Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: The Sigma Surrogate by JT Lawrence

The Sigma Surrogate is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.

I'm a great fan of the near-future South African world JT Lawrence created in the When Tomorrow Calls series and rejoiced when she revealed that a prequel was in the works. It is now available and I couldn't be happier with the result. This is a world with nifty "I wish I had" technological advances but are not so far into the realm of science fiction as to be unrelatable. It is also a world in serious trouble, a nanny state rapidly descending into a full-on dystopia: fertility crises, crumbling infrastructure, shortage of potable water, religious terrorists, and a doomsday cult are some of the problems plaguing South Africa.

The Sigma Surrogate focuses on Keke, an investigative journalist and major supporting character in the trilogy. Here she is following a lead that promises an explosive story that will shock the country if it pans out. It involves the SurroSisters, a tight, militaristic, female, tribe-like organization. Their mission is to combat the ongoing fertility crises by recruiting women capable of conceiving into the order of the Surrogate Sisters. The Sisters are above reproach and anything that affects them will shake an already tottering society. Keke ropes her best friend Kirsten (main protagonist of the trilogy) into the investigation and enlists the help of a dark web hacker with unexpected talents.

I've read all of Lawrence's fiction and she has real talent for realistic world-building and smoothly combining plot, characters, dramatic tension, and action into fast paced narratives that are hard to put down once you start reading. She is firmly on my "will always read" list.

Since The Sigma Surrogate is set immediately before the beginning of Why You Were Taken, the first book in the trilogy, should it be read first? Honestly, it works either way. If you haven't read the trilogy then start here and immediately purchase Why You Were Taken, How We Found You, and What Have We Done: you'll want to see how the story plays out. And you'll have a "I know something this character doesn't" experience. If you have read the trilogy then you will have the fun of discovering the back story of several characters and enjoy the subversive twists that will upset what you thought you knew.

JT Lawrence's website

My reviews for the trilogy:
Why You Were Taken, When Tomorrow Calls Book 1
How We Found You, When Tomorrow Calls Book 2
What Have We Done, When tomorrow Calls Book 3

Also in the world of When Tomorrow Calls is The Stepford Florist: A Short Cyberpunk Conspiracy Thriller

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Review: Mink Eyes by Max McBride

Peter O'Keefe, a PI and owner of a detective agency, is hired by a high school friend now high powered attorney, Harrigan, to investigate irregularities at a mink farm in the Ozarks. The manager has disappeared along with profits and the owners and investors appear to have been ensnared in a ponzi scheme. This should have been a relatively simple job: check out the farm, review the books, question the wife  on the whereabouts of the missing manager. Things go very bad, very quickly when two gun thugs appear on the scene, also looking for the missing money. O'Keefe finds himself in a life or death situation as he tries to save both himself and the wife of missing manager. Complicating matters is his instant and intense attraction to the wife. Will it be a fatal attraction?

Mink Eyes is a period piece set in 1986 which allows us to have a Vietnam veteran as a protagonist. It also means that the investigation has to be done old school: no internet and no cell phones. It's refreshing to go back to this type of detective story.

I would put O'Keefe into the "defective detective" category. In addition to being a combat veteran, he drinks and smokes too much and has become deeply disillusioned both with his job and his life. One consequence is that he has separated from his wife though he attempts to stay involved with his daughter. His friend, the lawyer Harrigan, is equally disillusioned with the way his life and career have gone.

I had a difficult time getting into the story initially because there were, what seemed to me, too many "dark night of the soul" moments with O'Keefe and Harrigan. About half way through, O'Keefe rebounds from his deep depression over events at the mink farm and the story gets cracking again with a dramatic locaiton change and leading to a thrilling and very satisfying conclusion.

Mink Eyes does a slow build and takes time to set up O'Keefe's environment. I like the way the author goes into the day-to-day operations of a detective agency particularly regarding his office manager, Sarah. Sarah wants to get out of the office and into the field and work investigations in the field. O'Keefe has a "women must not be put into danger", parochial frame of mind. I think the author does a nice job with this and it's a theme worth exploring.

This is McBride's first novel and a good, solid, contribution to the private investigator genre. I think the ending of Mink Eyes sets up the potential for a sequel or two and I hope the author has that in mind as well. There are elements that could be expanded into more novels.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Review — Academic Affairs: A Poisoned Apple by Peter Likins

Jake Moffet, Sheriff of Flintstone County Alabama has a big problem. Jeremy Pilkington, Executive Dean for Academic Affairs at Chickamie Christian College is dead, poisoned by strychnine injected into an apple. "Follow the apple" seems like a surefire way to identify the killer quickly and Moffet rashly promises a speedy resolution which makes him the target of a hostile newspaper editor. Unfortunately, Jake and his small department (son Jackson and daughter Bonnie) find themselves faced with a floundering investigation as the list of suspects grows.

Academic Affairs is a fun little cozy and an enjoyable read. The setting is the mid-thirties in the small Alabama town of Sparta. The author infuses the story with the flavor of the time and place. Jake and his family are "come-heres" having moved to Alabama from Tennessee. In the south, where "who are your people" is a conversation opener, being an outsider can make acceptance problematic.

I want to avoid spoilers here but part of the fun of the story is the parallel —but unknown —investigation launched by some townspeople who just might have a better handle on things than the sheriff. You'll know what I mean when you read the story and for me this is the real heart of the book. I salute the author for this storyline which makes Academic Affairs different.

A minor character that I enjoyed is Kathy O'Halleran an ambitious Assistant Professor of English and Journalism who talked herself into a job as part-time reporter for the local paper. Kathy wants to be a big-time reporter and sees this case as a way to jump-start her career. The author has her using a 35mm camera. My first thought was "wait, I thought the Speed Graphic was the main press camera of the time". A little internet searching and it turns out that Kathy could indeed have used a 35mm camera which is just the thing that someone with her drive would have been drawn to—fast, very portable, no need to change film holders. It's a small detail but one that made me appreciate the author's approach to his story.

If you are looking for a cozy style book without sex and violence and suitable for a relaxed afternoon read then I can wholeheartedly recommend Academic Affairs: A Poisoned Apple. I hope the author follows up with another book.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Quickie Review: Secrets in Death by JD robb

Years ago I used to say that JD Robb's In Death series was guilty pleasure reading. You know what, I enjoy these books and don't feel guilty at all. They are a quick and consistently fun read.

What's It About
"Social information reporter" (ie professional gossip) and TV personality Larinda Mars, staggers into the bar in a trendy nightspot, Du Vin, bleeding profusely. Eve Dallas happens to be in the restaurant meeting a colleague and tries to save Larinda but it;s too late. She bleeds out. Having literally caught the case, Eve takes over as the primary investigator. As Dallas and Peabody begin peeling away the layers of Larinda's life, they find more than they expected. Besides dishing out the dirt on celebrities on her TV program, Larinda was a highly successful blackmailer. And the list of suspects grows.

What Did I think
Bottom line: if you enjoyed the previous In Death books you'll like this one too. Despite the futuristic setting, these books are solid police procedurals and, for the most part, use techniques we recognize from contemporary proceduals—collect evidence, deep background,  interview, confirm, eliminate. Sure there are droids around and some gee whiz electronics but the post-mortem and forensic anthropological techniques are realistic.

There are elements you know you will be there: Roark continues to be ridiculously rich, perfect, and able to leave his business to crack safes and encrypted electronics; Roark will own at least two or three buildings in the story; Eve and Roark will have a minimum of two steamy sex scenes; Eve continues to misunderstand idioms; Eve continues to be amazed at the clothes she finds Roark has bought for her; Peabody will be perky requiring Eve to threaten her; there will be excellent cop banter that will yield at least six laughs; there will be reflecting on the nature of good and evil; some detail of Eve and/or Roark's early life will emerge.

Despite what seems to be a formula for the series, Robb is very good with her plots which I always think are interesting. It is interesting to note that not much time has elapsed in the series. I don't have previous books handy but I think that over 45 books, only 3 or 4 years have passed. And Robb does grow her characters. Eve and Roark used to have at least one major fight per book but are now able to communicate more freely.

So, all in all, a solid addition to a fun series. If you like the others, read this one. If you haven't read any in this series, don't start here, go back to Naked in Death. Over 45 books, Robb has carefully added layers not only to Eve and Roark but to the recurring supporting characters as well.

Secrets in Death is the 45th book in the series, the first of which was published in 1995. The latest, number 46 Dark in Death is out which puts the In Death series in the running for longest mystery series based on a single theme. Ed McBain's Eighty-Seventh Precinct series has 54 book plus short stories and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series has 47 books plus short stories. It is a remarkable achievement on Robbs part, producing this series, when you consider that she is also romances under her real name, Nora Roberts. Secrets in Death is available from Amazon.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Camp whore by Francois Smith

I enjoyed The Camp Whore and recommend it but I find it very difficult to review. I'm sure I'll re-read it later and revise this review but I want to get these first impressions down right away. This book was translated from the Afrikaans edition by Dominique Botha but I don't ascribe my review difficulties to that. Botha's English is smooth, flowing, and clear. Aside: I may order the Afrikaans edition as an aid to my personal interest in studying Afrikaans.

What's it about
The Camp Whore is based on the true story of Susan Nell who was brutally raped by two British officers and a joiner (ie collaborator) in a concentration camp near the end of the Anglo-Boer War. Thought to be dead, she survives and moves to the Netherlands where she becomes a psychiatric nurse. 16 years later during WWI, while serving at a military hospital for shell-shocked soldiers, she discovers that one of the patients is one of her rapists.

In structure, the chapters alternate between Susan Nell's first person account of what happened to her in South Africa and a present day third person narrative. The third person view is necessary to see what is happening to Susan.

What's my take
I started this book with a preconceived idea of what it would be about and it was totally different. Not a bad and disappointed sort of different, just that the author took a different approach than I expected. My notions about the book came from reading the Amazon blurb which describe it as "...a psychological thriller that will hold you in its icy grip till the very last page".  Gripping to the last page I wholeheartedly agree with, but psychological thriller— as I understand the term— not at all.
This may be a bit of a spoiler but Susan's actual encounter with her rapist occupies a relatively small part of the book. For me, it is a much, much more.

Susan becomes a psychiatric nurse in response to what happened to her in the camp. She wants to brighten the life of others and "ensure that life triumphs". The Camp Whore is a deeply interior and reflective of her life. Her reason for leaving neutral Netherlands for a temporary posting in Devon in the UK is to study new techniques for treating psychological trauma. But there is something else going on.
There is a strange, vague sort of disquiet in her, not exactly to this country [England] and its war, but rather to her inability to connect fully on anything outside of herself. She is plagued by a persistent feeling that there is something else, just outside of view, that actually merits her attention.

It is this disquiet that propels her to come to terms with her war— which wasn't over for her when she went to England— and to claim her own story.

The author says that The Camp Whore is loosely based on Nico Moolman's novel The Boer Whore which was inspired by his conversation with a survivor from another war who came to think of Susan Nell as her mother. Sadly, an affordable copy of The Boer Whore is not available in the US because I'd really like to read more of Susan Nell's story.

The Boer War I don't know how much people in the US know about the Anglo-Boer War but it was a brutal conflict. Two South African States, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State went to war over the expansion of British influence in the region after the discovery of gold in the Transvaal. The British forces were initially overconfident that their superior numbers would quickly end the war, The Boers were able to maintain a successful guerrilla operation for several years. Eventually the British adopted a scorched earth policy, burning farms and moving families into concentration camps. The Boers were worn down by the massive numbers of British troops and the destruction of their lands.

Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, served in South Africa in a medical unit. The British army was accused of atrocities and war crimes, particularly in the establishment of concentration camps. Doyle became an apologist for the army conduct and wrote an pamphlet, The War in south Africa: Its Causes and Conductt which justified conduct during the war. Among other things, he rebranded the concentration camps as refugee camps. The British government was quite happy with Doyle's pamphlet and paid to have it printed for world-wide distribution and hopefully counter international condemnation. In response to Doyle's publication, one writer referred to him as "fictionist as historian". Most people probably think he was knighted for his Sherlock Holmes fiction but it was actually his support in print for the conduct of British troops during the war.

The Camp Whore is available from Amazon.
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