Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Heard of the Bland Sisters Adventures? Book 3 Amazes! From Kara LaReau and Jen Hill

A happy accident sent a copy of the final book in the Bland Sisters trilogy to my desk this month. And what a delight! Written by Kara LaReau and abundantly illustrated by Jen Hill, the series is probably meant for 8-year-olds, plus or minus a year ... but it's a dandy entertainment for willing adults.

Jaundice and Kale Bland are twin sisters -- at least, they think they share a birthday -- who like everything flavorless, colorless, and boring. Thus, their explosive exit from Dullsville to wild and risky living is absolutely NOT what they wanted. Hence the supertitle of the trilogy: "The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters."

Book 1, The Jolly Regina, sees the sisters kidnapped by a team of "lady pirates." Swashbuckling and sea chanties, and of course the risk of seasickness and falling overboard, follow. Test-drive this notion with the kids in your circle: "Raise your hand if you'd like to be snatched onto a ship by pirates who are happy and laughing and have an important mission!"

Book 2, The Uncanny Express, follows the lead of Agatha Christie by stranding Jaundice and Kale with "ten strangers on a train" (including a magician). And the girls are somehow expected to rescue the situation -- what? Really? Cool.

Book 3 is Flight of the Bluebird and opens on a small airplane, being aptly piloted by the dashing Beatrix Airedale. (This is only the first of many intricate half-puns, some of which require a grown-up's literary experience or time spent watching old movies ... like when a feisty restaurant owner chases her staff member with the threat, "Don't play it again, Sam!") Says Beatrix to the girls, "You two should be glad you have parents who encourage you to explore the world. Mine stopped talking to me when I took up flying." "They don't talk to you, at all?" Kale asked. At least the Bland Sisters' parents sent them letters, and talked to them in their dreams.

Aside from the radical airship ride itself, Kale and Jaundice have a mission to find (and save!) their long-lost parents. If they succeed (canny adult readers will be aware), the point of the adventure series -- yes, parentless children who have to solve strange situations on their own -- may vanish. But there are magical scarabs, symbol-strewn dreamscapes, and villains in pyramids ahead. How can the girls resist?

As you might guess, seeding my desk with Book 3 was a very clever move by the publicist for Amulet Books (part of Abrams), since I almost immediately HAD TO buy books 1 and 2. And a certain 8-year-old member of my family is about to receive copies of all three. (Hey, not my copies!)

Even better, author Kara LaReau on her website explains the other books she has in the works already, and I'm convinced that there will be more reading adventures ideal for that youngster -- of course, I will need to purchase them and sit down to read them right away myself (just so I know what I'm sending to him, right?).

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

It's a Tough World, but PI Willa Pennington Steps Up, in DARK STREETS, COLD SUBURBS from Aimee Hix

About the only thing I didn't like about the second Willa Pennington investigation, DARK STREETS, COLD SUBURBS, was the title -- for all the rest, from the conflicted protagonist to the neatly twisted and well-paced plotting, I couldn't put the book down.

Willa Pennington is a former law enforcement officer, and in her own thinking, she's wimped out of the job. Now studying -- both on paper and in practice drills -- to pass the exams for a private investigator (PI) license, to work in her dad's business. It's home based, which means that if the bad guys catch on to where the Penningtons live, violence and threat can easily come home with them.

Not that Willa's mom would let "bad guys" get very far. Defensive of her family and wickedly insightful, she's Willa's other mentor in a deep sense. And Willa needs all the back-up she can find: At the mixed martial arts dojo where she's working past her (very reasonable) fear load, there's a teenager who's in extreme danger. A classic "poor little rich girl," the teen, Aja, is struggling to navigate death and destruction while her parents leave her alone in a house where the locks and alarms aren't enough to keep out the crazies. The thing is, they're not acting like the presumed teenaged druggies or house thieves Willa had in mind:
Instead of deflating like expected, like any scared, stupid kid would he kicked back hard and caught me on the jaw. He nailed me in just the right spot and I saw the proverbial stars.

I heard him scrambling up and running off while I shook my head like a cartoon and tried to remember how to count all my teeth, especially the back ones. When I was finally back in the land of the fully cognizant with a wet ass, ripped jeans, and scuffed Chucks, I listened for the sound of a vehicle. The only thing I heard was a very optimistic mourning dove cooing and the chirp of a text alert.


Either Jan's cold case had just gotten super-hot or she had a second case for me. That made three I was juggling, in case anyone was counting.

The rain began coming down in earnest as I limped back to my truck, my knee competing with my pride to see which smarted more.
Most of us don't work out as intensely as Willa, or plan our attacks and defenses in her ways -- but otherwise, this all-too-believable crime novel of suburban danger could be taking place practically next door, and the risks Willa decides to take make sense ... but only good teamwork will get her through.

This one's a keeper, and that means the entire series -- the preceding title (What Doesn't Kill You) and the ones we can expect in the future from Aimee Hix, a northern Virginia author -- need space on the shelves, ASAP. A good pick from Midnight Ink.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Stone Barrington Tackles the "Five Families" in New Suspense from Stuart Woods

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Clearly, Stuart Woods never runs out of ideas. Among his more than 75 titles, the Stone Barrington books make up the largest share: A Delicate Touch looks like the 48th featuring this New Yorker and his circle of employees, friends, informants, and most importantly, police detective Dino Bacchetti. He’ll need all of them to protect his life, as the contents of a hidden safe place him into direct conflict with the most powerful crime families of the region.

Dino’s ex-wife Mary Ann is the daughter of a reputed Mafia leader, Eduardo Bianchi; about to let go of her deceased father’s house to a museum, Mary Ann’s discovered a massive safe—and of course she doesn’t have the combination. Stone Barrington’s immediate assignment is to locate a safecracker to handle the pre-war German mechanism. Hence the need for “a delicate touch”: mess up the combination and the safe becomes even more impossible to ever open.

The safecracker recruited, Sol Fink, is one of the early delights of this entertaining mystery. About a century old, Sol’s the only person in America who can handle the challenge, and he’ll need to be “sprung” from the assisted living home in order to tackle it.
His voice was strong, and he was ramrod straight in his posture. Stone hadn’t expected that.

‘Before you ask,’ Sol said, ‘I’m a hundred and four years old … It’s not my fault,’ Sol replied, climbing into the rear seat. ‘I did everything that’s supposed to kill you, except smoking, so I should have been dead fifty years ago.’

Stone got up front with Fred. ‘Then from now on, Sol,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘I will adopt you as my personal example.’
Opening the safe puts Stone and his crew into enormous danger. Written testimonies in it, probably once “insurance” to protect Bianchi from blackmail, reveal federal crimes committed by members of the notorious “Five Families” of the Italian mob of New York City and beyond. Stone’s happy to turn the records over to Dino and his police squad for investigation, but unfortunately the “owner” of the documents, Mary Ann, can’t resist talking about the contents to a descendant of one of those implicated—a man about to run for President, and whose past and present probably connect to a massive and deadly criminal enterprise.

Wisely, Stone gets out of town, with a few others at risk. But he’s got to return at some point, and nobody crosses Jack Thomas and his political dream boy Hank without violent consequences.

The plot’s clever and involves the owners and top journalists of the city’s premier newspaper. Woods, a pro at keeping the plates spinning, creates a stellar performance of risk, intrigue, and hard-won escapes for his very experienced protagonist, so the big question is, what will Stone have to trade to ensure his and his family’s long-term safety?

This is a classic “Mafia crime” mystery, told in a chatty and delightful way. Don’t count on memorable tropes or depth, as they are not the point of Woods’s efforts. But go ahead and bet on Stone Barrington to work things out. And if you’re going along for the ride, as Dino will be from time to time, be sure to bring a dinner jacket. Stone solves crimes in style.

New this week from Putnam.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Outrageous Thriller Adventure from Barry Eisler, THE KILLER COLLECTIVE (Rain + Livia!)

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Master of suspense BarryEisler links two of his series together in the hard-hitting and compulsive thriller The Killer Collective and uncovers much more than a plot to kill a police investigator. Emotions ride high, and ironically, in the midst of explosions of all sorts, Eisler’s two unusual protagonists tangle with matters of the heart.

Readers of Eisler’s long-running “Rain” series will eagerly see the half-Asian John Rain discover he’s not really happy with retirement; when he gets a job offer, he sniffs the wind like a fire horse called back to the station. But the assignment involves killing a woman, a violation of his set-in-stone and well-known rule. Why would anyone think he’d accept such a job?

Before he’s quite figured out what’s happening behind the crime scene on this one, Livia Lone’s investigation leaps into focus. A Seattle sex-crimes detective, Livia bumps into an FBI sting that might force her to not make a move against a vicious child pornography ring. And not just “kiddie porn,” horrible as that is, but this ring is into hurting children, on film. Livia, a “survivor” of something similar, can’t possibly let this slide.

Soon both Rain and Livia are in touch with a former asset they’ve worked with, Dox, himself a former marine sniper. When the team expands to include Rain’s estranged lover (a Mossad agent), a pair of black-ops soldiers, and a formidable former commander, Special Operations legendary Colonel Scott Horton, the mixed motives and conflicting agendas make every planning session into a potential minefield of harsh opinions and strong actions.

Rain can see the dangers clearly—it’s part of his expertise, watching for clues into how people operate, and finding a way to get his goals met. Here, he’s assessing the interaction between SpecOps professionals Larison and Treven:
Larison was watching Treven. The irritation was gone from Larison’s expression, replaced by an odd flatness. I could imagine his calculus: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. And I could imagine the destination to which that logic must have already led him.

As formidable as he was, that was Larison’s one weakness: you could read the danger he radiated. If I had decided to kill Treven, there would have been no changes in affect. I would hae kept trying to cajole him right up until it was done. But when Larison made a decision, if he wasn’t ghosting up on you from your flanks, you’d hae a chance to know his intent before he acted on it.
Dangerous as these allies are, Rain and Livia are at least as dangerous to those around them, each in pursuit of a different form of justice. And each is someone you need to stand well away from, if you’re having to wake them up, because they always come awake fighting.

This dangerous and driven collaborative of agents, motivated to save Livia and cut off the hydra heads of the porn ring trying to assassinate her, become Eisler’s “killing collective.” Page after page, explosion and killing and escape after another, this sharp-edged storyteller pulls off one of the great escapades of all time and sets it in Paris, for extra verve.

And if, afterward, the notion seems unlikely, the collective too dangerous, the odds of success against it—that part won’t matter. The fun of Eisler’s super thriller is in the excitement, the chase, and the survival. The Killer Collective binds it together it into a blazing adventure of espionage escape fiction, perfect to start the new year.

From Thomas & Mercer, January 1 publication.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.