Murder in Red

Murder, She Wrote: Murder in Red by Jessica Fletcher and Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

“Well, at least I wasn’t murdered.”

So opens Murder in Red, Jon Land’s third effort writing as Jessica Fletcher for the eternal Murder, She Wrote series and one he pulls off with literary alacrity so smooth and suave that I almost forgot he cut his teeth on the more hardcore thrillers he continues to dazzle us with. In fact, I’d venture to say that under his steady hand Jessica Fletcher has come to resemble his Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong without the gun, given that she, too, is relentless in her pursuit of justice.

And there’s plenty of it for her to pursue in Murder in Red, starting with the suspicious death of a close friend Jessica thought she knew far better than she actually did. Secrets, of course, have long been a staple of the mystery genre. In this series, though, more than anything Land has managed to deftly blend the more modern material of Michael Connelly or Robert Crais’s hardboiled mystery writing within the fabric of a classic cozy. Think Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade if Chandler and Hammet respectively had written them as women. Purchase here.

And the mystery presented in Murder in Red, involving a potentially sinister private hospital that opens up shop on the shores of our beloved Cabot Cove, might have been right up their alley as well. Jessica comes to suspect that Clifton Care Partners and its smarmy founder Charles Clifton is somehow complicit in the death of Mimi Van Dorn. Van Dorn, it turns out, is a hotbed of secrets, including a quadriplegic son whose got his secrets of his own, along with more than his share of skeletons in his closet. When he turns up dead too, of an apparent suicide, Jessica steps in to teach yet another bevy of law enforcement interests about her keen powers of observation.

At the heart of a mystery lies a dementia-riddled ex-police chief who tests even Jessica’s mettle to sort through the morass of his words in search of a coherent meaning that might yield the clues she needs. And there’s also a visit to a Big Pharma concern to probe the truth behind secretive clinical trials underway at Clifton Care, one of which might be the sole hope for the only man Jessica has ever been romantically inclined toward in the wake of her beloved husband Frank’s death.

See what I mean? Land knows how to pile on the plot but shows a more disciplined grasp of the material and a more seasoned hand in dispensing it for the Murder, She Wrote audience. This is still your mother’s Jessica Fletcher, only updated to fit a more 2019 sensibility and still with Sheriff Mort Metzger, Dr. Seth Hazlitt, and private eye Harry McGraw along for the ride. The cliffhanger rich, rocket-fueled pacing makes the pages fly by until there are no more left to turn. Murder in Red is a classic mystery in every sense of the word, Agatha Christie as channeled through John D. MacDonald. Sumptuously sizzling reading entertainment that is not to be missed.

The Dumb Class

The Dumb Class: Boomer Junior High by Mike Hatch

Book Reviewed by Lisa Brown-Gilbert

Author Mike Hatch delivers originality and spunk with his The Dumb Class: Boomer Junior High; a retrospective coming of age story that unflinchingly provides readers with a gritty, humorous, and boldly creative romp through life with a group of Junior High school friends. Purchase here.

Taking place in the 1960s, the story follows “baby Boomer” friends Bill Jones, Eddie, Jeff, and Harley through their formative years in Boomer Junior High school. Events are detailed by Bill Jones who is also the story’s protagonist. As a whole, the teens are a cast of tenacious, drinking, smoking, sexing and scheming set of youth whose friendships and wit carry them through many escapades and life experiences. Jones, in particular, makes for a captivating character to follow. He has wit and a peculiar charm and albeit. Although in the lowest of the class designations in the junior high school, “the dumb class” he seems to be one of the smartest and conniving.

Instantly intriguing from its outset the story draws your attention along with piquing the interest with an opening scene of a crudely humorous debate about the female anatomy, being held by the group of friends, which serves to bring the diverse main players into focus and sets the tone for the story as one replete with humor, raw depictions of life and teen behavior. As the story progresses, it follows their adventures, experiences, and explorations fueled by raunchy desires, cursing, teen angst, drugs, alcohol as well as other diversions like revenge. As characters, their unique personalities and interactions drive the story forward, while heralding authenticity via infused bits of historical and cultural references.

Overall, I found that The Dumb Class: Boomer Junior High offers not only an entertaining read but a multifaceted look at the cultural and sociological avenues of life that teenagers of the 1960’s encountered and explored. As a matter of fact, I personally found the story to be a somewhat reminiscent combination of Stand By Me, Grease and Porkies. Just a word of warning, this is an adult-themed read as the level of sexuality in this book is quite graphic especially for fourteen and fifteen-year-olds. However overall, I enjoyed the read and kudos to author Mike Hatch, who did well in portraying his tale. He artfully brought this memorable coming of age story to life with humor, well-fleshed characters and era-appropriate vernacular. I do recommend this book for mature readers who enjoy dark themed humor.

The Ashorne's Ingress

The Ashorne’s Ingress by Seamus Eaton

Reviewed by Lisa Brown-Gilbert

Truly a prolific read, Seamus Eaton’s The Ashorne’s Ingress excites the imagination with a multifaceted, and complex fantasy epic which proffers to readers an enticing narrative rich with the craftily blended elements of fantasy, horror, gore, magic, science fiction, and sex.  Purchase Here.

Initially, events start out on earth, the year is 2020 and we are introduced to the focal character William Gentry, who is in the midst of a softball game when his whole world comes tumbling down as he receives the news that his family was severely injured in a freak kitchen accident, that leaves his wife and son dead, and his daughter’s life hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, as he struggles with his emotions and the devastation of the loss, William finds himself approached by two beings claiming to be ambassadors from a land called Arba, located on another world. Claiming to have knowledge of his true identity and legacy, they extend to him a very odd offer, that if accepted would lead to saving his daughter’s life, and possibly more, they only catch is he has to drown himself in a specific river, at a specific time and carry with him an odd triangle they left with him called the Germ of Reismyl. Distraught, in disbelief and teetering on the edge of insanity, he initially misses the opportunity to take the plunge, resulting in the unfortunate death of his daughter.

Eventually, William (who comes across as a very sympathetic character) does take the plunge, later and winds up in Arba a world in turmoil, where greed, filth, sex, violence, slavery, treachery, magic, and the Triumvirate elite sacrifice beings for the sheer pleasure of attending a party, is the way of life. Arba is not an easy place to exist for its vast array of Denizens, which range from human to many creative varieties of beings, including goat people, reptilians, and amphibian humanoids. Moreover, as an entrant in Arba, William is forced to endure tremendous horrors, while making his foray into the Arban environ.

Meanwhile, stories within the story play out as different parts of the Arban environ, come into view chapter by chapter with a slew of characters and subplots which all fuel the story into the expansive fantasy epic that it turns out to be. Ultimately events around the Arban environ are shown to be playing out as devious machinations behind the scenes put into motion a hellish plan that would alter the Arban environment for the much worse.

Overall, The Ashorne’s Ingress made for an absorbing, entertaining epic of a novel that I enjoyed. Seamus Eaton wields literate lucidity with his writing style which successfully kept me wholly immersed and completely engaged within his epically expansive, adult-themed, fantasy world. I personally enjoyed the horror and fantasy elements that seemed reminiscent of author Clive Barker, one of my personal all-time favorite authors, particularly when it came to the more horrifying elements of the story. Additionally, there are other perks within this work besides the overall story including a detailed map of the Arba, letters from the journal of another human in Arba which gives great backstory elements, also a glossary which is very helpful, and a detailed history, as well as calendars. Ultimately, I would undoubtedly recommend this for fantasy fans seeking a new and extraordinary world populated with well-formulated characters to become immersed in. The read is well worth it.

Zintara and the Stones of Alu Cemah

Zintara and the Stones of Alu Cemah by Michel and Dominic Bohbo

Reviewed by Ray Palen

The debut novel from brothers Michel and Dominic Bohbot is a dynamic fantasy tale inspired by the love of speculative fiction instilled in them by their father. This is seen not only in the dedication of ZINTARA AND THE STONES OF ALU CEMAH but also throughout the narrative.Purchase Here.

We are taken to another world, one that contains mythical and imaginary creatures alongside human characters. There is a synopsis of many of the characters at the start of the novel and I admit I had to turn to it several times during the reading as there are a lot of names and relationships for the reader to juggle. The Prologue finds a young Zintara, human in all features aside from the great black wings that thrust out from her back, being sent away by her mother as her family and their empire falls in a violent manner. The antagonist of this tale, Korban — human warrior and sorcerer — is on a quest for the three Stones of Alu Cemah which will purportedly bring him the ability to rule over all.

Zintara is taken away by M’Hancha, best friend of her late father, who raises her and keeps her safe. We see Zintara grow into a young woman, her magnificent wings now displaying a mighty span. She is confronted by Korban, in possession of one of the three stones, and threatens to kill her the way he took her mother’s life if she does not give him the location of the remaining stones. Zintara gets away, but the battle with Korban costs him his hand — a deed he will no doubt seek to avenge to the fullest.

As Korban plots to find the other two stones M’Hancha is trying his best to protect Zintara from further confrontation. He also seeks to keep her away from Prince Ardelann, heir to the realm of Takla, and the burgeoning romance that seems inevitable between them. It is not long before a member of their realm, the nefarious Duke Galhuri, outs Zintara and calls her a winged demon and traitor. He holds in evidence a casket containing a bloody feather allegedly coming from Zintara and proof that she attacked the ailing Prince Ardelann. Zintara has no choice but to flee — on a mission to clear her own name and prevent Korban from obtaining the remaining stones.

M’Hancha advises Zintara to hide in the islands where she will be safe but still within his reach. It is here where she literally finds herself and this includes a meeting with an ancient dragon who assists her in recognizing her destiny. Meanwhile, Korban has become successful in his villainous quest for the Stones of Alu Cemah. To show the power they wield his first act is to create a monstrous armored warrior — a small taste of the abilities the demented sorcerer now possesses. The narrative drives forward towards the anticipated showdown between Zintara and Korban. He arrives riding an impressive dragon steed and, wearing a glove that calls to mind Thanos from Marvel comics, displays the three stones that give him power so mighty that Zintara may not be able to overcome it.

The Bohbot brothers are said to be at work on the next novel in this new series which should continue the saga of Zintara. ZINTARA AND THE STONES OF ALU CEMAH is an entertaining first effort as a novel, but for me the real winner is the outstanding artwork by Michel Bohbot with illustrations that truly brings the tale to life with each successive page.

Establishing Presence

Establishing Presence by T.L. Hoch

Reviewed by Teri Davis

What is the purpose of a softball game? Is it the same as a basketball game? Is there a difference between the two? Is winning the goal of both sports? Is winning everything? Can you learn more than the techniques of a competition by not winning? Purchase Here.

Between the junior and senior years of high school, a few exceptional female athletes are invited to assist at a sports camp for women’s softball and basketball. Annie, Chip, and Jenny are from the small town of Reston, Texas and joined by Cheryl while rooming together at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Cheryl’s uncle is in charge of the camp and is thrilled to have these exceptionally talented high-school seniors joining her.

The four girls enthusiastically work with the younger campers teaching them the technicalities and techniques needed to improve their skills. Including becoming better players, they also quickly learn that building their game skills are as necessary as building their personal and interpersonal skills.

Establishing Presence is the third book in this T. L. Hoch series featuring Chip Fullerton and Annie Smith.

What is special about these books, especially Establishing Presence? The novel is for male and female middle-school and high school students, even prospective coaches proving that winning is important but the life skills learned in sports are as valuable as a victory or a loss. How do you win or lose depends on your personal character. These often underlying values are what creates an outstanding person as an adult. Also mentioned is even the importance of the music department, although it was lightly mentioned, but at least recognized.

The previous books, Chasing Normal for girls’ basketball and Discovering Balance about girls’ softball, introduced the characters as well as Jenny, Luke.

The foundation of these books is demonstrating the need to reach beyond the sport and coach each player in developing into a more mature, caring adult.

T. L. Hoch is a Michigan native who earned a teaching degree as well as a masters degree in education. He has worked as a coach at football, basketball, softball as well as golf. He now enjoys his retirement and while reflecting on his past experiences into building well-written stories for high-school students based around a sports theme.

Establishing Presence is a special novel written for teens, especially sport fans. However, the book is also valuable to coaches of all sports at all levels, as well as all readers.

The Experiment

The Experiment by Robin Lamont

Reviewed by Lisa Brown-Gilbert

Robin Lamont’s The Experiment, the third addition to her well-received Kinship series, traverses the rough terrain of animal rights in a story that not only takes readers seamlessly into a world that brims with webbed mystery but also exposes the horrific aspects of a subject that is not often visited – the protection of animals. Purchase Here.

Promptly, from the narrative’s outset, the suspense begins to build, as we meet the story’s engagingly complex protagonist, Jude Brannock, a senior investigator at The Kinship, an organization specializing in undercover investigations of large scale / industrial animal abuse. Jude anxiously broods about a recently hired investigator, Time Mains her trainee, who suddenly seemed to be mysteriously missing in action. Investigative Trainee Tim Mains embarked on an independent mission to go undercover to gather, document and report violations at a targeted company Amaethon Industries. After a spate of little to no contact from Tim, Jude embarks on an intense mission to find the missing investigator determined to get to the truth of his whereabouts, especially after his cryptic message of being on to “something big”. However, Jude’s interest in the mystery of Tim’s disappearance turns out to be more than just a “platonic” or “comrade in arms” type of concern for him as it turns out the two had started an affair that had to be kept out of sight.

Meanwhile, as the progress of her investigative efforts continues, Jude finds herself confronting a debilitating personal health issue. Her intimate feelings towards Tim brought on a deepening mystery as she hears evidence of his untoward behavior, including drug use, and an intense romance with a young woman, all while he was supposed to be working undercover investigating. It was now clear to her that Tim may not have been the man she thought she could trust not only with an important heartfelt job and not to mention with her heart.

Fundamentally, as a whole, The Experiment turned out to be a good stand-alone read that I found to be both creative and satisfying as a mystery read. Ultimately, the story captivated me with a mystery that deepened and twisted as the plot progressed centered around subject matter that I personally found a refreshing relief from the usual mystery genre fare. And as for characterizations, I found Jude to be a well-crafted central character whose own complex personal history intrigued, just as much as the other mysterious elements within the narrative which author Robin Lamont did a splendid job of culminating, into a cohesive and intriguing work that wielded suspense well. I look forward to her other books as well as hoping to see The Experiment made into a movie. I think it would be great and this book is definitely a must read.

The Furies

The Furies by Corey Croft

Reviewed by Timea Barabas

This is a book that has it all; friendship, love, violence, and drugs. The Furies by Corey Croft follows the story of a group of Fury friends. In their final year of high school they are faced with a series of tough decisions. It is about them making it just one more year; it is about figuring out what comes next when worlds of possibilities open up in front of them. Or do they? But above all, it is a story about different ways of coming to terms with oneself. Purchase Here.

Set amidst the 90’s drug boom, the narrative faithfully encapsulates the spirit of the time. The plot oozes cultural references specific to that period which takes the reader on a playful journey back in time. The city of Fury is where it all happens. It is a city, not unlike any other, where social and racial divide fills the air. And so does the smell of weed. Corey Croft takes you beyond a picture-perfect layout of middle class life which leads you down some dark alleys and shows you what lurks behind closed doors. The Furies is all about forms of struggle and adaptation to what life throws at you. And the furions sure know how to throw back a punch. But there is also a softer side to their wild nature – a childhood naivete that lingers on in their adolescence.

A colorful cast of characters brings the city alive at the center of which is the trio of Cava, Sally, and Luc with AC and around them are a fluctuating wave of characters who will ensure a dynamic narrative. Stretching beyond stereotypes, Corey Croft makes sure to outline multidimensional characters with believable backstories. The novel exposes the battle ground between the psychological and sociological perspective. Whether the individual determines its own fate in the detriment of the environmental influence, or on the contrary, does the social dictate the outcome for the individual? It is an age old question, that is not settled in The Furies but it is portrayed in an exemplary way.

All in all, The Furies is a gritty piece sprinkled with some tenderness and care – care for a friend, family member or lover. One thing is certain, the pages of the book are filled with passion and powerful feelings at opposing ends of the spectrum. The author achieves the supreme feat – to move the reader. It is hard not to join Corey Croft’s chant: FURY! – US!


The Eye That Never Sleeps

The Eye That Never Sleeps by Clifford Browder

Reviewed by Lisa Brown-Gilbert

Traversing back in time to New York City circa the late nineteenth century, Clifford Browder’s The Eye That Never Sleeps poses a decidedly brilliant take on the historical crime thriller with an enticingly twisted narrative that brings together history, mystery, and masterfully fleshed out characters. Purchase Here.

A growing mystery is afoot in the expanding metropolis of 1869 New York City when three banks are robbed within a nine-month period. Of particular concern is the robbery of the Bank of Trade which is considered the heist of the century. Moreover, the thief has the gall to brag about the robberies by way of sending to the president of each bank gloating rhyming verses and a key to the bank within days of the wake of each masterminded robbery.

Meanwhile, unfortunately for the bankers, the police department has been overwhelmed by the heavy caseloads of other criminal investigations which leaves the city’s bankers in growing desperation. Looking for answers, they turn to private operative/ detective Sheldon Minick who agrees to take on the case for a substantial retainer which enables the financially strapped detective to pay bills and bring meat to his table.

An intriguing character from the start, Minick comes across as reserved and intelligent, but odd, as he not only enjoys baffling the criminals he chases, but his clients as well. Also, a master of disguise, he manages to successfully infiltrate the infamous Thieves Ball previously found impenetrable by police to mete out potential suspects. It is there at the ball, that Sheldon Minick encounters Slick Nick Prime aka Nicholas Hale, master cracksman and a bragging dandy whose wealth and wile allows him to answer to his proclivities at his whim.

Consequently, the thrills ensue as these two complex characters are brought together in a thrilling game of entanglement and wits with the intimate perspectives of both men’s psyche and lifestyles exposed. As a result, the vastly different character’s lives are lensed through the eye-opening details of the history, politics, and personalities of the era with particular attention to the division of quality of life, ultimately providing a compelling look at the wealthy and privileged life of the criminal Hale versus the poor but good guy Minick.

Altogether, I really enjoyed The Eye That Never Sleeps. I relished in being immersed in a story that captured the reality of that era in early New York history, especially being a New Yorker myself. I do highly recommend this book. It was a worthy read that was simultaneously informative, compelling and entertaining.

Capitol White

Capitol White by Joe Pistone and Jon Land

Book reviewed by Russell Ilg

As a crime film connoisseur, I place Donnie Brasco among the very best the genre has to offer. Watching Johnny Depp, as the title character, spend five years undercover inside the New York Mob, before ultimately bringing down the infamous families at the top of the food chain, remains great fun every time I watch it. Purchase Here.

So it was with great interest that I plunged into Capitol White, more or less a direct sequel to that movie, penned by former FBI agent Joe Pistone working in tandem with bestselling thriller writer Jon Land. The twist is Donnie himself has been re-imagined wondrously here as a fictional hero, as opposed to a fictitious one, to spectacular success.
Pistone famously chronicled his years living undercover in Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia – A True Story. Capitol White may be all fiction but you wouldn’t know it from the writing and I had to remind myself numerous times that what I was reading was made up instead of a literary rendition of Donnie’s next major case.

And what a case it is, as we follow the now retired Brasco being lured back into action when a pair of current agents come to him with the story that his mentor’s recent death was the product of murder and not natural causes. Before you can say “Martin Scorsese,” Pistone’s famed undercover doppelganger is all-in on what got FBI Assistant Director Paul Weinman killed, following a trail that leads to a shadowy cabal of Washington powermongers who, by all indications, have usurped the opioid trade for their own nefarious ends.

Hence the title Capitol White, a play on “China White” which is one of the many street names for heroine. It’s oddly appropriate, given that Donnie will stop at nothing to ferret out the politicos and crooks running the show, as coolly professional in fiction as he was in fact, even if that means going back undercover, something he’d promised his family he’d sworn off forever.

For my money, those scenes with his wife and three young sons are the very best in the book, especially when his youngest boy becomes responsible for uncovering a crucial clue (as well as the book’s chilling denouement). William Faulkner once said that the greatest conflict is the human heart at war with itself, and Donnie struggles mightily to keep a vow made to his family while honoring an obligation to the man who was his lifeline during those dangerous years he spent undercover.

This is gritty crime-thriller writing of the highest order, hardboiled prose packed with a punch made all the more enjoyable by a superb unabridged reading by Alexander Centese. Centese’s measured voice and cadence make the tale’s noir-ish elements even more foreboding as Donnie plunges deeper and deeper into a darkness that threatens to swallow him whole at every turn. The first-person narration crackles with authenticity, helping to (re)establish Donnie’s street creds and smarts as he negotiates a Washington, DC terrain that seems little different than the New York streets on which he made his bones, politicians no different from mob bosses. A rollicking, riveting and relentless read/listen.

The Friends of Allan Renner

The Friends of Allan Renner by David J. Andrae

Book Reviewed by Lisa Brown-Gilbert

Dave J. Andrae’s The Friends of Allan Renner proposes an intelligent exploration of life through a multi-level, multiperspectival narrative which comes by virtue of Allan Renner’s encounters and discourse with his eclectic assortment of friends. Purchase Here.

This book is definitively an offering of food for thought, brimming with revelations about life and people in general. This is a narrative that is provocative in its ideals and shines through its characters, their thoughts, actions and personalities during their congregations with central character Allan Renner often giving a story within a story as their backstories are also very revealing about human nature. Moreover, although this work is a fictional story, the subject matter of their encounters and conversations are realistic, important, and quite often thought provoking with topics such as astrophysics, cosmology, modern culture, racism, film making, futurism, sex, dating, technology, as well as artistic endeavors.

Ultimately, as the story’s protagonist, Allan Renner is an interesting characterization. He is intelligent, amiable, stalwart, a film buff and occasionally, works freelance as a production assistant. Meanwhile, within the seven chapters of the book, each chapter is centered around an encounter with a different friend. Perspectively, life is seen through the diversity of fascinating viewpoints with each acquaintance. Also at play is the diversity of their backstories which allows for a deeper look into their thought processes with the conversations delving into various aspects of the human condition.

First, we meet Akhil Das, a well-degreed high school guidance counselor, astrophysics enthusiast, and unfortunate alcoholic. Akhil and Allan delve into conversation on the topics concerning cosmology and the beginning and end of humanity. Next, we meet Allan’s friend Sadie Guildwood, an attractive middle-aged woman who was once head-vocalist in a semi popular band, as well as social media blogger. Essentially the interaction between Sadie and Allan presents a bit of sexual tension as there is a potential for a romantic encounter between the two that does not materialize but hope for it looms in the air. Their conversations include juxtaposing working in cinema versus working as a musician, the future of humanity, future technology, and Transhumanism. Additionally, there are spates of inner mentations concerning their likes and dislikes about one another. The pace picks up, when the two meet with an acquaintance of Sadie’s that take things on an interesting twist. Moving on to the next friend, we meet Fred, a multiracial African American jazz enthusiast who grew up somewhat privileged. Also a budding film director and teacher, Fred believes in the power of cinema to help people. What makes this chapter stand out is the reactions of characters while waiting for a seasoned criminal to come and audition for a film. The remainder of the book encompasses chapters based on his parents, his pet Havapoo Ruby, as well as pivotal friends Carmen and Xynnulu.

Altogether the people and experiences in the chapters of Allan Renner’s life made for an interesting, nicely paced story, woven with absorbing, complicated characters enmeshed in a creative narrative with scenes of a life that are revelatory, endearing, and pulse racing. I enjoyed The Friends of Allan Renner by Dave J. Andrae; it made for great read, with a storyline that included a nice science fiction twist and I do recommend it for adult readers.