Sometimes you need a book you can just kick back and read without having to tax your imagination too much. After reading some heavy science fiction books, I needed a break. And this book was just the ticket.

The protagonist, Susan Hunter, is infuriated to learn the man she has been dating is married. Wanting to get away from it all and clear her head, she and her friend Darby take a vacation to Florida. At first, it’s a relaxing escape, but then Susan begins to suspect they are being stalked by a mysterious character with a striking resemblance to a young Marlon Brando. But who is he, and why is he after them?

This all probably sounds more intense than the book really is. While there are some dark elements, such as a murder, the overall vibe is really much lighter, as the cover suggests. The attractions of a Florida vacation are as much a part of the story as the crimes that come with any mystery story. This is a book you read to relax, not to get so caught up in the suspense and terror of it all that you start jumping at loud noises.

And let’s face it, sometimes we all could use a little opportunity to read a story that’s not too intense or too heavy on world-building or too saturated with omnipresent grimdark. I love post-apocalyptic stories, for example, but sometimes even I get apocalypse fatigue. At such times, I just want to read about a likable, somewhat quirky lady who gets caught up in a series of weird incidents, and needs to work with some of her friends to sort things out, often in the campiest way possible.

This book is a vacation in written form. And it’s free, so it’s a convenient way to take some time off, especially with today’s travel costs! Why not go ahead and treat yourself?

This is a dark paranormal thriller. I don’t want to say too much about the plot. Just think Rosemary’s Baby meets The X-Files. It tells the story of Moire Anders, a woman who finds herself waking up in the middle of the night in the park, with no memory of how she got there. Eventually, trying to figure out what is happening leads her to uncovering a sinister conspiracy, of which she is the primary target.

Anyone who enjoys a good, creepy mystery will probably like this. There are some pretty disturbing elements, which I can’t discuss too deeply without giving away plot elements, but if you’re accustomed to stories like those I mentioned above, you probably can guess what’s coming.

In other words, this is definitely a departure in tone from Painter’s other books, which tend to be light-hearted fantasies. It’s a significant enough difference that the ebook is only available via the author’s Payhip website, and not on other sites that recommend through algorithms. (A paperback version is available through Amazon.)

I understand this decision, from the author’s perspective. One doesn’t want readers who are used to magical comedies seeing a book by the same author and being unwittingly plunged into a world of sinister scientists conducting fiendish experiments on unsuspecting and unwilling people.

At the same time, though… this is something about the modern entertainment market that bothers me. It rewards taking the safe path, putting out similar stories again and again, rather than risk-taking. Painter has decided to boldly experiment in her fiction, but the market is against her.

Therefore, we will just have to adjust the market and change the incentives. So! If you like eerie, mysterious thrillers with some strong horror elements, and in particular if you enjoyed X-Files (or better yet, the old Coast-to-Coast AM radio show), give this a spin. A quirky comedy, it most certainly ain’t, but it’s a good, creepy story all the same.

This is a military action-thriller novella. It follows a young woman named Keira Frost who, after escaping from an abusive step-father and living homeless in Chicago, eventually joins the U.S. Army and applies to serve in an elite CIA unit.

Keira’s backstory is told gradually through flashbacks, interspersed with the main plot arc which follows her first mission with the unit and its overbearing leader, Ryan Drake, who seems to relish every opportunity to berate and belittle his team’s newest member.

The story itself is rather interesting, as the premise is that the team is on a mission into the Chernobyl site in Ukraine, in order to extract a spy planted among Ukrainian separatist forces, who is warning of a Russian plot to seize Eastern Ukraine. (This book was published in 2018.)

But, things are not quite what they seem. (They never are in thrillers, though, are they?) And what seemed to be a straightforward mission turns out to be anything but.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s a quick read and a pretty good story, although I suspect the ending will prove to be divisive. Some readers might not be able to suspend disbelief enough to accept the dénouement. Others may find it ingenious. I can see arguments for both.

All told, it’s nothing ground-breaking, but if you enjoy fast-paced military thrillers, this one will certainly fit the bill.

This is the second book in the Dr. Rowena Halley series, the first of which I reviewed here. This one picks up right where the first one left off in following the career of Rowena Arwen Halley, the Russian language Ph.D. struggling to navigate a brutal academic job market as well as her own desire for a relationship. But, her heart is torn between Alex, another struggling post-doc, and Dima, the Russian soldier-turned-journalist who broke up with her and sent her back to the U.S. while he continued reporting on conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Dr. Halley has started a new one-semester teaching position, and from day one, is beset by annoyances, the most prominent of which is Jason, a student in one of her classes who wants to use her to help him fight a custody battle with his estranged Russian wife.

The start of the book is a bit slow, although it does give a good window into the dreary reality of academia. Where it really picks up is with the arrival of Rowena’s brother, Ivanhoe Elladan Halley, the rough-and-tumble Marine Corps officer recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, who comes to visit in the middle of the book. (Disregarding his parents’ decision to name him after Sir Walter Scott and Tolkien characters, he goes by “John” most of the time.)

John is my favorite character in the book. For one thing, his lines are pretty funny, especially his unsolicited blunt advice to his sister and his foul-mouthed contempt for her boyfriends, past and present. But he’s also a more complex character: a veteran who probably has PTSD but masks it with machismo, alcohol, and womanizing. He’s basically a good guy, but he’s been through some bad stuff, and it has taken its toll on him.

I won’t lie, the middle third of the book, in which John appears regularly, is definitely my favorite part. The ending suffers from some of the same issues as the beginning; namely, that it gives a very accurate portrayal of the current state of seeking employment in academia, particularly in the humanities.

There’s one other issue I have with this book. Unlike the first installment, which really was a mystery that needed to be figured out, here, the main conflict isn’t a mystery. The person who is obviously bad ultimately turns out to be… bad. Which is kind of a letdown. It’s not that exciting when at the climax of the story, a character turns out to be exactly who you thought they were.

But that’s okay. This is a character-driven book, more so than the first one was. The interesting thing is less about seeing where it all goes than how it gets there, and how it gets there is pretty interesting. Stark tackles a variety of social and geopolitical issues, from the overproduction of elites in American higher education leading to a glut on the academic job market, to the many ruined lives resulting from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, to the destruction of society at the most fundamental level as a result of people lacking basic virtues.

So, don’t go into it expecting some kind of plot-twist filled mystery. Instead, read it as a commentary on the many deeply-rooted problems in modern society. Read that way, it paints a vivid and memorable picture.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a sequel to He Needed Killing, which I reviewed here. If you enjoyed that book, you’ll like this one, too, because it’s more of the same. Once again, retired university IT professional James Crawford is hired by the provost to investigate a murder on campus.

And like He Needed Killing, the charm of the book is less about the mystery than the atmosphere and the characters. Crawford’s life in a southern college town is portrayed as pleasant, slow-paced, and filled with food and football on a regular basis. Sure, there’s a murder to be solved, but that doesn’t stop Crawford from taking time to enjoy the good things in life. Like another southern detective, he “strolls leisurely” on his way to the truth.

And it’s an enjoyable stroll, because the descriptions of campus life are so well-written and the characters so likable. (Except, of course, for the ones who really do “need killing.”)

Crawford is a great protagonist, and his style of investigation is perhaps best captured by these lines, which he says while musing out loud to his cat:

“They were figuring out all the orbits of the solar system–how the orbits of the planets and moons were impacted by gravity, but the model kept predicting the wrong orbits. The only way they could get the model to work was if there was another planet the size of Neptune where Neptune had to be. So they looked and–by damn–there was Neptune. Don’t you think that’s cool?”

Crawford makes sense of things by thinking out loud while puttering around his house. It’s not flashy like Sherlock Holmes, which leads a lot of people to underestimate his detective skills. Much to their detriment, as it turns out…

But, in all honesty, I didn’t read this book for the mystery. In fact, I figured out who the killer was pretty early on. But that did not detract from my enjoyment one bit, because what’s really fun about it is the style, the pace, and the setting.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Another excellent entry in the Brad Parker and Karen Richmond series of medical thrillers. (See my other reviews here, here, and here.) This one begins with a post-doctoral researcher receiving a note at her late uncle’s funeral, which contains shocking information from the deceased. But before she can act on it, she is murdered, and the note taken from her.

From there, it’s up to Brad and Karen to once again unravel a tangled web, and they gradually find a scandal that goes back decades, and that someone will stop at nothing to keep buried.

As in previous books, Brad and Karen are likable protagonists, and this book gives us a chance to see new aspects of them. There’s one scene where Brad is forced to use a gun to defend himself and Karen. It’s something that does not come easily to a lifelong academic, and I really liked how this haunts him afterwards.

And as always in this series, there are a lot of glimpses into the struggles for power at the uppermost levels of academia. The allure of prestige and power that comes with academic achievement are always in play, and some people are driven to desperate acts by them. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but there is a bit where, to help finally crack the case, Brad’s knowledge of how a scientist would think proves to be key. I really liked that.

I highly recommend this book, and the series as a whole. Besides being extremely entertaining thrillers, they also have a theme running through them about corrupting influences that even some of the best and brightest people can succumb to if they’re not careful.

Oh, and one other thing… the food in this book! Cooper’s descriptions of the delicious New England fare that Brad and Karen dine on while they’re working never fail to get my mouth watering. 🙂

[Audio version of this review available below.]

This is the third book in the Benjamin Oris series. I’ve reviewed the previous installments here and here. If you haven’t read those books yet, be warned that there are certain plot elements of this I can’t discuss without giving away information about the earlier books.

The Bone Elixir begins when Ben Oris learns he has inherited a hotel from his great aunt Clara. Ben, who has his hands full with raising his son and working as an orthopedic surgeon, hardly needs this; but over his holiday break, he decides to go check the place out.

The Abigael Inn is a venerable old building in western Massachusetts. As it’s closed for the season, initially the only people there are Ben, the hotel manager Mandy, and her young son, Jake. But as Ben makes the rounds of his new property, he begins to find things like hidden rooms, containing very old books of unsettling legends and fairy tales. Among these are handwritten notes and demonic drawings. There is also a mysterious room in the basement that adds to the feeling of unease.

Soon, Ben’s grandparents, Frederick and Elizabeth “El” Claxwell arrive. They are a charming couple, and delighted to meet their grandson, from whom they had been long separated due to their estrangement with Ben’s mother, Harmony. Despite Ben’s reluctance, they encourage him to keep the hotel in the family.

And Ben finds part of himself wanting to as well, since it’s certainly a picturesque old place, and once his lover Laurette arrives to spend the week with him, it becomes in many respects very pleasant.

Still, there are odd things. People in the nearby town regard the place with suspicion, particularly a local bookshop owner and the town mystic. The latter is an eccentric woman mockingly dubbed “Ana Bananas,” but nevertheless her warnings about the hotel set Ben on edge.

That’s the setup. From there, let me just say it’s a good old-fashioned Gothic horror story, full of family secrets, ghosts, long-concealed crimes, and nightmarish horrors from realms unknown and unknowable. In the tradition of any good haunted house story, it’s slower paced than the first two books, which moved at breakneck speed. This one is more of a gnawing dread that gradually builds to a crescendo.

It’s probably just because of my love for Gothic horror, but this is definitely my favorite book in the series. It reminded me of some of the best Lovecraft stories, particularly “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” It’s creepy and atmospheric and full of good lines. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Rubin has a Chandleresque gift for turning a phrase. For example: “His new role as her boss fit about as well as Spanx on a horse.” Now isn’t that a vivid image?

I recommend the entire Ben Oris series, and this book is a perfect capstone to it. That said, you don’t have to read the whole series to enjoy this one, I don’t think. Or maybe that’s just because we’re so close to October 31st, and this, in my opinion, is such a perfect Halloween read, I think everyone should give it a try. I read it in one day, because I couldn’t put it down once I started. So, if you get it at the time this post is published and your schedule allows, you should be able to finish by Halloween, and if you do, I think you’ll be in the right mood for the holiday.

[Audio version of this review available below]

This is a fast-paced thriller. It starts out as a police procedural muder mystery set in the near future, when technology has begun to dominate our lives even more than it does today; a world where the sky is thick with drones and almost all cars are operated by AI.

Officer Dan Harper and his partner Domingo “Dom” Delgado are investigating a body found at an abandoned quarry. Despite all their high-tech police gadgetry, they are unable to ID the victim, even with the help of Dan’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Natasha Hendrickson, a forensic pathologist.

Returning to the crime scene, Dan and Dom find themselves in a shootout with a gang of mysterious thugs who seem to appear out of nowhere. After sustaining injuries in the fight, the two officers are sent to the hospital. However, another attack, this time by a huge drone gunship, makes them realize that they have stumbled on to something big.

From there begins a globe-trotting adventure in which the two officers flee from their mysterious pursuers while trying to figure out who is behind it all. Gradually, they uncover an incredible conspiracy and a powerful technology that is controlled by power-hungry maniacs.

The book is gripping and suspenseful. I won’t give away too much about the technology, but let’s just say that the nature of it means nowhere is truly safe. The action scenes are frequent and thrilling, but there is also plenty of time for character development, especially when Dan and Natasha are forced to work together again.

Lurking underneath all the shootouts and chases, though, is a thought-provoking take on how technology changes us, and changes society. The surveillance state it has created, the way we’ve become dependent upon it for almsot everything, and most of all how its unforeseen consequences can shape our very minds. This is a thriller that leaves you with things to ponder after you close the book.

In summary, it’s really, really good. The blending of old-fashioned police work with advanced technology reminded me of one of my favorite mystery novels, Surreality, and the plot is full of twists and turns. It’s a longish book, but I quickly found I couldn’t put it down. It mixes philosophical musings on scientific ethics with pulse-pounding action very nicely.

Pick it up. Heck, maybe even go ahead and get the paperback version… you’ll understand why after you read it. 🙂

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This book starts off with the death of a university administrator at a retirement party. A retirement party for a staff member who isn’t there. Not physically, anyway–James Crawford is the guest of honor, but he is monitoring the events remotely. As an IT manager, he is able to watch as his boss abruptly collapses just as he is about to give a speech.

The late boss, Sean Thomas, is not exactly missed by his former subordinates. The title of the book refers to him, and this sentiment is shared widely by the staff. Nevertheless, no matter how much he may have deserved it, there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding his death, and when his chief lackey also turns up dead, the provost recruits Crawford to investigate.

Crawford is a likable protagonist; a southern gentleman who takes his time about things, and muses his theories on the case to his dog, Tan, and cat, delightfully called “The Black.” Usually, he does this while preparing a meal, which is described in mouth-watering detail. Sometimes, he meets with his colleagues Stan and Bobby to discuss things, and more than once, the gruff but goodhearted police officer assists him in solving the case.

The book is slow-paced, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It captures the feel of a Southern college campus perfectly, right down to how life in the university town has to be carefully planned around whether the collegiate football team is playing at home that week.

While I enjoyed the denouement, I will say that I pretty much guessed how the mystery would be resolved long before it ended. But that’s okay. This book is more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fun one. More than a mystery, it’s really about getting to know the character of Crawford, and his reflections on life at the university.

The book even has a theme: centralization and power. This can be seen everywhere from the late Dr. Thomas’s management of the media center, which ends up being critical to the plot, to a minor detail like Crawford’s description of a popular football commentator:

“A couple of years ago, the radio station he’d been on had been bought up by one of those conglomerates that try to homogenize the stations so they all sound the same, from coast to coast. I guess the idea is eliminate any but essential staff, but that kills the local color as well.”

The university’s buying up of the surrounding properties to create a carefully-manicured off-campus “shopping experience” is another example of this. For me, the real fun of the book is hearing Crawford’s sometimes cynical, sometimes sentimental views on the place where he has spent his career.

Another striking thing about the book is the way it shows the university from the perspective of administrators. Students hardly register except as obstacles to be avoided on the drive in. Classes are scarcely mentioned; the world of college administration is a world unto itself.

While the mystery of Thomas’s death gets cleared up, the book ends on a cliffhanger introducing another mystery for Crawford to solve. I’m looking forward to the second book, and recommend this one to anybody who enjoys a nice, leisurely mystery.

Having a PhD probably sounds pretty glamorous, right? You think of a PhD as a scientist in a lab making amazing discoveries, or maybe, if they’re in humanities or social sciences, as someone sitting comfortably in a nice room full of books, poring over the Great Texts of their field.

Yeah, well; if Campus Confidential is any guide, that’s not quite how it works. The protagonist, Dr. Rowena Halley, can barely manage to scrape by after landing a one-semester job teaching Russian at a university in New Jersey. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Rowena is named after the character in Ivanhoe. And her Marine brother, although he goes by John, is named for the titular character of that novel.)

On top of navigating all the challenges of starting a new job in a strange city, dealing with faculty politics, and the constant nuisances caused by university bureaucracy, Dr. Halley finds herself caught up in trying to help her students, many of whom are still affected by the recent suicide of a popular student in the Russian program.

This suicide is part of the mystery at the heart of the plot. The book is after all a thriller, which involves drug-dealing, mafia, and all sorts of shady goings-on that we would normally never think of associating with an institution of higher learning.

But for all the thriller elements, I don’t think of this book as a mystery in the normal sense. Because the core of the book isn’t just in finding out how the plot unfolds, but in seeing these characters interact in the context of an often hypocritical, almost always absurd university whose administrators espouse noble beliefs, but all too often betray them by their actions.

The real charm of the book is in little details, like the way Dr. Halley has to start teaching classes before her official employment starts, due to some arcane rule of Human Resources, or the way the unctuous Department Chair tries to use a simple conversation with Dr. Halley to ingratiate himself to the Provost. Like Geoffrey Cooper’s novels, this book is not just a good thriller, but a window into the politics of academia.

And then there are the characters. They all feel well-rounded and believable. Even the “villains” are human beings. All of them are revealed to have flaws–sometimes very, very bad flaws–but there are no cardboard cut-outs here. They are all fully-realized people. Even the most minor characters have backstories and personalities.

This is more than just a mystery story; it’s an astutely-observed depiction of modern academic life. I recommend it highly, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.