Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer


Bill Crider Between the Living and the Dead

Every year for several years now, I’ve traveled down to Blacklin County, Texas, to help out with a murder investigation. Seems like somebody’s always ending up dead in little towns around the county and it takes a heap of investigating to set things back to rights.

Those little Texas towns are a lot like the ones where I grew up in Oklahoma. Same people, same diners, same economies, same problems. Now I like sophisticated murder cases too, and I like them spread out over the last couple hundred years all over the country, and all over the rest of the world as well.

But there’s something about these hometown murders that I relish. Maybe it’s the familiarity with the countryside, how everything is laid out on the page just the way I know things really are. Folks in small towns can be small-minded, yet still hooked into the technological marvels we have today, but they still worry about feral hogs and haunted houses.

I think one of the best parts of these Blacklin County murders is my good friend Sheriff Dan Rhodes. We’ve been riding the trail together for a few years now and I know how he thinks. Rhodes has changed a little over the years, got himself hitched and added to his critter collection, but he’s more or less the same guy I got to know in Shotgun Saturday Night (I started out a murder behind, but I caught up).

This year, Rhodes had another murder. A dead outlaw turned up in what is believed to be a haunted house, and Rhodes had to figure out who done for the man and what was going on. As usual, a simple murder in Blacklin County gets complicated because lots of other folks are protecting themselves, others, and their secrets.

In the middle of that investigation, there was a bull riding event, a brand spanking new paranormal investigation team (that I hope to hear more about), and a feral hog stampede that puts one man in the hospital and has the sheriff up a tree.

These are the way Rhodes’s cases go. Along the way, he’s aided and abetted by his usual crew (although he’d point out that none of them are as helpful as maybe they should be). Gradually, Rhodes works things out, and there are plenty of twists and turns you won’t see coming. In my opinion, Blacklin County has got to be one of the most interesting places in Texas. Or anywhere, for that matter.

If you haven’t been along for a murder in Blacklin County, come on down. And if you have, welcome back.


Craig Schaefer The Long Way Down

I try to keep up with everything being published, but it’s gotten harder with all the ebook publications that have sprung up. One of the series I missed when it first debuted is Craig Schaefer’s Dan Faust fantasy series, but I’m catching up.

Dan Faust is an interesting character, a real-live mage who sometimes does street magic to pay the bills in Las Vegas. We meet him in the first book, The Long Way Down, which actually sounds like it could be the title of a Raymond Chandler novel. Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, was one of Schaefer’s inspirations for his Faust character. Faust is just coming out of a broken relationship, too many booze-filled nights, and a slowdown in business.

Faust’s major occupation is revenge for hire. If a client can prove the person they want revenge on deserves getting Faust’s brand of justice, and they can meet the price, Faust can deliver on revenge that’s merely a financial crisis, a loss of public image, or even death.

I had a really good time with this book. Schaefer’s prose is easy to read, the plot is twisty but not overly complicated, and he brings in the backstory of the character and the world of magic pretty well. The reveals on Faust’s history and how he’d come to be where he is read well and are interesting.

Overall, the book has a definite Raymond Chandler vibe to it. There are bad guys doing nefarious stuff and it ties back to some of Vegas’s history, some to the main character’s history, and some that develops organically. The pacing is good and kept me flipping the pages throughout, wanting to know what was going to happen next even though most readers can put it together easily enough.

I like Faust’s “family” but they’re not as strongly developed in this novel as I would have liked. However, this is the first book of a series, so there’s time to get to all of that. They’re definitely an interesting mix.

The love interest in the book threw me off a little. The attraction seemed to come out of nowhere (at least to me) on both their parts. The decision to get together (even though there is a TON of reasons not to do it) felt more an author’s decision than an organic thing that developed. There was plenty of reason for them to work together without the romance so the relationship side of things could be developed at a slower pace. Even the acceptance by Faust’s family would have had more time to come into its own and not feel as contrived.

Overall, I had a good time with the book and have picked up the next one to read as well. Since the book is self-pubbed, I have to wonder why New York would have passed on this one. It will definitely appeal to the same audience who reads Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs.

The formatting and grammar in the book are as impeccable as that beautiful cover. So if you’ve become wary of self-pubbed books due to editing mistakes, rest assured this one is very well done.


Caitlin Kittredge Coffin Hill Forest of the Night

Caitlin Kittredge’s graphic novel Coffin Hill Volume 1: Forest of the Night reads like a movie. As I turned the pages and absorbed the story and images, the film unspooled in my head. There was even a soundtrack—I don’t remember what it was, but it was definitely something with one of those beats that keeps raising the anxiety level on part of the reader.

The story is very familiar in so many ways. I watched a lot of good movies growing up, and a lot of B movies too (not really different in my mind, but I know some people really like to keep those two camps separate). Forest of the Night reads like a mashup of a B cop movie, B horror movie, and something John Hughes would have done. Although the territory is familiar, Kittredge manages to stake her claim on her own territory and turn it into something different and intriguing.

Inaki Mirada’s art drenches the pages in darkness and ups the fear factor of the story. The work is unique, and he’s just as versatile in delineating worlds as Kittredge is.

I enjoy Eve Coffin’s character and am sympathetic to everything she’s gone through, as a police officer and as a young person growing up in the shadow of Coffin Hill. The two storylines—past and present—crash together in the final pages of this graphic novel like two trains headed for the same switch point at the same time.

There’s a lot of angsty memories and relationships spread out through the pages, and lots of twists and turns as well. Somehow Kittredge transitions between cop work and witch lore easily, making both worlds jagged and edgy, too interwoven to take apart.

Coffin Hill hides a big mystery, but there are a lot of little (but highly lethal!) puzzles along the way. Eve is an emotionally damaged character who is easy to sympathize with, and she’s driven to get to the core of the mysteries now that she’s been drawn back.

Kittredge has created a great ensemble of characters here to play with, filled a town with people, and in all likelihood is going to expand on both. I’ve enjoyed my first tour through the town and its history, and I’m looking forward to more.


Kerry Wilkinson Something Wicked

Until I read Something Wicked, I’d never heard of Kerry Wilkinson. Then, amazed at how good the book was and wondering why I’d never heard of him, I did some research. It turns out that Wilkinson’s personal successes in the writing field are just as exciting and surprising as the novel.

Wilkinson self-published his first DI Jessica Daniels book in 2011, which became a bestseller in England almost overnight. He followed that up with eight more Daniels books, two stand-alone crime novels, a YA fantasy trilogy, and Something Wicked, the first book in the Andrew Hunter series.

All while serving as a journalist and a magistrate. Four years…fifteen novels. Wilkinson is talented and prolific. Doubtless his two other jobs aid and abet his creative output, but he’s accomplished some amazing work in a short time.

Andrew Hunter was first featured in a DI Jessica Daniels novel, Playing With Fire. Wilkinson liked the character and decided to do more with him. Readers don’t have to read that book to enjoy this one (I didn’t, but I have gone back and queued up the other books to read in order).

Wilkinson’s writing is smooth and easy to grasp, and it’s in a conversational tone that makes the pages so easy to turn. Add to that, the author’s natural sense of pacing and love of riddles and mysteries kept me nailed to the pages. I read the book in two sittings, and only because I started the book late, intending to only read a few chapters. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. I finished it up the next morning.

Andrew Hunter is in his mid-thirties, a guy who’s been knocked around a bit by life and still has some deep-seated guilt (part of the mystery and confusion I love about the character). He’s partnered with a younger woman named Jenny who’s every bit as clever and interesting as he is (and I won’t reveal any more because those are Wilkinson’s surprises to spring).

At first I thought the mystery was pretty simple and straight-forward. Just a simple case of a missing person and backtracking the trail till answers were found. I was totally happy with that. Then things took a turn I didn’t see coming, and I’m betting most readers won’t either, although the foundation is laid in the novel.

Knowing this is the first book of a series means the character gets out alive at the end, but there are a lot of personal mysteries revealed, some status quo changes, and a huge cliffhanger at the end (nothing to do with the mystery in this book because that is solved) that has me on tenterhooks for the next book to see how things proceed.

As I read the novel, I couldn’t help thinking how this character, his partner, and their world could easily translate into a television series for the BBC. I’d watch it.


Doc Savage the Sinister Shadow

Will Murray has taken up the reins of the Doc Savage series quite well with his “Wild Adventures.” He’s given Doc fans new adventures with a definite nostalgia spin, and he’s twisted Doc’s life into new horizons (that still make sense). The pairing of Doc and King Kong was very well done and I enjoyed it.

When I heard about the Doc Savage/Shadow crossover coming up, I was hopeful and excited. The pairing of the two biggest heroes of the age of pulps was something that I would have figured would have already been done. After all, the same company owned both characters. There was no reason not to do it.

Maybe the editors saw The Shadow as more of a gritty crime story venue and Doc Savage as more of a fantastic elements kind of guy. But I’ve read volumes of both series and I feel like there were a lot of similarities. There’s no doubt in my mind that the heroes were playing to the same audience.

Murray’s epic story of the two heroes meeting is truly that: epic. When I first got the book, I figured the story would veer more toward the Doc side of the story, or that the distinction between the two heroes would be more muted.

Instead, Murray blends both heroes equally, and plays them (and their aides) off of each other in interesting and exciting ways. There’s even a tonal shift between the Doc section of the book and that focusing on the Shadow. It’s like the story was written by two different authors, not the same guy, which is quite a feat to pull off.

Since I read the ebook version, I hadn’t really taken into consideration how long the novel was. I’d figured it was Doc-size, probably between 250-300 pages, the length Murray’s been writing them at lately—some of those like Skull Island and The Ice Genius. (The original Docs and Shadows were shorter, and got even more short as both series progressed.)

The Sinister Shadow clocks in at 500 pages and each one of those is filled with twists and turns, mysteries and machinations, and danger galore. Packed into those pages, Murray also leavens generous dollops of Doc and Shadow lore. Readers new to both series can feel free to dive right into this book and thoroughly understand both worlds.

In addition to all the lore and the exciting read, Murray also adds his own conjectures about the characters, their worlds, and the people who play in them. I was surprised and ecstatic to see one such revelation about a second-tier character(s) that makes perfect sense even if Walter B. Gibson (the Shadow’s primary raconteur) hadn’t thought of it.

So for you longtime fans of both series, here’s a love song just for you. And for you new to the heroes and haven’t ever gotten brave enough to dive in, here’s the perfect jumping-on point.


Max Allan Collins Quarry's Choice

I have a lot of memories of the late 1960s and 1970s, and most of those memories are tied to books I read in those years. I discovered Tarzan of the Apes, Doc Savage, the Shadow, and others. Those books became the building blocks of my own writing career. I learned a lot about plot and characterization.

Back then I was a sucker for the tough guy hero. In many ways, I still am. Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe and Robert B Parker’s Spenser were my hard boiled heroes. But I read Mack Bolan and the Destroyer as well as many other series in the plethora that Pinnacle Books put out in those years.

I discovered Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) and his anti-hero thief Parker and loved those books. It wasn’t long before I discovered a writer named Max Allan Collins. Al, as he is known to his friends, created two of my favorite hardboiled anti-heroes: a professional thief named Nolan, and a professional hit man named Quarry.

In the early books (publication wise, and that will be explained as we go along), Quarry is a truly hard guy, someone who was amoral on the surface, but a guy who had his own rules. He also has a wicked sense of humor, which definitely appealed to the younger me.

For a time, Quarry went away and Al went on to write a great many other books. Or many other great books. Those statements are interchangeable. A couple more Quarry books came out a few years later, but it wasn’t until Hard Case Crime came into being that Al’s hit man anti-hero down renewed life—at the expense of other, unsavory people. Now getting a new Quarry is almost a yearly event, and I’m happy about it.

And this “renewed” series, Quarry’s life is open for revelation. So far we have seen Quarry’s last hit, his first professional hit, met his ex-wife whose betrayal started our anti-hero down this path, and adventures in between.

The latest book is more of the same that longtime readers have seen, but it’s got an interesting twist as well. There are a lot of shenanigans and double-crosses and the Dixie mafia to deal with. Quarry is up to his eyebrows in sudden death, a sex kitten, and southern fried lethal intentions.

Quarry’s trademark humor is in play as well as his deadly skill set. But the thing I enjoy the most these days is the way the Al makes those days come alive. Throughout the narrative, music is mentioned and becomes a soundtrack to the story. During different scenes, those songs played through my head. I was at once in my chair reading, and transported back to the 1970s, not only in Quarry’s story, but also bumping up against my own memories.

Quarry’s Choice is a compact book that rolls right along, filled with danger and surprises. I enjoyed seeing Quarry in his element in watching the relationship develop with the Broker. I hope Al eventually digs more deeply into the Broker and, eventually, the Broker’s wife. There are still a lot of good stories to tell, and I’m looking forward to them.

Now, if only there could be a new Nolan novel…


Ian Douglas Star Carrier Earth Strike

Ian Douglas has been pumping out military science fiction under this pseudonym and others as well as his own for years. So he’s quite good at it. Earth Strike is the first in the Star Carrier series, which is now up to book five in releases while the author is busy working on book six.

Douglas starts up a lot of things in this novel. There’s a disconnect between Earth and the colony worlds (I’m willing to bet I know how that’s gonna work out really soon), a green space pilot who has strange ties to a segment of people who are deemed unworthy by the rich and influential on Earth, yet refuse to climb onto the government dole, an admiral who becomes a war hero who would have been thrown under the bus if the conflict had gone any other way (no surprise there), and various other infighting that takes place.

I really enjoyed Douglas’s approach to the science he’s espousing in this book. Space fighters that can change shape depending on the environment and necessity is really cool. Likewise, space travel becomes a real component of battle engagement when it leaves a unit separated for hours.

The various plotlines spin out from a dramatic opening as the Earth’s space navy goes into a full-blown battle for the future of an Islamic colony that has split off from Earth. The politics are interesting, to a degree, but serve mostly to fragment Earth into splinter groups. It works, but I’m still not quite convinced what the furor is about. Doubtless, further books will deal with that because the political differences haven’t gone away.

Douglas knows how to write military SF and has anchored a fantastic and action-packed new series with this book.


Allen Zadoff I am the weapn

Allen Zadoff has dug into the YA suspense/spy market that has gone largely untouched. Since Anthony Horowitz stopped writing the Alex Rider novels (why, Anthony????), there exists a vacuum in this area that needs filling.

Zadoff comes close with his Boy Nobody series, now called the Unknown Assassin series. This first book is a zinger loaded with surprising twists and turns that seem familiar, but instantly charge off in unexpected directions. I like the first-person narrative because I was instantly involved with the character. Zadoff doesn’t let up after an engaging opening: an assassination by our main character.

When I first encountered Boy Nobody in the opening pages going about his assignment, I didn’t care for him, but the jet-propelled pacing carried me further into the book before I knew it, and Zadoff quickly hooked me with the horns of Boy Nobody’s dilemma: carry out his assignment and killed the girl he’s falling for pretty hard, or go rogue and potentially end up getting killed for being weak.

The aspect of the book that aggravated me the most is that we don’t really get to know much about Boy Nobody. He’s a cipher. Although a few hints are revealed as we go along, I’m torn between being satisfied with that and hoping the series broadens the character’s past as it charges forward, or wanting to know about him. I’m hoping there are more reveals in the second book, which is already out now.

The romance triangle feels overdone, but Zadoff makes it fresh again with the way he handles his story. In fact, the whole novel smacks of a Mission: Impossible/Rogue Agent kind of thing, but this is the kind of story I’ll always be a sucker for.

The subject matter (assassination, murder, death, terrorism) is mature for young readers, but grade 6 and up can easily slip into this world for vicarious thrill and chills with nothing offensive on the pages. Think of this as a more grown-up Alex Rider with a lot more intensity.


Michael Moorcock City of the Beast Warriors of Mars

Michael Moorcock originally wrote the first Michael Kane book under the name Edward P. Bradbury. I read the DAW version of the book back in the 1970s, I think, and the book carried both titles City of the Beast or Warriors of Mars.

I enjoyed the book a lot when I was a kid because it reminded me so much of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter and Carson Napier novels, which I had only recently discovered because Ace had a robust program to republish all those old books.

Michael Kane is a swordsman (happened upon a French master bladesman who trained him) and a physicist (which I actually expected to see more of as the book progressed—I didn’t). The book was initially released in 1965, so we knew more about Mars than Burroughs did back in 1912 when A Princess of Mars was first released. Moorcock sidesteps this by having the matter transmitter throw his hero back in time as well as to Mars.

All the major pieces are there: a princess who Kane can’t quite connect with, a threatening barbarian horde (blue instead of green Tharks), swordplay, fliers, and alien science. Oh yeah, and lots and lots of captures and escapes and fighting.

I hate to admit it, but I’m no longer my innocent younger self (though I can get back to that quite comfortably, thank you). Moorcock is a better writer than Burroughs, and the this book was action-packed and easier to read, but there’s something about John Carter that just makes him stand out. Maybe it was because Burroughs’s Mars was more fleshed out in some ways, and the people were a lot more diverse.

Still, I breezed through City of the Beast/Warriors of Mars in a few hours and enjoyed the experience. Supposedly, Moorcock was asked to write an homage to Burroughs and that’s how these books came about. At the time, though, Lancer was selling Conan books by the truckload and there were Edgar Rice Burroughs books on every spinner rack of every drug store and supermarket I saw. I’m guessing that had a lot to do with it.

You won’t find anything really new here, but the book is a great romp and timeless in its ideas of heroes and villains and fantasy. The sword-and-planet novels remain as comfort food for me as a reader.

Michael Moorcock Warriors of Mars


Deborah Halber The Skeleton Crew

I was a fan of Christian Slater’s television show, The Forgotten. It only lasted one season, seventeen episodes, actually, but my wife and I were drawn into the emotional cases and the cast of characters that were so deeply affected by the unidentified bodies.

At the time, I didn’t know that Todd Matthews, the Director of Communications & Case Management for NamUs, the man who solved the “Tent Girl’s” identity after decades, was a consultant for the show. I knew the show was supposed to be based on real work by civilian investigators, but the background of those agencies and civilians was pretty murky.

Still, the idea lingered…

Just last week I found Deborah Halber’s excellent book on the whole civilian investigation movement that formed the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases is a fantastic read, though it will be a somewhat difficult read for readers and interested parties who want a simple chapter-by-chapter, case-by-case format.

Halber’s book is intensely enjoyable from the layman’s perspective, and for anyone who wants a BIGGER PICTURE story of what was going on with these people. Halber opens the book with the discovery of a body (or a part of a body), which is where most of these cases start (though sometimes there’s a disappearance they also work on). Just as I was deeply intrigued by “Tank Girl,” Halber drops into stories that feature other cases and other investigators.

The really unique aspect of the book that I loved was that, like in every good mystery, all the threads of the story wrap up at the end of the book. Many nonfiction readers might not like the way the book is laid out with the jumping perspective and caseload, but once I saw what was going on, I stayed with it and read it in two sittings.

The portrayals of some of the major players among the civilian investigators and the infighting is illuminating and captivating. Halber reveals them to be mostly isolated, driven people who end up straining family relationships. In other words, these civilians are the same kind of dedicated investigator traditionally hired for police and investigative agencies around the world.

The book is written so compellingly, I couldn’t put it down, so be warned and realize that you may want to carve out some serious time for this one. I learned a lot of things from the book and I plan on revisiting it in the near future.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 609 other followers

%d bloggers like this: