Friday, July 9, 2021

Castle Shade by Laurie R. King: Reading Room Review


“Shadowy figures, vague whispers, the fears of girls, dangers that may be only accidents. But this is a land of long memory and hidden corners, a land that had known Vlad the Impaler, a land from whose churchyards the shades creep.” 

Unless it’s that certain time of year, where the ghouls and ghosts are celebrated, you probably won’t find fiction books thematically linked to the Dracula tale grouped together in a library or bookstore. Being a reader who loves a good theme and enjoys a well-written Dracula connected book, I would like to see such a grouping on a permanent basis. I adore different takes on the Dracula theme, but I am especially fascinated by those that are uniquely clever. Castle Shade by Laurie R. King is that. Mixing history, Queen Marie of Romania, with the atmosphere of Transylvania appeals to my love of history and legend combined, and the sleuthing of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes is a thrilling treat.

But, don’t imagine that Castle Shade is a vampire story; it’s not. However, it is very much about the folklore and myths surrounding that tale, how the local people are rather easily swayed to believe in the possibility of a darkness that seeks out the blood of young women. And, this story is set in Romania, with Castle Bran being the summer residence of Queen Marie and where Russell and Holmes are visiting. Readers of this series will remember that Holmes had traveled to Romania by himself when Russell was in Monte Carlo pursuing Mrs. Hudson. Now, Russell is accompanying Holmes back to the area of Romania known as Transylvania (I wonder how many people can read that name and not say it in their heads as Dracula pronounces it). They are there at the request of Queen Marie, beloved Queen of Romania and granddaughter to the iconic Queen Victoria of England. Queen Marie has received a threat that involves possible harm to her youngest daughter Ileana, a girl still in her teens. It is this, the danger to a young girl, that has Russell and Holmes eager to help find answers quickly. But, they must also be surreptitious in their mission, as the Queen wants to keep it quiet, so they are presented as architectural consultants in the ongoing work being done to Castle Bran. 

The threatening letter is one mysterious occurrence, but there are others, including rumors of witches and ghosts and lurking shadows. Something or someone is stirring the pot, so to speak, and they are doing so only when Queen Marie is in residence at the castle, thus hoping villagers will connect the dots to Her Highness. A quick solution is needed before the tide turns against Marie. Villagers in Brasov are already hanging garlic in their doorways. 

Russell and Holmes are at first leaning toward a political explanation to the troubling events, as Queen Marie has been an amazingly effective leader while her husband is in failing health. They think that there might be those wishing her to be a less popular and distracted Queen to push agendas of their own. The political angle also has Russell suspecting that Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother, is responsible for their involvement, something that does not sit well with Mary Russell. But, the welfare of the young princess is more important than Russells' grievances, and, as they investigate and uncover clues, the political culprit seems less likely and personal revenge more likely. 

As per usual, Russell and Holmes don’t waste any time getting right on the case. The two outfit themselves for stealth in their black clothing on the very night they arrive and go cautiously about the village, looking for the unusual to happen. And, happen it does, as the sharp eyes of the pair discover an attempt to poison someone’s chickens and the deliberate placement of a witch’s hex bag on a local's front doorway path. Undoing these attempts to stir up the locals puts Holmes and Russell in control of the narrative, but it will require constant vigilance to maintain that control. When the misdeeds take a new direction of harm to a person, the urgency increases to find the way through the darkness and save lives. Hold on to your hats because the chase gets wild and woolly, including a premature burial experience. 

There are several suspects considered by Russell and Holmes, and I was able to see a case for each of their guilt. But, I was surprised by the actual villain and the reason for wanting to drive Queen Marie away from Castle Bran. Laurie King does a good job of presenting red herrings while leading readers to the miscreant. I’m rather torn between thinking Russell showed great bravery and thinking she took some questionable risks. However, I am more convinced than ever that Mary Russell is a match indeed for the wily Sherlock Holmes. She is continuing to grow in her confidence, and Holmes is realizing that she is growing and their partnership and marriage is shifting. There will be issues to address in the near future. 

Atmospheric is a word that often gets thrown around in describing books set in the countryside of Transylvania, but it is so brilliantly accomplished by King in Castle Shade that it must be noted in my review. The author has such a beautiful command of words in her description of the area and its inhabitants in achieving the spectra of darkness looming over the luscious gardens of the Queen. It’s the atmosphere created that keeps readers on the edge of their seats and believing that anything is possible. 

I was delighted with the seventeenth book in the Russell and Holmes series. Castle Shade satisfied my love of historical connections in my fiction reading with the interspersing of Romanian history after WWI ended and the tale of how Queen Marie came to be Queen of Romania and an enormous asset to her adopted land. I’m always pleased when my fictional reading takes me to seek out more information about the real people and places in the story. And, as crime/mystery is my favorite genre of fiction, the cases that Russell and Holmes pursue continue to thrill me. I highly recommend Castle Shade, and I believe it can be read as a stand-alone, which is a great bonus. Laurie King is a true weaver of tales, who never lets a thread slip, and oh what fascinating threads they are.  

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal: Reading Room Review


Coming from an educator’s background, I can say, with some assurance, that students learn a great deal from reading fiction. And, if I could implement one tool for learning and retaining history, it would be reading more historical fiction in a school’s curriculum. Stories are how the cultural histories and ancient histories have come to us. They are a proven means to bringing history alive and making it relevant. For so many, including me, historical fiction opens a whole new layer of knowledge about historical events or periods that weren’t in the history textbooks I studied in school. I think readers are beginning to realize more and more that our history textbooks barely scratched or scratch the surface of the whole picture. Even the history that I did learn from schools is enriched tenfold with the back-stories of the people and events told in well-researched fiction. When an historical fiction book comes along that makes you realize that you have been looking at a part of history wearing rose-colored glasses, it shakes you, and it encourages you to continue to learn more. 

Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Hollywood Spy was an eye-opener for me about our country during WWII, especially in the warm, sunny place of dreams, Hollywood, California. I knew that California was where the Japanese Americans were hit so hard, with their property being seized and their persons being sent to internment camps (prisons), but I thought that there was a more cohesive, on the same page togetherness of the American people as a whole. That Nazi and pro-Hitler ideology was embraced and acted upon by American citizens in our country during WWII was an unfamiliar fact to me before reading The Hollywood Spy. Maggie Hope becomes cognizant of an America that she is unaware of, too, as she travels from London to Hollywood on a mission of uncovering a murder.

Maggie arrives in Hollywood in July 1943 from war-torn, dreary London with high expectations of a brighter place, and on the surface, it is truly a world of wonder and magic. It’s just been a few months since readers last saw Maggie as she was struggling with major blows from her experiences as an SOE agent. After her self-destructive choice of a bomb diffusing job and risky behavior on her motorcycle, Maggie is ready to embrace a more carefree atmosphere in the golden rays of Hollywood. Of course, with America being full force in the fighting of WWII at this point, there are obvious signs of soldiers shipping out and war preparation, and Maggie has come to this place where the sun graces each day at the request of her former finance, Englishman John Sterling on a serious matter. John has suffered the loss of his current fiancée Gloria Hutton, who was found dead in the swimming pool of the hotel where she resided. John has his suspicions that it wasn’t an accidental drowning but something much more sinister, and he knows that Maggie is the perfect person to discover the truth. But, there are darker elements involved in Gloria’s death than Maggie and John can at first imagine, and Maggie is not so far from her spy days as she thinks. 

Maggie quickly learns that the people in the country where she grew up are not a united people like she thought, like the newsreels show. America’s involvement in the fighting of WWII after the Pearl Harbor attack has certainly had the effect of coming together to win the war, but the divisions between races and religions and politics seem to have widened. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, hate groups have converged into a common cause under the Ku Klux Klan to deny black citizens, including soldiers, and Jewish citizens the rights that white citizens have so long had exclusive hold on. And being 1943, America has the unyielding laws against same sex relationships, as does Britain, another kind of disenfranchisement going on that connects to the murder Maggie is trying to solve. Maggie is dismayed that segregation is a steadfast practice in this creative culture. The restaurants and clubs are divided among lines of color and sexuality, with only the “white” establishments brooking no flexibility.

While Susan Elia MacNeal presents the dark side to 1943 Los Angeles, she also includes the vibrancy of Hollywood, what makes it a gathering spot for the creative. Maggie is able to relax some and enjoy staying with her friend Sarah Sanderson, who is in Hollywood for a movie part, and even enjoy being with John again. With John working for Walt Disney on propaganda films to keep up morale and teaching flying at Howard Hughes’ airport, and with Sarah dancing for George Balanchine for a movie and getting to know some great musicians, Maggie gets to meet some of the top names in entertainment. It’s a treat for readers, too, to read about these entertainers in a setting in which they actually lived and worked. Susan Elia MacNeal always does impeccable research, so the portrayal of such notables as Walt Disney, Cab Calloway, and lesser-known Madame Alla Nazimova are soundly authentic. The Hollywood landmarks, such as the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, the Carthay Circle Theater, Schwab’s Pharmacy, Cocoanut Grove, the Dunbar Hotel, and Club Alabam are thrilling parts of the 40s Hollywood scene and image. MacNeal makes it easy to imagine being in the Chateau Marmont looking out your hotel window, as Maggie did, onto Sunset Boulevard, or listening to Cab Calloway singing “Minnie the Moocher” as the jazz-loving crowd joins in at Club Alabam. 

Susan Elia MacNeal is sure to win awards with The Hollywood Spy, the tenth book in the Maggie Hope series. The novel may be the best in this series, although I’ve loved every one of the previous nine books. I see no problem reading it as a stand-alone, too. It’s such a powerful book that you might not want to wait to read it if you’re still catching up in the series. Of course, I highly recommend readers do read the entire series. MacNeal has an uncanny ability to bring characters and setting to the feeling of personal experience for the reader. The very first book in the series, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, gave me a feeling of wartime London for the individual in a sensory connection I had never felt before. 

There is so much packed into this one book, both historically and character-wise for Maggie. It’s a brilliant author who can combine a complicated and unsavory history of WWII Hollywood with the amazing talent in the entertainment industry with the landmark physical quirks of LA/Hollywood and tie it all to a murder mystery that encompasses the danger of a clandestine enemy. There is an understanding of herself that Maggie comes to, of her place and her value that is a wonderful development to see, and a new confidence she gains. At 332 pages, The Hollywood Spy is just the right length, avoiding superfluous description but giving the reader all he/she/they deserve. I am usually a slow reader, but I flew through this book, as it flowed so perfectly from scene to scene that I found I had to keep going. The Hollywood Spy is a book that I am excited to recommend and promote. 

For this review to be a complete one, I have to mention the material contained within the covers of this book other than the story, before the story and after. The resource section at the back of the book is incredible. It not only shows the lengths to which MacNeal went to do research for this story, but it also provides readers with sources to continue their reading, something I especially want to do after reading this book. Then, there are the two quotes before the story begins, one by Hitler and one by Albert Camus. The one by Hitler talks about undermining the morale of the American people, and the one by Camus tells us that the plague lies dormant but will rise again. The application to our current crisis of hate having become bold again is an easy one to make and a disheartening reality. If history were taught with a whole-picture view, maybe we would not have to keep relearning lessons and keep fighting the same battles.  

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean: Reading Room Review


As a long-time reader and reviewer, I’ve encountered lots of books receiving buzz and declarations that this book must be read. Well, The Last Thing to Burn lives up to all the hype, and it really must be read. I have a shelf where I put stand-alone books that have impacted my soul, and Will Dean’s The Last Thing to Burn will be going on that shelf, joining the likes of Sena Jeter Naslund’s The Four Spirits, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Lori Lansen’s The Girls, Allen Eskens’ Nothing More Dangerous, Gabriel Zevin’s Elsewhere, Paul Fleischman’s Whirligig, and Alan Brennert’s Molokai. There are more, but what all these books have in common with The Last Thing to Burn is that I saw a truth more clearly than I had before reading them. Some might call them teachable books, but there is nothing didactic about them or about Will Dean’s book. Books like these become a part of who you are from that moment you read them and on. So, I owe Will Dean a debt of gratitude for his story that makes me a more enlightened person, a better person. 

Thanh Dao and her sister leave their parents’ home in Viet Nam for better opportunities in the UK, but the men who had promised a bright new future there lied and stole their lives instead. Thanh has been in her new country for nine years, the last seven married to a man named Lenn and living on an isolated farm in the Fens. Lenn calls his wife Jane and requires she adapt to her new country’s way of life, down to the very food she eats. Jane has no freedom and cannot leave the isolated farm in the English Fenlands that she shares with Lenn. There are cameras everywhere watching her every move, and her captor husband reviews them every night so he can see what she has done while he’s been tending to the farm work. She has the prescribed daily tasks of scrubbing the house clean, cooking the meals, and doing the laundry. There are other demands which are worse than the daily drudgery though. 

The story opens with Jane trying to escape while Lenn is off to town, but with her physical impairments, which Lenn has inflicted, it’s excruciatingly slow and laborious. Lenn returns before she can even clear his property. Lenn’s punishment for Jane is not physical but emotional. Each time she disobeys or rebels, she is required to pick one item from the seventeen personal items she brought with her to the farm. Jane is now down to four items, and this escape attempt costs her the precious possession of her parents’ photograph. She is completely disheartened until a woman named Cynth stops by while Lenn is gone. Cynth is looking to rent a pasture for her horse. While Jane must be careful with the cameras ever recording, she does manage to tell the stranger to come back and talk to her husband about it. Jane holds some hope in the possibility of another meeting, as does the reader.

However, before Jane can plan any more escape attempts, which are physically almost impossible for her, a miracle happens, something she never expected. She becomes pregnant with Lenn’s child, which ties her to the hated cottage for at least a while longer but gives her a new lease on her determination to have a life outside of her prison. Her baby deserves better. So, Jane endures being called her husband’s dead mother’s name, cooking his eggs just the way his mother did, never shutting a door for privacy, taking the horse pills Lenn doles out to her for her physical pain and keeping her doped, and daily scrubbing the cottage clean. She must survive for her baby.

When the baby does arrive, it’s a girl whom Lenn calls Mary, but Jane/Thanh calls Huong when she whispers in her child’s ear. There’s nothing easy about taking care of a baby in primitive conditions, and yet, Jane perseveres, as she works toward building up both their strengths to fight for their freedom. Then, a major complication arrives. Another woman is abducted by Lenn and kept in the cellar, and it’s someone Jane knows. Listening to the suffering from this woman come up through the floorboards will just about undo Jane, and the silences are even worse. Can Jane ignore the needs of another human being to save her baby? There are hard choices ahead and no easy answers. If escape is the goal, what kind of escape can that be?

The Last Thing to Burn is a dark read, no doubt about that, but it is also a story that keeps the protagonist and the reader looking for an end to that darkness, believing that its end is possible. Whether it is possible or not, the book shakes the reader’s core. Will Dean takes readers through the terror of being a captive, both physical and mental, by using Thanh Dao/Jane as narrator of her pain and dehumanization. The Last Thing to Burn is billed as a thriller, and that, too, is certainly an accurate description. I was on the proverbial edge of my seat throughout the book, waiting for Lenn’s control to turn deadly. The suspense level never lets up, always the fear by Jane, and by the reader for Jane, that she will make a misstep leading to her end and/or the end of little Huong, whom Lenn has vowed to kill if Jane tries to escape again.

The book at just 238 pages makes every one of those pages count. Every scene moves the story forward in a well-paced swell to the climax, and the twists will cause readers to gasp. The characters are superbly honed for their parts in this human tragedy of a tale. The devastation of human trafficking is front and center but is the personal story of Thanh Dao through which that issue unfolds and from which the reader discovers the horrors of it. The Last Thing to Burn is a tribute to those who live nightmares and yet strive to survive for a better life, a life with dignity, away from cruelty and abuse. Monsters exist, but so does endurance in the face of evil, and sometimes you have to be your own hero. Well done, Will Dean.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton: Reading Room Review


"We were inseparable until the day she killed my sons."

Little Black Lies is one of Sharon Bolton's best books throughout all but the last twist. I hesitate to say that, because first, I don't want to spoil it, and second, because the story is so worth reading. This is not a negative review. I just can't honestly ignore the one aspect of it that made it less than flawless for me. 

Divided into three parts for each of the main characters, it's an emotional, suspenseful tale that completely captivated me. The isolation of the Falkland Islands setting brilliantly coincides with the mental isolations of Catrin, Rachel, and Callum. The few days leading up to the third anniversary date of the tragedy that will always connect them and the few days after that date is the focus of the action, with flashes back to what brought them together and the after-effects of the day when Catrin's two children died as a result of her best friend Rachel's neglect. 

With a young boy from a visiting cruise boat gone missing on the island, there is a frantic search in which all three characters are involved. That there have been two other boys, local boys, missing in the past three years is a fact never far from the islanders' minds. But, it's the next child's disappearance that brings the past tragedy colliding with the present. Betrayal, heartbreak, guilt, regret, and revenge fill the hearts and minds of the three people whose lives have been shattered. What one character hoped would be the anniversary year to end the pain becomes a search for the lost and a desperate grasp for redemption.

This review is a bit different than what I usually do. I've given more of an essence of the book instead of an outlay of the action and opening and closing remarks. I think readers will appreciate discovering for themselves the steps leading to the unexpected ending, an ending with which I'm still grappling, but I'm hopeful I will come to terms with it in view of the amazing book preceding it.

Well worth a mention, in addition to the crux of the novel, is the setting of the Falkland Islands as a perfect setting for the story. Bolton's curtailed descriptions of the Falklands' cultural, physical, and historical attributes play beautifully into the telling of a tragedy, and the flashbacks from Callum of the British and Argentinian war over the islands twelve years prior give that bloody conflict its due.  Also, Catrin's work in conservation after her grandfather's involvement in whaling in a bloody conflict of another type reveals much about the island's survival and its inhabitants. 

I highly recommend this read with only the caveat of my personal distaste for an ending that seemed abruptly tacked on, an unsubstantiated resolution .

Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Ghost in the Garden (Justice Jones #3) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review


It’s book number three in the Justice Jones Mysteries series by Elly Griffiths, and I couldn’t be more pleased with this continuing collection of clever mysteries. When I describe the series to others, I include the effect each book has had on me, that of returning to my youthful delight of first falling in love with mysteries. The elements of true detection and perseverance takes the reader on an adventure where the suspense never loses its edge. These are stories that may be categorized as children’s mysteries, but they are far too good to give over completely to the young sleuth fans. I buy two copies of each book, one for my granddaughter and one for me. 

In The Ghost in the Garden, Justice is thirteen and returning for her third term at Highbury Academy for Girls, and this time she’s actually looking forward to it. Seeing her best friends Stella and Dorothy has her excited, but it won’t be smooth sailing with her besties, as a new girl has joined the Barnowls dormy. Letitia Blackstock is truly one of the daughters of gentlefolk the school caters to, as her parents are extremely wealthy. Letitia takes full advantage of her treasured position at the school, not caring much for rules and seemingly getting away with it by the staff. Letitia has latched onto Justice as a friend, and both Stella, a fellow Barnowl, and Dorothy, a maid, aren’t too happy about Letitia butting into their close trio. Justice herself is unsure how to handle Letitia, and she doesn’t want to lose her closeness with Stella and Dorothy, but the Headmistress Miss de Vere asks Justice to help Letitia acclimate to the school. Dorothy is Justice’s enthusiastic partner in solving mysteries at Highbury, and Stella is her less enthusiastic but still willing other partner in following the trail of evidence. They really don’t need someone meddling in their business. 

The one broken rule you can depend on in Justice’s time at Highbury is not leaving your dormy after lights out. Justice does her best clue searching at night, slinking around the large old house, sometimes with Dorothy, sometimes with Stella, and often by herself. She has discovered a couple of ways to go outside to the grounds of the house at night, and it’s just as atmospheric as you think it might be, reading about Justice’s visits to the old tower or the empty disused swimming pool. Justice has nerves of steel and a confidence gained from reading her late mother’s detective books. The head mistress, Miss Delores de Vere, despairs of Justice’s boldness in pursuing the mysteries that seem so at home at Highbury. With Justice’s father Herbert, who is a busy London Barrister, having an apparently long standing friendship (something Justice still doesn’t understand) with Miss de Vere, Justice always manages to avoid being expelled. 

After spending the Half Holiday with Letitia at her family’s nearby estate, Letitia’s mother has sent the two girls back to school with an enormous amount of food treats. As is the tradition goody baskets from home are shared with the whole dormy, so the Barnowls plan their feast. Letitia, who seems to like breaking rules as much as Justice, suggests they take their bounty to the Haunted Tower on the grounds at midnight, but practical Stella reminds them it will be locked. Justice comes up with the barn next to the ice house as an acceptable location, acceptable only because the ghost of Grace Highbury is said to walk in the gardens there. So, they sneak out to the barn that night and after gorging themselves on cakes and sandwiches, they hear a scream and see a ghostly figure who looks like a young girl. Their response is to run for the house and get back to their room. But, as they recover from the excitement, they notice Letitia is missing. Thus begins Justice’s new mystery challenge to solve. As usual, it has some thrilling twists and a surprising resolution.

This series has a trifecta of perfect elements coming together. The time setting for mystery/crime couldn’t be more perfect for highlighting pure detecting, without use of fancy or electronic devices. The time period is 1937, so Justice and her sleuthing team must depend on the little grey cells that Hercule Poirot so often refers to in his work. There are no cell phone distractions or Google or 911 (999 in the UK). The geographic setting is perfect for mystery, too, as Highbury House, School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk, is located on the edges of the Romney Marsh area of southeast England, a remote, isolated setting. A bad storm, rain or snow, can completely cut the school off from the rest of the world. And, Highbury House itself seems made for mystery, with its turrets and tunnels and cellars and a new hidden feature in this book, a priest hole. The character of Justice is yet another brilliant stroke of genius on the author’s part. Justice, having grown up until age eleven with a mother who wrote mystery novels and a father who is involved in murder trials, has an advantage in gearing her thinking toward clues and evidence. But, she also seems just naturally inclined in working out puzzling situations. She keeps a journal of clues and evidence and suspects and observations. I like that the time period requires her to rely on herself as the resource, to dig for clues and do research from scratch, so to speak. So, time setting, physical setting, and character form an impressive trio of elements collaborating to support an always exceptional story. And, I must give kudos to the covers for this series for disproving the old adage you can’t tell a book by its cover. Well, in this series, yes, you can. They are truly works of art that are matched inside by a work-of-art story.

It seems I can’t close a review of anything written by Elly Griffiths without a mention of how masterful she is in creating characters, both main and supporting. Besides the main character and regular amazing cast, the author always includes new characters who are fascinating and integral to the plot. I have long ago pronounced Elly Griffiths as Queen of Character Creation. Of course, these clever characters are lucky to be woven into a story worthy of them, plotted by a person born to tell stories. And, don’t forget the Ruth Galloway series, the Brighton (Stephens and Mephisto) series, and the stand-alones by Elly Griffiths. To find an author who is so talented and so versatile is truly one of my most treasured reading discoveries. Enjoy them all.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Body Zoo (Sin City Investigations #3) by J.D. Allen: Reading Room Review


“Don’t grow roots, girl. Roots get you stuck. And stuck gets you dead.”

I do so love being gobsmacked by a book. Body Zoo by J.D. Allen obligingly did just that. I went into this third Jim Bean book without having read the first two, so I was clueless as to what to expect. What I got was a gripping story that kept its pedal to the metal and gave me one hell of a ride. The pacing was right on the mark, no dragging or flying too fast. Add to an exquisitely twisty storyline the cast of dynamic characters who leap into your mind page by fascinating page, and the reader is solidly hooked. The main character of Jim Bean and his support crew are unerringly a work of perfection, but the author doesn’t stop there with her ability to character dazzle you. The bad guys, oh those bad guys, are a work of art, too.

Now, here is the outstanding bonus to reading Body Zoo. I mentioned that I hadn’t read the previous two Jim Bean books, 19 Souls and Skin Game (officially called the Sin City Investigations series). The bonus is that readers can read Body Zoo like a stand-alone and be completely in the loop of Jim Bean’s world. However, I should warn you, a good kind of warning, that reading Body Zoo is going to have you scrambling to buy from your favorite bookstore or borrow from your library the first two books. Although I want to kick myself for not having started reading the series when it started, it’s a great feeling to know there’s more before (and a new one later this year). 

Jim Bean is a private investigator who prefers to keep his life simple. He does not achieve this goal, except financially. His friends and cohorts in investigations include his old friend, and by old I mean 70 years old, Ely, who likes his weed and knows his technology. His other male friend is Oscar, who is a bounty hunter and always a good person to have on your side. The third all-star player is Sandy, a college student who has pretty much whipped all three men into submission. Her intuitive skills are as sharp as her research skills, making her an invaluable asset to Jim. And, an outsider part of the gang is LVPD Detective Noah Miller, a reluctant resource for official information. This whole ensemble cast works like a well-oiled machine in helping to make Las Vegas a little less mired in its reputation for danger. Of course, anything can happen in Vegas, and the bizarre is natural to its habitat, so Jim Bean and his posse and readers can always expect the unexpected. 

As I said, Jim thinks he wants to keep things simple, but his investigation for an insurance company concerning a burnt mobile home gets him sniffing out secrets on his first walk-through of the burned-out unit. A dead cat that had obviously been hiding in the bathroom, the lack of a personal touch in the trailer, and sparseness of wardrobe all set off an alarm in Jim’s mind about the young woman who lived in the trailer and now can’t be found. Emilee Beck has vanished, and Jim wants to know why and to where. The fire was no doubt started by someone, but Emilee Beck was not that someone. Jim’s work for the insurance company is straight forward, but he can’t let go of the ghostly disappearance. 

Luckily, there is a connection of some importance to a local big business venture in the Las Vegas area, Ward’s Outdoor Adventures, an outdoor adventure empire on the road to Lake Mead. The young heir to this empire, A.J. Ward, is discovered by Jim’s detective friend Miller to be the boyfriend of Emilee. Acting on his curiosity and loosely tying it to the matter of the fire at Emilee’s trailer, Jim goes to Ward’s Outdoor Adventures compound to question A.J about Emilee’s whereabouts. Jim finds A.J. working in the taxidermy shop in the business compound, and while at the taxidermy shop, Jim observes and helps out a bit with a taxidermy project A.J. and the main taxidermy artist Travis are working on. Jim learns of Calvin Ward, who runs the whole show and who is in the medical supply business as well. Calvin’s involvement with that business includes supplying medical teaching facilities with human parts and torsos, a perfectly legal business, with the dead bodies coming from those unclaimed from funeral homes and other places where the dead have donated their bodies to science. It’s a creepy business, and Jim soon learns that Calvin is one creepy man.

Soon after Jim’s interview with A.J., the young man also goes missing, and Jim is called on by A.J.’s father Richard to find his wayward son. It is apparent, when Jim meets with the Ward brothers, that Calvin is clearly in charge, and Richard is the silent partner due to early dementia and physical limitations. The Ward family outdoor business owns a large amount of land in Utah that is used for guided hunting excursions as part of their business. The thinking is that A.J. might be hiding out there and the brothers are concerned it involves Emilee. So, Jim gets to indulge his search for the missing young woman in his pursuit of the young man. 

Emilee has, with some unfriendly urging from others, left Las Vegas and the small community of Henderson and has temporarily landed in the small town of Sparks to make some quick cash and come up with a plan for moving on. She isn’t worried about the fire or being blamed for it. Emilee has much darker worries that compel her to keep looking over her shoulder. She trusts no one, but she has let her guard down by staying too long in Henderson and getting to know a few people, like A.J. He keeps texting her, telling her he can help her, but she’s only completely trusted one other person in her life, and that person is long dead. With Emilee’s past closing in on her, options are quickly disappearing. The story explodes into a cat and mouse game with more than one cat and mouse. There are deep, dark secrets that will drop like a ton of bricks into Jim Bean's search. The danger for all is at a fever pitch, and there is no turning back from a collision of wits, power, and depravity. You might think it’s over before it is. The intensity of the chase will keep readers on the edge of their seats, and there is no escaping the full-fledged impact of brutality. 

I should note that when I started reading Body Zoo, I was only going to take a peek, as I had a reading schedule for reviews I was already trying to keep under control. Well, there is no peeking at this book. Once the reader starts it, the reader must follow it to the end. J.D. Allen is a master crafts-person of the art of writing, and thankfully she shares her knowledge by teaching classes about some of its most crucial elements. From suspenseful, perfectly paced plot to great characters to dialogue that is always on point and contains great wit, this author shines in every aspect of what makes a story unforgettable. 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.