Friday, October 20, 2017

Review of "Song of the Lion" by Anne Hillerman




The alumni basketball game at New Mexico's Shiprock High School always draws a big crowd, and Navajo Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito (Bernie) is on hand to watch the teams play. An explosion in the parking lot draws Bernie outside, where she sees a car in flames. Bernie calls for backup, and the police and FBI soon discover that the vehicle was ignited by a car bomb and one man was seriously injured - and soon died.

It turns out the car belongs to Aza Palmer, a Navajo lawyer slated to mediate a conference in Tuba City, Arizona. The conference concerns a proposed resort at the Grand Canyon - a project that's very controversial. The attendees will include the resort developers; local Indian tribes (Navajo and Hopi); and various enviromental organizations. In addition, 'open microphone sessions' are expected to attract a large number of opinionated people, determined to have their say.

Palmer isn't injured by the bomb but the Navajo police think it might have been intended to kill him, to stop him attending the conference. For this reason Sergeant Jim Chee (Bernie's husband) is assigned to drive Palmer to Tuba City and act as a bodyguard.

When the bomb victim is identified as twenty-something Rick Horseman, Palmer is very upset. He's known Rick for years, and tried to help the boy when he was abusing drugs and alcohol. Palmer can't fathom what happened at Shiprock High School, won't accept that he's in danger, and doesn't want a bodyguard. This negative thinking doesn't help when Palmer and Chee get to Tuba City, and all kinds of trouble erupts.

Someone in a car follows Palmer; the lights go out in the conference venue; the heating malfunctions in the building; demonstraters mill around and cause one ruckus after another; detractors shout at Palmer - claiming he's in the pocket of the builders; a violent protester bangs up a car with his sign; and so on.

Since Bernie has a few days off, she joins Chee in Tuba City, where they cooperate to protect Palmer and investigate the bombing. The inquiry is really the job of the FBI, but the two Navajo cops want to help.

To get needed advice, Bernie contacts Joe Leaphorn, 'The Legendary Lieutenant' who mentored herself and Chee. Leaphorn is retired now, recovering from a head injury that impaired his speech. The Lieutenant can still email, however, and - when he hears the name Rick Horseman - realizes he knew the victim. In fact Leaphorn rescued Rick from an abusive home when he was a child.

Bernie, Chee, and Leaphorn all make a contribution to the resolution of the case, and the book has a believable and satisfying conclusion. I like that Bernie really shows her mettle at the book's climax.

The original 'Navajo Tribal Police Mysteries' were written by Tony Hillerman, and his daughter Anne is following in his footsteps, continuing to write stories with the same characters. Anne does a creditable job, and provides a nod to Navajo customs, but I liked Tony's books better.

Tony's mysteries had more scenes concerning Navajo culture and beliefs, and - in Tony's novels - Jim Chee was studying to be a traditional healer.....which was very interesting. In addition, Tony's main character was 'The Legendary Lieutenant' himself - an unbeatable detective with a compelling background.

Still, 'The Song of the Lion' is a good mystery with an interesting setting; Bernie and Chee are likable characters; and fans of the series would enjoy the book.

The novel provides sufficient background to be read as a standalone.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review of "Farriers' Lane" by Anne Perry




Detective Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte are at the theater when an appeals court judge, Justice Stafford, is murdered in his box. Seems Stafford may have been planning to look into the conviction and hanging of Aaron Godman five years before. Godman was accused of killing married playboy Kingsley Blaine who was dallying with his sister. Blaine had been stabbed and crucified and Godman was Jewish - all of which inflamed the public and may have led to a hasty judgment.

Could it be that Godman was innocent and someone doesn't want Stafford to rake the case up? Detective Pitt investigates Stafford's death (with the help of his wife Charlotte as usual). Pitt questions persons of interest, makes observations, consults with relevant lawyers and judges, and so on.

My problem with the book is that too many characters repeat the same evidence/story ad infinitum which becomes long and tedious. The book could have been edited to be a third shorter without losing any important threads. Also, a number of characters spout anti-Semitic sentiments, which I found offensive but is probably authentic for the time period.

Overall, it's a decent mystery with plenty of memorable (if not particularly likable) characters. The book's resolution was surprising but believable. In any case it's always fun to read the author's depiction of the rigid customs, foibles, and hoity-toity attitudes of the British 'upper classes' of the 1800s.


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review of "The Blackbird Season" by Kate Moretti



As the story opens, Nate Winters is a popular math teacher and baseball coach at Pennsylvania's Mt. Oanoke High School. Nate - a married father - takes a real interest in his students, and has helped some of his players get college opportunities. The town's goodwill for Nate goes down the tubes, though, after thousands of blackbirds plummet to their death in Mount Oanoke. As the strange phenomenon is being investigated, a slew of reporters descend on the area - and one snaps a photo of Nate hugging a pretty student outside a cheap motel.

The student, Lucia Hamm, is a striking 18-year-old senior, with long white-blonde hair, black-rimmed eyes, and luscious red lips. Nate claims he was only helping a pupil in need.....a girl who couldn't go home. Lucia's mother ran off long ago, and her father left when the paper mill closed and he lost his job. Since then Lucia has been living in squalor with her violent, drug-addicted brother Lenny. When Lenny burns Lucia with a cigarette and hits her one too many times, she walks out for good.

After the 'hug photo' hits the newspapers, Nate claims that Lucia called him for assistance, and he got her a motel room for one night - sending her to a shelter the next day. Nevertheless, Nate is suspended from his job pending an investigation.....and it doesn't help that Lucia'admits' they had sex. This news spreads through town like wildfire, making Nate a pariah among Mt. Oanoke parents.

Nate hopes his wife, Alecia, will be more understanding - but she's not. Alecia is exhausted from caring for the couple's autistic, five-year-old son Gabe, and already believes Nate is more attentive to his students than his child. So when Alecia finds a sexy photo of Lucia on Nate's phone, and discrepancies in his story, it's the last straw. She throws him out.

The only person on Nate's side is his colleague, English teacher Bridget Peterson. Nate and Alecia were 'couple friends' with Bridget and her husband Holden, until Holden died of cancer a year ago. This was shattering to the widow, who's been grief-stricken and distracted ever since.....especially at school.

Lucia is in Bridget's creative writing class, and the girl's journal suggests she has serious problems. Moreover, many fellow students call Lucia a witch and avoid her. Bridget thinks Lucia isn't being entirely truthful about Nate, and sticks up for her friend as best she can.

Soon after the 'photo incident' Lucia vanishes, and things go from bad to worse. The Mount Oanoke detectives seem to think Nate is involved in her disappearance, and the coach becomes more isolated than ever.

The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Alecia, Bridget, Lucia, and Nate, switching back and forth from 'before the blackbirds fell' to 'after the blackbirds fell.' We see what each character thinks and does, and learn something about their motivations.

I was especially moved by Alecia's sections, which detail the difficulties involved in raising an autistic child: the need for constant attention; the meltdowns; the soiled pants; the lack of speech; the rigid routines; the numerous (expensive) therapies; and so on. Alecia is overwhelmed, and it's hard to see how she copes. This situation would put a strain on any marriage, especially when hubby doesn't help much at home.

As for Lucia, she's in dire straits. The troubled girl has been living in poverty since the paper plant closed, and has little hope for a better future. When Nate is kind to her, and expresses interest in her well-being......well, let's say Lucia develops high hopes.

In fact, there's an atmosphere of desperation throughout Mount Oanoke, where many young people long to get away, but don't see how - since money is scarce and college is costly. This drives a lot of the behavior in the tale.

In Nate's chapters, we see how hard he tries to understand and assist his pupils, going so far as to follow them on social media.....a big no-no for teachers. One has to wonder about Nate's judgement here. Furthermore, the coach gets over-invested in boys who are offered baseball scholarships for college, which clouds his thinking.

The 'sleuthing' sections of the story belong to Bridget, who thinks the Mount Oanoke detectives are biased against Nate. Bridget sets out to clear Nate's name, and gets some help from uniformed cop Tripp Harris - a long-time friend of the Winters' and Petersons. There's some attraction between Bridget and Tripp, which should appeal to romance lovers. :)

The story's climax is believable, fits the plot, and explains everything.

I enjoyed the book, which provides a realistic look at high school culture; a marriage in crisis; a grieving widow; and a town in decline. The characters are well-rounded and compelling, and I was interested in all of them. All in all, a good mystery, recommended to fans of the genre.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Kate Moretti), and the publisher (Simon and Schuster) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, October 16, 2017

Review of "Ed King" by David Guterson




The storyline in this modern take on the 'Oedipus' tale is well known, so the basic plot is not a surprise.

In 1962, Walter Cousins - a nebbishy, married actuary living in Seattle - gets his 15-year-old British au pair, Diane Burroughs, pregnant. The wily girl leaves the baby on a doorstep and demands that Walter send her monthly payments in perpetuity. Walter, thinking Diane is raising the child, accedes.

As it happens the baby is put into a foundling home and adopted by an upscale Jewish couple, Dan and Alice King. They name the child Edward Aaron. The Kings soon have a biological son, Simon. 'Eddie and Simie" have very happy childhoods including schools for gifted children, a loving extended family, sports, hobbies, bar mitzvahs, etc.

When Ed enters the teen years, his rebellious nature leads him to become very sexually active, both with teen girls and an 'an older woman' (his teacher). Young Ed's reckless behavior soon causes a road accident that kills his biological father, Walter Cousins. Ed feels terrible guilt about the accident though he doesn't know who Walter is. In fact Ed doesn't even know he's adopted.

Some time after Ed finishes college he meets his biological mother Diane - an older woman who's maintained her beauty with rigorous dieting, work-outs, and plastic surgery - and marries her. And that's the jist of the story.

The book is very long and follows the life of each of the main characters in great detail.

Walter: has numerous affairs and is a failure as a husband and father; his children - Barry and Tina - don't like him and flee home as soon as they can.

Diane: starts her own 'escort' business when she's sixteen (her smarts here are completely not believable); marries a rich ski manufacturing scion; fools her husband into thinking she's infertile; eventually becomes single again.

Dan and Alice King: fine Jewish parents who raise their kids right. The King family atmosphere - including all the 'stick their two cents in' grandparents - is amusing, entertaining, and rings true.

Ed King: very bright young man who apparently inherited his biological mother's wiliness and business acumen. As the book's main protagonist we follow Ed's life step by step, including his youthful love for candy and comic books, swimming ability, math smarts, sexual exploits, psychiatric therapy, success as a 'search engine king', eventual wealth...all the way to middle age when Ed discovers some troubling truths.

I had a hard time getting through this book. The story plods along slowly, most of the people are not likable. and - in the end - I really didn't care what happened to Ed, Diane, or most of the other characters. Narcissistic Diane is especially appalling to me. She's clearly a capable girl who didn't need to be a blackmailer, prostitute, user, and liar.

This is a hard book for me to rate. I debated giving it 2 stars (for tediousness) but the effort put into the writing and characterizations get 3 stars.

Note: I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by Arthur Morey. Though most of Morey's narration is fine, his 'British accent' (for Diane) is appalling. British accents are pretty familiar to most people from TV and movies and his is weird and nowhere near authentic. This became quite off-putting and pulled me right out of the story time after time.


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review of "The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye" by David Lagercrantz




Fans of the 'Millenium Series' know that Stieg Larrson, the original author, passed away after writing the third book. Subsequent stories have been written by David Lagercrantz, who hits his stride with this book (IMO).

********

As this fifth book in the 'Millenium Series' opens, Lisbeth Salander is in Flodberga Prison - sentenced to two months for refusing to cooperate with the (compromised) police while protecting an endangered autistic boy (in book four). Salander is indifferent to her surroundings, though, because she has her math books in her cell, and spends her time working on quantum physics equations. Moreover, jailhouse food is better than the the junk she usually eats.

One thing does bother Salander though. Her maximum security cell block is under the thumb of a sadistic prisoner named Benito (formerly Beatrice) Anderson, who frightens almost everyone - including fellow prisoners, guards, and even the warden. Salander isn't intimidated by Benito, but the swastika-tattooed thug is abusing a beautiful Bangladeshi inmate named Faria Kazi. Salander isn't about to let this pass, and takes matters into her own hands - making a mortal enemy of Benito.

Meanwhile, Salander's former guardian - elderly, infirm Holger Palmgren - comes into possession of confidential documents that detail cruel experiments Salander was subjected to as a child. With great difficulty, wheelchair-bound Palmgren makes his way to Flodberga Prison, to inform Salander about these new discoveries. Afterwards, Salander 'persuades' (blackmails) the warden into letting her use his computer to look into these decades-old events. Salander also asks her friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, to gather information about a man called Leo Mannheimer.

When he's back home, Palmgren continues to pore over the secret papers, and sees the name of someone he's met - Professor Martin Steinberg. When Palmgren calls Steinberg and alludes to the clandestine experiments, the professor freaks out. He calls his fellow perpetrator, Dr. Rakel Greitz, who's now an old woman suffering from cancer. Greitz isn't about to let her reputation be sullied, and will do ANYTHING to prevent this. Greitz is one of the worst villains in the book....and that's all I'll say about her.

As the story unfolds, Salander is released from prison, continues to look into her past, and plans her revenge. (This is one chick you don't want to get on the wrong side of!!)

For his part, Blomkvist gathers information about Leo Mannheimer and shares his findings with Salander. The journalist also plans an exposé for Millenium Magazine.....about the child experiments. As usual, Blomkvist also romances an attractive woman. LOL

A sub-plot in the novel tells the story of the Bangladeshi prisoner, Faria Kazi, who's in jail for killing her brother. Before going to prison, Faria was severely oppressed by her strict Muslim family, who planned to marry her off to a rich old fart in the home country. When Faria fell in love with a handsome Bangladeshi boy in Sweden, her family wasn't having it....and all hell broke loose. Salander is sympathetic to Faria, and arranges for Blomkvist's sister - lawyer Annika Giannini - to represent the Muslim woman.....with an eye to springing her out of jail.

The book's intricate plot is well-constructed and compelling, and I enjoyed catching up with Salander and Blomkvist. The major villains in the story are suitably evil (if a little cartoonish), and I hoped they'd get their comeuppance. The story's secondary characters - including selfish liars, violent thugs, cold-hearted experimenters, self-serving murderers, and attractive ladies - also add interest to the novel.

All in all, a very good addition to the Millenium Series, highly recommended.

The book could be read as a standalone, but - for maximum enjoyment - it's best to start with book one of the series and read them in order.


Rating: 4 stars

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review of "The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year" by Andy Cohen




I need to be up front here and admit that I checked this audio book (narrated by the author) out of the library because I wanted something very light and frothy. More honesty: I don't watch any of the "Real Housewives" shows that Andy Cohen produces, nor do I watch his late night talk show "Watch What Happens Live". Rather, I know Andy as the (former) executive producer of two Bravo shows I do like: Project Runway and Top Chef.

All that said, the book is exactly what the title implies - diary entries that detail Andy's everyday activities. Andy notes up front that he'll be doing a lot of name dropping, and indeed he does. He's acquainted with a wide assortment of celebrities and there's tons of stuff like: had frozen yogurt with SJP (Sarah Jessica Parker); met Matthew (Broderick) at a bar; invited myself to Kelly (Ripa) and Mark (Consuelos) for lunch; got a phone call from Cher; discussed producing a new show with Joan Rivers; went to a party at Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld's house; hob-nobbed with Madonna; texted Anderson (Cooper), and so on.

There are also innumerable entries about Andy's frequent visits to Fire Island, where scads of eating, drinking, partying, and hooking up goes on.

In fact Andy constantly talks about drinking, both in his daily life and on his late night talk show. Andy also admits to flirting with every atttractive male he sets eyes on - even if they're straight, too young, married, not interested, etc. In his defense, Andy seems to be seeking a loving long-term partner rather than a series of one night stands. Still, the constant flirting comes off as adolescent, desperate, and icky.

On a different note Andy documents a self-improvement program in which he's determined to eat well, drink less, work out a lot, and lose weight. And Andy does buff up over the year covered by this diary.

My favorite parts of the book are about Andy's dog, Wacha (AKA Norman Reedus...ha ha ha). It's fun to read about Andy adopting Wacha, a beagle mix, and about Wacha's activities - chasing his shadow for hours, running on the beach, cuddling with Andy, playing with other dogs, etc. These diary entries are sweet and touching. I also like that Andy is a devoted son, frequently skyping with and visiting his parents. Andy's mom, Evelyn - who sounds like a hoot - even acts as an occasional bartender on her son's late night talk show.

When it comes to work, Andy often mentions his "Real Housewives" series. There's apparently a lot of cast juggling on these shows - hirings and firings, demotions from permanent status to guest appearances, and cast members leaving and returning. Andy's descriptions of phone calls from spouses of fired (or downsized) housewives, begging Andy to reconsider because hubby gave up his job to be on the show, are sad and funny. Not too bright to quit your day job, Mr. Housewife!

I think the book probably gives a skewed impression of Andy, who comes off as a shallow, good-natured fellow who's sole concerns in life are eating, drinking, flirting, getting massages, hanging out with celebrities, getting good guests for his talk show, visiting with family members (a bit), and so forth. I imagine, in truth, that Andy also reads books, follows the news, and is concerned with deep issues - but I guess that's a different book.

I'd recommend this book to fans of Andy Cohen and his TV shows. These readers would probably enjoy the inside look into Andy's life. Other people, not so much.



Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review of "I See You" by Clare Mackintosh




Like thousands of city residents, fortyish Zoe Walker commutes to work every day on the London Underground - contending with the noise, jostling, and strangers packed too close. One day, while perusing the 'London Gazette' on the train, Zoe is startled to see a picture of herself. There, among ads for escort services and dating sites, is her photo - associated with an ad for 'FINDTHEONE.com.' When Zoe tries the ad's phone number and web address, the number doesn't work and the site requires an unknown password.

When she gets home, Zoe shares her discovery with her live-in boyfriend Simon and her children, 22-year-old Justin and 19-year-old Katie. They're skeptical that the Gazette photo is actually Zoe, and downplay her concerns. Nevertheless, Zoe continues to check the ad regularly - noting that it features a different female's photo every day. Zoe soon realizes that the women in the photos seem to be the targets of crimes, such as stolen keys and a break-in. Zoe brings this to the attention of Police Constable Kelly Swift, a disgraced/demoted detective who's now assigned to policing the Underground.

Kelly badly wants to redeem herself, and - and when one of the 'photo women' is murdered - manages to get herself seconded to the Murder Investigation Team (MIT). With Kelly's help the MIT discovers that one of the FINDTHEONE' women was raped, and others were crime victims as well.

As for Zoe, she notices that a well-dressed gent seems to be stalking her on the Underground. Moreover, when Zoe almost 'falls' onto the tracks, the man pulls her back.....and asks for a date. Zoe becomes increasingly paranoid, fearing that various commuters are ogling and chasing her.

On top of that, Zoe has personal concerns. Zoe's son Justin, a computer nerd who works in a coffee shop - tends to sponge off his mother; Zoe's daughter Katie, an aspiring actress, is dating a handsome, older director who seems shady; and Zoe's boyfriend Simon has been grouchy lately, and resentful of her ex-husband (Jusin and Katie's dad). Zoe's only moments of relaxation seem to be with her friend and neighbor Melissa, who's always good for a conversation and a cuppa.

Meanwhile, the MIT is making progress with their inquiries, and Kelly advises Zoe to be super careful....and to alter her travel habits. Interspersed with the actual events in the story are creepy observations from the 'perp', explaining the sinister behavior.

Events in the book escalate to a finale that reveals all, and there are some twists and surprises.

                                                     SPOILER ALERT

I think, in an effort to up the ante for readers who've come to anticipate 'big twists' at the end of thrillers, some authors go overboard.....and stretch credibility beyond the breaking point. For me, that's the case with this book. I didn't buy the epilog. 

                                                 END SPOILER ALERT

Overall, I enjoyed the novel. The premise of the story, that our 'personal information' is too public, is very relevant to modern times. And the main characters are fleshed out and interesting. On the downside, the middle of the story moves rather slowly, but this is a minor quibble.

The book is entertaining, and I'd recommend it to fans of thrillers.


Rating: 3 stars