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Book Reviews

THE HALF SISTER by Sandie Jones

Picture opening your front door one day and being confronted by a stranger who tells you an incredible story.  She says her name is Jess, she’s arrived to talk to your father, not knowing that he has died, and that she’s his daughter, your sister.  Can you imagine your response?  That’s the premise of Sandi Jones’ mystery, The Half Sister.

Lauren and Kate are sisters, but they have grown apart over the years.  Lauren is married, with three children, and now she is home on maternity leave from her job as a nurse.  Kate, also married, is a journalist who has made her name interviewing celebrities around the world.

What neither woman will outwardly acknowledge is that she is jealous of the other–Lauren, for what she views as Kate’s glamorous lifestyle; Kate, for Lauren’s ability to become pregnant three times while Kate has been unsuccessfully trying for several years.

Even before Jess arrives on the scene, there is tension in the family.  Harry, the father, was the glue that held the family together, and since his death there is no one to smooth things over.  Kate, the younger daughter, feels it most keenly as she and her father had a special bond, and she is furious at the thought that Lauren believes that Jess is their half-sister.  But then Lauren tells Kate and their mother the whole story, that in an effort to bring the family closer together, she went on an ancestry website and submitted her DNA.  It turns out that Jess did the same, and their DNAs are a match.

Of course, having a half-sister is not the only secret that Jess’ arrival has uncovered.  We learn the reason why Lauren’s bond with their late father is not as strong as Kate’s and why she is much more willing to accept Jess as part of their family.  A life-changing event in Lauren’s past led to the rupture, but now when she views what happened to her as a teenager through an adult lens, she emerges with a different perspective.  And Rose, Kate and Lauren’s mother, is distraught that this unknown young woman has seen fit to come into their lives and destroy the memory of her late husband.

An interesting point about the book’s title is that the half part of it can also be seen as referring to the life of this family–that only half of their lives was true, the other half being a tangle of lies and misrepresentations.  Of course, as all mystery readers know, once a lie or secret starts to unravel there’s no stopping it.

Sandie Jones has written a mystery with truly believable characters and a plot that will have you breathless until, literally, the book’s last page.

You can read more about the author at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

NEXT TO LAST STAND by Craig Johnson: Book Review

Every time I read another Walt Longmire mystery I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend.  There is something so real, so down-to-earth, about the Wyoming sheriff that I am always delighted to be in his company again.

In Next to Last Stand, Walt is still recovering from the injuries he received when he traveled south of the border in search of his abducted daughter more than a year ago.  He’s back in Absaroka County, but physically and emotionally he is still carrying the scars from his trip to the northern Mexican desert.

Years earlier, just back from Vietnam, Walt struck up a friendship with several men at the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming, in particular with Charlie Lee Stillwater, an Army vet who fought in the Korean War.  Now Walt gets a call from Carol Williams, the administrator of the Home, to tell him that his friend died during the night and that she would like him to stop by as soon as possible.  When Walt arrives and he and Carol  go to Charlie’s room, she shows him a shoe box she had found that morning, filled with hundred dollar bills adding up to one million dollars.

There’s also a fragment of a painting, an artist’s proof, slipped into the folds of the blanket on Charlie’s bed.  It’s old, still showing vibrant colors, and portrays an Indian and a cavalry officer locked in a struggle to the death.  Neither Carol nor Walt has any idea how the dead man came to have it in his possession, Walt decides to take it to a museum a few towns away to see if anyone there knows where it came from or how Charlie could possibly have gotten it.

One of America’s most famous battles was fought in what was then the Montana Territory.  It has various names–The Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand, the Battle of the Greasy Grass (the latter the name given by the Indians who fought there),–and it took place in June, 1876.  It became immortalized in a painting by Cassilly Adams.  Walt is beginning to believe that somehow Charlie Lee had the original Adams painting and sold it, thus explaining the money found in his room.

There are two particularly wonderful scenes in Next to Last Stand that help explain my admiration for Walt Longmire and his creator.  In one, he’s placed a man accused of domestic abuse and kidnapping in a holding cell, and in defiance the prisoner has covered himself with Vaseline so the sheriff can’t grab him and take him out to the transport van that will take him to California to face charges there.  In the following scene, Walt discovers that the van’s drivers have been on the road for seventeen hours straight and not attending to the medical and physical needs of their passengers.  Walt’s handling of both these issues is so clever, so ingenious, that they alone make the novel worth reading.

But, of course, there’s much more–a closer look into Charlie Lee’s death, the possibility of uncovering the missing painting that for years has been presumed burned, the search for the veteran’s heirs, Walt’s unhappy mental state–all these things, plus Walt’s usual sidekicks–his deputy sheriff and romantic interest Victoria, his closest friend Henry Standing Bear, his long-suffering dispatcher Ruby–all combine to make Craig Johnson’s latest mystery one of the year’s best.

You can read more about Craig Johnson at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


MONEY CREEK by Anne Laughlin: Book Review

The lure of drugs as well as what one will do to get them is at the heart of Anne Laughlin’s MONEY CREEK.  It’s painful reading, but unfortunately it’s a story that is all too familiar to many, either through personal experience or through general knowledge.  Either way, Clare Lehane’s story is one that will resonate with the readers of the author’s latest mystery.

The novel’s prologue sets the scene for what follows.  Clare is at a remote cabin in the woods, where she has gone with Henry, her new drug supplier.  He has insisted she accompany him there and meet the people in his circle.  Almost as soon as they arrive Henry leaves, and Clare is left with three people she doesn’t know.  Angry, yet needing to stay until she gets the drugs she came for, Clare leaves the living room to use the bathroom, and while she’s there gunshots erupt.

Walking back to the living room, she sees three bloody bodies lying on the floor.  After checking that the gunman is gone, she quickly leaves the cabin and calls the police from a pay phone.  Although the last thing she wants is to get involved and to have to explain what she was doing there, her guilt adds to her already distraught state of mind and increases her desire for drugs and, when they are not readily available, alcohol.

The backstory explains how Clare finds herself in this horrific place.  She is a young lawyer, working for a “white shoe” law firm in Chicago.  The term, according to Google, refers to the most prestigious employers in elite professions, and the Windy City law firm where she is a first-year associate is definitely that.  Clare is realizing that the only way she can keep up with the 70-80 hours of work demanded of her each week is to continue what she started while a law school student–taking Adderall to give her more energy and a longer attention span during the day, then taking Valium to relax her at night.  And she discovers she can’t function without either or both.

In a desperate effort to start a new life, she quits her job and moves to a small law firm in southern Illinois.  She actually goes so far as to flush her entire drug supply down the toilet after she arrives there, but she almost immediately realizes that this hasn’t solved her addiction problem.  In fact, she is so desperate that her only recourse is to go to the college in the small town of Money Creek in hopes of finding a student/dealer to resupply her.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes before she meets Henry, a student who is the go-to man on campus when one is looking for drugs.  Despite her intention of quitting, after just one day she’s so desperate for speed that she agrees to have sex with him if he will provide her with what she needs.

Money Creek is a thought-provoking book with a flawed protagonist, one whom you want to succeed.  Reading Clare’s story evokes both despair and hope.  Despair because I felt she was losing her promising life and career to her addiction, hope because she so desperately wants to conquer her need for drugs that I was rooting for her to do so.

You can read more about Anne Laughlin at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE ORPHAN’S GUILT by Archer Mayor: Book Review

Old sins cast long shadows is a proverb that’s never been truer than in Archer Mayor’s latest Joe Gunther novel.

The Orphan’s Guilt opens with the inebriated John Rust being pulled over by a Vermont state trooper.  John doesn’t fight going to the police barracks, even though he knows that because it’s his fourth DUI–Driving Under the Influence–an arrest and conviction will likely cost him his license and possibly a jail term.

The event that triggered John’s drinking was the death of his younger brother Peter earlier that day.  After he’s released from the barracks he contacts attorney Scott Jezek to discuss his legal options, and Scott hires Sally Kravitz, who works for him as an independent investigator, to determine if there are mitigating circumstances that might lead to a lesser sentence or even no penalty at all for his client.

It was always believed by John’s neighbors that Peter had a severe birth defect that resulted in his inability to speak, walk, or take care of himself in any way.  The few people who knew the brothers were uniformly impressed by John’s care of and devotion for Peter.  Their mother had died when John was twelve and Peter eight, and the day that John turned eighteen their father, Daryl Hicks, walked out of the house, leaving the older brother to care for the younger one.

In the aftermath of John’s arrest for drunk driving, things long hidden start coming to the surface.  Sally talks to Marcia Ethier, the midwife who delivered Peter, and is stunned to hear that, as opposed to everyone’s understanding of Peter’s condition, the boy was not born brain damaged.

“I know, by all that is holy, that Peter Rust was damaged by another,” Marcia tells Sally.  She has kept this knowledge to herself, feeling guilty for more than two decades, because she was frightened by the boys’ father.  “I felt like my life was in danger.”

This statement opens up an inquiry by the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, headed by Joe Gunther and his staff.  A very circuitous path, starting with the disappearance of Scott’s client John, takes them into an examination of the Russ/Hicks home life, the death by overdose of the boys’ mother, the criminal record of their father, and a long-forgotten financial crime.

It is always a delight to have an opportunity to spend time with Joe Gunther and his staff.  There’s smart and organized Sammie Martens, cranky but street-smart Willy Kunkle, and friendly and easy-going Lester Spinney.  Working together they solve a case that began with a boy’s birth and ended years later in multiple murders.

A man of many talents and interests, Archer Mayor works as a death investigator for the Vermont State Medical Examiner’s office, a deputy for the Windham County Sheriff’s Department, and a volunteer for his local fire department and EMT squad.  Archer Mayor is a master craftsman, and The Orphan’s Guilt shows him at the top of his game.

You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE SILENT PATIENT by Alex Michaelides: Book Review

When clinical psychotherapist Theo Faber leaves his position at Broadmoor, a highly regarded psychiatric hospital in London, to accept a similar position at the Grove, a less prestigious and less respected institution, his colleagues are surprised.  His supervisor tells that him that he’s heard rumors that the Grove is in financial trouble and may be closed shortly.  “You could find yourself out of a job in six months,” he tells Theo.  But Theo won’t change his mind.

What Theo doesn’t say is that he has a very personal, somewhat unprofessional, reason for wanting to join the staff of the Grove.  The hospital’s most celebrated patient is Alicia Berenson, a well-known artist who killed her husband six years earlier by shooting him in the face five times.  Since that day her silence has been total; she has not spoken another word.

Theo himself has had years of psychotherapy, something he believes has saved his life.  His childhood was traumatic, with an emotionally and physically abusive father and a mother unable to intervene or help him.  Now, with his successful career of helping severely mentally disturbed patients and having obtained a better understanding of his own dysfunctional history, he believes he is uniquely able to help Alicia break through her silence, explain the murder, and re-enter the world.  Theo says to himself, “I wanted to fix her.”

However, that doesn’t prove easy.  Alicia is resistant to all the therapy the Grove has offered over the years, and Theo finds himself beginning to blur the boundaries between therapist and patient in an effort to get her to respond to him, to speak again.  He reads her file, but he really doesn’t have any interest in what any other therapist has said or done in working with Alicia.  He believes that his approach will prove to be the successful one.

He determines first to speak to her attorney, Max Berersen, who was the brother of Alicia’s ex-husband.  He feels certain that he would not receive approval for his unorthodox approach to Max, so “better not ask” his supervisor, he decides.  And this becomes the first step on the slippery slope of ignoring not only the hospital rules but those of good therapeutic practice.  But even at this early juncture, Theo realizes “it was too late to stop.  In many ways my fate was already decided….”

Theo’s marriage has been the one bright spot in his personal life.  Kathy is warm, spontaneous, outgoing, all the traits that he himself is missing, and he loves her for them.  Then one day he passes her open laptop and reads several emails that make it obvious that she is having an affair.  And now he must deal with his private problem as well as his professional one.

Alex Michaelides has written a spellbinding novel, one in which we see, or think we see, how one man’s overweening pride does not lead to the result he anticipated.  And you know what they say follows pride….

You can read more about Alex Michaelides at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

AS THE CROW DIES by Kenneth Butcher: Book Review

In scenic Asheville, North Carolina, police detectives Dinah Rudisill and Ira Segal are called to the French Broad River, where a corpse has been found.  Expecting to see a drowning victim, they are instead confronted by a man whose body shows a large exit wound between his shoulder blades.

The man who discovered the victim tells them that his attention had been drawn to the water by the loud cawing of a group of crows.  “Calling to each other like they were upset or excited or something,” he tells the police.

The corpse’s body contains, among other things, a wallet with a business card showing that his name was Charles Atley and his job title was manager, Behavior Augmentation, at a local business called Creatures 2.0.  At the company headquarters, Dinah and Ira learn that the company is involved with the selection, breeding, and training of animals, with special emphasis on crows.  They learn there is a pecking order among the crows (pun intended), with the company’s special project, Richard, the most important and apparently the most intelligent bird.

Richard belongs to Creatures 2.0’s owner and president, Francis Elah.  Francis is currently out of town on a secret, perhaps government, job and has been out of touch for five weeks.  Neither his employees nor his wife knows where he is or how to reach him.

The detectives learn that the Office of Naval Intelligence, in the person of Jerome Guilford, will be joining the Asheville investigation.  “So now I guess what part of the government” is involved in the secret project, Ira tells another police officer.  Guilford wants to be kept abreast of all the information Ira and Dinah gather, but he isn’t willing to share what he knows.  “Reasons of national security” and “classified” are his favorite expressions.

The research that Francis Elah’s company is doing is what he calls “reordering.”  He has taught a monkey to do magic tricks, a mule deer recite the first three letters of the alphabet, and was working on having a raccoon assist in surgical procedures, taking advantage of the animal’s tiny fingers.  At first this all seems unbelievable to Ira, but after seeing videos of the animals in action he is beginning to change his mind.

Kenneth Butcher has created an intriguing plot and a strong detective team in this mystery.  The plot involves homicides, the disappearance of Francis Elah, and the mysterious intervention of the federal government, while the police twosome shows the personal sides of Ira, who carries paperback books as self-soothing devices to help him recover from PTSD brought on by a previous case, and Dinah, who is a roller derby star and local sports legend.  Together they make a perfect professional pair.

You can read more about Kenneth Butcher at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


Click “collections” on your browser and see what comes up.  There are collections of military memorabilia, comic books, netsuke figurines, musical instruments, baseball cards–the list is apparently endless.  It’s a harmless hobby for some (full disclosure–I collect miniature houses) and an obsession for others.  It can even lead to death.

That is the case for Barnaby Mayne, a wealthy 18th-century English collector of nearly everything.  His beautiful London home is filled with items from around the world; in fact, his residence consists of two adjacent houses because one could not contain all the items he owns.  Lady Cecily Kay has asked to use his extensive library to help her identify some items in her much smaller collection of plants and he agrees, but the day she arrives Sir Barnaby is murdered.

There was a scheduled tour of the Mayne mansion that day, with friends and fellow enthusiasts invited.  Lady Cecily is joined by Humphrey Warbulton, a collector trying to reach the upper echelon of Sir Barnaby’s world; Otto Helm, a visitor from Sweden who is an expert on serpents; Walter Dinley, Sir Barnaby’s much-abused assistant and curator; Giles Inwood, Sir Barnaby’s physician and close friend; and Martin Carlyle, another enthusiast.  The tour begins, and in the middle of it the nobleman is called away to respond to a letter.  The tour continues without him; later, when the group goes to the dining room for dinner, their host is not there.

Lady Cecily, Dr. Inwood, and Martin Carlyle then go to the study where they assume he is.  When they open the door they see Walter Dinley holding a knife in his bloody hand and the body of Sir Barnaby Mayne on the room’s floor.  “I-I killed him!” the curator says in a trembling voice.  “I will no longer…be…so disrespected.”

The next day Sir Barnaby’s widow, Lady Mayne, arrives.  The couple had lived apart for nearly all their marriage, and she has no interest in any part of his hobby.  Her late husband had left his entire collection to Dr. Inwood with the stipulation that it be kept intact, and Lady Mayne’s only wish is to clear both of her late husband’s houses of everything as soon as possible.

Before that can be done, however, a complete inventory needs to be taken.  That is where Cecily Kay and her old friend, Meacan Barlow, who was illustrating some of Sir Barnaby’s purchases, join forces.  But various mysterious incidents, as well as the disappearance of the confessed murderer, is hindering that.

The two women find themselves in the collectors’ world of bribery, lies, and religious mania, where gaining a rare specimen is more important than a man’s, or a woman’s, life.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne is an insightful look into 18th-century London and the mania that collectors bring to their “hobbies.”  Lady Cecily Kay and Meacan Barlow are smart and talented women, making their way into a world that is not quite ready to recognize their achievements.  I hope to read more about them and their adventures in future novels.

Elsa Hart has traveled and lived in Rome, Moscow, and Prague, among other places.  Her earlier mysteries take place in 18th-century China, two of which are reviewed on this blog.  You can read more about her at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

SINS OF THE MOTHER by August Norman: Book Review

Although she won’t admit it, Caitlin Bergman’s world is shaken when she gets a call from small-town sheriff Boswell Martin to identify a corpse.  She flies to Coquille, Oregon to view the body of the woman the sheriff believes is her mother, but Caitlin isn’t able to help him.  She hasn’t seen her mother, whom she derisively calls Mama Maya, in over thirty years.

As she has always explained to anyone who asks, both her parents are dead.  Caitlin’s mother had abandoned her and her father; except for sending Caitlin a book on her thirteenth birthday, the two have had no contact. 

During the autopsy, a key is discovered hidden in the woman’s body; it belongs to a safe deposit box in a local bank.  Caitlin is listed on the bank’s records, and that is how sheriff Martin located her.  Unable to prove the identity of the disfigured body, which has been rendered virtually unrecognizable by animals and by the killer who removed its fingerprints and teeth, officials cannot obtain a warrant to open the box.  But since Caitlin is named as the beneficiary, she has that power.

Still reluctant to become involved, Caitlin asks in whose name the account was opened, still hoping it hadn’t belonged to her mother and that it wasn’t her mother whose body was found.  However, when she hears “Sharon Sugar,” she’s convinced.  “That was her stage name,” she tells Martin.  When Maya abandoned the infant Caitlin, she became a star in the adult entertainment business, i.e., a porn star and stripper.

For a small city, there’s a lot going on both on the surface and beneath it in Coquille.  There’s overt anti-semitism; a splinter quasi-political group that wants to create a new state, the State of Jefferson, that would combine northern California and southern Oregon; and a religious cult, the Daughters of God, of which Maya was a member.

The anti-semitism shows up in the form of locals calling Caitlin a “Jew bitch”; the State of Jefferson is the brainchild of a group of white right-wingers; and the Daughters of God is a cult of women led by its charismatic leader Desmond.

The Daughters of God was founded years earlier in Los Angeles but has relocated to southern Oregon.  Its members make reference to God’s Hill, the Knowing, the Climb, the Morning Song, the Eternal Flame of Ceremony Peak, and other esoteric names, the meanings of which are known only to the women involved.

Inside the safe deposit box Caitlin finds a journal that her mother kept during her years in the cult.  Maya had became Magda, and Caitlin begins to understand her mother’s desire to gain forgiveness and understanding for the life she had led prior to joining the group and the almost hypnotic spell that the Daughters of God and Desmond had over her.

Sins of the Mother is a deep look into how cults work on those who are most vulnerable and their impact not only on its members but on those who remain on the outside, helpless to reach their loved ones and bring them back to their families.

August Norman has written a powerful, insightful mystery about love and redemption.  You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

RAGGEDYLAND by Paul J. Heald: Book Review

Auction Hunters and Storage Wars are two very popular shows that have been on television in recent years.  In such programs people bid, sight unseen, for the contents of storage lockers or units, hoping to find valuables that were left behind when the renters no longer paid the fee to keep their items safe and private.

James Murphy is a Georgia-based journalist and a bit of a gambler, so it’s quite logical that he puts in a bid on the show Shocker Locker, hoping to make his investment pay off.  However, what James finds when he opens the locker is definitely more of a shock than he expected.

Inside, along with a profusion of other items, is a magazine titled Spartacus, featuring disturbing photos of men and small boys in compromising sexual positions.  James calls his former lover, Melanie Wilkerson, a federal prosecutor with whom he worked on a previous case, and she agrees to contact the FBI, as the sexual exploitation of children is a federal crime.

James and Melanie contact Stanley Hopkins, a friend and college professor of sociology whose area of specialty is the sex industry, its victims, and its perpetrators.  Stanley lends his expertise to the search to find the former owner of the locker, but in the meantime he meets Amy, a teenage girl who has flown cross-country from North Carolina to California to rekindle a brief romance with a fellow student she met at a Duke University summer school class.

When she discovers that the interest was definitely more on her side than his, Amy knows no one else in California to turn to other than Stanley.  And through a series of complicated events, the two of them begin a trip from Stanley’s home to Georgia to work with James and Melanie on locating the man whose locker began the story.

The story has its roots in Georgia, moves to California, returns to Georgia, moves to England, and goes back to Georgia for its finale.  A high school principal, the preacher of a fundamentalist church, his son, and the man who had rented the storage locker all come under the scrutiny of James, Melanie, and Stanley, as they discover that the photos are but the tip of the iceberg in an even more disturbing story.

Paul J. Heald has written a terrific mystery, a strong story laced with humor and humanity.  Raggedyland is the third novel in the Clarkeston Chronicle series, and I have downloaded the first two–Courting Death and Cotton:  A Novel, and can’t wait to begin reading.

In addition to writing novels, Mr. Heald is a professor at the University of Illinois School of Law, specializing in copyright law and intellectual property.  You can read more about the author at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


WHAT’S LEFT OF ME IS YOURS by Stephanie Scott: Book Review

And now for something completely new and different.  Did you know that there’s an industry in Japan called wakaresaseya?  Its literal translation is “breaker-upper,” and it refers to a person who is hired by someone, usually a spouse, to lure the spouse’s partner into an affair and thus allow for the breakup of a marriage.

In Stephanie Scott’s debut novel, What’s Left of Me Is Yours, the reader is a witness both to the original act by a wakaresaseya and its aftermath twenty years later.  The novel has three narrators–Rina Sato, the woman who was killed; Kaitaro Nakamura, the wakaresaseya who murdered her; and Sarashima Sato, Rina’s daughter, who was a child at the time of her mother’s death.

Kaitaro is hired by Osamu Sato to seduce Rina and thus provide Osamu with evidence to divorce his wife.  The problem is that Kaitaro falls in love with Rina and she with him, and he can’t figure out how to stop Osamu from finding out about their relationship and how to keep his job while being with Rina.

The novel opens with a newspaper clipping from 1994.  The trial of Kaitaro is beginning, and he admits to the court that he and Rina fell in love and were planning to be together.  Rina’s father, a respected attorney, is vehement in his hatred for Kaitaro and urges the court to give him the death penalty, a rare punishment in the country.

Because Sarashima, or Sumiko as she was known then, was only seven years old when her mother was murdered, all she knows about the death is the version her grandfather has told her.  He raised her after her mother died, and she has followed in his footsteps to become a lawyer.

But when Sumiko answers a phone call from the prison service meant for her grandfather, she starts to unravel another story, the true one.  Her mother had not died in a car crash on her way to get Sumiko and take her to their new apartment as her grandfather had told her; instead, she had been brutally strangled by the man hired by her father to break up his marriage.  We know from the beginning of the novel that Kaitaro, who loved Rina deeply, was the murderer, but it’s not until near the end of the story that we learn the truth of what happened between them.

The laws in Japan are very different from those in the United States and most Western countries.  A suspect can be taken into custody and held for up to 23 days without being charged.  There is no jury in the court; a panel of three judges questions witnesses, decides guilt, and passes sentence.  Rather than “innocent until proven guilty,” in the Japanese system the arrest itself presumes guilt.  Even the accused’s title changes upon arrest.  Instead of the polite san, which is added to one’s surname, the word higisha is used.  So now the accused is Higisha Nakamura–Criminal suspect Nakamura.

What’s Left of Me is Yours is a stunning novel, working both as an intriguing mystery and a look into the Japanese culture of the late 90s and today.  Ms. Scott, who is a Singaporean and British writer raised in Southeast Asia, has done incredible research for this book, as evidenced by her receipt of a British Association of Japanese Studies Studentship and her membership in the British Japanese Law Association.

You can read more about the author at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE JANES by Louisa Luna: Book Review

Janes.  At first it appears to be simply the plural of a common first name, not suggesting anything sinister.  But a number of pages into the book, I realized that each Jane is in fact a Jane Doe.  That’s the name used by law enforcement when the true name of a person is unknown or is being intentionally concealed.

In Louisa Luna’s second mystery in the Alice Vega series, these unnamed, unknown girls are totally disposable.  I use the term girls instead of women because these are teenagers, taken from their homes in Mexico, either forcibly or lured by the false promise of a better life north of the border.

Alice’s background is not given, but she appears to be a combination of a bounty hunter/private investigator.  She receives a call that brings her to the San Diego morgue and is taken to view two bodies.  The first is a teenage girl, probably Latina, looking no older than fourteen, her corpse showing bruises, cigarette burns, and multiple stab wounds.  The second is another presumably Latina teenager, similarly beaten and stabbed.

The pathologist tells Alice that the two girls were killed separately, on different days and in different locations.  Sadly, she has seen similar corpses before, but these two have one important difference.  Each had an IUD implanted in her uterus.  The medical devices have the name of the manufacturer imprinted on them, along with a serial number.  One number is 79433530, the second 79433525.  Almost sequential, Alice thinks.  “Somewhere there’s four more just like you, or not like you at all.”

It appears to the police and the FBI that there’s a sex-trafficking ring operating on both sides of the U. S.-Mexican border, and they call on Alice for assistance.  Their reason is that clutched in the palm of the second murdered girl is a scrap of paper with Alice’s name printed on it.

The local police and two federal officers offer Alice a substantial sum of money to lead the investigation, with her keeping her part undercover.   At first she tells them she isn’t interested, wondering why these agencies are offering her so much money under the table, and the answer to that question doesn’t appear until the end of the novel.  But she is persuaded, provided she can look into the case along with her partner, Max Caplan.

Alice tracks the IUDs to a local health clinic and then to the apartment of a recently fired employee.  When she goes to the man’s home, she speaks to his girlfriend and notices an anomaly in the otherwise bare, undecorated apartment.  It’s a very large painting, and something about it bothers her.  She breaks the glass with the butt of her gun, takes the painting from the wall, and removes the paper from its back.  Inside are packs of currency, perhaps twenty or twenty-five, and Alice estimates that there are several thousand dollars in all.

Alice Vega and Max Caplan are two fascinating characters.  She brings a sense of absolute fearlessness to her work, while he brings his expertise as a former police detective.  Together they are formidable, the perfect team to look into a case involving kidnappings, underage sex workers, and drugs.

The author has written a spellbinding mystery, with strong characters, a riveting plot, and an impending sense of doom that will keep readers engrossed until the very last page.

You can read more about Louisa Luna at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE DOCTOR OF ALEPPO by Dan Mayland: Book Review

As is well known, Syria is engaged in a brutal civil war.  It began as unrest during the Arab Spring in 2011 and since 2015 has been a multi-sided conflict fought by the Syrian Armed Forces, Sunni opposition rebel groups, Salafi jihadist groups, the mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with a number of countries in the region and beyond also involved.

In Dan Mayland’s novel, The Doctor of Aleppo, many of these groups converge on that city, leaving death and destruction in their wake.  A metropolis with a history dating from the sixth century B. C. E., Aleppo had rich architectural, religious, and cultural traditions.  But now, following years of war, it has become a war zone.

The novel follows three people whose lives are intertwined with the city and each other.  Samir Hasan is a dedicated doctor whose best efforts are hampered by a number of factors, including a lack of medical supplies, the near-constant bombs that go off frighteningly close to the clinic where he works, and his fears for the safety of his family.  Hannah Johnson, the daughter of an American mother and a Syrian father, is a volunteer with a small non-profit health organization.  Rahim Suleiman is a dedicated believer in the reign of Bashar al-Assad.

When Hannah’s Swedish lover Oskar is badly wounded he is taken to Hasan’s clinic and operated on by the doctor, one of only two orthopedists left in the city.  As chance would have it, Oskar is put in the same room as Adel, Suleiman’s injured son.  Hasan operates on Adel as well, and the boy is recovering when he unexpectedly dies.  Suleiman becomes convinced that his son’s death is the surgeon’s fault, and he determines to take his revenge.

The Doctor of Aleppo is so well-written and powerful that the reader will feel she/he is in the city.  At times I had to put the novel down because it was too painful to read, made especially so because the reader knows in reality this is Aleppo’s plight.  On each page there is sorrow and heartbreak for the lives that are lost in the battle for this country and this city in particular.  But there is also a sense of decency and courage as portrayed by Samir Hasan, the physician working in a clinic with minimal staff and nearly no supplies, and by Hannah, a volunteer who somehow cannot bring herself to leave this war-torn place and return to America and safety.  Even Suleiman’s desire for revenge becomes understandable when seen as the act of a grieving, bereft father.

Dan Mayland is a geopolitical forecaster with a specialty in Middle Eastern issues.  He is also the author of four books in the Mark Sava spy series.  You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

SHADOWS OF THE DEAD by Spencer Kope: Book Review

Magnus Craig, known by his nickname “Steps,” has a unique ability, one that sets him apart from other FBI agents who specialize in tracking people.  When Steps was eight years old, he got lost in a blizzard and nearly froze to death.  In fact he was clinically dead, but somehow he was revived; and afterward he was the recipient of either a blessing or a curse, he still hasn’t decided which one.

Steps can see what he calls “shine,” a type of residue that people leave anywhere they walk and on anything they touch.  Like fingerprints or DNA, no two shines are alike, and the only thing that saves him from constant, total overload is that lead-crystal glass blocks almost all shines.  So unless Steps is on a tracking case, he always wears a pair of glasses with the special lenses.

Only three people know about the shine–Steps’ father, his FBI partner Jimmy Donovan, and the director of the Bureau.  His fellow agents simply think he has an uncanny ability to track missing people and criminals regardless of the terrain.  And Steps wants to keep it that way.

In Shadows of the Dead, the third case in the Special Tracking Unit series, a car crash sends the local police into the Washington Olympic Peninsula woods.  When they investigate the crash and open the car’s trunk, they find a gagged and bound woman inside and a man running from the car into a nearby cabin.  That’s when the FBI is called.

The kidnapper is forced out of the cabin after a tear gas canister is flung inside.  When he is handcuffed and led through the woods to a police cruiser, he keeps talking in phrases that the police and federal agents can’t understand.  He calls himself Faceman, says he is a fixer, wonders where “Eight” is, and that “he” is going to be so mad.

When the man is brought to the closest hospital, he makes a reference to Onion King, the person he fears.   The officers realize that the “Eight” that Faceman is referring to is the woman who was in his truck.  That’s when the police and the FBI agents understand  that there must have been seven women previously kidnapped and that the “he” is the Onion King, a serial killer on the loose.

One of the features of Shadows of the Dead that I really enjoyed was the depiction of the close working relationship between the sheriff’s department, local police, and the FBI.  All too often in mystery novels there’s a great deal of jockeying for position and bad feeling among these groups, and it was refreshing to read that the capture of the criminal was paramount in everyone’s mind. 

In addition to writing mysteries, Spencer Kope is a crime analyst in Washington State.  You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


EAST OF HOUNSLOW by Khurrum Rahman: Book Review

He’s a Muslim who sells drugs.  He’s a thirty-year-old man who lives with his mother.  He doesn’t work and drives a BMW.  His name is Javid Quasim.

East of Hounslow is one of the most unusual and amazing books I’ve read this year.  Javid, but please call him Jay, is proud to tell you all about himself.  He’s British born, has never been racially profiled, and is content to be a low-level drug salesman.  He doesn’t see “Paki” as an insult but rather “as a badge of honor,” as Pak means pure and clean.  And although he’s not actually either one, he is living the life he wants.

Jay isn’t unaware of what’s going on in the world, but in his words, “It’s not my war.  Call it religion or call it politics or call it greed.  It all amounts to the same thing:  bloodshed, devastation and broken homes.”  He’s found his place in his world and he’s happy with it.  Until things change.

While Jay was involved in a confrontation at a local restaurant, his new Mercedes, parked in front, disappears.  That is bad enough, but inside the car is seven thousand dollars that he owes to the local drug lord, Silas Drakos.  And when Jay tells Silas what happened, he’s given a week to pay it back.

Then Jay is approached by Kingsley Parker, part of an MI5 task force, with a way out.  If Jay agrees to tell the force everything they need to put Silas away, Jay’s own drug dealing and his assault on a man during the fight at the restaurant will be forgotten.  But, of course, there’s more…there always is.

The borough of Hounslow is a racially and religiously mixed area, with whites, Asians, and Blacks living in close quarters, and churches, mosques, and Sikh temples providing worship sites.  Not surprisingly, although Jay believes he is immune, there are plenty of racial/religious problems in the area.   After he agrees to go undercover for M15 in repayment for their dropping the drug and assult charges, he is told to increase the frequency of his visits to his local mosque and to hopefully get involved with whatever is suspected to be going on behind the scenes there.

Jay’s neighbor Parves, the local gang leader Khan, and Idris, a police friend, are three of the many characters that make the novel come alive.  The book is partially narrated in the first person, and it is so well written and immediate that readers will feel they are next to Jay as he’s telling the story.  Looking for additional background on the author, I discovered that East of Hounslow is the first in a proposed trilogy; I’ve already purchased the second book, Homegrown Hero.

In these days of social unrest, racial profiling, and terrorism, Khurrum Rahman’s mystery is a must read.

You can read more about Khurrum Rahman at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


ONE LAST LIE by Paul Doiron: Book Review

Charley Stevens is Mike Bowditch’s mentor/father figure/best friend all rolled into one.  So when Charley goes missing without explanation, Mike is determined to find him and discover the reason for his disappearance before it’s too late.

The two men have known each other for years, and Mike has always thought they could count on each other if either one was in a tight spot and needed help.  So it’s particularly upsetting when he receives a phone call from Ora, Charley’s wife, and she tells him that Charley has gone off without telling her where or why.  The only unusual thing that happened, she tells Mike, is that her husband seemed to have been upset after they had stopped at a flea market in Machias a few days earlier, not too far from their lakeside Maine home.

On his drive north from Portland to see Ora, Mike stops at the market to talk to a vendor he knows.  Carol Boyce had noticed Charley talking to an odd-looking man at a nearby table; the former English professor describes the stranger, in the words of  Edith Wharton, as “but a ruin of a man.”  The two had an angry exchange of words, and she thinks Charley walked away from the table with something small in his hand.  Perhaps, she says, it was the badge she had noticed him examining earlier among the items for sale.

Mike has two other concerns as well as his worry about his friend.  The first is the possibility that the Maine Warden Service, where Mike is a Warden Investigator and Charley had been one before his retirement, is going to hire someone who appears to be too good to be true.  Tom Wheelwright, a former Maine native and decorated combat pilot, is applying for the Service’s position of chief pilot.  Everything about him looks perfect on paper, but Bowditch nevertheless has the feeling that something isn’t right.

He persuades his superior officer to let him fly to Miami, where Wheelwright currently lives, to talk to Joe Fixico, Tom’s former electronic warfare officer and a man whose name was conspicuous by its absence among the many references in Wheelwright’s job application.  And going to Miami brings up the second concern for Mike–a possible meeting with his former lover Stacey, Charley and Ora’s daughter, now living in Florida.  Mike is now in a serious relationship with Dani, a member of the Maine State Police, but seeing his former “soul mate” creates a question in his mind about where his heart truly lies.

As in all the other books in this series, Paul Doiron’s love of nature, even when nature is not at its most appealing, shows his appreciation of the outdoors and the environment.  Whether he’s in the Everglades with Stacey looking for a loose Burmese python or back in his beloved Maine woods fighting clouds of mosquitoes and taking photos of a herd of moose, Mike is in his element, even if that element is uncomfortable or possibly dangerous.

One Last Lie is a welcome addition to the Mike Bowditch series.

Paul Doiron is chair of the Maine Humanities Council, former editor of Down East, and a Registered Maine Guide.  You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.