Death Masks

Death Masks_JimButcher_91479

PIVOTAL ENTRY IN THE SERIES

5 STARS

To read the promotional blurb on the back of the book, you’d think this was an entry very similar to the previous four. That blurb lists five different scenarios that will envelop Harry Dresden simultaneously, which is actually one or two more than normal.

For instance, the first 35 pages of the book encompass 2 hours of time in Harry’s life. In those 2 hours, Harry is blackmailed into a duel to the death with a warrior of the Red Court, a team of Johnny Marcone’s mafia goons ambush him in a parking garage, a Vatican emissary hires him to find the stolen Shroud of Turin and Susan Rodriguez reappears on Harry’s doorstep, after more than a year’s absence, and saves him from a vampire ambush. Add 2 more hours and 15 more pages and Harry has, in the morgue, a headless, handless, flayed corpse presenting multiple plagues to identify for Chicago PD’s Karin Murphy.

Yep, it seems like business as usual for a Harry Dresden book. However, four of the five episodes actually boil down to only two situations: the Vampire Red Court’s war against the Wizard’s White Council and the theft of the Shroud.

Susan’s returning is the wild card here, not only for Harry emotionally but for Harry’s mortality. The question is whether she is there extraneously to the other events or whether she is part of the War. Since the former leader of the Red Court was originally responsible for Susan’s current half-vampire, half-undead state, we don’t truly know if she is there to help Harry or to betray him.

This entry of the series appears to be pivotal to the ongoing story arc. All of the major players seem to make quantum, but believable, leaps in character growth and progression – Harry, Susan, Murphy, even Marcone. In addition, Harry is openly challenged by more than one major secondary character to examine his motivations and determine just why he chooses to protect mortals at the expense of his own health, wealth and standing in the supernatural community.

…SPOILERS FOLLOW…

Then we are introduced to a major secondary character who seems to know more about Harry than Harry does. Nicodemus, a collaborator with the Fallen who has been alive for millennia, claims to have known Harry’s deceased mother well and tells Harry that he has siblings. This is the second time that Harry has heard talk about his mother from a demon but it is the first time he has heard that he is not an only child.

But, most importantly, Nicodemus indicates that Harry is immortal. Not that he would be if he succumbed to the demon’s demands, but that he already is.

However, due to the fact that he is being tortured by Nicodemus at the time, Harry does not appear to comprehend the statement in its entirety. But I have a feeling that statement is laying the groundwork for much more to come. Since, as I write this review in 2014, there are currently 10 more novels in the series, I expect I’ll know soon enough if I understood that scene correctly.

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‘Twas The Night Before Vampires’ Christmas

Twas The Night Before Vampires Christmas_MikeCecconi_19387794

TWISTED BUT COOL

4 STARS

Every year at least one parody on Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” commonly called “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” comes to light. This year, the first one to catch my attention is written by Mike Cecconi.

The parody is available as a standalone purchase, but I happened upon it at the end of P.D. Lake’s “Santa’s Little Heist.” It seems to be a bit longer than the version it parodies and it does not always match the original cadence, but the story it tells works nevertheless.

And, as I was quietly smiling and enjoying Cecconi’s take on Santa vs. the Vampires, I suddenly found myself laughing aloud, tears streaming down my cheeks, at the visual from one stanza near the end. And I quote:

“With Rudolph’s nose set to ‘simulate sunlight,’

Thousands went up like fireworks into the night;

Included in the vampires’ incidental losses

Were the deaths from Christmas displays involving crosses.”

For those of us who truly believe, whether it be in vampires or in Santa, this parody hits the mark.

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Santa’s Little Heist

Santa's Little Heist_PDLake_EvePaludan_23791003

BAD PREMISE, BAD EDITING

2 STARS

Cute Christmas holiday romance. Reasonably complicated murder case. Unbelievable premise on which to base both.

First, the romance. Chief Inspector Darcy Carrington and Inspector Ethan Hunter are pulling a 72-hour shift that begins on Christmas Day. They do not normally partner together, but they are the only homicide detectives in their precinct without a spouse or children with which to spend the holidays. So Carrington has volunteered for the duty and has assigned Hunter to assist.

Carrington is a beautiful woman and Hunter is well aware of that fact. But he is just as, if not more, appreciative of the fact that she is an intelligent, insightful and capable detective. Unknown to Hunter, Carrington is just as impressed with his skills. When the 72-hour shift becomes a 7-day marathon due to an outbreak of food poisoning amongst the other detectives, their constant togetherness eventually brings their personal lives into the mix.

But this romance is not a case of lust fueled by opportunity. It is a tale of two people who see each other as beautiful inside as well as out – professionally and personally.

Next, the murder. On Christmas morning, the body of a middle-aged man is found lying in a non-public hallway of the local mall, battered beyond recognition. Although his wallet is beside him, all his identification has been removed, even his wedding ring and his watch. His fingerprints are not in the system and the detectives have only two clues – an anonymous 999 call telling where to find the victim and scads of surveillance video from the mall’s many cameras.

For Hunter and Carrington, their first break in the case is a missing person’s report filed that afternoon that matches the victim. And what seems to be a brutal crime of passion takes on a new twist when the dead man is identified as the manager of Dylan’s Diamonds, a high-end jewelry store in the mall. And that store has been robbed overnight.

Now, the poor premise on which both the romance and the murder investigation depend. At the very beginning of the story, we are told that Hunter and Carrington are the only homicide detectives scheduled to work that 72-hour period beginning Christmas Day. This is predicated on the “fact” that for an untold number of years, that precinct has had virtually no murders between Christmas Day and New Year’s.

No murders? None? No unattended deaths at all? Oh. Come. On.

This is London, not some village of a hundred people out in the boonies. And it is Christmas, a time that seems to produce the most suicides and the most violent domestic disturbances of all regardless of geographical region. Any reader who takes the books of Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes for a ride on a regular basis knows that this premise requires a suspension of disbelief that is beyond the pale.

But the killer for this book (no pun intended) is the poor editing. First, we have co-authors and perhaps the left hand did not read what the right hand had already written. For instance, we are first told that Hunter started out as a beat patrolman. Then, later on, we are told he started out as a crime scene photographer. Only one of these scenarios can be the truth; they are not compatible assignments. So the question is whether one author wrote the first scenario and the other didn’t read that part before continuing with the next section.

But the editing errors go way beyond incompatible facts related to backstory. We also have typographical errors – and there are a lot of them. Some of these errors involve changes of tense and of possession within a single sentence. There are also sentences with missing words and sentences with words that shouldn’t be there. Some sentences contain phrases and clauses that just make no sense when referenced back to the subject of the sentence. And these confusing sentences cannot be chalked up to the differences between British and American speech. These situations would be just plain poor sentence construction in any language or culture.

And this leads me to my major disappointment. P.D. Lake, as previously mentioned, has a co-writer for this book, a person who is a well-published author in her own right, an author whom I have read many times. And this co-author is also a professional editor and proofreader! Perhaps this book just slipped through the cracks in an attempt to get it published in time for readers intent on Christmas-themed entries. No matter – left-hand or right-hand, a professional editor should not have let that happen.

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Gone Missing

Gone Missing_LindaCastillo_18868714

FORESTS AND TREES

5 STARS

Agent John Tomasetti, with Ohio’s BCI state investigative force, has been assigned to delve into the disappearances of three female Amish teens. The disappearances have all occurred in the area surrounding Buck Creek, but the time span ranges from just a few days missing to almost a year.

Tomasetti calls Kate Burkeholder, the Painter’s Mill police chief, and asks her to consult with the task force on this investigation, his request being both professionally and personally motivated. From a professional standpoint, not only is Kate a cop, she is former Amish and has an insider’s view on the culture which has prevented law enforcement outsiders from gleaning enough information to search for the girls properly. She also speaks Pennsylvania Dutch, the language the area Amish often use to keep the Englischers at arm’s length.

On the personal side, Tomasetti and Kate have been involved in an exclusive, long-distance relationship for over a year. Tomasetti’s office is nearly a hundred miles from Painter’s Mill and that distance, plus their various cases, keeps them more apart than together. However, they trust each other implicitly, both personally and professionally, and they work well together. So, for Tomasetti and Kate, this consulting gig is good for everyone involved.

It doesn’t take Kate too long to begin ferreting out clues from the Amish parents of the missing girls. It takes even less time for the body of the latest missing teen to surface. And then another Amish girl, the niece of Kate’s brother-in-law back in Painter’s Mill, disappears.

Everything that Kate has gathered from the parents and friends of the missing girls, as well as what she personally knows about her own family’s Sadie, boils down to cultural dissention. All the victims were rebelling against the restrictions of the Amish faith. They had been argumentative and secretive with their parents and had been illicitly consorting with Englischers. And each one had professed a desire to leave the Amish faith permanently.

So the question for Kate and Tomasetti is whether the girls have chosen to leave the area voluntarily by way of the local “Underground Railroad,” whether their rebellion has made them prey to an Englischer sexual deviant, or whether someone wants to punish them for being unfaithful to their Church law. And a list of suspects who could fit into any or all of these categories abounds.

The majority of this book takes place within a 72-hour period. Thus, both the clues and the red herrings come fast and thick. Linda Castillo, as in the previous entries of the series, writes this book in Kate Burkeholder’s first-person, present moment POV, which makes the case unfold in real time. Thus, Castillo creates an edgy tenseness that comes from the reader having no fly-on-the-wall perspective or little warning as to what is upcoming.

Castillo also changes the personal focus of Kate and Tomasetti in this novel. In the previous entries, the author has focused the story arcs around situations that would emphasize Kate’s rape as a teenager or the rape/murders of Tomasetti’s wife and children. In this issue, Castillo focuses Kate and Tomasetti on the way parents treat their children and how parents often delude themselves as to the reality of their children’s lives. Tomasetti, in particular, is forced by the circumstances of the disappearances and murders, to acknowledge his culpability in these areas with respect to his young daughters prior to their rapes and murders.

Psychologically, this can be a tough book to read. Castillo pulls no punches here about emotional, physical or sexual abuse within a family. And the chapters that reveal and interact with the murderer are absolute mental torture, since they are told in real-time, rather than in third person.

Lastly, a word to the wise reader here – Don’t skim the Prologue too quickly just to get into the meat of the novel faster. Pay attention to EVERY character mentioned in that Prologue, not just to Becca and what you know is coming by the time you have read the first few sentences. Prologues aren’t always a scene-setter or a quick blip back to the past. Sometimes a Prologue is the forewarning to the Epilogue.

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The Dead Detective

The Dead Detective_JRRain_23453869

GOOD COP, BAD COP, DEAD COP

4 STARS

In this first entry in their Dead Detective series, J.R. Rain and Ron Kierkegaard, Jr., provided me with my first literary venture into the idea of zombies. Not being much for horror movies, I have studiously avoided books that stereotyped zombies and ghouls as brain-eating, flesh-devouring mindless killers with body parts and flesh falling off at regular intervals.

Then along comes an email from J.R. Rain promoting this new collaboration called “The Dead Detective.” The promotional blurb casually mentions that the novel’s heroine has been murdered and then reanimated as a zombie assassin. However, having read and enjoyed many of Rain’s paranormal works, I figured that this “zombie” situation was probably not going to fit that typical stereotype. So I took the plunge, bought the book and found out that I was right.

As the story opens, Robbery-Homicide Detective Richelle Dadd regains consciousness in an abandoned warehouse with a chalk outline drawn around her body. The whole crew is there, from the detectives to the crime scene techs to the coroner’s assistants. She has no idea how she got there, but the scene smacks to her of an elaborate joke – her fellow officers punking her, maybe as a prank prior to her impending promotion to Sergeant.

However, Richelle is hard pressed to explain the neat hole right through her heart, no blood pressure, no pulse and a bullet rattling around inside her ribcage. As best she can tell, after she calms down, someone somehow lured her to the warehouse, put a bullet into her specifically to damage the heart and the heart only, and then reanimated her in some as yet unexplained manner. The “what” is terrifying enough to Richelle, but it’s the “why” that confounds her and drives the remainder of the story.

So Richelle is now a member of the undead. She is weakened by sunlight yet can eat and drink normally with no unusual cravings. However, she can also see and talk to ghosts and she can see another worldly dimension superimposed over the “normal” one.

But for Richelle, these are just another set of problems to deal with. Undead or not, she has a cheating husband to divorce, a mortgage to pay, a cat to retain custody of, her murderer to find and the motive behind her transformation to determine. And, of course, she still has her regular caseload in the Robbery-Homicide Division to deal with.

As this is the first entry in the series, Rain and Kierkegaard do a lot of world building in the first half of the novel. But it does not come in the form of traditional third-person info dumps. This story is written from Richelle’s first-person POV; therefore the reader does not get the information any faster than she does. So, as she treats her condition symptomatically and works to solve her murder, her new world makes its appearance in fits and bursts.

At first, this method of introducing a supernatural/paranormal existence feels very jerky and confusing. But when Richelle is able to tie her murder to an old case involving Romani gypsies, teams up with a ghostly cop who was killed in the line of duty decades past, and learns from her mother the truth about her own gypsy heritage, the world that Rain/Kierkegaard has been alluding to cleanly snaps into place.

From this point on, it is all about Richelle finding and stopping the perpetrators before they create more zombie cops and solving a series of connected crimes. It is also about the rigors of surviving physically intact in a world where she can be horrifically and permanently damaged but never killed.

The worlds of the living, the undead and the truly dead are so entwined and built up, using gypsy legend and Jewish/Middle Eastern history, that they feel plausible, with very little suspension of disbelief required. Of course, in the case of this novel, it doesn’t hurt if you truly have an open mind about the plausibility and possibility of curses, hypnotic suggestions, telepathic control, ghosts, and transmigration of souls. But then, who would willingly embark upon a read about vampires, shifters, ghosts, witches or zombies if they didn’t!

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Eternity In Death

Eternity In Death_JDRobb_10543779

WOODEN STAKES AND SILVER CROSSES

4 STARS

Tiara Kent is one of those megarich kids whom the media adore. Her money comes from the hard work of someone three generations before her and she has never had to nor even been expected to do anything that remotely resembles work. Thus, her only goals in life are to buy clothes and shoes, to find the next chemical high, and to find the next thrilling adventure.

When Tiara’s father announces his engagement to a woman even younger than Tiara’s 23 years, she becomes obsessed with the horrors of growing old and thus obsessed with the necessity to remain beautiful. She fills her days with body sculpting, breast implants, face-lifts and acres of mirrors in her penthouse in which to admire the results.

And she fills the remaining two weeks of her nights with the Dark Prince, as she calls him, who has promised to give her eternal life – and eternal beauty. When Eve Dallas and Peabody see her the morning following her “ritual of immortality,” they find the requisite puncture marks on her neck. They find a smattering of blood on her sheets. They find the rest of her blood missing. They find her jewelry missing as well. And they find her as dead as the proverbial doornail.

This being only a 108-page novella, it does not take Eve long to locate the alleged “Dark Prince.” He is Dorian Vadim, owner and manager of the underground club BloodBath, a club geared to the wanna-be vampire crowd and those just out for a taste (pun intended) of the supernatural side.

Vadim is tall, dark and handsome, charismatic to the nth degree and sex walking. He is also arrogant enough to try to seduce Eve with Roarke standing right beside her. But it is the soulless black eyes, the same eyes her father had, that unnerve Eve and jolt her stride.

So, armed with incident reports from both Europe and the states, tox and DNA reports from Morris, a profile from Mira and her own stun gun, Eve goes on the hunt to bring Vadim down. With attitudes of “better safe than sorry,” thrust upon her is an open-minded New Ager’s approach from Peabody, garlic cloves from her detective squad, a wooden stake from Baxter and a silver cross from Roarke.

This is not the first entry in which JD Robb has introduced some form of paranormal entity into a murder. Previously, there have been ghosts as well as psychics and sensitives with documented successes. Now, the focus is on vampires, both the ones of legend and the ones who metaphorically suck another person’s soul dry.

Cloves of garlic aside, this entry is no spoof, even if it was written at the height of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight Saga.” The murders are real, the characters’ beliefs or disbeliefs in the supernatural are real, and the wooden stake and cross turn out to be not such bad ideas either.

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The Empty Chair

The Empty Chair_JefferyDeaver_142540

A FISH OUT OF WATER

5 STARS

In Tanner’s Corner, NC, Garrett Hanlon, 16 years old, orphaned and essentially feral, has allegedly killed Billy Stail with a shovel and has allegedly kidnapped Mary Beth McConnell. He has allegedly put a county deputy into a life-threatening coma using the stings of hundreds of yellow jackets. And we know for a fact, no “allegedly” about it, that he has kidnapped Lydia Johansson.

Coincidental to the entire series of crimes, Lincoln Rhyme, Amelia Sachs and Thom arrive at UNC’s medical center, located only a few miles from Tanner’s Corner. Lincoln is scheduled for major spinal surgery, a procedure that Amelia has serious doubts about. Angry with Amelia for questioning his decision, Lincoln is even angrier when she walks into the doctor’s office with a local law enforcement officer.

Jim Bell is the sheriff of Paquenoke County, where the murder, kidnappings and assault have just taken place. He is also the cousin of Roland Bell, one of the two NYPD detectives that Rhyme works with on a regular basis as an expert forensics consultant. Bell has come, hat in hand, to beg Rhyme for help. His county is poor, with no crime lab of its own, and his police force is now understaffed and over-tasked.

Amelia is all for it, presumably to get Rhyme away from the hospital. Thom is completely against it, as he has limited medical equipment with him to help Rhyme with the physical rigors of an investigation. But Rhyme, after his initial snit over the disruption subsides, sees the threads of a puzzle that needs solving. So Rhyme agrees to help Sheriff Bell for two days, the time he has until his surgery is to take place.

As the flush of joy over having a new puzzle to solve fades, Rhyme realizes that he is at a considerable disadvantage here, and not because he’s a quadriplegic. He is totally ignorant of his surroundings, knowing nothing about the soil, the water, the air or the people here. He is out of his natural element and Garrett Hanlon is not. For Garrett has taken his captives into his own territory, the sweaty, nasty bogs on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Scant evidence exists to aide Rhyme and Sachs in their search. The primary and secondary scenes have been trampled and mangled by a police force inadequately trained in CSI. Private citizens have made things both worse and dangerous as they hunt the boy, not just to find the kidnapped women but for the reward. And one of the deputies has gone rogue, defying orders from the sheriff, intent on killing the boy for the present wrongs and for acts he legally skated on several years earlier.

But Rhyme and Sachs prevail, Garrett Hanlon is caught, the second woman kidnapped is rescued, the deputy’s killing spree is thwarted. The only thing that remains is to find the first girl kidnapped. Then you realize that you are barely one-third of the way into the book, and that is far too soon for the plot to be at this point of completion. Perhaps “alleged,” that word those criminal defense attorneys so irritatingly insist upon, really means something here.

Sure enough, as the old saying goes, the plot thickens. And by the halfway mark, Deaver will metaphorically shove the knife through both Rhyme’s and the reader’s shoulder blades. He will viciously twist that knife and leave you to wonder just how Rhyme and Sachs can possibly survive physically, emotionally and legally.

However, Deaver is not through here. He is not going to let this twist play out logically to its conclusion. He is going to twist and twist and twist yet again. By the time you are two chapters from the end of the book – and it’s a long book – you will just know that if Deaver twists that story arc one more time, even one more degree, you will most certainly have either a coronary or a stroke. The suspense is that intense.

In building that suspense, be aware that Deaver makes use of a great many stereotypes as he plays out the investigation. The story takes place in rural North Carolina so Deaver utilizes stereotypes about Southerners and Northerners, about city cops and rural cops, about women and blacks and crips. And just as he paints some characters with the black brushes of these stereotypes, he uses events and other characters to lay some of those images low and to intimate why stereotypes exist in the first place.

But what Deaver doesn’t do is make it easy to figure out how it’s all going to play out. Just when you think you know who the bad guys are, you find out that you don’t know squat or you find out you don’t know the half of how bad they really are. The only characters whose moral compass you can count on are those of Rhyme, Sachs and Thom. And with trust being in such short supply, the lives of each of them, even Thom, is not guaranteed as long as anyone in their vicinity carries either a gun, a knife, a syringe or a quick fist. Quite frankly, this is an intense page-turner and a psychological stressor right to the very last page.

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