Review: Next Girl to Die is an Evocative, Engaging Debut

41oqgv4quzl._sx331_bo1204203200_In Dea Poirier’s exceptional debut, Next Girl to Die, Claire Calderwood is a detective in Detroit who is relieved to have miles and years between herself and her hometown of Vinalhaven, Maine. After the murder of her sister when she was a teenager, Claire has tried to hold her sister’s secrets while blaming herself for the unsolved homicide.

When another girls dies in a similar way, Sergeant Michaels begs Calderwood to return home for the first time in more than a decade. Her mother is controlling and manipulative and her father is detached, going through life as a shell, and Calderwood has conflicting feelings about seeing them again.

Calderwood isn’t happy to be back, and the only thing that might rival that unhappiness is journalist Noah Washington. Noah tries to question her about her sister on her first day on the job in Vinalhaven. There’s plenty of tension between them, and it only intensifies when he turns up at the next murder scene, snapping photos.

Next Girl to Die delivers on every level. Calderwood is fleshed out fully in a very believable manner. The manifestations of survivor’s guilt and sewn into the fabric of who she is and the choices she makes. Calderwood’s emotional journey informs her actions. And one of Poirier’s strengths is resisting the urge to tack on a trite or simplistic resolution to years of emotional issues stemming from one of the greatest losses a teen girl could suffer. This isn’t the Hollywood quick-fix to years of suffering and extreme emotional suffering; this is a very realistic character who starts out broken and remains broken. There are no quick fixes, which makes some of the moments with Calderwood raw and painful, but ever so believable. Even as Calderwood makes progress she understands her trauma forever altered her, and that isn’t something that can be simply undone.

The realities of a challenging investigation on an island, removed from easy access to investigative resources, adds to the tension and presents the reality of investigative limits for cops; evidence processing takes time, crime scene techs can’t just hop in a chopper and whisk over to the crime scene in a minute, and the elements can damage and destroy evidence. (As someone who spent three years living on a small island I’d say Poirier nailed these setting components and used them authentically to inform the investigation.)

Poirier’s atmospheric writing transports the reader to the coast. Her delicious prose conveys the bite of the ocean breeze, the smell of the salt air, and the tension between characters. This is an evocative debut with exquisite writing that indulges your senses and compels your investment in Calderwood’s emotional journey as she races against time to solve a case that has haunted her for more than a decade. Calderwood is a worthy addition to the genre. Her spirit, like Poirier’s voice, is tenacious and captivating, compelling the reader’s investment in her journey, and Calderwood is determined to hold her own against her male counterparts. She doesn’t take the easy path in her personal or professional lives, and the fact that her emotional issues haven’t been glossed over with glib resolutions gives her plenty of room for growth in sequels to come.

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Review: Fatality in F Hits All the Right Notes

51grbi2buqjlFatality in F is the fourth book in Alexia Gordon’s Gethsemane Brown. The world-class musician and amateur sleuth teaches music at an all boys school in a small village in Ireland, with the closest urban center being Cork. She has a knack for being in the right place at the wrong time-or is that the wrong place at the right time?-and finding herself in the middle of murder and mayhem.

Now, straight off, I’m not someone who reads a lot of amateur sleuth books. They (no pun intended!) have to strike the right chord with me. However, I’ve been very focused on expanding my reading and try to approach every book with an open mind.

I suppose it’s also worth noting that I used to live in Ballincollig, which is on the outskirts of Cork, not far from Blarney Castle, so I have a limited scope of reference for Ireland, along with an Irish Catholic grandmother and a grandfather who was an Orangeman. Ireland has a special place in my heart, and this setting gave me a double dose of fear starting this book. Would it deliver?

Yes. And then, when Gethsemane’s ghost roommate, Eamon, shows up, my response to the question was Hell yes.

Gethsemane has a keen mind, as well as an open mind. One of the things that makes her an ideal amateur sleuth is that she doesn’t outright dismiss possibilities, even when she sounds like she’s skeptical. I absolutely loved the banter between her and Eamon and the comic touch that brings. Since I read an arc I’m technically not supposed to quote from it, but Eamon had a laugh-out-loud-funny line in there that was so good I had to share it with my husband, who (even out of context without reading the book) could appreciate the sentiment.

Gordon’s strengths come through in developing strong, likable characters that you want to spend time with. She’s also built some great relationship dynamics among her group of teachers and garda.

New readers shouldn’t be deterred; Gordon gives you enough to ground yourself in past events and relationship dynamics to be able to dig right in and keep you from feeling lost. I’m not one who really worries about these things, so it might have been a bit more than I needed, but I’m an anomaly as a reader that way so that should not be taken as a criticism at all. I know how important it is to readers to not feel like they’re missing something because of prior books they haven’t read.

There’s a whole lot to love in this book. The narrative flows steadily, with plenty of revelations along the way that shape the investigation and keep you guessing. Believable characters fill the pages, and these are people you want to spend time with. They aren’t all perfect and polished and simple, but their quirks are part of what make them so endearing.

I thought I knew who the murderer was at 68%, and I was wrong.

If you like amateur sleuth stories with some woo woo, you will love this book and shouldn’t hesitate to dive right in. Or better, still, pick up Murder in G Minor, Death in D Minor and Killing in C Sharp along with Fatality in F and indulge yourself with a new favorite author who I expect will be delighting readers for years to come.

And even if amateur sleuth stories aren’t usually your thing, there’s a lot of heart here. This was a fun read that I did not want to put down and I was eager to get back to the story and the new friends Gordon breathed life into so effectively. And some serious kudos to Gordon for the research she must have done into illnesses, pharmaceuticals, botany … The details she weaves in infuse the story with authenticity while establishing motive.

Review: Imogen’s Journey Ups the Action and the Stakes

515lgq7ukal(Review first appeared at Goodreads)

 

Imogen’s Journey picks up pretty much right where Imogen’s Secret left off. Imogen is still committed to her mission – to return to the planet her parents are from and rescue her dad and Leo (Tarik). Araz is with her and is committed to helping her and protecting her, although he is still loyal to his own government and not aligned with the ‘traitors’ Imogen is descended from.

She’s soon transported through space to a strange new-to-her world and learns she may already be too late to save her father. Leo’s life still hangs in the balance and she is determined to do whatever she can to keep him from being convicted and executed.

There are a lot of moving parts in this story. The reader gets more insight from different leaders on Holis and the story splits to follow different characters who are separated but key to the story.

Tanastra Thut maintains a narrative (the way he did in Book 1) through the historic accounts related to Holis. This ensures the reader has a full awareness of the background, and the way the history of the Holankind is being reshaped. The malicious intentions may not be readily clear to the various members of the resistance or others, like Imoge, Araz and Leo, who are involved, but a close reader will start to have a pretty good idea where the story is going from the clues.

I tore through this book at lightning speed and started it as soon as I’d finished the first book in the trilogy. There are a couple of minor niggle points. There’s a consistency issue (in one place it says it took 500 years to get Holis habitable, and in another place it says it took 300 years). There are a couple of typos, a couple of extra words. I said with book 1 that in a lesser read, a couple of technical details might have mattered more, and I did receive a review copy through The Book Club reviewer’s group, so these issues may have been resolved in the published version.

Even so, there’s nothing here to keep anyone from fully immersing themselves in this compelling, action-packed story. The author has a chance to show off her world-building skills by taking most of the action off of Earth and creating a vibrant planet of people, some of whom you easily fall in love with, while underscoring the potential threat the manipulative Holans who are in control pose to the universe.

The only complaint I have upon finishing is that I want the third book now. I’m desperate to see how my favorite Holans are doing, and with a ticking clock hanging over Araz’s head and an impossible choice he has to make, the future for all of Earth and Holis hangs in the balance. I can’t wait to see how the author is going to tie things up in book 3.

Check out my interview with the author and review of book 1.

Review: Imogen’s Secret Hits it out of the Solar System

51jg7gt99tl(Review first appeared at Goodreads)

 

Imogen Reiner has a difficult life. Her mom has been in a coma for ten years and her dad is gone. She’s been guided by her grandfather for years to exercise caution and conceal some of her unusual traits from her friends at school and suspects there are a lot of things she doesn’t know.

When her granddad sends someone to live with her and train her and a mysterious stranger arrives at her college and seems to see things about her that most humans can’t, Imogen is caught between conflicting emotions and fear. She has to struggle to figure out who to trust while coming to terms with truths about herself that have been kept from her all her life, such as her ability to read chroma (colors that betray a person’s feelings and level of honesty) and where she’s really from.

I received a review copy through The Book Club’s reviewer group and am so glad that I did. There are a few minor things (verb tense consistency, one or two typos). In a lesser read those tiny points might have stood out more.

As is, the concept for this story is so compelling that the reader is swept up in the story, turning pages late into the night, desperate to find out what happens next. The parts of the story that center on Imogen are intense and compelling, and as a cast of supporting characters is fleshed out her world becomes very real for the reader.

There are sections intended to provide backstory, and while this is done in a way that ultimately intersects authentically with Imogen directly, I wasn’t completely certain the reader needed all of the details, but that’s more of a question of taste. Of course, I was invested in Imogen’s story, and the intersecting history stepped away from directly focusing on that, so I did find myself reading on to get back to her.

I’ve had to cut off my top recommendations for 2018 and start building a list for 2019, but had I read this a few weeks ago there is no doubt it would have been on my 2018 list and my 2019 list starts with this book firmly on top. It is worth every cent and if you love a good action/adventure/sci fi story with some romance this should rise right to the top of your TBR pile.

Check out my interview with the author here and my review of book 2 in the series here.

Review: INTO THE ASHES by Lee Murray – an intense thriller that will have you holding your breath, and perhaps your heart

Screenshot_20190214-133937_FacebookAll hell is breaking loose in Lee Murray’s INTO THE ASHES right from the start. A constant series of eruptions coupled with activity from the volcano have prompted an extensive evacuation of parts of New Zealand’s North Island. NZDF Sergeant Taine McKenna* is ordered to evacuate people from the area and has no idea how just how complicated that’s going to be.

First, the ground is splitting apart. Second, there are fire demons that may or may not be wreaking havoc and claiming lives. Third, there are rivers of rubble blocking roads and sweeping people and vehicles away.

Oh, and there just happen to be a group of armed convicts from the prison who are on the loose with a dangerous leader who is determined not to be charged for the murder of a guard that he commits in order to gain his freedom.

Add in that Taine’s ex-girlfriend, Jules, is on the mountain and is taken hostage by the convicts and you have a cat-and-mouse game with Taine determined to rescue Jules, but forced to overcome obstacles every step of the way.

This is an edge-of-your-seat white-knuckle ride that is action packed and intense. You never know what will happen on the next page. Murray is an expert at weaving multiple plot lines and perspectives together and always keeps the reader straight so they know whose eyes they’re seeing the world through and where they are. As the characters intersect the obstacles increase and the body count rises. Both Taine and Jules are coming to terms with the fact that they still love each other, but equally aware of the likelihood that they’ll never get a chance to put things right.

Lee Murray has been a guest at Toe Six. Check out her actor picks to play Taine and Jules here. Learn about her writing assistant, Bella, here. Read an interview about Into the Sounds here. And then Lee was back with Dan Rabarts to talk about their collaboration here.

* Completely personal note. In three of my novels set in Canada I have a protagonist named Tain, who is Native. And in my novel Harvest of Ruins my protag’s surname is McKenna. How can I not love a character who combines two of my favorite names to make one supercharacter (who thinks he’s a superhero)? And he has some Indigenous blood from one of New Zealand’s tribes as well, so he’s in tune with the spiritual aspects of the story.

Review: The See-Through Leopard

Some books tell a great, entertaining story.

Some books inform and educate, even if they are presented as fiction.

Some books tap into your emotions and make you feel.

see through leopard

 

The See-Through Leopard does it all.

At the age of 15, self-absorbed Jazz Hooper forgets a book for school and makes her mom go back home to get it. In a hurry, her mom is more focused on Jazz’s lack of seatbelt than the road and runs a red light. She’s struck by a lorry and killed.

Jazz is left disfigured by scars and depressed. She despises herself and struggles with the rejection she experiences from former friends who mock her appearance mercilessly at school.

When the book starts Jazz is 16 and just finishing up school. She learns her dad has decided to go back to Kenya, where Jazz was conceived, and is furious that he is forcing her to go with him. Her life, until the accident, had been about clothes and makeup and boys; her parents’ interest in animals had never been a priority to her.

She was miserable in England but isn’t any happier in Kenya at first. When she’s ridiculed by guests at the lodge on the reserve she and her dad are working at she runs off, despite the warnings to not wander on her own. An orphaned leopard cub finds her and ultimately, Jazz convinces her dad and 18-year-old Zach to let her try to raise the cub and return it to the wild. In order for them to agree she had to commit herself to seeing it through and she has to work with Zach and let him make a documentary.

Jazz is able to put aside her fear of being filmed for the sake of Asha, the leopard cub. As she works with Zach they form a close bond but she is afraid to take the chance of risking his friendship by sharing how she feels.

Poachers and people who trade in wildlife for circuses threaten Asha and other animals, and the more Jazz learns and sees, the less she mourns the dreams she had that died along with her mom. But will she have the courage to embrace the chances she has for a happy future?

This is a really inspiring story. When I started it, my initial thought was, “Crap. I can’t read this. I’m going to ugly cry.” And I cried a lot. The author doesn’t pull punches about issues facing wildlife, or about grief, but Jazz’s journey from a self-absorbed teen to a depressed girl to a young woman is inspiring and the strong emotional connection with the character is one of the reasons that this book will be one I remember for years to come. A great YA/coming-of-age story with the bonus of providing a lot of information about endangered species and the threats wildlife face from poachers today.

Review: The 19th Bladesman

Screenshot_20190207-095225_GoogleTHE 19th BLADESMAN weaves curses, legends, gods and scheming characters in an intricate plot centered on the 19th bladesman, Kaell, who is destined to die to save the people from ghouls.

From the beginning it is clear that the author is an impressive writer who knows how to entice all the senses with layered descriptions of the sounds, smells and sights of Kaell’s world.

There is no slow opening. The author expertly injects details as action unfolds so that you have a sense of forward momentum even as you’re discovering who the characters are and what motives they might have for their actions.

The story features a large cast in a number of different settings. There are kings and false kings, and there are those with burdens, secrets and agendas.

Kaell, the 19th bladesman, longs for the approval and love of his master, Vraymorg. Vraymorg isn’t actually Vraymorg; this man has secrets buried deep inside and fears the pain that will come if he offers Kaell the affection he craves. This is one of the threads in the story that highlights the realistic character development the author imbues the narrative with. Internal conflicts drive external actions that inform the choices characters make and propel the plot forward.

When Kaell almost dies a series of events are set in motion that may reshape his destiny. This is compounded by the fact that Roaran’s magic has been destroyed, threatening the people with destruction.

Honor and duty are important themes. Even characters with suspect agendas have gods they feel must be appeased, so they aren’t always governed by selfish ambitions. This adds to the complexity of the story, because many people that  seem to have conflicting goals often have good intentions. That extends some of the emotional conflicts to the reader, who struggles to know who to cheer for at times when key characters are in conflict or are about to take actions that are questionable.

Readers who love large stories with multiple characters and storylines won’t be disappointed. There is a lot of action throughout the story. Every scene is richly drawn and the atmospheric writing conveys the ominous sense of foreboding as the story develops.

A stunning page-turner that rivals the caliber of any work being released worldwide, this is an impressive opening to a series that should appeal to fans of Game of Thrones and comparable fantasy works. S.J. Hartland displays impressive worldbuilding skills. Hartland injects every page with lush descriptions and compelling characters and weaves her tale with expert skill.