Friday, June 10, 2022

#17: Duty or Desire by Brenda Jackson

 A Colorado sheriff takes in his niece upon the death of her parents, but a beautiful nanny throws an additional wrinkle into the mix, in Brenda Jackson's Duty or Desire.

Jackson is a popular African-American romance writer whose "Westmoreland Saga" features an extended family of lawmen, ranchers, cowboys, Navy SEALS, and sometimes a combination of one or more of these.  They are typically avowed bachelors who fall in love with a Harvard PhD, a prominent magazine editor, or a Hollywood star (just to mention some of the characters from other novels who appear here).

The romance aspect is never in doubt, but the setting is faintly sketched in (the nanny has a father who is a "business tycoon", but what his business is never gets mentioned) and the tension is mild (the top cop in Denver's most serious case is finding out who is trying to spook an old lady into selling her house).

But that's not what these novels are read for, and Jackson is a top writer in her field.  

I listened to this on audiobook from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Monday, May 23, 2022

#16: The Berlin Exchange by Joseph Kanon

In the 1960s, an American who had spied for the Russians is traded in a prisoner swap to East Berlin, where he learns his wife and son have found new lives, in Joseph Kanon's The Berlin Exchange.

The man immediately sets about trying to get his family back, even though his wife is now married to a high-level government official and--perhaps more alarmingly--his son is starring in a television sitcom promoting government views.

Kanon writes a vivid, tense thriller of this Cold War period, where everyone is at least double-crossing or triple-crossing everyone else, with a particularly melancholy but fitting coda.

Kanon is a popular writer of spy fiction, but this is the first of his I have dipped into; I will definitely seek out more.

I listened to this in a good audiobook reading on loan from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

#15: Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun

A beautiful teenager is killed, with the two primary suspects a rich kid with an attitude and a poor delivery boy; but the murder remains unsolved, and ripples through the lives of many of those involved, in Kwon Yeo-Sun's Lemon.

Lemon is a dense, baroque murder mystery in which a lot of the characters' motivations, and much of the critical action, is hidden from the reader.  Little bits float to the surface through chapters that jump from various narrators in different time periods, and the reader is relied on to piece it together themselves.

I honestly read a lot of reviews after to see if others had puzzled the mystery out, but I still remained unsure what exactly happened.  Still, an offbeat read and recommended for mystery fans looking for something different.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it quickly.

Friday, May 20, 2022

#14: The Midnight Witness by Sara Blaedel

A rookie homicide detective and her best friend, a hard-driving crime reporter, work two cases following parallel lines; a strangled young woman and a reporter whose death is originally reported as an accident.  They tackle them alongside each other, and at odds as well, leading to an explosive conclusion in Sara Blaedel's The Midnight Witness.

Blaedel is a popular Danish author, and I thought this book hit solid, but familiar, crime beats.  The best parts are the Copenhagen setting with its cultural aspects, as well as the main characters and their friendship.

This was a good outing in her long-running series and of interest to fans of international police procedurals.

I listened to this on audiobook on loan from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Friday, May 6, 2022

#13: The April Dead by Alan Parks

It's Glasgow in the down-and-dirty 70s, and mostly honest cop Harry McCoy is trying to solve a series of bombings, even as his childhood best friend (a murderous crime boss) tries to shore up his empire in Alan Parks' The April Dead.

Parks has become one of my favorite contemporary crime writers, and although this one is not a favorite in the series it still has a lot going for it.  Not as downbeat as some of its predecessors until a fairly graphic and gory third act.

These are bracingly good, tough reads laced with inky-black humor.  This one is not as free-standing as some of the previous novels, so best enjoyed if you go back to Bloody January and work forward.  Which I would recommend any crime reader do.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

#12: The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Three young women from very different backgrounds end up recruited into the Bletchley Park codebreaking ranks during World War II; a few years later, on the eve of the Royal Wedding, they learn of a dangerous secret from that time in Kate Quinn's The Rose Code.

The Rose Code is an enjoyable, carefully-plotted thriller--with real-life people and situations--that shows three fully-realized characters excited to do their part in the war, alternating with scenes from the near future, which we see their lives altered by grief, betrayal, and death.

The ending ties up amazingly neatly--almost a shade too neatly--but is very satisfying.

This is my first novel by Quinn, and I will be on the lookout for more; it covers an interesting time in history, with a lot of true details from that era, but is also a really solid read.  

The novel was helped tremendously by a great audiobook read from Saskia Maarleveld.  I will be watching out for more of her work, as well.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana, and listened to most of it on a long car ride.  Recommended, especially in audiobook.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

#11: The Assassins by Kirk Hamilton

Two legendary hired guns end up on the opposite sides of a range war, and soon realize all isn't what it seems to be, in Kirk Hamilton's The Assassins.

One gun-hand comes to visit an old friend, the other gunslick is working for a hot-headed neighbor rancher who inherited the ranch from her father.  Both are fighting over a piece of land for what turns out to be curious reasons, once the two men are able to compare notes.

Hamilton was actually Keith Hetherington, a crazily prolific Australian author with a fistful of pseudonyms and a couple of long-running western series.

This is a standalone novel that cracks along at a bruising pace and hits all the right beats, while throwing in a surprise or two.

I have finally been able to grab onto a batch of Cleveland Westerns and am pledging to work through the slender volumes steadily.  So far, so good.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

#10: Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré

A British spy being brought back to London to oversee a failing, marginalized branch of the secret service contends with an idealistic young second in command, a few eccentric double agents, and an odd new badminton partner at his local club in John le Carre's Agent Running in the Field.

This is the last of le Carre's books published in his lifetime; he was 89 when he passed away.  But this novel is just as urgent and energized as any of his earlier work. 

The novel is written in terms of a report, as the returning agent talks about everything that led to a calamitous denouement which unfolds slowly over time, and envelopes his lawyer wife, his slick boss, and several other characters.  It just ratchets and ratchets tension to a satisfying close.

Le Carre felt strongly about Brexit, and despite the trappings of the spy world the novel is ultimately about that subject, which may have driven the author to produce this timely, highly enjoyable work.

Recommended for spy novel fans in general and early le Carre fans in particular.

I listened to an audiobook version on loan from the Morrisson-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana, read by the author.

Friday, March 11, 2022

#9: So Long Waco by Ben Jefferson

A Confederate vet inadvertently sides with a group of outlaws against a band of Union soldiers, then has to throw in his lot with them, in Ben Jefferson's So Long Waco.

Jefferson was really extremely prolific Australian writer Paul Wheelahan, who penned under a lot of names and genres (including comic books).  

To that end, his speed leaves this one rather faintly sketched in, as our hero learns there is a schism between the more "noble" outlaws in the gang and the villainous ones, with the additional of an abandoned wife at a lonely ranch all having the expected results with gunplay and romance.

The Waco of the title, which I thought should have a comma, is the leader of the outlaw gang, Sam Waco.  It IS actually said in the novel.

For a very long time I have looked for Cleveland Westerns in the wild, a company which published multiple genres in a slender novella magazine-style format for more than 50 years in Australia.  They seem to be quite rare in their original form in the States.

I eventually settled on buying any I could find online, if I could find them lest than ten dollars each.  I finally found a Canadian willing to part with a half dozen at a reasonable rate, and this is the first from the stack.

Friday, March 4, 2022

#8: Bobby March Will Live Forever by Alan Parks

In gritty 70s Glasgow, awash in glam rock, heroin, and organized crime, an only slightly crooked cop has to deal with a trio of tricky cases in Alan Parks' Bobby March Will Live Forever.

This is the third novel featuring tarnished angel McCoy, and is my favorite to date.  In this he quietly hunts for the missing teenaged daughter of a colleague, looks for a missing girl who has drawn the attention of the whole city, and is assigned the apparent overdose death of a rocker, the Bobby March of the title.

He also has to find time to deal with his best friend from childhood, who happens to be one of Glasgow's top crime bosses, currently trying to kick a drug habit.

These storylines begin to weave together so deftly that even if McCoy doesn't exactly wrap things up neatly, it ends in a highly satisfying way.

Alan Parks is becoming one of my favorite new crime writers.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle Indiana and read it quickly.

Friday, February 18, 2022

#7: Valley of Skulls by John Benteen

In the early 20th century, tough mercenary Fargo heads to Central America to rescue a party who has discovered a priceless treasure in John Benteen's Valley of Skulls.

Benteen (Ben Haas) was a well-regarded western writer who also wrote the Fargo series, which at first glance look like westerns but are really more "men's adventure."

This one is a little wilder than most, with the priceless treasure being a giant solid-gold cannon that Fargo finds actually comes in handy.  Fargo's manly exploits start on page one--when he gets into a fight at a cockfight!--and run straight through to the last page.

I like reading a Fargo novel when I come across one, and I found this one cheap for my beloved Kindle.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

#6: The Basel Killings by Hansjörg Schneider

A hard-drinking, hard-living cop stops for a bathroom break in an alley on the way home from a bar and finds the dead body of a friend, driving him to solve a case he's too close to in Hansjörg Schneider's The Basel Killings.

Schneider is a popular Swiss crime writer, with this the first in his series translated into English.  Although his detective is your standard melancholy noirish cop, the setting in Basel--a city whose suburbs lie in France and Germany--is unique.

As is the milieu, as the detective finds himself most comfortable on the seedy side of the street, among pimps, prostitutes, and outlaws.  Ethnic clashes between these people and the Swiss gypsy community, called the Yenish people, has a key role as well.

A solid European-style police procedural with a colorful cast and setting.  Recommended.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it quickly.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

#5: Gunsight Trail by Alan LeMay

 At the tail end of a dying Old West, a drifting cowpoke drifts right into a range war in Alan LeMay's Gunsight Trail.

This is an early oater from LeMay, who had great later success in his writing, including having works like The Searchers and The Unforgiven turned into memorable films.

This is a pretty standard western up to a point, with the cowpoke falling for one of the rancher's daughter and throwing in his luck with her family, up until a pretty bleak standoff at the end (that actually reminded me of the coda in the later novel The Searchers).

Still, standard LeMay is a cut above most cowboy writers, and I would recommend it to western fans.

I got this cheap for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.

Friday, January 21, 2022

#4: The Witch Elm by Tana French

A young man survives a brutal home invasion, and retreats to his uncle's peaceful home to recuperate, only to have his life upended again when a body is found on the property in Tana French's The Witch Elm.

This taut thriller has a classic "unreliable narrator" hook, as the young man's memory gaps begin to make him wonder if he had something to do with the corpse (who turns out to be an old high school friend).  Two squabbling cousins, a dying uncle, and a questioning girlfriend stir the pot.

This one is a genuine puzzle right to the denouement, holding a surprise or two for the very end.  Satisfying characters and situations throughout, from a popular Irish crime writer.

I listened to this on audio book, on loan from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.  Recommended.

Friday, January 14, 2022

#3: The Reluctant Gun Hand by Logan Winters

A misunderstanding lands a cowpoke a six-month prison sentence after a crooked gambler draws on him, and he has no luck staying out of trouble when he gets out, in Logan Winters' The Reluctant Gun Hand.

Winters was Paul Lederer, one of a legion of hard-working old-fashioned paperback scribes who wrote under a handful of names.  This one is a very solid western that reads almost like a noir.

The plot is definitely noir-flavored:  our protagonist is trying to make it back to a nice frontier gal, but is bushwhacked and then waylaid into a gang of outlaws preparing a robbery, with a triple-crossing femme fatale front and center.

Enjoyable, fast read I got for my beloved Kindle and read very quickly over a couple of winter's days.  I'll continue to read Lederer, in all his names, whenever I find him.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

#2: The Heap by Sean Adams

A giant, hive-like apartment building, designed as a sort of social experiment, collapses; somewhere deep inside, a lone DJ broadcasts from a radio station there, hanging on as his brother and an eclectic crew try to dig down to him in Sean Adams' The Heap.

With its frustrated middle management, fractured relationships, telephone booths, radio stations, instant coffee, and burnt-orange paint schemes, Adams' book reads exactly like a lost Philip K. Dick novel, and I enjoyed it more for that.  To me, it is a contemporary novel written as if was penned in the 60s or 70s and imagining today, if that makes sense.  

Unusual setting, with wry plotting that propels right along and holds a few surprises.

Recommended for sci-fi fans of Dick, Ballard, Delany, LeGuin.  I got this for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

#1: Hello, Transcriber by Hannah Morrissey

A troubled police transcriber in a crime-choked Wisconsin town makes a spate of poor decisions that puts her right in the middle of a murder investigation in Hannah Morrissey's debut Hello, Transcriber.

Morrissey features an unreliable narrator (one of my favorite topics in crime fiction), signaling from the opening pages when the protagonist contemplates jumping off the bridge.  She then starts a destructive affair with a detective just back from suspension, investigating a murder that might involve her duplex neighbor.

The crime aspects hit all the right beats, but it is the characters and setting that really shine.  As opposed to a TV show like Fargo, Morrissey doesn't hold her Midwesterners at an ironic distance; she lives in Wisconsin (and was also a police transcriber), and her characters are flawed and fully-realized.

A good way to start off 2022; recommended for genre fans.  

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Top Ten of 2021

In another bad year, I had a good reading year, with a lot of great choices below.  Here are my Top Ten books, in a year where I passed by goal of 50 and hit 64.   Enjoy!


STILL LIVES by Maria Hummel

ZERO ZONE by Scott O'Connor



HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead


THE GUIDE by Peter Heller

THE BODY SCOUT by Lincoln Michel


Thursday, December 23, 2021

#64: Girl A by Abigail Dean

 A teenager breaks her chains and escapes from the family home, revealing a literal house of horrors to the world; several decades later, the surviving siblings cope with their lives in various ways in Abigail Dean's Girl A.

The Girl A of the title is now a lawyer, who reluctantly inherits the abandoned childhood home and desires to turn it into a community center; but she has to--even more reluctantly--gather up her brothers and sisters, among them a brother who is a headmaster at a school, a sister who has found religion, and another brother who has descended into drugs.

Although the flashbacks to what happened at the hands of their father, who seemed to be slowly and then quickly going mad, are short, they are very potent, and based on that alone the book cannot be recommended to anyone with even a modest history of childhood trauma.

But the novel is really about the complicated connections between siblings, and is a sharp, literate novel in that regard.  More of an examination of a shattered family than a thriller, but a few twists and turns in the latter third--one I saw coming and one I didn't--could land it in a couple of different categories on the bookstore shelves.

Recommended for those with a high tolerance for harrowing storytelling.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

#63: Seducers in Ecuador by Vita Sackville-West

A man dons a pair of heavy, blue-tinged sunglasses in Egypt but decides not to take them off when he gets back to London, setting off a chain of disasters including a secret marriage, a murder, and an execution, in Vita Sackville-West's Seducers in Ecuador.

Sackville-West's slender novella from the 20s is heavy on plot, dark humor, and irony and is a brisk, prickly read.  The "seducers" of the title are men a lovelorn young woman is (supposedly) writing to when she agrees to the secret marriage.  Why she agrees to it is confounding right up to the end, and even then you aren't sure what is true or not.

I first learned of the author through a film about her romantic relationship with Virginia Woolf.  Over the years, Sackville-West's star has dimmed while Woolf's has only grown, though during their time together (and the time of the writing of the novella) Sackville-West was more popular as an author.

Her work is worth a look, if you are unfamiliar with her.  I will definitely seek out more.

I bought a lot of Vita Sackville-West novels from eBay for my wife, a Humanities professor, and picked this one up out of curiosity. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

#62: All's Hell on Peach Street by Brett McKinley

A young man, more or less raised by a frontier town when he was orphaned, inadvertently wins a shoot-out with a deadly outlaw; when the rest of the gang seeks revenge, the town rises up to protect him in Brett McKinley's All's Hell on Peach Street.

This oater from Cleveland Publishing, a long-time Australian company, was actually written by Paul Wheelahan, who wrote hundreds of westerns for Cleveland under a fistful of names (as well as writing comic books and TV shows).

I didn't know anything about the McKinley moniker and picked it up based on the offbeat title alone.  It's an above-average western with an interesting plot and characters and lightning-fast action.

I find it extremely difficult to find Cleveland westerns in the United States, but happily got this for my beloved Kindle and read it very quickly.  Interested in reading more from this writer, under whatever name.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

#61: Triple Cross by Nick Carter

KIllmaster Nick Carter hunts an elusive, suicidal group of assassins called Blood Eagle across the European continent in one of Dennis Lynds' entries in the long-running spy series, Triple Cross.

Triple Cross was part of my casual re-read of the Nick Carter series I was so devoted to as a teenager.

Dennis Lynds writes a more well-rounded Nick Carter than some of the other authors (all writing quickly, with little reference to what happened in previous editions) and imagines more epic, complicated stories (in my opinion).

However, Lynds doesn't mind falling back on the familiar "teaming up with the sexy Soviet spy" trope.  Carter and his sidekick have quite a few setbacks and surprises before they uncover Blood Eagle, and their curious motive that crosses national boundaries.

Along with the Nick Carter novels penned by Martin Cruz Smith, I find Dennis Lynds one of my favorites to date, with this being the second one I've come across by him.

I got this from a big lot of Nick Carter paperbacks somewhere and read it quickly.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

#60: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

A furniture dealer kind of trying to go straight, and his cousin who is not trying as hard, get into a variety of scrapes in late 50s-early 60s Harlem in Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle.

The cousins first get involved in a hotel robbery, where they steal something from a crime lord by mistake; then, later, the furniture dealer gets an elaborate revenge after a snub; and then in a melancholy coda the cousin gets afoul of a powerful New York family.

Whitehead is a literary writer whose books can loosely slip into various genres, from crime to science fiction to fantasy.  This one is an good read, with interesting characters and sense of place and time, and would be enjoyable by fans of literary fiction or crime fiction.

Dion Graham is one of my favorite audiobook narrators, and he did another great job here.  I checked it out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and finished it quickly.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

#59: The Green Wolf Connection by Nick Carter

Killmaster Nick Carter finds himself on loan to the CIA for a hit on a terrorist called The Green Wolf, but quickly finds himself the patsy in a larger scheme, in The Green Wolf Connection, an action-driven entry in the long-running spy series, this one penned by Dennis Lynds.

This is part of my casual re-read of a series I enjoyed as a teenager; this entry is from the mid-70s, right when I was reading them.  I don't know if I have ever read anything by Dennis Lynds--although he wrote under several other names--but I was a fan of his wife Gayle Lynds' spy novels (and she wrote some Nick Carter books, too).

I once read where someone said that there is so little continuity between Carter novels, written so quickly by a legion of paperback authors over such a long period of time, that it is better to treat each author's Nick Carter as its own character apart from the ones from other writers.  

I did find Dennis Lynds' Carter markedly different than some I've read; a bit more cynical and cerebral but just as quick to fight or have sex as any other iteration.

More so, Lynds writes good action, with big set pieces, making this entry a cut above the usual b-grade fare from the Killmaster novels.

I got this from a big lot of Nick Carter books somewhere and read it quickly.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

#58: The Resisters by Gish Jen

In a near-future dystopia, a couple give birth to a child with an unearthly pitching arm; as she grows, her family's struggles with a totalitarian government run by artificial intelligence expands as well--until she's needed for the Olympic baseball team.  

Gish Jen's The Resisters is a heady mix of David Halberstam and George Orwell, Big Brother by way of Sandy Koufax.

If there was ever a year I would read two dystopian baseball novels, I guess this was it (the other was The Body Scout). This one I found to be more literary-minded, closer to an early Margaret Atwood.  

Besides a few eccentric touches, the world-building is very close to believable, and probably my favorite part of the book.  But the baseball passages also reflect how the sport became known as the national past-time.

The Resisters is an offbeat read for really anyone who likes genre or mainstream fiction.  Recommended.

I checked it out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.