Camp Effigy – A Ghost Story by I A M Watson

Camp Effigy – A Ghost Story by I A M Watson
Publisher: Regenesis Press
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

“Rule number one: no one is to leave designated camper areas for any reason. You will not leave camp without permission. Do not attempt it. And stay clear of locked doors and anything marked as off-limits.”

Camp Effigy is an unusual summer camp destination to say the least. As they pass through the foreboding gates of Hopewell Manor, Dahlia, Serena, and Aria anticipate a bootcamp for troubled girls (and boy, are they troubled). It doesn’t help that the surrounding camp is built on ancient burial grounds deep in some very haunted woods. Strange things happen quickly, leaving our heroines to band together as unlikely friends and fight for their lives at the place where the land of the living and the dead meet and merge. Everything goes off the rails when the campers discover that their own family secrets may tie them to the hauntings that threaten their lives, and that only they hold the key to solving a cold case from 1851.

Every kid breaks a minor rule or two while at summer camp, right?

The horror elements of the storyline were delightfully scary. I shuddered my way through the ones that involved bodies of water and the various entities that can sometimes be found lurking in their depths. They reminded me a little of the various urban legends that are sometimes told around the campfire on warm nights when the looming darkness just past the edge of where flickering flames can cast their light makes every spooky sentence feel bigger and more ominous than it seems during the day. This is a good pick for middle grade or older readers who enjoy being frightened without being grossed out.

There was strong character development for all three protagonists. I enjoyed seeing how Aria, Serena, and Dahlia got to know each other better and worked together to solve the mystery of what was really happening at Camp Effigy. What made this even more impressive was that the author managed to pull it off in a fast-paced novel that didn’t leave a lot of space for long conversations. Much of what I learned about them happened while they were on the run or exploring parts of the camp they had been clearly told were off-limits to them. This gave everything a strong sense of urgency that made it impossible for me to stop reading.

I grinned as Dahlia, Serena, and Aria figured out how they were connected to the cold case from 1851. It was a clever way to tie the present closely to the past and give the characters understandable motives for behaving the way that they did. While I was already enjoying this tale before these details were revealed, I became even more excited to see how it ended once such crucial information about all three girls was revealed.

Camp Effigy: A Ghost Story was the perfect summer read.

Murder at Sea Oats Beach by Karen C. Whalen

Murder at Sea Oats Beach by Karen C. Whalen
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Breanna Hart is volunteering at the animal shelter and living her best life in a North Carolina beach town, but that changes when the police chief is found dead under mysterious circumstances inside the cage of her favorite dog. Everyone has the dog tagged as the murderer, even the handsome police officer in charge of the investigation, and the pooch is put on the euthanasia list. In spite of being new in town and dealing with both a social phobia and a secret, will Breanna be able to solve the crime and prove the dog’s innocence? Will she be able to find his forever home so she can embrace the salty seaside life and find a forever home for herself?

Innocent until proven guilty should apply to dogs, too!

Breanna was a memorable and relatable protagonist. Her compassion for others instantly endeared me to her. It was interesting to see how her flaws influenced the decisions she made. Specifically, her impulsiveness was both a great way to push the plot forward and an impediment to her goals depending on the scene. I also appreciated how much effort was put into describing how social anxiety affected every facet of her life. This isn’t a mental illness I’ve seen mentioned very often in fiction, but Ms. Whalen struck a chord with how accurately and sympathetically she wrote about it.

I would have liked to see the mystery play a bigger role in how the storyline rolled out. There was so much attention paid to everything else that was going on that it took longer than I would have preferred for Breanna to start investigating what really happened to the police chief. Mysterious deaths aren’t common in small, quiet towns, so I was expecting the characters to react more strongly to such a turn of events.

Small town politics can be complex and frustrating, especially for newcomers. I enjoyed this deep dive into what it can be like to move to a new place and try to join an insular community. Breanna was completely unprepared for the nuances of it all, and I nodded along as she slowly realized just how much she had to learn about the friends and neighbors she was still beginning to get to know.

Murder at Sea Oats Beach was a playful summer read.

Kent and Katcha by Larry and Rosemary Mild

Kent and Katcha by Larry and Rosemary Mild
Publisher: Magic Island Literary Works
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Historical, Fiction
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

Larry and Rosemary Mild breach the deeper cover and higher intrigue to bring you a fictional novel full of spy-craft, espionage, and adventure drawn from Larry’s former association with real agents and their spook agencies.

The year is 1992. The Soviet Union has collapsed, but danger persists. Young Kent Brukner, a freshly trained American spy, arrives in Moscow for a high-risk mission: to infiltrate and compromise a Russian Federation Army facility. Under an alias, in a military uniform, he plies his skills—unprepared for the brutal confrontations and irrational consequences.

Kent meets the innocent and passionate Katcha, daughter of a British expatriate and a Russian dissident. Together the lovers embark on a near-impossible journey, beginning in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. Stalked by the evil Major Dmitri Federov, they must escape from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, Finland, or face life in a Russian prison.

This novel is a marvelous throwback to the early nineteen nineties, shortly after the end of the Cold War. Kent is an engaging character, an American spy, whose background is fleshed out enough for us to understand who he is and what his motivations are. The Russians capture him and throw him in prison. The situation seems hopeless.

Then, in a surprising turn of events, he manages to escape. Every step of his hopeful journey towards freedom is filled with tension. One thing after another threatens him along the path, and readers will worry for his safety. He meets an interesting lady during this time, Katcha, whose mother proposes an intriguing possibility for the young couple. It is so dangerous, so filled with a likely tragic end, and Kent only agrees with hesitation. Now, his risk has doubled. Can he and Katcha possibly survive the scrutiny and perseverance of the Russians going after him?

This book is a page-turner. The pace moves quickly but not too quickly. There is time for emotional introspection. The setting is convincingly drawn, taking readers into the era and place with ease.

This is an entertaining vintage novel readers of espionage tales with a bit of romance thrown in are sure to enjoy.

Past Tense: A Matt Moulton Mystery by Michael Amedeo

Past Tense: A Matt Moulton Mystery by Michael Amedeo
Publisher: Level Best Books
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

As America races toward the supposedly bright new decade of the 1950s, disillusioned white private dick, Matt Moulton finds himself faltering in the dark. Should he serve an amnesiac client whose recovering memories of paid murder intensify his own wartime guilt as an assassin? Should he risk endangering the person he loves, a beautiful black woman, for information on that case and an apparently related one? Does he imagine he can save her and himself from the corruption, the intolerance, and the apathy that linger in that violent nation’s shadows?

Taking place in a misty, sulky San Francisco, “Past Tense” appeals to readers who love their thrillers hardboiled. It brings pulp fiction back from the past, but here, the genre seems more modern and yet more noir-like than ever before.

Good murderers cover their tracks. Can a good detective foil the murderer’s plans before too many more people die?

The main storyline was fast-paced and interesting. I enjoyed taking note of the clues Matt found and trying to figure out why so many people connected to this case kept turning up dead. There was plenty of fodder for the imagination here, and my attention remained strong from the first scene to the last one.

I would have liked to see more character development in this novella, especially when it came to Matt. He was an intelligent but often conflicted protagonist. Learning more about his past and how it had shaped his personality would have made it easier for me to connect to him. I also found myself wishing he had shared more information about his feelings for Gina as she seemed to occupy many of his thoughts when he wasn’t focused on work. Exploring that relationship in more depth would have been a good way to showcase more of who Matt was when he wasn’t attempting to solve cases.

Speaking of Gina, I loved the romantic subplot between her and Matt. There were definitely sparks to be seen every time she showed up in his life. I appreciated how clearly they communicated their feelings to each other and found myself wishing they could find a way to overcome the racial prejudices of the late 1940s that were such a huge obstacle for them. My fingers are crossed that readers will get more opportunities to get to know her later on in this series as she seemed to be a level-headed and kind woman.

Past Tense: A Matt Moulton Mystery kept me guessing.

The Price Of Lemon Cake by Jennifer Ashley

The Price of Lemon Cake by Jennifer Ashley
Publisher: JA/AG Publishing
Genre: Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

When Kat Holloway approaches Lady Bobby Perry and Judith Townsend to help her discover what a young aristo is getting up to in a gentleman’s club, Bobby quickly accepts, coaxing a promise of Mrs. Holloway’s stupendous lemon cake in return.

But the investigation quickly turns into more than a simple spy mission, forcing Judith to confront a painful part her past. Both Judith and Bobby must bring their own unique skills to help Kat solve the tricky and dangerous problem.

Kat Holloway turns to her two friends Lady Bobby Perry and Judith Townsend to help her. Bobby goes into a club incognito to discover if one young man is being led astray by his brother, but instead Bobby and Judith discover a few painful secrets Judith had thought was locked in her past. Will the price of Kay Holloway’s lemon cake be enough to cover this cost?

This is the second short story in this Upstairs/Downstairs series that I have read, and I must admit I enjoyed it. Set in the late 1880s I found the historical setting to be slightly romanticized but still quite believable. I also found the plot to be a lot of fun – but a small amount of disbelief really did need to be suspended. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the story.

Despite this story being billed as part of the Kat Holloway series I was surprised but pleased this really had a lot more to do with Kat’s two friends, Bobby and Judith. Obviously, the plot couldn’t be too convoluted due to the short nature of the story, but I was very pleased with the two interweaving storylines and the way they were neatly tied up at the end. I was also glad that readers didn’t need to be familiar with the main book series – I, personally, have not read any of the full-length novels in this series – to enjoy and fully comprehend what’s happening.

For a quick introduction to the world and some of the characters this is an excellent short story. I enjoyed it and am intrigued enough to give one of the main novels a try.

Operation Congo by William Meikle

Operation Congo by William Meikle
Publisher: Severed Press
Genre: Contemporary, Paranormal, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Action/Adventure
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

A mission to the Congo starts badly for S-Squad and gets worse fast as they trace a team of captured WHO medics to a lost world in the interior.

The Squad are isolated, split up, and face terrors long since thought extinct.

Mokele-mbembe walks this jungle.

And he is not alone.

The S-Squad has been sent deep into the jungles of Congo, far from where even a satellite phone can call for help. A WHO team of medics have been captured and more than just the natives are restless. As usual things quickly move from bad to worse as the team is split up and the monsters start coming from all directions. Can the team and their targets return back to safety?

I absolutely love this series and I was thrilled the Scottish lads finally managed to get a ticket to somewhere warm. I also really enjoyed how a few of the squaddies had some profound growth in their character arcs and this was a true joy to read – along with the big beasties and everyone needing to steer clear of being a tasty snack for the monsters.

If you’ve read even one of the previous books (and I can’t recommend strongly enough you give them all a whirl – this is the best series) you’ll know roughly what to expect. Our team of Scottish heroes are sent into the back of beyond to rescue a group of civilians. Things are nothing like what they appeared to be at first glance and soon monsters are trying to eat everyone in sight.

With loads of bullets flying and more than a few wise cracks from our squaddies this is yet another delightful romp of a book. I was particularly impressed with both the high number (and decent quality and placement) of the quotes managed by the squaddies referencing the movie, Aliens. A few scattered quotes are normal for this series, but in this book the author really outdid himself.

If you’re looking for a complicated plotline or an intricately woven story this won’t suit what you’re after. But if you love a bunch of wise-ass soldiers being brave, fighting the monsters and rollicking along then this is definitely the book for you. I love this series and can strongly recommend them all – especially this addition.

The Jackal Man by Kate Ellis

The Jackal Man by Kate Ellis
Publisher: Piatkus Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

A teenage girl is strangled and left for dead on a lonely country lane in Devon. The police are baffled when she describes her attacker as having the head of a dog, but when the body of a woman is found mutilated and wrapped in a sheet, DI Wesley Peterson suspects the killer may be performing an ancient ritual linked to the jackal-headed Egyptian god, Anubis.

Meanwhile, archaeologist Neil Watson has been called to Varley Castle to catalogue the collection of an Edwardian amateur Egyptologist. Neil discovers through his research that Wesley’s strange case bears sinister similarities to four murders that took place near Varley Castle in 1903.

As the Jackal Man’s identity remains a frustrating enigma, it seems the killer has yet another victim in his sights. Someone close to Wesley himself . . .

When a local teenage girl is strangled and only a passing car interrupts what might have been an even more serious crime, DI Wesley Peterson and his team are called in to investigate. Unsure whether this links up to a similar – but less sinister attempted assault on another young woman a few weeks earlier, Wesley and his team flounder at first. When the next victim isn’t so lucky they realise their quarry is linking himself to the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis. Wesley’s archaeological friend, Dr Neil Watson is helping catalogue the collection of an amateur Egyptologist and Neil points out that these present cases bear a striking similarity to four murders that took place in 1903 and those were directly linked to this collection’s family. Can Neil and Wesley sort out exactly what’s going on before another young woman is murdered?

I have been greatly enjoying this British police procedural series and this book was a lovely addition. While there is plenty going on around these characters and the team members, I feel readers should certainly be able to pick this book up and enjoy it on its own merits. Aside from the fact the characters know each other and work well together, the actual plot and relationships are all very well explained within this book.

I was pleased that there was fairly clearly a strong connection immediately between the cataloguing work Neil was performing at a local castle with an Egyptian collection and Wesley’s offender who wore a cloak and a “dog mask”. I was also very intrigued that Wesely’s old boss from his days at the Met in their Art Fraud section was in town looking for some Egyptian antiquities and someone calling themselves Ra. It was all clearly linked but I enjoyed the twists and slow unveiling of what was really going on. I thought this book had a very good pace and unlike some of the others in this series I enjoyed the fact both plots were clearly woven together and were gathering speed roughly together.

Readers who enjoy some history and archaeology mixed in with their murder mysteries should find this a really enjoyable book. I enjoyed this story, and it was a lovely and comfortable weekend read.

Under Pressure by Robert Pobi

Under Pressure by Robert Pobi
Publisher: Hachette UK
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

On a beautiful October evening, New York City’s iconic Guggenheim Museum is closed for a tech company’s private gala. Until an explosion rocks the night, instantly killing 702 people, including every single attendee—yet the damage to the building itself was minimal.

An explosion of that precision was no accident and, in response, the FBI mobilizes its entire team — but the sheer number of victims strains their resources. Were all 702 victims in the wrong place at the wrong time, or was there only one target and 701 unlucky bystanders? That many victim files is a staggering amount of data to sort through and Brett Kehoe, Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, decides that he can’t do this without more computational power.

Dr. Lucas Page, astrophysicist, university professor, and former FBI agent, is uniquely gifted for the task at hand—he can visualize a crime scene as if he was a bystander and can break down any set of data at a glance. Even though Page wants nothing to do with the FBI, with his city under attack and his family at risk, he steps in to find a killer in a haystack before they strike again.

Dr. Lucas Page is enjoying life with his family. An astrophysicists and father of five adopted children, he and his wife live in a happy state of constant chaos. The events of the previous winter are only a memory, until Page’s contacts at the FBI turn up once again when a bomb goes off at a super-rich event at the Guggenheim Museum. The city once more is thrown into fear and chaos and the FBI are willing to use their every tool, including Page and his extraordinary perceptions. Can Lucas return once again both to balancing the fieldwork he used to love and the family he adores?

This is the second book in the Dr Page series and while I do feel this can be read and enjoyed by itself, I also feel there are enough tendrils linking this second book back to the first that readers who usually want to keep things in order might want to begin at the first book before cracking this one open. That said the plot is entirely contained in this story and even though there are clear links between Lucas and the various FBI characters they are quite clearly explained, and most readers shouldn’t have a problem with this or following along and greatly enjoying the ride.

I was also really relieved that Page’s wife, Erin, is a lot more in the background for this novel. While I completely understand it’s a great part of conflict in the plot to have the wife unhappy with her husband being carted off for days on end to help the government and spoil their happy family times, I do feel it gets old and repetitive after a while. It’s a realistic and logical consequence of the assistance and danger Lucas is put in, but we don’t need to hear about it over and over throughout the book. I was very pleased that this took a lot more of a back seat this time around.

I also found the plot to be really fresh and, in many ways, unique. I loved that there was quite a bit of complexity layering everything together and I strongly feel that Pobi has added a few new elements into this type of story with the very different perspective Page adds into the story. It made a lot of the story feel fresh and different to me and I admit I struggled to put the book down to get on with my regular life. I found the story as a whole was quite addictive and I just kept wanting to read more and more. I ended up having a few late nights with the “just another chapter or two” mentality and that’s always the hallmark for me of an exceptional book.

With interesting characters, a really solid plot and some new twists on the old story of “bomber blows up the city” this was a good read and one I really enjoyed.

The Dead Man Of Storr by JM Dalgliesh

The Dead Man Of Storr by JM Dalgliesh
Publisher: Hamilton Press
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Fern

Your past will find you… and it will kill you…
When the owner of a Portree gallery is found dead, lying in the snow at the foot of the Storr, D.I. Duncan McAdam and his small team must piece together what took him there… and who had a reason to kill him.

A man with a flirtatious eye and no lack of ambition, there is no shortage of people who would turn a blind eye if something happened to him… and many who would willingly kill him themselves.

As Duncan reveals the long-held secrets of the man’s life, he finds the ghosts of his own past coming back to haunt him. The course of the investigation will not only bring others into danger, but Duncan himself will have to face his own past… whether he likes it or not…

The owner of the local art gallery is found dead on the hiking path at the foot of Storr, and at first glance it appears like a tragic slip and fall in the untrustworthy weather. But DI McAdam and his team quickly realise that this was not an accident, but a very well thought out crime. As the look deeper into the owner and discover there are more than just a few people who wish him harm. Can McAdam and his team discover what really happened?

This is the second book in this Scottish police procedural series and I felt it was a solid and well written book. I must admit there were a few other strong sub-plots lurking around the edges of the main murder mystery and at a few points I wondered if they would over-shadow the police procedural and mystery element. While I do feel the author managed this balance very well, I have to admit I’m a little more interested in these subplots revolving around Duncan’s friends and past than this particular murder. I am very interested to see where the author takes this though so that’s proof that the writing and plotlines have certainly snared me.

I also really enjoy the setting of the Isle of Skye. It’s an interesting blend between small-town living and rural Scotland and I find it fascinating. It also adds an excellent atmosphere I feel and I’m very eager for more of this.

Readers who enjoy solidly written British (or Scottish in this case) police procedural stories should find this an excellent book and a good series to start. I also think readers who enjoy small-town mysteries or cozy mysteries should also find this book appeals. I didn’t think it was particularly gritty or dark (which a lot of British police procedurals can be sometimes) and so I do feel this book can cross over a few of the various mystery type genres. A really good book.

Breakout by Richard Stark

Breakout by Richard Stark
Publisher: The University Of Chicago Press
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

With Parker locked up and about to be unmasked, Breakout follows his Houdini-like escape from prison with a team of convicts. But when a new heist and new dangers—con artists, snitches, busybodies, eccentrics, and cops—loom among the dark alleys and old stone buildings of the big city to which they’ve fled, Parker soon learns that not all prisons have bars.

When a rope-in caused a pharmaceutical heist to go sour, Parker finds himself locked up. Segregated away from his two – far more reliable – co-conspirators Parker needs some luck and careful planning to select his next crew. A crew which will help him break out of the prison they all currently find themselves situated in. Can Parker turn his luck around?

I have enjoyed each and every novel in this series so far and I was thrilled that this book was no exception. Like all the other novels, this caper of Parker’s is written in a quite gritty, lean and hard-boiled manner – the story pared back to the basic essentials. And what a joy it is to find such a lean style of heist adventure. Absolutely none of the previous books are needed to be read to thoroughly enjoy this. I admit I adore this series and am glad to know all the history, but in this world of heists and criminals not much of a connection or history is needed between any of the characters really.

The plot itself is fairly simple, but I do love how Stark winds it all together and creates this vivid landscape with just the bare essentials. It’s a real talent and it’s a key element in all the Parker novels. I also really love how even though the characters work together, and there is a certain amount of loyalty there, at heart they are all individuals working toward a common goal or a shared venture. That dichotomy – separate and discreet people working cohesively together but at the same time each an island to themselves – is a real pleasure to read.

While the theme is fairly hard – there is no glossing over this is a bunch of criminals performing criminal acts – it still manages to be fairly clear and without much emotional baggage to weigh it down. There is no titillation or instability to the crimes and no glorifying or dwelling on the violence. And in many respects, I find that makes reading about it easier and nowhere near as heavy as it could be.

A classic hard-boiled style of heist novel, this is an excellent read and part of a larger series I absolutely love.