Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith




This is the second book in the mystery series that begins with The Cuckoo's Calling. Private detective Cormoran Strike - an Army veteran who lost a leg in the Afghanistan war - is hired to find eccentric writer Owen Quine. Quine walked out after a dispute with his agent and hasn't been home for two weeks. Before long Strike finds Quine's rotting body - trussed, disemboweled, and burnt with acid.

Quine was an unpopular guy who had recently written a book maligning almost everyone in his orbit: his wife, agent, editor, publisher, mistress, fellow writers, and so on. Thus there are plenty of suspects in this mystery, which is essentially a cozy.

The cozy atmosphere is bumped up, however, by Strike's bum leg and the bad weather. Strike repeatedly injures his bad knee and is forced to hobble around on his prosthesis or crutches, often in freezing temperatures with snow incessantly falling. The author's descriptions are so vivid that I could almost feel the icy weather myself.

As in the first book in the series, Strike's secretary and assistant Robin Ellacott - who longs to be a detective herself - is ready and anxious to lend a hand in the investigation. Some characters from the first book are on hand, including Strike's loving sister Lucy; his wealthy (almost high-society) half-brother Al; and Robin's resentful, jealous fiancé Matthew (when will Robin realize he's not right for her?).

Strike's constant financial woes make it necessary for him to work on other cases while looking for Quine's killer and these investigations - which generally involve getting evidence on cheating spouses or lovers - are entertaining additions to the main story.

For me the resolution of the mystery didn't quite ring true and wasn't completely satisfying. However I enjoyed the book and would read more adventures involving Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review of "Stephen Colbert's Midnight Confessions" by the Staff of The Late Show




On Stephen Colbert's program,"The Late Show", he does a comedy sketch called "Stephen Colbert's Midnight Confessions." The host explains that he's Catholic - but doesn't always get to Church - so he'll cleanse his conscience by confessing to the audience.

Stephen's 'sins', of course, are hilarious. This is the written version of the skit, or - as Stephen explains it - the portable version.

The book, which can be read in a jiffy, is a lot of fun. To provide an idea of the contents, I'll note some jokes that made me laugh.

*****

"Yesterday I told a coworker she had the cutest baby. But really it was more of a 6."

"Sometimes when I go to a garage sale, I sneak in some of my own junk and run."

"I wear sunglasses on the subway so no one sees me peeking at their text messages. Actually, I lied. I don't ride the subway."

"If I sneeze and somebody doesn't say "Bless You", I aim the next sneeze toward them."

"Whenever I see a bowl of M&Ms at a party, I always toss in a couple of Skittles just to freak people out."

"One of the wise men in my Nativity scene broke, and instead of buying a new one, I replaced him with Lego Batman."

"When my kids were growing up, our house didn't have a fireplace. So I told them that Santa came out of the dryer."

"I don't say "Spoiler Alert" before giving away the ending to a movie.......or serving bad clams."

"They say there's no wrong way to eat a Reese's, but I'm thinking a whole bag while you're idling in the driveway is close."

"I think women look great in stiletto heels, but if I were a woman and a man asked me to wear them, I would murder him withy my shoes."

"I know how to fold fitted sheets, but I will never tell my wife."

"I really want washboard abs.....but all I have is a fabric-softener ass."

And here are some gems submitted by Colbert's twitter fans:

"I went through a Dunkin Donuts drive thru and started talking to the garbage can instead of the speaker."

"Until the 6th grade I though lesbians were what you called people who lived in Libya."

"Sometimes I eat Jimmy Fallon's ice cream while I watch Stephen Colbert's show."

*****

If these quips amuse you, there are lots more in the book. And if you want even more, "Midnight Confessions" segments are available on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Review of "Her Every Fear" by Peter Swanson




Londoner Kate Priddy's last romance was a disaster. Her boyfriend George was pathologically jealous, and - after they broke up - showed up at her borrowed cottage with a gun. George terrorized Kate for hours, then locked her in a closet and shot himself. Kate was found two days later, suffering from shock and claustrophobia. After recovering at her parents' home for months Kate resumed her life, but was plagued by anxiety and panic attacks.

It's now several years later and Kate, a talented art student, gets a tempting offer. Her Boston-based cousin Corbin Dell, whom Kate has never met, is being transferred to London for six months - and offers an apartment exchange. He'll gladly occupy Kate's small London flat and she can live in his luxurious Beacon Hill digs. With much trepidation, Kate accepts, and temporarily transfers to a Boston art school.

The cousins pass in the air (so to speak), and take up residence in each other's homes. Just as Kate is moving into her new place, she sees a woman pounding on the door of the adjacent apartment - looking for her 'missing' friend. Kate, who's always expecting the worst, gets a bad feeling.....which turns out to be prophetic.

On the day Kate moves in she meets several of the building's residents as well as Sanders the cat, a congenial feline who regularly calls on the tenants.

The next morning Corbin's next door neighbor - an attractive woman named Audrey Marshall - is found murdered in her apartment.

Corbin, who left town around the time of the killing, naturally becomes a person of interest. Detective Roberta James, who's in charge of the Marshall case, asks Kate about Corbin.....and requests permission to search his home. Kate agrees, but - before the cops arrive - does her own quick reconnaisance. A couple of days later, Kate looks through Corbin's basement storage unit and makes a shocking discovery.

Long story short, Corbin starts to look like a likely suspect, to both Kate and the police.

While the police are investigating Audrey's murder, Kate - though nervous - gets on with her life. She familiarizes herself with the neighborhood; buys bread, cheese, and wine (the fridge is already stocked with frozen meals from Trader Joe's. LOL); gets ready to attend her new art school; and sketches the people she meets. Kate also becomes friendly with Sanders, who periodically scratches on her door to be allowed in for a visit.

Before long Kate meets two young men: Alan Cherney - who lives on the other side of the building; and Jack Ludovico - an old friend of Audrey's. Kate appears to have faulty 'man radar' because - though both of these guys seem a bit off - Kate is quite friendly to them.

Within a couple of days Kate starts to get a creepy feeling in her apartment, and Sanders begins to appear and disappear without her opening the door. Hmmmmm.....food for thought.

The story is told from the points of view of several characters, and the author quietly sneaks in some surprising plot twists. That's all I can say without spoilers.

The book is a well-constructed novel of psychological suspense, but the middle parts are too slow and repetitive for my taste. Moreover, certain plot points don't ring true. I can't believe a normal, intelligent person becomes a homicidal maniac in the blink of an eye.....and then behaves very stupidly. There's more that bothers me but I don't want to give away too much.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable thriller, recommended to fans of the genre.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, January 15, 2018

Review of "Plague Land" by S.D. Sykes




Oswald de Lacy, sent to live in a monastery when he was 7-years-old, returns home to become Lord of Somerhill Manor after his father and brothers succumb to the plague. It's the mid-1300s, and being head of the plague-afflicted manor isn't easy. Many of the estate's rent-paying tenants died and their dilapidated homes are falling apart; there are barely enough workers to harvest the manor's crops; the self-serving village priest, John of Cornwall, encourages superstition and sells fake religious relics; Lacy's mother is domineering and his unmarried sister Clemence is difficult; and to top it off a young girl, Alison Starvecrow, has been found dead in the woods. Moreover, the dead girl visited Somerhall Manor looking for Oswald shortly before she was murdered.

Because the plague killed the village constable, it falls to Oswald to look into Alison's death. However Oswald is seriously unequipped for the task. He's only 18-years-old, has been sheltered for most of his life, and knows much more about the Bible and Greek literature than everyday life. Neverthless, Oswald's mentor, elderly Brother Peter, convinces the boy to investigate Alison's demise. This is made more difficult by Priest John, who claims that satanic dog-headed men killed the girl. The priest organizes prayer sessions and relic sales to ward off the creatures - coincidentally drawing the villagers away from their much-needed work in the fields.

Oswald looks into Alison's death, concludes she was murdered, and promises to find the killer. And matters escalate even further when another girl disappears. Oswald looks for clues, questions witnesses, and tries to find viable suspects - but criminal investigations in the 1300s were pretty primitive. (Note: I can't help but think a lot of people literally got away with murder in those days.)

While all this is going on, Oswald's sister Clemence becomes engaged to a neighbor, a bad-natured, previously married wife-abuser who hopes to take over Somerhill Manor by any means. As a result Oswald's life is endangered, he has some dreadful adventures, and he meets a boy with terrible birth defects. Oswald also has to deal with his mother - who tries to get him betrothed to a dull young cousin he doesn't like, and with the shocking (to him) discovery that his father left a dozen or so illegitimate children scattered around the village.

I think the book succeeds pretty well as a historical novel, giving the reader a little taste of life in England in the Middle Ages: the feudal system, the arranged marriages, the weddings, the jails, the courts, and so on. It's also an okay suspense story, and Oswald does solve the crimes in the end. I prefer modern mysteries but I think fans of historical mysteries would enjoy this book.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review of "Lincoln in the Bardo" by George Saunders



I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which has 166 narrators, including: Nick Offerman, Carrie Brownstein, Lena Dunham, Patrick Wilson, Megan Mullally, Rainn Wilson, Bill Hader, Susan Sarandon, Bradley Whitford, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, George Saunders (the author), and many others.

*****

The story: On the night of a State Dinner in 1862, Willie Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, dies of typhoid fever. The Lincolns' much-loved boy is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery. This isn't just any cemetery though. It's a kind of purgatory or netherworld, where the spirits of some of the interred remain behind - either because they can't or won't go on. This is the case with little Willie Lincoln, who - it seems - doesn't quite realize he's dead.

Willie's 'ghost' is one of many in Oak Hill Cemetery, and - in the course of the story - we get to meet a wide array of colorful wraiths, including: a naked man with a permanently engorged penis - who was going to consummate his marriage when a beam fell on him; a preacher who fears he won't get into heaven - and is constantly trying to figure out why; a gay man who died for love; a meek lady who's eager to describe the local flora to anybody and everybody; a groper who constantly grabs the flower lady; a lovely black slave who's been repeatedly raped by white men; a fellow who randomly sprouts eyes, ears, noses, and hands....so he looks like ball of body parts (this guy was the creepiest to me); a 'Siamese twin' made of two fused spirits; a foul-mouthed couple who were rotten, neglectful parents; a girl permanently trapped in a burning train car; and many others.

There aren't any children in this netherworld because their spirits normally move on very quickly. Willie lingers though, and this causes controversy among his fellow graveyard residents. Some want him to remain.....and others try to get him to leave.

Regardless of their feelings, all the ghosts are fascinated by visits from Abraham Lincoln. The distraught father - devastated by his loss - takes out and embraces his son's body. Willie's spirit sits on his father's lap and speaks to him, but the boy can't be felt or heard.

Lincoln's presence leads to speculation among the cemetery's other residents, who wonder if the President can 'take the boy back'.....and whether they could 'go back' as well. Some spirits long to return to their families; some want to make amends; and some are just bored....and chafe at their confinement within the cemetery walls.

Hoping to be heard, all the ghosts crowd close and shout their stories at the President - who's oblivious to them. A few intrepid spirits go so far as to jump into Lincoln's body, which permits them to share thoughts with the President and each other. As a result, a number of souls (apparently) attain some kind of peace and 'go into the light'..... while others don't.

The President is a sympathetic figure, reeling from the death of his son at the same time the Civil War is raging. Though mired in sadness, the Commander-in-Chief has to be strong, both for his wife (who's too bereaved to leave her bed) and for his crisis-ridden country - whose brave soldiers are dying every day.

The fictional parts of the book are interspersed with actual snippets from newspapers, books, diaries, letters, journals, conversations, etc. Thus we get glimpses of real life around 1862, which show us: an image of young Willie, who was a boisterous child that adored his father; the festivities on the night of the State Dinner - the guests, glamorous attire, and sumptious food; Abe and Mary Lincoln lingering at their dying son's bedside; the President's physical appearance (blue eyes, brown eyes, ugly, handsome.....everyone has an opinion); the President on a horse that's much too small for him - so that his feet almost touch the ground; Willie's funeral; thoughts about the Civil War; and so on. This gives the novel a historical vibe that I liked.

While listening to the book I felt somewhat irritated and impatient. The story meanders around, jumps from one character to another, and is written in a stream of consciousness style. Thus, it can be hard to follow. Once I finished the novel though, the story elements gelled in my mind......and I came to appreciate the talent and imagination of the author. Thus my rating of 4 stars.

This book won't appeal to all readers, so - if you're curious - you should probably get the book from the library and see if it's for you.


Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Review of "Knots and Crosses" by Ian Rankin


 

Detective Sergeant John Rebus joined the Edinburgh police force 15 years ago, after leaving the special forces unit of the British Army (SAS). Rebus is a solid cop, respected (if not quite liked) by his superiors. As the story unfolds we learn that Rebus's brutal SAS training left him profoundly troubled, so that he drinks too much, has a failed marriage behind him, and has a somewhat distant relationship with his young teenage daughter Samantha.

When a serial killer starts murdering young girls in Edinburgh, Rebus is drafted onto the team investigating the deaths. At about the same time Rebus starts getting anonymous letters with cryptic messages, which he thinks are from some joker - maybe even his ex-wife or daughter.

As Rebus assists with the serial killer inquiry he's unaware that a reporter, Jim Stevens, is stalking him. It seems that Stevens thinks Rebus's brother Michael - a successful stage hypnotist - is pushing drugs and that detective Rebus is helping him. Stevens hopes that by cracking this 'conspiracy' he'll become famous and successful. The reporter becomes even more determined to nail Rebus when the detective starts dating attractive Detective Inspector Gillian Templer - who once went out with Stevens (literally once).

As the killings continue, and the anonymous letters keep coming, it becomes clear that the murderer has a fixation on Rebus himself. Unfortunately, Rebus can't think who might have a grudge against him, especially since he's blocked memories of his SAS days. Eventually (with a little help) Rebus recalls his past and a tip from the public provides needed clues. The detective puts all this together and figures out the identity and motives of the killer, which leads to a dramatic confrontation.

Though I've read many books in the Rebus series, I hadn't read this first one until now. The story serves as a good introduction to detective Rebus himself, but the plot is too simplistic and somewhat unlikely. It also starts off overly slowly but starts zipping along once Rebus gets into the thick of the investigation.

For a cop on the job for 15 years Rebus's intuition is underdeveloped. He's way too slow on the uptake about the anonymous letters. Granted Rebus has a clouded memory due to his SAS training, but getting weird letters in the midst of a murder spree should ring a bell in ANY detective's mind.

The author violates one of my pet peeves in this book. As much as I like Rebus as a detective I don't believe his paunchy, sloppy-looking self would get beautiful DI Gill Templer to sleep with him right off the bat. In my opinion (some) male authors are especially prone to write this kind of male fantasy and I never find it credible.

Overall, I enjoyed this first book in the series and feel like it's a good introduction to Rebus and his personality. The series gets even better in later books, with Rebus becoming more fully realized as a character and the mysteries themselves becoming more sophisticated and complex.

Still, I'd recommend the book to mystery fans. The Rebus books are well-worth reading and this is a good place to start.


Rating: 3 stars

Friday, January 12, 2018

Review of "Artemis" by Andy Weir



 
Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara has been living in Artemis, the only city on the moon, since she was six-years-old. The daughter of Muslim master welder Ammar Bashar, twentysomething Jazz is a bit of a wild card - a brilliant young woman who refuses to take up a 'laudable' profession. Instead Jazz works as a porter, picking up and delivering goods. Mostly, Jazz conveys products shipped from Earth. When a shuttle arrives, Jazz picks up merchandise at the Port of Entry and brings it to the appropriate buyer.

Jazz - who's an enterprising young woman - takes advantage of her job to smuggle in contraband items ordered by her 'clients.' This includes things like: expensive cigars; cigarette lighters; pure ethanol; electronics; illegal chemicals; and more. The money (called slugs) that Jazz earns by smuggling augments her meager salary, but the porter is still dirt poor. Jazz's living quarters amount to a bunk in a closet.....with a shared bathroom down the hall. And her food consists of gunk - mush made from algae.

Jazz is always scheming to make more money, because she has a debt of 417,000 slugs.....and she wants a decent apartment. So when one of Jazz's customers, Trond Landvik (one of the 'richest richfucks in town') asks her to sabotage Sanchez Aluminum - so he can take over the company - Jazz agrees to do it.....for 1,000,000 slugs. Jazz plans a complex, dangerous caper to destroy Sanchez's equipment, but things go wrong and a murder ensues. Moreover, it looks like Jazz's life is in danger as well.

Turns out Sanchez Aluminum is owned by a Brazilian crime syndicate called 'O Palácio', whose leaders don't appreciate people messing with their factory. Moreover, O Palácio is apparently scheming to take control of Artemis's economy by hijacking the manufacture of a valuable technology called ZAFO. Artemis's administrator - a Kenyan woman called Fidelis Ngugi - wants to stop the Brazilians.....so she gives Jazz 'the wink' to do something about them.

Jazz cooks up a complicated scheme to thwart O Palácio', and enlists the help of her family and friends. The dangerous escapade - which involves a lot of cutting and welding - is described in minute detail.....but I found it hard to picture. (Maybe it will be clearer when the movie comes out. LOL) Jazz's scheme doesn't unfold quite as planned, but she's a resourceful gal who can think - and act - fast.

To me Jazz is a likable, spirited saboteur who drinks beer, curses like a sailor.....and gamely agrees to test a re-usable condom invented by a friend/client. I enjoyed Jazz's correspondence with her Earth penpal, Kelvin Otieno, who she 'met' at the age of nine. Jazz and Kelvin become close friends, exchange confidences, and become partners in the smuggling business.

Other memorable parts of the story include: the author's description of Artemis - which seems like a place that could really exist; the manner in which Rudy - the head cop on Artemis - administers justice to a wife beater (this is stellar!); Jazz's interest in Arabic gossip sites - which she frequently cruises on her Gizmo (a sort of smartphone/electronic wallet); and Jazz's contentious but loving relationship with her dad.....who did the best he could in difficult circumstances.

My major criticism of the book is the over-description of Artemis's construction and the (often) hard-to-understand science. This is unncessary and tedious.....and it slows down the story at the most exciting moments.

Overall, this is an entertaining adventure story in an unusual setting - with a large array of engaging characters. I'd recommend the book to fans of science fiction/action novels.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Andy Weir), and the publisher (Crown) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 3.5 stars