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Bright Midnight by Chris Formant

Chris Formant is a life-long student of classic rock and roll and a collector of rock memorabilia. He holds a seat on the Board of Trustees of the Rock and Role Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  “Bright Midnight” is his first novel and it will be a crowd-pleaser for all the baby boomers who love classic rock and all those conspiracy theorists who believe in the “Myth of 27.”

For the uninitiated, the  “Myth of 27” hypothesizes that there is simply too much coincidence around the fact that so many rock stars, and particularly during the height of rock and roll post-Woodstock, died of mysterious causes at the age of 27– too many for it to simply be coincidence.  While Formant’s work is fiction, he has thoroughly researched each of the artists who died within a few years of each other in  the late 1960s and early 1970s including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ron McKernan, Peter Ham, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Al Wilson.  Formant uses modern forensic analysis techniques to combined with clues from research of memorabilia and historical records to pose plausible explanations as to why all these deaths were not just accidental deaths or suicides, and how they were related.  Certain sinister aspects of the rock and roll record industry seem to have doomed some of the more rebellious and independent artists to short lives.

The protagonist is a classic rock editor for Rolling Stone, Gantry Elliot.  He is an aging “has been” struggling to keep up with the the changes in rock music until he begins to receive anonymous tips about the rock stars of the 1960s and 1970s who all died at age 27.  The tipster maintains that all of these artists were murdered and presents clues with each package to support the claim.  By the time Gantry has received several of these packages he takes the evidence to the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit who, after expressing initial doubts, decides to take on the cold cases and involves associates in Scotland Yard and the French National Police to take the lead on solving the deaths that occurred within their jurisdictions. Gantry involves his boss, the editor of Rolling Stone and eventually gains his full support.

There are fascinating details about the music industry, and modern day forensics.  It turns out that as good as technical forensics is now, old-fashioned interviewing of former associates of the dead and people who might shed light on the commonalities between all of the victims is what actually breaks the case.  The closer Gantry gets to breaking some of these cases, the more dangerous the international crime thriller gets for Gantry and the people who open up to him and the FBI.

Bright Midnight” is an inventive read sure to please those who are nostalgic for the Age of Aquarius and its rock legends and those who enjoy speculating on conspiracy theories such as the “Myth of 27.”

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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The Italian Divide by Allan Topol

The Italian Divide” is Allan Topol’s twelfth international thriller.  It is part of his “A Craig Page Thriller” series.

Topol never minces words.  Readers know immediately that the world is once again in deep trouble because of bad actors on the political and economic scene.  The characters are eerily believable.  In this case, an Italian banker is murdered and another Italian banker is forced to sell his share of his bank in exchange for a financial bailout and support for his political ambition by a mysterious Chinese mogul who turns out to be China’s finance minister.  In the thick of it trying to foil the plot to destroy the Italian economy and divide the country is Craig Page, a former CIA director who has gone into retirement in the guise of an Italian race car driver, Enrico Marino.

Topol spins such a captivating tale that it is hard to put “The Italian Divide” down before the nail-biter of an ending.

Two thumbs up!

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied proof copy.)

 

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The Blood Strand by Chris Ould

British screen writer and author, Chris Ould, just published “The Blood Strand,” a Foroyar Novel, in February 2016.  This police procedural is set in the Faroe Islands.  Administratively, the Faroe Islands are a part of Denmark.  When there is a police matter too complex for the local officers a team is often called in from Denmark to help solve the case.  It is quite close to the British Isles and gets a fair number of British tourists, and in this case, it is a Faroese native who has lived most of his life in Great Britain and is a British detective, Jan Reyna, who helps the local police detective, Hjalti Hentze, and his team to solve a couple murders that might be tied to members of his family in the Faroe Islands.  Jan is on the Islands to visit his ailing estranged father, Signar Ravensfjall.  Signar is not expected to recover from a massive stroke and the family is being gathered.

The police determine that there is something suspicious about Signar being found in his car in a remote part of the islands.  When Jan and Hjalti make the connection and start questioning possible witnesses or criminals, the people they contact start to die, and Jan begins to  wonder if some of his relatives are involved in something illegal.

Like so many Police procedurals this book is slow at times because the process of discovery for all the details that must be unraveled in this case is slow and repetitive. Sometimes Jan and Hjalti walk away with no new information during visits to possible witnesses and suspects, sometimes they get a small sliver of information, and increasingly toward the end of the book, the pieces start coming together.  A reader must have a certain amount of patience to get through this 435 page book, but increasingly the reader is rewarded by this complex and tightly woven plot.  It is amazing that so many secrets can be kept on this small and sparsely populated set of islands.  In respect to the remote island setting, the circumspect Scandinavian population, and the dark family secrets, “The Blood Strand” reminds me of the first in the Steig Larsson trilogy.

I give “The Blood Strand” at lease one thumb up.  I just wish the investigation had been a little shorter or a little more exciting in the first two thirds of the book.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a provided proof copy.)

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House of 8 Orchids by James Thayer

I loved “House of 8 Orchids,” the thriller set in China in the late 1930s by James Thayer.  The novel was published in paperback January 5, 2016, and judging from other reviews in Amazon it has been very well received.  Thayer is called “a master storyteller” by Clive Cussler.  This is his fourteenth novel, and his experience shows in this vividly told story.

House of 8 Orchids” is the story of John Wade, the son of an American Consul General in Chungking, China, who at age five, along with his younger brother, was kidnapped from the streets of Chungking by the thuggish Eunich Chang.  Chang embarked on a life of crime after the fall of the last emperor of China.  He trained the American boys to be pickpockets and swindlers and, along with other boys he plucked from the streets, the henchmen for all his evil endeavors.  When John’s brother, William, decided to save a woman Chang had kidnapped to sell as a sex slave, John began to gradually recognize the Eunich and his former life as evil and to embrace using his physical and mental strengths to do good.  These more noble impulses in John were encouraged by his experiences with an American doctor who operated a clinic along the Yangtze River and an American Naval commander who helped Wade ultimately defeat Eunich Chang and other forces of evil.

House of 8 Orchids” provides a vivid portrayal of the dangers and chaos faced by everyone living in China during that time when the Kuomintang and Communists were fighting for control of the country, and the Japanese were also trying to gain a stronghold in China.  Add those political dangers to those of pirates, warlords and rogues like Eunich Chang on top of everyday illnesses and accidents and it is a wonder anyone survived that era in China.

John Wade is exactly the kind of protagonist I am excited to get to know in literature.  He is a complex combination of Chinese and American– more Chinese than American through most of the book.  That only gradually changes as he gets to know the doctor, Elizabeth Hanley, and the Naval officer, Commander Beals.

House of 8 Orchids” would make a terrific movie.  If it hasn’t already been optioned for the big screen, it should be.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied copy.)

 

 

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The Winemaker Detective by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen

I received a pre-publication uncorrected proof copy of “The Winemaker Detective” by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen, translated into English by Le French Book translators Anne Trager and Sally Pane.  The paperback version was published in English translation in December 2015.  This French cozy mystery is aimed at those who enjoy “Murder She Wrote” type plots in French wine country settings.  Like “Murder She Wrote” the books in the Winemaker Detective Series are being made into a successful television series seen in France and other French-speaking countries.  This collection includes the first three books in the series.

Each book represents an independent plot tied together with two amateur detectives and winemakers, Benjamin Cooker and his young employee, Virgile Lanssien.  Cooker is a fifty-something product of a French mother and British father.  He grew up in London but spent his summers on the acreage owned by his French grandparents, which he eventually inherited.  Cooker is a curious mixture in personality, temperament and interests of his Franco-Britsh heritage.  He spends a lot of his time driving around the French countryside in his beloved Mercedes exploring different wine-making regions and reviewing the best vintages in each one.  Along the way he runs into many eccentric and a good many shady characters.  The plots include industrial sabotage of the product of a winemaker in Bordeaux; the murder of a call girl and a hotel clerk, and theft of fine wines in the Loire Valley; and the murder of two graffitti artists in Burgundy.

Each book is highly descriptive.  Those who enjoy travel will get to know the French wine regions quite well through  Cooker’s adventures.  The plots are intriguing, as well, so that it is easy to see why this mystery series makes for successful television in France.  I have to admit, however, that some of the detective work drags on as Cooker and Virgile find themselves retracing their steps in order to pick up new pieces of information, and there is not a lot of  action.  The pace is more sedate than I generally like– again, rather like episodes of “Murder She Wrote”.

Still, the series will have wide appeal within the British and American mystery-reading market, and particularly for those who enjoy a bit of armchair travel and lots of detailed descriptions of great French food and wine.

I give “The Winemaker Detective” French cozy mystery compilation a one-thumb up.

Liz Nichols

 

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Swedish journalist, David Lagercrantz, has taken over the Lisbeth Salander series that appeared to be ended with the passing of Stieg Larsson.  I have been fascenated by the series since the very first novel and Lagercrantz is, for the most part, living up to the legend.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web” carries the Salander story forward a couple years after the last Larsson novel.  Lisbeth is back in Sweden after lengthy stays in the Caribbean and other parts of the world and she has become even more famous within the hacker community under the handle “the Wasp.”  The story revolves around a famous computer scientist, Frans Balder, who leaves his Silicon Valley job developing an artificial intelligence program for a supercomputer in order to return to his native Sweden in order to take care of his mentally disabled but savant son, August, and to get his son removed from the home of his former wife and her abusive boyfriend.  Balder is murdered for his scientific discoveries and August is targeted for death because he witnessed the murder and has a gift for drawing and mathematics and might be able to identify the killer even without language skills.

Lisbeth Salander is asked by her journalist friend, Mikael Blomkvist, to look into the murder of Balder and to locate his missing computer files.  In the process she saves the boy and hides him from the perpetrators, a rogue cyber spies led by her estranged sister, Camilla, called the Spiders.  Lisbeth also dodges an arrest and extradition by the NSA for having hacked their computers. The fact that Camilla escapes most likely sets up the next installment in the series.

The writing of the Salander series is not as elegant as it was coming from Larsson and there are sections toward the middle of the book that drag whereas every page of the Larsson novels was a page-turner.  Still, the plot is intricate and interesting, and Lagercrantz does a lot to humanize Salander far beyond anything in the earlier books.  It turns out Salander can actually be a caring person who has the capacity to show compassion for and the patience to take care of a young boy.  She also takes the time to observe the extraordinary gifts of young August and to see to it that they are developed by arranging to fund his education.  I like the direction of this new Salander novel, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” and look forward to reading many more installments of Salander’s story.

Liz Nichols

 

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Blood on Snow byJo Nesbo

Blood on Snow” is a bit of a departure for Jo Nesbo.  We are used to seeing serial killers through the eyes of his police detective, Harry Hole.  This tale is told in the first person by the contract serial killer himself, Olav, a “fixer” for an Oslo crime family.  He is a fixer with a moral compass, and that is what ultimately gets him in trouble.  Olav can do anything for his boss except drive a get-away car, deal in drugs, participate in a robbery, or deal in prostitution.  Mostly, he deals in killing people who, in his opinion, deserve it.

The main thrust of Olav’s tale is how he deals with the order to kill the boss’s wife, Corina.  Olav makes the mistake of wanting time to think about it, which dooms him to becoming expendable once the deed is done.  Even after Olav agrees to the job he stalls.  He concentrates first on killing the wife’s supposed lover, who turns out to be the boss’s son and then he tries to make it seem like he has accomplished his task while actually protecting the wife.  But is Corina to be trusted?  Will Olav’s other love interest, Maria live or die?

This is a rather simple tale with an unusually principaled killer acting as anti-hero.  The characterizations of Olav and some of the people surrounding him are finely drawn, even though some of the characters seen through Olav’s eyes are romanticized and badly mis-judged.  Near the beginning of the book Olav describes a black widow spider who will devour her mate if he outlasts his stay.  This becomes a metaphor for the actions of Corina and women like her.

I am a big fan of Jo Nesbo, and “Blood on Snow” does not disappoint.  He takes the horror and thriller genres beyond their usual levels of literary sophistication.  His characters are always fascinatingly complex.  A recommended read for lovers of this genre.

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The Charlemagne Connection by R M Cartmel

Cote-de-Nuits region of Burgundy, France

Cote-de-Nuits region of Burgundy, France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Charlemagne Connection” is the second in Cartmel’s Commander Charlemagne Truchaud series set in the Cote de Nuits region of Burgundy, France.  The second book picks up just months after the last book’s action.

A young German who spends a season in the vineyards of the Truchaud’s LaForge neighbors disappears without a trace.  No one thinks anything about it until the RV park where the young man’s camper has been sitting abandoned asks the gendarmerie of Nuits-St-Georges to investigate.  That leads to a visit from the German man’s sister and her best friend from Chemnitz, Germany.  Truchaud finds an excuse to recall his trusty team member from Paris, Sergeant Natalie Dutoit, because she speaks and understands German better than anyone locally and can communicate with the two German girls.  The return of Natalie rekindles the love interest that Truchaud feels and continually tries to hide.  Truchaud’s extended absense from the Paris Division of the National Police also seems to be placing his long term prospects as a commander in that force in jeapardy.  His divisional commander formally lends him out to the local gendarmerie seeing as how the person Truchaud killed in the last book was the crooked local police chief.

The Charlemagne Connection” feels like a continuation of a long and evolving story about the Truchaud family, their neighbors the Laforge’s.  Rather like the J.A. Jance characters it is easy to get wound up in the lives of Cartmel’s main characters and to look forward to new installments, just as one would look forward to receiving news about the developments in the lives of one’s own family and friends.  I will look forward to the next installment to find out what happens to Truchaud’s responsibilities in Paris, his relationship with Natalie, the health and condition of his father who has Alzheimer’s, and now also the budding relationship between Dagmar Witter and winemaker Simon Marechale.

That being said, I felt that “The Charlemagne Connection” dragged a bit in parts compared to the very intense and action-filled “Richebourg Affair.”  The excuse made for bringing back Natalie was a little improbable.  I don’t see a busy police force letting a brand new, up-and-coming sergeant head out on a remote assignment so soon after promotion.  This installment is more police procedural and less thriller than the last book.

I did enjoy “The Charlemagne Connection” for the most part, because it rekindled an interest in this particular group of characters, the winemaking industry, and this particular part of France and I look forward to the next chapter in the lives of the Truchaud and Laforge families.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied copy.)

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Five by Ursula Archer

Five” is a psychological thriller set in beautiful Salzburg, Austria which pits a brilliant p0lice inspector, Beatrice Kaspary, against a serial killer who sets out clues using a popular kind of scavenger hunt called geocaching.

To find out more about geocaching I signed up for a free membership (there is also a premium level that allows for filtering and more features.) Geocachers hide small treasure troves for others to find and identify them with clues that require solving puzzles or problems and following GPS to specific coordinates.  Normally the treasure boxes are left in place and the finder simply signs a logbook found in the treasure box and also indicates the find online.  I learned that there are dozens of geocaches within a mile of my home.  Who knew?

In “Five” the serial killer takes the treasure hunt theme to a gruesome extreme by leaving body parts for Beatrice and her police team to find.  In some cases kidnapped victims are themselves left as the treasures to find.  The ingenious and sadistic killer controls the hunt by leaving clues on his own terms. First the team must figure out what each of the victims has in common.  That takes a long and frustrating series of interviews with family and associates of the victims, and an almost futile look for mistakes that the killer may have made.

Beatrice and the team really only start making progress in solving the murders when she starts turning the game against the killer causing him anger and frustration.  He starts making little mistakes in his frustration. This tactic also makes Beatrice a target for the serial killer.  She virtually invites him to come after her–and he does with terrifying results.  But will the cops be successful at getting the killer before he kills Beatrice and goes on harming other victims?

I found “Five” absolutely addictive and hard to put down until the last thrilling page.  Highly recommended, though not for the squeamish!

Liz Nichols

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Butterfly Skin by Sergey Kuznetsov

This English translation of Sergey Kuznetsov’s early 2000’s psychological thriller, “Butterfly Skin” came out in September of 2014.  It was translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield.  The novel may appeal to those who liked “The Silence of the Lambs,” or Nesbo’s “The Snowman.”  I would characterize this novel as “Fifty Shades of Gray” meets “The Silence of the Lambs.”  Whether or not it is successful at holding the reader’s attention is partly a matter of taste.  For my taste, I find the novel flawed.

In order to keep me interested in reading such a graphically violent and sexually demeaning novel I must be immediately riveted by the protagonist and find some element of the serial killer’s personality or story so fascinating that it is worth it for me to slog through pages of very descriptive horror in order to see how the story develops between the protagonist and the killer.

I have read the first third of the book and so far the first person machinations of the protagonist and the killer leave me cold and unmoved.

The protagonist is a young female e-newspaper editor who decides to do a special series on a Moscow serial killer who leaves most of his victims, raped, skinned alive and with eyes cut out and jammed in the females’ more private orifices.  The bodies are left in places where they will be easily found.  As it happens the newspaper editor prefers her sex to be of the S&M variety.   So far, this plot and the extremely self-absorbed characters leave me uncaring about there fates and unwilling to spend more time wallowing in the book to see if something sparks my attention further on.

It happens sometimes that a book is just not my cup of tea.  I recognize, however, that this book may appeal to some readers.  It may appeal to some as a social commentary on contemporary Russian social issues.  It may also appeal to some for the horror and the rough sex.

I am neither recommending nor giving both thumbs down on “Butterfly Skin.”  For myself, I have simply chosen not to finish the book.

Liz Nichols

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