Over 550 book reviews with full author links

29 March 2013

James Swain: Grift Sense

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"Grift Sense" is the first in the very entertaining series by James Swain featuring Tony Valentine, a retired cop from New Jersey whose beat covered the casinos in Atlantic City. In retirement Valentine provides valuable advice to casinos throughout the world on identifying cheaters.

Valentine is asked by Nick Nicocropolis, a sleazy but reasonably honest owner of The Acropolis, a run-down casino in Las Vegas, to work out how he is losing money outside the odds to one of his blackjack customers. Nicocropolis is an amazing larger-than-life character with a libido higher than his IQ who keeps a folio of nude photos of each of his many conquests. To enhance the entry to his casino Nick commissioned a famous sculptor to carve toga-clad statues of his bevy of ex-wives - two beauty queens, two showgirls, a stripper, and a retired hooker. At night, to attract gamblers, a kitsch fountain sprays coloured water in titivating bursts onto the statues.

Tony concludes that the scam involves an unknown facial connection between the dealer and the gambler who are apparently unknown to one another. He is stunned when he concludes that the only person capable of this scam is someone who was killed a few years ago. Step by step Valentine tracks down one of the biggest potential gambling frauds in the history of Las Vegas.  The size and target of the scam eludes you till the very end.

James Swain is a natural story-teller who keeps you in suspense and guessing to the very last page. I am really enjoying and recommend the Tony Valentine series, especially for its insight into fascinating and ingenious gambling scams and Valentine's skills in detecting scams and fraud that are missed by even the most experienced casino security operators and gambling regulators.

27 March 2013

L M May: Dark Days

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Although romantic suspense is not my normal genre I really enjoyed this book. While I am an avid reader of the thriller genre, I try to have a reasonably eclectic taste in books and read some good ones and some pretty awful ones. "Dark Days" is definitely one of the better ones. It is a story of survival amidst desperation, and of love and compassion in the ruins of society as we know it.

Christopher broke Gemma's heart when she was in her teens. Gemma has built a new life for herself and is devastated when her best friend Caroline dies, leaving Gemma to look after her 4 year old son, plus a promise that obliged Gemma to contact Christopher again. Gemma travels to the city and has just told Christopher Caroline's secret when the world as they knew it disappears in an instant - all power fails, cars stop, planes crash and more.

How many of you know the potential apocalyptic damage that can be caused by an EMP (an electromagnetic pulse -a short, rapid burst of energy that can be caused by the sun or nuclear devices) that can disable every power system and electronic device in a fraction of a second? Without these everyday things we rely on the world quickly moves into survival mode.

Gemma and Christopher set out on a journey of survival, bound together by the need to get to Gemma's self-sufficient hobby farm 300 miles away. They are also bound together as they rediscover a mutual bond that has never completely been lost. Along the way they meet the good and the bad, and test themselves to their physical and emotional limits.

This is not your normal dose of tacky and steamy mass produced romantic suspense nonsense. It is a sensitive adventure story of people faced with a challenge to survive. There is always hope at the end of the road. While I was reading the book I felt that a scenario of a major EMT apocalypse and its aftermath plus a strong romantic theme had the makings a great movie.

This is a first novel by L M May so it may not be as polished or balanced as books by more experienced authors. I probably would have liked a bit more focus on the budding rekindling of lost romance. But the important thing to me was that, despite some minor flaws, I really enjoyed the book. I will remember the characters of Gemma and Christopher and their struggle for survival far longer than most of the characters and plots of other books I read.

I look forward to reading more books by LM May. The ending of the book clearly opens the path for future books about the aftermath of the apocalypse and how the characters in this book survived.


20 March 2013

Pia Sabel: The Genveva Decision

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Pia Sabel is not your normal fictional kick-ass heroine. Until recently the only thing she kicked was a football when she was a soccer star at the Olympics. Her billionaire father decided she needed to settle down in business and gave her control of his global security firm hoping she would manage the firm and not go into the front line. Pia has lived the life of a spoilt rich brat, staying at top hotels and flying the world in private jets. She has not been trained for the responsibility thrown on her by her father, especially the martial arts and military skills needed in the specialised field of high level security.

Pia is a hands-on person and against her father's advice decides to jump in the deep end and join one of her teams providing security to a wealthy Swiss banker at an outdoor party in Geneva. While Pia spots a possible assassin she is too late to stop him killing the banker. She chases and tackles the assassin and the local police arrest and handcuff him with cable ties. Within minutes someone cuts the ties to allow the assassin to escape and he quickly kills two more prominent Swiss bankers.

Pia and her team then chase the assassin to find the "Le Directeur" of an international ring pirating and ransoming oil tankers off Cameroon. The chase takes Pia and her small team to the jungles of Cameroon and back to Geneva and Vienna. All along the way Pia is shot at and shoots back (with anaesthetic needles), tackles, fights and swims her way out of danger, even though she has no training or military skills.

Seely James has produced a a new type of kick-ass heroine, very different from the experienced, trained and motivated heroines like Lizbeth Salander (Stieg Larsson), Vanessa Michael Munroe (Taylor Stevens) and Jet (Russell Blake). Pia's only martial skills are some boxing training to improve her soccer agility.

This is completely escapist over-the-top stuff, which verges on the unbelievable with Pia surviving so many dangerous situations where she really should have been killed. While the writing was addictive in keeping my attention, these situations and the complexity of following the numerous characters (many with several aliases) and the final outcome left me a bit stunned and overwhelmed.

Rating a book that I basically enjoyed which had some worrying flaws is very difficult. I basically gave it 3.5 stars. My head said that it should be 3 stars, but my heart (which also realises that so many readers out there can cope with and love over-the-top stories) would opt for 4 stars. As this is a first novel I went with my heart and gave it 4 stars.

Would I read another book about Pia - probably yes, but I would hope that the Seely James gives Pia some martial arts and military type training before pushing her off the deep end again.


17 March 2013

James Swain: Jackpot (Tony Valentine series)

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This is the first time I have read a book by James Swain, and after "Jackpot (Tony Valentine series)" I will certainly be reading more of his books. He is a great story-teller and moves the plot along at a gallop to keep the pages turning.

This book gives a fascinating introduction to the world of gambling and the constant battle to prevent fraud. Tony Valentine is an ex-cop who is an expert in identifying all kinds of gambling fraud throughout the world. He is hired by the Governor of Nevada to track down someone who is fixing slot machines so they pay out jackpots on demand when Nevada gambling security have checked that the machines are working OK.

Tony's son, Gerry, has grown up on the wild side and has been involved in some gambling scams in his time. With a wife and young child, Gerry is maturing and for the first time uses his illegal experiences to help Tony to identify scams that are familiar to him.

Both of them get involved in tracking down Bronco Marchese, a long-time scammer and cold-blooded killer. Tony and Gerry have a score to settle as Bronco gunned down and killed Tony's brother. Bronco is involved in the big scam which he believes will give him the win of a lifetime.

Swain gives us an amusing sideline when, in Tony's absence, Valentine's assistant, Mabel, has to deal with a case of fraud in a Casino run by an Indian tribe. Her relationship with the tribe and especially Chief Running Bear is absolutely fascinating.

While this book can be read stand-alone it probably would have been better if I had read other books in the series first. I plan to do that soon in both the Tony Valentine and Jack Carpenter series.


15 March 2013

Harlen Coban: Six Years

"Six Years" is a great stand-alone thriller from Harlan Coben. It is one of those books that is difficult to put down because each chapter unveils new surprises which advance the plot but leave you in suspense until the very end.

"Six Years" ago Jake Fisher falls madly in love with Natalie and they spend three idyllic months together in a remote retreat. Jake is stunned when Natalie suddenly ends the relationship and within days marries another man she claims she has known for a long time. At the wedding Natalie tells shattered Jake to leave her and her new husband alone and never contact them again.

Over the last "Six Years" Jake has become a successful college professor but has never recovered the loss of the only love of his life. He keeps his promise not to try and contact Natalie again until he reads that her husband has died. Jake attends the funeral in the hope of meeting Natalie again - but is stunned to see that the grieving wife is not Natalie and has 2 teenage children.

This starts Jake's quest to find Natalie. He encounters obstruction after obstructon, and meets many people who know something but not everything about Natalie's disappearance. Despite clear messages that he should leave things alone (including being beaten, kidnapped, and shot) Jake continues to follow all the clues to find out what happened to the only woman he had ever loved.

Coben is at the top of his game writing a suspense thriller with a highly imaginative, complex and compelling plotline. He slowly reveals layer upon layer of mystery, intrigue and secrets like peeling an orange and exposing different but unrelated segments. Corben holds your attention to the end by only giving you enough information so you want to keep turning the pages to find out more.

IMHO "Six Years" is destined to become another best-seller for Harlan Coben and is strongly recommended to those who enjoy his books and this genre.


09 March 2013

Pat Conroy: The Great Santini

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This is not an easy book to review because it is so good but so gut-wrenching. It is not an easy book to review when you know and continually realise that it is so closely connected to Conroy's difficult childhood where he experienced the kinds of mental and physical abuse that form the central theme of this book. What is uplifting is that Conroy survived to become an author of the first order who can write with passion and understanding about this difficult subject.

Colonel Bull Meecham is a top-gun Marine fighter pilot whose life and family are driven by his dedication to the Marines' way of life. While he has reached almost to the top of his career, his personality is still back in boot-camp which he brings home every day to his long-suffering family. His immaturity, egotistical, and personal excesses dominate the book. Even his family nickname, "The Great Santini", displays his inability to accept his parental responsibilities. He rules his family like a boot-camp sergeant and has no understanding of parental responsibilities for nurturing and providing love to his four children.

Lillian Meecham is a beautiful Southern gentlewoman with a love of literature, who unsuccessfully tries to defend her children from the excesses and abuse of their father. After moving from base to base each year, the Meecham's finally settle down in a fictional Marines base in Southern Carolina and try to live a normal life. Ben, the eldest, struggles to adulthood with a father both telling him he is a sissy and attempting to get him to act like a man (according to the rules of the Great Santini). The love- hate (or more the hate-love) relationship with his Father dominate the book.

While Ben is the main recipient of his father's pressures, his other children, especially Mary Anne the eldest daughter, suffer in other ways. They survive and protect themselves through a ritual of mutual self-degradation and black humour.

Despite all of this there are glimmers of hope. Ben shows that he can mature independently of his father and can defy him at moments of crisis. But at other times he succumbs to the pressure with painful consequences. I really felt sorry for Mary Anne, who does not have her mother's beauty and protects herself by immersion in literature and self-degradation.

One thing that does shine through is Ben's discovery of the beauty of the rivers, creeks and swamps of Southern Carolina and the surviving antebellum architecture of the region. This love of SC is ever-present in Conroy's other books.

I have read and enjoyed most of Conroy's later books and somehow missed this one. I am glad that I finally had the chance to read it and strongly recommend it to anyone who wants a challenging book to read which will make you sad and happy and you will remember for a long time.


06 March 2013

Sidney Sheldon: The Best Laid Plans

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For many years I have read books by Sidney Sheldon as a light alternative from my normal diet of heavier espionage, political and detective thrillers. His books have always been enjoyable - and this one is no exception - but while I would recommend it "The Best Laid Plans" is not one of Sheldon's best.

The late Sidney Sheldon was a prolific writer of page-turning popular novels which mainly featured determined women who persevere in a tough world run by hostile men. He is the seventh best selling writer of all time. This is an even more remarkable achievement because he started life as a script writer of movies, musicals and TV series and didn't focus on novels - his favourite medium - until he was over 50. This book was published when he was 80!

Oliver Russell is infatuated by beautiful, hyper-intelligent and ambitious Leslie Stewart. He leaves her (almost at the altar) when he is seduced by a political power-broker who tells him that he will back him for State Governor and give him a chance of getting to the White House if he marries his daughter. Devastated Leslie plans her life to gain the power to bring down Oliver's ambitions. Both of them get success but at considerable cost.

Sheldon's style is popular, easy to read and premised on keeping you reading because the end of each chapter leaves you wanting to read the next one to find out what happens next. This book is no exception but the plot line about paying for political power was a bit far-fetched for my liking. I gave it 3.5 stars but rounded it up to 4 stars because I still enjoyed it.

This particular book is one of several recent re-releases of Sidney Sheldon's books with promos for the forthcoming release of a Sidney Sheldon plot extrapolation by Tilly Bagshawe. I have a number these special re-releases of some of Sidney's more popular books on my reading list before I decide whether to purchase any of Tilly's books.


03 March 2013

Nelson DeMille: The Lion's Game

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Nelson DeMille is one of my favourite authors and I am revisiting some of his books, which is giving me great pleasure. To my surprise I didn't realise that I had missed reading "The Lion's Game" when it was first released around 2000 - I got it mixed up with the more recent John Corey book "The Lion" when he takes on both the (same?) terrorist called The Lion and rogue elements at the CIA.

Corey retired from the NYPD after "Plum Island" but to combat boredom is now back in harness, amazingly with the FBI, which he always had problems dealing with in the past. This time he is a consultant with the Federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force in New York with the Middle Eastern section.

Corey is still at his wisecracking best which doesn't endear him to some colleagues, including initially his FBI "mentor" attractive, single agent Kate Mayfield. Corey soon bores of inactivity and applies to move to the IRA section in the hope of more action.

But more action than he needs comes his way when he waits at secure facilities at the airport for a Libyan defector, Asad Khalil who is being brought under FBI guard to the US for questioning. The Boeing 747 he is travelling in loses radio contact and lands automatically. Corey is one of the first to board the plane and finds over 300 people, including the pilots are have been gassed and the defector is missing.

Khalil (nickname "The Lion") escapes from the plane and goes on a trail of violence across the US in revenge for the death of most of his family in the bombing of Libya in 1986. Corey and Mayfield track down Khalil when others are sidetracked by a staged assassination suggesting that the Lion is in Germany.

This is a fast action and very believable terrorist thriller written before 9/11. The story swaps between Khalil's Libyan background and his US killing spree to Corey and Mayfield's chase to stop him (with a blossoming romance on the way).

All in all this is one of DeMille's best books and I am now searching the rest of his books to see if there are other gems that I have missed. Highly recommended.