The Last Town (Wayward Pines #3), by Blake Crouch

Four stars (of five)

Hell hath no fury like a god-complex imbued man scorned. Crouch lays this theme out at the beginning of the final Wayward Pines novel and forges ahead with the massive struggles left for the world’s only human inhabitants. After Sheriff Burke revealed the truth about Wayward Pines and its ‘creator’, David Pilcher, to the entire town, things took a dramatic turn and people starting thinking independently once again. Pilcher, feeling that all he’d created was no longer under his sole control, began wreaking havoc in hopes of decimating those who’d previous worshipped him and owed their life to his ingenious plan. Pilcher began removing all that he’d done and left the townfolk to fend for themselves, in a 39th century abyss covered with aberration being whose only means of survival is violence. As townsfolk turn to Burke for protection, he assumes the role as head organiser to deal with the invading throngs and tries to reason with Pilcher the self-proclaimed deity. Burke soon comes to terms with his role in the larger game Pilcher played, making him a pawn in a sick societal game that brought a number of people to Wayward Pines. With time running out and an apocalypse on the horizon, Burke must once again battle with Pilcher to save the town, or see its ultimate demise; the last town left on earth. Crouch brings the series to a crashing conclusion, leaving questions out there with no clear answers, except in the reader’s extrapolating mind.

Taking up this book and series on a recommendation was a giant step for me. While I enjoy a little suspended reality (pardon the pun for series fans) a la Stephen King, I worry that they will soon turn the way of King’s own UNDER THE DOME when television executives got a hold of it. However, Crouch uses his wiles to craft not only a book that forces the reader to step back and watch a quaint town turn into a killing field, but also play an active role in learning about its various inhabitants and the power structure in keeping it together. Part societal microcosm, part Orwellian surveillance state, Wayward Pines tells the story of love, politics, corruption, and complete adherence to a single master plan. It mocks society while addressing its deepest strengths and weaknesses, as only a talented writer can do and still hold onto a semblance of reality. Crouch uses quick chapters (at least in this final instalment) to tell the three layered story of Wayward: before its creation, its inception, and its current destruction. The reader cannot help but follow along and wonder how things will end, or if there is a trapdoor to save humanity. Rigid readers need not pick up the series, but those who thirst for something more than a ‘find the murderer’ thriller should raise a glass (and an eyebrow) to this trilogy.

Kudos, Mr. Crouch for keeping me on my seat from start to finish. I will recommend this to others and be sure to try out some of your other novels and series to whet my appetite for reading.

Wayward (Wayward Pines #2), by Blake Crouch

Four stars (of five)

Welcome to Wayward Pines! Come see the lonely bus stop, the nightly variety hour, and the collection of picket-fenced homes. The town sounds ideal and one would expect to see pies cooling on every window ledge. However, pulling back a bit and the reader notices the electric fences surround the town’s perimeter, snipers at the ready, and millions of aberrations looming outside the town. It’s all the creation of David Pilcher, who sought to bring this Utopia to the middle of nowhere, but at a significant cost; total acceptance of his control. Sheriff Ethan Burke is new to the helm, but knows most of the town’s secrets, having stumbled upon them as the reader will recollect in PINES. When he comes upon a murdered woman while out late one night, questions begin to surface. He’s directed to investigate a group of misfits, who seek to rock the tranquil town with questions about their former lives. Sheriff Burke needs not only to penetrate this group, but also wrestle with his own struggles living in Wayward. Can he overcome his own burning questions and toe the line, or will he soon join this group and turn on his neighbours? Crouch explores new and exciting angles of his ‘model train town’ and injects the biblical fight for control between good and evil. A powerful middle novel to keep the trilogy alive for the avid reader.

When I began the novel, I was not sure how Crouch could move the story forward. He offered the crux of the town in the latter chapters of Pines and made his social commentary perfectly clear. However, a new layer of commentary emerges surrounding power struggles, while a fast-paced murder storyline emerges from the narrative. Ethan Burke remains a high-calibre character whose integration is anything but complete, even as he puts on the ultimate facade to fool his higher-ups. By telling more of the Wayward Pines backstory and how the world was reduced to a few hundred people, Crouch whets the appetite of the avid reader to learn just a little more before closing their mind on the subject. The threads left dangling in the final chapters will make for an explosive end to the series, which Crouch has planted masterfully.

Kudos, Mr. Crouch. I remain intrigued and highly energised for the final instalment. Do bring your ‘A-game’ to tie it all off.

Pines (Wayward Pines #1), by Blake Crouch

Four stars (of five)

This being my first novel-length introduction to Crouch, I was not sure what to expect, nor am I still. Ethan Burke awakens on the side of a river with no recollection of how he made it there. Burke does know he’s a Secret Service agent and was sent to Wayward Pines, Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents. He also remembers being in a horrific car accident, but anything more remains a complete blur. Nothing seems to add up and Wayward Pines appears to be a form of Twilight Zone with Burke its newest inhabitant. Unable to reach his wife in Seattle, Burke begins trying to piece everything together, running into roadblocks along the way. As Burke peels back the layers of this bucolic town, he soon discovers that there is no way out, its perimeter surrounded by electric fencing. The town deals with those who try to leave in a harsh manner, leaving Burke to wonder how he’ll ever make it to his family again, but that’s the least of his worries. A social commentary as much as a thriller, Crouch introduces the reader to a curious town in which everything has its place, even if it seems jilted and without order.

As I read this novel, all I could think of was a twisted storyline that Stephen King might create and force his group of characters to meander through, at a pace not solely their own. Crouch has a wonderful way of layering the thrills, drama, and character development that leaves the reader highly intrigued and wanting more with each passing chapter. How can a dreamy town in the middle of nowhere become such a house of horrors and what can be the ultimate meaning. Crouch addresses that in a soapbox sermon manner, pushing beliefs while spinning the story to the cusp of science fiction means the Stepfords. An interesting concept that is sure to expand as the second novel in the trilogy seeks to open new pathways. I am piqued to see what Crouch has in store for the reader next.

Kudos, Mr. Crouch. I am intrigued, which is a big step for me. Keep writing and impressing your audiences, but try to stay away from browbeating everyone in the first novel.

Hunting Season: A Love Story, by Blake Crouch and Selen Kitt

Four stars (of five)

Crouch and Kitt serve up this interesting short story about the strength that high school love holds, even when two people are separated for years. Ariana Plano was swept off her feet in high school by young and athletic Ray Koski. They had a fairytale romance until rich and poweful Bud came along and stole her away. While she became a trophy wife to a game hunter, she also remains firmly embedded under his thumbnail and faced the consequences for her actions. Over the years, Adriana has been tasked with taking Bud’s spoils out to Ray’s butcher shop, more to rub it in his face than anything else. Dutifully, Ray and Ariana do the dance of non-communication and transact business in a painful manner. One winter afternoon, Ariana arrives to deliver her latest carcass for processing and becomes trapped in the freezer with none other than Ray. They break the proverbial ice and learn a great deal about one another, some of which rekindles that old spark. But it is the lengths to which they both go to express that flickering flame that will leave the reader gasping. Well written and a sure quick read, Crouch and Kitt have a handle on the genre and how to lure the reader in from the start.

While there is no surprise to the story’s ending, it was interesting to see how they authors would bring the story around. The narrative is clear and the dialogue flows well, as does the premise. Crouch and Kitt are able to express their desired message with ease, while also creating the smallest hint of gore well suited alongside a Stephen King thriller. It impressed me enough to want to explore both authors a little more to see what they have written solo.

Kudos, Madam Kitt and Mr. Crouch. I am intrigued, which is a big step for me. Keep writing and impressing your audiences.

Kissing Games, by Mark Edwards

Three and a half stars (of five)

Edwards offers a short, yet chilling, look into his mind with this quick read. Ben and Ollie are tired of their lives and the lack of excitement they bring. On a dare, they agree to sneak out at night and explore a decrepit building in the woods, formerly used as an asylum. Loaded up with supplies, they make the trek, unaware that one of the former residents, Alice Johnson, still frequents her old home, still plagued by her need to seek revenge young boys. Her form of revenge includes killing boys and stealing a kiss from their cold lips. As Ben and Ollie arrive, things take a definite turn for the worse. Hot on their trail is Ben’s mom, Lydia, who’s roused herself from a drunken stupor and remembers Alice from her own childhood. Can Lydia save Ben from the clutches of Alice’s embrace or is this all a twisted sort of game, destined to play out. A great quick read to pass the time, showing Edwards less than savoury side.

Always a fan of Mark Edwards and his ideas, especially as he strings them together in a little thrill and horror. While this was not as scary or as spine-chilling as some of his other pieces, it does provide a glimpse into his inner Stephen King and the horrors that reside within his thought processes. Highly entertaining and a great way to pass an hour.

Kudos, Mr. Edwards for this short story to tide me over. Always happy to see your fans are recognised for their loyalty.

Consenting Adults, by Mark Edwards

Four stars (of five)

Edwards brings back one of his characters from a recently released thriller to hash out a little more background story on PI Edward Rooney.

After bemoaning his life, Rooney must pull himself up by the socks and realise that life is not fair and others around him are enjoying it as he works himself to an early grave. When a woman of considerable means enters his office and asks that he locate her ‘daughter’, Rooney predicts this will be an open and shut case. However, as he begins poking around, he soon discovers he’s in uncharted territory (at least for him). Young Christina Navitski is involved with a man whose passion for S&M leaves her on the receiving end of his personal delights. The further Rooney digs, the more apparent it becomes that this is a case of murder and her missing person status can be changed to victim of crime. However, nothing is as it seems, as Edwards makes known in all his stories, and Rooney is left wondering if an open and shut case is really what he has on his hands.
A new short storyby Mark Edwards piques the interest of his fans and leaves them wondering what else is bouncing around in his head. I am a huge fan of Edwards, as well as the use of other pieces of writing to further flesh out a smaller characters backstory, which is done effectively in this short story. I hope Edwards will continue with this format, when time permits, and continue entertaining his vast number of fans.

Kudos, Mr. Edwards for another wonderful piece of writing. Keep them coming!

The Breaking Point (Body Farm #9), by Jefferson Bass

Four stars (of five)

Jefferson Bass returns with a throwback novel that hold the thrills to which series fans are accustomed as it further educates all about the wonders of forensic anthropology. After celebrating his 30th wedding anniversary, Dr. Bill Brockton, creator of the Body Farm, is summoned by the FBI and sent to the outskirts of San Diego. After bidding goodbye to his wife, Kathleen, Brockton heads west where he’s asked to identify the remains of a well-known philanthropist, whose small plane crashed on a routine flight. As Brockton heads up the difficult identification of a body having been through tremendous force during the crash, media inquiries begin to cast the spotlight on the FBI and NTSB, demanding the results be made public. Brockton’s discoveries lead to a positive identification, though it’s rushed by those in power, which he delivers as the inter-Agency politics heat up. Talk of a drug delivery angle emerge as Brockton leaves the scene and heads back to the University of Tennessee and his loving wife, in the heart of Knoxville. Brockton’s return is anything but calm as a local reporter begins poking around the premise of the Body Farm and asks difficult questions regarding the humane treatment of the bodies on the premises. These inquiries succeed in getting local politicians to wonder about the need for the Farm and threats of massive funding cuts leave the University scrambling. If that were not enough, a serial killer from his past has Brockton worried for his life, as well as that of Kathleen. When Kathleen delivers her own news, it is too much for Brockton to handle and he begins a swift mental and physical unravelling. With the case in San Diego blowing up and proving Brockton was completely wrong, he must face the music while juggling everything else and make it right, or face a permanent strain between himself and the Bureau. A wonderful story that fills gaps in the Bill Brockton narrative, entertaining as it teachers the reader more about the wonders of forensic anthropology.

WhenI began this novel, I could not wrap my head around why it had to be set in 2004 and not the current day. The more I read and using my powers of memory (this is not the only series I read, so I had to pull crumbs from past novels to recollect how things played out) I realised on ingenious Bass was in setting the novel in this time period. Much of Brockton’s growth as a character takes place in this time period and this novel illustrates that better than any of the others. Kathleen and her struggles, as well as the constant queries about the necessity for the Farm are not lost on the attentive reader. With other crumbs useful for the novels set in the present day, Bass treats the reader to a thoroughly exciting and jam-packed novel. Perhaps too jam-packed, as some storylines fall silent in order to keep the book under 500 pages. If I could offer one suggestion, choose two storylines and focus on them. Write an additional novel down the road to return to the issues and add to the creation. And for God’s sake, don’t make us wait so long the next time for new material.

Kudos, Messrs. Jefferson and Bass for this wonderful novel and the ideas woven therein. I am so pleased to have taken the time to read it and hope more ideas make their way to the publisher soon.

A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Outlander #6), by Diana Gabaldon

Five stars (of five)

Gabaldon continues the epic historical series as the narrative inches closer to the American War of Independence. An early crime sets the Frasers and MacKenzies on edge, leaving Claire shaken to the core. This does not deter her prophetic commentary ahead of the key battles in the War and allows Jamie to forge his own path in the coming clash, pitting honour to the Crown against a known final outcome. Amidst the preparations for War, Gabaldon peppers the text with numerous vignettes that flesh out more characters, with the key players continuing their familial growth. Claire uses her time to explore her role as traveller through the Stones, having encountered others who have undergone the same fate at various points in her ‘new life’. These others will educate her in the ways of the Stones, as well as the varied portals that exist to move people from the 20th to 18th centuries with relative ease, while taking a major toll on their lives. Roger, who seeks to find his own niche in the 18th century, takes up the cloth and becomes a Presbyterian minister for the Ridge, drawing on some of his adoptive father’s life lessons before he crossed into the past. Facing numerous quandaries and legal battles of their own, akin to a soap opera at times, those on Fraser’s Ridge forge ahead while the colonies around them seek to carve out their own history and future apart from Britain. However, what story would be complete without another visit by Irish pirate Stephen Bonnet, who tries to take what he feels is his, Brianna. While she awaits assistance, she turns the tables on this lout and attempts to end his marauding activities once and for all. As the story winds down and the Clan expands, a medical issue may force the Frasers and MacKenzies to separate, a decision no one takes lightly. Gabaldon continues her story with such pizzazz that avid readers are left begging for more.

Gabaldon has used the War of Independence as a key event towards which the series marches. As the months draw closer and the prophetic article in the Wilmington Gazette offers a date for their death, Jamie and Claire must wrestle with their history, future, and love for one another, as well as bringing the entire cast of Fraser’s Ridge forward in this sensational sixth novel in the series. Gabaldon finds new historical spins on which to focus and keeps the chapter-based tales fresh and highly interesting. The continued exploration of science and medicine in a comparative fashion between both centuries proves highly informative to the reader, as well as using history as a forward-looking guidebook rather than a collective of past lessons. Gabladon also forces Claire to face truths about her original fate as a Stone traveller and what that might mean about her as a person and how many others might have made similar journeys, scattered all over the world. Claire and Jamie continue to connect on many levels, but have stepped aside to next subsequent generations take centre stage and deliver a story all their own. Masterfully told and sensationally intricate, Gabaldon amazes fans with her long and drawn-out narrative, holding the interest of true fans from beginning to end.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon, as you continue to dazzle readers with your ideas, plots, and smaller storylines. I am in awe at how much you can tell, and yet how much remains a mystery for future novels. 

Bones on Ice (Temperence Brennan #17.5), by Kathy Reichs

Five stars (of five)

Kathy Reichs uses all her skills in this unique novella, which sees forensic anthropologist Temperance (Tempe) Brennan involved in a cold case like no other, foul play atop Mount Everest. When Tempe is called in to work on a weekend, she’s less than impressed. Once she learns that she’s personally been requested to handle the identification of a frozen, mummified corpse, things get a little more interesting. While trekking up Mount Everest, Brighton Hallis perished amongst the elements, the rest of her crew finding her body on their descent. It’s been three years and Tempe must work with what she has to determine if this is, in fact, Brighton. With over 200 bodies scattered around the “death zone” area of Everest, it is anything but a foregone conclusion that these remains are those of Brighton. Reichs explores the world of mountain climbing, where individuals lose their identity and become known by their coloured clothing, the only differential when surrounded by snow and ice. What appears to be a simple body succumbing to the elements soon becomes a murder victim, leaving Tempe to piece it all together. Was it one of the climbing crew with a vendetta that wanted Brighton to die up where no one would find her, or perhaps a rival climber who wanted glory? All this leaves the legal argument of charging anyone in Charlotte with a crime that took place in Nepal. In her anthropological sleuthing way, Tempe pieces it all together, but finds herself more confused the further she digs. A wonderful novella to bridge the time until the next full-length Tempe Brennan novel hits the shelves.

Reichs remains the queen of her craft and is as entertaining as she is educational. Tackling forensics in ways no other author (outside the field) has ever attempted, she keeps the reader curious and wondering throughout this piece. From the medical terminology surrounding climbing to the legal matters of a murder on the other side of the world, Reichs leaves few rocks unturned in a short period. Pepper in some humour and a little character bridging between the two major novels and you have a wonderful novella that is sure to tide avid fans over, but not for too long.

Kudos, Madam Reichs for all your hard work and entertaining writing. I am a true fan and cannot wait for more Tempe.

Follow You Home, by Mark Edwards

Five stars (of five)

Mark Edwards is back with a new thriller sure to keep reader up late into the night, especially if they travel by rail. While on a tour of Europe, Laura and Daniel are robbed in the rural townships of Romania, their passports and tickets lifted from their bags. Romanian border guards toss them from the train, along with a young woman, Alina, who sought to defend them. In the middle of nowhere, Alina trudges off and Laura and Daniel soon follow, trying to find her, but only discovering a discarded boot. When they come upon a dilapidated house in the forest, Laura and Daniel explore, which is where they plot thickens immensely. Edwards moves the story forward, back to London, where Laura and Daniel sit on a secret they discovered in Romania, one that has left them emotionally and somewhat physically scarred. Neither will talk about it, but they soon drift apart and find themselves on separate tracks as they try to deal with it. Anyone Daniel tells portions of the story to ends up dead, leaving him to wonder if he’s being hunted in order to keep quiet. Laura struggles as well, seeing ghosts surrounding her, which pushes her to the brink. Alina’s own story adds to the mystery and her appearance in London leaves Daniel to wonder the true and complete story of that house in Romania. Edwards adds layers of thrill and psychological chill in his latest novel, with a cliffhanger or two to blindside the reader as well.

Edwards has a knack of building up a happy facade on the periphery of his stories, with a deeper and darker truth to them, the further the book progresses. Once the reader is halfway into the novel, like a masterful web, they cannot escape and must read on to discover what lies behind the next corner. With an interesting background pulled from history, Edwards seeks to thrill the reader into submission. One of his best solo pieces to date, readers will flock to this and devour it more in fear than necessity.

Kudos, Mr. Edwards for your sick and twisted ways as you try to keep the reader guessing until the bitter end.