Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review of "The Patriarch" by Martin Walker




Police Chief Bruno Corrèges of St. Denis, in the Dordogne region of France, is happy to be going to the 90th birthday party of 'The Patriarch' - Marco Desaix - whom Bruno has idolized since  childhood. The Patriarch was a heralded aviator in WWII, awarded medals by both France and Russia. 

The party guests include local aristocrats as well as DeSaix's extended family, including his sons (from different mothers) Yevgeny and  Victor. Also present are Victor's gorgeous politically active wife Madeleine, their college age children Chantal and Marc, and Victor's best friend since their army days, Gilbert Clamartin - a troubled alcoholic.

During the party Gilbert is found dead, apparently having drunk too much and choked. Though a local doctor (and friend of the DeSaix family) declares Gilbert's death accidental, Bruno has an uneasy feeling and decides to investigate. He learns about a tangled web of 'cooperaton' between France and Russia during and after WWII, activities that involved The Patriarch, Victor, and Gilbert. Bruno suspects that - at the party - Gilbert might have threatened to reveal a secret that resulted in his murder.  

Perhaps to distract Bruno from his investigation the DeSaix family 'courts' the police chief, inviting him to luncheons, wine and paté tastings, etc.  And beautiful Madeleine pulls out all the stops, staging an all out seduction.

Other elements of the tale include an obsessive environmentalist whose 'protection' of wild deer endangers their lives and creates a serious road hazard; a prize-winning garden that's destroyed by wild boars; Gilbert's surprising will; a political rivalry; and an attempt on Bruno's life.

In addition to his investigative work Bruno goes about his everyday activities, which include horseback riding, eating breakfast at the local café, taking care of his garden, walking his lovable bassett hound, resolving a romantic relationhship, shopping, cooking for his hunt club celebration, and so on.

In fact, Bruno demonstrates some serious chef skills. He frequently invites guests to his home, where he prepares gourmet French meals accompanied by fresh baguettes and fine wines, all of which sounds delicious. The reader is also treated to vivid descriptions of the lovely St. Denis/Dordogne region of France, which sounds like a wonderful place to live (if it wasn't for all the pesky murders Bruno solves).

By the end of the book Gilbert's death is satisfactorally resolved. This is an enjoyable book in a wonderful setting.  Recommended to mystery fans.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of "The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband" by David Finch




In this droll and insightful memoir David Finch talks about learning to be a good husband and father despite having Asperger's Syndrome.

David Finch's behavior was always different than most people but he had coping mechanisms that worked until he got married. After five years of matrimony Finch's union was unraveling because of his obsessive and (seemingly) self-centered behavior. Finch's wife Kristen - an autism expert - identified his problem as Asperger's Syndrome....and doctors soon confirmed the diagnosis.

People with Asperger's are on the 'high end' of the autism spectrum and may exhibit a range of symptoms. Some Asperger's behaviors exhibited by Finch include: inflexible routines; preoccupation with a single subject; inability to understand people's feelings (lack of empathy); tendency to talk too much; trouble having a conversation; repetitive mannerisms; and others.

For example Finch had to take an hour-long shower every morning; eat cereal for breakfast every day; and wear shirts with red labels for casual wear and shirts with black labels for dress-up. He had to walk around the house in a clockwise direction every night and stare out the window at neighbors' rooftops. Finch had no concept of sharing household responsibilities (laundry, dishes, child care, etc.) and couldn't comprehend his wife being annoyed about this. Finch was uncomfortable with people and would spend hours preparing conversatonal tidbits and jokes before meetings. On game night with friends, Finch couldn't tolerate a change in the order of the games or - heaven forbid - substituting a new game. And much much more.

Though most people might be dismayed by a diagnosis of Asperger's, Finch was elated. He figured, now that he knew what was wrong, he could fix the problem. So.....with Kristen's help Finch started to keep 'A Journal Of Best Practices' (really notes on random scraps of paper) telling himself how to think, act, communicate, and be a good husband and father. As Finch jokingly describes it, he put post-it notes everywhere - including his forehead - and had a night table drawer packed with helpful hints.

Guided by Kristen, Finch would make notes like:
When we have company don't get in the car and leave for an hour.
Don't rant and rave in front of the kids.
Sometimes Kristen just needs me to listen.....and not blurt out my opinions.
Don't change the radio station when Kristen's singing along.
Laundry: better to fold and put away than take only what I need from the dryer.
Go with the flow.

Finch's 'recovery'' wasn't all smooth sailing, and he engaged in long bouts of swearing, yelling. and dramatic weeping. Still, after a couple of years - and a lot of hard work - Finch's marriage improved; he was more attentive to his kids; and he was doing household chores.

I read the book out of curiosity but I think people with Asperger's Syndrome (or other atypical behaviors) might be encouraged to see how one man improved his life.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review of "Tea Time For The Traditionally Built" by Alexander McCall Smith




In this 10th book in the series, Mma Ramotswe - owner of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Gabarone, Botswana - has a vexing problem. Her beloved tiny white van is making ominous noises. And Mma Ramotswe's afraid her husband, the dedicated mechanic Mr. JLB Matekonii, will scrap the old van if she tells him.

Mma Ramotswe's car problems prey on her mind as she looks into the case of the losing football (soccer) team. Rra Molofololo, the team owner, is convinced a traitorous player is throwing games. Mma Ramotswe - out of her depth since she knows nothing about football - nevertheless agrees to try to unearth the culprit. Thus the detective goes to a football game, talks to the team members, listens to players blame each other, and so on - all the time pondering the hold sports have on 'boys' of all ages.

Meanwhile, assistant detective Mma Makutsi is worried about losing her fiancé, Phuti Rhadiputi - owner of many cattle and The Double Comfort Furniture Store. The problem: glamorous vamp Violet Sephotho has wangled a job at the furniture shop and Mma Makutsi thinks Violet will try to get her claws into Phuti. And sneaky Violet plans to do exactly that.

The usual recurring characters make an appearance in the story, including Mma Potokwane, manager of the orphan farm and baker of delicious fruit cakes; and apprenctice mechanics Charlie and Fanwell. In fact, Fanwell is especially helpful to Mma Ramotswe in this book, and the detective visits Fanwell's tiny house and meets the array of relatives he supports with his small salary.

As always in this charming series many cups of bush tea are drunk, the ladies engage in entertaining conversations, and Mma Makutsi boldly expresses her strong, amusing (and often wrongheaded) opinions about everything. Moreover, the reader gets a peek at the gentle culture of Botswana, which seems like a very nice place to live.

I'd highly recommend this book to fans of quiet cozy mysteries.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Review of "Two Days Gone" by Randall Silvis




Thomas Huston seems to have everything going for him. He's a college professor, best selling author, and devoted family man - with a beautiful wife, Claire, and three wonderful children, Thomas Jr., Alyssa, and David. Then one night Claire and the children are brutally murdered.....and Huston goes on the run. The professor immediately becomes the prime suspect in the eyes of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Police Sergeant Ryan DeMarco gets the job of tracking Huston down. As it happens the two men are acquainted, having met when Huston was researching a 'state trooper character' for his new book. DeMarco got a favorable impression of Huston and can't fathom how the writer could wipe out his whole family.

DeMarco isn't a stranger to tragedy himself. Years ago he and his wife Laraine lost a child in a tragic car accident. Inconsolable, Laraine left DeMarco and began a string of one-night-stands. For his part DeMarco took to excessive drinking and lurking outside his estranged wife's apartment.

The novel is told from the alternating points of view of Huston and DeMarco. As the story unfolds Huston is trudging through the freezing woods, looking for food and shelter, hoping to get assistance from a woman he calls Annabel. The writer is distraught and disturbed and thinks of himself as a character in his own book.

DeMarco, meanwhile, interviews Huston's neighbors, colleagues, and students - trying to figure out the writer's state of mind and where he might go. One student, Nathan Briessen, informs the detective that Huston kept a journal and that his new book is inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's poems and Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita" - all of which are liberally referenced in the story. Thus "Two Days Gone" feels like a literary novel as well as a mystery. For me though, the numerous literary references stalled the story a little too much.

While chasing Huston, DeMarco uses troopers and dogs..... and stakes out places Huston might go. All this heightens the suspense. Eventually DeMarco learns the truth about what occurred on the night of the murders and what led up to it. This revelation is followed by additional drama - with some twists and surprises.

The story contains a variety of compelling characters, but to mention specifics would lessen the thrill of discovery, so I'll refrain. (You're welcome. LOL)

"Two Days Gone" is very dark but there are lighter moments when DeMarco is bantering with his station commander, Sargeant Kyle Bowen. I enjoyed these humorous scenes, which provided a respite from the tension. At one point, DeMarco calls his boss an asshole, and Bowen says "I'm getting a little annoyed with your insubordination. From now on, it's Sargeant Asshole." (ha ha ha)

This is a well-written, well-plotted book that I'd recommend to mystery fans.

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

Monday, December 26, 2016

Review of "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel" by Robin Sloan




As the story opens, Clay Jannon - a young, unemployed web designer - takes a job at 'Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore' in San Francisco. This peculiar establishment has a limited number of normal books for sale in front and a large number of unusual books in back which 'members' can borrow. Clay learns that these odd books apparently hold clues to solving some secret which people have been trying to decipher for centuries.

Curious to figure out what's going on with these books Clay enlists the assistance of friends with needed attributes: coding skills, money, access to technology, and so on. Clay's group secretly copies and analyzes a key book which eventually leads them to a secret society in New York that's working toward a very special goal.

The activities of Clay's cadre involve numerous intricate gadgets, fancy coding, high-tech cameras, Google's computers, cross-country travel, breaking and entering, and so on. For me the book started off strong but I lost interest about 2/3 of the way in when the 'fairy tale' aspects of the story took over. Moreover I was disappointed with the book's ending which seemed anti-climactic after the huge build up. I think people interested in high-tech gadgets would find this book interesting but it just wasn't one of my favorites.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Review of "The Orphan Master" by Jean Zimmerman




Though there's a mystery at the heart of this story, the book's strongest suit is its depiction of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the 1660s. New Amsterdam's Director-General, Petrus Stuyvesant, rules under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company, whose main goal is to make money. Thus, numerous residents of New Amsterdam are traders - dealing in grains, furs, weapons, blankets, household items, etc. Life in the territory can be harsh though - with deadly diseases, serious injuries, and sporadic Indian attacks.

The hard work in New Amsterdam is broken up by the occasional holiday festival, where residents drink, dance and flirt. Excess revelry is risky though, because Director-General Stuyvesant inflicts harsh sentences for bad behavior. One penalty - being bounced around for hours while astride a thin wooden plank - is horribly painful and can leave a miscreant with a bloody broken tailbone. (Ouch!!)

On top of his other concerns Stuyvesant is anxious about the English colonies surrounding New Amsterdam.....and he has good reason to be. Britain is planning to take over the Dutch settlement and sends Edward Drummond - a spy pretending to be a grain merchant - to scope out Dutch defenses and help plot the coup.

One of the cleverest traders in New Amsterdam is a 'she-merchant' named Blandine van Couvering, a beautiful, independent young woman. Unlike most residents of the colony, Blandine is close friends with black people (former slaves) and Indians. A wealthy Dutch businessman named Kees Bayard is almost engaged to Blandine, but his 'conditions' for marrying her are off-putting. In any case, Kees gets jealous when Blandine forms a rapport with Drummond, and this plot line forms an important part of the story.

The main theme of the book involves the disappearance of orphans - one by one - from New Amsterdam. Aet Visser, the orphan master, is in charge of parentless children. He generally sends them to local homes, where the unfortunate kids are often treated like servants or workers (or worse). Several orphans have now completely vanished, and Blandine enlists Drummond's help to look into the matter.

It soon becomes clear that the children are being murdered in a ritualistic fashion and - since New Amsterdam contains its share of odd people - there are plenty of suspects. Moreover, rumors fly about the 'witika' - a mask-wearing Indian demon who's (purportedly) been seen skulking around the forest.

The book has numerous interesting characters including: Martyn Hendrickson - one of the richest, most handsome men in town....but he stinks (literally); Lightning - a half-Indian, half German who was almost scalped; Anna - Aet Visser's maid and the (secret) mother of his children; Antony Angola, a giant black man who protects Blandine; Kitane - an Indian fur trader who knows a lot about the witika; and more.

Chasing and shooting scenes add excitement to the story, and I was intrigued by descriptions of everyday life in New Amsterdam, including food, clothing, wigs (for men), sewing circles (gossip sessions), religious practices, business dealings, family dynamics, and so on.

The story moves along at a steady clip for about two-thirds of the book. Then, Blandine and Drummond - accused of various crimes by resentful and frightened townsfolk - go into hiding. The story slows down at this point and I became anxious to get to the climax.....and the unmasking of the orphan killer.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Review of "The Color of Law" by Mark Gimenez




This enjoyable thriller reads a lot like a John Grisham novel with a dash of Perry Mason thrown in.

Dallas lawyer A. Scott Fenney was a star football player in college. This helped propel him into his job as an attorney at the elite Ford Stevens law firm where he happily learned less-than-ethical techniques to benefit his clients and bring in fees of 3 million dollars a year. Thus Scott and his family live in a mansion in classy Highland Park, he and his wife Rebecca drive expensive cars, and Rebecca aspires to be hostess of the glamorous Cattle Barons Ball. To top it off Scott has a whip-smart daughter he adores, 9-year-old Boo. Scott feels like he's living the perfect life.

Then United States District Court Judge Samuel Buford appoints Scott to be the pro-bono lawyer for black prostitute Shawanda Jones, who 's accused of killing Clark McCall. Clark is the bad-boy son of Senator Mack McCall, who's determined to become the next President of the United States. Moreover, Senator McCall is friends with Scott's boss Dan Ford, who's poised to become the attorney of the next President.

Scott tries to get rid of Shawanda as a client by urging her to cop a plea. But Shawanda insists she's innocent and wants a trial. From here the book takes a predictable, but still entertaining, turn. The Senator is determined that his son's past as a druggie who hits and rapes women doesn't become public knowledge. Thus the Senator pulls a few strings and Dan Ford urges Scott to throw the case. When Scott gets a twinge of conscience and refuses his life starts to go downhill at breakneck speed.

Though the story plays out much as expected I enjoyed the book, which is well-written with engaging characters. Some of the most likable characters in the story include Scott's old law school buddy Bobby - who helps with the case; Shawanda's endearing daughter Pajamae - who Scott takes into his home during the trial; and Boo - who supplies the conscience Scott sorely needs. The rascals in the tale include Dan Ford - whose sole interest in life is making money; Tom Dibrell - Scott's best client, who never met a pretty woman he couldn't harass; and Senator McCall - who would do anything to get his way.

The book has the requisite courtroom scenes, which add interest to the story. I liked the book and recommend it to fans of legal mysteries.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Review of "A Fatal Twist" by Tracy Weber




Amateur sleuth Kate Davidson is a yoga teacher, doula, and 'mom' to a digestively challenged German Shepherd named Bella. Kate also has a penchant for stumbling across dead bodies. In this fourth book in the 'Downward Dog' series - set in Seattle, Washington - Kate finds a man stabbed to death.

As the story opens Kate is assisting with a baby delivery at a facility called 'A Better Birth Associates' (ABBA) - preparing to help her friend Rene give birth to twins in a few weeks. In ABBA's hallway Kate sees Dr. Richard Jones - an ob-gyn/fertility specialist - kissing a nurse who's not his wife.

Handsome, well-coifed Dr. Jones - snidely nicknamed 'Dr. Dick' - lives up to his moniker by philandering, fighting with his rebellious step-daughter Nicole, and yelling at his wife Rachel before her yoga class. So it's not a huge surprise when Kate, attending an event at Lake Washington Medical Center, finds the doctor's body in the ladies room. Even worse, Kate runs into Rachel hurrying away from the scene. Rachel is arrested but Kate can't believe the frazzled woman is guilty - and sets out to find the real killer.

Meanwhile, Kate's boyfriend Michael - a great guy and talented (but messy) cook - brings home two Labradoodle puppies. Michael found the abandoned pups near the entrance to his dog food store, and suspects a well-meaning homeless woman named Momma Bird left them there.

The pups are cute but Kate already has her hands full with German Shepherd Bella - who can only eat enzyme-laced 'smoothies' and won't use the doggie door - though Kate repeatedly demonstrates by crawling through herself (ha ha ha). Moreover, the pups routinely escape their locked enclosure and wreak havoc in the house and yard (they DO use the doggie door).

Even though Kate is busy - teaching yoga, assisting her hugely pregnant friend Rene, and caring for the three dogs - she makes time to investigate Dr. Dick's murder. Kate's list of suspects include Dr. Dick's current girlfriend, his former mistress, his step-daughter Nicole, his medical partner, and a young couple who blame Dr. Dick for the death of their newborn baby.

Other interesting characters in the story include: Summer - who's teaching Kate to be a doula; Betty - who runs a dog shelter/rescue service; Jamar - a guy you wouldn't want to meet if you mistreat animals; Tiffany - a gal who doesn't do yoga but likes the outfits; and Sam - Rene's husband and self-appointed 'healthy food monitor.'

I like Kate's careful preparations for being Rene's doula, her warm interactions with Michael, her dog-rescue adventure, and her loving attention to Bella. On the downside, Kate's 'detective work' is a bit thin.....and it's hard to believe she has a meltdown after a few minutes of hot yoga (Really? She owns a yoga studio!) In the end, the murderer is revealed in a rather unexpected turn of events.....and the puppies have a forever home.

This is a humorous and enjoyable cozy mystery that I'd recommend to fans of the genre.

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review of "W is for Wasted" by Sue Grafton




Private Detective Kinsey Millhone is between jobs when she becomes involved with the deaths of two men. Pete Wolinksy, a disreputable P.I. acquaintance is found shot to death in a Santa Teresa park, presumably by a mugger. And R.T. Dace, an alcoholic, ex-convict vagrant who Kinsey never met has left her a small fortune and made her executor of his will.

Turns out R.T. Dace is Kinsey's distant relative, and wanting to do the right thing Kinsey sets out to tell his disinherited children what happened. Though they had all rejected their father, the Dace children are furious and combative.

Meanwhile Kinsey's friend/sometimes lover Robert Dietz turns up, angry because Pete Wolinsky cheated him out of a fee. Thus Kinsey starts looking into the deaths of both Wolinksy and Dace and discovers some intriguing connections between them. Seems that Wolinsky was investigating a doctor who may have falsified data in a pharmaceutical study involving alcoholics.

There are a slew of interesting characters in this story including old favorites like Kinsey's handsome 88-year-old landlord Henry, his hypochondriac brother William, and William's wife, the restaurateur Rosie, who serves only one dish per day at her eatery.

Grafton does a masterful job of intertwining the Wolinksy/Dace story lines leading to a completely satisfactory conclusion. This is a treat of a mystery book.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review of "The Whistler" by John Grisham


  

Lacy Stoltz and Hugo Hatch are lawyers with the 'The Florida Board on Judicial Conduct', which investigates claims that Florida judges are engaging in inappropriate or illegal behavior. This can range from being drunk on the job, to propositioning attorneys for sex, to taking bribes.....or worse.

Even so, Lacy and Hugo are skeptical when a disbarred lawyer, who calls himself Greg Myers, claims that Judge Claudia McDover is in cahoots with the Coast Mafia - a criminal organization that engineered the construction of a casino on Tappacola Indian land in the Florida panhandle.

According to the informant, Judge McDover helped the mafia grab land for the casino (and other developments) by shady use of eminent domain; and she covered up the murder of a casino opponent by engineering the conviction of an innocent man - who's now on death row. The tipster also asserts that the judge gets tons of cash skimmed from casino profits and accepts other perks - like expensive condominiums.

Lacy and Hugo look into the allegations, which seem to be true. The judge has been very careful though, and It won't be easy to prove she's guilty. So, to get a 'toe in', Myers makes a complaint citing McDover's ownership of illicit condominiums. This allows Lacy and Hugo to begin an official inquiry.

Though Myers signs the complaint, he's actually the 'spokesman' for a trio who want to take down Judge McDover. These three include a 'whistle-blower' close to the justice, an intermediary, and then Myers. (IMO this hierarchy of snitches unnecessarily complicates the plot.) These tattletales are in it for the money, since whistle-blowers share in 'illegal gains' retrieved by the government.

As part of their inquiries Lacy and Hugo start to sniff around the casino, which alarms the Tappacola Chief as well as the Coast Mafia - which is run by Vonn Dubose. As a result, Dubose arranges for his lieutenants to cause an accident that will intimidate The Florida Board on Judicial Conduct. This incident results in a death and a serious injury. Afterwards the Chief and his minions try to derail any investigation into the tragedy - which occurred on Indian land.

The men who orchestrate the accident make some bad mistakes. This gives the FBI a wedge to expose the entire criminal enterprise. This is my favorite part of the book, since I always enjoy seeing the bad guys get their comeuppance.

Some interesting characters in the story include:
Judge McDover - a bottomless pit of greed; she amasses a mind-boggling collection of riches and her extravagant lifestyle is beyond belief. (Literally. I don't believe a judge can have numerous properties in foreign countries, fly all over the world on private planes, and spend infinitely more than she makes without Homeland Security or the FBI - or someone - noticing.)
Gunther - Lacy's businessman brother, who alternates between being rich and being bankrupt. He's an assertive, annoying guy.....but always has Lacy's back.
Vonn Dubose - a ruthless schemer who amasses bars, liquor stores, restaurants, strip clubs, hotels, convenience stores, shopping centers, amusement parks, golf courses, etc. Dubose is a wizard at hiding the ill-gotten gains....and will kill anybody that gets in his way.
The story also includes several FBI agents, various thugs, a couple of colleagues of Lacy and Hugo, a reputable Indian cop, and more.

For me this book is just okay. The plot is interesting, but not that original. And large swatches of the story don't move the plot forward, or seem to lead nowhere. This feels like padding to me.

You might enjoy the book if you like legal thrillers.....but temper your expectations.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Review of "The Hidden Child" by Camilla Läckberg




In Fjällbacka, Sweden two teens break into the house of Erik Frankel, an elderly man who collects Nazi memorabilia. They're shocked to discover his badly decomposed body. Coincidentally true crime writer Erica Falck, looking through belongings of her deceased mother, Elsy, finds some diaries and a Nazi medal. Thus starts a dual investigation - the police look into Erik's death and Erica searches for information about her mother.

The story alternates between the present-day and the 1940s (during World War II), when some Swedes aided the resistance in Nazi-occupied Norway. The mysteries in the book multiply when a woman with Alzheimer's disease is killed and Elsy's friends are curiously reluctant to talk about Elsy with her daughter, Erica.

The book has plenty of interesting characters, including Nazi sympathizers, Nazi hunters, a motley crew of detectives, a cute child, and a stray dog that helps its new owner find romance. I found the characters more interesting than the mystery at the heart of the story, which turned out to be fairly ordinary and foreshadowed by the book's title. Also, once the mystery was resolved the explanation was too long and drawn out.

The book does provide some interesting insight into Sweden's role in WWII and the fate of Scandinavian prisoners of war. Overall, an okay book.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Review of "The Twenty-Three" by Linwood Barclay




This is the third book in Linwood Barclay's "Promise Falls" trilogy. If you haven't read the first two books this review might contain some (minor) spoilers.

The upstate New York town of Promise Falls has no end of troubles. An unknown perpetrator has been orchestrating all kinds of havoc related to the number 23, including: hanging 23 dead squirrels on a fence; giving three mannequins a ride in car 23 of a defunct ferris wheel; sending a burning #23 bus careening down the street; blowing up the screen of a drive-in theater at 23:23 (military time); and more.

On top of that, several women in Promise Falls have been killed in a ritualistic fashion - possibly by a serial killer.

Unfortunately there's worse to come. On Saturday, May 23 - at the start of the Memorial Day weekend - hundreds of people in Promise Falls become violently ill. The victims become weak and disoriented; vomit profusely; become hypotensive (low blood pressure); and in many cases die. Detective Barry Duckworth - a capable cop - traces the cause of the outbreak to the town's water supply, which has been poisoned.

As sick and dead people pile up Detective Duckworth and his newly promoted assistant, Detective Angus Carlson, have their hands full - dealing with victims, talking to family members, interviewing witnesses, etc. To add to the mayhem, a teenage boy is missing and a college girl has been stabbed to death - possibly by the serial killer.

So Detective Duckworth is very busy - investigating the 'number 23' crimes; looking into the water debacle; and trying to solve the 'murdered women' cases. To add to the sleuth's troubles, his wife and doctor are trying to get him to go on a diet....but it's hard to give up those morning donuts.

Many colorful characters from the first 2/3 of the trilogy are on hand, such as: Randy Finley - the sleazy former mayor of Promise Falls who'd do anything to get re-elected; private investigator Cal Weaver - who has a moral conundrum about outing a murderer; Crystal - a smart autistic 11-year-old girl; Samantha (Sam) Worthington - a laundromat manager whose in-laws tried to snatch her son and have her killed; David Harwood - a former journalist who's romantically involved with Sam and (reluctantly) works for Randy's mayoral campaign; Don - David's father who has a guilty secret; and Marla - David's cousin who recently acquired a baby son (it's a long story).

For me "The Twenty-Three" is just okay. It's a workmanlike conclusion to the trilogy but lacks a certain level of excitement. Moreover, the solutions to the mysteries feel a bit anti-climactic.

One thing I do like about the trilogy is the author's technique of resolving dangerous situations quickly. If a character gets in trouble it's over pretty fast....for better or worse. I like this much better than hostages being locked in a basement for months.....or other plot devices of that nature.

Overall, the three books of the trilogy tell an engaging story. Recommended to mystery fans

(Note: there are some minor unresolved issues at the end of book three, which apparently will be resolved in a future volume. This is cheating, since this is a trilogy.....not a quadrilogy. Can anyone say $$$ ?)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review of "The Gods of Guilt" by Michael Connelly




Attorney Mickey Haller has problems. He regularly represents (and gets off) criminal lowlifes and a released drunken driver killed a classmate of Mickey's 16-year-old daughter, who no longer wants anything to do with him. Lacking good cases Mickey is also low on cash and drinking too much. Things start to look up when Andre La Cosse, a 'cyberpimp' who runs websites for prostitutes, is accused of murdering a client, Giselle Dallinger.

Turns out Giselle is really Gloria Dayton, a woman Mickey represented on a drug charge eight years before. At the time Mickey got Gloria off by arranging for her to give up a member of a Mexican drug cartel who's now serving a life sentence. The Mexican criminal claims a gun was planted in his apartment at the time and is appealing his sentence. As Mickey prepares to defend the cyberpimp his investigations reveal that Gloria may well have helped set up the cartel member at the behest of a DEA agent. Moreover, Mickey comes to believe Gloria's death may be related to this involvement with the DEA.

Pursuing this line of inquiry Mickey is soon harassed, threatened, and attacked. Eventually the La Cosse murder case gets to court and Connelly presents a lot of detailed courtroom activity including legal motions, questioning and cross-examination of witnesses, interactions with the judge, and so on. This is interesting but does seem to go on and on at times. When Mickey (the first person narrator of the story) says at one point that 'the jury seems to be getting bored' I empathized with the sentiment.

All in all this was a compelling mystery, well-written with interesting characters and a satisfying conclusion. Good book.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review of "A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life" by Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II




How did life on Earth begin? This has been a burning question in people's minds for millenia. In this book, Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II provide a history of how early scholars....then natural philosophers (early scientists)....then modern scientists have addressed this question over the course of history.

The book includes brief biographies of some pertinent scholars as well as their ideas about how life arose. I'm not going to provide a summary of these big thinkers - there were too many of them.

I'll just say that, for a very long time, intellectuals from all cultures accepted the notion of spontaneous generation: the belief that living things can spring from inorganic substances. For example, ancient settlements along the Nile River were regularly flooded, after which thousands of frogs appeared in the rich soil. People just thought the frogs formed from the dirt.

Historically, humans simply accepted that some living things hatch from eggs (like birds), some are born from mothers (like pigs), and some are created from soil, old food, dirty clothes.....whatever. Natural philosophers did myriad experiments that 'proved' spontaneous generation occurred, but we now know their experiments were seriously flawed.

Whatever their beliefs, natural philosphers had to be careful to attribute life on Earth to the work of God. Any other suggestion resulted in punishment from the Church, or even death. One early researcher who published his work on spontaneous generation (apparently without invoking God) had his feet and legs crushed, after which he was paraded through town and hanged. This kind of thing probably stifled a lot of research. (LOL....but wryly.) Nevertheless scientists carried on, being infinitely curious about how life came to be.

In time Darwin proposed his theory of evolution and this 'eureka development' led scientists to believe that a 'first living organism' (FLO) gave rise to millions of species (over eons). Darwin, who was religious, never really addressed what this FLO was, or where it came from. Other researchers, though, developed many theories about the FLO and some have attempted to recreate it in the laboratory.

One current idea about the FLO is that it originated as a 'ribozyme' - an RNA enzyme that catalyzes biochemical reactions, like protein synthesis. If ribozymes were enveloped in a 'bubble' (cell membrane)......voila, the first cell. Sounds good to me....ha ha ha.

Just for fun, I'll include a recipe for spontaneously generating mice (adapted from the 17th century Flemish chemist Jean Baptiste van Helmont).

'Put a soiled shirt and your gym socks in a bowl with grains of wheat....and put it out in your garage. After about 21 days, the dirt from the clothes will react with fumes from the wheat - and the wheat will be tranformed into mice.' Ha ha ha.

The book is thorough in its coverage of an interesting subject - the evolution of ideas about life's origin. For me, though, the prose is too dry and matter of fact; it could have used more humor. Also, the anecdotes feel repetitious because many natural philosophers had similar ideas and did similar experiments. Still, I'd recommend the book to readers interested in the subject.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review of "Firewall" by Henning Mankell




Inspector Kurt Wallender and his detectives are looking into two incidents: the brutal murder of a cab driver by two teenage girls, Sonya Hokberg and Eva Persson; and the death, seemingly from a heart attack, of computer expert Tynnes Falk near an ATM machine.

Events escalate when Sonya escapes police custody and is found dead in the works of a power station during a power blackout. Coincidentally, the blueprints of the power station are found on Falk's desk. Clearly, these cases are connected somehow.

Further police investigations reveal seriously encrypted files on Falk's computer that require the illicit skills of a young hacker. As it turns out the police and the hacker have to race against time to try to avert a worldwide catastrophe. There's a lot going on in this story, including spies watching the cops, more deaths, a bullet aimed at Wallender, and an underhanded detective.

During all this Wallender is dealing with personal issues: he's charged with police brutality toward the teen suspect Eva Persson and he's lonesome and longing for female companionship. Unfortunately this clouds Wallender's judgement and he makes some serious mistakes.

I thought the terrorist conspiracy at the center of the book was a little far-fetched but I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Review of "A Darker Domain" by Val McDermid



The 1984 coal miners' strike in Great Britain hit the Scottish town of Newton of Wemyss very hard. Miners' families had no heat, no food, and no hope. In desperation, a few blacklegs (scabs) went south to work in the mines of Nottingham, England. The scabs were scorned and despised by Newton townspeople, and the families they left behind were vilified. So.....when miner Mick Prentice disappeared from Newton in 1984 his wife Jennie and daughter Misha assumed he'd gone scabbing and wrote him out of their lives forever. 

Jump ahead to 2007 and Misha's little son Luke is dying from leukemia and in dire need of a blood marrow transplant. Unable to find a compatible donor among local family members, Misha tries to locate her father.....and discovers he never went to Nottingham. So after 22 years Misha goes to the police and declares Mick Prentice a missing person. 

Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, a cold case cop who tends to go her own way, dives into the inquiry. However she has to hide this from her disapproving boss, Assistant Chief Constable Simon Lees - who's been nicknamed 'The Macaroon' and considered a 'numpty' (bit of a fool). ACC Lees doesn't want to spend money on this old case, and his interactions with Karen are the funniest parts of the book. 

Karen is soon assigned an additional cold case. More than two decades ago an heiress named Catriona Maclennan Grant and her infant son Adam were kidnapped. Catriona's father, Sir Broderick Maclennan Grant, agreed to pay a huge ransom, but the handover went wrong. In the confusion Catriona was killed, the kidnappers escaped, and baby Adam disappeared.

Now, 20-plus years later, a freelance journalist named Bel Richmond is vacationing in Italy when she happens upon a clue to the Catriona kidnapping. The journalist parlays her discovery into an interview with the reclusive Sir Broderick Maclennan Grant, who reports the clue to the cops and insists that DI Pirie handle the case. 

Grant also asks Bel to (secretly) gather more information in Tuscany.....perhaps thinking of dispatching a little frontier justice. Bel readily agrees to go, hoping to get a book deal - or even a movie - out of the whole business. 

Meanwhile, DI Pirie and her partner - DS Phil Parhatka - juggle the two cases. 

To locate Mick, the detectives speak to his family and friends as well as officers of the old National Miner's Union. They also ask the Nottingham police to interview the scabs who settled there years before. To find Catriona's kidnappers, the cops talk to her father and ex-boyfriend and get help from the carabinieri in Italy. 

As the investigations proceed new information and discoveries come to light regarding both inquiries. 

The story alternates between the past and present, so we learn what was going on in the characters' lives twenty years ago and how the investigations are proceeding now. 

To say much more would give away spoilers. I will say, though, that there's a little flirty tension between DI Karen and DS Phil. However Karen - who sees herself as plain, chubby, and rumpled - doesn't really believe Phil could be romantically interested in her. 

As the investigations into the two cold cases proceed some readers may think they know how things will turn out....but there are some big surprises. I'd recommend the book to mystery fans.

I'll definitely read more Val McDermid mysteries. 


(I've read McDermid's non-fiction book 
Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime - which is excellent.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review of "Low Pressure" by Sandra Brown




Bellamy's sister Susan was murdered at their father's company picnic in Austin, Texas 18 years ago. A teenage boy, Allan Strickland, was convicted of the murder but Bellamy is still haunted by unanswered questions and writes a book to expunge the incident from her mind. When the best-selling book is revealed to be based on a true story many people with something to hide - including police, the prosecutor, relatives, witnesses, etc. - get antsy about the renewed publicity and Bellamy experiences frightening  threats and break-ins.

Meanwhile Bellamy hires Dent Carter to fly her family to Houston for her father's medical treatment. It happens that Dent was Susan's boyfriend at the time of the murder and was fingered by Susan's parents as a prime suspect, which he still resents. However, Bellamy and Dent eventually form an uneasy alliance to look into Susan's murder and discover that witnesses lied, the police and prosecutor wanted to convict someone at any cost, Ray Strickland (Allan's brother) is bent on revenge, and Susan wasn't the innocent her parents portrayed.

Of course Bellamy and Dent have a strong attraction for each other, which he pursues and she resists. Sandra Brown does a skillful job developing the characters and revealing clues to the murder. For me the obligatory romance in the story was an unnecessary distraction but I enjoyed the book and recommend it to mystery lovers.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Review of "Through the Evil Days" by Julia Spencer-Fleming




In this mystery/thriller set in upstate New York, the first part of the book is a mystery: the cops are trying to find out who kidnapped a child, Mikayla, who recently had a liver transplant and will die without her medicine. Once the suspects are identified, the remainder of the book is a thriller as the cops set out to rescue the girl and catch the perps during 'the ice-storm of the century.'

This is book 8 of the series, and the Reverend Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ van Alstyne have now married and are about to set off for their honeymoon in a mountain cabin. Unfortunately, just as they start honeymooning the ice storm hits and Russ and Clare are coincidentally drawn into the kidnapping case. Much hardship and drama ensues heightened by the fact that Clare is pregnant and Russ isn't thrilled about it.

Back home in Millers Kill, Police Officers Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn - who have romantic mishaps/tensions of their own - are on the case as well. During the investigation, Hadley is also coping with troubles at home since her ex-husband has shown up wanting money and threatening to take their kids if he doesn't get it.

I liked the first part of the book but got somewhat bogged down in the second part. For me prolonged scenes of slogging through ice and snow and tangling with the perps seemed like writing to a formula. Readers who enjoy this type of action will probably love this book. All in all I thought the book had interesting well-drawn characters and a good plot but I found myself skimming through parts of the second half.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Review of "Missing" by Karin Alvtegen




Born into a life of privilege, Sybilla is now homeless. Sometimes she hangs out at a hotel bar and charms a visiting businessman into paying for her dinner and hotel room. One night Sybilla chooses the wrong man and he's found dead and mutilated the next morning.

Of course Sybilla is the prime suspect and her situation only gets worse when more victims are found murdered in a similar manner. Alvtegen does a skillful job developing the character of Sybilla by interspersing scenes from Sybilla's childhood with those of Sybilla's current life on the run.

It turns out Sybilla had an indifferent father and a difficult mother, and - it seems - suffered from some mental illness. Moreover, the motive for the story's murders was an interesting surprise and the resolution of the mystery made sense and was satisfying.

I'd recommend the book to mystery fans.

Review of "Orange Crush" by Tim Dorsey




Political chicanery in Florida takes a hilarious turn in this comic novel.

Florida Lt. Governor Marlon Conrad, who's handsomer than a movie star, is part of a political dynasty that knows how to get the job done - that is, get elected and get rich. Marlon's father, expecting his son to enter politics, taught the boy to take graft from the rich and powerful, disdain the poor and disenfranchised, and fry criminals in the electric chair.....which is generally popular with the public.

Marlon has little interest in his job as Lt. Governor, preferring to play computer fishing games while his aides brief him on important events - using (at most) of 3 or 4 words per topic. Marlon expects to have this cushy position for a few more years, but the sudden death of the Governor makes Marlon the Republican gubernatorial candidate overnight.

Because Marlon never registered for the Selective Service - a big no no that the press will exploit - he has to join the Army Reserves. Marlon's not concerned since his high-level connections will keep him stateside and safe. Well.....things don't work out that way and the Lt. Governor is sent to Kosovo where - against all odds - he bonds with the men in his unit before most of them are killed. Marlon comes home a changed man who actually cares about people.

Marlon is now in the midst of the gubernatorial campaign and - to the horror of his aides - decides to visit the families of his dead army buddies.....in POOR PARTS of the state. Even more ominously, Marlon has STARTED READING NEWSPAPERS and dismissed his bodyguards, limos, and drivers. Instead Marlon buys an RV with an 'Orange Crush' logo on the side and embarks on a statewide campaign tour, toting his reluctant Chief of Staff Gottfried Escrow and his enthusiastic Press Secretary Jack Pimento.

Republican bigwigs desperately try to get Marlon to stick with the party strategy: execute someone in the electric chair and pander to the wealthy - especially Helmut von Zeppelin, the state's most corrupt and powerful businessman. When Marlon baulks at von Zeppelin's demands the crook gets furious and.....(I don't want to give away spoilers).

Press Secretary Pimento, on the other hand, encourages Marlon to meander around Florida and visit touristy historical and recreational sites. Pimento seems a bit odd in general, and the reader soon learns he's the maniacal serial killer Serge Storm (from previous books) - who's suffering from amnesia.

The story is filled with amusing characters, including: Jackie - a trailer trash gal scheming to be Florida's First Lady; Gomer Tatum - a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who stuffs his face 24/7; Babs - Marlon's ventriloquist fiancé whose 'privates' talk like Howdy Doody; Joe Blow - an 'average citizen' who's driven nuts by the press; Ned Coppola - an ambitious 'filmmaker' who can only manage to sell 30-second political ads; a Brazilian revenge killer who wears a red Miami Heat jacket; Detective Murphy - who's on the trail of the killer; and more.

Some of the funniest scenes in the book are the political debates between Marlon and Gomer, which end up in a televised WWF wrestling match between the two sides (this is as good a way to choose a governor as any I guess. LOL)

The book made me laugh out loud and I enjoyed it.

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review of "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" by Carlo Rovelli

"
  

These seven brief lessons about physics are interesting, enlightening, and (more or less) accessible to non-scientists. The author, Carlo Rovelli, is a theoretical physicist with great enthusiasm for his subject matter.

The lessons (which I'm greatly simplifying) include:

Special Theory of Relativity: The faster you move, the slower time passes. This would be really obvious if you could travel at the speed of light.
General Theory of Relativity: Space is not empty, but composed of particles of some kind. The sun bends space around itself, and the planets circle around the sun because they follow the curve of space (like marbles that roll around a funnel). This explains the 'force of gravity' that prevents the planets from flying off into the galaxy.

Quantum Mechanics: The energy of a field is distributed in 'quanta', or packets of energy, like electrons in an electrical field. But quanta only exist when they're interacting with something else - so they bleep in an out of existence. Moreover, quanta move randomly so we can't know where they'll manifest themselves. (If you can't wrap your mind around this don't feel bad. Albert Einstein couldn't either. LOL)

The Architecture of the Cosmos: Our sun is one star among billions of stars in the galaxy.....and there are billions of galaxies.....and so on. There may even be more than one universe, but we don't know.

Particles: The universe is teeming with particles called electrons, quarks, gluons, photons, neutrinos, and Higgs bosons. Rovelli explains that these particles are 'like bricks in a Lego set' that make up the material things surrounding us. Moreover, 'the nature of these particles and the way they move is described by quantum mehanics'.....so they're always winking in an out of being. All the particles, fields, and forces in the universe are summed up in 'The Standard Model of Particle Physics' which no one understands. Ha ha ha.

Quantum Gravity: Unfortunately the theories of general relativity - where the universe is a continous curved space, and quantum mechanics - where the universe is composed of particles that bleep in and out of existence, contradict each other. But both theories work well. So physicists are trying to merge the ideas in a field of study called 'loop quantum gravity.'

One combined theory suggests that space is not continuous but made up of infinitesimally small 'grains of space' called loops.....connected somewhat like a chain link fence. This theory has repercussions that mess with the reality of time - so it needs a lot more of work.

Probability, Time, and The Heat of Black Holes: The notion of 'time' is elusive and has been the subject of much debate among physicists. Rovelli points out, though, that heat distinguishes the past from the future. As time goes by, heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder (for example, a teaspoon heats up in hot tea). The science of heat is called thermodynamics.

We don't know what happens to a gravitational field when it heats up, but a clue might be found in a black hole - a collapsed star with a gravitational field so strong that nothing (not even light) can escape. Black holes are hot - in essence hot 'spots' of space-time. Thus they combine quantum mechanics, general relativity, and thermodynamics. Eventually, scientists might be able to use black holes to reveal the true nature of time.

Ourselves: If humans are composed of ephemeral particles, the same stuff as the rest of the universe, where do we get our sense of ourselves......of being conscious and making decisions. Scientists studying the brain are trying to shed light on this.

I liked the book - which is short and sweet - and recommend it to readers interested in the subject.

Review of "Suspect" by Robert Crais




In this thriller Police Officer Scott James is badly injured and his partner is killed when they inadvertently stumble into a heist on a Los Angeles street. Elsewhere, Maggie, a German Shepherd "Marine dog" is shot and injured while sniffing for explosives in Afghanistan.

Months later, after they heal, Scott and Maggie come together in the K-9 (cop/dog) unit of the Los Angeles police department. Scott and Maggie train and bond under the tutelage of veteran handler Sgt. Dominick Leland. The bonding of man and dog is an important, touching, sometimes humorous part of the book as love and loyalty grows between the pair.

Meanwhile Scott continues to investigate who pulled off the heist which almost killed him since the robbery/homicide cops seem unable to solve the crime. As clues and witnesses to the heist are uncovered they tend to be discounted, lost, etc. - it appears some folks don't want the crime solved.

Two of my favorite characters are Maggie and Sgt. Leland; nice to see a man who values his dogs so fervently. The book flows to a believable and satisfying conclusion. I always enjoy Robert Crais's books and this one doesn't disappoint.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review of "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" by Leonard Mlodinow


 

Lots of people might think they can compute the odds that something will happen. For instance, If my favorite baseball team is playing an opponent with inferior stats I might be pretty sure my guys will win....and place a small wager. But random chance - which is the rule rather than the exception - could trip me up. A so-so batter on the other team might miraculously hit a grand slam home run!

In this book Leonard Mlodinow explains how randomness affects our lives. For example, a publisher rejected George Orwell's book 'Animal Farm' with the remark "it's impossible to publish animal books in the U.S." And before he became successful author Tony Hillerman was advised "to get rid of all that Indian stuff." John Grisham's books were repeatedly rejected at first. And J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rebuffed a number of times. These writers persisted and eventually happened on the right publisher....but other (perhaps equally talented) authors didn't. Random chance at work!

Of course if we really want to figure out how likely it is that something will (or won't) happen we have to rely on math. In this book Mlodinow elucidates some of the math concepts behind probability theory and statistics - a lot of which is complex and requires re-reading a couple of times (for me anyway). So I'll just give a very basic illustration.

Suppose Don picks up two coins and tosses them. He wants to know how likely it is he'll get one head. Don figures the possible outcomes are: zero heads, one head, or two heads. So, he thinks there's a 1 in 3 likelihood. Nope.

Don has to consider all the possible sequences: heads-heads; heads-tails; tails-heads; and tails-tails. Two possible outcomes yield one head - so the chances are 1 in 2 (50%).

A basic principal of probability theory is that the chances of an event happening depends on the number of ways it can occur.

Here's another example: In 1996 the Atlanta Braves beat the New York Yankees in the first two games of the World Series (where the first team that wins four games is the victor). So, what was the chance the Yankees would make a comeback and win the series - assuming the teams are equally matched? After explaining all the possible ways the Yankees could win the remaining games, Mlodinow calculates that the Yankees had a 6 in 32 chance of winning the series, or about 19%. The Braves had a 26 in 32 chance of winning the series, or about 81%. Against the odds, the Yankees won!

Mlodinow goes on to explain that - if one team was better than the other - that would weigh into the calculations and the odds would be different. This same type of reasoning can be applied to competing businesses, television shows, movies, whatever. And even if the odds favor the 'better contender', sometimes - by pure chance - the 'worse contender' will win.

Of course 'experts' try to predict all kinds of things: whether stocks will go up; if a superhero movie will be No. 1 at the box office; whether Toyotas will sell better than Buicks; if a certain horse will win the Triple Crown; and so forth. And Mlodinow explains that - no matter how 'knowledgeable' the maven - the predictions might be wrong. The reason: our brains aren't wired to do probability problems very well.

In the book, Mlodinow discusses Pascal's triangle, the Bell Curve, random number generators, the best strategy for picking the 'correct door' on 'Let's Make a Deal', the likelihood a woman carrying fraternal twins will have two girls, whether scolding a worker who does badly and praising a worker who does well makes a difference in their future performance, one man's strategy for winning at roulette....all kinds of interesting stuff.

The book is informative and contains a lot of fascinating stories about the philsophers and mathematicians who developed probability theory, how they did it, and why (usually having something to do with gambling.... ha ha ha). I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to readers interested in the subject.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Review of "The Last Kind Words" by Tom Piccirilli




Terrier Rand's family are "gentleman" thieves - no violence. So when Terry's brother Collie goes on a murder spree resulting in the death of eight people, Terry leaves town, leaving behind his girlfriend Kimmy.

Five years later, shortly before his execution, Collie asks to see Terry. Collie tells Terry that he's guilty of all but one of the murders, that of a pretty teenage girl. Collie wants Terry to find the real murderer.

Terry reluctantly looks into the claim while navigating the competing interests of various cops and crooks in his home town. Rather than being a straight murder mystery, however, the book is more an exploration of how a devastating act affects the other people in your life.

The characters - including Terry's card-shark uncles, Alzheimer afflicted grandpa, rebellious teenage sister, loving mom, and distracted dad - are well-drawn and interesting; one of my favorite characters was JFK - the family dog. The ending is a little too drawn out but this is a minor quibble. I enjoyed the book.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review of "Asta's Book" by Barbara Vine




In the early 1900s Rasmus Westerby moves his wife Asta and their two young boys from their native Denmark to London. Rasmus parks his family in the middling neighborhood of Hackney and leaves for long stretches of time, trying to become a business success.

For her part Asta doesn't like Hackney, disdains English people, has little interest in her sons, and has no love for her husband - who she thinks only married her for the dowry of 5,000 kroner. As it happens Asta is pregnant again (characters in this book have no concept of birth control), and is desperate to have a girl. So when little Swanhild (Swanny) is born in 1905, Asta is thrilled. A few years later another daughter, Marie, comes along - and the family is complete.

Asta is a conventional and conservative woman of her time but she's well-educated and loves to read - especially Charles Dickens in Danish. To assauge some of the loneliness Asta feels in the alien environs of England, she keeps a diary. In the journal, Asta talks about many things: daily activities, thoughts, feelings, people (children, husband, friends, relatives, servants, neighbors, acquaintances, etc.), food, clothes, homes, furniture, ornaments, parties, gossip, newspaper stories, and so on....anything that pops into her head. Asta's diary entries - spanning more than sixty years - are interspersed throughout the book, which goes back and forth between past and present.

After Asta's death (in her eighties) her oldest daughter Swanny finds the diaries. Swanny has the first couple of volumes translated from Danish to English and publishes them, as a sort of lark. To Swanny's surprise the diaries become wildly popular - a worldwide phenomenon! In time, additional volumes of the diary are published and Swanny, as the editor, becomes a celebrity in her own right. There are meetings with publishers, book signings, public appearances, photos in magazines, and world travel. After Swanny dies, her niece Ann (Marie's daughter) - a professional researcher - takes over as editor of the remaining diaries.

As the story unfolds a couple of 'mysteries' are revealed.

Swanny's conundrum: When Asta is widowed she moves in with Swanny, who has a rich successful husband and a lovely large house. Asta loves to socialize and - for her own 83rd birthday - arranges a lavish 'chocolate party' at Swanny's home. On the day of the party Swanny receives an anonymous letter that says ".....You are not your mother's child or your father's. They got you from somewhere when their own one died...."

Swanny, who always knew her father didn't like her, intuitively believes this. She confronts her mother, who (more or less) admits Swanny is not her natural born child, but refuses to say anything more.....ever! Swanny is devastated and haunted by this revelation, and desperately tries to discover her origins. When Swanny (and then Ann) get custody of the diaries, they study them for clues to Swanny's origin - but several vital pages are missing. For Swanny the enigma of her parentage has severe psychological consequences.

The Roper murder : In her 1905 diary Asta briefly mentions that her maid, Hansine, has become acquainted with Florence - the servant of a family called the Ropers. Hansine asks permission to invite her new friend Florence to tea, and Asta agrees.

Soon afterward Lizzie Roper is murdered and her toddler daughter Edith disappears. Lizzie's husband, Alfred Roper, is accused of murdering his wife - and the trial is avidly followed by the public.

Jump to the present and true crime stories are very popular. A producer named Cary is planning to make a movie about the old Roper case. She asks Ann (the current editor of the Asta diaries) for a peek at the yet unpublished diaries - to see if the Ropers are mentioned again. This leads to a loose collaboration between Cary and Ann as they look for information about the Roper affair.

'Asta's Book' is both a novel of psychological suspense and the story of Asta Westerby and her family. Asta's story is quite compelling. As Rasmus's fortunes rise and fall she goes from lower middle class to prosperity to struggling once again, before moving in with Swanny. I enjoyed the diary entries about Asta's fashionable clothes, Danish foods (blekage and kransekage), household trappings, love for Swanny, 'crush' on her driver, and so on. I also liked the description of the dollhouse Rasmus made for Ann, called Padanaram. This masterpiece took years to complete and was a faithful reproduction of the Westerby's posh home at the time. (I would have loved to have this dollhouse as a child. LOL)

The mystery portion of the story is also quite engaging. I wanted to know about Swanny's heritage and was intrigued by the various theories proposed by different characters. I was also eager to discover whether Alfred Roper was guilty or innocent of murdering his wife.

"Asta's Book" - published in 1993 - has the vibe of an 'old fashioned' mystery. It moves slowly and thoughtfully, contains provacative red herrings, and has no graphic violence (except for one slit throat). The book would appeal to a wide array of readers, including fans of literary novels, psychological suspense stories, and traditional mysteries. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Review of "The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon" by Alexander McCall Smith




In this 14th book in the series, Mma Ramotswe, owner of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" in Botswana, has two cases to solve. The first case, brought by a lawyer named Mma Sheba, concerns the inheritance of a local farm. The deceased farmer's heir, a nephew, has shown up to claim the property. However Mma Sheba fears 'the nephew' may be an imposter, and asks Mma Ramotswe to investigate.

The second case involves Mma Soleti, owner of "The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon." When Mma Soleti moves her salon to a desirable new location she receives a package containing the feather of a ground hornbill - a symbol of bad luck. Soon afterward a rumor campaign starts, claiming that women who get facials at Mma Soleti's salon suffer irreparable damage. Mma Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter.

Normally, Mma Ramotswe's associate, Mma Grace Makutski, assists with investigations. But Mma Makutski is pregnant and about to take maternity leave. Thus, Mma Ramotswe has to tackle most of the inquiries alone.....though Grace offers valuable advice. As always, Mma Ramotswe uses her intuition and insight (along with a bit of luck) to solve the cases.

Like all books in this series, the story is more about the characters than the cases. Mma Makutski and her husband, Phuti Radiphuti, have moved into an elegant home. Unfortunately, venomous snakes like it too! And Phuti's unpleasant elderly aunt is determined to enforce 'the old traditions' when Mma Makutski gives birth, which clashes with Grace's modern views.

Other ongoing characters make an appearance as well. Mma Ramotswe's husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, decides to be a 'more modern' husband and help with the cooking. (His heart is in the right place, but he tries to mash the potatoes before he cooks them. LOL). Apprentice mechanic Charlie, known for chasing girls, takes an unexpected shine to Mma Makutski's new baby. (Can he be thinking of settling down?) Orphanage manager Mma Potokwane offers tea, fruitcake (and serendipitously.....a valuable witness). And so on.

In the course of the story Mma Ramotswe realizes how much she appreciates Mma Makutski's friendship, intelligence, and help. So, at the end of the book, Mma Ramotswe gives her employee a nice surprise.

I'd highly recommend the book to readers who like cozies, especially fans of Mma Ramotswe. I wouldn't suggest reading this book as a standalone though. It's best to start at the beginning and 'grow' with the characters.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Review of "A Question of Honor" by Charles Todd




In the early 1900's, young teen Bess Crawford lives in India where her father, Colonel Crawford, is in charge of a British regiment. The school-age children of the regiment's soldiers are usually sent to England to be educated, where they live with foster families. When Lieutenant Standish and his wife get word that their youngest daughter died of typhoid in England, Mrs. Standish returns home escorted by the much respected Lieutenant Wade. But when Lt. Wade returns to India he's accused of murdering a family while in England and of killing his parents upon his return to India.

The regiment is shocked, unable to devine a motive for these horrendous crimes. Rather than face the charges Lt. Wade makes a run for it. The military police are unable to capture him and there are reports that Wade died while trying to escape through Afghanistan. This leaves a blot on the honor of the regiment. 

Ten years later, during WWI, Bess Crawford is an army nurse. While working at a field clinic in France Bess comes across a dying Indian soldier who tells her that he's seen Lt. Wade. Bess is soon off and running, determined to find Lt. Wade and bring him to justice, thus restoring the  honor of her father's regiment. 

During her investigations Bess discovers that some foster homes were terrible places, giving her a hint of a possible motive for the murders. The usual characters are on hand in this story, including Beth's parents and her good friend Simon. The book provides an authentic feel for the horrors of combat; the pain and plight of wounded soldiers; and the difficult conditions in field hospitals. The story's resolution seems a little out of left field but believable enough. A good book for fans of historical mysteries.