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Strong from the Heart: A Caitlin Strong Novel (Caitlin Strong Novels Book 11) by Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

“Central, we’ve got a potential level one event.”

Good thing such things are nothing new for Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong. And with that line from the prologue, her latest adventure Strong from the Heart is off and running at a breakneck clip that doesn’t let up until the final page is turned. This is the best thriller of the year, in large part for how it confronts Caitlin and company with challenges that are exceedingly rare for a genre novel.

I say that because not only does Strong from the Heart place the opioid crisis front and center, but the book does so with the series’ tried and true regulars front and center. Start with Caitlin’s surrogate son, now high school senior Luke Torres, being rushed to the hospital after snorting Oxycontin. Add to that Caitlin’s own dependence on Vicodin to get her through the pain from recent gunfight-related trauma and you’ve got the recipe for a thriller rife with characters at war with themselves as much as the bad guys who’ve hatched a typically nightmarish plot, typical for Caitlin Strong anyway.

These particular Washington-based villains have formed a drug cartel of mammoth proportions under the auspices of the government itself. Their dirty dealings are brought to light when an entire town on the Texas-Mexico border is wiped out in minutes. But a Caitlin Strong thriller is far more comfortable in the darkness and Strong from the Heart is no exception there, as we’re treated to a seemingly endless succession of morally challenged types, most notably a monstrous Native American named Yarek Bone who sports a condition that keeps him from feeling any pain. Read the rest of this entry »

Murder, She Wrote: A Time for Murder by Jessica Fletcher & Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

“It’s just that the research I did turned up a murder where you used to live, where you were an English teacher.”
“There was a murder, and someone was arrested, yes, Kristi.”
“Were you the one who caught him, Mrs. Fletcher?”

That exchange, between Jessica Fletcher and a young woman she thinks is a reporter from the local high school newspaper, forms the heart of A Time for Murder, the 50th entry in the iconic Murder, She Wrote series. Jon Land, current series shepherd, has chosen to celebrate that milestone by taking us where no reader (or viewer, for that matter) has ever gone before: into Jessica’s past, specifically twenty-five years back in time, and the result is nothing short of a smashing, slam-dunk success unrivalled in the annuls of literary pop culture.

Jessica’s still married to a much alive husband Frank. And they’re raising their eight-year-old nephew Grady at the time, as she tries to carve out a career as a high school English teacher while struggling to get published.

“Is this a mystery?” one of her students asks, as the class dissects one of Jessica’s own short stories that she distributed anonymously.

It’s not supposed to be, but that gets her thinking, as does the murder of the beloved high school principal who was just about to hire her full-time. An office mishap is suspected at first, until Jessica displays her keen powers of observation for the first time while working with Appleton Maine’s only detective, none other than future Cabot Cove sheriff Amos Tupper.

But that flashback to the past is only part of Land’s fourth, and best, effort in the series so far. In the present, the high school reporter for whom Jessica granted an interview turns out not to be a reporter at all; in fact, she’s not even in high school. And when she turns up murdered herself after badgering Jessica about that murder in neighboring Appleton, we’re off to the races on a dead sprint that swiftly reveals a clear connection between these two killings separated by twenty-five years.

Capitol White: A Donnie Brasco Novel (Audiobook – Original Recording) by Joe Pistone and Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

As a crime film connoisseur, I place Donnie Brasco among the very best the genre has to offer. Watching Johnny Depp, as the title character, spend five years undercover inside the New York Mob, before ultimately bringing down the infamous families at the top of the food chain, remains great fun every time I watch it.

So it was with great interest that I plunged into Capitol White, more or less a direct sequel to that movie, penned by former FBI agent Joe Pistone working in tandem with bestselling thriller writer Jon Land. The twist is Donnie himself has been re-imagined wondrously here as a fictional hero, as opposed to a fictitious one, to spectacular success.
Pistone famously chronicled his years living undercover in Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia – A True Story. Capitol White may be all fiction but you wouldn’t know it from the writing and I had to remind myself numerous times that what I was reading was made up instead of a literary rendition of Donnie’s next major case. Read the rest of this entry »

Murder, She Wrote: Murder in Red by Jessica Fletcher & Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

“Well, at least I wasn’t murdered.”

So opens Murder in Red, Jon Land’s third effort writing as Jessica Fletcher for the eternal Murder, She Wrote series and one he pulls off with literary alacrity so smooth and suave that I almost forgot he cut his teeth on the more hardcore thrillers he continues to dazzle us with. In fact, I’d venture to say that under his steady hand Jessica Fletcher has come to resemble his Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong without the gun, given that she, too, is relentless in her pursuit of justice.

And there’s plenty of it for her to pursue in Murder in Red, starting with the suspicious death of a close friend Jessica thought she knew far better than she actually did. Secrets, of course, have long been a staple of the mystery genre. In this series, though, more than anything Land has managed to deftly blend the more modern material of Michael Connelly or Robert Crais’s hardboiled mystery writing within the fabric of a classic cozy. Think Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade if Chandler and Hammet respectively had written them as women. Read the rest of this entry »

Strong As Steel (Caitlin Strong Novels) by Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

Strong As SteelThe tenth time is clearly the charm for the in dominatable Jon Land whose decennial effort in his Caitlin Strong series, Strong as Steel, cements his Texas Ranger’s status as the best female protagonist in thriller fiction today and maybe ever.

The high-octane plot features the classic thriller staple of a long buried, and of course deadly, secret being unearthed, this time from the Texas desert. Caitlin’s father Jim Strong, apparently, was somehow involved in burying three shipping crates there twenty-five years before as part of a case he was working on. Indeed, a particular staple of this series is the seamless intermixing of the past and the present, with Caitlin picking up on a trail left by one of her ancestors. It was William Faulkner who said, “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.” Well, nothing describes Strong as Steel better than that, with “dead” being the operative word.

But Caitlin isn’t the only one on the trail of the contents of those three crates; far from it, in fact. Hot on their trail, and hers, is Molinari, an especially maniacal head of an especially fanatical band of religious zealots out to safeguard a two-thousand-year-old secret at all costs. Being once set ablaze by his enemies has left Molinari almost literally faceless and he has long pursued his quest with a degree of violence and rage befitting the grotesque he’s become. Read the rest of this entry »

Strong to the Bone (A Caitlin Strong Novel) by Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

Strong to the Bone“You may be able to walk on water, Ranger, but quicksand’s a whole other thing,” a character advised Caitlin Strong early on in Strong to the Bone.

And quicksand is pretty much what Caitlin finds herself mired in here in the superb ninth book to feature the stalwart Texas Ranger who’s as close to a female Jack Reacher as it gets. No, she doesn’t use her fists with the aplomb of Lee Child’s seminal series hero, but she more than makes up for that with her prowess as a gunman (or, more accurately, gunwoman), a skill she gets to use with typical frequency in her latest adventure.

But Strong to the Bone serves up a new kind of target in the form of the man who sexually assaulted Caitlin eighteen years before while she was a collegiate undergraduate. We’ve barely started flipping the pages before she rescues a woman from a bar basement who’s been similarly assaulted and barely taken a breath before learning that it was the same man who raped Caitlin all those years ago. And I haven’t even mentioned the book’s primary villain in the form of a neo-Nazi gang that’s appropriated a Texas ghost town as headquarters for the massive drug dealing operation their leader, Armand Fisker, has taken international.

Fisker, a man so prone to violent impulses that one scene finds himself dousing his own son with gasoline and flicking on a lighter before the terrified boy’s eyes, is somehow connected to a killer Caitlin’s grandfather Earl Strong hunted in the waning days of World War II. Did you know that Texas was home to over 100,000 Nazi prisoners of war in camps scattered throughout the state? Neither did I. In the flashback thread that’s become a staple of this sterling series, though, Earl Strong finds himself on the trail of one of them who escaped his camp after killing his three bunkmates. Why? What did they know? And what’s none other than J. Edgar Hoover himself doing on the scene?

Strong to the Bone, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, unfolds frantically and frenetically, serving up a smorgasbord of emotionally wrought angst garnished with characters of both misplaced and misconstrued morality. Fisker, for example, isn’t planning to unleash a catastrophic weapon upon the world when the book opens; that intention unfolds organically, lending Strong to the Bone a stunning spontaneity featuring characters who are truly in charge of the action.

Heading up that roster as always is Caitlin herself, whose own personal quest to at long last find her dragon lends the book a visceral quality to go with the visuals Land has always excelled at framing. But what’s truly special is her doubts about whether she really wants to kill that dragon, lest she lose the edge that has long defined her, as Land deftly stirs a pot that features the perfect blend of emotion and action.

The Caitlin Strong series is much deserved of the praise it has attained and many awards it’s won. But Strong to the Bone takes what’s always worked to a whole new level. A terrific, tumultuous tale of rare depth and prowess certain to solidify Caitlin’s place as the most polished and proficient female hero in thriller fiction today. Maybe that’s why none of Jack Reacher’s travels have taken him to Texas. Even he doesn’t want to risk messing with Caitlin Strong.

Strong Cold Dead: A Caitlin Strong Novel by Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

Strong Cold Dead“Nobody goes beyond this point, ma’am,” is the first thing Caitlin Strong is told in Jon Land’s superb and sensational Strong Cold Dead. And I probably don’t have to tell you what she does next in the eighth book featuring the stalwart fifth generation Texas Ranger.

Click Here for More Information on Strong Cold Dead

A gunfighter and loner hero in the frontier sense bred of the classic Western, Caitlin is no stranger to breaking the rules or gunning down bad guys. Strong Cold Dead features a weighty mixture of both, as she finds herself battling none other than forces of ISIS on Texas soil. It’s a long-buried secret on a mysterious Indian reservation that’s drawn the terrorist group here, thanks to a social outcast reaching out to them on social media. Read the rest of this entry »

Strong Light of Day by Jon Land

Reviewed by Russell Ilg

Strong Light of DayStrong Light of Day is another great novel in the Caitlin Strong series; I won’t say best because each book is the best in its own right, since this is without question the finest thriller series going today. But this latest entry is both the most complex and timely. Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine opening up the newspaper not long down the road and spying a headline about the nation’s food supply under attack. Agro-terrorism, in other words, in Strong Light of Day at the hands of Russians who never stopped fighting the Cold War. Indeed, reading books serves as a pointed reminder that there are people out there icily committed to destroying our way of life. Read the rest of this entry »

Strong Darkness by Jon Land

strongdarknessReviewed by Russell Ilg

Jon Land’s brand new Caitlin Strong novel, as hard as it is to believe, is his best to date in this stellar series that’s one of the best being written today. Every one of the novels has a life of its own from the first page to the last, but Strong Darkness seems to jump off those pages in terms of detail as well as character, achieving a life and vitality rare for fiction in general and thrillers in particular. The book doesn’t even give you a chance to get settled in your chair, just throws you back so far so fast you feel you’ve been struck by the train on the book’s creepy cover.

The real conductor here is Land’s heroic Caitlin Strong, a fifth generation Texas Ranger who’s kind of a throwback in terms of temperament and attitude. For her the past is never far behind, literally since her family history always plays a key role, taking us back to the earlier, sometimes very early, days of the Rangers in cases somehow connected to whatever Caitlin’s investigating in the present with the help of her reformed outlaw boy friend Cort Wesley Masters. Masters has two teenage sons for whom Caitlin assumes a maternal role in stark contrast to her gunfighter mentality. It’s a curious juxtaposition, kind of like a mother bear protecting her cubs, and one that creates the perfect balance between the twin sides of her nature. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tenth Circle by Jon Land

The Tenth Circle Reviewed by Russell Ilg

The stranger retrieved the phone and handed it back to McCracken. “My advice: keep this handy in case you need to call 9-1-1.”

“I am 9-1-1,” McCracken told him.

I’m not sure there’s ever been in a line in a modern thriller that better encapsulates the spirit of a book and enduring series hero than that from Jon Land’s latest mind-number The Tenth Circle. In the second installment of their resurrection, after last year’s bestselling Pandora’s Temple, Blaine McCracken and his equally bigger-than-life sidekick Johnny Wareagle are on the trail of a crazed preacher with eyes on unleashing a biblical-level Apocalypse. The Reverend Jeremiah Rule has a weapon in his possession rooted in not just the past, but in two of the greatest historical mysteries of all time, posing the question what if the mass disappearance of the Roanoke Colony and ghost ship the Mary Celeste were connected? Read the rest of this entry »