Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Review of "Dangerous Minds: A Knight and Moon Novel" by Janet Evanovich




This second book in the 'Knight and Moon' cozy mystery series finds Emerson Knight and Riley Moon trying to save the world from a nefarious conspiracy. The book can be read as a standalone.

*****

Since she lost her bank job, financial advisor Riley Moon has been working for hunky eccentric billionaire Emerson Knight, trying to straighten out his financial records. Knight has no patience for this tedious paperwork, so he's thrilled when his friend, Buddhist monk Bagus Wayans, shows up at his mansion - called Mysterioso Manor - in Washington DC.

Bagus, who was living on a small island in the Pacific Ocean, has a strange story to tell. He was forcibly removed from his island by furtive strangers - and when he escaped and went home, the island was gone.

Knight is intrigued by this odd occurrence, and the game's afoot. Emerson, Riley, and Bagus hurry off to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to ask about the missing land mass. The NOAA claims they have no record of the island, which seems very suspicious.

Meanwhile, Emerson's cousin Vernon - a crude but likable schlub who lives in an RV behind Mysterioso Manor and writes a blog about unexplained occurrences - learns that hikers have been vanishing from U.S. National Parks.....especially parks with volcanic activity. So Emerson decides that he and his friends - Riley, Bagus, and Vernon - will go to Yellowstone National Park to investigate the case of the missing trekkers.

All this activity brings Emerson and his friends to the attention of Bart Young - director of the National Park Service, and Tim Mann ('Tin Man') - the murderous head of security for park resources. These two tough dudes spread their chests, try to intimidate the foursome, and tell them to mind their own business....or else.🔫

Of course the adventurers ignore the warning and proceed to search Yellowstone. They don't find any missing hikers but they DO come upon a multi-billion dollar installation with enormous pumps that are bringing up lava. Further investigation reveals a scheme that can endanger the entire Earth.

The intrepid bunch then make their way to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, where their peril from Tin Man escalates even further. Emerson, Riley, Bagus, and Vernon will have to fight for their lives if they're going to have save the planet. (This series leans toward these kinds of fearsome, over-the-top scenarios.) 😲

The globetrotters hilarious escapades involve hatchets; guns; cars; planes; helicopters; enormous lava tubes; science fiction-like matter traps; a forklift; and more - as wicked villains hunt the foursome, and allies and friends help them out.

We're also treated to Bagus's mystical Buddhist philosophy and sharp sense of humor. When asked how he got to Washington DC, Bagus says, "I walked." From Bali? “I walked onto a boat. Then I walked onto a plane. Then, when the plane landed in Richmond, I walked some more.”

During the team's adventures, Emerson and Riley take baby steps in their budding romance💖; Bagus demonstrates Houdini-like powers of escape; Vernon constantly makes (what he thinks are) hilarious raunchy remarks.....and we learn why Vernon's ex-girlfriend is SO mad at him (and the reason is a doozy!).

This is a fun cozy mystery. Recommended to fans of the genre. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, May 21, 2018

Review of "Rough Weather: A Spenser Novel" by Robert B. Parker




In this 36th addition to the 'Spenser' series, the private detective deals with abduction and murder. The book can be read as a standalone, though familiarity with the characters is a bonus.

*****

As the story opens, beautiful socialite Heidi Bradshaw glides into Spenser's Boston office to engage his services. Heidi tells the private detective that her daughter Adelaide is getting married on her private island, Tashtego, in a few days. With come hither glances, the sexy diva goes on to explain that she's separated from her husband and needs a 'substitute man' for the weekend celebration - presumably to watch out for trouble.

Heidi offers Spenser a large fee to attend the affair, even though the island has a professional security service. Spenser agrees to go, and arranges to bring his longtime girlfriend - psychologist Susan Silverman - to the festivities. Susan packs enough clothes to fill Bloomingdale's and off they go. 👗🕶

On the day of the wedding, Spenser and Susan are shocked to see Spenser's longtime nemesis, Rugar (The Gray Man) stroll into the venue. They hope Rugar won't make any trouble, but no such luck. During the ceremony, Rugar's cohorts arrive in a helicopter, and - before long - shots are fired, people are dead, and newlywed Adelaide is kidnapped.

Spenser is shocked, because this kind of flamboyant abduction isn't Rugar's style. The Gray Man is a pro, and his crimes are usually less showy. So what's up? Is the kidnapping a cover for something else? The picture gets even murkier when there isn't an immediate ransom demand for the bride.

Spenser, who's upset about the crime occurring on his watch, is determined to find out what's going on - and to rescue Adelaide. Spencer starts investigating, with backup from his tough-as-nails friend Hawk. The two men learn that Heidi has always been a gold-digging vamp; that the socialite's various husbands need looking into; that Adelaide is a troubled girl; that a lot of money is at stake; and more.

After Spenser starts making inquiries, a bunch of thugs try to kill him and Rugar phones to warn him off. This is followed by the brutal murder of another person of interest. Nothing will stop Spenser, though, until he gets answers, and hopefully the girl.

As usual, Spenser and Hawk exchange lively humorous repartee - which is always a highlight of these books. The two bruisers also get into scrapes with the bad guys, and (of course) come out on top.

In the course of the story, Spenser, Susan and Hawk hang out; play with Blanche (the bulldog); have lively conversations; exchange opinions about the crimes; drink some bubbly; dine out; etc. They go to an Italian eatery where Hawk enjoys his chop; Spenser has his usual pasta Bolognese; and Susan nibbles a salad. (I'd be surprised if Susan eats more than 600 calories a day.) I always enjoy these scenes of the characters' normal, everyday activities.

Susan and Spenser's love affair, and the accompanying banter and intimacy, is going strong. 🧡 I could do with a bit less of this, but it's a boon for romance lovers.

The novel is a good addition to the series, with plenty of excitement and suspense. I'd recommended it to mystery readers, especially fans of the Spenser books. 

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review of "The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room - The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made" by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell




In 2003, a movie called 'The Room' opened in Los Angeles. The film - a drama about a woman (Lisa) who betrays her fiancé (Johnny) with his best friend (Mark) - was written, directed, and financed by Tommy Wiseau, who also stars as Johnny.

The movie, often called "one of the worst films ever made", garnered less than $2,000 in it's initial run and looked like it was headed for the movie junkyard. Wiseau, however, had other ideas. The auteur kept the movie open and continued to advertise it on a large billboard for the next five years. Wiseau, who has long black hair and a thug-like visage, is a rather oddball leading man - but his movie caught on.



'The Room' gained traction as a quirky comedy, and became a cult hit. I agree that 'The Room' is among the worst films ever made, but it's VERY FUN to watch.

Greg Sestero, the co-author of this book, played Mark in 'The Room.' Sestero's relationship with Tommy Wiseau, however, started before the movie was even conceived. This memoir, written years after the film became a big hit, tells the story of Sestero's friendship with Wiseau.....and the making of 'The Room.'

*****

Nineteen-year-old Greg met Tommy in a San Francisco acting class. Greg's attention was caught by Tommy's terrible - but wildly spirited - rendition of Stanley Kowalski (from 'A Streetcar Named Desire') and the two aspiring actors became scene partners.....and eventually friends.

Heavily accented Tommy - who's very secretive about his age, country of origin, and source of wealth - is an odd but amiable fellow. He allowed Greg to live in his empty Los Angeles apartment so the young man could pursue his acting dream. Greg worked hard to break into the business and had limited success - getting small parts and starring in a straight to DVD horror movie.

In time Tommy joined Greg in Los Angeles, but was unable to make any headway as an actor. So Tommy decided to write and produce his own movie, which turned out to be 'The Room' - and Greg was (eventually) pegged to co-star.

*****

In 'The Diaster Artist', Sestero and his co-author Tom Bissell alternate between sections that describe Greg's youthful struggles to succeed as an actor, and sections about the making of 'The Room.'

In the parts about Sestero, we learn about 12-year-old Greg's 'Home Alone 2' screenplay 👍; his teen age modeling gig in Europe; his mother's doubts about his choice of career; his acting classes; his bit parts; his friendship with Tommy; his move to L.A; his attempts to secure an agent; his minor roles; his supplemental job in a men's clothing store; his girlfriend; and so on.

In the sections about 'The Room', we get a blow by blow description of the film's production. Much of this is laugh-out-loud funny, because Tommy knew nothing about movie-making. Thus, once Wiseau finished his rather confused script, he bumbled about auditioning actors; hiring (and firing) crew members; purchasing equipment; choosing his (bizarro) wardrobe; designing scenery; directing the film; arranging for the premiere; and much more.

Greg's descriptions of Wiseau's efforts are intentionally humorous, as he describes Tommy's total inability to remember the lines he wrote for himself; his eccentric decisions about décor (which generally came from thrift stores) and staging; his flaky green screen additions; his insistence on extensive love scenes that feature his naked butt 😉; his outrageous over-acting; his decision to feature incongruous scenes - like one where the actors toss around a football while wearing tuxedos; his personal on-set toilet, which cost thousands of dollars.....but had a curtain instead of a door; and so on.

The movie set wasn't all fun and games though, because Tommy could be difficult. The auteur was hours late to the set every day; was sometimes insensitive to the actors; fired people willy-nilly; didn't air-condition the overheated sets; didn't supply drinking water; rejected suggestions for improving the movie; etc.

Most of the cast and crew came to believe the movie would be a total failure that no one would see. Thus, they became lackadaisical about their jobs, and - after a while - production values plummeted. Little did these people know that good-natured insults (and lightweight objects) would be hurled at the screen night after night as fans repeatedly watched - and made fun of - the cult hit.

To add to the success story of 'The Room', James Franco optioned 'The Disaster Artist' for a movie. Franco directed the film, which stars himself as Tommy Wiseau and his brother Dave as Greg Sestero. I like Franco's movie, which outlines the story of Tommy and Greg's offbeat bromance..... and exemplifies the craziness surrounding the making of the original film. Some of the most popular scenes in 'The Room' were re-shot - pixel by pixel - for 'The Disaster Artist', and it's fun to see the dual scenes side by side in Franco's movie.

The thing I like least about Sestero and Bissell's book is the long and speculative 'fantasy tale' about Tommy's early life. The authors suggest that Tommy was born somewhere in Eastern Europe; had a difficult abusive childhood; ran away from home; worked as a prostitute; made his way to the United States; became very wealthy (perhaps illegally); and so on. There are even tongue-in-cheek suggestions that 'The Room' was a creative money-laundering scheme. Though some of this may or may not be true, there's no proof - and these scenes are boring. They should have been left out (IMO).

Overall, I like 'The Disaster Artist' book, but I have reservations about Sestero's ambivalent attitude toward Wiseau. Sometimes Greg speaks highly of Tommy; at other times he makes nasty observations about his friend - comments that seem hyperbolic and disingenuous. Though Greg's (sometimes) acerbic criticism of Tommy may be justified, Sestero seems VERY ungrateful to the person who made him a success. If not for Tommy Wiseau, Sestero would probably be an unknown. Moreover, Tommy actually comes across as a sympathetic figure - a lonely man, out of his element, who works very hard to be successful. You have to admire that.

If you're interested in this saga, you should first watch 'The Room'; then read 'The Disaster Artist'; and finally see Franco's film. I promise you, you'll get a lot of laughs.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review of "How to tell if your cat is plotting to kill you" by Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal)




This humorous book, composed of cartoons about cats, is sure to make pet lovers smile. The comical cats in the book get up to all kinds of tomfoolery....both at home and - in the case of the two corporate cats called "the Bobs" - at work.

To provide a little flavor of the book I'll give some examples of the droll entries.

If you're worried that your cat might be plotting to kill you, look out for the following:
Your kitty shovels too much litter after pottying....he's practicing for burying bodies.
Your kitty lays all over your electronics....he's stopping you from communicating with the outside world.

In one set of cartoons a tabby that wants more attention meows and rubs against her owner - who's busy working at his computer. When these maneuvers don't work the cat gets more and more creative. Among other things she proceeds to: use a bullhorn, launch herself at the owner's head with a trebuchet, make a party with balloons, cake, and punch, and - as a last straw - scratch up the furniture. THAT finally does the trick. (Ha ha ha)



****************************************

The two corporate worker cats, Bob and Bob, are your typical office jokesters. When they want to derail a meeting, for instance, the two Bobs call the boss and say ".....your wife was hit by a meteor.....she's on fire....you need to come to the hospital immeteor-ately." (They're punsters as well!)

Bob and Bob normally wear (only) ties but show up in undies on casual Friday. When the CEO says "....[by] casual Friday I meant t-shirts and jeans, one Bob says "I can think of nothing more casual than my enchanting cheetah thong" and the other Bob says "I think he's got man-envy for our incredible taste in underpants."

The Bobs also spell out insulting messages with dead flies, bully fellow employees to get their pudding cups and sandwiches, and ruthlessly fire the CEO ("Don't make this harder than it has to be, Jim.")

In the cartoon that made me laugh the most the Bobs post a xerox copy of one of their rumps....with an arrow pointing to the butt hole. The message on the picture says: "Our CEO, Mr. Jimmers is a giant Stinky. Ha ha ha." And the cats sign the message "Anonymous (not the Bobs)."

The book's a quick light read that would entertain cat owners.... or anyone amused by funny animals. Highly recommended if you need a laugh.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review of "Dying Truth: A D.I. Kim Stone Mystery" by Angela Marsons




In this eighth addition to the 'Kim Stone' series, Detective Inspector Kim Stone and her team, who work in the West Midlands region of England, investigate suspicious deaths at a prestigious boarding school. The book can be read as a standalone, but familiarity with the characters is advantageous.

*****

When DI Kim Stone and DS Bryant get a call in their car saying a girl is about to jump from the roof of the elite Heathcrest Academy, the detectives rush to the school. They're too late, though, and the dead, broken body of 13-year-old Sadie Winter is on the ground. People are calling it suicide, but DI Stone's sharp eye - and an autopsy - reveal that Sadie was murdered.

Kim and her team interview Sadie's family, roommate, fellow students, and teachers. They learn that Sadie was a quiet girl who kept to herself and had no friends.....and no enemies. When DS Kevin Dawson asks several students if Sadie was bullied, he's repeatedly told that NO ONE would bully Sadie. Digging into this further, Dawson squeezes out the fact that Sadie's older sister, Saffron, is the 'Queen of Hearts' in a clandestine Heathcrest club, so no one would dare hassle Sadie.

Dawson, who has vivid memories of being the bullied 'fat kid' at school, is intrigued by these 'secret clubs' and investigates them further. It turns out that the clubs are very selective, have initiation rites that amount to hazing, and expect total loyalty reminiscent of the Mafia's Omertà - "a code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities."

Sadie's death is the beginning of a crime spree at Heathcrest, and students as well as faculty are targets. Kim wants the school closed and the pupils sent home. However, the head of the institution, Principal Thorpe - who's main concern is the school's reputation - refuses to close the doors. Moreover, Thorpe is uncooperative with the police. He assigns the detectives a dim, dusty storeroom for their interviews.....and Kim's 'remedy' for this is priceless. 😊

Given the nature of the crimes, Kim has to consider both children and adults as potential suspects. To probe the possibility of a child killer - which she finds very troubling - Kim asks the opinions of her colleagues; the coroner; her police mentor; and even Dr. Alex Thorne - the imprisoned sociopath who tried to ruin Kim's life.

As Kim and her squad pursue their inquiries, they learn that Heathcrest has a dark history, and past events hold clues to the school's present difficulties.

In a side plot, Kim has to write up the yearly appraisals for the cops on her team. To accomplish this, Kim has a brief meeting with each of her detectives - DS Bryant, DC Stacey Wood, and DS Kevin Dawson - and it's interesting to observe Kim's thumbnail sketches of their professional strengths and weaknesses.

I was caught up in the story's suspense, and intently followed all the detective work in an attempt to guess who the murderer was. I didn't figure it out....so well done Angela Marsons.

That said, I didn't completely love the book. To me, Heathcrest Academy was such a venal, unconscionable institution that I couldn't suspend disbelief. If a school really allowed the behavior that was prevalent there for decades - with no consequences for wrongdoers - social media would explode. There would be an investigation, parents would boycott the school, and Heathcrest would go bankrupt (IMO). Some of the students were SO entitled, they were openly rude and snide when the police questioned them. To me, this behavior just isn't believable.

Since the 'school atmosphere' underlies the book's plot, it reduced my enjoyment of the story.

Still, this is a well-wrought mystery and a laudable addition to the series. Recommended to mystery fans.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Angela Marsons), and the publisher (Bookouture) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review of "Turkey Trot Murder: A Lucy Stone Mystery" by Leslie Meier




The plot of this 24th addition to the 'Lucy Stone' series incorporates two topics prevalent in the news today: immigration and drug use. The amateur sleuth in these stories, Lucy Stone, is a wife, mother, and reporter for the 'Pennysaver' newspaper in her home town of Tinker's Cove, Maine. In the course of her work Lucy observes both of the above issues affecting her community.

The book can be read as a standalone.

*****

Lucy Stone is out jogging with her dog Libby, preparing for the Turkey Trot Race scheduled for Thanksgiving morning, when she spots a body in Blueberry Pond. The deceased is identified as college student Alison Franklin, daughter of local billionaire Ed Franklin.

Ed is well known in Tinker's Cove for several reasons: he built a huge, ostentatious mansion that clashes with the town's ambiance; his beautiful trophy wife is pregnant; he's head of the community's 'Board of Health'; and he's an outspoken xenophobe who doesn't like 'Mexicans.'

Alison's death is a shock to the local residents, who speculate that opioid use was responsible for the accident. However, Alison's toxicology screens haven't come back, and Lucy isn't convinced the girl was a user.....or that her death was an accident.

Nevertheless, Alison's father publicly lambastes Mexican drug pushers for killing his daughter. Moreover, when three Latino youths are arrested for selling drugs in Tinker's Cove, Ed sponsors a conspicuous billboard showing the boys' mug shots - with the caption "America for Americans."

Ed also harasses Rey Rodriguez, a California television chef/cook book author who recently moved to Tinker's Cove. Rey, who's descended from Spaniards who came to America before the pilgrims, is about to open an upscale restaurant called 'The Cali Kitchen' - which will be managed by his son Matt.

Bigoted Ed refers to Rey's family as 'unwanted Mexicans' and - citing (phony) regulations about dishwater effluent - says the eatery has to use paper plates. Rey's attorney is confident that Ed's restrictions won't hold up, and preparations continue to open the classy restaurant.

Shortly afterwards, a group calling itself "America for Americans" holds a raucous demonstration at The Cali Kitchen, shouting and throwing rocks.....with Ed looking on from his SUV. In the midst of the hubbub, someone is shot to death, and Matt Rodriguez becomes a suspect.

In a side plot, Lucy observes regular drug sales in a parking lot near her jogging path. Planning to write an article, Lucy stakes out the spot with her camera.....and sees a young man named Hank - who went to college with her daughter - making a buy. Lucy confronts Hank about the drugs and the police about the pusher.

Though the story contains two deaths - as well as illegal drug sales - it's not structured as a typical mystery. There's very little detective work, either by Lucy or the police. Instead, a 'lightbulb moment' leads Lucy to the truth about what happened to Allison and Ed, which (to me) is cheating.

I have two more quibbles with the book.

First, when Lucy looks into rehab facilities for Hank, she learns that they're hard to get into and very expensive. However - almost miraculously - a spot becomes available; money is found; and Hank is happy to go. This isn't realistic, and probably doesn't reflect reality for most drug addicts.

Second, Ed Franklin's blatant xenophobia is overdone. Ed's frequent, obnoxious rants against Mexicans are meant to show how 'wrong-thinking' he is.....but there's a LOT of this mean-spirited blather.

To be fair, in an interview the author noted that her novels explore current topics that catch her attention. In this book the things that inspired Leslie Meier were President Trump's 'personality' (nuff said); and how ubiquitous the drug trade has become.

I think long-time fans of the Lucy Stone series would like this book, which contains well-liked, familiar characters. New readers, however, might want to start with a different volume.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Review of "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles



Prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was one of Russia's elites - a wealthy, erudite aristocrat who mingled with other sophisticates. Rostov spent his time reading, listening to music, traveling, dining on fine food, drinking expensive wine, writing the occasional poem, and so on.

After the Revolution, in 1922, a Bolshevik Tribunal declares the Count a 'Former Person' and sentences him to life imprisonment in Moscow's luxurious Metropol Hotel - where the rich nobleman has been living for the past few years. Rostov can go anywhere in the hotel....but one step outside and he'll be shot.

The Count is moved from his large opulent 3rd floor suite to a cramped attic room, and begins his life as a political prisoner.

The Metropol Hotel is a far cry from a Siberian Gulag. The Metropol contains the upscale Boyarsky restaurant; the Shalyapin Bar; a barbershop; a shoeshine service; a florist; a seamstress; and so forth - all the accommodations needed by wealthy foreigners and visiting Bolshevik apparatchiks.

With great foresight, the Count has secreted a large number of collectible gold coins in the legs of his desk. So - though Rostov is confined - he has the means for wining and dining and keeping up his elegant appearance.

During Rostov's imprisonment, he develops a number of pivotal friendships, including:

- Nina Kulikova - a nine-year-old girl who's living at the Metropol with her bureaucrat father. Nina has a passkey that she and the Count use to explore the entire hotel. Nina gives the passkey to the Count before she leaves, which he puts to good use.

- Andrey, the Boyarsky's French maître d' - who knows how to juggle; and Emile, the Boyarksy's chef - who has a knack for creating elegant dishes, even with severe food shortages. In a memorable scene, Rostov, Andrey, and Emile - who spent three years rounding up the scarce ingredients for French bouillabaisse - sit down to enjoy their wonderful meal.

- Marina, the Metropol's cross-eyed seamstress. She teaches Rostov to re-attach his popped buttons and to do all manner of fancy stitching.

- Anna Urbanova, a beautiful Russian actress whose career ups and downs depend on Stalin's whims. The count has a sporadic, long-term affair with her.

The Count also gets regular visits from his poet/writer friend Mishka, who keeps Rostov apprised of the Communist's increasing repression and censorship. Mishka is devastated when he has to remove a reference to 'Berlin having the most delicious bread' from a book he's editing.

The Bolsheviks' tyranny extends to wine as well. The Metropol's staff is ordered to strip the labels off ALL the Boyarsky restaurant's bottles of wine (some of which are VERY expensive), so customers can only order 'white' or 'red' for a set price. This almost drives the oenophile Count to suicide.

The most unpleasant character in the story is the 'Bishop' - a mean-spirited waiter who resents the Count's wealth, education, and elegant manners. The Bishop is constantly maneuvering to take the Count down a peg, and to make his life more difficult. After the Count volunteers to become a waiter at the Boyarsky, his clashes with the Bishop become especially rancorous.

Life under Communist rule is hard, with government spies keeping track of what everyone does and says. 👀 Thus people are regularly imprisoned - or sent to Siberia - for real or imagined infractions. This random incarceration (inadvertently) results in the most significant event in Rostov's life.....he becomes the guardian of a clever, spirited little girl.

Rostov spends decades in the Metropol, where he cogitates about life; eats fabulous meals; meets people from all over the world; has interesting conversations; plays intellectual games; and - all things considered - lives a very full life.

I enjoyed the book, which - at various times - is funny, dramatic, exciting, suspenseful, and heartbreaking. The story depicts (what I assume is) a realistic picture of the circumscribed lives of people in a Communist society - which is probably still true of Russia today.

This is a very good book, highly recommended. 

Rating: 4.5 stars