Saturday, September 22, 2018

Review of "Glass Houses: A Novel" by Louise Penny

In this 13th book in the 'Chief Inspector Armand Gamache' series, the detective is trying to destroy a drug cartel. The book can be read as a standalone.


Armand Gamache is now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, which he's spent years ridding of entrenched corruption. The Chief Superintendent is now fighting another battle - aimed at containing the drug epidemic that's ruining (or ending) so many lives.

Gamache is coordinating much of the drug war from the village of 'Three Pines', located beside the Canada-Vermont border, where Gamache lives with his wife Reine-Marie, German Shepherd Henri, and new dog Gracie - who looks like a cross between a canine and a rabbit. 😊

Gamache's plans to take down the drug cartel - which MUST be kept top secret - are thrown off kilter after a mysterious figure draws attention to Three Pines. One day a masked, black-clad individual shows up at a Halloween party, after which the figure takes up a position in the center of town - not speaking, not moving.....only staring. Though the statue-like figure doesn't say a word, one can almost sense it thinking "J'ACCUSE." The creepy individual isn't an overt threat, so - though it makes the townsfolk VERY uncomfortable - there's nothing Gamache can do about it.

A group of Université de Montréal graduates, who are having a reunion of sorts in Three Pines, know something about what the figure represents - but they're reluctant to say anything. Information about the spooky symbol IS slowly revealed to Gamache, but not before a murder occurs.....and Reine-Marie discovers the body.

A suspect confesses to the crime, and is put on trial. However the trial is a tricky undertaking since it might alert the drug cartel to how much Gamache knows about them. So, the Chief Inspector is in the tough spot of deciding whether or not to commit perjury!! 😵 To add to the drama, the Chief Crown Prosecutor Barry Zalmanowitz - who should be on the same side as Gamache - is hostile and antagonistic.

The book alternates between the trial, the events leading up to it, and the implementation of Gamache's plan to destroy the drug cartel - so there are time jumps, but the story is easy to follow.

The usual recurring characters are on hand, including: Jean-Guy Beauvoir - Gamache's son-in-law and second in command at the Sûreté; Oliver and Gabri - who run the local B&B/bistro and host the visiting university alumni; Myrna - who runs the bookstore and will trade drinks for scuttlebutt about the murder inquiry; Clara - the portrait artist who mostly paints (half-finished) pictures of herself; the ornery old poet Ruth and her duck Rosa 🦆 - who tend to sound alike (quack quack); and more.

There are also some new faces in the story, such as: Judge Maureen Corriveau - who's in charge of the murder trial, and senses something's wrong; Anton - the new dishwasher at the bistro, who aspires to be a chef; Jaqueline - a baker who creates good pastries but can't make a decent baguette; and others.

I enjoyed the book, which is well-written and compelling. However, I think the premise - about the crucial need to derail the Québec based drug cartel - is disingenuous. The destruction of a drug gang, even if it's successful, isn't going to end the drug epidemic. Narcotics cartels are like Hydras - cut off one head and another one grows. So Gamache's long-term plan to decimate the drug organization - which causes tremendous hardship in the Sûreté and in Québec - doesn't ring true.

Still, this is a well-crafted novel that I'd recommend to readers who like mysteries - especially fans of Armand Gamache. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, September 21, 2018

Review of "I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away" by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is an Anglo-American author of books on travel, science, language and other non-fiction topics.

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, born in Iowa, lived in England for twenty years before returning to the U.S. with his family. This book is a compilation of humorous articles about America that Bryson wrote for a British publication. The book, published in 2000, is somewhat dated. Even taking this into account many articles have a snarky, annoying tone. This was disappointing as I usually like Bryson's books.

Parts of the book did make me smile 😊, including a few satirical - but overly long - articles detailing the million steps required to: fill out an income tax return; get a foreign-born family member declared a legal resident of the U.S; and set up a new computer (of course this is much easier now).

Other things on Bryson's mind were more problematic for me, such as his: whining about smoking restrictions because people want to avoid second-hand smoke; griping about letters being returned even though he didn't know the correct address (he seems to feel the post office has an obligation to figure out where he wants his letters delivered); day-trips for fun - which he generally describes as endless hours of driving for 10 minures of recreation, and so on. I wanted to tell Bryson, "if you don't like it here, go back to England" (which he actually did in 2003).

The book might be worth checking out of the library but it's not worth buying. He's written much better ones.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review of "Live Long and...What I Learned Along the Way" by William Shatner and David Fisher

Most people know that William Shatner played 'Captain James T. Kirk' in the original Star Trek television series and the movies it inspired. Shatner also starred in many other TV series; acted in movies and stage plays; directed films and television shows; did video games and soundtracks; made albums; wrote books; and more. In fact Shatner has an extraordinary work ethic, exemplified by the fact that he's still taking on new projects at the age of 87.

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk

Shatner's compulsion to have a job was spawned partly from his struggles to "put food on the table" when he was a young man with a family and no steady income. Shatner sometimes found it hard to get acting jobs so he grabbed every opportunity that came his way with (almost) no regrets. An exception might be a movie he made in Esperanto (the universal language) - which was a "foreign film in every country in the world." 😊 By the time the movie was released Shatner had forgotten the language and "couldn't understand what the film was about" - but he worked as hard on it as anything else he's ever done. And Shatner's done a lot, because he almost never says no to a job offer.

William Shatner in the Esperanto film 'Incubus'

I've read other books Shatner wrote, but this one seems the most personal. Shatner acknowledges that many of the things he's done were driven by loneliness, by a desire to be wanted.....a feeling he apparently didn't get from his mother. Young Bill found it hard to make friends, and - in grade school - sent valentines to himself so he wouldn't be humiliated by getting none. Shatner notes that "he spent his life seeking love", which probably contributed to his reputation for philandering.....and his multiple marriages. He's been married to his current wife Elizabeth for many years, and speaks of her with great respect and affection.

William Shatner and his wife Elizabeth

Shatner also mentions his close friendship with his Star Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy, which ended - for unexplained reasons - a few years before Nimoy died. This estrangement seems to be one of the great regrets of Shatner's life.

William Shatner (as Kirk) and Leonard Nimoy (as Spock) in Star Trek

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy - both raised as Orthodox Jews - were close friends

Shatner acknowledges that many of his most affectionate relationships have been with his dogs and his horses, companions he's had for almost all his life. Shatner is an excellent horseman and finds his most restful moments atop a steed, an activity that requires complete concentration.

William Shatner with one of his dogs

William Shatner with one of his horses

Shatner writes a touching story about paying a visit to fellow equestrian Christopher Reeve, who's perhaps best known for playing Superman. Reeve became a quadriplegic after falling from a horse, and needed a specially equipped chair to provide life support. Shatner was worried about the visit being awkward, but the two men had a pleasant hour-long conversation about their passion for horses.

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve after his accident

Shatner relates many compelling - and often humorous - stories about his life, endeavors, family, friends, horses, dogs, motorcycles, paramotoring, aspirations, career, and so on. He admits that he was a bow and arrow hunter many decades ago - an activity he now deeply regrets. Much of the book, however, is devoted to Shatner's personal reflections and philosophical observations - thoughts he wants to share as the end of life end that Shatner would stave off forever if he could.

Young William Shatner with his family

William Shatner with one of his motorcycles

Shatner's success leads many individuals to ask him for advice, and he tells them: "Don't follow my advice.....I am not a font of wisdom." As a general suggestion, Shatner tells people to "gather knowledge" and "from that huge pile use those things that make sense in your own lives." Shatner then reminisces about what he's learned during his long and fruitful life: what worked - or didn't work - for him.

In summary, Shatner found that it's important to:

- Be passionate: yearn for things, pursue them, and - if you obtain them - savor them.
- Understand your emotions - they make life richer.
- Preserve your health.
- Be open to new experiences - have adventures.
- Find happiness in your life.
- Form relationships.
-Try to leave more good in your wake than bad.
- Have principles, but be flexible. Compromise if you have to.
- Invite people over to watch 'Monday Night Football.' 🏈😊
- Just keep going.

Toward the end of the book Shatner laments the realization that he will expire someday, saying: "I find it very difficult to grasp the reality that I am going to die.....Whatever else there might be, this beautiful present will be gone, and I am loving every second I can hold on to my life." I'm sure many people feel the same way about their own lives.

I enjoyed the book, which has entertaining stories and interesting philosophical musings. I think fans of William Shatner would like the book, and I recommend it to them.


Thanks to Netgalley, the authors (William Shatner and David Fisher) and the publisher (Thomas Dunne Books) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Review of "Hardcore Twenty-Four: A Stephanie Plum Mystery" by Janet Evanovich

In this 24th book in the 'Stephanie Plum' series, the Trenton, New Jersey bounty hunter becomes the target of zombies. The book can be read as a standalone.


When grave robber Simon Diggery doesn't show up for his court date, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum has to track him down. Stephanie finds Simon taking refuge in a tree with his huge boa constrictor Ethel.

Simon explains that he was digging up a grave and accidently opened a portal for zombies, who streamed through screaming "brains" and tried to catch him.

Simon - fearing the zombies - says he'll let Stephanie take him to jail IF the bounty hunter will look after Ethel. Stephanie reluctantly agrees, which leads to various comic scenes, including Stephanie feeding the serpent hot dogs, barbecue chickens, and donuts.

Having dispensed with Diggery, Stephanie - accompanied by her zany, zaftig friend Lula - tries to track down other bail skips. These include Zero Slick, a nutty activist who blew up a building while he was cooking meth; and Edward Koot, who shot up a coffeehouse because his cup wasn't full enough.

As Stephanie goes about her bounty hunter business she wrecks several cars (one by exploding a groundhog); drops in for meals at her parents' house; and dilly-dallies with the men in her life: police detective Joe Morelli (her sexy Italian boyfriend); Ranger (a sexy security expert of Cuban heritage); and Diesel (a sexy blonde hunk with a mysterious job).

Meanwhile, dead bodies - both corpses in funeral homes and murder victims - are having their heads snatched. This head-pillaging seems to be the work of zombies who are collecting brains, and a couple of the zombies focus on Stephanie when she sideswipes an 'undead' with her car.

Thoroughly frightened, Stephanie and Lula try to elude the zombies, who smell like 'carnations and outhouse.' Lula thinks about creating bizarre (and horrible) scents to ward off the zombies, but they're too stinky to wear. There's plenty of action before the zombie situation is resolved, which is dangerous but hilarious.

As always, feisty, gun-toting Grandma Mazur is on hand. Grandma likes to go to funeral parlor visitations (for the corpses and the cookies), and is mighty annoyed that the headless bodies have closed coffins. Grandma also meets a man online (whose picture looks EXACTLY like the actor George Hamilton), and Granny is determined to meet the lothario in person - which drives Stephanie's mom bananas.

George Hamilton

For pet fun, Morelli's dog Bob is on hand, as is Stephanie's hamster Rex - who has a sleepover at Ranger's apartment - along with Stephanie (uh-oh!).

Some of the later books in this series have been disappointing, but this is a good one. It's fun AND au courant, since it features designer drugs; drones; and online catfishing. I'd recommend the book to readers of cozy mysteries, especially fans of Stephanie Plum. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Review of "Rock With Wings: A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Mystery" by Anne Hillerman

Anne Hillerman is following in her father - Tony Hillerman's - footsteps, carrying on with his Navaho Tribal Police series. This is the second book Anne Hillerman has written for the long series.

As the story opens Navaho Tribal Police Officers Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito, recently married, are taking a vacation in Monument Valley when fate steps in. Jim ends up helping a relative in Monument Valley while temporarily working security for a movie company. And Bernie returns to their home in Shiprock for an urgent situation involving her mom and sister.

While in Shiprock Bernie decides to resume her police duties. She had previously arrested a suspiciously nervous young man for attempted bribery during a traffic stop and she wants to find out what he was hiding. Bernie is dismayed to learn that there were no drugs in his car and that the FBI wants the tribal police to back off. Bernie can't let it go, however, and continues to investigate the fellow.

Meanwhile Jim finds a suspicious 'grave' in Monument Valley, which he suspects is a publicity stunt arranged by the movie company to advertise their zombie film. The movie company honchos deny knowing anything about the grave but Jim continues to inquire into the matter. Before long an employee of the movie company is murdered in a hotel suite and Jim investigates the crime.

As Bernie and Jim pursue their separate inquiries each meets up with various suspicious characters that need looking into. They both turn to their mentor - 'The Legendary Lieutenant' Joe Leaphorn - for assistance. This is difficult because Joe is recovering from a bullet to the head and can't speak - but he's able to use a computer to assist his mentees.

I liked the setting of the book, in the beautiful mountains of the American Southwest, and enjoyed the tidbits of Navaho culture sprinkled through the story. The dual plots, however, were confused and less than compelling. By the end of the book the crimes that Bernie and Jim were investigating didn't ring true and I didn't really care who did what. There was an interesting array of characters, though, from Bernie's loving mom and alcoholic young sister to sleazy movie makers to Navaho elders who cherish the land.

For me this was just a so-so book but I might try another Anne Hillerman book in the future.

Rating: 2 stars

Friday, September 14, 2018

Review of "Against Medical Advice: A True Story" by James Patterson and Hal Friedman

Cory Friedman had an uneventful childhood until he was nearly five years old, when a combination of Tourette's Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Anxiety Disorder upended his life for 13 years. Cory's story - written by Hal Friedman (Cory's father) and James Patterson - is told in Cory's voice, with the aim of helping other people in a similar situation.

Cory's troubles began with a shake of his head shortly before his fifth birthday. Feeling tension in his neck while playing a videogame, young Cory jerked his head to the side. Then he did it again - and again - and again. Before long the shaking became uncontrollable.

Young Cory Friedman

Cory Friedman and his father Hal Friedman

The first doctor Cory saw for the head shaking thought he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and prescribed Ritalin, which "was like trying to put out a fire by drowning it in gasoline." While on the medication Cory exhibited a range of uncontrollable behaviors such as moving different parts of his face all the time; repeating what people said (echolalia); constantly clearing his throat; repeatedly touching his sister's shoulder; grimacing; blinking; and more. In time Cory was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome - a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by vocal and motor tics.

Tourette's has no quick fix, and a range of physicians tried different medicines on a trial and error basis. Over the course of his childhood and adolescence, Cory saw dozens of doctors and tried 50 to 60 medicines.....none of which helped for long. Some of Cory's treatment problems was caused by the fact that he had additional pathologies: OCD made Cory repeat the aberrant behaviors even more, and anxiety made him restless and apprehensive, so that - among other things - Cory constantly feared a disaster was about to befall his mother.

Cory's obsessions and tics were not only disturbing, they were dangerous. Shortly before third grade, Cory was riding with his mother when he got the urge to stick his face out the car window and make faces in the side view mirror; open the car door; and touch the steering wheel. All this distracted his mother so much that the car crashed.

Cory's illnesses isolated him, because the shaking and twitching made it impossible for the boy to stay in school for the whole day. Moreover, children were uncomfortable around Cory, and he had almost no friends. The kids Cory did know were acquaintances he met in the school's 'resource room' - a (supposedly) quiet space for special needs kids who required a time out. In reality, the resource room was anything but placid because of the 'out of control' students sent there. Thus Cory's anxiety increased, and his tics went off the charts.

In middle school Cory was able to become a pitcher for the baseball team, which he enjoyed. However, during an important game the players on the opposing team - encouraged by their coach - made fun of Cory's ticcing, which devastated him. (This probably wouldn't happen today, with the crackdown on bullying.)

Cory Friedman growing up

When middle school became overwhelming, Cory was sent to a hospital for people who can't control their body movements. Cory was given the anti-psychotic Risperdal, which exacerbated his head-twisting and foot-tapping. The doctors advised Cory's parents to 'let the medicine start working' and increased his dosage from 1.5 pills, to two, to four, to six.....which would make most people catatonic. The Risperdal made Cory gain weight, and the 5' 7" boy shot up to 230 pounds. In the end Cory had to be taken off Risperdal, which resulted in painful withdrawal symptoms.

Other medications followed, which caused Cory to bounce around his bed at night, and made him feel like another person was taking over his body. Cory's mom gave him Benadryl to induce sleep, but it didn't work. Cory wanted to die - wanted his mother to kill him. The doctors finally agreed that the treatments weren't working, and eased Cory off the medicines.....though different ones were prescribed.

Through all this Cory worried that his problems would break up the family and that his sister Jessie loved him less than she used to. Cory acknowledges that things WERE difficult for his sibling, because he got all the attention and he made it hard for Jessie to have friends and lead a normal life. In part, this may have been related to Cory's loss of control when he got into a rage. Cory would become ultraviolent and irrational, and scream and strike out at the people around him. (Note: Jessie probably loved Cory just fine because she went on to become a special education teacher.🙂)

Though Cory's body betrayed him, he had a superior mind and was able to remember everything his teachers said in class AND learn from homeschooling. Cory also took it upon himself to study internet marketing online.

As Cory advanced to high school, he kept hoping for the next medicine to work, for things to get better as he got older. But it kept not happening. Cory began to hang out with other troubled kids, who'd buy booze and drink in the park. Cory still didn't have friends at school, and his classmates continued to make fun of him. By now Cory was also smoking heavily, and constantly had to sneak out of school to grab a cigarette.

Cory had a series of bad experiences in high school:
He had to leave the football team because he couldn't always make it to practice on time.
He had to use a wheelchair (for a while) because his spasms made him a hazard in the hallways.
He was assigned an aide who got him suspended for smoking. Cory then wrote the aide a threatening email, which was a criminal offense.

During this time, Cory's questionable friends would hang out in his basement where they got drunk; made out; and sometimes got into fights with each other. By his own description, Cory was 'a fat chain-smoker who needed alcohol to get some peace.' (It's hard to believe Cory's parents put up with this, but apparently they didn't know what else to do.) The last straw for Cory's folks occurred during his junior year in high school - when Cory fell asleep on the basement couch with a cigarette in his hand.....and set fire to the sofa.

Cory's family knew they had to stage an intervention, and decided to check Cory into the Dressler Psychiatric Hospital for alcohol abuse. Cory was appalled at being in an 'insane asylum', and was removed 'against medical advice.'

Cory's folks then sent him to Wyoming's Roundtop Wilderness Camp for troubled teens - for a month; followed by the adolescent OCD ward of the Wellington Neurological Center - for six weeks; and then on to the Devereux School in New England - a private therapeutic boarding school with no cars, no alcohol; no cigarettes; and no life (in Cory's eyes). Cory hated Devereux, made a huge fuss, and was eventually allowed to return home and re-enroll in his old high school.

At this point, toward the end of Cory's junior year in high school - when he was clear of medication - he developed 'a sense of well-being', and his tics subsided. Cory's family became convinced that his worst symptoms were caused by the variety of medications that were prescribed in good faith.

In Hal Friedman's epilog to the book, which was published in 2008, he noted that Cory finished high school with good grades and went on to the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. After graduation Cory worked in internet marketing and became the lead singer in his own New Jersey band. Though Cory still had some physical symptoms, he took very little medication and was doing well.

Hal credits Cory's recovery to his son's irrepressible spirit, his best doctor, and his mother - an "endlessly loving, unselfish human being."

Corey Friedman today

The narrative provides a compelling and instructive glimpse into the life of a person suffering from a combination of psychological disorders. I'd recommend the book to readers interested in the subject - and especially to parents, guardians, teachers, doctors, and others who deal with afflicted children.

Rating: 3.5 stars