Cerberus Confidential (Primordial Realms Book 1) by Stacy Benedict

Detective Niels Troelsen and his partner Detective Elan Cohen are once again primed for canine intrigue in Cerberus Confidential, author Stacy Benedict’s offbeat and incredibly creative new science fiction/mystery mashup.

In this slim volume, the two detectives must figure out just what happened to a libidinous lady who has stepped away from her husband and boring job to seek adventure with her problematic paramour, who is himself torn between what he ought to do and what he knows in his yellow-bellied heart he will do.

And so a first-rate conundrum begins to consume the two Canine caste Primordials — who in actuality hail from a faraway world called Arimoi. They’re on Earth to protect humans — from other humans.

They visit the victim’s place of employment, trendy VigorNourish, to try and unearth some kind of clue that will shed much-needed light on the case. Surveillance cameras in the company’s parking garage give a hint as to the noontime activities of the missing woman and point the pair of detectives in a promising new direction.

A visit to a nearby shooting club puts them in touch with a nervous archery instructor — Ernest Truman — who flees after the brief interview to an emotional meeting for shopaholics and hoarders.

Niels — who takes the form of a dachshund and hides under a table to eavesdrop during the meeting hears the unfortunate archery teacher break down, confessing the purchase of thousands of dollars worth of leather goods — the very items that came tumbling out of a locker rented at the club by the missing woman earlier.

On and on the plot deepens, as every page turn reveals a new suspicious character for the reader’s consideration as a potential perpetrator.

Indeed, this delightfully well-constructed novella overflows with outre characters who jump off the page fully formed and so artfully described you’ll feel you’ve met them somewhere. For example, consider this delicious description of shooting club owner Whitney “Call Me Bullwhip” Foxgloves:

“(In came) a red-faced fellow whose stomach entered the room before him. He wore cowboy boots and a white button-down T-shirt with the words ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ embroidered in gold thread above his heart.”

And, this priceless piece of prose that arises farther along in the investigation:

“Beatrice’s possible murder lurked in every corner of the investigation like a large, fuchsia-colored, and unspoken-about whale.”

So much great writing, so little room in this review to recount all of it.

Five-plus stars to Cerberus Confidential. Come for the curious concept of shapeshifting detectives. But stay for a roundhouse solution to the mystery that would have impressed Charlie Chan.

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Beat Bop: A Varian Pike Mystery by Jack DeWitt

“Five-Plus Stars to Beat Bop” – Publishers Daily Reviews

Smooth jazz-loving private investigator Varian Pike meets enlightened, poetry-quoting thief Ronnie Hayes at the very beginning of the excellent new P.I. mystery Beat Bop, by master storyteller Jack deWitt. And the unlikely duo immediately form an investigative alliance that is at once highly entertaining and totally unique among novels in this genre.

After a back alley fight that’s quickly decided in their favor despite the size advantage of their two oafish adversaries, Pike and Hayes find they are kindred spirits, despite their considerable age difference.

Both can handle themselves in a pinch, both love Thelonius Monk, and both have a view of the laws of the land as more akin to guidelines than actual rules.

But it’s the next pivotal event that truly bonds this fascinating twosome — the murder of a man in a suburban home that Hayes is about to burgle. His original objective is to recover incriminating photos of one of Pike’s young clients. But he has to beat a hasty retreat when police arrive to investigate.

And so, with that, one of the best mysteries this year is well and truly set in motion.

Beat Bop is a confidently-written, erudite novel with major and minor characters that rise well above the standard hard-boiled detective fare. More given to flights of philosophy than to fast-paced car chases, this exceptional read is a thinking man’s — or woman’s — noir mystery, steeped as it is in arcane knowledge of past jazz greats and lyrical poetry by the likes of Walt Whitman.

But back to the plot, which thickens, as they say, when hoodlums tail Pike ceaselessly, pausing just long enough to fire off a round or two at him. He then must connect the Byzantine trail of dots that pepper the path from the brutal murder of the tabloids reporter in a quiet suburb to the yellow journalist’s unfinished story on a hinky investment firm in the Big Apple.

Pike and Hayes must weave carefully through an ever-growing collection of colorful characters designed skillfully by the author to enrich the storyline and enhance the mystery. These players jump fully formed into the reader’s consciousness through some of the most well-written descriptions we’ve seen in awhile:

“He always reminded me of a cartoon rat, big ugly head on a skinny body. We knew each other a little. We didn’t like each other a lot.” And,

“His hair was slicked down with enough grease to lube a Mack truck.”

Pike and Hayes keep at their task despite the worst that can be thrown their way by felonious thugs and corrupt cops, and eventually find a way to pit the bad guys against each other, resulting in the mega fatal “Greenwich Massacre.”

But one of the most satisfying aspects of this book — aside from the salty dialogue and 4D characters — is the ending, which doesn’t offer a happily-ever-after vibe, but rather a sense that characters will play out their own special karma for good or for ill.

Kinda like real life.

We award Beat Bop our very highest rating of five-plus stars. It’s the one mystery this year you won’t want to miss.

And, by the way, readers should take note that this is the second Varian Pike mystery created by this outstanding author. Find the others, entitled Hoochie Coochie Man, and Delicious Little Traitor, by clicking the Amazon links below.

Amazon Link to Beat Bop
Amazon Link to Hoochie Coochie Man
Amazon Link to Delicious Little Traitor

The Separation by Thomas Duffy

Finn is a confused young man. And for good reason. He lives on a world in the distant future where the sexes have been separated for the first 22 years of their lives, supposedly for the greater good of society. But in fact, this both solves and creates problems.

Sent away to one of the country’s “boy states,” he grows up feeling the world is a little strange; that something is missing, and that perhaps he’s being lied to.

So he finally goes off to college, and begins to learn some hard truths about life — one of them being the awesome realization that human beings are created by, of all things, other human beings.

Thus enlightened, he enters into a relationship that gives him a son and many more puzzles to solve. He then struggles with career, women, and the overarching notion of finding happiness in life.

In Finn’s world, selfishness is a worse crime than murder. And individual pursuits, psyches, and abilities are strictly controlled in the interest of societal well-being. It is indeed a bleak, joyless existence.

Readers of sci-fi who like social justice issues embedded in their stories will enjoy following the thought-provoking revelations experienced by Finn. Because, for some reason, when all else fails, Finn still wants to survive in this incredibly restrictive world.

It’s a remarkable twist on the traditional coming of age story, powerfully presented as it is with a strong dose of social and political insights mixed in for good measure.

Readers will also likely find themselves rethinking — and reassessing — their own social norms, historical decisions, and personal choices as The Separation rolls to its surprising conclusion. It’s the kind of book that makes us grateful for the relatively unrestricted lives we lead.

This is excellent social reflection sci-fi on the order of The Handmaid’s Tale. And even though Finn’s journey is less harrowing in some ways, it is nevertheless quietly evocative, following him as it does through the pitfalls of a medicated, disciplined, controlled life — a life in which people are born to work, sex drive is suppressed, and all human emotion is regulated for the common good.

Five-plus stars to The Separation. Rarely do we see such an ambitious social agenda combined so effectively with compelling narrative, well-drawn characters, and a story that’s just so eminently readable.

Amazon Link

Flying Jenny by Theasa Tuohy

Laura Bailey doesn’t want much. Just a front page byline in her New York City tabloid about something more substantial than the quality of the finger sandwiches at a Ladies Auxiliary luncheon.

Oh, well, maybe it would also be nice to know who her father was. But for that to happen, her mother would need to show a compassionate side — something she hasn’t done in all of Laura’s 22 years living with her in the cramped little apartment they share in The City.

That’s just one of the deceptively subtle backstory threads underlying standout author Theasa Tuohy’s superb new historical novel, Flying Jenny. The book ostensibly is about the heady late 1920s, when the public went crazy every day over barnstorming pilots and their heroic stunts. And, most significantly, it’s about a petite young eighteen-year-old named Jenny Flynn, whose outrageous feat of flying under each of the four Manhattan bridges begins the book.

But look deeper, past the well-written dialogue that captures perfectly the swell lingo of the day. And the expertly rendered scenes detailing early aviators’ seat-of-the-pants flying style. These are real people a reader can care deeply about — they’re never cliched or stereotypical. It takes superb writing skill to skirt the temptation to render some minor characters two dimensional. But Tuohy succeeds, page after page, delivering a fresh narrative that never fails to entertain.

The main source of tension in the story derives from Laura’s headstrong, stubborn drive to prove herself worthy to report the news in an overwhelmingly male newspaper market. And serving as counterpoint is Jenny’s breezy ability to excel effortlessly, executing the most complicated aerobatic maneuvers as well as any man, without comment or fanfare.

This sets up inevitable conflict between the two lead characters, Laura goading Jenny to push past what’s easy, and Jenny genuinely perplexed at Laura’s need to prove herself. That, and Laura’s achingly vulnerable naivete about men, which leads predictably to trouble.

The story winds its way through the Midwest, as the troupe performs its aerobatic routines for a breathless public, and a slowly simmering subplot involving Laura’s father gains momentum toward a climactic confrontation in which many things are revealed.

We give Flying Jenny five plus stars for its ambitious themes and flawless writing. We seldom see such superb storytelling skills among the dry, dusty tomes that make up so much of the historical fiction genre. Flying Jenny goes well beyond the norm and delivers a spectacular summertime read..

Amazon Link

War World by Rod C. Spence

Six teenagers square off against impossible odds and remorseless aliens in a desperate attempt to rescue parents marooned on a distant planet in War World, one of this year’s most creative and entertaining novels.

Author Rod C. Spence has created  a frighteningly plausible scenario in which titanic biotech companies battle viciously for control over mankind’s future. And a half dozen so-called “TerraGen Kids” — so named for their parents affiliation with the company that created the Portal to the planet Genesis — are right in the thick of things, dodging death across space and time in a highly cinematic storyline.

Early on, Jeremy Austin and best friend Patrick Korrapati narrowly escape the hungry maw of a genetically engineered super soldier, only to find there are still more fearsome creatures willing to deal out torture and death in a heartless quest to get what they want — an invaluable scientific diary belonging to Jeremy’s dad.

As the book unfolds, Jeremy, Patrick and the rest of the TerraGen Kids — Marissa, Selene, Leo, and Alex — pack their gear for a trip through the Portal — a wormhole to the planet Genesis, where TerraGen officers went to set up shop months ago, away from prying government eyes. It didn’t turn out well, as the teens and a small army of mercenaries hired as “protection” quickly discover. They cross the celestial void to find a world that is terrifyingly hostile and teeming with its own primordial conflicts.

Perilous adventures abound on Genesis, where the teens quickly become separated from their protectors and move into survival mode. They fight against a dizzying mix of eerily intelligent Neolithic monsters, predatory aliens, and an evil Gnome-King who answers to an even darker lord.

The teenaged wisecracking dialogue is spot-on, never lagging or stereotypical. These are kids straight out of any high school in America, with the same achingly vulnerable issues that are the province of that age. They care deeply for each other — even in the midst of withering sarcasm and rapier ripostes often uttered in the throes of a dangerous encounter with prehistoric beasts or vicious alien predators.

And much of the author’s turns-of-phrase in the book are priceless as well:

“Their experiments made the Nazis look like compassionate health care workers.” And,
“If the Grim Reaper wore a suit, this man would be his twin.” And,
“He looked like a little boy who just found out Santa Claus was a serial killer.”

There’s a surprise in just about every chapter of this spellbinding novel, and many of them send the story careening down completely new paths. It is deliciously unpredictable fiction from an expert storyteller who has the unsettling talent to create — and then snuff out — characters readers come to care deeply about. Between the fast-paced sci fi action, the unrelenting violence, and the superb, character-rich narrative, the book is two parts Michael Crichton and one part Stephen King.

This first installment in the War World franchise ends on a tantalizing, cliff-hanging note that’s sure to line up readers for the next book — or big screen adaptation, whichever comes first.

Five-plus stars to War World. It’s a well-written winner.

Amazon Link

Emergence by dhtreichler

Immortals are starting to multiply despite the best efforts of the ACLU and concerned citizenry in this exceptional finish to dhtreichler’s Ghost in the Machine trilogy. In this book, Sage Washington continues to have her own questions about the limitations of immortals — and wonders whether there shouldn’t in fact be a few.

Specifically, she contemplates, among other things, if age limits shouldn’t be built into the transition software, capping immortals’ lifespans at, say, one hundred years. And she also wonders — obsesses, actually — about whether this trade-off for escaping her failing former body was worth it. After all, she has lost something very precious in the process — her ability to feel human. And that thought bothers her. A lot.

This kind of intense introspection, dealing with the morality of scientific breakthroughs, has become a hallmark of good science fiction throughout the decades ever since sci-fi great Robert Heinlein made such stuff standard in his fictional fare way back when. His books frequently weighed in on the consequences of too much technology too soon.

Couple that kind of vivid warning with intricate executive suite intrigue — expertly written by someone who is obviously right at home on Mahogany Row — and you have a fascinating mashup of genres not found anywhere else in fiction today.

Sage has been tasked with finding a way to merge the two leading software giants of her day — AppleCore and rival Symbol Ventures — into one technologically dominant leader in the consumer communications and entertainment market.

In addition, she must cope with current public backlash against her and other immortals. Specifically, people are convinced that they are intent on taking jobs away, since one immortal can do the work of ten mortals. The resistance is being spearheaded by the ACLU, and a group that calls itself “Americans Against Immortality. ”

As the book continues, Sage becomes increasingly contemplative about the long-term consequences of immortality, seeing ever more clearly that the trade-off to near godlike status comes with a heavy toll.

She yearns more and more often for a return to what she refers to as “a more humane” condition. For in her current form, she finds that she can experience the sensuous wonder of unlimited orgasms, yet cannot even remember what the taste of a good wine is like. It’s a bittersweet fact that she cannot now escape.

“What does sex have to do with love when you can’t reproduce?” she ponders, regretting a future with no hope of progeny.

One last comment on this masterfully created work of futuristic fiction. The novel features a bit of a surprise twist about three-quarters of the way through. There’s a poignant development regarding Sage’s family that reveals at least one good thing about scientific breakthroughs. And this unexpected new character succeeds in giving Sage one of the answers she wants most about what it’s like to be human: “It means caring for someone else more than yourself,” says this new player.

Does Sage ultimately return from a condition approaching deity to embrace mortality once again? And, if so, who — or what — reverses this inexorable march toward life without limits? Finally, does A’zam — her sexually predatory boss — ever get what should be coming to him?

Find out when you read this excellent, five-plus star homage to past sci-fi greats who also sounded the clarion call to examine carefully the Pandora’s Box that often accompanies technological strides.

Barely Human by dhtreichler

Sage Washington is back for a return engagement as an immortal CEO in this remarkable sequel to dhtreichler’s earlier novel, Ghost In the Machine. 

Transitioned into a twenty-year-old version of her forty-year-old former self to avoid impending death, Sage is seeking to make the very most of her new abilities and new role as AppleCore’s first immortal CEO.

She’s tough and unrelenting, driving her software development team to new heights of productivity. But inwardly, she wonders sometimes if the world is really ready for an entirely new race of people with the potential to rule the planet.

The author once again shows his masterful ability to compellingly and disturbingly mesh the disparate worlds of groundbreaking science fiction with hard-charging corporate management techniques. Anyone who works now in the rarified air of a big company’s C-Suites — CEO, CFO, COO, etc. — or wants to — will be fascinated by exposure to the author’s ultra-realistic command of upper management motivational techniques.

It really is enlightening, for example, to be privy to the inner dialogue that accompanies many of Sage’s actions geared toward gaining more productivity per individual. Much of it is more than a little calculating and even a bit manipulative — which leads her to wonder about the loss of her humanity as a result of being transitioned to immortal status.

At one point she summarily fires a department head for ducking a colleague’s question about how he is going to solve a problem within his sphere of influence. Stunned, the man is quickly escorted out of the building by security guards while the other team members suddenly snap to attention and prepare to substantially up their game.

In another instance, she silences a subordinate’s voice box because he isn’t being a team player, then brusquely defends the punitive intervention when he asks what he is supposed to do now and how he will communicate.

“Think about how you add value to the team you are assigned to in the role you are assigned,” she says. Another team member adds, “You’ll figure it out.”

Throughout the book various interpolations of the “what aspects of humanity have we lost?” question resurface, Even the topic of achieving the perfect orgasm is examined, since Sage must now rely solely on software code to tell her whether the experience she just had with her boss, A’zam, was as good or better than her memories, which are stored in a cerebral microchip.

This kind of extensive narrative discussion on the various aspects and consequences of achieving immortal status make for a fascinating departure from most action-driven novels dealing with such futuristic themes. Here, the reader is forced, like Sage, to form an opinion on the relative merits of immortality. It makes for a very rewarding intellectual exercise.

About a quarter of the way into the book, an element of conflict arises when a plan is revealed to put hidden self-limiting elements into the software of all immortals — the digital equivalent of mind control. All immortals will lose the ability to choose their own actions in certain key situations. This order comes from A’zam, whose character is chillingly complex with equal portions of megalomania, race superiority and massive misogyny thrown into his portrayal. His notion of eventual global control — no matter how many millennia it takes — is both subtle and frighteningly plausible. He’s a whole new breed of bad guy.

And Sage? Her brilliantly drawn character is more difficult to assess. A long-standing conflict with her father lingers in the background of her behavior, mitigating to some degree her hardball management style and reputation as a “man-eater.’

But not everything she does in the corporate arena can be explained away by her recent transition and subsequent loss of human feelings. Even factoring in near-constant meddling and #MeToo caliber sexual harassment by A’zam, Sage remains, in the end, a true believer in her approach to building a winning and productive team. Will it achieve the results she’s after? Stay tuned for Emergence, book three in this well-written trilogy.

We award Almost Human our highest rating of five-plus stars for its stark look at what could happen when all-too-human characters attain godlike status through technological advancements. The result makes for a satisfying and  thought-provoking read this summer — or whenever you can put it on your must-read list.