A Fondness for Truth by Kim Hays Review

An immersive police procedural that pulls you into a murder investigation and puts your own crime-solving abilities to the test. Read the full review.

A Fondness for Truth: A Linder and Donatelli Mystery is the third book in the Polizei Bern series.

A Fondness for Truth Publisher's Synopsis

Honesty isn’t always the best policy in Kim Hays’ third Linder and Donatelli Mystery novel . . .

Andi Eberhart is riding her bicycle home on an icy winter night when she is killed in a hit-and-run. Her devastated partner, Nisha, is convinced the death was no accident. Andi had been receiving homophobic hate mail for several years, and the letters grew uglier after the couple’s baby was born.

Bern homicide Detective Giuliana Linder is assigned to investigate what happened to Andi. As she pieces together the details of Andi and Nisha’s lives, her assistant Renzo Donatelli looks into Andi’s job advising young men drafted into Switzerland’s civilian service. Working closely together, Giuliana and Renzo are again tempted to become more than just friendly colleagues.

As both detectives dig into Andi’s life, one thing becomes clear: Andi’s friends and family may have loved her for her honesty, but her outspokenness threatened others—perhaps enough to get rid of her.

Seventh Street Books (2024)

Genre(s) Police Procedural, Mystery & Detective

Kim Hays | Pub Date 16 April 2024 | ISBN 9781645060833 | 359 pages

A Fondness for Truth Review

Set in Bern. Switzerland, the novel opens with thirty-three-year-old Andrea “Andi” Eberhart riding her bicycle home from curling practice on a frigid night in March. A red car following her suddenly speeds up and smashes into her, sending Eberhart flying into a tree. The impact snaps her neck and kills her. When the evidence suggests it isn’t a simple hit-and-run but premeditated murder, the police launch an investigation. The death of Eberhart devastates her Sri Lankan partner, Nisha, who also immediately suspects foul play because of a series of anonymous homophobic letters someone has sent to their home over a period of the past four years.

Bern homicide detective Giuliana Linder, who is busy preparing for the trial of a man who killed his two young daughters and her colleague Renzo Donatelli, gets pulled into the Eberhart investigation when the hit-and-run gets reclassified as a homicide. Soon there is no shortage of suspects and Linder and Donatelli undertake the painstaking task of eliminating them one by one in their search for the killer.

Having read and enjoyed the previous two books in the series, finding A Fondness for Truth absorbing and entertaining didn’t surprise me. First, Hays excels not only in writing an unerringly accurate police procedural but also displays her experience and expertise in crafting characters who seem so real you can’t avoid becoming emotively involved with them. I was just as engaged in Linder and Donatelli’s personal lives as I was with the case, which I really didn’t mind.

Failure to strike a proper balance between the professional and personal is often a weakness in crime fiction that makes for dull or stereotypical characters. Hays avoids this brilliantly, and I truly enjoyed the personal insight into the lives of the detectives as they interacted with their partners and children. In fact, this insight is central to the story of this novel. Also, Linder having to switch her attention back and forth between the current investigation and the trial preparation for a previous one added breadth and interest to the story.

One other thing that sets Hays’ writing apart for me is how she weaves current affairs, cultural issues, and contemporary social issues into her novels. This gives her books the immersive feel as you never feel you’re just reading about a place you aren’t terribly familiar with but almost as if you are visiting the place and experiencing it. Also, besides the entertainment value, I always learn something when reading a Kim Hays novel. As an example for this book, I learned a good deal about Sri Lankan culture I didn’t know previously.

I really enjoyed A Fondness for Truth because of all the reasons mentioned. The procedural stuff was spot on, and I really loved the personality and humanity Hays brought to the characters. I really came to know Linder and Donatelli better and look forward to meeting them again. I love novels that touch me on the emotional level and this one did just that.

Fans of international crime, and the police procedural genre, will enjoy this novel. While you shouldn’t miss the first two books in the series, A Fondness for Truth works just as well as a standalone and you needn’t have read the previous books before reading this one.

I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher for consideration of a review. This review represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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The Gardener’s Secret by S. Hansberger Review

The Gardener’s Secret by S. Hansberger is a remarkable suspense filled thriller with a host of characters that are as charming as the story. There’s no gruesome murders, no big mystery to solve, and the protagonist isn’t an amateur sleuth. Still the book unfolds much like a cozy in that it’s a comfort read that leaves the reader satisfied and at one with the world, rather than scared to sleep alone with the lights on.

I accepted The Gardener’s Secret by S. Hansberger for review, not knowing what to expect. Intrigued by the synopsis, of course, I wanted to know what the gardener’s secret was. Who wouldn’t? But this debut novel turned out to be so much more than expected, and one of the most well-written and entertaining novels I’ve read this year. Hansberger artfully constructed and tightly plotted a unique and clever story that is a true pleasure to read.

The Gardener’s Secret Publisher’s Synopsis

Believing she’ll get to report gritty news, Callie accepts a job at her hometown newspaper. Instead, she’s assigned the gardening column—a subject she knows nothing about. She begs advice from a tight-lipped neighbor when he admits he’s a retired gardener, even though his mannerisms and speech suggest he’s anything but. Not knowing the full truth doesn’t matter—she needs his help. The townsfolk think him strange and warn Callie to keep her distance, but she regards him and his family as friends. Learning their horrifying secret doesn’t deter her, even though loyalty will draw her into danger.

The Wild Rose Press, Inc. ( 2024)

Genres: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Shelia Hansberger | Pub Date 29 January 2024 | ISBN 9781509253029 |

The Gardener’s Secret Review

Tragedy strikes for Georgia native Callie Lou James when her ailing father dies unexpectedly while she is away in California attending UCLA. With three years of college under her belt, Callie feels she must put her goal of completing a journalism degree and her dream of finding a job with a major newspaper on hold temporarily. She leaves schools and returns to her hometown of Willoughby to care for her grieving mother.

After arriving home, when life returns to normal for Callie and her mother, she meets by happenstance a reclusive family–a father, his adult daughter, and his one-year-old grandson–in the neighborhood. While the father, William Smith, seems standoffish and uncommunicative, he comes to Callie’s aid when she takes a tumble while walking her dog Rascal and suffers minor injuries. After meeting Smith, Callie’s curiosity gets the best of her and she perseveres in getting acquainted with Smith and his family. At first, all Smith tells her is he is a retired gardener, and she sees plenty of evidence around his home that he is an expert gardener.

Later, the local weekly newspaper, the Willoughby Tribune, offers Callie a part-time position as a gardening columnist. It’s a far cry from her dreams of writing gritty news articles under a byline at a major publication and doesn’t pay much, but Callie accepts the position because it offers some practical journalism experience. The only problem is she knows nothing about gardening. Undaunted, she persuades her neighbor, retired gardener William Smith, to mentor her. Soon, a friendship develops between Callie and the Smith family and one day, William Smith shares a closely held and disturbing secret, which explains all about what the Smith family is so reclusive and resistant to making the acquaintance of their neighbors. Once she learns the secret, Callie feels protective of the family and committed to safeguarding their secret, but eventually the knowledge puts her own safety and well being at tremendous risk.

The Smith family secret serves almost like a MacGuffin in the story, so of course I won’t share the secret here and spoil the fun for those who may wish to read the book. Suffice to say it makes for an entertaining story and explains the motivations of the characters.

Hansberger is a talented writer and storyteller who has mastered the art of showing, not telling. Readers become acquainted with the characters organically by learning how they interact with one another. The author inserts background facts where necessary to aid the reader’s understanding, but there are no information dumps. The characters, the protagonist and the supporting characters, are vivid and vibrant. There is a hint of potential violence running in the background after the secret gets revealed that helps keeps the suspense and tension building throughout, but the reader finds no gruesome murders here. It is a suspense filled thriller, but reads almost like a cozy mystery, a comfort read that leaves the reader satisfied and at one with the world, rather than scared to sleep alone with the lights on. Themes include friendship, family struggles, and loyalty.

Fans of edge-of-your-seat suspense thrillers will enjoy The Gardener’s Secret and those who enjoy reading cozy mysteries should enjoy it as well, despite the absence of a murder mystery to solve and an amateur sleuth. It’s a lovely book with a literary feel that I heartily recommend.

I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher for consideration of a review. This review represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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The Bitter Past by Bruce Borgos Review

The Bitter Past by Bruce Borgos is a gripping mixed genre novel that blends mystery and thriller genres themes of betrayal, government corruption, and closely held secrets in an imaginative plot that maintains the reader’s interest and presents a compelling set of characters and suspects.

The Bitter Past Publisher's Synopsis

Minotaur Books (2023)

Genre(s) Small Town & Rural Crime, Murder Thrillers, Espionage Thrillers

Bruce Borgos | Pub Date 18 July 2023 | ISBN 9781250848086 | 320 pages

The Bitter Past Review

On a February Friday in a remote, off-the-grid house set in front of the vast Big Rocks Wilderness in Lincoln County, Nevada, sheriff’s deputies, responding to a welfare check request, discover the horrifically tortured corpse of retired FBI special agent Ralph Atterbury. No property is missing and there’s no sign of forced entry suggesting Atterbury had let the killer into the house. It’s clear from both the manner of death and condition of the house that the killer was searching for something. Lincoln County Sheriff Porter Beck launches an investigation.

After notifying the FBI field office in Las Vegas of the murder, Sana Locke arrives in Beck’s office, identifying herself as an FBI special agent, and the investigation takes an unexpected turn. Sheriff Beck learns the motive behind Atterbury’s death stretches back to the Cold War and the atmospheric nuclear tests at the Nevada Proving Grounds back in the 1950s. Beck, his deputies, and Locke team up to search for Atterbury’s killer. The sheriff learns from her they are looking for Russian intelligence officers who will continue killing until they find what they are searching for, a Russian spy from the fifties who betrayed the Soviet Union and disappeared in the United States. Along the way, Beck, a former Army intelligence officer, learns that there is more to Sana Locke than meets the eye and discovers something completely unexpected about his own past.

Bruce Borgos’ gripping mixed genre mystery and espionage thriller centers on the search for a former Russian intelligence officer who spied on the American nuclear program in the 1950s and then betrayed the Soviet Union and disappeared. Now both American and Russian intelligence are searching for him and the Russians will kill as many people as they have to in order to find their traitorous comrade first.

This mixed genre novel blends mystery and thriller genres themes of betrayal, government corruption, and closely held secrets in an imaginative plot that maintains the reader’s interest and presents a compelling set of characters and suspects. The Bitter Past will satisfy both crime and espionage thriller seasoned readers, following a standard police procedural narrative that keeps readers guessing until the final chapter. What is initially a gruesome one-off murder soon leads to more killings, and the pacing and tension remain at a high level throughout the entire story as a rural sheriff’s department and a federal agent pursue Russian intelligence assassins in a remote part of Nevada.

The Bitter Past consists of many notable secondary characters to keep the story interesting—in particular, Porter Beck, his father Joe Beck, sister Brinley, and Sana Locke, all of whom hold significant presences in the story.

A strong setting anchors the novel—the enormous but sparsely populated Lincoln County, Nevada near the infamous secret federal government Area 51 site. A county about the size of Maryland with only a 12-person sheriff’s department to maintain law and order is filled with eccentric and interesting characters and long-held secrets. Largely character-driven with a tight plot, Borgos does well in capturing the isolated county that contributes to a sense of foreboding that puts the reader in mind of many Australian rural crime novels. Readers will find the conclusion particularly satisfying.

I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for consideration of a review. This review represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★

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Murder at Sea Oats Beach by Karen C. Whalen Review

Murder at Sea Oats Beach by Karen C. Whalen is a delightful cozy mystery romp set in a quaint little North Carolina Outer Banks touristy beach town. At the end of the season, a newcomer from Chicago and a handful of colorful local characters become embroiled in a murder investigation. Read the full review.

Murder at Sea Oats Beach Publisher's Synopsis

Breanna Hart is volunteering at the animal shelter and living her best life in a North Carolina beach town, but that changes when the police chief is found dead under mysterious circumstances inside the cage of her favorite dog. Everyone has the dog tagged as the murderer, even the handsome police officer in charge of the investigation, and the pooch is put on the euthanasia list. In spite of being new in town and dealing with both a social phobia and a secret, will Breanna be able to solve the crime and prove the dog’s innocence? Will she be able to find his forever home so she can embrace the salty seaside life and find a forever home for herself?

KCW Books, LLC (2024)

Genre(s) Mystery & Detective / Cozy / Amateur Sleuth / Animals

Karen C. Whalen | Pub Date 20 June 2024 | ISBN 9798989943517 (Digital) | 236 pages

Murder at Sea Oats Beach Review

Breanna Hart, a young woman from Chicago, moves to a small touristy city on the Outer Banks of North Carolina she had chosen on a whim after her relationship with a boyfriend ended. Unsure of what she wants to do with her life, she felt the need for a change of scenery and a fresh start. After renting a house near the beach, she volunteered at the local animal shelter because she had a vague idea about becoming a veterinarian and had experience in Chicago as a dog walker, a job she enjoyed and was good at.

In the seaside town of Sea Oats Beach, Breanna meets a colorful cast of characters: the vet tech supervisor at the animal shelter Claire Goldman; a handsome police officer who Breanna finds attractive Ty Whitaker; a beach Italian ice vendor and surfer dude Roscoe Blue; animal control officer Serenity Creede; and kindly bait shop owner Emma Truax.

Tensions rise when Claire arrives at the shelter to discover the local police chief dead inside the cage of a French bulldog mix named Samson that Breanna has developed a deep affection for. The dead chief has a head injury and what appears to be multiple dog bites on his body. Ty Whitaker takes over as interim chief and takes charge of the murder investigation. While the authorities aren’t certain whether the chief died from a blow to the head or from being mauled by the dog, because of the bites, Samson gets marked for destruction as a dangerous animal.

Convinced that Samson is innocent, Breanna decides the only way to save him when the police don’t seem to make any progress is to investigate the murder herself and identify the killer. When even Ty and some of her friends end up on her suspect list, friction quickly develops and then unexpected events conspire to make Breanna’s life miserable. She gets dismissed as an animal shelter volunteer, gets kicked out of the rental she has grown to love, and feels abandoned by many of her new friends. But Breanna, determined to save Samson, refuses to give up.

I don’t read and review many cozies because I gravitate more toward crime thrillers and hard-boiled detective mysteries. But when offered an advance copy of Murder at Sea Oats Beach. I found the book’s description intriguing and accepted it. Just because I don’t read a lot of cozy mysteries doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a good one when I do, and this is a very well-written and entertaining book.

I really liked the main character, Breanna, who felt utterly realistic and likeable. And without exception, the remaining cast of characters are all well-developed and interesting. I found it more of a character-driven than plot-driven story, but that’s right up my street. I easily read it in one sitting because once I tucked into it, I didn’t want to put it down because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. And of course, I was rooting for Breanna to save Sampson throughout. It turned out to be an entertaining mystery with good pacing and one where the author does an excellent job of concealing the villain until the very end.

Those who enjoy reading cozy mysteries with a touch of humor and romance will enjoy Murder at Sea Oats Beach. It makes for an excellent beach read and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre. Even if you’re like me and tend toward reading books on the darker, grittier end of the crime fiction scale, you may find this fun and entertaining novel makes for an enjoyable change of pace.

I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher for consideration of a review. This review represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Murder at Sea Oats Beach will be available on June 20, 2024 in digital and paperback and is now available for preordering.

Hunted By Simon Maltman Review

Hunted is the gripping debut novel in Simon Maltman’s engaging Michael Walker series, a fast-paced political thriller set in 1999 as the Troubles, the violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted for about thirty years was all but ended with a peace deal. Read my full review.

Hunted by Simon Maltman is an absorbing story of secrets and international intrigue set in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, where the British government has relocated the main character, Michael Walker, after a fragile peace agreement has all but ended the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Hunted Publisher's Synopsis

Michael Walker Thrillers Series #1

Michael Walker – former IRA soldier, turned MI5 informer – is living in hiding in rural America. A robbery at Walker’s home leads to his rare copy of the Irish Declaration of Independence being sold online. This proves to be the first link in the chain leading to his location being revealed. Walker’s life is plunged into peril, as an IRA hit squad – led by Marty Sullivan – is dispatched to eliminate him. Sullivan, a former comrade, is out for blood. Against the political backdrop of a struggling peace process back home, Walker goes on the run across the state of Pennsylvania and forges unlikely allegiances to survive. Walker seeks help from his former British handlers, but he should have known that any assistance must come at a price. Walker will not just remain a victim. He must fight back. The hunted must become the hunter.

Sharpe Books (November 22, 2023)

Genre(s) Political Thrillers & Suspense, Assassination Thrillers

Simon Maltman | Pub Date 22 Nov 2023 | ISBN ‎ 9798870411965 (Print) | 257 pages

Hunted Review

It’s 1999, and the relocation of Michael Walker, a former IRA soldier forced to become an informer for the British, is like a witness protection program arrangement with the aim of keeping him hidden safely from his former IRA associates who consider him a traitor to the cause and want him dead. Living a quiet life in hiding in the United States, Walker is facing the ghosts of his painful past when an unexpected catalyst sets him on a collision course with an underground network of vengeful IRA operatives who discovers his location.

The catalyst is a burglary of Walker’s house. He arrives home one evening to discover intruders, two local black men, burgling his home. Walker drives them away, but only after they make off with, among other property, a large sum of money the near destitute Walker can’t spare along with his prized possession, a rare copy of the of the revolutionary Irish Republic Declaration of Independence. He goes to work tracking down the burglars, only to learn a fence in a nearby town has already listed the document for sale on the internet and the rarity of the document exposes Walker’s location to an IRA hit squad.

After recovering his document, Walker continues pursuing the two men who broke into his home, intent on getting his money back. After finding them, he forces one of them, a young man named Brandon, to help him recover the money now in the possession of a black gang leader that Brandon and his partner worked for. The confrontation with the gangster where Walker gets his money back puts him and Brandon in harm’s way and in the interest of self-preservation, they stay together and soon a friendship develops.

While they try to stay a step ahead of the irate gangsters, Michael and Brandon run headlong into an IRA kill team and Brandon gets sucked into Walker’s troubles from his past. The bond between them strengthens as circumstances force them to fight together for their survival.

Hunted will satisfy seasoned crime and thriller reader, with its standard “on the run” archetypal type political thriller plot and keeping readers guessing until the last chapter with a few unexpected twists offered along the way. What is initially a one-off run in with the first IRA hit squad soon leads to another and then another, maintaining the pacing and tension at a high level throughout with plenty of action to keep the reader turning the pages.

Maltman does an excellent job seeding the story with cultural landmarks from 1999 to give the story a realistic feel. He offers us many notable secondary characters to keep the story interesting—in particular, Walker’s sidekick Brandon and a female FBI agent, Amy Landish, who is also a significant presence in the story.

Largely dialogue-driven with a tight plot, Maltman has done well in capitalizing on the novel’s anchor to the Troubles and in capturing the isolated rural setting with its sense of foreboding. The conclusion, in particular, will satisfy readers.

Hunted is recommended for crime, thriller, and mystery readers. A big thanks to the author and the publisher for making available a review copy of the book for consideration of my honest review.

Book rating: ★★★★

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Vengeance By J.K. Flynn Review

Vengeance, the second novel in J.K. Flynn’s DS Esther Penman series is a gripping crime thriller, but will also please the most discriminating police procedural fan.

A sophomore novel differs greatly from a debut novel. The first book usually represents the story the author has always wanted to tell. That’s why first novels often seem to have a breathless quality about them, the sense the author is trying to say too much. And authors often spend an insane amount of time writing a first book.

With a sophomore novel, the author has a track record. If the first one wasn’t as successful as hoped, a writer may consciously chase the genre market more with their second book. But, if the first novel was a hit, an author can feel under pressure to duplicate that formula with their second book. As a result, a sophomore novel often fails to equal the energy and innovation of the first. Within the space of the first few chapters of Vengeance, I discovered J.K. Flynn had no difficulty avoiding either complication. As much as I enjoyed reading the first installment in the Detective Esther Penman series, The Art Merchant, I found Flynn’s sophomore novel even better than the first.

Vengeance Publisher’s Synopsis

Detective Esther Penman Series #2

A MURDERED EXECUTIVE.
A MISSING STOCKBROKER.
A DRUG WORTH BILLIONS.

When a wealthy sales executive turns up dead in a Belfield alleyway, Detective Sergeant Esther Penman quickly realises there’s more to it than simple homicide. With links to a missing London stockbroker, and his firm on the brink of launching a new medicine worth billions, there’s plenty of motive for murder…

Meanwhile, Esther has troubles of her own. Having recently made an enemy of one of Belfield’s most ruthless criminals, she knows she needs to watch her back.

And she soon discovers that nothing is quite the way it seems.

As Esther finds herself dragged deeper and deeper into a murky world of corporate espionage and black market dealing, it isn’t long before she gets the unsettling sense that she herself is becoming a target.

Can Esther stay one step ahead of her enemies in her hunt for the killer?
Find out in Vengeance, the thrilling sequel to The Art Merchant.

Chingola Publishing (2023)

Genre(s) Crime Thriller, Police Procedural

J.K. Flynn | Pub Date 01 September 2023 | ISBN 978-1-7391797-2-4 | 345 pages

Vengeance Review

After a compelling prologue featuring a murder that grabbed my attention, the story opens with DS Ester Penman still coming to grips with the fallout from her experiences in the first book and the recent death of her mother. Like all good crime fiction series writers, Flynn understands the importance of providing just enough backstory on the main character so that each novel works as a standalone for those who may not have read the first book. What Flynn does so well here is that she uses the opportunity to reveal to the reader more about the protagonist and other major recurring major characters appearing in this book. This helps the reader feel he is learning something new about Penman, not just rehashing past events.

Next, DS Penman and her colleague and friend, Detective Inspector Jared Wilcox, catch the investigation of the murder of the man, Carlton Riddell, that occurred in the prologue. The murder of Riddell, a pharmaceutical company sales representative for an international biotech company that is about to release a breakthrough cancer treatment drug that could be worth billions, immediately raises our suspicions that the murder motive may involve corporate espionage. This seems likely when Penman and Wilcox recover the victim’s briefcase and find papers inside that they later learn from his employer he shouldn’t have had.

What is initially a one-off murder soon leads to a second body, and so the pacing and tension maintain a high level throughout the entire story. Penman learns the London Met is investigating a missing person case involving a man with a link to Riddell. Eventually, his body turns up with evidence suggesting it is another murder possibly committed by the same person.

Flynn maintains the reader’s interest throughout, presenting a compelling set of characters and suspects. As much as I love the flawed, but likable main character, Ester Penman, the story features many notable secondary characters to keep the story interesting, in particular, Esther’s colleague and partner Jared, who plays a central role in the story. Vengeance will satisfy the most seasoned crime and thriller readers, following the standard police procedural narrative and keeping readers guessing until the end. Flynn’s experience as a former police officer shines through her writing, giving her storytelling unique authenticity.

Flynn also explores the challenges faced by women who choose a career in a profession that historically and to a large extent even today is male-dominated. This provides one strand of the main plot that runs parallel to and supports it. But there are two other strands Flynn expertly weaves into the story. One pivots around the development of a same sex romance and the other the unexpected appearance of Penman’s biological father who she never knew growing up.

Crime fiction novels quite saturate bookstores at the moment, and I know there are many books by outstanding authors in the genre vying for our attention. But Vengeance is one of the best I’ve read this year and isn’t to be missed. The end left me eager for more Ester Penman and curious to see what she gets up to next.

Thanks to the author and publisher for providing me an advance review copy of the book.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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The Dry by Jane Harper Review

The Dry by Jane Harper is a gritty and riveting crime read that well deserves the description, atmospheric.

The Dry by Australian author Jane Harper is the debut novel in her Aaron Falk series. I started the series with the third book, Exiles, only because the publisher offered me an advanced copy for review purposes. Harper had already been on my radar before I read that book and I enjoyed it so much that naturally, I wanted to read the first two Aaron Falk novels. It took me a while to get to it, but here we are.

The Dry Publisher's Synopsis

Aaron Falk #1

A small town hides big secrets in The Dry, an atmospheric, page-turning debut mystery by award-winning author Jane Harper.

After getting a note demanding his presence, Federal Agent Aaron Falk arrives in his hometown for the first time in decades to attend the funeral of his best friend, Luke. Twenty years ago when Falk was accused of murder, Luke was his alibi. Falk and his father fled under a cloud of suspicion, saved from prosecution only because of Luke’s steadfast claim that the boys had been together at the time of the crime. But now more than one person knows they didn’t tell the truth back then, and Luke is dead.

Amid the worst drought in a century, Falk and the local detective question what really happened to Luke. As Falk reluctantly investigates to see if there’s more to Luke’s death than there seems to be, long-buried mysteries resurface, as do the lies that have haunted them. And Falk will find that small towns have always hidden big secrets.

Flatiron Books (2017)

Genre(s) Murder Thrillers, Police Procedural

Jane Harper | Pub Date Jan. 10, 2017 | ISBN 978-1-250-10560-8 | 336 pages

The Dry Review

“Atmospheric” is such an overused descriptor in book reviews these days that I almost cringe when I see it. But if there was ever a novel (or three) deserving of it, Harper’s writing reaches the bar. Her evocative prose alone describing a severe drought that plays such a dramatic role in this book makes The Dry deserving of “atmospheric.” Indeed, the dry, parched climate is almost a character in its own right. If that doesn’t say atmospheric, I can’t imagine what does.

After a sinister prologue, the book begins with our lead, Aaron Falk, a Melbourne-based Australian Federal police officer, arriving in Kiewarra, the small, rural town where he grew up for the first time since he and his father left town under dark clouds of suspicion years earlier. Thirty-six-year-old Falk is in town for the funeral of his best childhood friend, Luke Hadler, who authorities have concluded shot to death his wife Karen and young son Billy before shooting himself.

Falk had only returned for the funeral at the insistence of Luke’s father, Gerry, and he intends to return to Melbourne immediately after paying his respects given the circumstances that had prompted him and his father to make a hasty departure from the town when Falk had been sixteen. He quickly learns most of the residents of Kiewarra haven’t forgotten him or his father and aren’t happy to see him back in town, which makes him even more eager to leave town. But after the funeral, Luke’s grieving father and especially his mother ask Falk to look into the murder-suicide because they can’t believe Luke killed his family and then himself.

The town’s lead police officer had only recently arrived in town and the Hadlers feel uncertain he and an outside agency had conducted a thorough investigation. Falk, who investigates white collar crime as a member of the federal police, feels reluctant to get involved, mostly because he desperately wants to leave the town with its unhappy childhood memories and the suspicious, grudge holding residents behind as soon as possible. Also, investigating murders isn’t the sort of police work he does any longer. But because Barb Hadler, Luke’s mother, had been almost a mother to him while growing up, he agrees to stay a few days to take a cursory look at the evidence.

Later the town’s police officer, Raco, tells Falk he isn’t entirely convinced that Luke killed his family, and explains a slight discrepancy in the evidence that causes his doubts. He then asks Falk to help with what Aaron realizes is an off-the-books reinvestigation. Raco doesn’t want to risk the ire of the agency that assisted with the investigation unless he can come up with solid proof Luke wasn’t the killer. The information Raco gives him convinces Falk to stay and become involved. That doesn’t sit well with many of the town’s residents.

Had I just picked up this book to read, knowing nothing about it or about Jane Harper, I’d never have imagined this was a debut novel. It’s that good. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, since Harper is a former journalist and obviously a skilled writer. Yet writing news columns and writing novels are two very different things. Obviously, given the quality of the writing and storytelling, Harper made the transition from news to novel writing by the time she published her first book. The pacing is near flawless and Harper keeps us guessing until the end.

Having read Exiles, I learned little about Aaron Falk in this book that I didn’t already know. Harper did an admirable job summarizing Falk’s history and the source of the animosity the townspeople feel toward him in her third book in the series. Like all good series writers, she writes books that work just as well as standalones even though they are part of a series with some common characters and backstories. There was a little more detail about Aaron’s history in this book, but I came to it with a good understanding of what Falk was about.

Whether one enjoys murder mysteries, crime thrillers, or a good police procedural, this is an enjoyable, riveting read that ticks all the boxes. While in my experience it isn’t necessary to read this series in order to enjoy the books, The Dry is as good a place as any to start if you haven’t read Jane Harper. She has earned a spot in my pantheon of best loved New Zealand and Australian crime writers and I already have a copy of Force of Nature, the second Aaron Falk novel, on my to-be-read pile.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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The Glasgow Smile by Chris Stuart Review

Chris Stuart’s The Glasgow Smile is a captivating read with profound and relatable human elements.

The Glasgow Smile by New Zealand author Chris Stuart, is the sequel to her debut crime thriller, For Reasons of Their Own, which garnered her the prestigious Ngaio Marsh Best First Novel Award in 2021. It thrilled me to receive an advance copy of The Glasgow Smile and I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with some familiar characters and meeting some new ones.

The Glasgow Smile Publisher’s Synopsis

In a grimy graffiti-covered recess in one of Melbourne tangled inner city laneways, a woman is found murdered. ‘Why would anyone want to kill her? She was so ordinary,’ was the oft-repeated phrase DI Robbie Gray heard when the name of the deceased was revealed.

So why, then, she asked herself, was the body found propped up in such an extraordinary position, almost as if she was intimate with the portrait on the wall. Was this death intended to be symbolic, or was the placement merely a device to deceive?

Set against a background of civil unrest and rising white extremism, a government tainted by corruption and a family desperate to hide secrets, DI Robbie Gray, along with her Indigenous officer Mac must also grapple with their own demons of guilt and failure.  When an arrest is made, they realise that not all killers hold a weapon, masks don’t always disguise, and the legacy of long-held secrets can have tragic consequences.

Original Sin Press (2023)

Genre(s) Mystery & Thrillers

Chris Stuart | Pub Date May 28, 2023 | ISBN 9780473667528 | 464 pages

Book Review

We take up where we left off from the first book in the series with our heroine Melbourne Detective Inspector Robbie Gray, still working in the cold case unit. But not for long.

A passerby finds the body of a murdered young woman kneeling in a dingy alleyway as if praying with her forehead pressed against a street art portrait of a maniacal grinning figure. DS Hardiman, Gray’s boss, assigns her to lead the homicide investigation because she is the only qualified homicide investigator available. With civil arrest on the boil in Melbourne, Hardiman, pleading a staff-storage, only gives DI Gray a team of trainee detectives to staff the investigation. But she gets one experienced officer to help with the case, Aboriginal Detective Constable Phillip (Mac) MacMahon, a former colleague and close friend.

After identifying the victim, Annie Dallimore, DI Gray starts the investigation rolling with the usual police procedural moves; reviewing the autopsy, background checks on the victim to identify family members and close acquaintances, and then conducting interviews. The investigation gets off to a slow start, but picks up steam when Gray and Mac interview the victim’s family members and acquaintances. She compiles a list of persons of interest but feels frustrated when she can’t establish a credible motive for any of them and the police can’t locate the unusual murder weapon. Making things even more difficult is the victim’s dysfunctional family members all tell conflicting stories about the victim, and some seem bent on lying during the interviews.

Stuart shows an excellent understanding of police homicide investigation protocols and the story smacks of authenticity. As one who has visited the city, I can also attest she provides accurate and familiar descriptions of Melbourne and its surrounds. Cold weather and frequent drought-ending downpours dog DI Gray’s steps from beginning to the end of the investigation, which contribute to the satisfying elements of sinister foreboding surrounding the tale.

Besides having to solve a murder, DI Gray must also battle personal demons, not all of her own making. She is not only dealing with the aftermath of the breakup with her ex-lover Tess, but must also once again try to save her drug addict daughter, Emma, who seems bent of self-destruction. These underlying humanity aspects of the story help the reader delve ever deeper into Robbie Gray’s character.

While Robbie Gray is one of the more intriguing protagonists I’ve encountered, I also like her colleague, Mac. He, too, is a multi-faceted character fighting demons of his own, the stress of which causes him deep emotional pain. One highlight of the book for me was Mac’s story, and the challenges he faces as an Australian Aboriginal, something I’m keenly interested in. This element added great depth and heart to the novel, and Gray’s moral reactions to Mac’s circumstances helped us learn more about her. Stuart gives us a good taste of the realities in that respect, but not at such length that it allowed the tension of the story to wane. The only slight let down for me, was Mac had such a visceral reaction to the street portrait where the murderer killed Dallimore, I had expected the Aboriginal element to be more involved in the plot’s outcome and the unraveling of the mystery than it turned out to be.

Besides the two lead characters, and Tess and Emma, Stuart also gives us a sufficient cast of other complex characters to keep the reader engaged throughout. There are plenty of twists and turns and ample suspects to consider for the amateur sleuths who enjoy trying to solve the case ahead of the fictional detectives.

Chris Stuart is a talented storyteller who display excellent abilities in structuring a compelling thriller. The bread crumbs she left along the way were, in most cases, small enough not to give the game away, but large enough for the reader to recall once she unveiled the twists, which is just the way I enjoy it. The Glasgow Smile admirably lives up to the series debut and I’m looking forward to Stuart’s next novel.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Note: Available for pre-ordering in New Zealand only, but available soon in other markets in paperback and eBook versions.

Out of the Ashes by Kara Thomas Review

Out of the Ashes by Kara Thomas is an appealing mix of psychological drama and a slightly slow-burning mystery. Read the full review.

Out of the Ashes Synopsis

A woman’s investigation into her family’s murders uncovers lies, secrets, and dangerous truths in a heart-wrenching novel of suspense.

When she was thirteen years old, Samantha Newsom’s family was murdered and their Catskills farmhouse set ablaze in an unsolved crime that left nothing behind but ashes.

Twenty-two years later, Sam is pulled back to her hometown of Carney, New York, under the shadows of the grim tragedy she’s never forgotten or forgiven. Authorities mishandled the evidence, false rumors were seeded about her family, suspects yielded nothing, and the case went cold. Not anymore. Investigator Travis Meacham has been assigned to the case, and he has news for Sam: a prison inmate has come forward with a shocking admission. Sam’s baby sister, presumed dead in the fire, made it out of the house that night.

It’s not the only reveal that upends everything Sam thinks she knows about the crime and her family. But Carney protects its secrets. And this time, Sam might not be able to escape the town alive.

Thomas & Mercer (2023)

Genre(s) Mystery & Thrillers

Kara Thomas | Pub Date May 01, 2023 | ISBN 9781662509537 | 287 Pages

Book Review

When her mother’s foster brother dies, Samantha Newsom returns to her hometown and gets pulled back into a tragedy that happened over twenty years before. When Samantha was thirteen, someone murdered her parents before setting fire to the family home, which burned down with her parent’s bodies and baby sister inside. The police never identified the killer. Raised by aunt, Samantha later moved away, went to college and became a nurse and tried to get on with her life as best she could. But when a state investigator contacts her and tells her he is reopening the investigation into the murders, she learns new information about the crimes and begins investigating on her own, determined to learn what happened to her family.

Samantha’s strong emotional drive to find out what happened to her family is understandable and makes her an engaging character lead that it’s easy to feel empathy for. But her passion to learn the truth causes Samantha to behave a little too recklessly with her own safety, a writing technique that builds tension and high suspense by design. In Out of the Ashes, Thomas cultivates the psychological intrigue using a first-person character viewpoint narrative but offers readers more than only one vibrant and compelling character in this story told in highly accessible prose.

This novel is not without its weaknesses. Only about the halfway point did the pacing produce a strong desire to keep turning the pages, but the pacing picked up nicely down the stretch. Overall, I found the book an engaging mix of psychological drama and mystery, which I enjoy reading, with twists that readers will enjoy and not likely see coming.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★

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Malibu Burning by Lee Goldberg Review

Malibu Burning by Lee Goldberg is a scorching, atmospheric, and suspense-filled novel that grabs the reader from the first page and doesn’t let up until the end. Read the full review.

Malibu Burning Synopsis

For a professional criminal and a relentless arson investigator, fear and revenge spread like wildfire in an incendiary thriller by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg.

Hell comes to Southern California every October. It rides in on searing Santa Ana winds that blast at near hurricane force, igniting voracious wildfires. Master thief Danny Cole longs for the flames. A tsunami of fire is exactly what he needs to pull off a daring crime and avenge a fallen friend.

As the most devastating firestorms in Los Angeles’ history scorch the hills of Malibu, relentless arson investigator Walter Sharpe and his wild card of a new partner, Andrew Walker, a former US marshal, suspect that someone set the massive blazes intentionally, a terrifying means to an unknown end.

While the flames rage out of control, Danny pursues his brilliant scheme, unaware that Sharpe and Walker are closing in. But when they all collide in a canyon of fire, everything changes, pitting them against an unexpected enemy within an inescapable inferno.

Thomas & Mercer (2023)

Genre(s) Suspense Thriller, Crime & Detective

Lee Goldberg | Pub Date June 20, 2023 | ISBN 9781662500671 | 304 Pages

Book Review

For me, everything about Malibu Burning by Lee Goldberg, although a work of fiction, oozed authenticity. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine but so easy to appreciate the massive number of hours of research that obviously went into this book featuring enormous, wind-driven, California brush fires described in such epic and vivid detail the reader almost feels the heat and smells the smoke. This book isn’t just a very well-executed crime thriller. It’s a fantastic novel, period. The nuanced character development is first rate–even that of the bad guys–from backstories to their motivations to the dialogue. It all smacks of realism.

When Stetson-wearing U. S. Marshal Andrew Walker’s wife gets pregnant with their first child, she persuades him to give up his dangerous job as a man-hunter to take a safer law enforcement job. After getting hired by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, they assign him to arson investigations where Walker teams up with veteran arson detective Walter Sharpe. Sharpe, he soon learns, knows everything there is to know about fires–how they start, how they burn, and how they behave. When three seemingly unrelated brush fires start, Sharpe doesn’t buy the theory they started from accidents stemming from power line failures and decides to investigate. He and his new green partner, Walker, find evidence that suggests arson and that someone with a lot of knowledge about fires, started them in an ingenious and unusual way. Sharpe is the expert on fires and arson investigation, but Walker is the expert on the criminal mind and suspects the arsonist started the fires either to conceal or facilitate the commission of some other crime. As the pair continues to investigate, Walker realizes an old nemesis, a brilliant con man named Danny Cole, is involved. And all they have to do is figure out what it is Cole is using the wildfires to cover up, how to prove it, and where to find Cole so they can arrest him.

Intense suspense, shocks, and chilling authenticity make this one a very special book. It has everything you expect from a flawlessly executed, action-packed crime thriller. The characters are likeable and realistic–including the antagonist, Danny Cole. Sure, he’s a criminal, but you grudgingly find you admire him just a little. The entertaining story feels sufficiently gritty, although Goldberg softens it a little with both heart-warming moments and humor. The stakes are impossibly high and continue rising in the narrative about Southern California cops, firefighters, and thieves, and it all takes place in the middle of an epic conflagration that puts them in imminent danger. Malibu Burning is perfect for fans of authors like John Sandford.

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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