Archive for February 2023

Device Free Weekend by Sean Doolittle


"Transport yourselves, if you will, to a time before. A time when hashtags were pound symbols. When computer screens, for those lucky enough to possess their own, had nothing but words on them."

Sometimes we need to get away from everything. With technology at our fingertips, we are constantly connected and attuned in every moment to the rest of the world. While there is no denying that this technology has had its benefits, there's something to be said about the power of disconnecting. After the rush of the holiday season, I took a weeklong cruise. It was an opportunity for some forced relaxation, but the best byproduct of this trip was that my phone had no service on the open seas. I had no choice but to disconnect from everything. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to read the advanced copy of author Sean Doolitile's latest novel Device Free Weekend. 

Six friends have been whisked away to the private island of their college buddy, a billionaire tech savant named Ryan Cloverhill. The group hasn't been together in decades, so they are eager to reconnect. There's only one catch to this all-expenses-paid retreat. Ryan has forbidden the use of any electronic devices on the island. At first, the friends are a bit taken aback by this request. Why would someone so involved in technology forbid it from his property? Soon, though, they are overcome by the conversation and seeing each other. They forget that all of their devices have been confiscated. 

It isn't until the second day of their visit that things get strange. Ryan is nowhere to be found. Physically shut off from the rest of the world, the friends are at a loss as to what to do. Soon Ryan comes back into contact with the group in the form of covert electronics hidden all around the house. He's broadcasting from the basement of his yacht,  and it seems he has some sort of game up his sleeve. The friends are at best annoyed, but they become even more fearful when they realize the horrifying extent of Ryan's scheme. They will have to make a decision, one in which no choice is good. Things are about to get very interesting. 

It is easy to get swept away by Sean Doolittle's high-concept thriller. Device Free Weekend features a luxurious tropical setting, a strong set of main characters, and an intriguing premise that is flawlessly set up. Doolittle has written a book that is pure escapism fun mixed with some real philosophical quandaries. As I read my copy of the book on a beautiful beach in Mexico, it was easy to imagine the place that these characters were visiting. This is the kind of book that hooks you from the very beginning and keeps the pages turning. The only problem with a gripping start is that the author has to maintain the momentum through to the very end. As much as I enjoyed reading it, I can't say that it flawlessly stuck the landing. Still, I'm not sure that really matters with this one. Device Free Weekend is a fun popcorn read that is both entertaining and smart. It isn't a perfect book, but it worked just fine as a solid beach read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 12)

Eyes of Prey by John Sandford


Like many readers, I'm faced with the eternal problem of having more books to read than I'll ever have time to finish. There's just not enough time in the day to work through my extensive backlog of titles. Even worse off are the countless series that I've neglected to stay current on. With a few long-running crime series numbering 30+ installments, it seems like an insurmountable task to keep up with them. Determined not to let these series fall by the wayside, I've decided to start working on one at a time. First up is John Sandford's Prey series. I've read and enjoyed the more recent novels, and started the first book several years ago. The second book, read last year, didn't hold up to the standards of what is culturally acceptable today, but I've decided to give book number three a go. 

This go-around sees Lucas Davenport face off against two bad guys. The villainous duo comes to an agreement akin to the classic Strangers on a Train setup, wherein they each commit a murder to benefit the other. As is often the case in a partnership of this kind, one half of the group is much more cunning than the other, and he's the one pulling the strings in a terrifying direction. The other man becomes more of the muscle than the brain, exacting the mastermind's evil agenda with ghastly precision. From the get-go, their carefully laid plan goes slightly awry leaving the duo scrambling to stay ahead of the police who are hot on their trail. Davenport is working through a serious bout of depression. As such, he won't let anything, not even the law, get in his way of catching these killers. 

This is the darkest of the Prey series so far. John Sandford has imagined a killer who is as cunning as he is evil. It's a combination that makes for quick reading and ever-tightening suspense. The reader is privy to the identity of the killers from the very start of the book, making the thrill of reading more about seeing Davenport chase down the clues and come to the conclusion that we already know. Nevertheless, I couldn't put this one down. Beyond having the best villain thus far, Eyes of Prey sees Sandford begin to dig deeper into the emotions of his main character. By focussing on Davenport's debilitating depression and reckless response to it, Sandford allows his character to be more than just an action hero. He's becoming a person whom the reader can actually care about. That makes this my favorite of the first three Prey books. The end leaves plenty of room for the story to continue, so I can't wait to keep reading this series. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 11)

The Trees by Percival Everett


In the scope of American history, racism and police brutality have gone hand in hand. They are codependent evils founded on ignorance and hate. Sadly they are evils that continue to exist in the present day.  It seems like every week, there's a shocking new video of another unarmed black man being killed by the police. Society seems to be more and more aware of these issues, but the people in power still seem unable to put a stop to them. It is natural that artists would turn to their craft to address these difficult subjects. Percival Everett's 2021 novel The Trees attempts to do just that. 

“You should know I consider police shootings to be lynchings.”

Money, Mississippi isn't the kind of town most people have heard of. The small rural community is one rooted deeply within its own past. A deeper investigation into the town's history would reveal that it played host to one of the most disturbing pieces of American history. Money, you see, is the place where the notorious lynching of the young boy Emmett Till took place. All these years later, the townsfolk continue to live their lives as if nothing has changed. They act and speak with the casual racism of their Jim Crow ancestors. 

The novel gets moving straight away when a white man named Junior Junior is discovered murdered. He's been castrated and strangled with rusty barbed wire. As if this isn't gruesome enough, another corpse lies next to him. This second body looks eerily like the murdered Till boy, brutal beating and all. Soon this crime is repeated in another town. The method of execution is identical, and the remains of the Emmett Till lookalike are present again. Over the next several days this exact scene unfolds in various locations across the country. Who is behind these killings? Is the past finally catching up with the people who deserve to see justice?

The Trees sees Percival Everett write an explosively powerful novel that subverts nearly every attempt to classify it. The plot is driven by a fast-paced murder mystery, a crime that seems too implausible to be real. Everett characterizes the racist southerners in his work as sheer clowns, mocking their stupidity and obtuseness. This gives the work a quick-witted humor that I wasn't expecting from a book about lynchings.  Here though, it works. The comedy lies hand in hand with the more poignant and disturbing elements of the book. Everett doesn't shy away from the violence that comes with hate crimes, using the horrific details of the events to highlight the bitter reality. It is in the 105-year-old character Mama Z, that I found the most emotional impact. She has taken it upon herself to write the names of every lynching victim in her lifetime, a solemn labor of dignity and respect in a world where decency seems to be in short supply. The Trees is as propulsively readable as it is challenging. It is a masterwork of modern fiction. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 10)

Spare by Prince Harry


I've gone and done it. I gave in and listened to the buzziest book of the year, Spare by Prince Harry. My familiarity with the British Royal Family is perhaps a bit more than the average American. My partner is a self-proclaimed Anglophile, so I've been subject to hours of facts and tidbits that I'd be otherwise ignorant of. The drama surrounding Prince Harry's decision to leave the professional side of his very public family created great waves in the press and in my living room. Still, I was on the fence about reading his memoir. I wasn't sure that I really cared all that much to hear from him. Against my better judgment, I gave into the hype machine around his book and decided to listen to it. 

I won't attempt to summarize the details of Harry's story here. As someone who has spent the entirety of his life in the public eye, the basic details of his life are already well documented. Weeks before the memoir was officially published, some of the more salacious revelations in the book were leaked to the press. As is usually the case, the carefully culled quotes were blown mostly out of proportion. Nestled here amongst the proper context, there's nothing as obscene as it was made to appear. What we are left with is one man's attempt to set the record straight. Harry seems compelled to tell his side of the story, in his own words. Listening to him narrate the audio version of the book only amplified the connection I felt to his life. 

Harry's life is one shrouded in grief. Greif at his mother's tragic death, an event that the young prince was never allowed to fully deal with. In fact, that was probably the biggest takeaway I got from his book. Harry is still navigating the trauma that he faced at a young age. For years, he couldn't even bring himself to accept the fact that his mother was dead. He dreamed of her returning from hiding, ready to whisk him away from his life in the public eye to a place where they could be a family again. Alas, it wasn't until adulthood that Harry began to come to terms with the loss of Diana. Along with his brother, Harry used the royal family's resources to look at unpublished photos from the horrific crash that killed their mother, once and for all confirming that she was truly gone. 

As I come away from Spare, I'm struck by two competing frames of mind. On the one hand, Harry has been tormented by a ruthless press and a system of monarchy that has left his family complicit in this harassment. On the other, I can't shake his claims of wanting to tell his side of the story as a way to bridge the rift with his family with the way he airs the dirty laundry of that family for the entire world to read about. I'm happy he's able to speak his truth, but I question his motivations. I have no doubt that the accusations he lobbies against the royal family and especially the British media are true. On the same token, I do believe that his family, especially his father the king, and brother the future king, are beholden to a system that they may have less control over than we think. That still doesn't excuse their behavior. Both things can be true. Ultimately, Spare achieves what Prince Harry intends it to. It is a fascinating, often frustrating look into a world that the general public is rarely given access to. You can make your own judgment as to the value of that access. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 9)

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby


I've read many great books to kick off this year, but I've been waiting for a book to wow me. First released in 2021, S.A. Cosby's Razorblade Tears is that book. I've seen this novel across various book blogs and bookstagrams, so it has been on my radar since it was released. Like many other hyped books, I purchased a copy and promptly ignored it on my shelf for the next two years. If only I knew what I was missing! Razorblade Tears is a searing portrait of regret, revenge, and renewal, the kind of novel I crave to read, but rarely find. 

When ex-con Ike Randolph answers the door, he isn't happy to see the cops. What black man would be? Despite all of his fears, he couldn't have imagined that one of his worst would be coming true. Ike's son Isaiah and his white husband Derek have been brutally murdered. Ike never entirely accepted his son's sexuality, let alone that he married a white man, but he is nonetheless devastated by his loss. 

Derek's father Buddy Lee is stunned by the death of his son. The pair were equally ashamed of each other. Derek couldn't forgive his father for being an ex-con with ties to racist miscreants. Buddy Lee, couldn't get over his son's sexuality. Add to it all that Derek married a black man, the ultimate sin in this father's eyes, and the father and son hadn't spoken to each other in years. 

There's nothing like regret to bring people together. Both Ike and Buddy Lee sit with the loss of things unsaid. Only in losing their sons do they begin to see the error of their ways. Regret alone isn't the only thing that haunts these fathers. They hunger for revenge. The police, for their part, seem either unable or unwilling to find out who killed their boys. The two grieving fathers, then, must set aside their differences and come together to bring their boys' killer to justice. In the process, lines will be crossed, and bridges will be burned. But they just may find redemption in all the wreckage they leave behind. 

Razorblade Tears is a tour de force. Cosby writes a thriller that manages to layer in deeper themes of racism, sexuality, and corruption while never ceasing to keep the action moving. The main characters are an unlikely duo, creating tension and comedy in all the right places. In writing about a hate crime, Cosby doesn't refrain from detailing the horrors of such an event. This is a violent book that isn't afraid to go to the dark places that the subject matter requires. At its heart, though, Razorblade Tears is a book about the love a father has for his son. Like life, this love isn't perfect. A father doesn't always get it right. Redemption can be had, but one must decide to seek it. This is the first book I've read this year that truly blew me away. Cosby has a new novel releasing later this year, and I'll be the first in line to read it. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 8)

Roses Are Red by James Patterson


Reading a book each week leaves little time for me to circle back and reread a book that I previously enjoyed. There have been a few humorous occasions where I've found myself accidentally reading a book that I've already read, but those cases aren't intentional. I was then hesitant to accept the new paperback edition of James Paterson's Alex Cross novel Roses Are Red from the publisher. Beyond the fact that I read this sixth installment in the series more than a decade ago, I also have the current thirtieth novel sitting on my TBR. It would make more sense for me to read that one than this reprint. But then the book arrived at my house. I read the synopsis and was reminded how much I enjoyed this old-school Patterson thriller. Despite my best intentions, I couldn't help but crack it open and give it a read. 

A bank heist is no small undertaking. Each detail has to be meticulously planned out. Failure to do so risks the entire operation. No one understands the complexities of this task like the Mastermind. They've overseen several bank robberies in the Washinton D.C. area, leaving a trail of dead bodies along the way. It is these murders that bring the involvement of Metro PD Detective Alex Cross. Cross has a knack for psychoanalysis, and the powers that be want him to stop this 'mastermind' before they strike again. Facing personal turmoil and pressures from interdepartmental jurisdiction wars, Alex will have to mentally fortify himself to face off against the most sadistic killer of his career. 

Over the course of the past thirty novels, Alex Cross has become one of my favorite crime heroes. Revisiting this early installment in the series helped to illustrate how much has changed over the years while reminding me why I fell in love with the character in the first place. There are a few elements like short chapters and driving plots that have become staples in James Patterson's writing. All of those ingredients are present here. In fact, I'd argue that this is one of Patterson's most tightly plotted books of his career. The action and suspense never let up, and there's a twist ending that completely blindsided me. Seriously, I knew how this one ended from the last time I read it, but I was still shaken! The true power of the Cross series has always been the way Alex interacts with his family. As a fan of the books, I enjoyed taking a trip back in time to see the family as they used to be. It really illustrated how complex their development has been over the course of the series. Overall, I enjoyed my time revisiting Roses Are Red. It is as thrilling and entertaining as I remembered it. I'm eager to blast back to the present day and see what Alex Cross is up to next. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 7)

The Drift by C.J. Tudor


C.J. Tudor has been a must-read author for me since she burst on the scene with The Chalk Man back in 2018. Since then, she's written an original thriller each year, fast becoming a favorite author of mine. COVID put a wrench in that rhythm. Personal tragedy combined with a global pandemic saw Tudor complete a novel that she simply wasn't satisfied with. In a brave act of self-awareness, she opted to scrap that novel and release a collection of short stories instead. Now she's back with a new, highly anticipated book that she promises is entirely different from anything she's written thus far. 

When she first awakens, Hannah isn't entirely sure where she is. There are bodies in various states of injury around her, all compacted close together into a claustrophobic space. It takes her a moment to comprehend that she's actually in the wreckage of an overturned bus, the very bus that was taking her and a group of other students to safety. The vehicle is stuck in a snow drift, a casualty of a snowstorm that seems to only be starting. Stuck in coach with no apparent way out, Hannah and the other survivors of the crash can only wait until potential rescue arrives. There's only one thing troubling them. A few of the remaining passengers are beginning to show symptoms of the virus that they were all desperately traveling to escape from. 

Meg is awakened by the gentle rocking of the cable car. Dangling high above the snowy mountain below, the former detective takes in the faces of the strangers traveling with her. They are on their way to the mysterious refuge known as The Retreat, a reported safe haven from the virus-plagued world they've been living in. As the car slowly glides up the mountain, the group is jolted by its stopping. Lights go out, and power is completely lost. In the same flash, the lights come back on, but something has changed. There's the murdered body of one passenger left in the corner of the cable car. Meg is trapped in the place, hanging high above the remote landscape. Trapped inside with a killer. 

From the top of a mountain, Carter looks out at the world below. He's safe and warm inside the abandoned ski chalet, shielded from the brutal winter storm that rages outside. More importantly, Carter has found solace from the virus that has taken over the world. From this chalet, he works with a group of companions to survive. They scrounge up any food and supplies that they can. It is a meager existence, but it is existence nonetheless. Amongst the day-to-day tasks of basic living, the group works to develop a vaccine against the virus. Their hopes persist in spite of more and more frequent power outages and dwindling supplies. But now the power has been out for a good amount of time. The routine they've built is interrupted, and they'll have to work diligently to keep the threat of the outside world at bay. 

From the very start, it is clear that The Drift isn't the ordinary thriller that I'd expect from C.J. Tudor. In fact, I'd classify it more in the post-apocalyptic horror genre than any other. Still, it is the genre-bending nature of the book that makes it so intriguing. Tudor tells her tale through the perspective of three characters, each of whom faces their own locked-room mystery. This unfolds through alternating chapters. I found this method to be a bit taxing at first as it felt like each story took a long time to find its footing. Stick with it though. As the three plots begin to progress, the suspense and leap-from-the-page action begin to take hold. This is bold, go-for-broke writing that only an author as confident and dexterous as Tudor could ever dare to achieve. I can't say that I felt completely connected to the work, especially as some plot elements and character beats didn't really vibe with my sensibilities. Still, Tudor's narrative wizardry is revealed in some third-act context that ultimately sold me on the story. To say more would spoil the revelation for you. Suffice it to say that The Drift is another unique hit from an author who continues to write at the top of her game. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 6)

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