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The Seige Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Ariana Franklin, best selling author of medieval thrillers, died while writing “The Seige Winter” in 2011.  It was completed and published by Ariana’s daughter Samantha Norman.

The narrator of the story is William, Abbot of Perton Abbey around 1180 a.d., who is telling the story on his death bed for a young monk to transcribe.  The story is one about his family and their household about 40 years earlier, during the wars between the daughter of Henry I, Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen.  Henry on his death bed had declared Matilda his heir, but most of the barons of the land refused to swear alliegance to a woman and selected Stephen instead.  It was a time of great hardship as nobles loyal to Matilda were beseiged by Stephen’s superior troops and villages were plundered and burned.

One of the casualties during this time was the rape of a young girl in the Fens by a bunch of mercenaries led by a murderous monk loyal to Stephen.  One of the mercenary archers, Gwil, took pitty on the girl and defected in order to take care of her and to get her to safety.  He called the girl Penda since she could not remember her own name or the horrendous circumstances that caused her to be separated from her people.  To keep her safe on the road, Gwil insisted she disguise herself as a boy, and he taught her archery skills so that she would have a way of making a living.  After some years on the road as entertainers, they were forced into the company of a group of nobles who were fleeing from mercenaries, a group that happened to include Empress Matilda herself.  They all fled to Kenniford Castle, the home of Maud of Kenniford.  The Abbot, William, was the young boy at the time of the story who was Maud’s stepson.

One theme in this novel is about the place of women in medieval Anglo-Saxon and Norman society and how some were able to transcend their station in life through happenstance of birth and through hard work, skill and some degree of deception.  There are several very strong women role-models in this story, all of whom are to a large degree feared and admired by William.

There is considerable tension in this thriller as the reader waits for the inevitable second face-off between Penda and the murderous monk.

The Seige Winter” is well-crafted and informative about a period in history that was fundamental to the formation of the powerful Norman baronies in England during the Middle Ages.  It keeps readers on the edge of their seats to discover what will happen to several favorite characters, including Penda, Gwil, Maud and her love interest, Sir Alan.

Recommended.

Liz Nichols

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A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

After 8 years of writing mystery and thriller reviews I felt a need for a rest.  My mother died in late February and work to do to setter her affairs.  There were taxes to complete and also a new business to start so my reading time was curtailed for a couple months.  When I finally emerged with enough time to read books again I found a challenge that was not exactly in the mystery genre, although there are murders, mysteries and swashbuckling thriller plots throughout.  I took up the challenge of reading all 8 of the books in Diane Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series– not a small task as most of her books in this series are over 1000 pages in length.

I have just completed number six in the series, “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” and I think other than the first book, “Outlander,” this is my favorite.  “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” finds the entire Fraser family together on Fraser’s Ridge in the wilds of colonial North Carolina where Jamie has been granted a large range of land to parcel out to other Highlander settlers and eventually a variety of other pioneers.  The Highlanders all share something in common:  in order to be allowed to emigrate they had to swear allegiance to the British king.  The tenor of the times, 1767-1776, makes it increasingly difficult to keep up loyalty to the crown.  Claire and Jamie’s daughter, Brianna, and the man she meets in 20th century Scotland, Roger, like Claire, time travel through a Celtic stone circle in order to find Brianna’s father and her mother who traveled back in time earlier.  They need to warn them of a news clipping from 1776 that suggests Claire and Jamie will be killed in a fire in their home at Fraser’s Ridge in January of 1776 and they want to stop the disaster from happening.  Do they survive? You must read to the end of the sixth book to find out!

Meanwhile, there are a variety of heart-pounding narrow escapes, murder plots and mayhem to keep the incredibly detailed plot threads moving along so that it is very hard to put the book down, and especially this sixth novel in the series. Claire gets kidnapped by some militiamen who do not care for Fraser and his family.  She is accused of killing a young woman who serves as Claire’s apprentice healer, Malva Christie, and Claire is taken to New Bern to be tried.  Brianna, earlier in the book, is kidnapped by a smuggler and there is some question initially as to whether Brianna’s son, born 9 months later, is actually the smuggler’s or Roger’s.  There’s a mystery surrounding the appearance of a skull with a distinctly modern set of teeth and eventually that mystery is revealed by other time-travelers who demand Claire’s help in getting back to the 20th century.

As much as I enjoy reading about the amazing Fraser family, I am going to get back into reviewing newer mysteries and thrillers now.  A large number are still stacked up waiting for my attention.  But for those who are as hooked on the “Outlander” series as I am, and eagerly await the third season of the Starz drama (should coincide with the third book “Voyager“) I do particularly  recommend the sixth book “A Breath of Snow and Ashe” which is set in colonial North Carolina.

 

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Night Bird by Brian Freeman

Brian Freeman is a Minnesota-based author.  This is the second in his Frost Eaton detective triller series. Eaton is a handsome, single, cat-loving San Francisco police detective, a very likeable character.  The latest in the series, “The Night Bird” was just published February 1 by Thomas Mercer.

Night Bird” is a very scary psychological thriller about a serial killer who copies the techniques of a San Francisco psychiatrist, Francesca Stein, but with an evil intention.  Stein uses hypnosis and subliminal messaging to erase disturbing memories from patients and replace them with memories that will stop the phobias that developed around the trauma.  The psychotic maniac, instead, uses hypnosis and psychological and sensory torture to cause some of Stein’s patients to commit suicide upon command.  The killer wears a mask, which in San Francisco, does not cause a lot of notice.  He calls himself the “Night Bird” and uses all manner of technological tricks to spy on his victims and on Dr. Stein so that he knows what will trigger anxiety in the patients who become his targets. One of the songs he uses to trigger suicidal events in his victims is the song “Nightengale” by Carole King.  I don’t think I will ever be able to listen to that song again without thinking of this book!

It does not take long to get really sucked into this book.  One reason is the main characters all have interesting lives and stories built around their own unique situations so it became easy to feel empathy for some characters and disgust and revulsion for others. The characters are all memorable whether they are heroes or villains. One way or the other, the reader can picture these characters living and working in San Francisco.  The author appears to know the city well, even though he lives in Minnesota.

I am not totally convinced about the premise of the book that people who have been traumatized can be made to totally forget those traumatic experiences through hypnosis, drugs and subliminal suggestion, but I am willing to suspend my skepticism for the purposes of getting into the plot.  The premise is similar to that of the successful new TV show, “Blindspot.”  There are some nice twists to the plot as well that keep the reader guessing until the end.

Overall, Freeman has a winner with “The Night Bird.” It should be a hit with those who like to stay up late reading a real page-turner of a psychological thriller that will remain vividly in the memory bank for a long time to come.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

 

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Shattered by Death by Catherine Finger

Shattered by Death” is the second in the “A Jo Oliver Thriller” by Catherine Finger.  The protagonist is small town police chief, Jo Oliver, who is locked out of the investigation of the brutal killings of her estranged husband and his girl friend in a double homicide.  Oliver finds them in the boat house of the property she and her husband still own together.  Oliver’s close friend and budding romantic interest, FBI agent Nick Vitarello, presents evidence to clear Oliver of the crime, against the police chief’s will.

Many women will identify strongly with Oliver.  She is generous with her time in that she volunteers at a couple of women’s shelters.  This fact she wants to keep secret to protect the identies of the battered women who are sheltered, even though security tapes from the shelters will prove here whereabouts during the murders. She is in the process of adopting a child, even as she fights a contentious divorce. She is bull-headed, full of self-doubt about her worthiness to ever be loved (doubts Nick constantly tries to assuage), and she is a born-again Christian who frequently calls on God for guidance and support.

The identity of the serial killer who tries to frame the Chief is not a particular surprise to me, but the twists and turns that lead to the ending keep “Shattered by Death” a suspenseful read.  Two thumbs up.

Review copy was provided.

Liz Nichols

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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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Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris

Behind Closed Doors” by B.A. Paris was an instant best seller in the UK perhaps because it taps into the fears every woman has when she starts a new relationship that may lead to marriage.  It is, in some ways, the British answer to “Gone Girl.”  The novel will keep the reader constantly engaged, but it will be depressing as well.  It was published in the US in hardcopy on August 9, 2016 and is doing well in sales in the US also.

Behind Closed Doors” is about what seems to the outside world to be an ideal marriage of two professionally-oriented people, an attorney who takes on domestic abuse cases, Jack Angel, and a buyer for Harrods, Grace.  Jack wants her to give up her career when then get married, and Grace agrees both to have more time with Jack and to prepare to take care of her sister with Down’s syndrome, Millie, who will live them them in the countryside once she completes school.  Jack buys and decorates the perfect house and the newlywed couple befriend a few of the neighbors.  Things look deceptively rosy in the beginning.

Very shortly, Jack holds Grace hostage even when they go on vacation in Thailand. He subjects her to brutal psychological torture.  Grace initially believes that she can get away and convince others that she is being held against her will, but Jack is always two or three steps ahead and is good at convincing anyone who is asked to help by his wife that she is mentally ill.  The preparations to take Millie captive and to take even more than psychological punishment out on the mentally disabled girl becomes heart-wrenching for Grace and for the reader as attempt after attempt to foil Jack’s plan fails.

Readers who liked “Gone Girl” will also like “Behind Closed Doors.”  It is tightly written, the characters are multi-dimensional and explored in detail, and the plot is complex and heart-wrenching.

The sad thing is, almost everyone knows someone who is, or has, suffered psychological and/or physical abuse at the hands of the person who should be most trusted.  I have a niece who is not allowed to contact her parents or any of her old friends. She is closely monitored by a jealous husband. She and her daughter are held virtually as prisoners by her husband and his family and yet no one has been able to get her out of this situation because of the constant psychological abuse she has received and her reluctance or inability to turn her husband in for abuse.  “Behind Closed Doors” is a frighteningly real piece of fiction written to expose this type of domestic abuse.  It’s not a pleasant book to read, but it gives a message that must be heard.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed from a supplied early readers edition.

Liz Nichols

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Peregrine Island by Diane B Saxton

Saxton’s “Peregrine Island” left me dissatisfied for one primary reason.  The three main characters alternate chapters in first person and yet all of the voices sound alike to me.  We get to know the matriarch best, Winter Peregrine, the owner of a small island off Long Island Sound.  She owns a painting by a major twentieth century artist who disappeared about thirty years earlier.  Two art experts and the son of the missing artist show up on the island to examine and appraise the painting and to determine its authenticity.  The son gains a romantic attachment to Winter’s daughter, Elsie.  The third main character is Peda, Elsie’s young daughter, who speaks too remarkably like her grandmother to be believable as a young girl who has discovered and befriended a homeless man living under their pier.

Peregrine Island” is interesting enough and there are twists and turns sufficient to keep the reader interested– it is just that the author should have either had Winter, Elsie and Peda use language and word complexities that are different and appropriate for their own ages and points of view, or written the whole book in third person.

Readers can skip this first-time novel by Diane Saxton, a journalist and activist, unless there is a particular interest in the Long Island Sound area or the art thriller genre.  Perhaps her next novel will improve.

Reviewed with a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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The Candidate by Lis Wiehl

Lis Wiehl is a an attorney, faculty member at the University of Washington School of Law, and a legal analyst for Fox News.  She has several successful novel series.  “The Candidate” is the second in the “Newsmakers Novels” series with protagonist, Erica Sparks, a cable news network anchor.  The subject matter is chillingly appropriate in this presidential political season.  In fact, the only political campaign more strange than the one that is being played out this year for real, is the plot that Lis Wiehl weaves in “The Candidate.”

Without having to put out a spoiler alert I’ll just note that Sparks comes to suspect that one of the candidates is being manipulated using a Chinese mind control technique and she sets out to test that hypothesis.  Unfortunately, the more she tests the more she puts herself and everyone she comes in contact with in danger.

While not every aspect of this political thriller’s plot seems that plausible enough rings true to keep the reader intrigued.  There is certainly a lot of action to hold interest as well.  The book starts out with a bang (literally) when one political candidate and a number of by-standers are blown up by a domestic terrorist and then the bomber is taken out immediately by an assassin before he can be questioned– very reminiscent of JFK conspiracy theory.

Lis Wiehl’s writing style is very matter-of-fact and literal.  “The Candidate” is certainly not a literary masterpiece, but it makes up for it in fast-paced action and intensity.

Recommended with a few reservations in terms of believability.

Reviewed from a supplied advance copy.

Liz Nichols

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Write to Die by Charles Rosenberg

Charles Rosenberg is a Los Angeles attorney who has also consulted on a number of legal-themed television shows and been a legal consultant for an entertainment news show.  The most successful novels are generally written by people who are experts in the same field as their protagonists and Rosenberg is no exception. “Write to Die” is Rosenberg’s fourth mystery-thriller.

Write to Die” is a legal thriller/trial procedural where the protagonists are a Hollywood intellectual property litigator, Rory Calburton, and his new assistant attorney, Sarah Gold.  Their styles and personalities are such that sparks fly often because Sarah prefers to skirt the law when it comes to gathering evidence and Rory goes strictly by the book.  The senior partners are willing to put up with more shenannigans from Sarah because she comes with prestigious experience as a law clerk for a Supreme Court justice.

The plot revolves around the murder of the general counsel for a Hollywood studio that is being represented in a plagiarism case by Rory and his law firm.  Eventually the senior partner of the firm is accused of the murder.  Are the plagiarism case and the murder related?  Sarah gets in and out of scrapes trying to find out.

Write to Die” is a lengthy and detailed, but entertaining and enlightening look into entertainment law through the eyes of a legal expert who happens to be pretty good as a mystery writer.  I look forward to reading more about the legal team at The Harold Firm, and particularly Sarah Gold and Rory Calburton.

Recommended.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Off the Grid by C J Box

The themes of C. J. Box’s “A Joe Pickett Novel” series are getting scarrier.  In “Off The Grid” Joe Pickett’s survivalist friend, Nate Romanowski, is recruited to help a super-secret special-ops unit to investigate the real intentions of a Middle-Eastern falconer who is living in a remote part of Wyoming.  The falconer’s organization has at the same time recruited Joe Pickett’s daughter’s roommate (and by extension, Sheridan) to do some volunteer work at the remote encampment.  The plot revolves around the question of how far the government should go to spy on everyone’s communication channels in order to protect against a domestic terrorist attack and what is being done covertly to thwart both government incursions on our 4th Amendment rights and on terrorist cells operating in the US.  When one of those terrorist cells infiltrates the falconer’s operation things go seriously wrong for both Nate Romanowski and Sheridan Pickett.

Box has a knack for telling a thought-provoking story, and from that stand-point “Off the Grid” is one of his best in the Pickett series.  Box doesn’t waste time preaching.  He doesn’t sensationalize.  He just tells a story and lets the reader reach his or her own conclusion.

Off the Grid” is a fast read and a hair-raising thriller with a plot that seems quite possible to occur for real.

Recommended.

Liz Nichols

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