Lord Fool To The Rescue

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Lord Fool is really Leland Wescott, the Duke of Stromburg. Young though he is, he is a decorated war hero, having saved many of his men from being burned to death in a building fire. Unfortunately, he did so by holding them at gunpoint so that they could not run foolishly into the conflagration to try and save mates who were already beyond help.

The military may have thought he saved a significant number of lives, but the peerage thought his actions dishonorable. Dubbed “Lord Fool” behind his back, Stromburg spends his days trying to keep his land and crop holdings from the grasping clutches of the Duke of Redmond and feeling like the fool he is called.

When Baron Ledford offers his stepdaughter, Tempest MacIntyre, up for auction as a one-night stand, Stromburg receives an invitation to bid. Infuriated at the Baron’s gall, he goes to warn Tempest of her guardian’s lies about an arranged “wedding.” Though used to the stepfather’s cruelty, the depths of this particular depravity take her aback. And now she understands why so many men are walking around her in the park, looking her over as they would a horse up for sale.

Though thankful for the warning, Tempest assures Stromburg that she has already made arrangement to escape the man’s clutches. She also assures him that, with the new developments, she will be gone before the morning and before the stepfather can turn her into damaged goods.

Well, as you can imagine, the best laid plans, etc. etc…So, for the remainder of this 70-some page short story, we witness the “gone astray” parts from the viewpoints of Tempest as she tries to flee and Stromburg as he tries to protect and save her.

L. L. Muir crafts in this Regency entry, a scenario that alternates tension and fear with bouts of tongue-in-cheek, laugh out loud, tears down the face humor. The scenes involving the auction, the attempt to flee, and the transfer of “goods” to the winner of the auction are all quite seriously plotted. And, as such, the comedy that seems to pop up out of nowhere is both a relief and a true delight.

This short story is not deemed a prequel to any of Muir’s current series. However, numerous and intriguing hooks exist that could lead to future works or even a series should Muir choose to do so.

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Rules of Prey

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Three characters control the outcome of this story. One is a cop, one is a lawyer and one is a television reporter. Each one is ruthless, manipulative, vicious, highly intelligent, a player and a killer of either body or soul.

Lucas Davenport is the cop. He is also a highly successful creator of fantasy/combat computer games. His ability to strategize on the fly, to think multiple steps ahead of the current action and to utilize violence with little remorse makes it difficult for him to play nicely in the sandbox with others not of like mind. Even though his ability to lead a squad of officers is virtually non-existent, he is still one of the most successful vice and homicide detectives in Minneapolis PD’s history.

Now a lieutenant, he is a division of one, a specialist in gathering intel from a vast street network, forwarding the tips and whisperings on to the appropriate squads for follow-up. Keeping his own hours and reporting only to the Chief of Police, he often works a parallel path with the official investigation teams. As a result, to date and still in his early thirties, he has killed five men in the line of duty.

Lucas Davenport is a predator, whether the hunted is a suspected criminal or the next intelligent and attractive woman on his dance card. He despises the first and he respects the other. But the quest for either is still a hunt that has well-established rules of prey.

The lawyer is maddog, one word and spelled in lower-case, but his real name is Louis Vullion. He appears to be that sub-genre of psychopath who is broken from birth. And with parents who were as remote and isolated as the Texas ranch on which he was raised, there appears to have been no chance for repair. He has always known he was “wrong,” and he has willingly chosen to play that hand rather than seek psychological help.

Like Lucas, maddog is adept at gamesmanship. Like Lucas, his strategies are focused on the guilty and the women, even if, to maddog, they are one and the same. Like Lucas, his kill count is at five. And like Lucas, as he demonstrates with each raped and knifed body, he has very distinctive and formulated rules of prey.

Jennifer Carey is the TV reporter, and she has been one of Lucas Davenport’s bed partners for about three years now. At her core, Jennifer is a sociopath. She is one of those media people that adds to the callous reputation of the breed. She uses every tool at her disposal – lies, threats, bribes, blackmail, tears, her gender, even her biological clock – to get what she wants personally or professionally.

And she does so without a single care for the consequences or collateral damage to the people she targets in her stories or in her life. She is every bit as adept at gamesmanship as Lucas and maddog. However, with little sense of ethics, she has few rules to limit her actions, and definitely no defining rules of prey.

In this first entry of the Prey series, which is still in production after nearly 25 years, John Sandford creates, in Lucas Davenport, a character that is atypical within the normal detective genre of its time. As far as timelines go, Davenport is a contemporary of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. However, he is a cop rather than a PI, and he works out of the Twin Cities rather than LA. He isn’t witty like Cole or Spenser, and he does not have a lethal sidekick.

Davenport writes computer code and bad poetry and he doesn’t flaunt his wealth. He pays as much attention to his mental health as to his physical one. He accepts full responsibility for his actions and their consequences, personally and professionally. Yet, in the end he is a stone cold killer with a badge, a vigilante when justice cannot or will not prevail.

The action in the story – mental, physical and emotional – is well crafted, realistic and logical. Because we know the identity of the killer from the first page, there are no mysteries for the reader to solve, no red herrings to wade through. There are, however, more than enough bumps, grinds and mistakes on everyone’s part to make the story one that builds tension steadily to the point where sleep becomes highly over-rated.

The attacks and murders are vicious and graphically described. Also graphically detailed are maddog’s internal monologues between killings. The man is not an egotistical maniac with delusions of grandeur or superiority. He is an intelligent but broken little man with a psychological compulsion to kill that has besieged him since he was a toddler. Quite frankly, Sandford’s portrayal of maddog makes you feel sorry for the man. Not sorry enough to want him to survive, but sorry for him, nevertheless.

As you reach the final pages of the book, Sandford closes down the story arc without a cliffhanger ending or a police-related hook for the next novel. He does leave a personal hook involving Lucas, however.

Unfortunately, what Sandford does not do is dispatch Jennifer Carey – literally or figuratively. One can only hope that that particular circumstance will come soon. Believe me, she is one character that possesses a kind of evil that every female reader recognizes and has well and good reason to fear.

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Somebody Killed His Editor

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Christopher Holmes is an award winning, NYT best selling author multiple times over. At least he was. Now, his long-running cozy mystery series is not so popular, and Holmes’ editor has chosen not to renew his contract.

Trying to revitalize his career, Holmes’s agent has pushed him into revamping his image from that of a stodgy recluse into that of a trendy urbanite. The agent has also pressured Holmes into attending a writer’s conference at a secluded lodge upstate. There, she has arranged for a meeting with the editor to reopen contract negotiations for a new series with a more popular bent.

The only problem with this approach is that Holmes does not care to be a trendy urbanite and he doesn’t want to deal with beginner-level seminars. And he most certainly doesn’t want to write a new series that revolves around nosy cupcake bakers, smart-alecky female PI’s, bounty hunters or demons. However, Holmes doesn’t want his writing career to be over at the age of 40 nor does he want to be penniless, so he agrees to both suggestions.

He should have stayed home!

First, Holmes blows a tire during a driving rainstorm only a few miles from the lodge. Then, the wooden bridge he is crossing by foot collapses beneath him. Soon after, he discovers the barefoot body of a pajama-clad female next to the road. And when he reaches the lodge and reports his grisly find, the victim turns out to be a mystery writer who only recently savaged Holmes in a highly publicized critique.

With the bridge out and the high winds and rain, the police cannot get to the lodge. That means all the conference attendees are stuck on the premises with the body – and probably the murderer. But the body and its murderer are now the least of Holmes’ immediate worries because he is also stuck at the lodge with J. X. Moriarity. Moriarity is an ex-cop turned highly successful thriller writer. He is also a man with whom Holmes had a 3-night affair a decade ago. And that affair ended very badly.

And to add the proverbial insult to injury, Holmes’ editor turns their meeting into a public humiliation in front of all the conference attendees, including Moriarity. Holmes then mouths off a sarcastic remark about poison and drinks when the editor mockingly toasts the demise of Holmes’ career.

Sure enough, the next morning, Holmes finds his editor dead. When Holmes’ ear stud is found under the man’s cheek, the conference attendees demand that he be locked away until the police can arrive. And Moriarity does the honors.

Moriarity is probably the only person at the lodge, other than Holmes’ agent, who believes that Holmes is being framed. But Moriarity has an agenda of his own regarding Holmes. Even though it has been a decade, he has never completely resolved the aborted affair in either his own mind or in his heart. So for a majority of the book, we are wading through 10 years of misunderstandings and the resulting personal and professional acrimony between the two men. As a result, Josh Lanyon provides us with a read that is far more emotional than it is sexual.

Even though the story is told from Holmes’ POV, Lanyon portrays Moriarity as the most injured party in the failed affair all those years ago. And maybe he was, but the tack Lanyon takes with Moriarity made me grind my teeth, over and over, scene after scene. Moriarity doesn’t ask for any explanation as to why things ended the way they did. What he does is use sex as a psychological weapon and then blindsides Holmes with vicious, cruel and demeaning verbal assaults.

I have no use in real life, or in novels, for people who “shoot first and ask questions later.” It was not long into these set-ups where Moriarity claims to be helping Holmes and then proceeds to crush him to rubble that the only words I wanted Josh Lanyon to put in Holmes’ mouth were “Get the H—l away from me and don’t come back.”

However, Lanyon had other plans for Moriarity before the murderer’s identity could be revealed. A little pain, a lot of fear, and a healthy dose of comeuppance did much to level the emotional playing field between the two men. In the end, I still was not a fan of Moriarity, but there are two more books currently in the series. Perhaps, he will redeem himself.

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Strangers In Death

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Thomas Anders is dead in his bed. The wrists and ankles of his naked body are tied to the bedposts with velvet rope. His neck is wrapped in a fifth velvet rope that is lashed to the other four. The cord itself didn’t kill him; the angle of the tie-off choked him to death over a protracted period of time. At first glance, it appears a kinky night has gone awry.

But, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. For Eve Dallas, three things are wrong with this scenario. First, there are too many toys scattered about the room, some new, most unused. Secondly, there are too many things missing from the scene, such as the man’s clothes, the home’s security discs for the last 24 hours, any evidence that the man ever tried to struggle against the choking, and any evidence that another party was actually involved with him sexually. Of course, somebody else had to be there, though. Anders could not have possibly tied his second wrist or his neck by himself.

The third wrong thing is the victim’s wife. Ava Anders is a thousand miles away on vacation with some female friends when she learns of her husband’s demise from their housekeeper. Several hours later, when she strides across the threshold, she is stylishly dressed, perfectly coiffed, immaculately made up, no sign of tears now or ever, and screaming at Dallas about the circus that is now her home and yard.

As soon as the word “homicide” is mentioned along with the idea of sexual infidelity, the widow shifts gears. You practically see her put the back of her hand to her forehead, roll her eyes upward and go into an “Oh, woe is me” routine.

What Eve doesn’t see is any genuine grief. There are a lot of sniffs, remonstrations and demands to see the body, but not any real grief. What Eve doesn’t hear are any questions about the details of the death. And what she does hear is a lot of “I.”

Based on the title of the book, the opening scenes with the body and the unassailability of the wife’s alibi, I felt that J. D. Robb was writing a futuristic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train.” (No, Hitchcock directed the movie, Highsmith wrote the book.) From this point on, if I was right, it was a matter of identifying the other murder, be it one from the past or one yet to come. Once identified, that murder would lead directly to the identity of Anders’ murderer.

But the whole point of “Strangers on a Train” is that the murderers would have no connection to each other beyond one chance meeting. No connection, no identifiable motive, thus no arrest. But when one of the conspirators chickens out, the other re-establishes contact and the “perfect crime” starts to fall apart.

So, for 300 pages, Robb has us on the hunt for the person with whom Ava Anders made the pact and with whom she was forced to re-connect. We, along with Dallas, push to find that one connection that will foil and undermine the alibis and the smoke screens that Ava Anders has so carefully built. For Ava has told one story about her husband’s character, and not another soul that knew the man will agree with those allegations.

In this entry, Robb forgoes the typical psychotic or serial killer format that usually ends with a serious physical confrontation between Eve and the killer. This time, the battle between the two is truly one of wits, instead. And the denouement is a thrilling, play-within-a-play. However, the best part of the story is the way Robb builds the case, through Eve, step by logical step, against the normal odds, always with an eye on the difference between justice and the law, and always with a focus on the idea of partnership, be it between Eve and Roarke or Eve and her detectives.

But, never fear, Eve does get to take down a couple of non-murderous perps physically as the book progresses. Quite frankly, it just wouldn’t be an In Death entry without a dream or a black eye.

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Blood Rites

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In the previous book in this series (Death Masks), Jim Butcher lays out four revelations regarding Harry Dresden that promise to be possible pivot points in the ongoing storyline. Using the character of Nicodemus, a demon collaborator with the Fallen, as his conduit, Butcher first provides both the reader and Harry an additional piece of evidence that his mother had been a practitioner of black magic. Secondly, Nicodemus tells Harry that he is not an only child but his mother’s youngest child.

Thirdly, Nicodemus informs Harry that he is not totally human and could border on being immortal. Harry actually misses that part, by the way, due to the pain and agony caused by Nicodemus torturing him at the time.

And finally, in the last pages, Nicodemus tricks Harry into picking up a coin bearing the sigil of one of the Fallen that he has thrown right at the feet of Michael Carpenter’s baby. Quite frankly, it never dawns on Harry to just grab the baby up. Instead, without a holy cloth barrier, Harry slams his hand down on the coin. When he does, a force shoots up his arm; he feels a soul stretching into wakefulness and then hears soft, indistinct whisperings. Oh, yeah – cliffhanger and pivot point all in one package!

Now, in this very next book, those four pivots morph into a fulcrum on which is mounted a catapult loaded with the fiery orbs of truth about Harry’s birth, his childhood and his apprenticeship as wizard of the White Council. And the unraveling of that truth starts out so innocently.

Thomas Raith, a vampire in the ruling House of the White Court, hires Harry to identify and stop the entity that is trying to kill Arturo Genoso, a movie producer who is trying to break away from a big studio on the West Coast and start his own production company in Chicago. From Thomas’ description of the two attempts that have killed women around Genoso, but not Genoso himself, Harry figures an entropy curse is in play. That type of curse is something Harry likes to steer well clear of, but Thomas plays the “I’ve-saved-your-hide-several-times-now-it’s-your-turn” card. So Harry signs on.

The remainder of the novel takes place in a little over 48 hours. But, in that short time, Jim Butcher doesn’t just throw Dresden and the reader the one bone of an entropy curse to gnaw on and digest. He hits us with the whole hog – an entropy curse seeking to kill Harry, flaming purple demon monkeys trying to burn Harry alive, Black Court vampires trying to tear Harry to pieces, other Black Court vampires trying to burn Harry alive, Kincaid and McCoy at each other’s throats in front of Harry, and White Court vampires trying to sacrifice – literally and ritually – both Thomas and Harry.

Then, in the middle of these life-threatening scenarios, Butcher decides to up the ante and releases that catapult, one pivotal orb at a time. Massive deceptions and lies of omission are revealed, one after another, even as Harry battles the vampires and the maker of the entropy curse, trying to keep Thomas, Murphy and himself alive. By the time the final sling of the catapult flies, over three decades of Harry’s life have figuratively gone up in flames. And the literal flames have not been so good to Harry either.

Even by the midpoint of the book, the savvy reader knows that the ramifications of the truths revealed to that point are not such that Harry is going to be able to just take them in stride, say “so be it,” and move on. And by the end of the book, the final slings of the catapult stand to shatter the very backbone of Harry’s existence and sever from it the tenets on which he was raised by his father and McCoy.

Butcher makes you feel the hurt, the betrayal, the rage, the need to replace helplessness with power, and the desire to kill that is now throbbing through Harry’s veins and brain. As you approach the final pages you cannot help but feel that the next book or two will be heavy and dark. And you wonder whether Butcher will, in that time, choose to lose the wise-cracking private investigator who champions human rights or will bring out, instead, a practitioner of the magic that is as black as the glove Harry now wears on his left hand.

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Forged By Desire

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Garrett Reed, Acting Master of the Nighthawks, has a secret, a dangerous and lethal secret. Only weeks ago, an Echelon lord, in a chemically induced blood frenzy, shattered Garrett’s chest and literally dragged his heart halfway out before he was subdued. In order to heal such an extensive injury, the virus that makes him the blue-blooded vampire-like creature that he is had to go into overdrive.

Now, Garrett’s craving virus percentage has nearly doubled and is still rising in small increments daily. At this current rate, in just mere weeks he will be unable to control his need for blood and will become a danger to anyone around him. And because he is leader of the Nighthawks, he will not simply be incarcerated and forced to die of starvation, he will be summarily beheaded.

However, that’s not the only secret he has to keep. He has been partners in the Nighthawks with Perry Lowell for nine years. And during a recent sting operation, Garrett discovered that Perry is a woman. Now, he’s always known that Perry is female, the only one in the Nighthawks, in fact, and one of the few female blue-bloods in existence. But she has always worn the men’s leather uniform and armor, has a man’s haircut, and fights with all the deadliness and strength of a male blue-blood. She is his best tracker and his best friend.

However, when she dons a formal flowing gown for the sting operation and he observes her ability to function socially and flirtatiously in Echelon society, Garrett sees the “woman.” And he is lost, wanting more than friendship but afraid his virus levels will cause him to kill her. So he pushes her away onto a new partner, determined to keep all his secrets and keep her safe.

Well, Perry Lowell has some secrets, too. Nine years of them, in fact. The first is that she has loved Garrett all of those nine years. Knowing, however, that he only saw her as a partner and friend, she has kept her feelings hidden. Then, after he acknowledges her desirability during the sting operation, but summarily shoves her away before she can reciprocate, Perry decides that her feelings will just have to stay a secret after all.

If unrequited love were Perry’s only secret, life would be a cinch for her. Nine years ago, she faked her death to escape the sadistic attentions of the Duke of Moncrieff, with whom she had been forced by her father to make a blood and flesh rights thrall contract. Perry had discovered that Moncrieff sponsored a psychopathic doctor in his experiments to develop mechanical body parts. When Perry protested the experiments on live and unwilling subjects, she became one of the “experiments.”

Forcibly infected with the craving virus, Perry was repeatedly sliced and diced so that the doctor could document the healing effect of the virus. But the doctor didn’t count on the increased strength caused by the virus, a defective restraint buckle or Perry’s skills with a blade, and Perry escaped, thinking that she had killed the doctor. Moncrieff was suspected of murder when she disappeared and was sentenced to exile in Scotland for 10 years.

Now, Moncrieff is back, not only pardoned by the Prince Consort but appointed to the ruling Council. And Perry, while investigating the deaths of two Echelon debutantes, falls through a trap door in a factory floor, horrified to find herself in an exact duplicate of the laboratory where Moncrieff’s doctor had tortured her so long ago.

Bec McMaster writes a compelling and pulse-pounding tale about the effects that keeping secrets have, not only on the person who has the secrets but on the people from whom those secrets are kept. She delves intimately into the motivations, both selfless and self-serving, for keeping those secrets, even in the face of emotional or physical death.

The author is masterful in her timing and in the phrasing of each secret’s reveal. The frustration and the tension she builds as you witness the effects of the lies of omission, as you wait for each secret to be divulged and acted upon, makes this a page-turner.

While the story may be set in an alternate history, or steampunk, version of 1800’s England, the bulk of the story is pointed more toward the emotional realm than the science fiction one. The scientific and medical technology in use is a parallel, though crude, version of today’s devices, from tape recorders and ear bud communicators to artificial hearts and blood dialysis. Thus, little suspension of disbelief is required, beyond a belief in the supernatural itself, to feel at home with the storyline.

This book is the 4th full-length novel in McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and it is definitely not a standalone book. In fact, this story arc is highly dependent upon the reader’s memory of the events that transpired in the 3rd novel, “My Lady Quicksilver.” Without that background, you will not sufficiently understand the Nighthawks or the dynamics between Garrett and Lynch, Garrett’s former and long-time commander, that fuel a lot of this story. And without that point of reference, it may be lost on you why certain characters believe it absolutely necessary to sacrifice blood, breath and soul in order to continue another’s survival.

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Long Lost

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Kate Burkholder and John Tomasetti are taking a weekend off from their various policing duties, intending to spend the two days together at an old country inn several hours from Painters Mill. They have spent nights together as lovers and they have spent days together as co-investigators on multiple high-profile murder cases. However, this is the first time they have tried to spend both nights and days together strictly as lovers. This is a big move for each of their scarred souls and for their relationship.

When John checks them in to the old Victorian-style B&B, he happens to mention their resident ghost he had read about on a travel website. And then he wishes he had kept his mouth shut.

It seems that the ghost is not a centuries-old Victorian specter. She is a young girl who disappeared from the inn only 22 years prior, leaving nothing behind but a stack of bloody clothes on the riverbank by the inn.

So much for an idyllic, romantic getaway. Justice, no statute of limitations on murder, memorial gravestones on the riverbank – such things just can’t be ignored, it seems. Besides, the weather has turned cold and rainy and who wants to hike the river trails in those conditions anyway!

The story is short, about 75% of the Kindle file downloaded, and concise. Through finely developed observational skills as well as an incident of happenstance (as opposed to coincidence), Kate and John solve the mystery within a day. And in the end, it is not that Kate and John are better than the detectives who investigated so long ago. Neither incompetence nor shoddy work ethics were the cause of the police department’s failure at that time or since. They were simply barking up the wrong branch of the right tree.

 Even though Linda Castillo achieved a nearly perfect blend of mystery and romance with a believable conclusion to both in such a short story, I still feel the need to drop the rating on the entry. And that choice has everything to do with backstory and editing.

Castillo only puts out a novel in this series once a year. The four entries prior to this short story have been well-executed in terms of story arc and consistent from novel to novel with respect to backstory and passage of time. They are clearly professionally edited with respect to consistency and continuity and with respect to typesetting and formatting.

Not so with this short story. All these aspects – execution of story arc, backstory, and formatting – come up short.

First, there are multiple formatting errors. Most of these consist of missing words, repeated words and spaces deleted between successive words. And these increase in frequency as the story nears completion.

Secondly, the backstory has a glaring inconsistency. Early in the entry, Kate states that she and John have known each other for 3 years. But she also states that it has been only 3 years since John’s family was murdered. However, if the last four books are to be believed, she has only known John for about 2 years at this point and she didn’t meet him until more than a year had passed since his family’s deaths. And there are multiple references to the Mast case, the subject of the previous book, in this short. Since Kate had only know John for a year and a half at that point and only a few months have passed since the case’s conclusion, all those “3’s” look like mistakes that weren’t caught, just like the formatting errors.


However, the real issue that affected my rating was the manner in which Castillo handled a portion of the romantic subplot. As part of that scenario, John talks to Kate about the possibility of them living together. The way Castillo phrases Kate’s response seems to indicate that this is new to Kate and the first time that the idea has been broached. NOT SO! The question of them living together came up in the previous novel and it was a big, big factor in that entry. So big, in fact, that it was almost a deal-breaker in their relationship. Thus, to treat it as if it were a new situation in this short story is a slap in the reader’s face.

The bottom line here is that a short story teaser put out only six weeks prior to a major release should be as professionally sound as the author’s full-length publications. Castillo’s works are expensive, both in printed and electronic formats. Thus, if a reader believes that the author’s quality has slipped, that reader may not purchase the next book, opting for their local library instead, if at all.

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