Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See

The story revolves around Lily and Snow Flower, two girls in rural China who - as seven-year-olds - become laogong, official lifelong best friends. The girls have their feet bound on the same day (a horrifying practice in which a girl's feet are bound until the bones break and they can be contorted into a small shape), visit on occasion, and frequently write each other on a fan in a language called Nu Shu or women's writing - supposedly unreadable by men.

As the girls grow up they marry, move to their husbands familial homes, have children, and face the many challenges of being a woman in 19th century China. Traditionally, women in China had no rights. Once their feet were bound girls were mostly confined to a 'woman's room' where they sewed and embroidered and so on, and - once married - were expected to obey their husbands and mothers-in-law and to produce sons. In Chinese culture it seems wives jobs were to have sons, and this is almost all they were good for. The husbands, on the other hand, could apparently do whatever they liked - take concubines, beat their wives, discard their wives, etc.

From the first time they meet as children Lily and Snow Flower have a strong emotional bond. They share hopes and dreams and plan to be friends forever. Secrets in Snow Flower's life challenge the friendship but the girls' manage to get past this and maintain their bond. Eventually Lily makes a fortunate marriage into an influential family with a decent husband while Snow Flower marries into a low family that treats her badly. Lily produces two strong sons while Snow Flower endures difficult pregnancies, miscarriages, and stillbirths - and when she finally has a son - he is a weakling who seens destined to die young. In time both women go on to produce more children, and when they have daughters, plan that the girls will also be laogong.

Through it all - as Snow Flower's difficulties come to weigh heavily on her - Lily is constantly counseling her best friend to behave correctly, be a good wife, obey her husband, placate her mother-in-law, and continue to get pregnant. Events conspire to produce a crisis betweent the friends where their true feelings are dramatically exposed.

It was interesting to read about the Chinese traditions, lifestyles, and people of the time but the book is slow and meandering and the characters, though well-drawn, were not likable and hard to care about. In addtion - for me - the description of how women were treated is hard to stomach. I was also reminded that the devaluation of women continues in China today - where female infants are often killed or discarded. This ensures that many men can't find women to marry. One might speculate that - with the one child policy - the Chinese government should have seen this coming.

For those interested in learning about 19th century China I'd recommend reading a non-fiction book and skipping this one.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review of "The Last Alibi" by David Ellis

While recuperating from a knee injury, criminal defense lawyer Jason Kolarich - a partner in the Midwestern lawfirm 'Tasker and Kolarich' - becomes addicted to the painkiller oxycodone. To hide his drug habit, Jason conceals the tablets in an Altoids box and munches them throughout the day. Jason's opiod dependency may explain the lack of judgment and misguided behavior that results in his being tried for first degree murder.

Early in the story, Jason has a meeting with a potential client named James Drinker - a big stocky man with curly red hair, large black glasses, and a substantial beer gut. Drinker announces that two women of his acquaintance have recently been murdered, and - though he claims 'I didn't do it' - Drinker fears he'll be framed for the killings.

Drinker asks Jason EXACTLY how a person might go about framing someone, and the lawyer provides a step by step primer. (So that's not too bright.) Before long more women are killed, and each time Drinker claims 'I didn't do it.' As the bodies pile up, however, Jason comes to believe Drinker DID do it. All this leads to big problems for the attorney.

Meanwhile, Jason meets a beautiful court reporter named Alexa Himmel. Jason and Alexa go on a few dates, have a lot of hot sex, and become a couple. Alexa is very sympathetic about Jason's 'hurting knee' (which is completely healed) and encourages him to take all the painkillers he needs. In fact, Alexa even obtains (illegal) pills for her boyfriend. Soon afterwards, Alexa manipulates the situation so that she's practically living with Jason.

Jason's law partner, Shauna Tasker - who's concerned about Jason's sickly appearance, weight loss, and odd behavior - hints that Alexa is bad news.....but the drug addict doesn't want to hear it.

In a coup de grâce Jason returns home one night to find a dead woman in his living room, shot with HIS gun. The attorney is arrested, charged with murder, and put on trial. It looks like someone very cleverly framed Jason!

Jason insists on being defended by Shauna, even though she's a civil litigator, not a criminal lawyer. Shauna nervously takes on the task, knowing she'll have guidance from her partner.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of Jason and Shauna, and switches back and forth between the trial and the events leading up to it. There are numerous court scenes, with lots of maneuvering by the prosecution and defense - so plenty of fun for fans of legal thrillers.

The book is well-written, with a variety of interesting secondary characters, including: the district attorney, the judge, and the private investigator - Joel Lightner - who maked inquiriies for Jason. Lightner's discoveries are very important to the story.

The author does a good job with twists and surprises, which are cleverly woven into the novel. We also see Jason deal with his opiate addiction and withdrawal, a topic that's very relevant these days.

All in all an enjoyable mystery/thriller, recommended to fans of the genre.

Though this is book 4 in the series it can be read as a standalone.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, November 20, 2017

Review of "Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story of the Most Audacious Heist in History" by Ben Mezrich

This is a (sort of) true story about the July, 2002 moon rock heist pulled off by NASA intern Thad Roberts...and presumably what put Thad on this foolish course.

Thad grew up in a strict Mormon community in Utah. Even so, temptation got the better of him and Thad had sex with his high school girlfriend Sonya. Confessing to this when he was at the Mormon Missionary Training Center got Thad thrown out of the church and banned from his family - apparently forever. Was this the traumatic event that shaped Thad's future? Who knows. In any case Thad and Sonya married and Thad became a student at the University of Utah.

Thad, an excellent student with a wide variety of interests, decided he wanted to be an astronaut. Thus Thad made it his business to develop a wide-ranging skill set including scuba diving; getting a pilot's licence; mastering several languages (space travel is international); studying geology, astronomy, and physics; and so on. With persistence Thad made it into the highly competitive NASA intern program in Houston, Texas where he met some of the country's top scientists plus a few astronauts.

Ben Mezrich's writing style is 'creative non-fiction' and it's hard to know how much of the story happened as described. Thus when Thad, a self-described shy youth, is depicted as the 'star' of the intern program - partaking in risky pranks; organizing activities like skinny dipping, cliff jumping, sky diving, rock climbing, and wild parties; hob-nobbing with numerous scientists; and so on - I don't quite believe it all.

Thad, who fully cooperated with this book, also seems a bit self-serving when he (more or less) justifies having an affair with fellow intern Rebecca by putting the onus on his wife. According to Thad, Sonya - who remained back in Utah - became over-involved with her modeling career and model friends and distanced herself from him. So Thad felt no guilt about cheating. I'm calling shenanigans on Thad!

In any case Thad fell madly in love with Rebecca, and four weeks after meeting her pulled off the moon rock heist. He wanted to 'give Rebecca the moon' - and of course sell the specimens for a lot of money. The idea of stealing the moon rocks had been brewing in Thad's mind for quite some time. The background: moon rocks that have been studied/used for experiments are no longer considered valuable scientific specimens. In Thad's mind, therefore, it was hardly a crime to steal these 'trash rocks.' I got the impression Thad equated his heist with taking garbage out of a dumpster.

Moreover, Thad wasn't new to the thief game. He regularly stole fossils being prepared for storage from the University of Utah. In Thad's opinion, it was a waste to hide these items away. As a scientist I was appalled by this! Apparently Thad never heard of specimens (be it moon rocks or fossils or whatever) being stored for rotating/traveling displays, gifts to museums, public interest, later studies (perhaps with new technques), etc. Ben Mezrich also seems oblivious to this concept, perhaps because he isn't a scientist.

For the moon rock theft Thad had two accomplices besides Rebecca - his friends Gordon and Sandra. These two come across as underdeveloped characters with unclear motivations. My favorite person in the book is Axel Emmerman, the Belgian rock hound who's ostensibly going to buy the purloined moon rocks. Instead, Axel alerts the FBI. Axel's enthusium and excitement at being involved in this 'undercover' operation is fun and infectious.

In the end, of course, Thad was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. My overall impression of Thad is that he was an immature and thoughtless young man who cared little for anyone other than himself. Perhaps the worst outcome of the heist, which involved the theft of a safe containing moon rocks and written materials, was the permanent loss of scientist Everett Gibson's notebooks - which contained 30 years worth of research. This debacle literally made me cry.

For me Mezrich's writing style is off-putting, with over-abundant dialog, numerous descriptions of the inner thoughts of the characters, a detailed step-by-step depiction of the theft and attempted sale of the moon specimens, a long description of a drunk/high Gordon stumbling around on 'sale day'...all stuff that seems (at least partly) made up. Mezrich also mentions Thad's 'bright green eyes' and Rebecca's 'gorgeous face and body' a few too many times. In the end, I felt what should have been a really good magazine article was padded to make a book.

Still - though the moon rock heist is far from the 'crime of the century' suggested by the author - it's an interesting story, worth reading.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review of "Breakdown" by Jonathan Kellerman

In this long-running series, Dr. Alex Delaware is a child psychologist who spends a lot ot time assisting his friend - LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis - solve crimes.

As this 31st book in the series opens, Alex gets a call from his colleague, Dr. Lou Sherman. Sherman is treating a beautiful actress named Zelda Chase, whose bizarre actions have (temporarily) landed her in a mental health facility.

Alex is asked to evaluate Zelda's 5-year-old son, Ovid, to see whether mother and son should be reunited. Ovid turns out to be a smart, sensible little boy who likes to build things with his toys. After Alex assesses Ovid - and meets Zelda - he determines that Ovid can live with his mom.

Skip ahead five years and Zelda - who's become an unemployed, homeless, broken shell of her former self - is found dead on the estate of a wealthy heiress. Zelda has a history of wandering around Los Angeles and digging up the yards of random mansions - actions thought to be related to her mental illness. At first it looks like Zelda died from natural causes. However an autopsy and blood tests prove that Zelda was murdered - and Milo gets the case. Alex assists because he's concerned about Ovid, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Before long two other incidents occur in the neighborhood where Zelda died: a cleaning lady is murdered and a housemaid disappears. Milo and Alex suspect that all these occurrences are related and question residents of the area as well as friends and relatives of the victims. The investigators learn that Zelda frequently muttered the word 'mother'.....which turns out to be an important clue.

To obtain information that will help their investigations Alex and Milo proceed to do a spate of data mining: they read police reports; look at birth certificates and obituaries; study real estate purchases; look up wills and trusts; use Google and Google Earth; find people on Facebook.....and generally access a slew of public records. This section of the book is long, boring, adds little to the story, and feels like a lot of padding.

Alex and Milo use the data they collect - plus a helicopter - to identify suspects, get search warrants, and make arrests. I don't want to say more than that because of spoilers.

Some regular characters in the series make a brief appearance, including Alex's girlfriend Robin and the couple's French bulldog Blanche. As always in these stories, Milo is careless about his appearance and eats too much. In one scene, Milo raids Alex's fridge and makes himself an omelette with five eggs, a leftover steak, cooked chicken, and a load of veggies. (LOL)

This isn't one of Jonathan Kellerman's best books. The plot feels like a hodgepodge of random elements forced together and there are too many unmemorable minor characters - whose main function seems to be meeting Alex in coffee shops or restaurants. I did get a kick out of one secondary character - a slick lawyer who tries to convince Milo and Alex that up is down (figuratively). It was fun to see him try to weasel his way around the investigators.

Another quibble: Though Alex is supposedly very worried about Ovid, the psychologist seems to quit looking for the boy halfway through the book....and Ovid isn't mentioned again until the very end. This feels like careless plotting.

Unless you're determined to read Jonathan Kellerman's entire ouvre, you can probably skip this book without missing much.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review of "This Dark Road to Mercy" by Wiley Cash

Easter and Ruby Quilby have lived in a foster home in Gastonia, North Carolina since their mother died from a drug overdose. Their father, Wade Chesterfield - an unsuccesful former minor league baseball player - had unwillingly given up parental rights and longs to get his daughters back. So when Wade gets the chance he robs a gangster of money from an armored truck heist, sneaks his daughters out of the foster home, and runs off with them.

The story is told from three points of view: Easter Quilby, a mature wry young lady who sees things as they are; Bobby Pruitt, a vengeful bouncer/hit man hired to get the money back; and Brady Weller, former cop and guardian ad litem for the girls who's determined to bring them home.

In the background of the story is the 1998 rivalry between major league baseball players Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, who are both trying to break the home run record. On the road, Wade hustles to evade Pruitt as he takes the girls around the country. Unfortunately Pruitt is hot on their heels and will stop at nothing - not even murder - to accomplish his mission. And Brady, struggling with his own demons, is chasing them all.

Though suspenseful and dark, the story is also warm and touching. Good book.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review of "The Mistake" by K.L. Slater

Rose Tinsley, who's lived in Newstead all her life, is the librarian at the Newstead Library - one of the smallest in Nottinghamshire County. When budget woes dictate that the library might close, Rose becomes very concerned about her job. Employment opportunities have been scarce in Newstead since the coal pits closed decades ago, and Rose - who has HUGE anxiety issues - CAN'T move away from the security of her home and her 'safety routines.'

Rose's troubles stem from things that happened sixteen years ago, when she was a naive 18-year-old college student. At that time Rose met a man - thirtyish Gareth Farnham - who was in Newstead to manage a construction project. Rose was flattered by the attentions of the handsome 'older man', and would sneak around to meet him behind her parents' backs.

Step by step Gareth manipulated Rose into isolating herself from her family and friends. He also convinced her to accede to his increasingly intrusive demands. Gareth wanted to control every aspect of Rose's life - from the movies she saw, to the flavor of ice cream she ate, to her college plans. When Rose resisted Gareth's 'requests', he became furious and made ominous threats. In time, Rose tried to break away from Gareth.....but it was harder than she'd hoped.

At about this time, another tragedy occurred in Rose's life. One sunny afternoon Rose took her 8-year-old brother Billy to Newstead Abbey - to fly his kite - and the little boy disappeared. His body was found two days later.

Rose and her parents were devastated by the loss and never fully recovered. Though a culprit was tried and convicted for Billy's murder, Rose became neurotically fearful. She developed compulsive behaviors like bulimia and hyper-awareness of her surroundings. From that time on Rose has been constantly looking over her shoulder for stranger-danger; has hardly ever left town; has been afraid to go out after dark; has been unable to leave her windows open; has been compulsively locking her doors; and so on. To add to her woes, Rose lost both her parents a few years after Billy died.

Now, sixteen years after Billy's death, Rose is living a quiet, mundane, not-so-happy life. She has little fun and no friends - except for her elderly, next-door-neighbor Ronnie. Ronnie has always been extremely solicitous of Rose's family, and Rose reciprocates by looking in on her housebound neighbor and doing his grocery shopping.

One day Ronnie is hospitalized with the flu and Rose decides to tidy his house - to thank him for being such a fine person. While Rose is in Ronnie's attic, she finds something that casts doubt on the identity of Billy's killer. In fact, it's possible the wrong person has been imprisoned for the crime. No matter the consequences, Rose feels she MUST discover the truth.

The book alternates back and forth between 16-years-ago and the present. In the past, Ruth interacts with her parents; plays with Billy; goes to school; hangs out with her best friend Cassie; volunteers at the library; dates Gareth; and so on.

In the present, Rose goes to work; chats with the library patrons; shops at the local co-op; binges and purges; locks herself in the house; etc. Most importantly, Ruth follows up on the discovery she made in Ronnie's attic, despite getting an ominous note that says 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.'

The book is an engaging psychological thriller, but I'm not as big a fan as many other readers.

First, most of the story is told from Rose's point of view, in a 'step-by-step' format. I have a problem with this kind of narrative, which tends to be circumscribed and slow-moving.

Second, I have an issue with Rose as a character. Though I understand a teenage girl being infatuated with a dashing older man, Rose seems overly foolish. She constantly makes excuses for Gareth's terrible behavior; believes whatever he says; and gives in to him against her better judgement. Even as an adult, Rose has trouble dealing with the manipulative creep. I just don't like to see a character being such a doormat (and a little whiny to boot).

I do like the book's ending, and for that I give Rose three cheers.....rah rah rah Rose!!

Though I have some criticisms, I'd recommend the book to fans of psychological thrillers.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (K.L. Slater), and the publisher (Bookouture) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review of "The October List" by Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver tried a different approach with this mystery, which begins with the last chapter and works backwards to the first chapter. Thus things happen that seem inexplicable in the moment.....but lead to "AHA" moments as you keep reading. It's good fun once you get used to it.

I don't want my review to be a spoiler, so I'll just give a brief description of the plot.


Gabriela McKenzie is the office manager for investment counselor Charles Prescott, whose company - Prescott Investments - has an office in Manhattan. When Prescott comes into possession of a secret document called the 'October List' - reputed to be worth a lot of money - he steals all his clients' assets and skips town with the list. Gabriela is questioned by the police, but isn't able to tell them anything about her boss's whereabouts.

One of Prescott's clients, Joseph Astor, lost $400,000 when the investment counselor absconded with the company's loot. Joseph wants his money back AND he wants a copy of the October List. So Joseph - a very creepy guy - kidnaps Gabriela's six-year-old daughter Sophie and calls the officer manager with a ransom demand. He wants $500,000 and the list, or little Sophie will suffer the consequences.

Gabriela finds a copy of the October List in Prescott's office, but can't locate his assets - so she doesn't have the money.

Gabreila is beside herself with anxiety, but her acquaintance - venture capitalist Daniel Reardon - has a company that's dealt with kidnappers before.....since executives in foreign countries frequently get snatched for ransom. Daniel offers to lend Gabriela the money AND to provide two associates who'll drop off the ransom and (hopefully) retrieve young Sophie.

As the book opens, Gabriela is waiting to hear news about the ransom exchange.

The story works backward from there, and - as we move along to the beginning of the tale - there's plenty of action. This includes: a break-in; a shooting; a fatal traffic accident; a severed finger; a romantic tryst; meetings with a Russian crime boss; police surveillance; a double murder; and more.

The are plenty of surprises in the story, and it's all very entertaining.

Deaver did a great job with the 'backwards story' format; I think he must have constructed a detailed flowchart/spreadsheet to keep all the story elements credit to the author.

I'd recommend the book to mystery fans in the mood for something a little different.

Rating: 3 stars