Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Twenty-Three by Linwood Barclay

The Twenty-Three is the concluding volume in the Promise Falls Trilogy by Linwood Barclay and it’s one of the best literary thriller trilogies of the last several years. Each of the earlier books in the series has a mystery which is solved by the end of the novel, while also furthering a larger mystery which comes to a head in this concluding volume.

The Twenty-Three starts with the people of Promise Falls waking on a Saturday morning to find that their water supply has been contaminated with deadly consequences. Hundreds of victims overwhelm emergency services and hamper the investigation into discovering the perpetrator. Simultaneously, a homicide victim turns up that points to a serial killer in their midst. Clues from the first two novels center around the number “23”. Discovering the significance of that number as well as exploring who stands to benefit from the disasters lead inexorably to the unmasking of the killer, but how many more people will die along the way?

Barclay creates a cast of interesting and well-drawn characters. One of his most impressive talents is in describing objectionable, even loathsome characters. The character of former and erstwhile future Mayor of Promise Falls, Randall Finley, is an incredible creation. He’s an immoral, opportunistic and manipulative person who you want to be guilty of something, even if you are never sure if he is. Other characters such as Detective Barry Duckworth, private investigator Cal Weaver, and former journalist David Harwood are all great characters in their own way as well. Each of them have stories that continue from earlier books and that come to conclusion in this story.  The central mystery as well as the separate crime that takes place in this book are nicely wrapped up by the end of the book. The only criticism is that there are so many plot threads in play that not all of them are wrapped up with the same level of satisfaction. The plot involving Harwood in particular ends somewhat limply. Nevertheless, the book and the series builds to an exciting conclusion.

The audio version of the book is narrated by Richard Poe and Brian O’Neill. Both do a great job with pacing the book and voicing strong and distinct characters. They convey character emotions convincingly and are a complement to the story.

The Twenty-Three is a very good book and concludes an even better series. The series is best read in order. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to be provided a copy of the book by the publisher.

Description: Everything has been leading to this.
It’s the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, May 23rd, and the small town of Promise Falls, New York, has found itself in the midst of a full-blown catastrophe. Hundreds of people are going to the hospital with similar flu-like symptoms—and dozens have died. Investigators quickly zero in on the water supply. But the question for many, including private investigator Cal Weaver, remains: Who would benefit from a mass poisoning of this town?
Meanwhile, Detective Barry Duckworth is faced with another problem. A college student has been murdered, and he’s seen the killer’s handiwork before—in the unsolved homicides of two other women in town. Suddenly, all the strange things that have happened in the last month start to add up…
Bloody mannequins found in car “23” of an abandoned Ferris wheel…a fiery, out-of-control bus with “23” on the back, that same number on the hoodie of a man accused of assault…

The motive for harming the people of Promise Falls points to the number 23—and working out why will bring Duckworth closer to death than he’s ever been before…

Hell's Heart: Star Trek: Prey #1 by John Jackson Miller

Hell’s Heart is the opening book in the Star Trek: Prey trilogy. The events of the book span the time from shortly after the Star Trek 3 movie, Search for Spock to shortly after the time of The Next Generation. The death of Klingon commander Kruge at the hands of James Kirk at the end of Star Trek 3 kicked off a series of events with repercussions felt more than 100 years in the future.

Kruge’s death left a Klingon house in disorder, with a young Klingon, Korgh, the intended heir of Kruge never formally designated as successor. Without a clear heir, battle breaks out between officers loyal to Kruge and rival family members who want to pick clean the house Kruge had built. A last stand by the officers on a planet where a phantom wing of twelve advanced Birds-of-Prey are intended to turn the tide ends in disaster when the ships go missing. The defeat of the officers by a joint attack of Kruge’s relatives leads to an unprecedented power-sharing agreement among the family members and the discommendation of the defeated officers along with all of their families.

One hundred years later, the Enterprise under the command of Jean Luc Picard is present for a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the battle. The Enterprise is snared in a trap 100 years in the making, leading to a crisis that upends the Klingon empire and puts its alliance with the Federation in jeopardy.

John Jackson Miller has written a thrilling book that rings true to the characters and events familiar to Star Trek fans as well as taking them in exciting new directions. Kirk and Spock kick off events that lead to unpredictable outcomes. Picard and Worf must unravel a conspiracy that threatens everything the Empire and the Federation have built together. Miller carefully unspools information that both illuminates what has already happened and raises the stakes for what is coming next. The action scenes are exciting and there are plenty of nods to characters and events from throughout the Star Trek universe sure to please any fan of the series.

The audiobook is narrated by Robert Petkoff who was a revelation. He breathed life into a huge cast of characters, Klingon, human and Vulcan. The accents were spot on and each character was easily distinguishable from each other. In some cases, the voices bordered on impersonations of the well-known actors who originated the roles. The narration complemented the story, propelling the action along and adding depth to the quieter moments. Petkoff’s performance with this book is worthy of audio award consideration.

Hell’s Heart is an exciting novel that leaves you anxious to continue the adventures in the rest of the trilogy. The audio version is extremely well done and adds to the enjoyment of the story. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to be provided a copy of this book by the publisher.

Description: When Klingon commander Kruge died in combat against James T. Kirk on the Genesis planet back in 2285, he left behind a powerful house in disarray - and a series of ticking time bombs: the Phantom Wing, a secret squadron of advanced Birds-of-Prey; a cabal of loyal officers intent on securing his heritage; and young Korgh, his thwarted would-be heir, willing to wait a Klingon lifetime to enact his vengeance.
Now, 100 years later, while on a diplomatic mission for the United Federation of Planets, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise are snared in the aged Korgh's trap - and thrust directly in the middle of an ancient conflict. But as Commander Worf soon learns, Korgh may be after far bigger game than anyone imagines, confronting the Federation-Klingon alliance with a crisis unlike any it has ever seen!

Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker

Phantom Pains is the second book in The Arcadia Project Series and the follow up to one of the best fantasy debuts of last year, Borderline. Phantom Pains starts with Millie, a young woman with borderline personality disorder, reluctantly returning to the Arcadia project where the situation starts at dire and heads toward world-wide calamity.

Millie is trying to live her life away from the Arcadia project, starting by reopening the movie stage which was the site of a tragedy that included the loss of Millie’s partner, Teo, at the end of Borderline. A strange encounter involving fey magic while trying to clear the stage with her former boss, Caryl, leads to a meeting with Arcadia agents from national headquarters. This results in another death and Caryl suspected of the murder. Millie is convinced of Caryl’s innocence but proving it is difficult. Especially while trying to stop a plot that could destroy two worlds and bring an end to the Arcadia project.

Mishell Baker has created a world and a cast of characters that stands out in a fantasy landscape otherwise filled with a lot of sameness. Millie has both emotional and physical disabilities that affect her daily life. Her characteristics make her unique both in our world and the world of the fey. These difficulties are not presented for pity, but discussed more in terms of their impact on how Millie goes about what she must do. Many of the characters in and around the project, both human and fey, are damaged in different ways. Millie must unravel the mystery while also navigating and manipulating the different personalities involved, her own included.

Baker has built on and expanded the world(s) first created in Borderline, introduced new and interesting characters while deepening the development of the already strong characters who return. This is a compelling novel that pulls you in with well-drawn characters and an ingenious plot. She reveals more about Arcadia and the fey, shedding light on that world and its interaction with our own. Phantom Pains is an outstanding story and part of a series that keeps getting better. Sign me up for whatever Mishell Baker has in store next, because I’ll read it. There is serious writing talent on display here. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Description: Four months ago, Millie left the Arcadia Project after losing her partner Teo to the lethal magic of an Unseelie fey countess. Now, in a final visit to the scene of the crime, Millie and her former boss Caryl encounter Teo’s tormented ghost. But there’s one problem: according to Caryl, ghosts don’t exist.

Millie has a new life, a stressful job, and no time to get pulled back into the Project, but she agrees to tell her side of the ghost story to the agents from the Project’s National Headquarters. During her visit though, tragedy strikes when one of the agents is gruesomely murdered in a way only Caryl could have achieved. Millie knows Caryl is innocent, but the only way to save her from the Project’s severe, off-the-books justice is to find the mysterious culprits that can only be seen when they want to be seen. Millie must solve the mystery not only to save Caryl, but also to foil an insidious, arcane terrorist plot that would leave two worlds in ruins.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

With every novel John Scalzi further cements his status as the best SF writer of his generation. The latest novel, The Collapsing Empire, is the first book in a brand new series. The Empire in this case is a set of human worlds connected by a natural phenomenon known as the Flow. You can enter it and exit it at fixed points. Within the Flow you can move at faster than light speeds, connecting worlds that would otherwise be too distant to have contact with one another. The Empire is made up of ruling clans, or guild houses, which govern these worlds. The worlds, by design, are dependent on one another; none are capable of self-sufficiency. This means that losing access to the Flow is to die a slow death, and it appears that the Flow is shifting.

The best part about any Scalzi novel is the characters and he introduces some great new ones here. Cardenia, the woman who was not supposed to be emperox save for the untimely death of her brother which has left her as the only heir to succeed her dying father. Kiva, the sharp-tongued, foul-mouthed daughter of another guild who is clever enough to see that plots are unfolding and there is both need and opportunity to take advantage of them. Marce Claremont, the son of a scholar who has been studying the flow for decades and is an expert in his own right, who must take back information to the new emperox that the Flow is shifting and the Empire is in jeopardy.  

Scalzi’s dialogue is filled with wit, and a healthy amount of sarcasm. The characters in The Collapsing Empire have strong motivations whether for good or for ill. There are reasons for the things they do. They may be harmful or destructive, but they are never thoughtless. All the main characters are on a journey in this first book. They may be fulfilling a destiny they are reluctant to fulfil, but ultimately are going to do the right thing. The question is, can anything be done to prevent the destruction of the Empire?

The Collapsing Empire is set up for a sequel perhaps more so than Scalzi’s previous books. While a very entertaining book, there is clearly more story to be told. This is a wonderful new universe to dive into filled with interesting ideas, fascinating characters, and intriguing and ruthless politics--another Scalzi trademark. It moves at a fast pace and will leave you wanting more. The hardest thing about reading a Scalzi book is the wait for the next one. Highly recommended read!

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Description: Our universe is ruled by physics. Faster than light travel is impossible—until the discovery of The Flow, an extradimensional field available at certain points in space-time, which can take us to other planets around other stars.
Riding The Flow, humanity spreads to innumerable other worlds. Earth is forgotten. A new empire arises, the Interdependency, based on the doctrine that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war—and, for the empire’s rulers, a system of control.

The Flow is eternal—but it’s not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well. In rare cases, entire worlds have been cut off from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that the entire Flow is moving, possibly separating all human worlds from one another forever, three individuals—a scientist, a starship captain, and the emperox of the Interdependency—must race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Forgotten Girls by Owen Laukkanen

Owen Laukkanen has developed a certain style with the Stevens and Windermere books. Sort of a cat and mouse game between an ordinary but intelligent criminal and one or more sets of police agencies or rival criminals. The Forgotten Girls is a bit of a departure from that formula, but Laukkanen proves he can write a straight up mystery thriller just as well as anyone.

Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere are a bit of an odd pairing, representing the Minnesota BCA and the FBI, but they complement each other well. They also make for an interesting pair to follow. The Forgotten Girls starts when a murdered girl falls in their laps courtesy of a picture uploaded from a stolen phone. Stevens and Windermere quickly discover that they are on the trail of a serial killer that no one knew existed because the murdered girls are people no one really missed and for whom no one tried very hard to find out what happened to them. Many of them were girls who stole rides on trains, making the murders even more difficult to connect.

Along with Stevens and Windermere, the killer is being hunted by a young woman named Mila, whose friend Ash was one of the victims. The two agents are also trying to find her hoping she can bring them one step closer to catching their man. Stevens and Windermere are frustrated both because they are perpetually one step behind the killer and by weather which keeps them snowed in and out of communication with the outside world. Gradually the noose tightens around their quarry, but how many more victims will he claim before they get him and will Mila be one of them?

Stevens and Windermere are an interesting pair. Stevens is more of a puzzle solver interested in criminal’s motivation and guessing what the next step will be. Windermere, while clever herself, is more comfortable with action. Gone is the awkward sexual tension between them from the first few books which was really more uncomfortable than interesting. In its place is a fierce loyalty to one another that both helps them function as a team and raises the stakes when one or both of them are in danger.

The Forgotten Girls is another solid entry in the Stevens and Windermere series. The chase builds throughout the novel and the climactic standoff is tense and exciting. Laukkanen cleverly uses the winter elements to convey both danger and frustration. They hamper the police investigation as well as offer danger to the victims and opportunity for the killer. Recommended read.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Description: She was a forgotten girl, a runaway found murdered on the High Line train through the northern Rocky Mountains and, with little local interest, put into a dead file. But she was not alone. When Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere of the joint FBI-BCA violent crime force stumble upon the case, they discover a horror far greater than anyone expected—a string of murders on the High Line, all of them young women drifters whom no one would notice.
But someone has noticed now. Through the bleak midwinter and a frontier land of forbidding geography, Stevens and Windermere follow a frustratingly light trail of clues—and where it ends, even they will be shocked.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Kings of the Wyld is a fast-paced fantasy adventure. The clever idea of a world where mercenary groups are treated like rock bands is a great start. But it’s where Nicholas Eames takes this concept that makes the book a real rock star.

Clay Cooper’s glory days are long behind him. He spends his days on watch looking out at a mountain where nothing ever happens and then goes home to a wife and daughter who love him. Then one day, Gabriel the former leader of Saga, Clay’s band of mercenaries, shows up at his doorstep. Gabe’s daughter Rose is a mercenary in her own right but she’s trapped in the walled city of Castia, surrounded by a horde of monsters and facing all but certain death. Gabe plans to rescue her but he needs Clay’s help. They need to put the band back together.

If just reading that line puts a smile on your face, then this is the book for you. It’s an adventure full of excitement and humor and surprising moments of real emotion. Most of the members of Saga have aged and settled into new lives, from Matrick who is now a king to Moog, the pajama wearing wizard who finances his arcane research with the profits from a magical erectile dysfunction cure he invented. Ganelon, the remaining band member, has been turned to stone for crimes committed around the time the band broke up.

Putting the band back together takes up the first part of the book and allows the opportunity to get to know the various characters. Once the band is reunited, they must cross the Heartwyld. A vast forest filled with every monster imaginable. On the other side is a horde laying seige to Castia. The forest and the horde is home to more monsters than I’ve seen in any three fantasy novels. That’s part of what makes this book so fun. It is over the top outlandish with great action, wonderful humor and emotional moments that touch you when you least expect them and keep everything grounded. Gabe’s rousing call to battle is a speech that almost made me want to take up a sword and charge onto the field.

This book is a tremendous amount of fun, all the more remarkable that it’s a debut novel. The conclusion wraps up the story arc nicely, while making it clear that this is a world where plenty more adventures are waiting to be had. The world-building is wonderful and populated, no stuffed, with fascinating creatures and characters. Buckle up for a wyld ride. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Description: Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best, the most feared and renowned crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk, or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay's door with a plea for help--the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It's time to get the band back together.

Oath of Honor by Matthew Betley

Matthew Betley set the bar high with his debut action thriller, Overwatch, a year ago and now with his second novel, Oath of Honor, he’s completely blown the lid off the joint. Oath of Honor is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in the last year. Best in the last 5 years. The action starts on page one and simply doesn’t let up.

The action starts when a piece of top secret equipment is stolen from the U.S. Government in Alaska. A high-tech piece of satellite hacking equipment that must not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Logan West and John Quick are hot on the trail and once again are racing across the U.S., Europe and the Sudan in a race to stop a global conspiracy aimed at the United States and its interests. The involvement of Russian, Chinese and North Korean elements make it especially difficult to unravel.

Betley excels with cinematic action pieces. Battles on a North Korean freighter, an off the books prison in the Sudan, a cemetery in Khartoum and a mining facility outside of Las Vegas are among the most thrilling. Painting a picture that propels you along and takes your breath away is an exhilarating experience. Betley does this time and time again. The pace of this story is so fast it may burn your hands.

In Logan West and John Quick, Betley has created strong likeable main characters that make it easy to believe why others would walk through fire for them and why they do it for each other. He is also adept at adding new characters such as Cole and Amira who quickly become integral parts of the story and the team. As good as each of the first two books have been, the ending teases at much more excitement to come.

Matthew Betley is no longer chasing the pack of thriller writers, he’s leading it. Oath of Honor is one of the most exciting books you’ll read this year. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Description: A break-neck, edge-of-your-seat thriller that moves from a resurgent Russian threat in the Aleutian Islands to North Korean spy ships to secret Sudanese prisons as former Marines Logan West and John Quick, now members of an FBI special task force, uncover a global conspiracy that threatens America’s position in the current international balance of power.

Logan West and John Quick are sent to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to investigate the possible presence of a Russian black ops team on a mission to steal United States next-generation technology. The resulting violent confrontation triggers a global search for the stolen technology and threatens to pit the US against China in a looming shadow war and technology race. As Logan and John—joined by the chief of the CIA’s Special Operations Group, Cole Matthews—battle their way through Spain, the Mediterranean, and ultimately, across Sudan, an imminent threat arises at home that FBI Deputy Director Mike Benson must face and determine if it is part of the deadly global conspiracy.