Jar of Hearts isn’t for the faint-hearted

jar of hearts

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press, June 2018) is a cautionary tale about the consequences of lying. Lying to others, and lying to oneself. Sometimes lies will come back to haunt you. Sometimes they bite you in the butt when you least expect it.

Geo calls it Karma.

Georgina Shaw, Kaiser Brody, and Angela Wong are best friends. They’re normal sixteen-year-olds until they encounter Calvin James. Cal’s a 21-year-old bad boy who smokes cigarettes, chews cinnamon hearts, and hangs around local convenience store parking lots to sell drugs. Geo is naturally flattered when Cal pays her more attention than he pays Ang. There’s something about him that’s exciting and compelling.

And definitely dangerous.

She can’t help but fall in love with him. He knows exactly how and where to touch her to turn her on, and he never takes no for an answer. Suddenly, Calvin James is all she can think about.

Geo ignores her friends, ignores her schoolwork, even ignores cheerleading practice. Ang and Kai try to talk sense into her, but she can’t see the forest for he trees. She loves Calvin, and nothing else matters.

Fourteen years later, Kaiser Brody is the detective who arrests Calvin James, the Sweetbay Strangler. Kaiser also arrests Georgina Shaw as an accomplice to the murder and dismemberment of Angela Wong. Geo goes to prison for five years. Calvin goes to prison for life, but he escapes.

That’s just the backstory. The real story begins when Geo pleads guilty and goes to prison.

This story is about love and death and human relationships and compulsion and heartaches and heartbreaks and the mistakes we all make as we live and learn. It’s a hard-hitting look at the raw emotions that drive human behavior. It’s also about survival and what we all do to survive, not all of which is good or pretty. No one remains innocent nor guilt-free forever. Life quickly becomes complicated, and unintended consequences often develop when we’re not paying attention.

Jar of Hearts is a real eye-opener as well as a full-of-twists page-turner. Highly recommend for everyone but the faint of heart.

 

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Somebody’s Daughter is a Compelling Read

cover125277-mediumSomebody's Daughter david bell

 

Somebody’s Daughter by David Bell (Berkley Books, July 2018) is about a missing nine-year-old girl and the petty jealousies and doubts that get in the way of relationships.
Erica, Michael Frasier’s first wife, is a bit of a drama queen. They’d married right out of college, a starter marriage, that ended in divorce a year later. Michael left Erica when her flightiness and impulsivity—two personality traits that had attracted him to her in the first place—became unbearable.
Michael’s new wife Angela is more like he is, a detail-oriented and responsible workaholic, not a wild and crazy emotionally-high-strung attention-seeking risk taker like Erica is or Michael’s sister Robyn was. Or his other younger sister, Lynne, a musician, song-writer, and former rock star still is. Robyn died when she fell off a swing set as an infant, and Michael blames himself for not preventing the fall. Although only a child himself at the time, he was the older brother and should have been watching out for his kid sister.
When Erica rings the doorbell at Michael and Angela’s house to announce her nine-year-old daughter is missing and Michael is Felicity’s father, he doesn’t know what to believe. He and Erica have been divorced nearly ten years, and this is the first he’s heard he might be a father. Angela and he have tried to get pregnant without success. Does he already have a daughter?
Or is Erica lying to get Michael’s attention? Is she trying to break up his marriage to get revenge for his leaving her? Or does Erica hope to get Michael back to be a father to their daughter?
Erica shows Michael Felicity’s picture on her cell phone. She looks remarkably like Robyn did the day before she died.
Parts of this novel read like a typical Jerry Springer episode. Who is Felicity’s father? What will a paternity test prove? Was Erica unfaithful while married to Michael? Inquiring minds want to know.
So do the local police when Erica reports Felicity abducted. Did Michael abduct his daughter? Did Erica abduct Felicity from another mother after Erica had a miscarriage ten years ago? Did a pedophile snatch the little girl when Erica’s attention was averted? Or did Angela, jealous that Erica gave Michael a child, abduct and kill Felicity because she couldn’t have children herself?
The author tosses in a few additional complications and a handful of supporting characters to keep the reader guessing. With  every passing minute, the chances of finding Felicity alive become less and less. The timebomb is ticking. The sands in the hourglass are running out.
Somebody’s Daughter is a compelling read. Highly recommended.

Baby Teeth is a Must Read

cover127477-medium baby teeth

 

Baby Teeth: A Novel by Zoje Stage (St. Martin’s Press, July 17, 2018) is every parent’s worst nightmare come true. Although seven-year-old Hanna displays the full spectrum of autistic behaviors like not vocalizing and destructive temper tantrums, she’s Daddy Alex’s little angel and Mommy Suzette’s devil in disguise.

Not unlike Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin” and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, this is more than a simple story about parental denial of their child’s murderous intent. It’s an extended metaphor of human fears, human limitations, and our failure to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

Just as there’s a good mommy and a bad mommy inside Suzette, there’s an evil, conniving, manipulative Hanna and there’s also the reincarnation of Marie-Anne Dufossete, a girl who was burned at the stake five centuries ago for witchcraft, for casting spells and poisoning people. Is Hanna possessed? Is the murderous Marie-Anne real? Or is she merely the sign of a personality split in a deeply-disturbed highly-imaginative seven=year-old?

As Hanna is expelled from school after school for violent behavior, Suzette is forced to home school her daughter. Hanna’s idea of fun, however, is to hurt other people, especially mommy. She plots to get mommy out of the way so she can have daddy all to herself. Alex, of course, refuses to believe Suzette when she tells him Hanna acts psychotic and needs professional help. When Alex is around, Hanna behaves like the loving daughter he wants her to be.

Stage effectively alternates chapters between Hanna’s POV and Suzette’s, allowing readers access to their innermost doubts and fears. It’s a brilliant kind of she said-she said non-verbal teeter-tottering that builds suspense all the way to the end and beyond.

Alex, born in Sweden (he insists his last name be pronounced Yensen, not Jensen), celebrates traditional Swedish pagan festivals, like building a Walpurgis bonfire on the night of April 30. He uses Swedish terms of endearment for both his wife and his daughter. Suzette, born in America of a Jewish mother and a mongrel father and raised by her grieving mother after her father’s untimely death, appreciates living in a multi-cultural household and learns enough Swedish to reciprocate. Hanna, too, knows Swedish as well as English, but she refuses to talk. She keeps her thoughts bottled up inside herself until they explode in violent outbursts directed at Suzette.

And when she does talk to Suzette, she speaks the French of a long-dead witch that was burned at the stake.

Baby Teeth is a must read for anyone who loves psychological suspense at its finest.

 

The Suspense Could Kill You

the crooked staircase

 

The thrill is back as Dean Koontz returns once again to the fast-paced protagonist-on-the-run roots that made his early novels so exciting and appealing. The Jane Hawk novels seamlessly cross genres, effortlessly moving from science fiction territory into that of James Bond’s espionage and modern techno-thrillers, from noir into pure psychological horror.

None of the characters in The Crooked Staircase by Dean Koontz (Random House, May 8, 2018) learned to play nice as children, and they certainly make reprehensible adults. Jane’s piano virtuoso father killed her mother and made life hell for the young girl, Booth Hendrickson’s mother made life hell for Booth and his half-brother, and the crooked staircase leads Jane and Booth straight down into a real-life hell from which only one may emerge alive.

Alternating short chapters between Jane Hawk’s POV and other viewpoint characters, including those hunting her, Koontz paints a horrifying picture of the worst abuses of government authority imaginable. Carter Jergen and Dubose are NSA employees who also work for the FBI, CIA, DHS, and IRS. They’re covert agents of the Techno Arcadians, a secret cabal of government and business elite who seek to control the world. They’re already in control of many world leaders, politicians and businessmen, implanted with nanotechnology that turns them into mindless slaves like modern-day Manchurian Candidates.

Dean pays tribute to Robert A. Heinlein, one of his mentors and idols, throughout this novel. Characters become strangers in a strange land, mannequins controlled by puppet-masters, Waldoes manipulated by monsters. Another of his idols, Charles Dickens, receives honorable mentions. And, of course, there’s always a faithful canine companion or two in a Dean Koontz novel.

We first met Jane Hawk in The Silent Corner (Bantam, June 2017) and continued her exciting adventures in The Whispering Room (Bantam, November 2017). In this third novel, The Crooked Staircase, former FBI Special Agent Jane is on the run from the Techno Arcadians while seeking revenge against those who killed her husband Nick. With son Travis safely hidden, Jane pursues Booth Hendrickson even as Hendrickson pursues her.

But bad guys Jergen and Dubose, two of the nastiest villains you never want to meet in a dark alley, are hot on Travis’ trail.

Will Jane survive descending the crooked staircase? Will Jergen and Dubose capture or kill Travis? You need to read the latest installment of the never-ending Jane Hawk saga to learn what happens next.

Or the suspense could kill you.

SF Adventure and a Romp Thru History

time shards

Time Shards By Dana Fredsti and David Fitzgerald (Titan Books, February 2018) is the fast-paced kind of rip-roaring sf adventure Doctor Who fans will love. It’s set in England and includes a time-traveling doctor of astrophysics called Merlin capable of regeneration when killed and whose companions this episode are a present-day American college-age girl named Amber, an American journalist from the 1890s who calls herself Nellie Bly, a British WWII-era SAS commando named Blake, a bumbling Oxford professor who’s both a coward and a fraud, and a displaced Celtic Druid named Cam who speaks only archaic Welsh or Gaelic, plus a smattering of imperial Latin.
Amber, attending a cosplay convention in England, is ill-prepared to survive the cataclysmic event that first shatters earth’s time-line and then jams broken pieces back together in random order. Now dinosaurs roam the English countryside, Cromwell’s roundheads burn witches at the stake, and giant scorpions prowl the woods.
Amber stumbles from one horror into another, only to be saved at the last possible moment by Blake or Nellie or Cam or Merlin.

Cam thinks Amber’s a faery queen when they first meet because of her cosplay costume. Although he’s technically two thousand years older than her, they appear to be the same age and he becomes enamored of her charms.   Stearne, a 17th-century roundhead witch-finder, believes her a witch because of her costume. He spends half the book trying to torture her or pursuing Amber and her companions to tie them all to stakes and burn them as witches.
The story is a wonderful blend of adventure and history lesson that’s a joy to read. My only disappointment came during the final pages when it was evident I would need to buy at least one more book in the series to learn all the answers and find resolution. Can Doctor Merlin restore the time-line? Will technology be the savior of mankind or its destroyer? Inquiring minds want to know, and I will buy the next book because I love the characters and care about what happens next.

4 Outstanding Stories in Dark Screams 9

Dark Screams 9

 

Dark Screams: Volume Nine edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar (Hydra, January 2018) includes three new stories and three stories originally published in Cemetery Dance Magazine. Since the editors of Cemetery Dance edit this anthology series, it’s easy to see how they’re able to put out dozens of anthologies in just a few years and edit a magazine, too. They have twenty-five years of reprints to choose from and only need to add three new tales to create an anthology.

There are four outstanding stories in this anthology.

Best of the bunch is “Torn” by Lee Thomas. Although it’s a reprint from 2012, it has a great plot embellished with all of the tricks of the storyteller’s art: fully-developed characters, multiple mysteries to solve, dire time constraints, apt metaphors, and believable personal conflicts between husband and wife, neighbors, and first responders. It’s the longest story in the book, and it’s an almost perfect story of human compulsion and how compulsion can tear a person apart. Sheriff Bill Cranston fights monsters to save his family and his town, and the monsters are a lot different than anyone expects.

Almost as strong but not as long, “The Blackout” by Jonathan Moore is an original supernatural revenge tale that reads like a police procedural. Detective Nakamura investigates the disappearance of a girl’s corpse during a storm that’s blacked out electrical power in Hawaii and finds more in the dark than he bargained for.

“The Dead Years” by Taylor Grant is a haunting tale of a modern-day Helen of Troy and the price of beauty. It’s also original to this anthology.

“Invitation to the Game” by Kelley Armstrong is well-written and suspenseful with a couple of nice twists. It’s also original.

“Summer of ‘77” by Stewart O’Nan and “Variations on a Theme from Seinfeld” by Peter Straub, both reprints from 2009, were competent but disappointing.

The four outstanding tales make Dark Screams: Volume Nine worth the price. Consider the other two stories an added bonus. Highly recommended.

 

The Perfect Spy Novel

Need to Know

 

 

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (Ballantine Books, January 2018) is the perfect spy novel, told from the POV of Vivian Miller, an American CIA counter-intelligence analyst, who has just discovered her husband, the father of her four children, is an embedded Russian spy.

Has Matt been manipulating her since they met? Is their ten-year marriage a lie? When she confronts him, he admits being a spy but claims he truly loves her and the kids, has never passed anything she’s told him on to the Russians, and he urges her to turn him in.

Viv knows she should turn Matt in, send him to prison for life. But she also knows she needs him to help her take care of their children, needs his income to pay the bills; worries she’ll lose her security clearance if her boss learns she was married to a spy; and doesn’t want to live without the man she loves by her side.

The conflict is real, the tension palpable. The stakes continue to grow as Viv makes one bad decision, then another. She becomes a traitor to her country, deleting Matt’s picture from the computers at the CIA, and plays into Russian hands. They own her. If she doesn’t do what they ask, they will reveal what she has done and she’ll go to prison along with Matt.

When she refuses to insert a flash drive that will give Russia access to CIA computers, Russian spymaster Yury threatens Vivian’s children. Viv feels trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Is there no way out of the hole she’s dug herself into?

Vivian and Matt are complex characters readers can identify with, juggling personal lives with professional responsibilities. Which is more important: allegiance to spouse and children or allegiance to one’s country? Which vows take precedence: the marriage vows or the vows to protect classified information?

Impossible to put down, Need to Know is masterfully written. I recommend it highly.