Saturday, September 18, 2021

Her Perfect Life by Hank Phillippi Ryan: Reading Room Review

 

I’ve been a fan and reviewer of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s books for a long time, and not once has she let me down.  Her books are always thrilling, twisty, riveting, and intense.  Her Perfect Life continues in the tradition of her other stand-alones, too, with a title that has many applications throughout the book.  It’s one of the things I most love about Ryan’s books, the titles that morph into areas you don’t expect. 

Lily Atwood is a high-profile television reporter, whose stories have earned her Emmys.  She is in her early thirties, has an adorable seven-year-old daughter, a fantastic and well-paying job, a large following on Instagram, an amazing nanny, a beautiful home, and an ace producer.  Oh, and she’s beautiful.  Sounds perfect, right?  Well, Lily also has a secret that could destroy her perfect life.  Her older sister Cassie went missing twenty-five years ago from college, and there were rumors of Cassie being involved in some illegal activities.   Although Lily has tried to find Cassie over the years, Lily is fearful that if her sister is indeed still alive and reappears, it could destroy Lily’s carefully maintained persona of perfection, thus bringing life as Lily knows it to a screeching halt.

Greer is Lily’s producer and assistant at the news station where Lily has soared to the spotlight.  She doesn’t let on to Lily, but Greer has been building up resentment at doing so much work and Lily always getting the credit.  Greer also feels shut out on a personal level by Lily.  There’s no idle, friendly chit-chat between them, no camaraderie of sharing their lives.  Lily has put up a wall that Greer can’t get past.  Lily’s reasons for keeping to herself have to do with wanting to keep her world intact.  And, Greer knows all too well that her job security depends on keeping Lily happy and successful.

News reporters get lots of tips and information from the public about possible newsworthy stories.  Sometimes, a source wants to remain anonymous.  Lily has such a source who has recently given her and Greer some great tips to work on and resulted in major splashes in the Boston area. The man has been nicknamed the generic Mr. Smith by the two women, and when Smith calls, Lily listens.  But, Smith’s calls have started taking a personal turn, with him relaying information to Lily about her own life, information he has no reason to know.  When he also starts calling Greer behind Lily’s back, the action really heats up.  It’s a whirlwind of misinformation, betrayal, and revenge.  When Mr. Smith finally reveals himself to Lily and Greer, this whirlwind becomes a twister.

The story unfolds as the narration changes from Lily to Greer to Cassie.  I’m a fan of the multiple perspectives in telling a story.  The reader gets a more complete picture of events than with just one narrator.  The author did an outstanding job of each of the three characters bringing their unique perspective to the table.  It also shows that a lot of bad choices are made by these three, and lives were marred by those missteps. 

Speaking of characters, the characters are, as always in a Hank Phillippi Ryan book, well-developed, with layers of secrets and challenges, but I have to admit that I was a bit conflicted about who was the most admirable, or who had legitimate issues that were ignored.   Maybe, we are supposed to feel that way.  Lily is a character who I consider a “good” person, but she seems too closed-off emotionally to be a “healthy” person.  She herself talks about not wanting to get close to anyone or have friends, but in a successful team situation, I find her approach wrong-ended.  I know she lost her sister Cassie at a young age and was disappointed in her affair with a married man (except for the result of her daughter Rowan) and uses both as excuses to shut herself off, but being uncaring about the people in your life comes off as cold.  I didn’t really like Lily.  I sympathized with Greer, her assistant more than maybe I was supposed to, but anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of the “talent” getting all the accolades understands Greer’s resentment, if not her actions.  Acknowledgement of the work you do for someone can be a crushing blow when not given.  Added to that Lily’s cold shoulder personally, I’d say Greer had a reason to resent her.  Cassie was the character who gets my vote as the likeable one, the one to be admired.  Her actions were from a pure place, a selfless core to her being.  I would pass on a dinner with either Lily or Greer, but I would enjoy chatting with Cassie.  The “bad” guys in the book were well played, and there are some definite great twists there.

Her Perfect Life is another success for Hank Phillippi Ryan.  Ryan’s writing is as well-honed and detailed as always.  I enjoyed the suspense and surprises that came with it, and I’m sure other readers will too. 

I received an advanced copy of Her Perfect Life from NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge Books, and the above is my honest opinion.

 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams: Reading Room Review

 

              "Books show us the world; they don't hide it."  ~ Mukesh Patel

I don't know if all bibliophiles enjoy books that are about reading itself, but I can imagine that there are quite a few of us that do.  When we've read most or all the books discussed or mentioned, then the thrill increases exponentially.  Several books have become favorites for me because, either by fiction or personal experience, the books tell of how important reading is to their lives and others' lives.  Reading transports us to the stories in those books and how they so often relate to our own lives.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, and The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes are all books that show how reading books positively impacts lives.  Books are deceptively powerful.  They can be an affirmation when you need one, an escape when you need one, a friend when you need one, a learning experience when you don't realize you need one, or a bridge to others when you need that.  They can bring communities together, with programs like "One Book, One City" or just by the public library reaching out to involve the community.  The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams is a rediscovery of community, started by an unlikely friendship and reading.

Aleisha Thomas is working at the local library in the Wembley area of greater London.  It's a small library with not much to do, and Aleisha is both bored and angry.  Her other classmates are off on vacation or having a summer of fun before attending uni cuts into their lives of leisure.  Aleisha's life is anything but carefree.  She needs to work to help with finances at home, where her older brother works hard, but her mother is suffering from mental problems and needs close supervision.  The mother, Leilah, imposes her gloom on Aleisha and her brother Aiden by insisting that the house be shut up, windows closed and curtains drawn, so it's hot and dark, not a pleasant place for a seventeen-year-old and a young man in his mid-twenties.  Aidan had encouraged Aleisha to take the library job, a job he had worked when he was younger and enjoyed.  Of course, Aidan is a reader and Aleisha isn't.  

So, it's not entirely unexpected that Aleisha was grumpy.  She was especially grump to an older man named Mukesh Patel, who came wandering into the library as if it were an alien space ship and he didn't know where he was or what he was looking for.  Mukesh's wife Naina had been the reader, not him.  But, after Naina being dead for two years, Mukesh had finally picked up a book, The Time Traveler's Wife, which Naina had checked out but hadn't returned to the library.  He read it, and it made him feel closer to his wife.  Just having the book in the house helped him feel her presence, but he knew he needed to return it to the Harrow Street Library and so he was now there with the book in his bag.  He thought he might ask the librarian behind the desk to suggest something else to read, as his granddaughter Priya was a voracious reader, and it might help them connect more.

The librarian or helper who is on duty is Aleisha, grumpy Aleisha.  She is in no mood for questions from anyone, even an old man who is looking for a lifeline.  Of course, Aleisha doesn't yet know he needs a lifeline.  To put it mildly, she doesn't have any recommendations for Mukesh.  To put it bluntly, she runs him out of the library.  Mukesh calls the library the next day and reports Aleisha's rudeness, which results in a dressing down from Kyle, another library employee.  Kyle reminds her that she is lucky to have the job and that she needs to engage in some reading, so that she will have actual books to recommend.  His suggestion is that she start with To Kill a Mockingbird.  She takes his suggestion and inside the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, she finds a list of eight books with the words "Just in case you need it" written at the top.  Aleisha feels bad about how she treated Mukesh, and she decides to use the list as a recommendation list for him, with her reading each book ahead of his reading.  

As Aleisha and Mukesh read through the list of books together, they talk about them, and Mukesh's insights surprise me most of all.  We discover just what a deep thinking man he is and how much he needs these books and Aleisha to reconnect to the world.  It's an eclectic list, with titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, The Kite Runner, and Little Women.  They are, of course, what have come to be thought of as classics, and both Aleisha and Mukesh glean relevance from all of them.  Mukesh starts coming out of his shell of mourning more and more, and like all good connections, his and Aleisha's reaches beyond themselves.  What's particularly eye-opening is how important this small community library is to the people who use it and those who will now discover it.

Sara Nisha Adams has written an outstanding debut.  I feel like she looked inside my mind and heart, and she wrote a book for me.  That's always the best feeling when reading a book, those little gasps of how did the author know that's what I felt.  The Reading List is a book about reading, but it's a story about people, too, people we come to care about and want the best for.  Major issues are a part of these two characters, including death, grief, mental illness, loneliness, and aging.  Adams throws a lot at these two, but there really is strength in numbers, whether they come from real life or the pages of a story.  I know I have read one of my favorite books of the year (and beyond) in The Reading List.  I do think the book is more meaningful if you've read at least some of the books on the list.  And, now I need to visit my library and check out one that I missed on the list.

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell: Reading Room Review

 

Lisa Jewell consistently writes books I love to read. The first book I read of hers was Watching You, and this book, The Night She Disappeared is my 5th book by this now favorite author. All books I’ve read thus far have been riveting reads, but I have to say this new one, The Night She Disappeared, has catapulted to the top of the list as my favorite. It’s a book you want to read nonstop until the end, but it’s also a book you don’t want to end. 

Tallulah Murphy is a nineteen year old teen mother in 2017, living with her mother, raising her baby boy, and going to college. The baby’s father has recently come to live with them, and Zach seems to finally be taking to fatherhood now, helping with Noah and working to save money for a place of their own. Tallulah’s mom, Kim, helps it all work, too. Kim has always held her family together, providing for and nurturing Tallulah and her brother Ryan after their father left them. 

Kim is happy that Tallulah and Zach and Noah seem on a good path to self-sufficiency. On a warm summer night in June, Kim babysits Noah as Tallulah and Zach go out to the local pub for dinner and a celebration of sorts, an evening Kim suspects might end in a proposal. But, when the teenagers don’t return by the next morning, Kim knows that something is very wrong. After asking around, she discovers that the two accompanied some other young people their age from the pub to a girl’s house. Kim goes to the house, which turns out to be a monstrosity of opulent excess in the woods, but the girl named Scarlett and her mother say that Lula (what friends call her) and Zach left the party together in the late hours. When Kim runs out of people to question, she reports her daughter and Zach as missing to the Upfield Common police. An investigation is opened, but even after a search of the woods, the question of where the couple disappeared to is still wide open. 

A year later, there’s a new headmaster at Maypole School, the exclusive boarding school located in Upfield Common for affluent students needing a second chance after flunking their GCSEs and their A levels. Shaun, the new headmaster and his girlfriend Sophie move into the headmaster’s cottage, which is on the edge of the school grounds and by the woods. These are the same woods that run by Scarlett’s house and were searched, without result, when Tallulah and Zach were reported missing. 

Sophie is an author of a cozy detective mystery series, and thus, she is intrigued when she comes upon a handwritten sign posted on the fence at the end of their cottage grounds that reads, “Dig Here.” At first, she ignores it, but after a couple of days, she at last gives in and digs. What she finds draws her into the mystery of the missing teens and leads to a meeting with Kim. It would seem someone knows something, and Sophie and Kim become determined to find out who it is and what they know.

The dual timelines, 2017 and 2018, of then and now, the year of the disappearance and a year later, reveal the story to the reader through different perspectives. There is also a 2016 timeline, which I call Tallulah's truth, as gives the readers their insight into Tallulah’s life and feelings leading up to Zach moving in with her. 2016 gives some vital information of what is honestly going on with Tallulah, not just what her mom Kim thinks, and it makes Tallulah’s character the most developed in the book. The alternating timelines are well balanced and give nothing about the ending away at all. It’s still a gobsmacking answer what happened to Tallulah and Zach.

Like the darkness slowly creeping across your lawn at dusk, this book’s pacing brings on the darkness bit by bit of two people disappearing without a trace. While some might consider the pace somewhat slow, I thought it was just right. A slow pace for sure, but one that unfolds the clues and backstory with a slow burn, a burn that explodes at the perfect moment. There’s a feeling that something big is lurking just around the corner, and I found that thrilling. The book is 465 pages, but I can’t think of anything that should have been left out. Even the epilogue served a purpose, but you might need to think carefully about why it's added and what it reveals. I actually read the epilogue twice, one more time after I'd calmed down from the fever of finishing the book.

From the creepy crawly prologue about arachnophobia and the dark to the breathtaking end, The Night She Disappeared is page after page a mesmerizing story. It is high on my list of favorite reads for 2021, and I think it is Lisa Jewel’s best book to date.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Reading Room Interview with Author J.D. Allen

   

 

J.D. Allen.  There is so much to say about this multi-talented, amazing woman, but I'm going to let her tell you about herself and her writing in the answers to my questions below.  I first met J.D. at the St. Pete Bouchercon, and before I loved her writing, I coveted her beautiful red hair.  She is, as you will see, an incredibly interesting person. 

 

Reading Room:  J.D., as you well know, there are crucial elements that have to work to together to result in a successfully written novel.  On your web site, it mentions that you teach “the basics of crime scene investigations, pacing, voice, and POV.”  In my review of Body Zoo, your third Jim Bean book, my last sentence reads, “Reading this book was an opportunity to see how an artist deftly combines elements to create a successful work and how there’s nothing better than a story well told.”  I have a couple of questions about those elements, for which I think you must be an excellent teacher.

 

Reading Room:  How do you chose when to use different POV’s?

J.D.:  It’s one of my favorite subjects, so I should do a panel/class on that. I cross over the thriller/mystery line between books because of this too.

In 19 Souls, I wanted the reader to be in the head of the female serial killer. They always say there are no women who are serials. I say they just aren’t as flamboyant and sexual about it and don’t get caught! But there are plenty of them. I wanted to show the depth of Sophie’s obsessions and the lengths she went to get what she wanted. It was a lifelong journey of anger and justification. I feel like the reader would have felt left out of all that if I had written that one as a traditional hardboiled mystery.

Skin Game, the primary conflict is with Jim and a person from his past that did him significant harm. So that was the most interesting thing for the reader to get to follow for the story. A traditional one POV mystery story structure made sense.

Body Zoo, we’re back to having a situation where the 2 POV scenario is really going to be a bang for the reader. I have, and probably will again, start a book and change it after about a 75 to 100 pages so to avoid depriving readers of the juicy bits of a character in my head.

Flat Black Ford is a revenge and escape story for the antagonist, Stella DeSoto. This one is definitely a dual POV. I got to live out some personal revenge fantasies with Stella.

Reading Room:  Pacing – Can you give readers and other writers a sentence or two about pacing?

J.D.:  Pacing is not one of my strong suits and I pay particular attention to work the middle of the book to keep the pages turning. It’s often something you giggle at the end if you’re not a front end plotter.

Reading Room:  Voice – I know it when I read it, and when I worked with fourth graders and teenagers on writing, it was the one element that I thought might be unteachable.  Some naturally had it.  Is voice teachable?

J.D.:  Maybe teachable is not the right term. You can practice paying attention to the voice of authors and stories you love. Reading aloud will help with that. You’re picking up on subtle things like sentence structure, word usage, even the arrangement of paragraphs and chapters. Then the author has to figure how that fits into their stories and process.

I think you can mimic a voice until you can twist it into your own, yes.

 

Reading Room:  I’m sure you get this question quite often, but I think it’s something major about you that readers are interested in if they know your background or will be interested in if they are just learning it.  So, writing romance novels.  Why the switch to crime/mystery?  What initiated this change?  And, what helped you and/or hindered you the most from your romance writing to your smashing success as a crime writer?  And, how did you have to change how you wrote, or did you?

J.D.:  Well, I fell into writing romance. And that’s a long story. So I’ll start with the change over. I was getting paid to write! Who turns that down? But I wanted to write crime fiction. (I have a few King type books in my head and under the bed, but that’s for a different conversation) And changing genres was super difficult. Who knew?

I had to find a new agent, new publishers, new everything. It was like starting all over. Since my romances ran on the steamy side, I wasn’t taken seriously by many of my mystery/thriller peers, especially men when I was trying to get Jim’s books out there. I did exactly what I tell all new authors struggling to get published. Just keep writing. Go to conferences, and network. Work on your craft. It took me ten years to be a so called overnight success.

 

Reading Room:  I know that writers sometimes tire of being asked whether they write with an outline or some sort of plan, or if they write by the seat of their pants.  I have a specific area to ask about in this quagmire of planning/not planning.  Do you write knowing, even if it’s just a general sense, how the story will end? 

J.D.:  I used to be a big plotter. I had all the scenes and outlines plastered on the wall. As time passed (I’m starting my 15th novel) I find I do better when I have good idea about the story and let it roll. I did a 7-page synp for my editor. I can tighten it up on the second pass. #Sorry to those who have taken plotting classes from me in the past. But we evolve.

 

Reading Room:  What was the first story you remember writing, whether it was as a kid or an adult?

J.D.:  I wrote my mom a book at about 9. I still have it. There were cats and a vampire. I admit it needs some editing.

 

Reading Room:  When did you know for sure that you wanted to be a writer, and how did that journey then begin?

J.D.:  I always wanted to be a storyteller. I also always had a horrible time in school. It seemed an impossible dream to be a writer when I couldn’t pass a simple spelling test. I got good marks for creativity and admonished for bad grammar. I thought I was stupid. Was told that a few times. My father made sure I worked really hard to just pass and supported me.

It wasn’t until I was attending classes at Ohio State University that someone suggested I be tested for dyslexia. That changed my life. I was able to get some tools and understand my issues. Reading got easier and it rekindled my love of story. I started writing again. But it was when my late husband was ill, that I got the fire in my belly to write with the intention of earning.

 

Reading Room:  I’m always impressed how supportive mystery/crime writers are to each other.  Are you or have you been in a writers’ group with other authors who read and critique each other’s work.  And do you have any authors who have played an especially pivotal role in your becoming a published author in the mystery/crime genre?

J.D.:  I have met the best people from going to readers' conventions and writers' conferences and networking. There have been so many great people in my corner, from way back in my romance days. We’d be here all day, but I have to mention my friend and conference buddy, Cheryl Hollon and my agent Jill Marr for keeping me sane these last few years. And Jeff Deaver for supporting me and helping with my first mystery/thriller release. Our tribe is amazing.

J.D.:  I’m in my first crit group now. I’ve been hesitant about joining one. Going back to the dyslexia, I usually don’t let anyone read first drafts. But this group seems to be working.  We had all planned to be at Bouchercon. So, when that fell apart, we all met at up at a lake house and had an intensive writing weekend. This year was so isolating, it was great being around my peeps!

 

Reading Room:  Let’s talk some now about Jim Bean in your Sin City crime series.  I’m quite taken with him, but I have to say that I’m quite taken with his whole crew.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine him without them.  How did you come up with Bean?  Is he modeled on anyone in real life?  And did you dream up the whole crew at one time, or did you keep adding as you wrote?

J.D.:  He’s based on several people really. A friend who was falsely accused of rape and his life was all but destroyed. My teenage heartthrob PI, Brett Maverick. And there’s a little bit of my late husband, Allen. Different situations bring differing attributes of each of those guys.

The team came about as they were needed. Most PI’s have to interact with an assortment of law enforcement, attorneys, and such to get the job done. Ely, was the only one that is based on a real person. Gary was a friend who helped with the PI stuff. He not the crazy tech guru, but he was a walking character himself. Most of Ely’s background came from him. Sadly, we lost him to cancer this year. It was heartbreaking. FBF is dedicated to him.

 

Reading Room:  I know you’ve answered this question in other interviews and pieces, but for a complete interview here, I have to ask, why Las Vegas for Jim Bean’s stories?

J.D.:  In the first book we get some of Jim’s background. He had an entirely different life planned for himself. The life threw him a hand grenade. He left his home in Ohio and needed to run and hide and change his name. Vegas seemed the perfect place to do that. And I love going to Vegas. So much to get into there. If I need something strange to happen in a book, I’m able to find a way to make that happen just by searching around the city and the area.

  

Reading Room:  It's no secret that you have some dastardly characters in Body Zoo.  How much do you like writing the “bad uns”?

J.D.:  That’s my favorite. I always start a book thinking I need to pull back on that. And somehow, the bad uns get badder as the book comes together.

Reading Room:  Another character comment and question.  I love how even your characters who are on the side of “good” have their obvious flaws.  Any comment on those flaws? 

J.D.:  I’m not telling you mine, but don’t we all! The best people, like all the best characters, are forged in fire.

 

Reading Room:  With the Jim Bean books, how have you kept track of the details from book to book?  Do you use a spreadsheet or a notebook or any such tool to keep it all straight as you’ve progressed with the series?  
 
J.D.:  I started with notebook that I managed to misplace. Then I turned to a spread sheet as a digital series bible, and now I use the Plottr program.  It can have pictures for visual reference for characters. It took a bit to set as I keep all character names, what part they played in each book and their status. Dead or Alive.

 

Reading Room:  What sort of research do you do for the Jim Bean books?  What kind of resources?

J.D.:  I go to Vegas, Baby! I was there in the between times when the virus numbers were lower, and we thought things were getting back to normal. Boy was I wrong!?! But, in general, I use all kinds of things for research. The internet, Google Earth is such a great tool when you can’t leave the house.  I call people, do police ride-a-longs, read books and blogs.  Attend for-writer-cons like Writer’s Police Academy. You know I spent some time with a taxidermist for Body Zoo!

 

Reading Room:  Flat Black Ford, Jim Bean #4, is just out, and I see it’s getting great reviews (I'll have a review coming out in a few days).  One thought is that this book isn’t as dark as the first three.  Could you comment on that? 

J.D.: Not sure I intended it that way. But again, the crimes and those who commit them, determine the creep level. There is some grit. But I think I needed a little lighter while seeing so many people dying on the news all of last year.

 

Reading Room:  What’s up next for your readers, J.D.?  Will there be any more Jim Bean books?  (Please say yes.)

J.D.:  I’m starting the fifth right now. The title was just approved – Brick and Bones! This time we’ll learn a little more about Ely and delve into some Vegas mob history. I’ll try to get the gritty/bloody/ dark back for the fans of that.

 

Reading Room:  What sort of books do you most enjoy reading, and what’s on deck for you now?

J.D.:  I still read slower than most. And usually that means I read mostly in my genre, and I read my friend’s books. I just started to get hooked on memoirs, too. Right now, I’m about to crack the spine of the latest Jess Lowery.

I enjoy a variety of crime fiction so it’s hard to nail down just a few names because I know I’m leaving a large number of people out. But I got hooked on Reacher, and you’ll see a lot of my voice mimics that. I love Tami Hoag, Lisa Jackson, Laura Lippman, and Matt Coyle. New finds are James D.F. Hannah and LynDee Walker.

         

Reading Room:  One last question, J.D.  Do you have any hobbies or talents or interests that might surprise your readers, or something that is a passion apart from writing?  It could also be a little known fact about you, like you were an astronaut or a belly dancer. 

J.D.:  Little known fact. I’m a bit competitive. In my younger days, I was a speed skater. On wheels! I raced all the way to the national championships. Lost. Hurt my knee in the second heat. That seems like a million years ago.

I was also a member of the national championship equestrian team from Ohio State. Got to travel with them for a couple years while finishing my degree. Made the college experience so good for me given I was about a decade older than most the students. My best buddy, Jill Smith, was the best. She won all the classes and the all-around champ. We’re still friends and she was part of the reason I moved to Florida.

 

 

Sin City Series

                                

Monday, August 30, 2021

Shot Caller (NYPD Negotiators #2) by Jen Danna: Reading Room Review

 

Jen Danna has been an author whose plots have intrigued me for the last decade, beginning with her co-authoring series, the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries and, more recently, the FBI K-9 Mysteries. Last year she began her solo series the NYPD Negotiators, and Shot Caller is the second book in this exciting new line of stories. Again, this series carries on the excellent plotting of her past writing. The stories begin with an engaging premise that focuses on resolution, no wandering loose canons but a clear path of action and intent. 

When talking about police procedural stories, readers generally are referring to following an investigation from the criminal act or discovery of a body to gathering evidence and finding the perpetrator(s) of the crime. With the NYPD Negotiator series, we start with a guilty party and watch as the police negotiators try to defuse a dangerous situation to prevent more damage or more loss of life. The negotiator police procedural could be called a sub-genre of a sub-genre. Whatever it’s called, it is as fascinating as any investigation is. The tension and suspense are constant, as lives hang in the balance of a negotiator being able to reason with the unreasonable. 

The situation Gemma Capella faces in Shot Caller is a prison riot at Rikers, the prison that sits on Rikers’ Island in the NYPD jurisdiction. Rikers is a hotbed of rival gang members and the dregs of society, sprinkled with unfortunate others who find themselves incarcerated with the hard-core criminals. The conditions are nightmarish. One area of the prison is named the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit, created to improve on the solitary confinement situations. In the ESH inmates spend a minimum of seven hours outside their cells and have access to mental health and social programs, much different than the former 23 hours in the cell and one hour out of previous solitary confinement conditions. However, the units had not been as successful as the DOC, Department of Corrections, had hoped. It is this unit where a prisoner is able to get loose from his shackles, instigate a fight, and lead the prisoners in overcoming the guards and taking over the cell block. 

More usually a negotiation involves one person with whom the negotiating team must establish contact and try to convince the hostage taker or perp into a give and take relationship, with the goal being the person ultimately giving himself up and any hostages freed. This time Gemma and her team are faced with a cell unit full of 42 prisoners and eight prison guard hostages. Whereas there might be hope of one negotiating team handling and resolving a situation in a day’s time in a normal stand-off, there’s little hope a prison situation will resolve itself in a day or even two. Gemma’s boss, Lieutenant Garcia forms two teams, with Gemma as the lead negotiator on one, the one operating from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. 

Not all negotiations are successful, and so there is an Apprehension Tactical Team, the A Team, always ready to go in with force and end the situation. They are highly skilled and competent at their job, but too often there is loss of life when they must go in. The negotiators want to avoid the A Team solution, and work hard to do so, but it is the tactical team’s leader that has the final say in when their actions are necessary. Gemma has a good working relationship with the tactical team, and she expects to be given every chance possible to pull the conflict out of the fire.

With the initial take-over of the cell block, there is, of course, violence. It’s not known initially if any of the prison guards or prisoners are dead or injured badly. There’s plenty of bad blood in the mix. Different gangs who hate each other and, most dangerous, all the prisoners hating the guards. A powder keg waiting to ignite is not an exaggeration. The first order of business for the negotiators, after getting set up, is to contact someone inside, but even that has to wait for a cooling down period this time. When Gemma starts trying to open communications, it takes a while, and she fears that there is only chaos and no one in charge.

The prisoner who finally answers Gemma’s call is Rivas, a member of the Filero Kings gang. Kill Switch, his gang name, gains control of the unit, and focuses on Gemma as the negotiator with whom he’ll communicate. Thus, Rivas becomes the “shot caller,” and just like it sounds, he will be the one to either work with Gemma or call off negotiations. It takes all the years of experience Gemma has accumulated to handle the volatile scene, where a misstep on her part can mean someone dies. At first there are some steps forward, and Gemma gets Rivas to submit a list of demands, always an important step in negotiations. But, unpredictability is always just around the corner, and in a negotiation with rival gang members in the mix, the chances for disaster are high. At a moment of crisis, will cooler heads prevail, or will force be the only viable answer? Readers will find it hard to predict the outcome. 

Besides plot and pacing, Jen Danna has a deft hand at character development. Each book is revealing more about the Capella family, a strong, closely knit group who have each other’s backs. Of course, it helps that they are all deeply entrenched in the NYPD, with Gemma’s father being the current Chief of Special Operations for the NYPD, her brother Alex being in Internal Affairs, and brother Joe being a captain with the NYPD Gang Unit. Joe is able to give some insight into the gang members holed up in the cell unit. Readers will be drawn to this family who has suffered a tragedy early in Gemma’s life and who followed in the father’s footsteps of service. I look forward to getting to know them more and more. 

Jen Danna is what I call a solid writer, one who has control over her story and gives readers a tightly woven plot where characters do their jobs without hysterics or psychological stumbling blocks. I’m not saying that there aren’t some background issues hanging around, and I’m not precluding the possibility for surprises; I’m just saying the focus of the story is maintained, which is the negotiation. Danna’s storylines are fresh and immediately pique my interest as soon as I start the book. With #2 now read, I can assure readers that the NYPD Negotiators is a sharp new series that will engage your attention with complete captivation.

I was fortunate to receive an advanced reader’s copy of Shot Caller from the author and from NetGalley. The above is my honest review.