The Last Train

The Last Train

The Last Train by Michael Pronko (Thriller/Mystery)

Michael Pronko writes mysteries set in Tokyo, making this book not only a fast-paced thriller but a close look at a city where holy temples rub shoulders with hostess clubs and high-speed trains provide a means for homicide.

Hiroshi Shimitzu is a Tokyo police detective who normally deals with white collar crime, but because he speaks English well, he is pulled into the investigation of an American businessman’s death by train. Insider trading, high-stakes real estate deals, and a mysterious ex-hostess give Hiroshi and his fellow detectives plenty to contemplate as they race against time to capture the murderer. In a unique twist for the average mystery, we already know who the killer is. What remains to be learned is why she did it and will she get away with it?

Novels with a strong, well-drawn sense of place rate highly with me, especially when they provide insights into an unfamiliar culture (Dew Angels, Hillstation, The Brazilian Husband, Savaged Lands). This book is no exception. Pronko takes us deep into Tokyo nightlife as well as giving us glimpses of the holy shrines, religious practices, and food traditions that are an integral part of daily life. We meet everyday people, teen-aged call girls, hard-boiled corporate executives, and ex-sumo wrestlers. At the same time, he creates well-developed characters who keep the reader’s interest.

Grandma gives The Last Train four and a half stars. 4.5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the author with a request for an honest review.

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Citizen Kill

Citizen Kill

Citizen Kill by Stephen Clark (Thriller)

This government conspiracy thriller involves a discredited former CIA operative who is seeking to get back into the agency’s good graces. To do so, he must commit covert assassinations that go against his better judgment, killing American citizens who are suspected of, but not proven to be, radicalizing Muslims.

Equipped with an ice gun that shoots bullets of ice coated with a seafood toxin that stimulates a heart attack, Justin Raines begins killing Imams and others whose names are sent to him one by one by a CIA bigwig. Meanwhile, we also follow the newly inaugurated president of the United States, a reporter for a Washington newspaper, a young Muslim woman running a school for American Muslim children, various political figures, and some of Justin’s former CIA team members who form his current support system. While that may sound overwhelming, it’s not, with all but one of the narratives working well together to tell the story.

The one that did not work for me was the president, Savannah Reed. On Inauguration Day, during the parade, her 12-year-old son is killed when a bomb explodes along the route. Like any mother, she is devastated, but unlike a tough woman who has chosen to become the leader of the free world knowing the risks and responsibilities, she lasts one week in the White House and then transfers power to the Vice President and stays away for six months.

During that time, she befriends a young girl who lost her mother to the Inauguration Day bombing and is now in a wheelchair. When Savannah goes back to being president, she moves the child and her immigrant Bosnian father into the White House, along with Savannah’s own husband and teen-aged son. She helps the child with homework, takes her and her father along on political fundraisers across the country, and spends weekends with them dining in Washington restaurants. Then they and the first family all go to Camp David. Her husband is jealous, and then he’s not.

Unfortunately, all of this detail contributes nothing to the thriller’s plot. Instead, we watch a distracted, incompetent president live vicariously through a motherless child while everything around her goes down the drain. So much for being the first woman in the Oval Office.

If one can ignore that part, this is a book thriller aficionados will enjoy.  It has the requisite love story, some redemption, some justice meted out to the guilty, and some surprises. The story moves right along, the writing is fine, and it all wraps up at the end.

Grandma gives Citizen Kill three and a half stars. 3.5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Spider and the Stone

The Spider and the Stone

The Spider and the Stone by Glen Craney (Historical Fiction)

Lovers of castles and keeps, knights, and the lore of Scottish clans will thoroughly enjoy this well-written novel. Covering the years 1296 to 1330, the book brings to life the struggles of disparate and often warring Scottish clans to name a king they can all support while striving to rid Scotland of rule by the English kings Edward I, II, and III. Robert the Bruce, James Douglas (also known as The Black Douglas), and William Wallace (Braveheart) are among the familiar Scots portrayed here. We also meet Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II and sometimes known as the She-Wolf of France, plus a myriad of other characters including Edward II’s male lovers, some interesting clerics, a group of Knights Templar, and Isabelle MacDuff, a Scotswoman who played an important role in the crowning of Robert Bruce and is depicted here as James Douglas’s lover.

Glen Craney makes it clear that he has fictionalized the details and stories of historic characters about whose personal lives little is known. He has done extensive research, nicely displayed in his use of the vernacular and in his descriptions of countryside, castles, and towers. As one does from any good work of historical fiction, I came away with a desire to learn more about the time period – in this case, the wars for Scottish independence, the Plantagenet kings, the Knights Templar, and the Culdees. The book, although long, moves steadily and kept my unflagging interest, much of that driven by Craney’s writing style which fits the era in its elegance. The book includes intricate battle scenes based on real events, minor love scenes, and some gore.

Grandma gives The Spider and the Stone five stars.  5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive

How Speleology

How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive by Michael Bernhart (Action/Adventure)

Don’t judge this book by its title – it is a witty adventure story involving some hefty topics, including racism, kidnapping, and the aftereffects of serving in Vietnam, yet it kept me chuckling from beginning to end. The year is 1993, and the narrator, Max Brown, is the 52-year-old father of mischievous nine-year-old twins, Mary and Margaret (M&M), and husband to their “scrumptious” mom, Sally, who is much younger than he. As the title suggests, he worries about sexual performance, but that’s nowhere near what this novel is all about.

His precocious daughters disappear into the wilds of northern Georgia while visiting Sally’s crazy backwoods uncle, Skeeter. They and Skeeter hope to find Confederate gold rumored to be hidden in abandoned mines. Local Klan members don’t take well to outsiders messing around in their territory, but decide to see what the treasure hunters might discover before getting rid of them. Max and Sally don’t know which of the locals they can trust as too many negative things occur after they confide in seemingly friendly folks. They must rely on their own wiles and wits if they’re going to find their girls before it’s too late.

What makes this such an enjoyable read is the voice of Max Brown as he relates what’s going on with his kids, his wife, her wacky uncle, and the various people they run into on their quest. Max’s self-deprecating humor and his wry observations keep the narration light and funny even when the stakes are high and things are going poorly. None of it makes light of what the KKK stands for, however, nor are Klansmen portrayed as buffoons. The book depicts racism in all its ugliness and introduces us to people who must face it every day. As for the title and what it implies, think PG-13 when it comes to sex. Max is honest and funny but too much of a gentleman to go into detail.

Grandma gives How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Engadine Aerie

Engadine Aerie

Engadine Aerie by Bluette Mathey (Mystery/Suspense)

This is Book Five in the Hardy Durkin Travel Series, Durkin being one of those likeable everyday guys outside of law enforcement who just happens to keep stumbling upon, and solving, crimes and mysteries. In this case, there’s a murder, attempted murder, an attempted terrorist bombing, and a terrorist arms deal.

The author provides lots of characters to keep track of. Durkin is an outfitter/trekker who has joined a friend guiding her first ski tour group through a trip to the Engadine Valley of the Swiss Alps. We know every member of the group by name and follow their stories. We also follow wealthy royalty from Abu Dhabi and a set of sinister fraternal twins who live in the Engadine, plus a middleman or two in the arms deal. And because this is a stand-alone novel based on a series, we are brought up to date on Durkin’s past and his relationships with additional characters who appeared in previous books and are back again. For some of the aforementioned, we learn detailed family histories – in one case dating back to the Crusades, with theories about the Templars thrown in for good measure.

Mathey personally visits the off-the-beaten-track locations she writes about, a strong point in this series. She also does a lot of research. We get details about various parts of the Alps with histories of hotels and other significant sites, brand names for what the rich are wearing, and descriptions of the expensive cars they’re driving. Falconry plays a part in the story, and the author does a good job of bringing that to life.

The plot is complicated, as tales of international intrigue often are, and I admit to sometimes losing track of it all, but not enough to miss out on the main points. Overall, this is a very ambitious book that is generally successful but could use a trimming of the minutiae.

Grandma gives Engadine Aerie four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Sweet Oil of Vitriol

The Sweet Oil of Vitriol

The Sweet Oil of Vitriol by Daniel Eagleton (Suspense)

If you need a protagonist you will like and empathize with, this book is not for you. Tom Glaze is a failed Mossad agent who drinks too much, uses cocaine, fantasizes about every attractive woman he meets, and makes some poor decisions on the job and in his personal life. He is definitely not your usual hero type, and that made him interesting to me, although a sense of humor or some other endearing characteristic would have made him more palatable. I didn’t like him, but I still wanted to know if and how he was going to pull off a planned hit on a crooked international politician.

Eagleton’s writing style takes some getting used to. At first I thought the lack of the pronoun “he” was a typo, but I soon learned that the author prefers to write in sentence fragments, describing the action in a series of phrases minus a stated subject. I am not opposed to an attempt at originality as long as the endeavor works, and once I came to accept the absence of pronouns, it did. Overall, I found the book well-written and well-edited, with a rare proofreading oversight like “she put his hand on his.”

This is the first book in “The Tom Glaze Series,” and it did a good job of wrapping up the current story while leaving plenty of room for more action to come. Perhaps, as Tom Glaze makes more of a name for himself in his chosen trade, he’ll rely less on booze and drugs and keep his distractions under control. At least one could hope so, and this reader would be willing to find out.

Grandma gives The Sweet Oil of Vitriol four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows by Matthew A. J. Timmins (Humor/Mystery)

This is probably the most unique work I’ve reviewed in a very long time. It reads like a historical novel set in Victorian London, with a strong sense of place and gritty, Dickensian characters with lots of quirks and warts. At the same time, it’s very funny.

The setting is not exactly London but the very similar city of Claudon, capital of Albion, on the banks of the River Plew. Our anti-hero, Mr. Robin Sparrows, is a lowly legal clerk who is paid a pittance to do menial tasks for a disreputable law firm. He’s a timid, self-effacing fellow who falls prey to all sorts of dilemmas, most often due to the nefarious behavior of others. Still, his sense of duty propels him forward and keeps him going as he seeks to deliver a package to the Empire’s most notorious criminal, a man responsible for starting the Crocodile War with the nation of Crocodon.

I loved many things about this book. The writing is superb. The eccentric characters are entertaining, and the names of places — Upper-Hem-On-The-Edge, St. Audley’s Home for Limbless Soldiers — and the names of people — Lord Ernest Arenblast, the diminutive Warden Webert Stillbee — have the sparkling creativity of J.K. Rowling. I found myself chuckling at clever similes and plays on words as well as the outlandish situations in which the hapless Robin finds himself — attempting to hide on a windowsill while being attacked by a territorial pigeon was just one of many.

Readers with an appreciation for the mildly absurd and those who enjoy clever narrative and strong writing skills will find this refreshing novel most entertaining. If Mr. Sparrows were to return with new adventures, I would be happy to meet up with him again.

Grandma gives The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.