Another excellent Brad and Karen thriller. In this one, a case of academic misconduct escalates to murder and corruption. As always, Cooper does a great job using the political machinations of academia as a starting point to weave a tale of deception and crime.
If you’ve read previous books in the series, you already are familiar with the dynamic between Brad and Karen, and together they once again form an effective crime-solving partnership. I don’t want spoil anything here, but I think the ending of this one is my favorite in the series. (So far.)
I’ve been reading some traditionally-published thrillers by big name authors lately, and I have to say, many of them have over-the-top, superhero-like characters, which makes them hard to relate to. I prefer a book like this, where the characters are people you would like to meet in real life. That’s the big draw of the Brad and Karen books for me; I just like these two, and they make for pleasant company while venturing into the darker side of the academy.
Human beings are bad at processing time. We think of time relative to our own existence, where a year seems long. But on a larger scale, a year, a decade, even a century, can be as nothing. We struggle to even conceptualize this. If something has lasted say, ten years, we’ll say, “It’s been that way forever.”
Which is why a book with a non-human protagonist is so tricky, and why this book, told from the perspective of an oak tree, makes for such an interesting exercise.
The story begins with Catherine Miller, a young doctor murdered in 1853 shortly after her graduation from medical school. She never knows who murdered her, but her spirit mysteriously lives on inside a oak tree. From this vantage point, she witnesses the changes that occur over the centuries, as a technology evolves, cities rise and fall, and human nature remains in many ways the same. In the present day, Catherine’s consciousness inhabits the backyard of a cruel man whom she sees murdering another medical student.
She does what she can to help the authorities in solving the crime to which she is the only witness. But as a tree, she has limited ability to communicate with humans, which is where the implacable veteran police detective Lani Whitaker and her partner come in to the picture. The book alternates between Lani and Catherine, between past and present, giving us a full scope of what changes, and what remains.
Sorry to inflict my amateur literature teacher routine on you two weeks in a row, but this book has a theme, and that theme is age. Besides the obvious point of the Catherine-as-oak’s many decades, Whitaker is also confronting a more human experience of time, as she is near the mandatory retirement age, and is reminded of it constantly.
The book has a very melancholy feel to it, and not just because of the multiple murders that drive the plot. It’s about people observing the passage of time from a variety of perspectives. The vibe of the book is the same vibe you get from a tree in late Autumn, and obviously that’s exactly what it should be. It’s a work of magical realism with a motif that goes beyond the typical police procedural elements to evoke a bittersweet longing for things we can’t even remember.
Spies! Teenage hackers! Nuclear secrets! And above all else, 1990s nostalgia!
All these things are in Phillip McCollum’s short story A Nuclear Family. I can’t really explain how they all fit together without spoiling the whole deal, but what I can do is praise McCollum’s gift for telling a tale. Remember, this is a man who once wrote 52 short stories in a year.
The same blend of teenage tech culture and mysterious goings-on uncovered by the youth of California that formed the theme of McCollum’s TheAlmost-Apocalypse of Apple Valley are present, but in a more potent, concentrated form. McCollum’s skill at concisely telling a good story is on full display, as is his way with words:
“I was way past wondering if what we’d done was a smart thing–it wasn’t. The question, now, was did we do the dumb thing smartly?”
A question familiar to anyone who has ever been a teenager, I’m sure.
A Nuclear Family is a gripping and suspenseful short story, that keeps you off balance from the start and doesn’t let up. It’s like a Hitchcock movie, updated to the ’90s and in literary form. A Phillip McCollum Special, through and through.
This is a cybercrime techno-thriller about a hacker who finds himself entrapped in an elaborate blackmail scheme. He’s forced to recruit old friends from his past in an effort to save himself.
What I liked most about the book was the setting. It’s a classic cyber-dystopia, with omnipresent surveillance and ongoing threats of pandemics. The atmosphere was creepy and disturbing, without being distracting.
Also, the technical details of all the hacking and counter-hacking were well done. I could follow what was going on without getting bogged down in the details.
I did struggle with some of the characters, in particular the protagonist. Let’s just say that, while he is the victim of a crime, he is far from innocent of wrongdoing himself. This made it hard for me to feel much sympathy for him.
However, if you can get past that, the book certainly makes for a fast-paced and exciting page-turner. Also, that cover is spectacular, isn’t it? Makes me think of Ghost in the Shell a little.
Books require a higher level of investment from the audience than, say, movies do. As readers, we have to do some of the work of imagining things for ourselves. I think it’s accurate to say that while you and I may read the same book, we don’t necessarily read the same story. Your way of envisioning it will not quite match mine, much the way a computer program may be handled differently by different compilers.
This subjectivity is a key element of the written word as a medium for fiction. A really good book takes full advantage of this curious feature, inviting the reader to use their imagination to fill in details, or even to come up with their own interpretations of the entire story.
Fatal Rounds is just such a book. The central character, Liza Larkin, is a pathology resident at a hospital in Massachusetts. She has chosen the hospital specifically because she has become suspicious of one of the hospital’s surgeons, Dr. Donovan, who attended her father’s funeral, much to the horror of Liza’s schizophrenic mother.
Liza’s obsessive investigation of Dr. Donovan brings her into possession of evidence that implicates him in a number of deaths. Her highly atypical mind gives her an unusual ability to concentrate on her goal, and she becomes fixated on bringing Donovan to justice.
That’s the basic plot of the book. But the real meat of Fatal Rounds is in subtle details and ambiguities. It’s not so much about what happens as it is the reader’s interpretation of what happens. That’s why I don’t want to talk too much about specifics; lest I color your reading of the book with my own views.
No joke, this book reminded me of one of my favorite works of fiction of all time, “The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers. If you’ve read that story, you probably can see what I mean. If you haven’t… well, let’s just say Fatal Rounds is a great demonstration of the philosophy of fiction that I acquired from reading “Repairer of Reputations.”
This book is a great medical thriller, but more than that, it’s just a flat-out great story, and I highly recommend it to anyone, even if medical thrillers aren’t a genre you typically read. It gives you some things to chew on long after you close the book.
Another fast-paced thriller from Geoffrey Cooper, the fifth in the series. This time Brad Parker and Karen Richmond are drawn into investigating a sex trafficking ring with connections to a major medical institute.
Strictly speaking, you can read this book without reading any of the previous Brad and Karen books. But, unlike the others, I have to say I think you shouldn’t. The way the characters develop is an important element of this book. So, I don’t think it’s possible to fully enjoy this story without already being familiar with the dynamic between the two leads.
And Brad and Karen really are likable characters. It’s always a pleasure to open a new book in the series, because they are an excellent team, besides being a cute couple romantically. <Insert “name a more iconic duo” meme.>
And so if you have read the other books in the series, you’ll be glad to know that this one is just as enjoyable as the rest. I highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys thrillers. It’s action-packed and interesting. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.
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.