Friday, April 28, 2017

Review of "Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden" by M.C. Beaton

After a vengeful hairdresser washes Agatha Raisin's hair with dipilatory rather than shampoo, the partially bald amateur detective - embarassed to be seen in her Carsely village - goes to Wyckhadden for a vacation. Agatha checks into the Garden Hotel, whose only residents are a coterie of elderly retirees who like to gossip and play Scrabble. Agitating about her unsightly head, Agatha is advised to consult Francie Juddle - a Wyckhadden psychic ('witch') who also sells revitalizing potions. Agatha visits Francie and purchases hair restorer and - just for kicks - a small bottle of love potion.

For fun, Agatha arranges for Francie to conduct a séance for the elderly residents of the Garden Hotel. The session doesn't go well and Francie is soon found battered to death in her cottage. Before you can say abracadabra Francie's daughter Janine takes over the 'clairvoyance' business.....and she's soon found dead as well. The police investigation is led by Inspector Jimmy Jessop, a nice-looking widower. Agatha offers to help with the inquiries, but Jimmy puts her off.

Nevertheless, Jimmy finds Agatha attractive and asks her out. After a short time Agatha and Jimmy become a couple, but anyone familiar with the sleuth knows her romance probably won't go smoothly - especially because Agatha is still in love with her neighbor, James Lacey.

Meanwhile, Agatha obsesses over the murders and becomes convinced one of the retirees at the hotel is the killer. Unfortunately Agatha can't get anyone to talk about the crimes, so there's very little 'detective work' in the story. For the most part Agatha either spends time with Jimmy or socializes with the hotel residents: going to dances and plays; having drinks in the hotel or pub; playing Scrabble; helping the ladies get makeovers; etc. Mostly, this is a 'life in the village' story - where residents socialize; form relationships; get jealous; have arguments; and so forth.

At the story's climax Agatha gets an epiphany that helps her solve the murders, but the solution is more 'deus ex machina' than brilliant detective work.

When I pick up an Agatha Raisin book I know what to expect: Agatha obsesses over her appearance; has embarassing dalliances with men; gets a visit from her friend Charles - a notorious sponger who always forgets his wallet; moons about James; talks with her friend Mrs. Bloxby (the vicar's wife); etc. In that vein, the book doesn't disappoint. It's a pleasant diversion, and Agatha Raisin fans would probably enjoy it.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review of "World Gone By" by Dennis Lehane

As the book opens World War II is raging. Joe Coughlin, a former crime boss in the Tampa area, is now more of a businessman gangster living a (more or less) respectable life with his 9-year-old son Tomas. Joe is an advisor to current Florida crime boss Dino Bartolo and friends with top lieutenant Rico DiGiacomo, whom he's known since childhood. He's also on good terms with other gang bosses because he makes lots of money for everyone and doesn't skim or cheat. So Joe is surprised when a hit-woman needing his help tells Joe that a hit on him is scheduled for Ash Wednesday.

Meanwhile Bartolo's gang is short on personnel because so many men have been drafted. This opens lieutenant spots for some ambitious but less than brilliant criminals, like Rico's brother Freddy DiGiacomo. Freddy wants to push out Montooth Dix who rules 'Brown Town', the neighborhood where African-Americans and Cubans live. Freddy tries to kill Montooth but fails, losing two men in the skirmish. Freddy then insists that Montooth be murdered because he killed two white men - though Freddy started the trouble. Joe, who likes Montooth, is ordered to set him up. Joe's life is further complicated by his torrid affair with the mayor's wife and by the ghost of a young boy who seems to be related to him.

The author does an excellent job creating a dangerous atmosphere as Joe hobnobs with various gangsters who might be about to kill him. It's clear that being a gang boss is a tricky business, as there's always someone ready to bump you off and take your place.

The dramatic climax of the book takes place on a luxury yacht. The book should have ended right after this but the story drags on for a bit to a somewhat surprising ending. All in all this is a good story with vivid, interesting characters - recommended for fans of mystery/thriller or gangster books.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling

This eighth book in the Harry Potter series is the script of a play that originally opened in London's West End in 2016. The play harks back to occurrences in the original series so the reader needs to be familiar with those books to fully appreciate the story.

"Cursed Child" opens 19 years after Lord Voldemort's defeat. By now, Hermione is Minister for Magic; Ron runs Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes; Harry is Head of Magical Law Enforcement; and Ginny is a sports writer for The Daily Prophet.

Harry and Ginny's middle child, Albus Severus Potter, is starting his first year at Hogwarts and - against all odds - is put into Slytherin. Albus becomes best friends with his fellow Slytherin, Scorpius Malfoy - the son of Draco and his wife Astoria.

Ron and Hermione's daughter, Rose Granger-Weasley is also a first year student at Hogwarts, placed into Gryffindor. Rose disapproves of her cousin Albus hanging out with Scorpius because she associates Scorpius with death eaters, and thinks he's a sketchy guy.

Jump ahead three years and Albus, Scorpius, and Rose are about to begin their third year at Hogwarts. Rose fits in very well at the school, where she's popular and a good Quidditch player. Albus and Scorpius, however, are having a rough time: Albus because he feels pressured by being the son of 'famous Harry Potter', with whom he has a very fractious relationship; and Scorpius because rumors abound that he's really the son of Lord Voldemort. In addition, Scorpius is grieving from the recent loss of his mother. Albus and Scorpius are on the edge of rebellion and have a strong desire to prove themselves - and Albus knows just what to do.

While he was home for the previous summer break, Albus overheard some things. First, contrary to the belief that all the Time-Turners were destroyed during the 'Battle of the Department of Mysteries', Harry recently confiscated an illegal one.....and Hermione hid it at the Ministry of Magic. Second, Amos Diggory - having heard a rumor about the Time-Turner - dropped in on the Potters. He implored Harry to go back in time and save his son Cedric, who was killed by Lord Voldemort after he was a co-winner (with Harrry) of the Triwizard Tournament. Harry strongly denied he had a Time-Turner and Amos went away mad, accompanied by his niece/caretaker Delphi.

So.....Albus and Scorpius hatch a plan while they're traveling to school on the Hogwarts Express. They jump off the train, team up with Delphi, and steal the Time-Turner from Hermione's office via clever use of polyjuice potion. The boys then go back in time to make sure Cedric doesn't win the Triwizard Tournament - which presumably will save his life. Of course any diddling with the past reverberates through the future, and the boys' machinations have massive - and unfortunate - results. The boys try to go back and fix things - several times - but end up making everything worse.

Meanwhile, Harry, Ginny, and Draco are informed that their sons aren't at school, and form an uneasy alliance to find the boys - assisted by Ron and Hermione. This is a very 'grown-up' development considering the previous animosity (to put it mildly) between Draco and Harry. The play is realistic in its depiction of difficult family dynamics: Harry (try as he might) can't seem to connect with Albus, who feels like odd man out in his famous/gifted family. And Draco, though he's a loving father, appears to be on a different wavelenth from his boy Scorpius - who's a gentle, unassuming lad. (He should probably be a Hufflepuff.... LOL.) Scorpius even has a crush on Rose, which is a sweet, amusing touch.

And that's about all I can say about the plot without spoilers.

Many characters from the original series make an appearance - including dementors - and it was fun to see them. (Well.....the dementors aren't that much fun .....)

I'm a huge Harry Potter fan and I enjoyed the play. The plot is clever, the characters are smart, and there's a nice surprise twist. That said, the story, which was conceived by J.K. Rowling and written by Jack Thorne, lacks the depth, breadth, an ingenuity of the original books. Partly, this is because a play is less detailed than a novel, but also because it doesn't have Rowling's 'touch' (IMO).

Also, the characters' repeated trips to the past give the play a repetitious vibe. When I compare this work to the screenplay 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them', which Rowling wrote herself, I find that 'Fantastic Beasts' is more artful and entertaining.

Still, I highly recommend 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' to fans of the series. If you're a Potterphile, it's a must read!

(Note: I just love the name 'Scorpius'.....It's inspired!)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review of "Truly Madly Guilty" by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty is a popular best-selling author and her latest book, Truly Madly Guilty, garnered a lot of hype and many good reviews. That said, the book was just okay for me.

Set in Sydney, Australia, the story is about an unfortunate incident that occurs during a backyard barbeque. The cookout's hosts are Vid and Tiffany - a rich sociable couple that live in a luxurious home with their 10-year-old daughter Dakota. The guests include the hosts' next-door neighbors Erika and Oliver and their friends Clementine and Sam who bring their two little girls Holly (5) and Ruby (2). The story skips back and forth in time, depicting events before the barbeque, on the day of the barbeque, and after the barbeque.

As the story unfolds we learn the backstories of some of the characters. Erika had a difficult shame-filled childhood with her mother Sylvia, a narcissistic and delusional hoarder. Feeling bad for Erika, Clementine's mother Pam took the girl under her wing and pushed Clementine to be friends with her - which Clementine resented. Erika's husband Oliver also had a dysfunctional childhood, with two alcoholic parents. Thus Erika and Oliver - both damaged - understand each other and have a quiet successful marriage.

Clementine, by contrast, had a happy childhood.....aside from being irritated by Erika's constant presence. Clementine had loving parents, a nice home, and musical talent that was nurtured by her family. Clementine is now a professional cellist, happily married to public relations honcho Sam. Though Clementine and Sam's lives are somewhat fraught - with two small kids, two careers, and Clementine's constant fretting about auditions - the couple meanders along quite happily.

Vid is an electrician who resembles 'Tony Soprano' and Tiffany is a successful property developer with an eye-catching sexy figure. Tiffany unashamedly admits she once worked as a pole dancer to make money for school. The couple enjoy throwing parties and Vid loves to cook - so he serves tasty dishes from recipes he finds on the internet. (I got a yen to try some of his dishes....ha ha ha.)

On the day of the barbeque tension arises early because Erika and Oliver make a request of Clementine and Sam that throws the couple off-kilter. So it's not surprising that there's a little too much drinking and hilarity at the cookout, leading to an unfortunate occurrence. A good part of the book drops hints about the incident at the barbeque, details the emotions and actions of the characters, and relates consequences after the cookout. I have to say - after the HUGE build-up - I found the 'barbeque incident' rather predictable and mundane, and the consequences overblown and unrealistic.

That said there are things I like about the story. It has some clever surprises and twists, and some memorable characters and scenes. For example, Sylvia the hoarder (Erika's mom) is sly, phony, funny....and VERY irritating. And social worker Pam (Clementine's mom) is overly self-righteous in her do-gooding, interfering zeal. At one point Pam gives a dinner party speech that made me (and the book's characters) quite uncomfortable. These behaviors - though squirm inducing - add interest to the story. On the other hand, 5-year-old Holly is a hoot when she sprinkles her conversation with "air quotes" on random words.

The first two-thirds of the book held my attention, after which I was slightly bored. And the story's final scenes didn't ring true to me. I would mildly recommend this book to fans of Liane Moriarty but it's not as good as her earlier work (IMO).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Review of "Stay Close" by Harlan Coben

Seventeen years ago, in Atlantic City, Stewart Green disappeared, an event which profoundly affected the lives of several people: Green's wife was devastated and the lead cop in the investigation, Detective Broom - who befriended Mrs. Green - is still obsessed with the case; Cassie, an entertainer at a club named La Crème who was involved with Green, gave up her old life, changed her name to Megan, and became a suburban wife and mother; and Ray Levine, Cassie's boyfriend at the time, became an alcoholic with a shameful (in his eyes) job as a fake papparazzi.

Now, seventeen years later another man, Carlton Flynn, disappears from Atlantic City in similar circumstances. Unfortunately for Megan she chooses this time to revisit her old haunt, La Crème, where she's recognized by a former friend, the bartender Lorraine. As events unfold this pulls Megan into the police investigation of Carlton's disappearance - and as it turns out - the disappearance of several other men. This upsets Megan life since she's desperate to hide her former identity from her husband.

Meanwhile, Carlton's father, a wealthy developer who distrusts the cops, hires a pair of psychopaths - blonde and beautiful Ken and Barbie - to find out what happened to Carlton. This horrific pair love inflicting pain and go on a torture spree to get information, an endeavor aided by a corrupt cop.

Eventually, using informaton provided by Megan, Ray, and others, the police are able to figure out what's going on, but the solution is not satisfying or believable. Moreover, it was difficult (for me) to reconcile what happened to Green with the very profound changes in the lives of the main characters. Green was an abusive and unpleasant guy and it seemed to me that everyone was better off with him gone.

I'm a Harlen Coben fan but I was disappointed with this book. Ken and Barbie are so over-the-top that they seem like cartoons. Other characters, like Ray and Megan, are so self-involved that they're hard to care about. And the story is overly convoluted and doesn't quite gel. I was actually wondering if Coben had a co-writer since this book seemed so different from his usual style and quality.  

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of "Bird Box" by Josh Malerman

Many people loved this book and gave it glowing 4 and 5 star reviews. That said, I don't share their enthusiasm.

As the story opens there are alarming news reports that people in Russia are becoming violent - killing themselves and others - for no apparent reason. The phenomenon soon spreads around the world, and it becomes clear that a glimpse of 'it' drives people insane - but no one (who's still alive) knows what 'it' is. People proceed to barricade themselves inside their homes, cover all the windows, and venture outside only with blindfolds on. At one point a character actually drives a car blindfolded, with all the windows blackened for good measure. (This stretches credulity just a tad.)

A few years after the phenomenon begins Malorie is living alone in a house with her two children, Boy and Girl, both 4-years-old. The mother has trained the children to cultivate their sense of hearing, which is now extremely acute. Malorie has had a plan since the kids were born, and one foggy day - when the danger of 'it' seeing them is reduced - she takes action. Malorie blindfolds herself and the 4-year-olds, and they all board a rowboat on a nearby river. Malorie then starts paddling downstream, relying on the children's hearing to detect danger.

The story alternates back and forth between the present - where the little family is traveling down the river, and the past - which details how Malorie got to this point.

In the past, when the craziness began, Malorie - who had just discovered she was pregnant - was living with her sister Shannon. After Shannon died, Malorie, having seen an advertisement in the newspaper about a 'safe house', plucked up her courage and made her way there. The house contained a small cadre of people who had a large supply of food, a nearby well, working electricity, a landline telephone.....and elaborate procedures to keep themselves safe. New people occasionally showed up at the house, which always caused anxiety because the newcomers might have seen 'it' or could be dangerous for other reasons.

In the present, Malorie and the kids are enduring a difficult journey. In addition to rowing in a physically weakened condition (having been stuck inside for years) Malorie has to deal with possible hazards on the river - like collisions, animals, and maybe 'it.'

Back in the past, Tom - who functions as the safe house's leader - undertakes various projects. He organizes an expedition to acquire and train 'seeing-eye' dogs; searches for food and medicine; makes endless phone calls to try to reach survivors (and leaves messages when he can); makes preparations for Malorie's soon-to-be-born baby; and so on.

In the book's sections set in the present, we slowly learn about Malorie's destination, what she must go through to get there (can you say wolf attack?), and what she finds when she arrives. Since Malorie and the children are alone as the story opens it's not a spoiler to say that - for one reason or another - the other house residents are no longer there when Malorie embarks on her trip. How this comes about is suspenseful and compelling.

This book is often described as a horror story - and there's certainly an undercurrent of dread that permeates the tale. However, I never felt very scared. I was more curious to find out what 'it' was, where 'it' came from, why 'it' was here, and possibly 'it's' ultimate fate. I never learned any of that, and was disappointed.

Moreover, this is one of those books that describes the action of the characters in minute detail (I'm paraphrasing here): Tom donned his blindfold; he opened the door; he listened for a moment; he took a step toward the well; he paused to sense whether 'it' was close by; he took another step toward the well; etc. I like the action to move along quickly so (to me) this kind of storytelling is tedious and not enjoyable. In addition, I never quite understood the ultimate goal of the human 'survivors.' I wanted to know what kind of future they hoped for or expected, but the author didn't elaborate on this. (Me.....I'd just throw in the towel if I had to live like these people.)

That said, I admire the author's imagination and his careful development of the stricken world he writes about.

Since so many people have praised this book I'd suggest that readers intrigued by the premise try it out - maybe get it from a traditional or online library (I borrowed it from Hoopla). You might love it too, and if you don' great loss.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review of "My Italian Bulldozer" by Alexander McCall Smith

Paul, a Scotsman who writes popular books about food and wine, is down in the dumps. His long-time girlfriend Becky has left him for her personal trainer, and Paul is brooding about the betrayal - and falling behind on his new manuscript. To get Paul back on track his editor, Gloria, convinces Paul to go to Italy to finish his book. Gloria makes all the arrangements and Paul is soon flying to Pisa, where he'll pick up a rental car and drive to Montalcino - a hill town in Tuscany.

As things turn out Paul's hire car isn't available and he ends up renting a bulldozer. Of course a man meandering along country roads on a bulldozer is quite unique, and Paul is soon having novel experiences and making new acquaintances. Before long Paul is settled into his Tuscan hotel and - between drinking coffee in cafés, dining in fine restaurants, roaming around town, and chatting with Montalcino natives - makes good progress on his book.

As part of his research, Paul visits a winemaker called Tonio, who sadly explains that he can't market his 'Rosso di Montalcino' as famous 'Brunello' wine because he's just outside the production zone. Tonio also tells Paul about his famous ancestors (a claim pooh-poohed by the townsfolk) and serves a country lunch of Tuscan bean soup, pasta laced with garlic, and wild boar.

On his way home from the winery Paul assists a pretty American art historian named Anna, whose car is in a ditch. Paul and Anna have interesting, intellectual conversations and share a lovely meal, and Paul is smitten..... though Anna seems to be spoken for.

Paul is starting to get his ex-girlfriend Becky out of his system when she sends a message saying she's coming to visit. Hearing about this, Paul's editor hurries to Tuscany as well - fearing Becky might distract the writer from his work. So Paul is soon dealing with a bevy of women, to the amusement of the villagers - who didn't think the 'English' were so colorful.

In the course of the story the author describes the beautiful Tuscan countryside as well as Italian wines.....and foods such as fagioli con salciccia (beans with sausage), pecorino nero (cheese made from the milk of black sheep), papa al pomodoro (a garlicky tomato dish served with stale bread), and a picnic of salami and olives.

By the end of the tale Paul has finished his book, made new friends, and helped the vintner Tonio. He's also in love, and picturing a cruise down Venice's Grand Canal on a working barge.....complete with crane.

The book is a pleasant read but seems more like a travelogue than a novel. Still, I enjoyed the story and the quirky characters. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith would probably like the book.