Monday, September 25, 2017

Review of "Murder as a Second Language: A Claire Molloy Mystery" by Joan Hess

In this 19th book in the series Claire Molloy, bookstore owner and amateur sleuth, recently married Deputy Chief Peter Rosen of the Farberville Police Department. They live in a lovely home with Claire's college-bound daughter Caron. Caron and her pal Inez plan to pad their college applications by volunteering at the Farberville Literary Council (FLC), which teaches English as a second language (ESL) to immigrants. Claire, now having a manager for her bookstore, agrees to help out at the FLC as well. 

There are a host of employees, volunteers, and students at the FLC - and as happens with a diverse group of people - all kinds of sparks fly. Before long the dead body of an unpleasant, bullying Polish ESL student named Ludmilla is found in the copy room of the FLC - and against the wishes of her husband Claire jumps in to investigate. 

Claire's attempt to solve the crime involves questioning people involved with the FLC again and again. She talks to them on the school's premises, in restaurants, and at their homes. Claire even breaks into one employee's house when she doesn't happen to be at home. It seems like almost everyone at the FLC has things to hide and Claire is followed and threatened as she pursues the murderer. 

Unfortunately the various 'suspects' in the book are not very interesting or distinctive, the interrogations go on and on, and the story becomes tiresome. Meanwhile, who knows what the actual police are doing because they don't seem to make any progress in solving the crime. 

The story is punctuated by various snarky conversations between Claire and Caron - typical mom and teen daughter stuff - which are meant to be humorous but aren't. Claire also has intermittent interactions with Peter, some romantic, some about Claire sticking her nose in police business when she shouldn't. Of course Claire eventually solves the crime but by then I didn't care much who did it. I was just glad to be finished with the book. Unless you're a hard core fan of the Claire Molloy series and want to see what the characters are up to I'd say skip this book.

Rating: 2 stars

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review of "Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiaasen

I always enjoy Carl Hiaasen's satiric, comic novels - which generally highlight some atrocity humans are inflicting on the state of Florida. In this book, Hiassen concentrates on Everglades pollution.

The story: Chaz Perrone - who likes to be called 'Dr. Perrone' - has a Ph.D. in marine biology and a cushy job for the state of Florida - monitoring pollution in the Everglades. The thing is, Chaz should really be called 'Dr. Scumbag' because he's being paid off by Red Hammernut, a south Florida farmer whose fertilizer is contaminating the region. Chaz pretends to test Everglades water samples, makes up fake results, and collects his payoff. Job well done (in his own mind)!

Things start to go bottoms up when Chaz thinks his wife, Joey, has cottoned on to his scam. So Chaz takes Joey on a luxury cruise for their second wedding anniversary, and throws her overboard in the middle of the night. Chaz pretends to be overwrought about his 'missing wife', but Detective Karl Rolvaag - who gets the case when the ship returns to port - is immediately suspicious.

Meanwhile, Joey - a champion swimmer - has survived. She evaded predatory wildlife, latched onto a bale of marijuana, and drifted toward shore on the Gulf Stream.....all the time seething at her husband. Luckily, Joey was rescued by Mick Stranahan, a fiftyish ex-cop living on a tiny island off Florida's coast. After hearing Joey's story Mick wanted to call the police, but Joey had a better idea. She planned to drive that lowlife Chaz crazy!!

Chaz, convinced he got away with murder, proceeds to live his life. He rids the house of Joey's belongings; romances his long-time girlfriend/hairdresser Ricca Spillman; and dreams of a fruitful, long-lasting partnership with Red. Though Chaz is repeatedly questioned by Detective Rolvaag (à la Columbo), he believes there's no proof of his crime.

Joey starts her campaign against dirtbag Chaz by hanging a favorite black dress in her (now empty) closet and leaving a torn photo under his pillow. Chaz is bewildered, and thinks some stranger is breaking into his house. When Chaz reports the intrusion to Red Hammernut, the farmer saddles Chaz with a 'bodyguard' - a big, hairy galoot named Earl O'Toole ('Tool').

Tool is in pain from a bullet lodged mid-butt, so he sneaks into hospitals/nursing homes and peels Fantanyl patches off elderly patients - then puts them on his roughly shaved back. In the course of this larceny Tool meets an elderly lady, Maureen, and they develop a rather sweet friendship.

Through all this, Joey continues to play tricks on Chaz - with the help of her brother Corbett and Mick. As the pranks excalate, Chaz's anxiety increases, and he becomes alarmed when he 'can't get it up anymore.' Chaz starts taking 'little blue pills' - and the results are priceless. Eventually Joey and her fellow tricksters perpetrate a jaw-dropping hoax, which is wonderfully effective. As they spend time together, Joey and Mick develop an attraction, which should appeal to romance fans.

As Chaz's life falls apart, he starts to become suspicious of everyone around him. In fact - in the course of the story - Chaz 'kills' several people. However, none of them stay dead. LOL

All this action and hilarity leads to an appropriate climax that's quite satisfying.

Some fun animal characters in the story (besides the Everglades alligators and mosquitoes that freak Chaz out) are: Mick's dog - a lovable, but slow-witted Doberman called Strom, who tries to bark potential intruders away from the island; and Detective Rolvaag's two pet pythons - who don't have much personality....but might just be eating the building's pet cats and dogs.

I enjoyed the book, which made me laugh. Recommended to fans of light, amusing books (with a message).

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, September 23, 2017

My review of "About Face: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery" by Donna Leon

This is the 18th book in the Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series, which is set in Venice, Italy.

Police Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola have been invited to dine at the home of Paola's wealthy, aristocratic parents - Conte and Contessa Falier - so Guido can meet businessman Maurizio Cataldo. Cataldo wants the Count to invest in China with him and Falier - a cautious man - asks his son-in-law to check the businessman out.

At the elegant dinner, Guido is seated near Cataldo's much younger wife, Franca Marinello. Guido is struck by Franca's face, which has an oddly frozen expression. Franca's 'mouth is permanently parted in a small smile; her cheekbones swell up in knots the size of a kiwi fruit; and her nose starts higher on her forehead than is normal and is strangely flat' - all clearly the work of a plastic surgeon. Guido is intensely curious about Franca, wondering why a beautiful woman would do this to herself.

To investigate businessman Cataldo, Guido asks his boss's secretary - Signorina Elettra - to work up a file on the man. Signorina Elettra is a whiz with computers while Guido can barely log in. Nevertheless, Guido gets a yen for his own computer in this book....and we'll see if he gets one. LOL

Meanwhile, another case crops up. Maggiore Filipo Guarino of the Carabinieri (military police) asks Brunetti to help find the killer of a truck company owner named Stefano Ranzato. Ranzato had been caught cooking the books, and was pressured into becoming a police informant. Moreover, Ranzato - who was hauling goods for the Camorra (organized crime) - had a lot to inform about. Guarino suspects the Camorra discovered Ranzato's double dealing and murdered him.

The issue central to the plot is Italy's trash problem. Naples has mountains of uncollected garbage that can't be burned because the incinerators are being used to torch trash that's trucked in from other areas. Even worse, industrial waste is being brought to Italy from other countries. These toxic substances are disposed of locally or shipped to third world nations. Apparently, garbage is a very lucrative business....and the Camorra is at the heart of it.

Before long another person connected to the Ranzato case is murdered, and Brunetti has two crimes to solve.The Commissario follows various clues and identifies a suspect who likes to gamble at the local Casinò. A couple of trips to this gaming establishment uncovers some surprising things.

In the end, the murder cases are resolved, we find out what businessman Cataldo is up to with China, and we learn about Franca Marinello's face. Not surprsingly, all these threads are connected.

Though the Brunetti books are mysteries, they always have a heavy dose of the Commissario's personal life, including his interactions with family and colleagues. In this story Bruno takes a lot of boats around Venice; has coffee and hot punch at the local café; has home-cooked meals with his family (these sound scrumptious); marvels about his wonderful children; has heart-to-heart talks with his in-laws; deals with jealous, underhanded cops; has discussions about Virgil, Cicero, Ovid, and Henry James; and so on. Some of my favorite parts of these books are the scenes where Brunetti and Signorina Elettra slyly maneuver around their vain, blowhard boss - Vice-Questore Patta - who never saw a job he couldn't evade doing.

For me this book is just average. I enjoyed visiting with favorite characters, but the plot is too convoluted - and the ending doesn't provide total closure. It seems like 'justice' is impossible to get in Italy, since half the officials are corrupt....which is too bad. :(

Still, I'd recommend the book to fans of the series.

FYI: The story can be read as a standalone with regard to the mystery, but readers familiar with the characters will enjoy it more.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, September 22, 2017

Review of "Tail Gait" by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown

This cozy series - set in Crozet, Virginia - was once a favorite of mine. The main character, 'Harry' Harristeen, was a divorced postmistress and amateur sleuth. Harry solved mysteries with the help of her 'talking pets', two cats and a corgi. The lovable animals commented on Harry's activities, philosophized about people, rode mail carts around the post office, protected Harry, and helped solve crimes. The stories also had an array of recurring characters that added fun and depth to the tales. Most importantly, the mysteries were interesting, with plenty of suspects and clues. The last few books in the series, however, were more political diatribes than cozy mysteries and I decided I'd had enough.

Nevertheless, I decided to check this latest addition out of the library. This book is more of a historical novel about the American Revolution than a mystery and many of the well-liked recurring characters are absent or marginally present. As for Harry, she's now re-married and living on her farm. Thus, there's no chit-chatting with folks in the post office or snacking on baked goods prepared by fellow postmistress Miranda - which was an entertaining aspect of previous books. The talking pets are still present, but not as fun as they once were.

The story: A beloved retired history professor, Greg "Ginger" McConnell, whose specialty is researching and writing about the American Revolution, is shot on the golf course. Harry and a cadre of college football players - who were Ginger's students decades before - are profoundly grieved. Soon afterwards the death of another person with a connection to Ginger occurs.

Harry and the cops don't know anyone who disliked or had a grudge against Ginger. Thus Harry decides (for no obvious reason) that the murder probably was linked to Ginger's historical research. Unlike standard mysteries, there's not much questioning of suspects or searching for clues. Instead, Harry examines local geography, maps, and old records and becomes very interested in a historically accurate housing development under construction.

The book alternates between the present and the past. In the 'now' parts Harry investigates the murders, caddies for her golfing friend Susan, assists some homeless people, and tends her farm and horses. In the 'then' parts the American Revolution has started and British prisoners of war are housed in a barracks in Virginia. The historical sections are depictions of the lives of the POW's, who were treated fairly well in the circumstances. They had beds and food and were sent out to work at local farms and businesses. The POWs were friendly with their guards and the local population, and many remained in the colonies when the Revolution ended.

The story is okay, and the solution to the crimes makes sense. Still, the book seems more like an excuse to write about the American Revolution than a mystery. It would make more sense for Rita Mae Brown to publish literary novels about her areas of interest rather than add more psedo-mysteries to this (formerly well-liked) series.

I wouldn't recommend this book to mystery fans but if you're interested in POWs during the American Revolution you might like it.

Rating: 2 stars

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review of "The Returned" by Jason Mott

One day the previously dead start returning, not as zombies, but exactly as they were when they died. One returnee is 8-year-old Jacob Hargrave, who drowned 30 years before. He shows up in China, and after being processed by the 'Bureau of the Returned' is brought back to his now elderly parents - Lucille and Harold -  in Arcadia, Missouri. Though a bit befuddled, the Hargraves take in Jacob and care for him. Another local family, the Collins', all of whom were murdered, also returns to Arcadia and takes up residence in the church.

Some townsfolk support the returnees but many are frightened, hostile, and want them gone. Moreover, when the initial trickle of returnees becomes a flood the American government turns Arcadia into a holding site and starts busing in masses of returnees. This type of situation is mirrored all over the world as more and more undead show up. The holding camps are okay at first but soon become overcrowded, dirty, and foul-smelling. 

The local clergyman in Arcadia, Pastor Philips, encourages patience but 'the real living' want to know what's going on, and they want to know now! Unfortunately, no explanation is forthcoming. The situation soon spirals out of control with dire consequences. 

The book is at least partially a treatise on how people deal with death - can they mourn the dead and move on? can they accept returned loved ones? returned strangers? a world where there may be no death? I thought the story had intriguing characters and it kept me interested. I was anxious to see what happened next and to find out how the returnee phenomenon was explained. In that I was disappointed because the phenomenon was not explained at all. Thus, though I enjoyed the story, I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction (though I expect there will be a sequel to the book).

There is now a TV series based on this book (called Resurrection).

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "Emma in the Night" by Wendy Walker

Three years ago the Tanner sisters, fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma, vanished. Emma's car, containing her purse and keys, was found at the beach - but all of Cass's personal belongings were still in the house. What could have happened?

FBI Agent Leo Strauss heads the investigation, assisted by forensic psychologist, Dr. Abby Winter. Dr. Winter senses that's something's 'off' about the girls' family - especially the mother (Mrs. Martin). The psychologist wants to look more closely at the parents, but is discouraged by Strauss - who has other ideas about the case. In any case, the girls aren't found.

Now, three years after her disappearance, Cass shows up at her family's front door - and Agent Strauss and Dr. Winter are back on the case with the full force of the FBI. Cass tells a harrowing story. She says a married couple named Bill and Lucy held the girls prisoner on an island. Cass explains that a boatman named Rick periodically brought supplies - food, clothing, books, DVDs, and so on.....and that the island house had a satellite dish and television. With long and careful planning Cass was able to escape, and is now desperate for the authorities to find Emma.

Cass goes on to say that Bill and Lucy treated the girls (more or less) like 'family': they all ate together, played board games, did chores, etc. Moreover the girls were homeschooled and not sexually abused. However, they were not allowed to leave! With long and careful planning Cass was able to escape and make her way home.

When questioned, Cass tells the FBI how she and Emma came to be on the island, describes the location/geography of the isle as best she can, details all aspects of life on the island, and works with a sketch artist to draw the suspects. The FBI goes full out to try to identify the perps, find the island, and rescue Emma.

The book is told from the alternating points of view of Cass and Dr. Winter. In Cass's chapters - which take the form of an 'internal monologue' - she talks about growing up in her family, the twisted interactions among family members, and how this affected herself and Emma.

In Dr. Winter's chapters, the psychologist (and Agent Strauss) go over Cass's story, and the doctor decides that some parts sound sketchy. Dr. Winter also concludes that Cass's mom has narcissistic personality disorder, which means that - to maintain her feelings of superiority - Mrs. Martin is compelled to manipulate and control everyone around her. This makes for an extremely toxic family dynamic.

The story has an array of additional characters, including: Mr. Tanner - the girls' biological father; Witt - Mr. Tanner's son from a previous marriage; Mr. Martin - the girls stepfather; Hunter - Mr. Martin's son from a previous marriage; and Lisa - the school guidance counselor. All of them play an important part in the story. Let's just say, the book's conglomeration of attractive females and various males.....spells trouble.

The book held my attention and I was immersed in Cass's stories about what she and Emma experienced growing up, and what happened to them on the island. I was also intrigued by Mrs. Martin's mental illness, and dismayed to see how far she'd go to preserve her inflated - and precarious - self-esteem. In the story, Dr. Winter notes that girls who grow up with a narcissistic mother tend to repeat the destructive behavior, and I wondered if Cass and Emma were irretrievably damaged. There are some surprising elements in the book, and I liked these twists.

On the downside, I think that Cass is too knowledgable, cunning, and sophisticated for a girl with her life experience - and I sometimes had a hard time suspending disbelief. The story's conclusion also struck me as a bit unlikely.

All in all I think the book is an okay psychological thriller. It's very cinematic (IMO) and could probably be adapted into a good movie. I'd recommend the book to fans of psychological dramas.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review of "Moriarty" by Anthony Horowitz

Several days after Sherlock Holmes and criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty go over the Reichenbach Falls, a dead body - identified as Moriarty - is fished out of the water. Two detectives descend on the scene: Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton Agent from New York and Athelny Jones from Scotland Yard.

At the urging of Chase, Moriarty's body is searched for a letter from Clarence Devereux - an American criminal mastermind believed to be in England to join forces with Moriarty. A letter written in secret code is found. Luckily, Athelny Jones - who has intensely studied Holmes' methods - is able to decipher the letter, which has the time and place of a meeting between the evil masterminds. Hoping that Devereux believes Moriarty is still alive Chase impersonates Moriarty at the meeting while Jones is set to follow anyone who shows up.

This maneuver leads the detectives to Devereux's gang and a series of clues point to the location of the American criminal genius, who is essentially untouchable. There's much murder and mayhem in the wake of the detectives' investigations and they work valiantly to nab Devereux while endangering their own lives. This is especially harrowing for Jones, who has a wife and young child dependent on him - but he and Chase forge ahead to a dramatic climax and finale.

Sherlock Holmes fans will recognize many nods to the original stories in this worthy 'sequel', which is entertaining and clever and has the feel of 'real' Sherlock Holmes stories. Highly recommended to fans of the original tales.

Rating: 4 stars