Reviews

Writer Mark Stevens, and His Books

Mark Stevens at BoucherCon

Mark Stevens is an award-winning Colorado writer, former journalist, now PR and Communications Specialist, whose work caught my eye on Twitter a few years ago. He tweeted about the country’s environmental challenges, a subject near and dear to my heart, and I readily ‘followed’ him. He mentioned that his second book in the Allison Coil Mysteries, “Buried by the Roan,” had recently been published, so I picked it up. I was hooked by the topical storyline and the multi-faceted characters caught up in events tearing their beloved landscape apart.

 

The lead protagonist, Allison Coil, is a big game hunting guide in the Flat Top wilderness of Colorado. And lest you think that a woman might not really choose this as a career, Coil is based on a real-life guide that Stevens met while pondering the setting and the focus character for the series.

 

Each of his books could have been ripped from the headlines and in always absorbing writing, deal with hot-button topics, such as human trafficking, marijuana laws, undocumented workers, fracking, big game hunting, drought, and wilderness protection. But, in addition to these and other ‘big concept’ themes (and the murders) Stevens’ stories are grounded in real life, with his core characters facing the challenges of rebuilding a life in a new location, managing a small business, finding/trusting love after heartbreak.

 

Colorado’s majestic wilderness plays a major role and Stevens’ imageries put us right in the saddle as Allison rides through the Flat Tops. The big game hunts and plots unfold against a backdrop of rich country that everybody wants a piece of, but few acknowledge that through the very development they seek, the land as they know it will disappear.

 


“Antler Dust,” the book that started it all.

 

 

 

 

“Buried by the Roan”    Review here.

 

 

 

 

“Trapline”      Review here.

 

 

 

Book Cover "Lake of Fire"

 

“Lake of Fire”  Review here.

 

 

 

“The Melancholy Howl,” the fifth in the series, reveals more in the background of each of the central characters, some of it a bit edgier than before. There are glitches in the love lives of the two continuing couples and one major character has a whopper of a secret that tears at the core of his public persona. These are flesh and blood people, some with serious flaws and baggage, but all have each other’s backs in a crunch.

 

The ‘big concept’ in “The Melancholy Howl” deals with medical marijuana (legal in Colorado) and how its use and the industry has changed since the first stores opened. There is loads of money to be made, but as it turns out, there is a gap between the perceived need and the actual market, and not everyone is following the law. A plane crash, an ‘illegal’ grow, con- artists, tragedy, drought, and greed, all play a part in this gripping page-turner.

 

Mark Stevens also writes short stories, the most recent of which, “A Bitter Thing,” appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

 

Please visit https://www.writermarkstevens.com/  for the latest news about his books and the fascinating podcasts he produces.

 

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“Writers Crushing Covid-19: An Anthology for Coronavirus Relief”

On occasion, a special project is brought to my attention that moves right to the top of the review pile. I am delighted to help bring “Writers Crushing Covid-19” to a wider audience. It is an anthology of short stories, essays, and letters, many written by people experiencing this dreaded disease up close and personal. Although the concept of this anthology originated with the Piedmont Authors Network*, the thirty-seven selected submissions came in from authors all over the USA (as well as Australia), as varied in background as the stories themselves. It’s a multi-talented group of bestselling, award-winning, and debut authors.

 

The diverse mix of writing includes everything from laugh-out-loud humor, to the occult, to deeply serious looks at the pandemic, and everything in between.

 

More than one story follows the classic model of O. Henry, the famous short story writer, with entertaining surprise endings. Ross Cavins produces two big twists in “Test Drive,” a clever plot that would translate nicely to a teleplay for a potential TV show. Lynn Chandler Willis introduces us to hapless bank robbers in the hilarious “The Cough,” with the guys not asking for much, but, just once?  Jonas Saul brings us “Ghostwriter,” a more serious take on the surprises that life can deliver. J.D. Allen provides a noire piece with “Dead in the Water.” This dark short just might make you cheer at the ending. Or sleep with one eye open.

 

There are several heart-wrenching entries, but among that group, none wallow in the disaster that has befallen the world. Instead, they are uplifting and reassuring. The anthology begins as Dr. J.L. Delozier presents an inspirational letter to two of her medical students about to face the Covid-19 front lines. Karen McCullough shares her ordeal as a Covid victim in “Journey Through Covid-19.” She took many weeks to recover, and her story will bring a few eye-opening facts to the fore. Micki Bare takes a sobering fictional look at the effect a catastrophe has on displaced children, and the tremendous effort needed to save the most vulnerable in “For Philly.”

 

Feel-good stories, with great hope for the future and people making the best of a bad time, are sprinkled throughout the anthology. Diane Kelly’s “Nothing Could Be Finer” introduces two appealing masked characters that connect over coffee at the surviving local diner. Bruce Robert Coffin tells the tender tale of “Saint Nicholas” and the cop that helped the little old lady in the nursing home. Marvin Wolf relates the wonderful account of a newspaper boy in “The Bicycle.” Think Hallmark Channel smiles all around.

 

As for the occult? Jaden Terrell deals deliciously in the paranormal with “Faithful.” Who among us hasn’t heard a voice caution us to be careful at the right moment? But, then there are the potions. It’s not easy to find ‘eye of newt.’ Cheryl Bradshaw buys a haunted house against the realtor’s advice in “Hallowed Ground,” and all is definitely not what she expected. Karen Fritz creates an ingenious VooDoo curse that propels a journalist to his appointed destination, in “A Cursed Story.”  

 

Dark humor? Who can forget the toilet paper shortage when the USA started to take Covid-19 seriously? Vincent Zandri handles that topic with guns and suspicious foreign characters chasing after P.I. Dick Moonlight in “Moonlight Goes Viral.” Some of you might be able to relate. I’m not admitting to anything.

 

I’ve read this well edited anthology twice and will read it again, it’s that good. I’ve mentioned several of my favorites, but there truly is something rewarding/entertaining for everybody. Buy “Writers Crushing Covid-19” because you enjoy the short story genre, or buy it to support the cause, or both.

All proceeds will go to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

 

*Full disclosure: I am a member of the Piedmont Authors Network. Future in-person meetings will be held in Asheboro, North Carolina, but at the present, virtually.

 

 

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Jump into June with Four Books, Four Genres

 

 

The books couldn’t be more different, but each is a great read in its own genre. Each has the potential to be fodder for a TV or big screen movie, with thoroughly interesting characters and visually descriptive writing.

 

Cozy Mystery

“Kernel of Truth” by Kristi Abbott, is the first in her Popcorn Shop Mystery series set in Grand Lake, Ohio. It’s an engaging murder mystery, complete with a personable poodle and a gourmet popcorn shop.

Rebecca Anderson hesitates when she hears screams coming from outside, having to choose between taking her sauce off the stove and investigating the screaming. Her conscience and her dog’s interest prevail and she discovers that the screams are from her friend’s chocolate shop next door. Her beloved friend, Coco, is dead and Rebecca’s life is about to change in unexpected ways.

 

While coping with the shock, Rebecca’s ex works to get her back, and Coco’s niece publicly denounces Rebecca with having ulterior motives. Accused of theft, her popcorn business in peril, and her reputation besmirched, Rebecca must solve the murder of her friend in order to regain the trust of the customers and the town. The characters are well-drawn in this nicely plotted beginning to the series. Recipes included.

 

Thriller

Nick Heller is back in “House on Fire,” the fourth entry featuring the former Special Ops soldier, now Boston P.I. An Army pal dies from a drug overdose and Heller is drawn into an investigation about the death. Who’s responsible? The easy answer is to blame the buddy himself, but Heller agrees to dig deeper.

 

In typical Finder fashion, “House on Fire” combines current events with a page-turning thriller. Undercover work reveals a surprising ally and loads of twists to surprise the reader. Family politics, personal tragedy, greed, government contracts, and billions at stake drive the story. Who can be trusted? Will Heller get out of this alive? Not everyone does. Prepare to be thoroughly entertained.

 

Legal Suspense

Functioning within the limitations of sporadic donations, the overworked guardians find the evidence to exonerate the wrongly incarcerated. The ‘Guardians’ in the title refers to Centurion Ministries, an organization that Grisham learned about some years ago while conducting research for another project. The work the Centurions did and still do, stuck with Grisham and this story is based on an actual case written about in the New York Times in 2018.

 

Grisham’s writing is compelling as fictional Cullen Post, a pastor and lawyer, doggedly pursues every lead to help those with one last hope. Post is not in it for the money, only justice for those less fortunate. The process followed to uncover new evidence in the various cold cases, with some witnesses long dead, and evidence lost or buried, is grueling and sometimes dangerous. A well-written, fascinating read, one of Grisham’s best.

 

Non-Fiction

“The Lost City of the Monkey God” by Douglas Preston, is non-fiction, but the events described are so wildly dangerous that it reads like page-turning fiction. The search for the ancient White City begins deep in a Honduran rainforest, probably untouched for hundreds of years.

 

Preston presents a fascinating look at the tremendously complicated planning that a legitimate investigation of a major archeological site requires. Helicopters, sophisticated technology, local government with access to permits and soldiers to guard the expedition, the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent even before the explorers put boots on the ground, the right people to pull it all together, all come into play.

 

The field of archeology appears to be highly competitive and the expedition itself was surprisingly controversial, but the group of which Preston was a part, was the first to document their expedition and findings and go through official channels. The book includes photos of the search, finding the astonishing cache of artifacts, and an insane snake story, but also discusses Preston’s serious brush with death. Preston and half of his (and subsequent) expedition people contracted a potentially lethal parasitic tropical disease, one that is hundreds of years old. The interviews and research in “The Lost City of the Monkey God” are thoroughly footnoted and documented, and also reference modern epidemics and pandemics. Excavation of this extraordinary site continues today.

 

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“Death by Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake” by Sarah Graves

 

 

Sarah Graves, author of the popular Home Repair Is Homicide series, has a spinoff series out that begins with “Death by Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake.” The Death by Chocolate Mysteries series features the main characters we know and love from Eastport, Maine, and gives them a chocolate shop.

 

The popular crime solving, best friend duo from Home Repair, Jacobia Tiptree and Ellie White, recently opened The Chocolate Moose. The bakers sell yummy chocolate taste treats to the delighted locals and are getting ready for the July 4th weekend, doing special orders of the forenamed cheesecake as well as their regular items. Jacobia (Jake) receives an early morning call that the shop door is standing open and arranges to have the fussy lock replaced. When she arrives at The Chocolate Moose to open for the day, the lights are out, causing her to trip over something in the dark. Which turns out to be a very dead health inspector bent over a worktable, his head leaning into a pot of chocolate. A health inspector she and Ellie have been battling with since setting up business.

 

Ellie may be the last person to see the nasty inspector alive, and not under the best circumstances. She’s the most likely person to be under suspicion, but how will she be cleared of wrongdoing? And, the practical matter question: Can a chocolate shop recover from a dead guy falling into its signature chocolate? “Death by Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake” is a wonderful beginning to the new series, featuring a great mystery with clever misdirection, warm familiar friendships, relatives with complex issues, a missing son with a surprise of his own, a hurricane, and a Maine setting that is a character in itself to be reckoned with.

 

Amid the action and suspense of the central murder plot, Graves shows us that despite the challenges of work and mayhem, family always deserves care and attention. Jacobia’s loving husband has her back in ways she isn’t always aware; her father escapes from his hospital bed, arriving home in a taxi still in his paper slippers and gown; her step-mother is craggy, smart, and fiercely defends her loved ones; her son is making his way in the world despite a few worrisome years. There are touching scenes with her father that brought tears to my eyes. Graves’ marvelously written family hits all the right notes, and the mystery in “Death by Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake” has plenty of surprises to keep the reader turning the pages.

 

Books #2 (“Death by Chocolate Malted Milkshake”) and #3 (“Death by Chocolate Frosted Doughnut”) are out now. Barnes and Noble, here I come.

 

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“Picked Off” and “Bad Pick” by Linda Lovely

 

 

 

“Picked Off” and “Bad Pick” by Linda Lovely, continue the romp through the never-a-dull-moment world of Brie Hooker, her aunt Eva, two wannabe boyfriends, and bff Mollye. Brie is a talented vegan chef helping her staunchly carnivorous aunt Eva, at Udderly Kidding Dairy, the family goat farm. Neither Brie nor Eva will ever convince the other to switch food lifestyle choices, but they love and support each other in all other things.

 

Halloween is near in “Picked Off,” and Eva has agreed to hold a fundraiser – complete with a haunted barn and costumes – to support friend and candidate for governor, Carol Strong. But, instead of happy check-writing, the fundraiser ends in chaos with a bloody pitchfork assault on a celebrity football player. Who did it and why? The candidate’s enemies pepper the story with kidnapping and murder, but the multi-layered plot also delivers stalking fans, fantasy football leagues, millions at stake, betrayals, and scandals that keep everyone hopping. This page-turner is inventive, with twists and turns and a pace that never slows.

 

In a great touch of realism, Lovely makes a point of Eva and Brie each doing chores on this working goat farm in both “Picked Off” and “Bad Pick.” We see that no matter what or who is chasing down the culprits, there is a staff to be managed, the hours are long, and the animals are taken care of first.

 

Brie has inherited a house that she hopes to turn into her dream, a restaurant of her own. The plan in “Bad Pick”? Serve a tasting menu to restaurant critics to garner reviews and enthusiasm for her concept. Sounds like a good strategy, but there is a slight hitch: One of the critics dies after eating her food. What has happened? Who is to blame? Has someone sabotaged her plans or targeted the critic with blowback on Brie? Either way, the collateral damage is devastating.

 

In a parallel plot, Brie gets talked into holding goat yoga classes at Udderly Kidding. Goat yoga? You have to read the book to see how it works. I’d fall over laughing during the first five minutes of the first class, let alone be able to complete a downward dog position. But, locals in “Bad Pick” picket the goat farm when a misguided soul feels that playing with goats is a form of devil worship. Imagine what she thinks of an entire farm that specializes in everything goat?

 

Brie’s romantic life is mostly in her head, with fantasies that pop up on the page whenever she sees the two men in her life, a brewmeister and a veterinarian. “Picked Off” and “Bad Pick” each develop the relationships in unexpected, often hilarious ways – including a ‘no clothes off’ rule. Both are great matches for Brie. Big hint: I’m solidly in the vet’s camp. 🙂

 

Linda Lovely has written a thoroughly entertaining series, with plenty of warm, good hearted banter between the likable main characters, solid mysteries, and an expert blending of dramatic moments with comedy and cooking to lighten the tension along the way.

 

Here’s my review of the first book in the series, “Bones to Pick.” Read them in order: “Bones to Pick,” “Picked Off,” and “Bad Pick.” Guaranteed to make you chuckle while you puzzle over the whodunits.

 

 

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“The Gun Also Rises” & “Let’s Fake a Deal” by Sherry Harris

 

Sherry Harris has delivered two exciting new books in her Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series. “The Gun Also Rises” and “Let’s Fake a Deal” continue to follow Sarah’s life as a former military spouse who is (mostly) successful at navigating singlehood and establishing her own identity and livelihood.

 

Sarah Winston is a warm, relatable character and when she has moments of doubt, we struggle with her, weigh the pluses and minuses of her romantic choices, cheer her achievements, and groan when tragic/terrible events take over her life. She has a delightfully varied recurring support system of friends who lend texture to the stories and act as sounding boards. Sarah even has a serious ‘don’t-ask-what-he-does-for-a-living’ backup guy when needed in tight situations. We know that Sarah will eventually get through the latest challenge, but Harris creates a world so compelling that we enjoy every question, every impulsive move, and every ‘gotcha’ moment along the way.

 

 

 

In “The Gun Also Rises,” Sarah takes on her wealthiest client yet, the owner of perhaps the most extensive collection of mystery novels ever assembled. While Sarah appraises and prices the books, a treasure is uncovered – so valuable that people are willing to kill for it. Complete with scheming relatives, a stalker, a group of cult-like League of Literary Treasure Hunters, Sarah’s reporter brother Luke, clever plotting, and an original take on a famous real life missing manuscript, “The Gun Also Rises” surprises and entertains from start to finish.

 

 

 

“Two police cars squealed to a halt at the end of the driveway, lights flashing, front bumpers almost touching.” That’s the eye-popping beginning line for Let’s Fake a Deal.” Everything at Sarah Winston’s latest garage sale has been stolen from the actual homeowners and Sarah is arrested for being in possession of those stolen goods. Worse yet, the storage unit that contained the goods until the sale, had been rented using her credit card. Say what? Sarah Winston is the victim of identity theft.

 

In addition to that hot topic, Harris takes a look at sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the military in “Let’s Fake a Deal.” The decisions that women in the military must make – that men rarely face – are highlighted: report the incidents and face the innuendo and name-calling (and worse) while the case is adjudicated – or accept the objectionable behavior and keep to the chosen career path. Another timely theme, indeed.

 

Several great characters assist Sarah’s efforts to find the real thieves and to prove that her friend did not commit murder. Angelo and Rosalie are back and supportive as ever, dishing out advice and the best pizza anywhere in New England. Luke makes a brotherly appearance in tandem with another character, help comes from an unexpected source, and investigations reveal some astonishing associations – including a shocking link with the past. “Let’s Fake a Deal” includes an important romantic turn of events and if she can stay out of jail, Sarah’s future is hers to choose.

 

One of the reasons that the Sarah Winston series works so well is the importance of relationships between the characters. There are natural, warm connections that evolve with the storylines, that ebb and flow as they would with real friends and family. I come to the end of each book, wishing the next one was already at my fingertips.

 

Start with the first book in the series, “Tagged for Death,” and read them all.

 

 

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