Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review of "End of Watch" by Stephen King


This is the third book in Stephen King's "Bill Hodges Trilogy."
In the first book, Mr. Mercedes, a sociopath named Brady Hartsfield drives a Mercedes into a crowd, causing numerous deaths and injuries. Retired detective Bill Hodges makes it his mission to nab the culprit and puts together a sort of ragtag team to do the job. This includes Holly Gibney - a thin, gray-haired computer whiz who probably has Asperger's syndrome; and Jerome Robinson - a black, whip-smart teen. The three 'partners' eventually form a tight, affectionate, and lasting bond. At the end of the book Brady Hartsfield is severely injured, with a brain injury that leaves him in a coma.
The second book in the trilogy, Finders Keepers, takes a different direction, focusing on an obsessed literary fan. Hodges and his team show up late in the story, to help a kid who's gotten himself into big trouble. Brady Hartsfield, meanwhile, is rotting away in a hospital - seemingly unaware of his surroundings, with minimal brain function. Retired detective Hodges, however, suspects that Brady might have more going on upstairs than he lets on, and - as things turn out - Hodges is right!
In this third book in the trilogy, End of Watch - which takes place five years after the events in Mr. Mercedes - Brady Hartsfield has come out of his coma, is somewhat aware of what's going on around him, and can even say a few muddled words. Physically Brady is almost completely helpless, but there's A LOT going on in his head.
Brady's unethical doctor has been giving him experimental drugs and the medicine (or maybe something else) has altered Brady's brain....and he now has paranormal abilities. The hospital staff notes that minor odd things happen in Brady's room - like his IV bag swinging back and forth - but no one has an inkling of his true capabilities.
Brady secretly puts this new talent to use using a cache of obsolete hand-held computer game consoles called 'Zappit.' As it turns out, Zappit contains a strangely hypnotic child's fishing game. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say Brady - who has an obsession about suicide - manipulates a few people into killing themselves. Thrilled with his success, Brady embarks on a plan to cause mass suicide among local teenagers. And finally, Brady means to completely destroy Bill Hodges, whom he REALLY hates.
The stakes are very high in this book. Hodges is seriously ill and Holly is on his case - insisting that he go to the hospital to get appropriate treatment. However the detective desperately wants to stop Brady first. Hodges is sure that Brady caused a number of recent deaths, but can't figure out how - since Brady is a decrepit husk sitting in a hospital room. It takes the combined brain power of Hodges, Holly, and Jerome - with some help from a cop and a spot of luck - to reveal exactly what's going on. All this leads to a doozy of a climax in the middle of a winter storm...very exciting!
I enjoyed the book, which is well-written with memorable characters. Brady makes an especially demented and evil villain, while Holly makes an endearing 'good guy', with sweet affection for her partner and friend, Bill Hodges. In fact Holly is probably my favorite character in this story.
This book provides a very satisfying finale to a good trilogy. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review of "Blackberry Winter" by Sarah Jio

When a late spring snowstorm (called a blackberry winter) hits Seattle in May 2010, Claire Aldridge - a feature writer for the Seattle Herald - is asked to write a story comparing the whiteout to a similar event that occurred in May 1933. After researching the historical storm Claire decides to focus her article on Daniel Ray - a three-year-old boy who disppeared during the depression era snowfall.

Daniel's mother, Vera Ray, barely eked out a living as a maid at Seattle's Olympic Hotel. Unable to take Daniel along when she worked the night shift, Vera was forced to leave the sleeping child at home. On the night of May 1st, snow blanketed the city and - with public transportation out of commission - Vera trudged all the way home in the morning ---- to find Daniel gone. Distraught, Vera ran through the streets calling for Daniel - and asking pedestrians if they'd seen him - but all she found was the child's teddy bear.

Vera went to the police, but they were dismissive, suggesting that Daniel had run away. (Can you imagine. A three-year-old child?) Poverty-ridden and powerless, Vera had to look for Daniel herself. Things soon went from bad to worse when Vera was evicted from her apartment for inability to pay the rent and lost her job for taking too many days off (looking for Daniel). A wealthy resident of the Olympic Hotel offered to help Vera, but there were strings attached. (Ick!!)

The book has two alternating story lines: Claire's life in the present and Vera's life in the past.

We learn that Claire and her husband Ethan experienced a tragedy a year ago that put an enormous strain on their relationship. Both spouses are suffering but Claire is completely unable to get past the event, which haunts her. To add to the problem, Claire is annoyed that Ethan - the Seattle Herald's editor-in-chief - goes to restaurants with the newspaper's attractive food critic.....presumably as part of his job.

Claire has also become obsessed with discovering what happened to little Daniel, and her investigation takes her to various parts of the city. All this leads the reporter to spend too much time away from home; become overly friendly with a helpful (and handsome) café owner/barista; neglect an important family event; avoid Ethan's phone calls; and generally behave badly (IMO). It seems like Claire is on track to completely wreck her marriage.

In flashbacks to the past, we find that - before Daniel was born - Vera met a dashing blueblood named Charles, who swept her off her feet. Charles' family didn't approve of Vera, and predictable consequences ensued. The author paints a clear picture of Vera's destitute lifestyle: threadbare clothing; holes in her shoes; insufficient food; rough neighborhood; libidinous smelly landlord; and so on. It made me angry for Vera, who worked hard to make a home for herself and her son.... but was disrespected by 'rich people' and blown off by the police.

As Claire is researching young Daniel's disappearance she visits the Rays' old Seattle apartment and talks to people who remember the events of 1933. This leads to a series of serendipitous discoveries - photos, drawings, papers - that eventually reveal what happened to the child. As you might expect, the Claire and Vera story lines converge as the book approaches it climax.

For me this romantic suspense novel is overly contrived. Sarah Jio writes well, and a story about a missing child is always compelling. However, the book has far too many 'happy coincidences' and the fairy tale ending seems more like a Disney movie than real life. Still, fans of 'happily ever after' would probably love this book.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of "Dick Francis's Damage" by Felix Francis

Someone seems bent on disrupting British horseracing. A couple of trainers have been suspended for doping horses - though they claim innocence - and one has been driven to murder. Soon afterwards mandatory testing after a big race reveals that many horses - from stables across the United Kingdom - have been tainted with an illegal substance. Soon enough the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) receives a message - pay five million pounds or horseracing will be brought to its knees.

Jeff Hinkley, undercover investigator for the BHA, is tasked with investigating the matter and stopping the extortionist. Jeff soon comes to suspect that the suspended trainers were set up, figures out how the drugs were administered, and takes steps to stop the attacks. The horse doper is clever however, and finds another way to disrupt one of the biggest races of the year. The BHA tries paying the extortionist a small amount of appeasement money while Jeff continues to investigate but the attacks continue and escalate. Jeff and some BHA members want to inform the police but others fear the publicity will ruin horseracing, a huge industry in Britain.

While all this is going on Jeff is also contending with personal issues: his sister is being treated for cancer, he's become jaded with his long-time girlfriend, and he's trying to help his step-nephew who's been accused of selling drugs.

Like his father (Dick Francis), Felix Francis sprinkles the story with interesting tidbits about horsetracks, racing, trainers, jockeys, betting, and the people who govern the sport. I enjoyed the story and Jeff Hinkley is an engaging character - clever and a master of disguise. It's a treat to see how he goes undercover to search for information and clues.

The resolution of the story is somewhat predictable and a little unsatisfying but it's still an enjoyable book, recommended for mystery lovers.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review of "I Can't Make This Up: Life Lessons" by Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss

Kevin Hart is an award-winning comedian and actor, and it took him only 16 years to become an 'overnight success.' In this inspirational and entertaining memoir - written with Neil Strauss - Hart talks about his life, career, family, and friends - and it's clear that he's a loving son, loyal friend, devoted father, and exceptionally hard worker. Hart is also an honest man and admits that - in his youth - he was a bad husband to his first wife.....and gambled, drank, and splurged too much.

The book, though funny in places, is not chock full of jokes and hilarious bits - just so you know.

Hart was born and raised in North Philadelphia. His dad, nicknamed Spoon, was a drug addict and a 'player' - with girlfriends all over town. Spoon spent four years in prison, after which he split from Kevin's mother for good. Kevin - who says he was 'born with the gift of the shoulder shrug' - accepted the situation, said okay, and got on with his life. In fact, 'the shoulder shrug' helped Kevin get through many low points in his life.

After the split, Kevin and his older brother Kenneth would occasionally see their dad, which led to some of the 'scariest experiences' in Kevin's life. Among other things, Spoon let 8-year-old Kevin drive a motorboat - which he promptly crashed; and sicced a large dog onto the boys after Kenneth beat him at basketball. Spoon also stole from his family. At one point - when the boys were grown - Spoon robbed all the equipment from a barbershop Kenneth was about to open.....AND took his car. In spite of everything, Kevin chose not to get angry, and to appreciate his father.....who could be a very entertaining guy.

The biggest influence in Hart's life was his mother, Nancy. After Kenneth got into trouble with gangs and criminal activity as a teen, Nancy kept Kevin on a very short leash. If he stepped out of line, Kevin got hit with an open hand, fist, belt, shoe, slipper, or even a section of Hot Wheels track - which Nancy kept scattered around the house for convenience. (LOL)

To keep young Kevin occupied, Nancy enrolled him in extracurricular activities like basketball and swim team - which had hours of practice and weekend meets. When Kevin wasn't at school or doing sports, he had to stay with his 'foster grandmother', Ms. Davis.....or tag along with his mother to work, church, shopping, friends' homes, and Bible study. Though he was frustrated at the time, Kevin says all this activity prepared him for his life, which is very busy.

In school, Kevin wanted to be cool and attract girls - which is hard to do when you're short and don't have any money for flashy clothes. So Kevin decided to be funny....and the gals started hanging out with him. Thus, a comedian was born.

After high school Hart spent a short time in community college, then got a job in the sneaker department of City Sports. Kevin would often entertain his colleagues and customers with funny stories and jokes, and eventually started doing stand-up at 'The Laff House Comedy Club'.....using the stage name 'Lil Kev the Bastard.' This was the start of Hart's professional career. Around this time Kevin also met Torrei, the girl he'd be with for the next 12 years.

By the time he was 20, Hart was a regular performer at comedy clubs in Philadelphia - but itched to break into the big time. Invited to tag along by his friend, comedian Keith Robinson, Kevin began going back and forth to New York - 'the comedy capital of the world.' At New York's clubs, Kevin watched, learned, honed his craft....and eventually started performing. When Hart wasn't in New York, he did shows in Philadelphia. Kevin's frequent trips and gigs led to constant fights with Torrei, who continually accused him of cheating.

By the time he was 22, Hart got some movie and television deals, and moved to Hollywood with his girlfriend. Unfortunately, Hart's early opportunities didn't pan out, and he squandered what money he made on jewelry, furniture, and expensive meals. Then, at the age of 23, when Kevin was flat broke, he and Torrei got married - thinking this would improve their relationship. It didn't.

Hart's failed movies and cancelled TV series made him 'Hollywood poison', and the comic was compelled to reinvigorate his stand-up career. So, for the next seven years Kevin traveled all over the country, performing at EVERY comedy club and college he could book. Kevin's plan: to build a fan base so huge that entertainment moguls would HAVE to give him another chance.

To assist with his career, Hart engaged various agents and promotors, and his memoir contains advice about the right (and wrong) people to employ (hint: stay away from aggressive loudmouths and scam artists). In time, Kevin hired an agent named Dave Becky, who's still with him today. Hart also improved his act by doing away with contrived jokes and using his real life for inspiration - like the time he called the cops after Torrei slapped him across the face.....and the police didn't do a thing. In short, Hart learned to make comedy out of his uniqueness and personality.

Hart also surrounded himself with an entourage of fellow comedians and friends, who communally called themselves 'The Plastic Cup Boyz' - for the red cups they drank from. Everyone involved benefitted from the relationship. The chums helped Hart with his act, and Kevin provided jobs and career promotion.

While all this was happening, Kevin and Torrei started a family. Unfortunately, their relationship got more contentious and their fighting escalated. Kevin admits to numerous infidelities and much bad behavior during this period. To add to his woes, Kevin's mother passed away from ovarian cancer. The comic notes: "In my mind, my heart, and my life, she is still completely present to this day - and as wise, compassionate, and stubborn as ever."

When Hart was 30, he finally split from Torrei for good - so the children wouldn't have to see their folks fighting constantly. Around this time Kevin also starred in a hit movie, 'Think Like a Man' - which was a turning point in his career. From this point on Kevin's life was on an upward trajectory - with movies, comedy tours, TV productions, and more. Kevin, who never gets complacent and doesn't know the word 'enough', has even bigger plans for his future - both personal and professional.

To finish up, I'll mention a few bits of the story I found particularly memorable and/or funny:

- Kevin's mother could put 'the fear of God' into anyone.....except his father.

- Hart honed his 'charm' on his minder, Ms. she wouldn't tell his mother when he did stuff he shouldn't. Kevin later used this cultivated charm - and winning personality - to get jobs and opportunities.

- When Kevin got fed up with his mother's strict rules he went to live with his dad.....for ONE day. Then he hustled right back home. His mom KNEW that would happen (ha ha ha).

- In middle school, Kevin longed to have pubic hair - which he thought would make girls like him. So Kevin tried everything he could to sprout a bush - including hair oil, shaving cream, fertilizer, and prayers. (The fertilizer really cracks me up.)

- Young Kevin also thought a big weiner would attract the ladies. So he wore his brother's large shoes....hoping the girls would think his pecker matched his feet. LOL

- By the time Kevin was a teen, his mom gave up corporal punishment and switched to verbal reprimands. Nancy knew that - short of stabbing, shooting, or mace-ing Kevin, there was nothing she could do to physically hurt him.

And the best bit of all:

- When he was financially strapped early in his career, Kevin maxed out an American Express card.....and couldn't pay the bill. The company never forgot, and - even when Kevin was a huge success - denied him a card. In the book's acknowledgements, Kevin writes: "American Express, if you're reading this, please run my credit again. I wrote this entire book just to send a message to you: I'm now ready to handle the responsibility of a credit card."

I enjoyed the memoir, which is well-written and includes photos of people in Kevin's life. Highly recommended.

Note: Some of Hart's comedy shows are available on Netflix, in case you're interested. They're really funny!

Thanks to Netgalley, the authors (Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss) and the publsher (Atria/37 INK) for a copy of the book.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Review of "Power of Gods" by Nancy Madore

"Power of Gods" opens soon after the final events of the first book in the series, "The Hidden Ones." After predicting an imminent Armageddon, Asmodeus eludes the Raphaelians (Will, Gordon, and Clive) and disappears. However a mysterious formula on his computer and a one-way ticket to Alaska indicate that Asmodeus had been planning to go there.

Nadia Adeire and her Raphaelian colleagues think there might be a connection between Alaska's military research installations and Asmodeus' prediction. Certainly something is happening in Alaska. Amanda Fioretti, a seductive woman who works for Tactical Defense Mechanisms Research (TDMR) in Fort Greely, claims she's being stalked by an unseen presence.

Meanwhile, Gordon has secretly obtained the ring that captured (and contains) Ornias, a djinn who worked alongside Asmodeus to help construct the ancient Temple of Solomon. As before the story is told from several perspectives: Nadia and her associates want to locate and stop whatever may be about to cause Armageddon; Ornias tells tales about the ancient world, his somewhat disreputable past, and his relationship with Asmodeus; and Amanda is hounded by the djinn Lilith.

Before long Nadia, Will, Gordon, and Clive travel to Alaska to do some on-site investigation. They come to suspect that djinn control a number of people involved with potentially dangerous military research and hope that Ornias' information will help them locate these individuals. Meanwhile Amanda is possessed by Lilith and is forced to behave strangely and do unspeakable things. The description of Amanda's being possessed - especially the manner in which her 'soul' experiences it - was credible and eerie.

Nadia and her crew eventually discover what kind of research is being done in Alaska and the potential hazards of this work, a scenario that's not unrealistic in today's world. There's some lively personal interaction among the characters: Nadia and Will continue their love affair and verbal sparring; Amanda obsessively chases after her sexy co-worker Tommy Gerard; and severe friction develops among the Raphaelians when Gordon refuses to follow rules. The story kept me reading as I tried to figure out who was being controlled by djinn, what terrible event might be planned, and whether Nadia and the Raphaelians would be able to stop it.

On the negative side, the motivation for some of the Raphaelian's illicit and potentially disastrous actions - to help Nadia learn more about Asmodeus - seems implausible and Ornias' story isn't as compelling as that of Asmodeus and Lilith. Moreover, the behavior of the characters strikes some false notes: the dialog among Nadia and her friends, especially when they joke with each other, seems unnatural; and the characters are constantly gazing/staring at one another, their eyes and facial expressions being overused to denote emotions and reactions.

All in all it's a good story and I'm looking forward to following the saga in the third book of the series.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review of "Backlash" by Lynda La Plante

A routine traffic stop of a party supplies truck in London leads to the discovery of a woman's body in the back and the arrest of the truck's driver, skeezy Henry Oates. Upon interrogation at the police station Oates admits to killing the woman and talks abouts having killed a couple of other people in the past. One of Oate's supposed victims is a young girl of 13 who disappeared five years before, a cold case that was never resolved.

Detective Chief Inspector Anna Travis is on the team tasked with looking into Oates's claims. The case takes on a very high profile because Anna's former boss/mentor - Detective Chief Superintendent James Langton - was in charge of the unsolved missing girl case and can't get it out of his mind. Though Langton is currently at home recuperating from an injury he insists on keeping up with the Oates investigation and - during a critical police action - shows up and starts giving orders. This has unfortunate consequences.

Anna and the rest of the team unearth a lot of informaton about Henry Oates, who may well have killed even more women than he's admitted to. Oates, with his smashed nose, dirty clothing, and appalling hygiene, seems stupid (and perhaps insane) at first. However, he turns out to be a very clever criminal who enjoys playing mind games with the police.

In essence the story is a very long police procedural. As the story proceeds the cops discover and follow various clues in an attempt to locate the bodies of Oates's victims and to find the evidence that will convict him. Some of this is too drawn out. For instance, a scene where the police search a quarry is excessively detailed and seems to go on forever. Also, the story has a large number of characters, some of whom tend to blend together.

All in all, an okay book that many suspense fans will probably enjoy.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review of "The Dry" by Jane Harper

The Australian town of Kiewarra is in the midst of a life-sucking drought that's put farmers into dire straits. One landowner, Luke Hadler, is apparently so distraught that he shoots his wife and son, then commits suicide. Luke's boyhood friend, Aaron Falk - who's now a Federal agent in Melbourne - returns to Kiewarra for the funeral. Coming back to town is difficult for Falk because he and his father were driven out 20 years before, following the death of a teenage girl named Ellie Deacon.

Aaron Falk, Luke Hadler, and Ellie Deacon - all 16 years old - had been close friends for years when Ellie was found drowned in the river. A note in Ellie's room placed Falk under suspicion, but the boy seemed to have an airtight alibi: He and Luke claimed they were together, shooting rabbits, at the time of the incident. Nevertheless, Ellie's father (Malcolm Deacon) and uncle (Grant Dow), both very violent men, were convinced of Falk's guilt - and they and other townsfolk forced the boy and his dad to move away.

In the present, Falk knows the residents of Kiewarra are still hostile to him - so he plans to stay only long enough to attend the Hadlers' funeral, then hustle back to Melbourne. However Luke's parents - who were very kind to Falk when he was growing up - ask the Federal cop to look into their son's death. They're sure Luke is innocent and want Falk to find the 'real killer.'

When Falk starts to investigate the Hadler killings, a local policeman - Sergeant Greg Raco - admits that he has doubts about Luke's guilt as well. Raco has found some evidence that's incongruous with a murder-suicide scenario. So the two cops team up to 'unofficially' look into the Hadler family deaths. As it turns out, some people in Kiewarra aren't happy about this - especially Malcolm Deacon and Grant Dow - and the shit hits the fan (quite literally.....ha ha ha).

The book alternates between inquiries into the Hadler killings and flashbacks to the past - up to the time Ellie died. Are the two incidents connected? Read the book to find out. LOL

The author does a great job describing the seared landscape of Kiewarra, and I could feel the heat, picture the ravaged fields, and empathize with Falk - who mourned when he saw the dried up river bed. All this is important for the book's finale.

Harper cleverly directs the readers' suspicions to different characters as the story unfolds, and most readers will have trouble guessing who did what.....and why. Some possible clues include: a dead baby rabbit; a teen love triangle; domestic abuse; a mean practical joke; financial chicanery; cryptic notes; CCTV footage; the wrong bullets; and so on.

The book is well-written and suspenseful, and I enjoyed it. The finale was a surprise, but didn't entirely ring true to me. I find it hard to believe that people can keep their cool and maintain their secrets so superbly. Still a very good book. Highly recommended.