The Vampire With The Dragon Tattoo

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In this 14th novel of the Love At Stake series, Kerrelyn Sparks centers the story on Dougal Kincaid. A 300-plus year old Scottish vampire, Dougal, has been a major supporting character in most of the previous novels, losing a hand some four years earlier in a battle with the Malcontents. He has spent these last years learning to wield a sword with his left hand and learning to use his new prosthetic right hand.

Over these same few years, a Chinese vamp, Master Han, and the demon Darafer have created an army of killing machines, all human-vampire hybrids. And Romatech has just hired a new doctor, Leah Chin, a former child prodigy specializing in genetics, to research and hopefully reverse the mutations that create these hybrids.

In their haste to solve the problem that is Master Han, the Romatech doctors introduce Leah into the world of vampires, shifters and demons a tad too quickly. She goes into total panic and they wipe her mind of the incident. Trying again a few days later, the situation does not go much better, particularly when she sees several vampires levitate.

The moment Dougal sees Leah Chin on the security camera his mind seems to recognize her physique and her mannerisms. As he continues to observe her in the lab, his dragon tattoo, a tattoo that snakes across his back, over his right shoulder and across his chest to breathe flames over his heart, begins to burn. And in that instant, Dougal realizes that Leah Chin may very well contain the soul of the woman he loved, and failed to save from death, some 300 years ago.

Upon seeing and hearing Leah panic in the lab, knowing that a mind wipe is imminent, Dougal intervenes. He may not have saved his Li Lei all those years ago, but he will redeem himself by protecting Leah Chin now. And thus begins a morality tale intensely focused on the concepts of free will, fate, reincarnation and evil.

When I started this book, I expected it to be in the same vein as the previous thirteen in the series – a paranormal, romantic, action adventure. I was wrong. While it is still in the paranormal genre with a romance as the main focus, the action aspect was under-utilized and a religious aspect was added.

This series originally started out with vampires and mortals only. Shifters were added several books later. Over the last few novels, the main villains changed from rogue vampires to hybrids controlled by a demon called from Hell. With the addition of the demon came an earth-bound angel and a Healing Angel. With this novel, Sparks adds in a Guardian Angel and Warrior Angels. But something else gets added in – a Heavenly Father, a god with a capital G. While the theology expressed by our characters, especially the angels, is not identified with any particular religion, it is clearly the theology of a God that is most definitely Christian.

This series has always been built around a world in which the vampire retains his or her personality and morality after conversion from mortal to undead. This world has always contended that a vampire has a soul and is not harmed by religious artifacts. But this world building has never concentrated on the concept of evil so strongly as it does in this book.

And in conjunction with its treatise on evil, this novel is heavy handed in its foray into the moral and theological concept of free will. A major aspect of Dougal’s story is about him being kidnapped and sold into slavery as a teen, a clear violation of free will – and his escape. Leah’s story speaks to the intellectual slavery, the loss of her free will, which was forced upon her as a child by her over-achieving parents – and her escape. The plot line continues with the concept of willingly selling one’s soul to a demon and then moves to the ramifications associated with a demon usurping a mortal’s free will and forcing that mortal to engage in evil deeds.

While I personally agree with the concepts regarding free will that Kerrelyn Sparks weaves into this story, I feel that she was too intense in her approach. I read for enjoyment and escapism. I do not want to come away from a book feeling that I have been preached at and pounded on, particularly in regards to spiritual beliefs. If I wanted that, I would be picking a book from the self-help aisle, not reaching for a vampire novel.

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Separation of Power

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It has been two weeks since the concluding events of the previous novel, “The Third Option.” Three questions of vital importance are seeking answers in Mitch Rapp’s brain. First, who paid for his own team to hit him during the CIA counterterrorism operation in Germany two weeks previous? The motive is clear – his body found next to that of an important foreign national would expose the clandestine Orion Team. So the real question is who shouldn’t know about his existence but does?

Secondly, now that his existence and purpose have been compromised within the spy community, he needs to retire from fieldwork. But he has promised to stay with the Agency. Hence, the question that must be shortly answered is: which, of the several desk positions that will be offered to him, can he tolerate?

And thirdly, but by no means the least in importance, is the question of whether Anna Rielly will accept his upcoming proposal of marriage. Anna is the NBC White House correspondent that Mitch rescued in the previous novel. But her journalistic need-to-know and his occupation’s need for her not to know some things are a real problem between them.

By the end of the novel, Vince Flynn will provide the reader, through an omniscient point of view, with more answers than Mitch himself will receive. Only one of the three questions will be completely resolved; and an unrelated, highly volatile and globally important situation will compound the other two questions exponentially. However, this does not imply an aggravating cliffhanger. The novel concludes quite satisfactorily, but the hook is set for the next book of the series.

While the storyline is well set and progresses linearly, thoroughly and realistically, I had two problems with the book. One problem is editorial in nature; the other is personal.

From an editorial standpoint, Flynn’s editing team allowed him too much data dump space. At first, all the military specifications and historical references were interesting. Eventually, however, they simply got in the way of the story and the action and I found myself scanning past them. 

Also, Flynn and the editor(s) seemed to forget that two plus two must still equal four. For example, when introducing a particular Mossad agent, Flynn gives the man’s age and years of service to Mossad. Two sentences later, conflicting data is given, losing as much as two years in the telling. There are several more such instances and it distracts from a story where being able to discern between truths and lies is quite important.

The personal problem I had with the book was with the characterization given to Anna Rielly. Frankly, I do not like her character one bit. Anna is a major influence, carried over from the previous book, as not only a prominent DC journalist but also the almost-fiancée of Mitch Rapp. Her inquisitiveness as a journalist is dangerous to Mitch, but she is also self-involved, immature, selfish, accusatory, self-absorbed and incapable of hearing anything that doesn’t fit what she wants to hear. And she has an absolute need to always get her way regardless of the consequences to Mitch. In short, the woman is toxic.

At times I was so aggravated with the character that I just slammed the book down and took a breather. Then Flynn finally made it clear, through Mitch’s current death-threat problem, that he had deliberately written Rielly with the emotional make-up of an over-indulged prima donna. Even after the President fills Anna in completely on Mitch’s past and present and even after Mitch puts his life on the line to belay a nuclear disaster, Flynn still writes Anna true to that selfishness of character. He has her pull a power play on Mitch, a one-two punch of “I want you to hurt just as badly as I did” and “promise me you’ll never do that again or else.” Nope, I really don’t like her.

So as we move to the next book in the series, we have to accept several facts. One is that a major supporting character and love interest to the main protagonist is a self-absorbed witch. And the other is that a leopard cannot change its spots. It may conceal them with a bit of Clairol but the spots will, in time, grow back to their original nature. Point being, Anna’s not going to change and it may be that Mitch cannot be a desk jockey either.

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Reunion In Death

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In this 14th novel in the In Death series, we pick up the story two weeks after the conclusion of the previous novel. Eve Dallas and Roarke have just returned from a much-needed vacation and are only about one week away from celebrating their first wedding anniversary.  When Eve returns to work the next morning, she comes face to face with – nothing. Her office has been completely cleaned and repainted. Her desk is completely clear of old files and her in-box is empty.

However, within twenty-four hours, the Rule of Three will be in full force. First, with no active cases to work on, Eve pulls out a homicide cold case and assigns it to Peabody as a training exercise. Secondly, Peabody’s parents unexpectedly show up and Roarke invites them to dinner. And thirdly, before the soup course has been finished, Eve picks up a case. A wealthy man has been murdered with cyanide-laced champagne while giving a toast to his children at his own birthday party.

By the next morning, Eve has a suspect in the murder, a woman named Julianna Dunne. Ten years prior, Dunne had been charged with the black-widow murders of three husbands, but convicted of only one and with Feeney and Dallas instrumental in her incarceration. Recently released from prison and truly believing that Eve betrayed her specifically, and women in general, all those years ago, Dunne intends to destroy Eve by doing what she does best, killing rich men. And guess who’s the richest man on or off the planet?

Robb expertly weaves the three current plot lines together and adds in a major advancement of the ongoing child abuse subplot. The visit by the Peabodys impacts the abuse plot as well as the cold case plot. The cold case impacts both Peabody’s professional relationship with Eve and her personal relationship with McNab. And the major murder plot has a direct effect on the child abuse plot line.

In addition, Robb does three things with Roarke that she has not done before. First, she allows a complete stranger to manipulate him. Secondly, she backs him into a corner where, for the first time, he has no idea how to help himself deal with Eve’s psychological nightmare. And thirdly, Robb writes a situation where Roarke makes a significant mistake in the way he handles Eve in regards to a critical part of her murder investigation.

While the central characters of the In Death series remain the same from book to book, there is nothing formulaic about this series. There may be a major murder in each but methods, motives and investigative techniques change with the situation. Both major and secondary characters have varying degrees of mention and importance from book to book, but their characters and personalities are never static. Even the methods of final confrontation between Eve and the villain vary, running the gamut from cerebral to yet another death.

And Robb’s ability to stay away from well-worn concepts and tactics truly prevails in this novel. Julianna Dunne may be a murderer and a psychopath, but above all, she considers herself a scorned woman. And a scorned woman gets payback, somehow. By the time you have finished reading the scenario in which Julianna dishes out her first payback on Eve and then finish their final confrontation, you will truly understand the meaning of the phrase “cat fight.”

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The Whole Truth

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Nicholas Creel is the CEO of Ares Corporation, a multi-national arms manufacturer and Richard Pender is Creel’s PM (perception manager). Pender’s job is to create “truth,” facts that a target populace will believe virtually unquestioned, and his current task is to make the world think that Russia is committing mass genocide within its borders. Creel’s reason for this perception management is two-fold: to bring Ares back into the black financially with increased arms sales and to neutralize the Middle Eastern terrorist regimes by instituting a global cold war situation.

While Creel truly cares about global peace and other humanitarian concerns, he also believes in the inevitability and the necessity of collateral damage to achieve his goals. Thus, as each step of his plan is implemented, those who help that implementation are eliminated – with extreme prejudice.

And that is where our main protagonists, Shaw and Katie James, come into the story. Shaw is a rather talented undercover field agent for a multi-national law enforcement agency, currently on assignment in Europe. Katie James is a two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist who has lost her professional standing due to PTSD and alcoholism following a traumatic Middle Eastern incident.

Hoping for a story that will reincarnate her career, Katie quietly inserts herself into one of Shaw’s operations and it goes south. Shaw gets them away relatively unscathed but refuses to cooperate with her need for the story. So Katie searches his room, finding a connection between Shaw and a Mensa-level political analyst, Anna Jeffries, who works for a think-tank based in London.

Unbeknownst to James, Jeffries has come to the attention of Creel and Pender as a dissident to their PM plan, a credible dissident to whom the world might listen. So, the day after Katie, still trying to get her comeback story, meets with Anna, Creel has Anna – and the entire think tank staff – executed and framed for instigating the PM attack against Russia.

Quite pleased with himself, Creel is blithely unaware that he has just sealed the fate of both his world plan and his own longevity. Creel simply doesn’t know that he has just executed the woman that Shaw was to marry. And revenge will not be a dish served cold.

If you have read Baldacci’s Camel Club series, then you have a good idea about the character that is Shaw. The similarities between Shaw and Oliver Stone are quite obvious. They are not physically similar men, nor are they the same age, but they are in the same arena mentally and emotionally. Their mad skills are not identical, but are equally exceptional. Each loses the love of his life as they try to retire from their respective agencies. Even the title of this book, “The Whole Truth,” jibes with Oliver Stone’s slogan: I want the truth. And this novel and its sequel were written concurrently with the last two novels of the Camel Club series. Comparisons and contrasts made, in my opinion, Oliver Stone is the better character and the Camel Club series is better done.

While I was a bit put off by the copycat aspect, my opinion of the book was reduced more by the mistakes involving the passage of time. For instance, the execution of the actor who filmed the very first web video for the PM campaign appears to take place weeks after the video airs rather than mere days as the PM plan indicated. However, the most glaring error seems to occur when Shaw makes it clear that it has been 5 days since he found out about Anna’s death, unable to go to the scene immediately due to his own critical injuries in another country. Yet when he does arrive at the scene, the bodies have only just been removed and the bagged evidence is still on the desks. Bodies at an actively worked crime scene for 5 days? I don’t think so!

The final drop for the rating came as a result of the manner in which Baldacci set up the final confrontation. Two things happened. First, the author relies on the old “villain needs to brag and explain himself” routine, giving Shaw time to rescue Katie. Well, Creel has never explained himself before, so why should he do it now?

And secondly, when the identity of the mole in the investigation is revealed, Baldacci simply has Shaw state that he already knew who it was, but does not have Shaw explain in even the smallest way how the agency knew. Considering how close to the investigation this mole was, it would have been practically impossible for Shaw and Katie to pull off what they did in the manner in which they did it. Therefore, the climax comes off as the result of a deus ex machina on the part of Baldacci, rather than as a plausible scenario.

I inadvertently read the sequel to this novel 3 years ago. Looking back to it, I feel that the sequel is better written, but that feeling may only exist because I now know Shaw’s backstory. I am far more diligent these days about reading entries of a series in order; but still, this is the first Baldacci novel that I have been disappointed with.

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Well-Schooled In Murder

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Elizabeth George may write this book, but the first five sentences of J. D. Robb’s “Reunion in Death” describe the alpha and the omega of this work more succinctly than anything I can manufacture:

Murder was work. Death was a serious chore for the killer, the victim, for the survivors. And for those who stood for the dead. Some went about the job devotedly, others carelessly. And for some, murder was a labor of love.”

And as you read this book, it all comes down to how one defines murder and how one defines love.

This third novel in the Inspector Lynley series opens two months after the disastrous events at the conclusion of the previous novel. Thomas Lynley is working every case available to him at Scotland Yard, trying to survive Lady Helen’s self-imposed exile in Greece. As the author writes on page 8: “For the past two months Lynley had been burning the candle not only at both ends but right through the middle.”

On one Sunday evening, Barbara Havers has just about convinced Lynley to leave the Yard when they are visited by John Corntel, one of Lynley’s old classmates from Eton. Corntel is there to ask for Lynley’s help in the case of a child just discovered missing from the Bredgar Chambers school where Corntel is a faculty member and housemaster. Even though missing persons’ cases are out of his jurisdiction and the Yard’s help has not been officially requested, Lynley agrees to check it out, just as a favor to “the old school tie.”

Unknown to Lynley, Havers and Corntel, the missing child has just been found – naked, tortured and very dead. And, it seems, Lynley’s best friend’s wife, Deborah St. James, has found the body while on a photographic shoot in a famous church’s graveyard. And thus begins a most convoluted and emotionally draining murder mystery, because Matthew Whateley is not the first person to die at this school nor is he the last. Matthew Whateley is simply the only person who is murdered.

There are actually five sub-plots weaving throughout and sharing the billing with the murder investigation. First, there is Lynley’s tenuous relationship with Lady Helen. Secondly are Havers’ problems with her ailing father and mentally ill mother. Third is Deborah St. James’ estrangement from Simon following her fourth miscarriage. Fourth is the devastation and disintegration of the lives of Matthew Whateley’s parents. And lastly is Lynley’s struggle with his personal ethics versus his professional responsibilities.

Before the identity of the murderer is revealed, Elizabeth George takes us on a pointed exploration into both the written and unwritten codes of behavior that exist in many boarding schools. She tracks the effects of these codes on not only the current students and staff but on the adults who have graduated from these types of schools, particularly Lynley and Corntel. We get a hard look into bullying in a situation where a parent is not readily available, and into racial bias and class bias by both students and staff. We get just as hard a look into pedophilia, pregnancy, abortion and unrequited love.

But regardless of which plot line the author is exploring, the murder itself or the subplots, we are taken down the pathways of guilt, earned or unearned, as well as remorse, genuine or totally lacking. These elements of guilt, remorse and honor take Lynley and the reader through multiple dead ends, blind alleys and twists. Before the final pages, these elements are part and parcel of the destruction of at least a dozen people, not counting the murderer and the murdered. But these same elements become the beginning threads of redemption for at least three others.

This book covers only four days in the lives of many people. It begins with death and it ends with death. There are no smiles in this book; there is no laughter. There is no happy ending even though the murderer is identified. But there is hope. In the last pages, there is hope.

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Mortal Stakes

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Spenser is hired by Harold Erskine of the Boston Red Sox to investigate the whispered rumor that their star pitcher, Marty Rabb, is throwing the occasional game. Posing as a novelist writing a book on the Sox, he begins “interviewing” the players and the staff as well as Rabb and his wife.

It doesn’t take Spenser long to find out that Bucky Maynard, the main broadcast announcer, is connected in a bad way to Frank Doerr, a local loan shark. Nor does it take Spenser long to find out that Linda Rabb isn’t really “Linda” at all. And it doesn’t take long for Spenser to connect those dots to form a picture of blackmail.

Parker then takes Spenser and the reader on a bumpy ride through an ethical jungle. As Spenser learns more of the facts that make up the blackmail scheme, Parker forces both Spenser and Rabb into some very tight spots regarding professional obligations and personal accountability. Parker makes none of the answers easy and none of the results nice.

The character of Spenser is faceted differently than the typical literary PI or the ex-boxer that he is. Parker writes him as not only of above average intelligence but as almost cerebral in nature. He is a well-built jock and a fitness fanatic who would rather read history tomes and the daily paper than the latest best seller. He has developed a persona of witty repartee using quotes from movies and books as well as lyrics from popular songs. This smart-aleck banter is most often used on people who need to be kept at a distance or just to irritate the listener in the room.

Unfortunately, Parker does too good of a job with this aspect of Spenser’s character. Parker seems to have forgotten that the reader is also a “listener.” Thus, the sass and sarcasm gets tedious very quickly, particularly since it often shows up in his internal monologues as well.

But underneath the “jerk,” Parker also writes a sensitive and caring man. In this book, Spenser’s code of honor – his personal blueprint of principles that govern his behavior – is called into question by his need to help the Rabbs. And before this book ends, Parker takes Spenser, Rabb and the reader through the psychological maze and the horrific emotional aftermath that results when one changes the rules to fit the situation.

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The Anodyne Necklace

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This story is more driven by character than by plot. Make no mistake – there is a plot, a very complicated one involving a theft, a mugging, a series of poison-pen letters, an accidental death and a deliberate death. All of these events take place within one year’s time, are seemingly unrelated, but are all perpetrated upon or by residents of a small village close to London called Littlebourne.

It is the deliberate death, evidenced only by a dog chewing on a severed finger bone that gives Chief Superintendent Racer the gleeful opportunity to cancel Superintendent Richard Jury’s weekend plans with Melrose Plant at Ardry End. And that gives Plant the opportunity to ditch Aunt Agatha and get involved in a murder investigation. It will only take Jury, Wiggins and Plant three days to solve the murder. But in those three days, they – and the reader – will encounter some of the oddest and saddest specimens of the human race possible.

One of these characters is Emily Louise Perk, a ten-year-old girl with an affinity for horses, a need to ply crayons to coloring books, the ability to sell sand in a desert, and an intelligence for self-survival that is off the charts. Whether Martha Grimes intended it or not, Emily Louise steals the story away from Jury and Plant. She turns out to be integral to the solution of the murder; but her very existence and manner also brings out aspects of both Jury’s and Plant’s characters heretofore unseen.

Emily Louise may be central but she is just one of a large complement of characters, in both Littlebourne and London, who play a role in this complicated mystery. At first, I was aggravated that there were so many to keep straight. However, my aggravation dropped away when I remembered that, in real life, the police have to sort them all out also. So I relaxed and let Jury do all the heavy lifting.

In the end, I still picked the wrong person as the murderer. But, then, Jury had accused the wrong person late in the story also. And when the villain’s identity was finally revealed, I realized that Grimes had already told us, in a backhanded way, near the beginning of the novel, exactly whom the murderer would turn out to be. Missing that really made me hang my amateur sleuth’s head in shame and disgust.

Even though the author managed to keep her secrets to the end, she did so in a magnificent and entertaining way. The internal monologues of Jury and Plant are consistently written with tongue-in-cheek humor, satire, sarcasm, eye-rolling snark, and a 180-degree separation in what is thought versus what is said. This approach for Jury is quite different from the style in the first two books of the series. But this technique in no way lessened the psychological import of the scenes involved.

Grimes also uses, in this novel, what would be termed in visual media as “sight gags.” I do not know the appropriate term for printed media, but the equivalent in this novel is the repeated use of the “baby in a carriage” image. It turns out to be quite important to our perception of Jury.

And, in the vein of perceiving character traits, Grimes gives us new insight into Wiggins. He actually appears far less in this work than in the previous novels, but when he does speak, we find that there is a totally new layer to him beneath the hypochondria and the compulsive attention to detail. Our first clue is his reference to a famous quote from “The Wizard of Oz” that follows a jaw-sucking, skin-crawling scene in a London slum. And then Grimes expands Wiggins from there, just a bit, but a very noticeable bit.

In the end, we have a third novel in a series that is neither formulaic nor does it follow any pattern from the previous entries. The crimes are complex, woven through a loom of time and lies. So the story is convoluted to match the crimes. We don’t get all the answers by the last page either, but that is neither poor workmanship nor oversight on the part of the author. It is simply that dead people can tell no tales.

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