Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review of "The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters

Formerly well-off Frances Wray and her mother are having a hard time in post-WWI London. Frances' brothers were lost in the war and her father died leaving a load of debt. To conserve money the Wrays had to let the help go. So 26-year-old Frances has to do all the household chores while her mother - apparently unable or unwilling to do any cooking or cleaning - goes about her personal business. Thus Frances is generally roughly dressed, tired, and sporting the rough, red hands of a charwoman. Not the life she had pictured for herself.

To help pay the bills the Wrays decide to rent part of their house to paying guests, Leonard and Lillian Barber. The Barbers are an upwardly mobile twenty-something couple that have little in common with the Wrays. Leonard works for an insurance company while Lillian stays home lounging and decorating her rooms to resemble an exotic bazaar. Though Frances is put off by brash, intrusive Leonard she starts to becomes friendly with the Barbers. On a night when there's been too much drinking this leads to an uncomfortable game of 'Snakes and Ladders' where a drunk Leonard enforces his own made-up rules. Frances is embarassed and starts to sense some trouble in the Barber marriage.

Living in the same house, Frances and Lillian become friendly, with chats and walks and picnics. Eventually Lllian cuts and waves Frances' hair, updates her party gown, and takes her to a relative's birthday party - where there's drinking, dancing, and flirting. Leonard also seems to like Frances, and hangs around to talk to her whenever he gets the chance. Proximity and attraction lead to a relationship that ultimately results in a terrible accident, a police investigation, and a trial.

The author is adept at depicting emotions and the characters feelings of love, desire, worry, anger, despair, and so on seem authentic and true to life. That said, I didn't especially like many of the characters. Frances seems pushy and a little selfish, Lillian appears a bit manipulative and obtuse, and Leonard comes across as a bully and a lech. I felt some sympathy for Mrs. Wray, who lost her sons and husband and is bewildered by her daughter. And I was entertained by Lillian's large, boisterous family, who inject a needed touch of humor into the book.

To me the story was disturbing but this is a good book that's well-written and worth reading. Plus it contains subject matter that's good fodder for book clubs.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Review of "Are You Sleeping" by Kathleen Barber

Josie Buhrman's father was shot and killed 13 years ago, and Warren Cave - the goth teenage boy next door - was convicted of the crime. Afterwards, Josie's already troubled mother fell apart, and ran off to join a cult. To top things off, Josie's rebellious twin sister, Lanie, betrayed her in a very hurtful way. So at 18, Josie left a goodbye note for her beloved Aunt Amelia - with whom she'd been living - and left Elm Park, Illinois.

Josie backpacked and hitchhiked around the world, supported herself with low-paying food service jobs, and invented a fake history to tell new acquaintances. After years of roaming Josie met Caleb, a handsome international aid worker from New Zealand. They fell in love and eventually settled in New York, where Josie got a good job in a bookstore. Josie never told Caleb the truth about her past, which is about to come back and bite her in the butt.

A reporter named Poppy Parnell is making a podcast about the murder of Josie's dad, Chuck Buhrman. Furthermore, Parnell is questioning Warren Cave's guilt and looking at possible alternative suspects. The re-opening of the case generates a lot of interest among the general public, who proceed to talk and post comments about the case and everyone connected with it.

Josie is terribly anxious about Parnell's podcast, which reminds her of painful events. Additonally, the idea that Warren Cave might be innocent is anathema to her. After all, Josie's sister Lanie said she SAW Warren shoot her father. Who else could have committed the crime? Podcast groupies are ready with lots of suggestions, including Josie's mother, Warren's mother, Lanie, and others.

The podcast and the renewed publicity is apparently too much for Josie's mother, who commits suicide. As a result, Josie has to return to Elm Park, where she'll attend her mother's funeral, comfort her Aunt Amelia, and see her estranged sister Lanie. Caleb thinks Josie's mother is long dead, so she tells him it's her aunt's funeral, and convinces him to stay behind in New York.

Being back in Elm Park is very stressful for Josie. She's still furious with her sister; her cousin Ellen, a fashionista, is critical of her appearance; the viewing and funeral are difficult; and Caleb shows up and learns that Josie is big liar. Moreover, Poppy Parnell keeps trying to corner Josie, to get an interview for the podcast.

The story is told as a narrative interspersed with excerpts from the podcast, plus Tweets, Reddit threads, and comments from the public. This style works well for the book, and some of the 'messages' are very entertaining. (Sadly, it's a realistic portrayal of how insensitive people can be on social media.)

The basic plot - is Warren guilty? If not, who is? - is compelling. The main characters, though, are somewhat unsympathetic and/or unrealistic.

Josie, for one, is an irritating protagonist. She's whiny, overly emotional, and even after 10 years can't get past Lanie's 'betrayal' which - after all - wasn't that earth shattering. And Josie does some business with her hair - she has her luxuriant black tresses chopped into a bad pixie cut and dyed platinum.....then gets it fixed - which seems pointless. Also, in real life, men aren't as understanding or forgiving as Caleb.

As for Lanie, some of her obnoxious behavior as a teen - hanging with a bad crowd; using drugs; not showering; wearing dirty clothes; and so on - is understandable in the circumstances. However, one of Lanie's actions is a serious crime, and there are no appropriate consequences. I wondered what her family was thinking!

In a way Poppy Parnell is the most authentic character in the book. She's irritating but behaves like a real journalist - chasing people for comments; saying outrageous things for publicity; not caring about the harm she's doing to the families; and so on.

By the end of the book the truth about Chuck Buhrman's death emerges, which some readers may suss out long before the characters do.

Overall, this is an okay book that shows how 'true crime' stories can devastate the families involved.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for a copy of the book.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review of "Blame" by Cam Carson

Tatya Zaslavskaya - lanky, blonde. and attractive - is a sports massage therapist and one of the top players on her women's beach volleyball team in Miami, Florida. She's also secretly smitten with her new teammate - tall, pretty, red-haired Kris Jayson, a former college rower who recently joined the volleyball squad.

Still, when Coach Lake asks Tatya who should be her partner at the upcoming volleyball tournament in San Diego, Tatya wants to be fair. Should she suggest Lucy - a long-time teammate and solid player, or Kris - a talented novice who's hungry for success. In the end Tatya cedes the choice to Coach Lake, who picks Kris.

When Kris injures her hamstring a couple of weeks before the tournament, Tatya is determined to help her heal. To aide Kris's recovery Tatya offers homemade meals and massage therapy. These somewhat sensual interactions are thrilling for Tatya, though Kris - who's only dated boys in the past - seems to regard them solely as friendly overtures.

Tatya and Kris make it to San Diego, where they meet other attractive volleyball players - and nature takes it course. Meanwhile, all the women's teams are preparing for the tournament. The descriptions of the practices and games are exciting: serve, dip, bump, spike, occasionally fumble ....lose a point, score a point, etc. I was eager to see who would eventually win the championship.

In her zeal to win an important game Tatya does something she fears might alienate Kris. After overcoming this rough spot in their friendship Tatya confesses her attraction to her friend, which eventually brings the women closer. In time, personal conversations lead to an exchange of confidences during which Kris discloses deep feelings of insecurity about her talent, abilities, and worth, and Tatya reveals profound grief over a former girlfriend. Can Tatya and Kris help each other heal and go forward?

An array of additional characters add interest to the story including several members of the Miami volleyball team,Tatya's roommate Brett, Kris's cat Itchy, and Las Vegas volleyballer Dre - who engages in smoking sex with Tatya. In fact there's plenty of red-hot sex in the story, which will appeal to fans of romance and erotica.

I enjoyed the scenes where Tatya prepared delicious dishes like ajiaco and yucca fries; couscous with vegetables; jambalaya; crab cakes; chocolate mousse; ice cream topped with cinnamon and figs, and more. They made me wish I had a generous friend who was a good chef. :)

This is an engaging story about two women searching for happiness and fulfillment. I look forward to the second book in the series.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Review of "Hide and Seek" by Ian Rankin

A young junkie named Ronnie McGrath is found dead in an Edinburgh squat - positioned like Christ on the cross - with candles beside him and what looks like satanic symbols on the wall. Ronnie's girlfriend, Tracy, tells Detective Inspector John Rebus that Ronnie was distraught before he died, and repeatedly cried "hide, hide." At first it looks like Ronnie overdosed, but Rebus learns that Ronnie's dope was tainted with rat poison.

Because Rebus is involved in a drug case his boss, Superintendent Watson, invites the detective to lunch with a few Edinburgh bigwigs who are involved with an anti-drug campaign. Rebus seems to be of interest to these rich, successful men, who invite him to a classy party and give him an 'honorary membership' in a gambling club.

Meanwhile, Tracy reports that she's being followed, and Rebus notices that he's being followed as well. It's clear that someone is interested in Rebus's investigation, and he has to find out why. To assist with his inquiries, Rebus reaches out to Sergeant Brian Holmes - the cop least likely to complain about Rebus's numerous demands.

It turns out that Ronnie was a threat to some people; Tracy knows more than she's telling; and Edinburgh's upper crust citizens have dark secrets. Some side plots in the story involve illegal dog fights, a gay character, and Rebus's ex-lover - Gillian Templer - who has a new radio DJ boyfriend. Rebus pines for Gillian and wants her back.

The book gets over-convoluted and some plot points don't make sense. Still, Rebus has good intuition and identifies the criminals in the end.

This is an early book in the Rebus series and he's kind of 'Rebus light.' That is - though he's demanding - Rebus isn't the difficult, pushy, irascible, alcoholic, boss-hating man he becomes in later books.

This is a pretty good story, recommended to mystery readers - especially Rebus fans.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review of "The Killing in the Cafe" by Simon Brett

Carole and Jude are the resident amateur sleuths of the English town of Fethering. Carole, a former government employee, is rather straight-laced while Jude - a self-styled healer/psychologist- is an easy going hippy-dippy type.

In this 17th addition to the series, Polly's Cake Shop - a favorite Fethering café - is being sold. Some of the townsfolk, not wanting the site to become another Starbucks, form a "Save Polly's Cake Shop" action committee (SPCS). Jude gets co-opted to be on the committee and the meetings are quite funny....and probably true to life.

There's a power struggle to chair the committee, arguments about where to hold the meetings, disagreements about what to do with Polly's (one free spirit wants it to be multi-use, with facilities for meditation), and discussions about how to run the café. Quintus Braithwaite - a full of himself retired military man who bullies his way into the chairmanship - usually manages to get his way. The committee wastes a lot of donated money and tries to run the coffee shop as an all volunteer enterprise under the (not quite competent) auspices of Mrs. Braithwaite. This is all pretty entertaining.

While all this is going on Carole and Jude discover the decomposed body of a dead man - with a bullet in his head - on the Fethering beach. It so happens that someone saw this body weeks before, in the storeroom of Polly's Cake Shop, but never bothered reporting it to the police. Jude was informed about this body at the time but also didn't tell the police. (Really?? Is this believable??) The body then disappears until it's washed up on the shore. Eventually, the dead man - a stranger to town - is identified, and Carole and Jude make it their business to find his connection to Fethering and try to reveal the murderer.

Carole and Jude question people, investigate, and eventually solve the crime. Most of the book, though, is devoted to the women's everyday lives. Carole is set to become a grandmother for the second time and spends a lot of time visiting/worrying about her son and pregnant daughter-in-law. Jude sees clients of her healing business. The gals go to the coffee shop and pub. Carole's dog Gulliver gets walkies. And so on.

There are interesting secondary characters in the book, including the SPCS committee members, the waitresses at Polly's Cake Shop, a local real estate developer who wants to build 'affordable housing' behind Polly's cafe, and various possible suspects.

Fans of the series would probably enjoy this quiet cozy mystery with familiar likable characters.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of "The Steel Kiss" by Jeffery Deaver

This is the 12th book in the 'Lincoln Rhyme' series, but can be read as a standalone without missing much.

As the story opens, quadriplegic, forensic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme has given up being a police consultant and is teaching forensics. One of Rhyme's students - thirtyish, wheelchair-bound Juliette Archer - asks to be his intern, and Rhyme agrees.

Meanwhile, Rhyme's professional partner/girlfriend, NYPD Detective Amelia Sachs, is on the trail of a murderer called Unsub 40. Sachs spots Unsub 40 on the street and follows him into a mall, where the perp orders lunch in a coffee shop. Amelia is watching the Unsub and waiting for backup when loud screams erupt from the escalator - which has popped open and swallowed a man named Greg Frommer. When Amelia rushes over to help doomed Frommer - who's practically bisected by the escalator machinery - Unsub 40 disappears.

After learning that Frommer's widow and young son are almost destitute, Amelia convinces Lincoln to help an attorney file a civil suit against the escalator company and anyone else who might be liable. Intern Juliette helps Lincoln research grounds for the lawsuit.

Every book in this series features a clever perp who has some bizarre modus operandi. In this book it's Unsub 40, who's learned to sabotage devices that use 'smart' computer technology, like escalators, elevators, cars, industrial machines, household appliances, etc. (Imagine your electric carving knife suddenly attacking you!)

The Unsub is determined to get revenge against 'Shoppers', and takes credit for each of his kills, calling himself 'The People's Guardian.' Parts of the book are told from Unsub 40's point of view, which provides insight into his thinking and history.

As things play out Lincoln's inquiries for the civil suit dovetail with Amelia's hunt for Unsub 40, and the duo (plus Juliette) collaborate on the forensic analysis of evidence such as dust and debris at crime scenes; glass fragments; wood splinters; furniture glaze; food wrappers and napkins (the Unsub loves White Castle hamburgers); and so on.

There's plenty of excitement as Unsub 40 tries to elude the cops, who are close on his trail. An added element of suspense is the killer's girlfriend, an apparent survivor of domestic abuse, who seems to be in danger from the Unsub.

There are a couple of subplots to add to the excitement. Amelia's former boyfriend, ex-cop Nick Carelli, has been in prison for robbery and assault. Released after five years, Nick claims he was coerced into confessing, and implores Amelia to help him clear his name. And Officer Ron Pulaski - who sustained a serious head injury in the line of duty - is secretly trying to buy a powerful new street drug from gangbangers.

In Deaver's thrillers things are not always as they appear, and I wondered about what was really going on. I also thought there might be a rearrangement of romantic partners: Lincoln and Juliette? Amelia and Nick? Lots to speculate about as I sped through the book.

I enjoyed this fast moving suspense thriller but was a little disappointed with the denoument, which was rather abrupt (....all of a sudden the perp is in custody!). Still, a good addition to the series. Highly recommended to mystery fans.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review of "There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say" by Paula Poundstone


Paula Poundstone - comedian, author, actress, interviewer and commentator - is a compassionate woman who's fostered many children over the years, and adopted three. Poundstone has had her share of troubles, however, and her alcoholism (driving her kids to Baskin-Robbins while drunk) led to her arrest for child endangerment in 2001. The upshot was 180 days of rehab, 5 years of random drug/alcohol testing, 12 months of foster care for her children, and financial woes. Some of the humor in this book, published in 2006, stems from these events but Poundstone - a gifted comic - can find the funny in any topic.

In this memoir Poundstone bounces her (often self-deprecating) humor off of brief biographies of Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Charles Dickens, the Wright brothers, Beethoven, and Sitting Bull.*

I'll give some examples:

Joan of Arc
Charles VII set Joan up with a small staff: a confessor, a couple of servants, a couple of heralds, and a page.

Paula: "I had a dozen therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists who evaluated me for the court. The district attorney concluded I had every malady any of these guys suggested: bipolar; mildly depressed; severely depressed; borderline personality disorder; drug and alcohol dependent; alcoholic; obsessive compulsive; manic depressive; compliant; non-compliant; defensive; paranoid; prompt; late; city mouse; and country mouse."

Abraham Lincoln
From ages 16 to 22 Lincoln worked at a variety of jobs.

Paula: "At 16, I worked at Bickford's Pancake House. At 18, I worked at the International House of Pancakes. And even now my kids occasionally ask for frozen waffles or mini-pancakes, so I've kept my hand in it."

Helen Keller
After she became blind and deaf Helen Keller obsessively clung to her mother's dress. Her hands felt every object, observed every motion. In this way she learned many things.

Paula: ''My mother went back to bed after she got my older siblings off to school. I spent my mornings watching Jack Lalanne, Virginia Graham's talk show, Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, and the Three Stooges. In this way I got to learn almost nothing."

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens published many books, but did he even once help his kid with integers?

Paula: "I did a whole page of integers with my 11-year-old once. I still don't know what they are or when they're used. I'm in my 40s and I've never knowingly used integers."

The Wright Brothers
When a flight didn't go well they didn't know if it was the design of the plane or if their piloting was off.

Paula: "I have the same problem with driving. My new van kept making a beeping noise before I backed into stuff. The thing I said before every crash was 'what the hell is that noise'? I called the manufacturer to complain, and it turns out it's supposed to be a warning signal. Whose bright idea was that? I don't need that kind of distraction while I'm trying to back up. Its hard enough rewinding the cassette tape, keeping my soda from spilling, and talking on the phone."

Beethoven is one of the greatest composers of all time.

Paula: "They played really loud Nancy Sinatra to the Branch Davidians to get them to come out in Waco. Who comes up with these ideas? It seems so cruel to the artist. They should have asked me. People have walked out of my shows before."

When he was on his deathbed Beethoven's nephew Karl cared for him, giving him enemas and entertaining him.

Paula: "Let all who read this know that when I am on my deathbed I only want to be entertained."

Sitting Bull
The construction of the railroads had been cutting the Great Plains Indians' grass for quite a while. But the country's financial woes stopped it in its tracks for a time.

Paula: "I'm a million dollars in debt right now and its not that bad. I actually felt lighter when I hit seven-digit debt. If I was 100,000 dollars in debt I'd be working my ass off right now because I'd have a shot at paying it off. But once you get to a million you relax into it a bit."

Some of Paula's funniest stories revolve around being mistaken for a man, which she claims has happened all her life. For instance:

Paula's dry cleaner - who wasn't fluent in English - always carefully copied her name from one dry cleaning slip to the next. And he always called her 'sir.' One day Paula got up courage and said "I'm a woman." She pointed to her name on the dry cleaning slip and said "See, my name is Paula....with an A."
"No" he countered, "that's an initial."

When playing basketball with fellow comics, Paula noticed a group of kids on the sidelines staring at her, arguing among themselves, gazing at her some more, having further discussions, etc. Finally, one boy came right up to her, took a close look, and announced: "He a girl!"

I thought this book was hilarious and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a laugh.

* The amount of research Poundstone must have put into these mini-biographies is impressive.