Tag Archives: murder mystery

A Hit and a Miss

dignified-dead

For the Dignified Dead: A Commander Jana Matinova Thriller by Michael Genelin (Brash Books, $14.99, 359 pages)

The woman was already dead.  I didn’t need to spend much time with her.

The dead don’t want us to saunter in, then quickly leave.

Brutality permeates the most recent installment of the Commander Jana Matinova international mystery series written by Michael Genelin.  Returning readers will travel across international borders through a bleak winter landscape as Commander Matinova seeks justice for a murdered woman found encased in the ice of the frozen Danube River. The weapon of choice is an icepick, truly appropriate considering the weather.

The antidote is Matinova’s intense caring and commitment to solving the crime.  Her biggest obstacles are her staff’s indifference to the victim and the endless paperwork and stalling by the bureaucrats both at home in Slovakia and in the neighboring countries.  She manages to maintain a crisp professional demeanor while experiencing a deep sense of responsibility to her role as head of homicide in Bratislava.

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Author Genelin is a master at creating voices that reflect the people and cultures portrayed in his novels.  As is his style, the tale is fast paced and multifaceted.  Everyday police issues are blended seamlessly with danger and intrigue.  One need not be a veteran of international travel or the convoluted structure of bureaucracy to appreciate the wealth of detail Genelin has infused into this most engaging tale.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

dont-you-cry-amazon

Don’t You Cry: A Novel by Mary Kubica (Mira, $26.99, 320 pages)

Mary Kubica’s third novel shows some early promise but fizzles.

Don’t You Cry is structured such that the story is told through the lens of two different characters, Quinn and Alex, in alternating chapters.  (I sense trouble already.  Ed.) 

Quinn picks up a guy in a bar in downtown Chicago and wakes the next morning to discover that her roommate, Esther, has disappeared.  Alex is a dishwasher in a town an hour outside of Chicago who becomes fascinated with a woman who suddenly appears at the place he works.

The story moves along well enough in the chapters in which Quinn is narrating.  Elements of the mystery and an unexpected twist keep the reader interested, but the chapters with Alex interrupt the flow, and these unfold so slowly that the momentum wanes.  It takes too long to find out why we should care about the characters and their relationships, and Alex’s back story turns out to be irrelevant.

It is difficult to ascertain early in the story any evidence of why Esther and Quinn were close, which makes it difficult to be concerned about Esther’s disappearance.  But because of Kubica’s flair for storytelling, the reader sticks with the tale.  Halfway through, it gets interesting.  But by the time the mystery comes together, almost absurdly quickly in the final chapters, it’s difficult for the reader to put the various pieces together.

The flaw is not Kubica’s imagination or writing style, but due to the way she elected to structure this story the effect of any “aha” moment – when all is revealed, is significantly diminished.

Dave Moyer

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the greater Chicago area, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel of love, life, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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Arsenic and Old Lace

arsenic-with-austin

Arsenic with Austen: A Crime with the Classics Mystery by Katherine Bolger Hyde (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 312 pages)

Professor Emily Cavanaugh is a 21st Century woman who finds herself caught up in the dealings of a sleepy village on the Oregon coast. She’s been widowed for two years, is childless and growing restless with her duties in the Language and Literature Department of Reed College in Portland.

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As would be anticipated in a traditional British mystery by Agatha Christie, Emily receives a piece of formal correspondence from an attorney in Stony Beach, Oregon. It seems her dear Great Aunt Beatrice has died and left her a legacy. What follows is one of the most heart-warming murder mysteries this reviewer has read.

Emily Cavanaugh is summoned to Aunt Beatrice’s funeral and the reading of the will. It seems Emily was fantasizing a modest inheritance when she hoped that the extensive library filled with leather bound books would be hers. Emily spent many summers sitting in that same library reading with the encouragement of her aunt. Clearly, the Victorian mansion, half of the town of Stony Beach and millions of dollars was way beyond her hopeful anticipation.

Yes, there are villains scattered among the townsfolk. How else would there be a mystery for Emily to solve? She also reconnects with her former boyfriend who seemingly dumped her at the end of a summer romance. As with Dame Agatha’s stories, Ms. Hyde leads the reader around leaving a trail of tantalizing clues and misdirection.

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Author Hyde has hit all the right notes in this her debut mystery novel. She weaves in enough credible references to classic literature written by women such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte to prove her in depth understanding of the genre. While Ms. Hyde is a resident of Santa Cruz County in California, she credits a writer’s retreat on the Oregon coast with inspiring the location of her tale. And, by the way, she is an alumna of Reed College. Let’s hope there will be more enjoyable mysteries from Ms. Hyde in the future.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Arsenic with Austen was released on July 12, 2016.

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Complicated

other-widow

The Other Widow: A Novel by Susan Crawford (William Morrow, $26.99, 333 pages)

The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford was an excellent, suspenseful debut novel (“A gripping character-driven mystery.” Booklist) And so I had high hopes and expectations for The Other Widow. I was disappointed.

Widow starts off with a bang. Joe Lindsay, a married business owner who is having an affair with one of his workers, has a fatal car accident while driving in heavy snow. His mistress is his passenger. For some reason the brakes on Joe’s Volvo fail to work and his airbag does not deploy. The mistress escapes from the accident scene and resolves to find out what happened. As does insurance investigator Maggie Brennan, a former police officer and war veteran who notices that the dead man had recently been extremely well insured by his spouse. (The Irish-American character of Maggie Brennan is listed as Maggie Devlin on the book jacket.)

While Pocket Wife was stocked with a few well drawn out characters, one of the key problems with Widow is that there are too many characters, virtually all female. It’s difficult to identify with any of these characters – other than Brennan/Devlin – because so little time is spent with each of them; Crawford has dissipated her creative energy with quantity rather than quality. And while Pocket Wife was genuinely clever in the mode of Scott Turow, Widow is loaded with dead ends and red herrings. And even a ghost of sorts – the dead mother of a character speaks to her whenever she’s in imminent danger. In my mind, I pictured Crawford with flow sheets helping her keep track of the characters and false leads.

Widow concludes in a somewhat logical fashion, but it’s just one of many possible endings tying up far too many loose ends. The reader may spend time afterward, as I did, wondering if Crawford selected the right villain among numerous characters most of whom had bad intentions and evil motives.

On the positive side, Widow is a quick read since the suspension of disbelief never quite kicks in. Not much is invested or lost on the reader’s part. And the promising character of Maggie Brennan makes her entrance. At the end of this crime tale, she’s welcomed back to the police department with open arms after having figured out who – singular or plural, killed Joe Lindsay. Maggie is tough and smart and has great instincts.

Let’s hope that Crawford’s next book is subtitled A Detective Maggie Brennan Mystery. And let’s hope that Crawford listens to the ghostly voice telling her to keep it simple.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on April 26, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-other-widow-by-susan-crawford/

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A Step Back in Time

taxidermist 2

The Taxidermist’s Daughter: A Novel by Kate Mosse (William Morrow, $26.99, 412 pages)

In a remote village near the English coast, residents gather in a misty churchyard. It is St. Mark’s Eve, when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to walk.

Alone in the crowd is Constancia Gifford, the taxidermist’s daughter. Twenty-two and unmarried, she lives with her father on the fringes of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered on the remains of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered with the remains of his once world-famous museum of taxidermy. No one speaks of why the museum was shuttered or how the Giffords sank so low.

As the last peal of the midnight bell fades to silence, a woman is found dead – a stranger Connie noticed near the church.

A step back in time brings us to the early 1900s in Fishbourne, Chicester, West Sussex England. The author Kate Mosse (New York Times bestselling author of Labyrinth) is an accomplished writer of novels, non-fiction books and plays. Her writing style is consistent with the time she portrays. The specificity with which she slowly and gently unfolds her grisly tale is riveting, especially in light of the super fast action/thriller/mysteries we see today.

The physical book alerts the reader to the crafting and care embodied in The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Deckle pages add a touch of aged elegance, as do the illustrations marking each of the three parts of the tale and the start of each chapter. There is a detailed map of Fishbourne circa 1912 up front, which adds dimension and a sense of relationship between the sites where the action takes place. Readers would be wise to use a Post-It or page marker for ease in referencing the map. The Deckle edged pages are a bit difficult to separate for leafing back to the map.

taxidermist

Connie, the taxidermist’s daughter, lives with her father, Gifford, on an isolated marshland in an old house. A sequence of events in the marsh, nearby town and church is set forth by an unseen narrator in one type font and a series of first-person missives in a flowing italic font is interspersed between events. The missives are haunting and threatening. Clearly, there is a past deed that warrants retribution.

A murky mystery unravels as though the past is meeting up with the present. Author Mosse provides a wealth of information about the indigenous birds and plants of Fishbourne. The detail with which she lays out Connie’s skillful practice of taxidermy approaches textbook accuracy.

Be very aware that this tale is not for the casual reader of English mysteries. There is much to be learned within these pages both in terms of technical knowledge and human psychology.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on March 29, 2016.

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World In My Eyes

 

The Big Rewind: A Novel by Libby Cudmore (William Morrow, $14.99, 256 pages)

big rewind front amazon

Music was an emotion she felt at her absolute core. It wasn’t to dance or get drunk to. Music was represented by love.

The Big Rewind might be subtitled A Rock and Roll Mystery. Jett Bennett, a young woman in New York City who works as an office temp, receives a package intended for her friend and neighbor known as KitKat; the package contains a rock music mix tape. (That’s right, even though this story is set in the present day, KitKat was sent a Maxell C-90 cassette tape filled with music. “I’ve got a smartphone, but I’m not too young to remember the exact weight and feel of a Maxell mix tape. They’re just slightly heavier than a regular cassette, weighed down with love and angst, track lists thick with rubber cement and collage.”) When Jett goes to deliver the tape to KitKat she discovers that she’s been beaten to death. A young black man, a person who runs in the same city social circles as Jett, is arrested for the crime.

Jett feels instinctively that law enforcement has focused on the wrong subject, and she proceeds to do her best to find out who actually killed her friend. This may seem like an explanation of the storyline, but in fact the story is mostly about music. If you love listening to rock music, and you loved watching the film “High Fidelity,” the odds are that you will very much enjoy reading The Big Rewind.

Like the record store clerks in “High Fidelity,” author Cudmore has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern music and she has a great deal of fun showing off within the pages of this novel. The book allows her to express her love of certain rock groups, and also to enjoy tearing down the bands she is not so fond of. For example, in character as Jett, Cudmore writes:

I derided Mumford and Sons as being “like Flogging Molly if all the punk rhythms and talent was removed.” Ouch! This is the kind of comment that gets one unfriended if posted on Facebook. (But it’s fun.)

She also enjoys examining the psychology of those who made mix tapes – and who today may compile and share mix discs or digital playlists:

There isn’t a better feeling in the world… than acknowledgment that your mix tape was not only received and played but enjoyed. It’s a dance of sorts, balancing songs you think the listener will love while trying to say everything that otherwise dries up in your throat before you can get out the words.

If I recall correctly, in “High Fidelity” the main character states, wisely, that mix tapes display more about the person who put them together than they do – or did – about the intended recipient.

Libby Cudmore Synchronicity

Make no mistake, Cudmore can write and write quite effortlessly.

(The musician) Cassie wore burgundy Doc Martens with black tights and a flannel skirt; her dark-blond hair was crimped and pushed off to the side with a handful of clips. She was a relic of the last time music mattered, where a songwriter wasn’t some Swedish computer geek plotting song like math problems. Her silver nameplate bracelet and the necklace that matched were the only things about her that looked new and shiny. Everything else about her had the worn edges of a hard-won life.

And she writes quite effectively about her life-affirming love of music:

I thought about the music I had hoarded, my fear that if I heard the songs in the wrong place and time it might mean they no longer belonged to the moments I clung to.

The reader can relax in the knowledge that Jett’s going to solve the crime, even if she and we don’t know exactly when that will happen.

I put on Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene for background music and tried to put all the clues I had together, like assorted pieces from three different jigsaw puzzles. A secret boyfriend, a missing bracelet, a mix tape. I had the names, the locations, the pieces in play. I just didn’t know what order they went in to make the tiny paper Clue checklist that would lead me from her dead body on the kitchen floor to her killer standing convicted in the courtroom.

As with most successful mysteries, The Big Rewind proceeds on past the point at which the crime has been solved and the true criminal placed behind bars. Yet it almost does not matter, as the reader is having such fun being drenched in music comments and trivia. Cudmore, in fact, titles the final chapter, “Here’s where the story ends.”

(My boyfriend) put on Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” and I laughed, singing along with the “hoo hoo” parts like the Oates that I was.

big rewind back cover amazon

Yes, rock lovers, this is your book. Libby Cudmore has passed the audition. As John Lennon might have said, “It’s good!”

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-big-rewind-a-novel-by-libby-cudmore/

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Life in the Slow Lane

All Men Fear Me

All Men Fear Me: An Alafair Tucker Mystery by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, $26.95, 302 pages)

Well, now, Charlie, just because I disapprove of this war doesn’t mean I’m a traitor. I think of myself as a patriot, and a patriot of the real kind. This is my big, messy country. I love it. I want for it to be the best country there is. If it suffer ills, I want to cure them. I want for every citizen to enjoy all its rights and privileges, and I believe it is my duty to try and help that happen.

One part history lesson, one part family drama and two parts man’s inhumanity to man is the recipe for Donis Casey’s eighth installment of life in rural Oklahoma in 1917. Alafair Tucker is the center of her large family – 10 children ranging in age from 25 to four years of age, husband Shaw, and her brother Robin. Robin, a labor organizer, is visiting after being away for ten years. The rabid fans of war and nationalism in the small town of Boynton view Robin’s organizing efforts as Socialist-leaning and contrary to the ways of true Americans.

The country has recently entered World War I and a draft has been set in place to raise an army. Alafair is trying mightily to balance her love of her brother with the fervent longings of her 16-year-old son, Charlie, who desperately wants to enlist in the military. The townspeople of Boynton are divided between being suspicious of anyone perceived as “foreign” and their loyalty to long-time friends and neighbors. Kurt Lukenbach, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Germany is married to one of Alafair’s daughters. The more rabid patriots in town regard Kurt with suspicion and hostility.

There is trouble all around in Oklahoma. It’s as though the wood for a fire has been laid and along comes a man with a can of gasoline and a match to hasten the process. The stranger in the bowler hat who arrives in town at the start of the story is literally the catalyst that brings latent hate and fear to a flash point.

Author Casey takes her sweet time setting up the action in this book. Although it is considered a mystery novel, it is more of a history lesson with a covert mystery imbedded within the text. Readers who enjoy a slowly paced and thoroughly detailed story will enjoy this installment of the Tucker family goings on.

As with many books that feature the daily diet of the characters, All Men Fear Me has at the back several recipes featured in the story. Additionally, a calendar of the war rules pertaining to food is listed for readers who curiously enjoy details with their murders.

Recommended to readers fond of life in the slow lane.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on November 3, 2015.

You can read a review of Hell With The Lid Blown Off: An Alafair Tucker Mystery here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/were-off-to-see-the-wizard/

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Tailgating

Tail Gait (Amazon)

Tail Gait: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown (Bantam, $26.00, 307 pages)

“Smartest thing we ever did, separation of church and state, and we can thank Madison for drawing up those Articles for Virginia when we were a colony.” Ginger’s tone brooked no interference, but then the rest agreed on this issue.

Professor Greg “Ginger” McConnell, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Virginia is a tenacious researcher who has been digging into land ownership matters that must be sensitive to someone who wants to keep the past buried. Ginger is the victim of that someone and he’s found dead in the rough of a golf course by several of his former students.

Tail Gait follows two story threads, one set in the Revolutionary War and the other in 2015. The plight of a brave young British soldier captured by the Americans is contrasted with the murder of the history professor. The locale is Rita Mae Brown’s home turf, Virginia.

Typical of Ms. Brown, there are many teaching moments inserted here and there. Readers familiar with the Sneaky Pie Brown mysteries may be disappointed that the feline Mrs. Murphy and her furry friends are not more prominently featured in the solution to Ginger’s murder.

The two story threads seem unrelated until more than halfway through the book. The reader is left wondering when, if ever, Ms. Brown will get to the point. The writing in both threads is sadly uneven. This reviewer needed to reread passages for clarification. This work is far below the standard earlier set by Brown; thus, it’s not engaging or entertaining. If there’s another book in the series, let’s hope that Mrs. Murphy is returned to her starring role!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

You can read a review of Cat Striking Back: A Joe Grey Mystery by Shirley Rousseau Murphy here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/cat-striking-back/

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A Poisoned Pile of Mysteries

A Variety Pack from Poisoned Pen Press

Where the Bones are Buried

Where the Bones are Buried: A Dinah Pelerin Mystery by Jeanne Matthews (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 288 pages; $14.95, 288 pages)

Hold on to your hats Wild West fans! The improbable mix of Berlin, Germany and fans of American frontier lore are at the center of this wacky murder mystery. Dinah Pelerin is the heroine of this tale. She has a lover who is a former Norwegian cop and her mother, Swan, is a Native American from the Seminole tribe.

Author Jeanne Matthews presents a deeply puzzling death amid a powwow event held by the Berlin Der Indianer Club. Who knew that Native Americans might fascinate Germans? At least this explains how Dinah has a gig teaching Native American cultures in Berlin. This is Dinah’s fifth appearance in the series so there’s a fascination with her by mystery lovers.

Swan is a rather tricky character who’s out to get revenge. She visits Dinah in Berlin and together they manage to get themselves into some very tricky predicaments after finding a scalped murder victim.

Recommended for mystery lovers who are looking for a fresh perspective on murder.

Caught Dead

Caught Dead: A Rick Van Lam Mysery by Andrew Lanh (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 290 pages; $14.95, 290 pages)

Back in the USA we find Rick Van Lanh, an Amerasian private eye in Connecticut. Rick is hired by members of a small Vietnamese community in Hartford to determine whether the drive-by shooting of Mary Le is just a random incident or murder. Mary is a twin. She and her sister are known as the “beautiful Le sisters.”

The tale is told in a breathless, naive way that is heavily laden with racism both external (Vietnamese vs. others in Hartford) and internal (mixed race children who are a product of the war in Vietnam vs. pure blooded Vietnamese). The clashes also include tensions between Buddhists and Catholics and, of course, the rich and the poor.

There’s a bit of meandering for Rick as he searches for a motive to explain Mary’s shooting. The complexity and conflicts he encounters make this somewhat of a laborious read. This would likely be an unlikely selection for the typical reader.

Murder in Picadilly

Murder in Picadilly by Charles Kingston – British Library Crime Classics (Poisoned Pen Press, $12.95, 316 pages)

And now, back to our regularly scheduled mystery style – British mysteries of the 1930s, in other words, true classics! Poisoned Pen Press has brought back out-of-print mysteries that were popular in their day. This selection features Bobbie Cheldon and his nightclub dancer crush, Nancy Curzon. Bobbie is the lazy and self-centered son of a widowed mother. His uncle, his deceased father’s brother, is a wealthy tightwad. Bobbie longs for the day when he inherits his uncle’s fortune.

The book is written in fascinating syntax and figures of speech that draw the reader back in time. Make no mistake, there’s no casual cruising through this text. The reader cannot afford to be lazy or skim as the charm and humor of Charles Kingston’s writing style will be missed.

Members of the British caste system in its many permutations interact throughout the tale to form a truly tangled web of greed and deceit.

Highly recommended for purists who devour classic British mysteries!

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher and/or a publicist.

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I’m On Fire

Flame Out (nook book)

Flame Out: A Novel (The June Lyons Series) by M.P. Cooley (William Morrow, $24.99, 304 pages)

M.P. Cooley’s second novel Flame Out features police officer and former FBI agent, June Lyons.

When an old apparel factory burns down, a body is discovered, which initially is thought to be that of former owner Bernie Lawler’s wife, Luisa, who was murdered and whose body was never recovered. The incident takes the reader back to the original murder (covered in Cooley’s Ice Shear), which was originally investigated by June’s father.

Flame Out starts with June flirting with the idea of returning to the FBI, and – about a third of the way through – her parents split and the characters’ subsequent complicated relationships are introduced; something which does little to appreciably advance the story.

A line toward the end, “You do not need to kill your mother’s killer. I already did,” based on context and delivery is an example of the generally good writing found in this novel. The plot is carefully constructed and the story is told almost exclusively in dialogue. This can be a plus or a minus, depending on the reader. This reviewer would have preferred a bit more variety in the telling.

Flame Out (back cover)

Flame Out starts out with a great deal of promise, but mostly smolders. It is a good book; unfortunately, it is not a great one.

Recommended, based on the author’s potential.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Gallows Pole

Hangman's Game Syken

Hangman’s Game: A Nick Gallow Mystery by Bill Syken (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

Former Sports Illustrated reporter and editor, Bill Syken, has presumably experienced his share of NFL locker rooms. In Hangman’s Game, his fiction debut, Syken takes us from Philadelphia to the Deep South and back through the lens of Nick Gallow, a punter (of all things). Considering that the murder mystery is subtitled A Nick Gallow Mystery, one can reasonably presume there are more coming. And, if I am correct and Nick enjoys the career of a typical NFL punter, Syken will have the opportunity to take us to all corners of America before Nick is done solving crimes!

The novel opens with Nick out to dinner with the team’s first round draft choice, Samuel Sault, and their shared agent, Cecil Wilson. It ends… Well, no spoiler here. But, on the way out of the restaurant, Samuel is murdered, Cecil shot, and teammate Jai Carson, who is at the scene partying with his entourage, falsely accused. Enter Nick.

It is a reasonable assumption that J.C., as Jai is called, was trying to eliminate the competition, but Nick, who comes across as being almost entirely concerned only about himself, is convinced Jai is innocent, plays the team loyalty card, and attempts to uncover the truth. Nick is swimming against the tide, mostly because Jai is a completely unlikeable jerk, who is even more self-absorbed than Nick, who isn’t really that likeable either.

Syken’s writing is solid. The reader is effectively led through the story. Interest in discovering who did what is maintained throughout. The contemporary theme of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (the concussion thing) comes into play, though it is not truly developed to any great degree. Despite Nick’s faults, the reader is drawn to him. The only knock is that the story plays on some of the classic stereotypes of the narcissistic, womanizing, gun-toting athlete. However, with the preponderance of these issues in the NFL, perhaps it is truly closer to the norm than an aberration.

Syken has authored a good first novel. It will be interesting to see if he can, next time around, build on his craft and go into greater depth with some of the issues that appear to be floating around in his mind.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on August 18, 2015.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and is the author of the sports-oriented Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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