.

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Ghost Night

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Two years ago, two actors were found murdered on Haunted Island where the film they were starring in was being shot. Vanessa Loren, part owner of the film project, found the murdered actors. In truth, she didn’t really find their bodies; she only found their decapitated heads and severed arms, grotesquely posed. The murders were never solved, but a missing crewmember was considered the prime suspect.

Now, in the present day, Vanessa has learned that Sean O’Hara and David Beckett (major characters in the first book of the trilogy, Ghost Shadow) are planning a documentary on that part of Key West history that involves shipwrecks and pirates. Since the subject of Vanessa’s film revolved around one of those shipwreck legends, she arranges, through Sean’s uncle, Jamie, to meet Sean at the uncle’s bar. Her goals are to get the legend included in his documentary and to get him to hire her onto the crew as his assistant.  And she hopes that will lead to new evidence in the case.

While impressed with Vanessa’s dive and film credentials and sympathetic to her plight, Sean is initially reluctant to pursue the idea. Just as he decides to present the idea to his partner, his sister, Katie, walks into the bar. At that point, he learns that she and Vanessa are long-time friends and that Vanessa has known Jamie for some time as well – facts that she has conveniently forgotten to mention. Feeling that he has been played, he ends the meeting, crushes Vanessa’s hopes and disgustedly walks out on them all.

After several intense discussions, David and Katie convince Sean to go with Vanessa’s idea and to hire her as his assistant. But that initial lie of omission becomes the foundation stone of their relationship. Several “coincidences” over the next few days do not help matters any, nor does Vanessa’s tendency to voice only what she knows, not what she thinks or suspects. Nevertheless, the attraction of like minds and like abilities bring the two together, past the professional, into a personal relationship. And the documentary project swings into full production, with a murderer closer than they know.

This story, second in the trilogy, is not as page-by-page exciting as the first book of the trilogy. The sections where Graham inserts the legends and history apropos to the islands and the shipwrecks are lengthier and more numerous than what I remember from the first book. And Vanessa’s dream sequences become longer and more repetitious as the book progresses. Since she has these nightmares frequently, they come across as a device for expressing action rather than the author actually putting Vanessa into dangerous spots as she did with Katie in the first book. Since the reader knows they are dreams, there is little to become tense over or make the reader push to read longer.

Bartholomew is a more integral character in this book than in the last and his abilities as a ghost have advanced greatly. The interactions between Sean and Bartholomew are never comedic and his public handling of the ghost is far better than that portrayed by Katie in the first book. And when he finally becomes fully visible to Vanessa, the story takes a dramatic turn.

While this tale is typed as a paranormal romantic suspense, its sub-theme is trust. Lies of omission are the first focus. Running from questions and accusations rather than confronting them becomes an additional focus later in the book. And Graham, through the tribulations of Sean and Vanessa, pointedly reminds the reader that the truth will truly set you free – and could very well save your life.

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Fancy Dancer

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In the hours before her death, Jake St. Cloud’s mother tells her 16-year-old son that he has, by way of his father, a half-brother. She then exacts several promises from Jake regarding his future behavior, not the least of which is a promise to identify and locate his brother. STRIKE ONE!

Several pages and eighteen years later, Jake has several advanced degrees and is a highly sought-after consultant in the oil cleanup business. He is single, rich, a tabloid playboy, and miserable because neither he nor a squadron of private detectives has ever been able to unearth the identity of his half-brother.

While standing at his mother’s grave, confessing his failure regarding the brother, he is startled when a yellow butterfly lands on the gravestone, flits over to land on his finger and then flies back to land on the angel carved in the stone. Renewed in spirit, Jake turns to leave, only to find his estranged father behind him, wanting his help with an oil problem. He agrees upon one condition – the name and address of the mistress and son.

Shortly thereafter, a meeting with his half-brother, Alex Rosario, does not go as well as Jake had hoped. Speeding away from the curb, blinded by tears and a yellow butterfly on his windshield, Jake hits another vehicle, causing property damage but no injuries. Pleading guilty the next morning at his arraignment, Jake is sentenced, well beyond guidelines, to one year’s suspension of his license; a $50,000 fine payable to the Dancer Foundation, a local orphanage; and one year’s confinement at the Foundation, complete with ankle monitor, no visitors allowed and no access to his funds. STRIKE TWO!

Fancy Dancer runs the Dancer Foundation, in conjunction with her mother. Desperately in need of both the $50K and help with the 25 children in her care, she agrees to the judge’s offer of a forced volunteer. However, despising the St. Cloud name and Jake’s playboy reputation, she parks him on a cot, with a sleeping bag, in an outbuilding and assigns him every demeaning chore possible.

About two weeks into his sentence, adapting to his circumstances and growing to care about the kids, Jake is jerked off his cot in the middle of the night by his father. The father has blackmailed a judge into amending the excessive sentence, making the father Jake’s custodian instead of the Dancer Foundation. The father drags Jake to a leaking oil rig and tells him that his probation will be complete when the spill is contained.

Five weeks later, legal debt paid, Jake leaves the rig without so much as a word to his father. That night the father shows up at Jake’s home and tells him that while Alex Rosario is his son, he is not Jake’s half-brother. And then, in painful detail, he tells him why. STRIKE THREE!

As we progress through the remaining several hundred pages, we follow Jake’s struggle as he confronts the most fundamental betrayal possible and searches for who he really is. That story is not written as a poignant, deep, soul-searching journey. It is written in a lighter tone, with Jake putting one foot in front of the other, day by day, letting the answers come as they will.

While this is an enjoyable read and a heart-warming addition to my library, it does have several flaws. First is what I consider a poor choice of title. “Fancy Dancer” sounds good and flows well off the tongue, but this story is not about Fancy; it’s about Jake. While Fancy becomes part of Jake’s HEA, she is really a secondary character, with relatively few scenes in the book, more talked about than physically present.

Secondly, in what appears to be an effort to keep this story both emotionally significant and beach-read light, the author slides over some important issues. Medically verifiable situations such as gestation, blood typing and DNA are glossed over. And the legal machinations of the amended sentence are both inadequately and inaccurately explained as well as legally not possible, particularly in the middle of the night.

Thirdly, with respect to plotting, words are seemingly accepted as fact without proof on the parts of multiple characters who are too well-educated and too well-placed financially and politically to be that naïve. A plot thread with one of the children begins logically, moves along realistically and then just disappears in mid-plot. And, somehow, Alex learns to sing on key and play guitar in two months when he has not been able to do so for the last 30 years.

This is a quick feel-good read with the requisite family nastiness, best friends, love interest and sweet HEA in place. And it is a good piece to read as respite after an emotionally draining mainframe thriller.

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Hell’s Corner

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Oliver Stone has just received the order that he is to be executed for the assassination of Senator Roger Simpson. He will not go to the electric chair or receive a lethal injection. He will receive one month of CIA refresher training and then will be dropped, with no passport or agency credentials, into the lair of a Russian drug cartel in Mexico. His orders are to find the connection between the cartel and the current Russian spy ring operating in the US. The President assures him that if he should, by some slim chance, survive the mission, his sins will be forgiven and he will be granted fair winds and following seas forever.

Stone is no fool. He is in his sixties now and knows that he has little chance of survival against a Russian gang, even if the President is supposedly providing him with agency assets. He also knows that if he refuses the mission, he will be dead before the sun rises. And he knows that no one can either grant or guarantee fair winds and following seas forever.

The next evening, a few hours before he is to report for training, Stone visits Lafayette Park, across from the White House, where he has spent so much time during the last 30 years. He has come to say his final goodbyes to that life and he is leaving without a single word of farewell to the Camel Club. He knows they would try to stop him, would try to help him, and he does not want to be stopped or helped. And he does not want them hurt by his actions and his past anymore.

Well, Stone does not get what he wants. He gets stopped, literally, when a bomb explodes in the park, yards from where he stands. He gets stopped from going on his mission to Mexico when British Intelligence convinces the President that his expertise would be better utilized in exposing the terrorist connections behind the bombing. He gets help by being given agency credentials, a badge and an MI6 agent as a partner. He gets help from the Camel Club even when he tries to push them away. And the Camel Club gets hurt anyway, with only one member of the Club left unscathed when all is said and done.

Stone, overwhelmed by guilt and slowed by age and a concussion from the bombing, begins to make mistakes. He misses little things and he misses big things. He even has to be saved from being gunned down on several occasions by his MI6 partner, Mary Chapman. And he seems to lose track of the fact that only his mission has changed, not the original order of execution.

But we know. We know the execution order has not been rescinded. We even know who has been ordered to make the hit. Even if Stone survives the terrorists, even if Stone solves the case, the order stands.

For almost 600 pages, Baldacci builds a tale of terrorism, traitorous actions and intentional misdirection of information perpetuated by multiple government agencies against each other, and thus against Stone. By the time we reach the midpoint of the book, the realization of what is to come makes the book one that you don’t want to put down, not even to sleep. But, with so many pages to go, you know that Baldacci will not make it any easier on us than he will on Stone. You know that he will realistically twist the story multiple times and that only one thing is guaranteed before the last page – the executioner will put a red laser dot on Stone’s forehead.

This story is riveting. It is emotionally sound, and it presents a scenario involving a type of terrorism that is truly chilling to the core. It speaks to lies and spies and actions versus words. It delves into the burden and the consequences of following orders given by a higher authority. It is a story about the true meaning of friendship. But in the end, it is a story about trust – trust in a person’s words and trust in a person’s actions.

This is the fifth and, presumably, last story in the Camel Club series. Fair winds and following seas, Oliver Stone!

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The One

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This is the first entry in the Wilde Brothers series by Lorhainne Eckhart. However, it is more the story of Margaret Gordon than the story of Joe Wilde.

Margaret Gordon is back at her late grandfather’s ranch in Post Falls, Idaho, after being fired from her job in Seattle. But she is not there to lick her wounds, regain her equilibrium and find a new job. She’s there to hide, to do penance for her failure. She sees no hope for regaining her footing, let alone a job, because the child whose brain function she damaged on the operating table can never regain his.

Margaret is broken, truly and completely broken. And the operating room error was simply the last event in the proverbial Rule of Three. In the same time frame as her firing, she learns that her beloved grandfather has been found dead. And not long before that, her live-in boyfriend of two years, an intern, had secretly taken a post in Boston and left her nothing but a Dear Jane email in his wake.

But this was not the only Rule of Three that had brought Margaret to this emotional pit, feeling incompetent, unloved and unlovable. First, her parents, both high-powered executives, had divorced, neither wanting custody of Margaret. Secondly, at the age of twelve, her mother, with no warning, dropped her on the grandfather’s porch, walked away and never returned. Thirdly, as a result of her mother’s actions, Margaret, a tall, gangly, pre-teen, had to enter the school system of a small, tight, rural community. There, with abandonment issues and above average intelligence, she found herself to be a social misfit and the object of constant verbal scorn from the reigning clique led by none other than our male protagonist, Joe Wilde.

But during those few years in Post Falls, she discovered the adeptness of her hands and learned ever so much more. Her grandfather, a man who could never tell her that he cared, showed his love by teaching her how to run a ranch, how to bear the consequences of her actions, and how to raise and train horses. And it is that last skill that brings Joe Wilde to her doorstep 

Joe Wilde is also broken, but in a much different way than Margaret. He hates himself for reasons that are not revealed until the middle of the book. He hates the fact that he is a widower and he hates his financial circumstances. He hates the way his 13-year-old son has become sullen and disobedient. He hates the horse that has suddenly turned aggressive and has attacked his son repeatedly. And he hates Margaret Gordon because she never fought back when be bullied her, because she refused to notice him when he wanted her to, and because he feels she sold out her roots to become a money-grubbing surgeon.

But, on the advice of the feed store owner and because his son truly loves that horse, Joe finds himself on Margaret’s doorstep, asking for help with the horse. Well, he’s not really asking; he’s demanding. Fueled by the frustrations of the past, Joe barges into Margaret’s personal space, both literally and figuratively. He reverts to the bullying and manipulations that he used on her so long ago and uses the potential death of his son as a battering ram to badger Margaret into working with the horse.

And thus begins one of the most tightly wrapped psychological thrillers that I have encountered recently. It is not a thriller in the context of trying to stop some homicidal maniac. It is a thriller in the sense that our two protagonists are at the most significant crossroads of their lives. Neither can go back from whence they came, and each of the roads they see before them seems out of the question.

There are no fluff pages in this story, no scenes where either the main characters or the reader can relax and take a well-deserved breath. Every scene is intended to move the story forward, emotionally and psychologically, for both Margaret and Joe. There are no quick fixes and no rushed ending where all is magically forgiven.

And there is a lot to be forgiven, and not just from their teen years. Joe is a man emitting very mixed signals. One minute he is calm and understanding, the next minute he is as dense as a box of rocks. He has a lot to say and, when he does, there is no filter between his brain and his mouth. And his actions are just as erratic, one minute civilized, the next minute hurtful. But most times they are just poorly thought out in relation to their consequences.

Quite frankly, it is hard to believe, as you read along, that this novel could ever have an HEA. This is not a Cinderella tale; it is a story of personal salvation. You can actually feel the point when Joe does and says one thing too many and Margaret hits rock bottom. You can feel her begin to claw her way back up, when she can no longer turn the other cheek and starts to fight back. And you can feel her survive his ultimate betrayal, his last action where his mouth moves faster than his brain.

This is one of the few times that I have ever agreed with every step that an author takes regarding the character development of a main female protagonist. Her responses to the situations in which she finds herself are realistic, self- and other-protective and sound. Eckhart crafts, in Margaret, a character that learns the difference between running and leaving, who comes to understand the difference between childish delusions and unconditional love and who learns to love and respect herself.

However, on the negative side, I feel that Eckhart went too far with the stereotypical redneck persona given to Joe. Her presentation of his character gave me little reason to even like the man, let alone root for him to successfully resolve his relationship with Margaret.

Rest assured that there is no magical, Cinderella denouement in the final pages either. Margaret is still socially challenged, her parents are still unresponsive, and Joe still has to contend with that problematic box of rocks in his brain. But the reader is assured that they will face these issues together and that each is, to the other, the one they need to complete the family of the heart. And, of course, there are four more Wilde brothers for them to influence.

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