Sunday, February 25, 2018

Review of "Robert B. Parker's Damned If You Do: A Jesse Stone Novel" by Michael Brandman




This book, written by Michael Brandman, is a continuation of Robert B. Parker's 'Jesse Stone' series.

Jesse Stone is the Police Chief of Paradise, Massachusetts, a small city near Boston. As the story opens Jesse is called to a local motel, where a young prostitute has been stabbed to death. The woman has no identification, so Jesse needs to find out her name as well as who killed her. During his investigation Jesse talks to the local crime boss, Gino Fish, as well as some pimps who run prostitutes - none of whom is very forthcoming. Nevertheless, Jesse pushes on, determined to find the murderer and return the victim to her family for a proper burial.

Meanwhile, Jesse is worried about his former accountant, Donnie Jacobs, who's suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Donnie lives in an elder care facility called 'Golden Horizons Retirement Village', whose owners have a reputation for over-medicating patients, tying them to their beds, and generally mistreating them. The owners of Golden Horizons have good lawyers though, and it's been impossible to shut any of their facilities down. The people who run the elder care centers get a shock, however, when they discover how clever and ruthless Jesse can be.

The new author does a good job capturing Jesse's manner of speech and personality. Brandman's Jesse still speaks in clipped sentences, for example, and continues to be more respectful to criminals than your average cop. Other regular characters also have authentic voices, but they make very brief appearances. In fact we hardly see Molly and Suitcase, which is disappointing. Lastly, the plot is overly simplistic with very little development. Thus, fans of Jesse Stone might enjoy the story but the book is not up to Robert B. Parker's standards.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, February 23, 2018

Review of "The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story" by Douglas Preston




For centuries rumors swirled about an abandoned ancient settlement in the jungles of Honduras, a region called 'The White City of the Monkey God.' The remains of the White City was reputed to contain gold, priceless cultural artifacts, and the remnants of temples and buildings - a veritable cornucopia for treasure hunters, archaeologists, and anthropologists.

Over the years many explorers tried to find the White City. Some never came back, others returned in defeat, and some were charlatans - pretending to explore while they searched for gold. Obstacles to success included ignorance of the city's exact location, impassable jungles, venomous snakes, biting and stinging insects, jaguars, and - in recent times - narcotraficantes (drug cartels).

Then, in 2012, documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins got the idea to use LIDAR - a type of radar that uses laser beams - to look for the White City. Elkins arranged for a LIDAR-equipped plane to survey 'La Mosquitia' - the easternmost part of Honduras along the Mosquito Coast (named for the Miskito people, not the insects). The LIDAR scans revealed the remains of three formerly populated areas, called T-1, T-2, and T-3.....which might very well correspond to the White City.

Elkins was thrilled with the results, and arranged an expedition into the jungle in 2015. Elkins' team included himself, a photographer, an archaeologist, an anthropologist, filmmakers, a squad of Honduran soldiers, pilots, technicians, a jungle safety expert, and others. Also joining the group was writer Douglas Preston, who had been in Honduras with Elkins for the LIDAR survey. This time, Preston was assigned to pen an article for National Geographic Magazine.

In this book, Preston writes about the search for the White City.....and much much more.

The entire escapade into La Mosquitia was dangerous and difficult, starting with preparing landing sites for the team's helicopters. This was followed by setting up camping areas, hacking through the impenetrable jungle with machetes, wading across rivers, hiking up hills, sliding down hills, encountering snakes, being bitten by insects and spiders, and so on. In addition, the team members were continually soaked and muddy, had trouble keeping a fire lit in the wet jungle, and subsisted largely on MREs (freeze-dried meals).

Preston describes his first campsite, where he set up his hammock under a tree inhabited by squawking spider monkeys - who didn't want him there. When the author stepped out the first night - to relieve himself - the ground was writhing with a carpet of rainforest cockroaches. (When I lived in a tent for six weeks for geology field camp, I learned not to drink anything after 6:00 PM....to avoid night trips to the loo. Ha ha ha)

Preston also tells a memorable story about encountering a six-foot-long, venomous fer-de-lance near his camping area. The writer summoned the jungle safety expert, Andrew Wood, who decapitated the snake after it squirted his hand with burning venom. Wood had to wash his hand immediately.....otherwise he would have just relocated the serpent with a forked stick. (The expedition carried antivenom shots, just in case.)

Even more ominously, Preston's tent was invaded by tiny sandflies night after night, which he took to skewering on one of his notebooks - a ledger that became so damaged he had to throw it away. Unfortunately the writer - and other members of the expedition - were repeatedly bitten by the little critters, which had dire consequences later on.

Though there were hardships, the team members were able to make their way to T-1, where they found a treasure trove of pre-Columbian remains, including asymmetrical mounds and a large cache of (almost) buried artifacts. These artifacts include beautiful stone bowls and carved stone figures, some of which have half-human, half-monkey features. One striking statuette resembled a jaguar - which led to the site being called 'The City of the Jaguar.' The explorers' tenure in the jungle was limited by weather, finances, and helicopter rentals.....so the archaeological sites were marked and left for future exploration. By now, extensive studies are under way.

In an article about the 2015 expedition, Colorado State University anthropologist Dr. Chris Fischer - who was a member of Elkins' team - notes: "The excavated area [at T-1] encompasses less than 200 square feet of the enormous archaeological site, which includes at least 19 prehistoric settlements, probably part of a single chiefdom, spread along several miles of a river. One of the nearby sites has two parallel mounds that may be the remains of a Mesoamerican ball court similar to those left by the Maya civilization, indicating a link between this culture and its powerful neighbors to the west and north. The ballgame was a sacred ritual.....that was sometimes associated with human sacrifice, including the decapitation of the losing team or its captain. While the City of the Jaguar is spectacularly isolated now, at its heyday it was probably a center of trade and commerce."

So what happened to the historic city? Why was it abandoned? No one knows for sure but Preston suggests that infectious diseases decimated the population. It's well known that European explorers brought deadly illnesses, like flu, measles, and smallpox, to the New World. The native people, having no resistance, died in droves....often horrifically. According to Preston, Old World diseases wiped out 90 percent of many New World populations. It's possible that most residents of the 'T-sites' died, and the remaining occupants - thinking their gods had forsaken them - just walked away from their homes.

Another illness may also have contributed to the ancient carnage. Months after Preston returned home, he noticed a 'bug bite' that refused to heal. The author came to learn that he (and many other members of the 2015 trip) had contracted leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating disease caused by a protozoan parasite that's transmitted by sandflies. Left untreated, leishmaniasis can cause skin ulcers; mouth and nose ulcers; and damage to internal organs. In the worst cases, the disease eats away the nose and mouth, causing horrible disfiguration. Luckily, Preston responded to treatment -which is harsh, and can take a long time.

The disease didn't stop Preston from returning to T-1 for one more visit, however, during which he lamented the inevitable changes caused by official visitors, scientists, and the military - who protect the site from looters and narcotraficantes.

In addition to detailing the recent visits to La Mosquitia, Preston tells stories about early explorers to the New World; native peoples of the region; disease germs brought to the Americas by sick sailors; fortune hunters looking for the White City; the current President of Honduras - who's all for archaeological and anthropological exploration; Elkins' efforts to finance his expeditions and films; the author's (and his colleagues') struggles with leishmaniasis; and more. I liked all the stories and enjoyed the book, which I highly recommend to readers interested in the topic.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review of "Dust" by Patricia Cornwell




Medical examiner Kay Scarpetta has an abundance of troubles: she's traumatized after the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings; she's recovering from a bad flu; her head investigator Pete Marino has bailed on her; her FBI profiler husband - Benton Wesley - is on the outs with his boss; and a serial killer seems to be at work in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she lives.

As usual in Patricia Cornwell's series, Kay and Benton are in the cross-hairs of self-serving or demented bad guys - and have to contend with them while concurrently chasing criminals. Pete Marino is also true to form, resentful that Kay never fell in love with him and determined to make her life difficult by behaving in a childish, crude, and unpleasant manner. Personally, I've had about enough of Pete Marino and wish that Kay would cut him loose so he'd disappear from future books.

Kay's genius niece Lucy is also on hand - and in this book she's behaving a little better than usual - refraining from getting involved with psychopaths and using her IT skills to help the investigation. Lucy, however, is a hard to believe "over-the-top" character: she drives around town in an armored SUV worthy of the Russian mob, flies helicopters, hacks into any computer anywhere, and so on. I liked Lucy much better when she was a youngster in the early Scarpetta books.

The plot of the book is fairly straightforward. Kay is determined to help capture a sadistic murderer who apparently killed several people in Washington, D.C. before heading for Massachusetts. Kay is thwarted, however, because the head of the FBI seems to be tampering with the evidence and a large, wealthy, corrupt corporation is also obstructing the investigation. Kay carries on trying to catch the perp, however, and does numerous forensic examinations that are described in great detail. Readers interested in this type of thing will probably like this book.

Though this book is a little better than the last couple of books in the Scarpetta series it isn't as good as the early books. I'd mildly recommend it to mystery fans, a little more if they're huge Scarpetta fans.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Review of "Everybody's Fool" by Richard Russo




I randomly chose this audiobook from the library shelf, not realizing it was a follow-up to "Nobody's Fool," which I haven't read. Still, the people in "Everybody's Fool" have enough backstory - and are so vividly depicted - that I felt okay reading it as a standalone. I found the story engaging, touching, and funny - filled with great characters and memorable scenes.

The story takes place in the down-on-its-luck town of North Bath in upstate New York. As the book opens, Chief of Police Douglas Raymer is attending the funeral of Judge Barton Flatt, who often made fun of the hapless cop - especially when Raymer's wild shot almost hit an elderly woman on her toilet. Raymer's also brooding because he found a garage remote in the car of his late wife Becka. Raymer's sure the remote belonged to Becka's secret lover and thinks he can identify the man by testing the device on garages around town.

But a series of adventures and misadventures - including fainting into the judge's grave; losing the remote; getting hit by lightning; hunting for a loose cobra; dealing with a dim deputy; and tracking down a hit-and-run driver - make it hard for Raymer to carry out his plan. Raymer also has a soft spot for his assistant Charice, whose back porch he nearly wrecks, and worries that Charice's cop brother Jerome might be after his job.

Meanwhile, Raymer's 'frenemy' Sully - a sort of bad boy construction worker who's now 70 years old and unexpectedly wealthy - has developed a serious heart ailment. Sully still likes to stop by the diner run by his married ex-lover Ruth and hang out in Gert's bar - where he's usually joined by Rub, a mentally slow grave digger who views Sully as his best friend.

Over the course of the story Sully offers to assist Carl Roebuck - a huckster developer whose shoddy projects have been (spectacularly) exposed; helps Chief Raymer dig up a body; and faces off with Roy Purdy - a thief, wife-beater, and ex-con who has scores to settle. Purdy is easily the most despicable character in the story.

Other interesting characters include: the mayor's wife Alice, who frequently 'speaks to people' on the detached handset of her pink princess phone - which she seems to think is a cell phone; Alice's former husband - a horrible man and gifted mimic who delights in manipulating and tormenting people; Sully's dog, also called Rub - a neurotic pooch who's always getting the pee scared out of him; a shiftless apartment sitter who drinks beer, watches TV, and not quite knowingly signs for packages containing venomous snakes; Ruth's daughter (and Purdy's ex-wife) Janey - who can't stay away from her violent ex; and Miss Beryl - the deceased teacher who really cared about Sully and Raymer.

I was amused by the humorous situations the characters get into and liked the book's comic tone. On the other hand I hated Roy Purdy and hoped he'd get what was coming to him. The zany action in the story leads to a plausible and satisfying ending.....with room for another volume in the series. I'd highly recommend the book to fans of humorous literary novels.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review of "Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul" by Shamini Flint




Following a terrorist bombing in Bali, Inspector Singh is sent from Singapore to help catch the terrorists. Homicide detective Singh knows nothing about hunting terrorists, however, and is at a loose end. Then, it's discovered that one 'bomb victim', a British expat named Richard Crouch, was actually shot in the head before the blast and Singh is in his element - looking for a murderer.

Singh, a short plump Sikh who alway wears a turban, suit, and white sneakers, has a high opinion of his own investigative skills and likes to be the boss. Thus Singh is annoyed when he's partnered with Australian Federal Policewoman Bronwyn Taylor, a big woman in a white shirt and khakis, who has no homicide experience. Nevertheless, Singh and Bronwyn make a good team and - after sharing innumerable dangerous rides in a rickety Balinese taxi and too many high-calorie meals in local eateries - become something like friends.

There are many suspects for the murder, including Richard Crouch's wife and the small community of expats that comprise her social circle. There's a lot going on in this community, including bad marriages, gambling debts, and illicit romance, all of which is quite entertaining.

Before long evidence emerges that Richard spent a good deal of time with Muslim immigrants in Bali, who also become suspects in the killing. Most of the Muslim characters are members of the same family, and it's illuminating to see the interactions among a devout Muslim man, his very much younger wife, and her two brothers - even the youngest of whom feels free to criticize and chastise his sister. I was happy when she finally upped and slapped him across the face :)

The expats and Muslims are well-rounded, believable characters, most of whom have something to hide. Thus, Singh and Bronwyn are obliged to question and re-question them, organize surveillance, and step outside the law (a little bit) as they search for the truth.

Singh is an interesting man, a clever detective who often muses about his expanding belly, difficult wife, and desire to go home. Bronwyn is a likable gal, sympathetic to almost everyone, and holds her own in the investigation. There are also a variety of secondary characters including a helpful taxi driver, a hunky tan Australian surfer, a pimply hotel clerk, and an ambitious Balinese police officer.

I enjoyed the story and almost felt like I could experience the ambiance of Bali - the oppressive heat, crowded roads, crazy drivers, Hindu temples, devout citizens, countless snack booths, and friendly native people.

I'd recommend this book to mystery fans, especially readers who enjoy exotic settings.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of "Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic" by British Library



 
In 2017 'The British Library' mounted an exhibition called "Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic" to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter novel. This is a companion book to the library's presentation. Harry Potter fans will find much to like in this tribute, which is BEAUTIFUL to look at and FUN to read.

The book contains a variety of wonderful tidbits related to the Harry Potter series. Examples follow.

The volume contains original sketches by J.K. Rowling, drawn while she was writing the books. These include: the Hogwarts school and grounds (including the Giant Squid and the Whomping Willow); Harry and the Dursleys (I love this one - Dudley is a mini-Vernon); Harry and his friends (Neville, Ron, Hermione, and Gary....who was later renamed Dean); Professor Sprout and her magic plants; Argus Filch (looking exceptionally creepy); Nearly Headless Nick (showing why he's 'nearly headless'); Professor Snape; and more.

The book also has copies of original manuscript pages by J.K. Rowling, featuring: annotated handwritten and typed pages from 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone'; emended pages from 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'; an edited handwritten copy of the 'Sorting Hat' song; a handwritten story from 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard'; and others.

Also included are Rowling's handwritten lists of classes and teachers at Hogwarts and a detailed plan (in chart form) for 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.'

All this shows a little of Rowling's 'writing process', which is interesting and instructive.

*****

The book has numerous GORGEOUS drawings by Jim Kay, illustrator for the illustrated editions of Harry Potter. These pictures include: Professor Dumbledore; Professor McGonagall; a busy Platform Nine and Three-Quarters; Professor Snape; Fluffy (the three-headed dog); Professor Sprout (surrounded by mandrakes); Diagon Alley; a Hippogriff; Aragog (the giant spider); Fawkes (the phoenix); winged keys; and many many more.

*****

The publication features examples of books, objects, and factoids that relate to 'magic', like: a bezoar stone in a gold filigree case; a cauldron from 800 B.C.; an actual mandrake root (this looks exactly like a little person); medieval books about herbology and potions; a medieval witch's broom owned by Olga Hunt of Manaton - who allegedly rode it during the full moon; an Arabic astrolabe (used by ancient astronomers to chart the night sky); a witch's scrying mirror (used for divination); a fortune telling cup and saucer (for tea leaves); magic wands; illustrations of constellations; names of stars; and innumerable others.

Snippets from - and anecdotes about - the Harry Potter stories are linked with the things mentioned above - to demonstrate how they may have inspired Rowling.

*****

There are also miscellaneous engaging segments scattered through the book, such as: Nicholas Flamel (featured in 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone') was a real person; a man called George Ripley wrote a book about how to make a Philosopher's Stone (which apparently didn't work because he died in 1490); many modern medicines are based on plants (digoxin, quinine, aspirin); Leonardo DaVinci wrote notes in mirror handwriting (which reads from right to left); people once believed that the smell of a weasel could kill a basilisk; and lots more.

*****

Lastly , the book includes suggested activities for children (with instructions), such as: how to make a color-changing potion; how to make flowers change color; how to make a charmed banana (sliced inside it's intact skin); and how to find the lines on your palm (for palm reading).

I'm a big Harry Potter fan and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I highly recommend it to fans of the series, both kids and adults.


Rating: 5 stars

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review of "Fear the Worst" by Linwood Barclay




Tim Blake, a divorced car salesman in Milford, Connecticut, has his 17-year-old daughter Sydney living with him for the summer. Sydney has a summer job at a cheap local motel called 'Just Inn Time.' One morning Sydney goes off to work and doesn't come home. When Tim goes to 'Just Inn Time' looking for his daughter he's told Sydney never worked there and no one there has ever seen her. Confused and worried Tim reports his daughter missing and begins an obsessive search for her.

When she's not living with her dad Sydney lives nearby with her mother Susanne. Susanne has recently moved them both in with her boyfriend Bob, the owner of a car dealership. When Tim learns that Bob's 19-year-old son Evan recently came to live with them Tim becomes infuriated, convinced this is a recipe for trouble. Evan claims to know nothing about Sydney's disapperance but Tim doesn't believe him.

Meanwhile, Sydney's friends offer their assistance. Her ex-boyfriend Jeff Bluestein sets up a website to help search for Sydney and her girlfriend Patty Swain offers moral support and fast food while Tim continues his search.

It soon becomes clear that Sydney was involved in something that put her on the radar of some bad guys, and Tim runs into trouble everywhere he turns. To add to Tim's problems the police aren't very helpful. They seem to look at Tim as a suspect in both Sydney's disappearance as well as other crimes that are happening in Milford. Tim's recently dumped girlfriend doesn't help, being angry and neurotic and willing to throw Tim under the bus when she's questioned by the police.

The story is suspenseful from beginning to end and I sympathized with Tim's fear and anguish. He's clearly a nice guy in over his head. The other characters add interest to the story, which moves fast to a dramatic climax.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it to fans of mystery thrillers.


Rating: 3.5 stars