Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review of "A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy" by Sue Klebold

Sue and Tom Klebold's son - Dylan Klebold - was one of the Columbine High School shooters. On April 20, 1999 Dylan and his friend Eric Harris brought explosives and guns to school, apparently planning to cause mass carnage by blowing up the building. The bombs failed to go off but the boys did roam the school spraying bullets; they killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 24 others, and then committed suicide.

Sue Klebold starts this memoir by taking us through that day from her point of view. Alerted by a phone call that there were shootings at Columbine High School Sue was stunned and frightened - and like most parents - worried about her child. Was he shot? Was he injured? Was he dead? Then, learning that her son was actually one of the shooters, Sue's world fell apart. Disbelief! Shock! Horror! How could Dylan do such a thing! This couldn't be true! It must be a mistake!.

But it wasn't a mistake and the police descended on the Klebold home to search for bombs and guns (the police found nothing). Meanwhile, Sue, Tom, and their oldest son Byron numbly wandered around their driveway, unable to take it in. An aggressive press and a furious public made it necessary for the Klebolds to take refuge in the home of relatives with a different last name. There they succumbed to confusion, grief, guilt, depression....the gamut of emotions anyone would feel at such a time.

Though Sue and Tom had to accept that Dylan was a Columbine shooter they remained in denial, convincing themselves that Dylan had been coerced or hoodwinked into participating; or perhaps his mind had suddenly snapped. Then, four months after the massacre the police showed Sue and Tom videos made by the boys. The films clearly showed that Dylan and Eric had carefully planned the attack and that Dylan was an active and willing participant. After this devastating blow Sue could barely go on.

For legal reasons (the Klebolds were being sued by the victims' families) Sue couldn't even join a support group or confide in friends and family - out of concern that anyone she spoke to might be called to testify. Thus Sue's life became even more difficult and circumscribed. She returned to her job as a college counselor for disabled students, but could barely concentrate on her work. Sue became depressed and anxious, lost a lot of weight, developed breast cancer, and started having panic attacks. Sue also grieved deeply - both for her beloved son and his victims - and at one point wanted to die herself.

After the massacre, realizing she had not known how depressed and suicidal (and perhaps mentally ill) Dylan was, Sue made it her business to educate herself. She read widely, did research, and interviewed experts about mental illness, mass shootings, murder/suicides, school bullying, gun availability, and so try to make sense out of Dylan's actions.

Four years after the shootings the Klebolds were deposed by attorneys and the lawsuits were settled. Now free to talk about the incident Sue eventually decided to write this memoir. She wanted people to understand that Dylan had grown up a happy child in a loving home; that he had seemed like a perfectly normal teenager - close to his family but a bit difficult and uncooperative (which in hindsight were warning signs); and that she had absolutely no clue that he was capable of such violent destructive behavior. Sue also wanted to make people aware that their own children might be troubled and suffering without showing obvious external clues. Sue's overall aim: to help prevent such tragedies in the future.

I think many people who read this book will empathize with Sue Klebold. Anyone who's raised a teenager knows that adolescents can be rebellious and hard to live with, but they almost never commit horrible atrocities. I guess the lesson is to make every effort to REALLY know your children - and get them help if they need it.

I don't agree with people who deride this book as a self-serving apologia and an attempt to wriggle away from blame. With the very best of intentions parents can make mistakes - but even so, they're not necessarily responsible for what their kids do. I also applaud the fact that the book's profits are being donated for mental health research.

I think this is a good honest book, worth reading.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, July 29, 2016

Review of "The English Spy" by Daniel Silva

Israeli spy/art restorer Gabriel Allon is about to become the father of twins and the head of the Israeli spy agency when a British princess and her entourage are blown up. The perpetrator is Quinn, the expert bomb-maker Gabriel deems ultimately responsible for the death of his first wife and child. So Gabriel goes back into the field with the goal of finding and killing Quinn.

Gabriel teams up with Keller, an AWOL British soldier and skilled assassin - soon to be an agent of MI6 - and they're off on a multi-country adventure. Before long Gabriel and Keller are lured to the site of a major bombing and Gabriel is 'killed' (wink wink) which might just lower the guard of the bad guys.

The story has a variety of interesting characters including a beautiful Russian agent who bedded the British Prime Minister - and was later sprung out of Russia by Gabriel; angry revenge-seeking Russians; a cell of the Irish Republican Army (IRA); a double-dealing Iranian; a British mole; and so on. There's an interesting rivalry between the heads of MI5 and MI6, who have to work together but willingly sabotage each other when things go awry.

During the course of the story the reader gets a seemingly authentic and fascinating peek into spycraft, running agents, exposing double agents, prying information out of people (Jack Bauer style) and more. This kind of thing is always fun to experience vicariously (well maybe not the torture).

This is a well-crafted, fast-paced story that kept my attention from the first page to the last. Highly recommended to fans of espionage thrillers.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review of "The Martian" by Andy Weir

Mark Watney is part of a manned exploration team that's scheduled to study Mars for thirty days. A sudden dust storm forces the team to abandon the planet on Day 6 but - due to a freak accident - Mark is believed to be dead and left behind. The book is composed largely of a series of log entries in which Mark records his day to day activities, his goal being to survive on the planet until the next exploration team arrives in four years. Of course Mark needs food, shelter, oxygen, water, power, and so on.

Mark does have access to a habitable module, a couple of rovers, and various other equipment - and being a botanist, engineer, and extremely clever guy - is able to jury rig a lot of stuff to help himself. There's a ton of technical jargon in the book and numeorus scientific explanations of how things work (the author has clearly done his research). Eventually, after great effort and a daring journey, Mark is even able to rig up a communication system to talk to Earth. The book includes what's going on at Mission Control in Houston as well as a peek at Mark's crewmates that are returning to Earth.

If I was in Mark's situation I'd probably sit down and cry, but Mark is an optimist with a great sense of humor - and even though everything that can go wrong does go wrong - he's never down for long. Luckily Mark has some entertainment (music, TV shows, books) brought along by his former crewmates and his comments about some of this stuff (Disco, 1970s television series) adds humor to the book.

The story is suspenseful and engaging, and the characters are relatable and interesting. I liked the book and recommend it - especially to people who enjoy science and like to know how things work.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review of "By Its Cover: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery" by Donna Leon

In this 23rd book in the 'Commissario Brunetti' series, the Italian policeman investigates the destruction of valuable old manuscripts and the murder of a former priest. The mystery can be read as a standalone.


The Biblioteca Merula in Venice has experienced a terrible desecration: a number of valuable old books have been stolen and others have had pages cut out. When Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates, Dottoressa Fabbiani - the chief librarian - tells him an American scholar, Dr. Joseph Nickerson, had been reading the cut up books.

Brunetti also learns that another ardent reader, former priest Aldo Franchini, has been coming to the library for years to read 'Fathers of the Church'.

Before long Brunetti discovers that Nickerson's credentials were falsified and that Franchini has been murdered. He also learns that book theft has become rampant in the country, with valuable tomes disappearing from libraries across Italy.

While investigating the murder and thefts Brunetti learns a bit about obsessive collectors, greedy villains, and certain members of the Italian aristocracy. As always his boss's fashionable secretary, Signorina Elettra, provides valuable computer assistance as well as a touch of humor.

Much of the charm of Donna Leon's books lie in the ambiance, including snippets about Venice - the canals and cafés, and Brunetti's warm interactions with his children and wife Paola - a scholar, teacher, and excellent cook. Paola's delicious meals are one of the highlights of the series. 💕

Brunetti and his team conduct their investigation and solve the crime in an efficient manner, but without much excitement. This is a mildly entertaining quick read with familiar likable characters.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Corridors of the Night" by Anne Perry

Hester Monk honed her considerable nursing skills during the bloody Crimean War, where she worked alongside legendary Florence Nightingale. Years later Hester is married to Commander William Monk of the Thames River Police and running a women's clinic/shelter in London.

As the book opens Hester is temporarily substituting for a friend at the London Royal Naval Hospital when she comes across three young siblings (Mike, Charlie, and Maggie - ranging in age from 4 to 7) living in the hospital annex. Charlie is on the brink of death and Heather nurses him back to health. She then promises to check in on the youngsters periodically. Hester doesn't seem to question what the kids are doing there, presumably because nurses at the time garnered little respect; they were supposed to shut their mouths and do their jobs.

The basic plot of the story revolves around two hospital honchos, Magnus Rand - a physician, and his brother Hamilton Rand - a chemist. The Rands, seeking a cure for the deadly "white blood disease" (I guess leukemia), are treating patients with blood transfusions. However, this is the mid-1800s and medical science is unaware of different blood types, etc. Thus, the transfusions are more likely to kill the patients than cure them.

As the story proceeds, middle-aged wealthy arrogant Bryson Radnor, suffering from white blood disease, becomes a patient at the hospital. The Rand brothers ask Hester to nurse Radnor while they administer their blood transfusion treatment - which seems to help him.

It turns out the Rands are using the blood of the annex children which - for reasons the brothers don't understand - can be successfully transfused into anyone. (Note: It would now be known the children are universal donors with type O blood).

When Hester realizes the children are being systematically bled she raises a ruckus. Immediately afterward Heather is abducted and finds herself and the children imprisoned in a remote house where Hamilton Rand, determined to perfect the transfusion procedure, is treating Radnor. Hester, being a dedicated nurse, feels compelled to assist despite the circumstances. Hester knows, however, that Hamilton Rand - who is committing some big crimes - will eventually kill her and the children to avoid exposure.

Meanwhile, Commander Monk (Hester's husband) and his team are desperately trying to find Hester. Along the way they learn that the kids - Mike, Charlie, and Maggie - were sold to the Rands by their destitute parents, who thought they were going to a good home.

Eventually all this leads to a trial where Hamilton Rand is the defendant. Attorney Oliver Rathbone, who once proposed marriage to Hester, helps prosecute. The trial raises some interesting issues, including the need for experimentation to advance medical science. There are plenty of ethical considerations here, including buying children and using human subjects without appropriate disclosure and consent.

The book has an interesting premise but moves too slowly and gets boring in places. On the plus side it has some interesting - though despicable - characters. Hamilton Rand and Bryan Radnor are self-centered, misogynists who treat women (including Hester, whose help they desperately need) as being beneath them and not deserving of respect. This kind of thing is a trademark of Anne Perry's mysteries, where class and socio-economic distinctions are always prominent. I assume this is a realistic depiction of the times but it always irritates me.

All in all, this is an okay book that's easy to read, with some favorite characters that recur in the series. The story's not too deep or complicated - a good choice for a plane, vacation, or lazy afternoon.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review of "Sula" by Toni Morrison

The Bottom' is a community of black families in the hills above the valley city of Medallion, Ohio where white families live. The story begins in the early 1920's - just after the end of WWI - and traumatized soldiers are returning to town. The main characters in the story are Nel and Sula, who bond as young schoolgirls in 'The Bottom'.

Nel is the only child of a repressed mother determined to control every aspect of Nel's life while Sula grows up in a rather raucous extended family. This includes her grandmother Eva - an elegant woman who lost a leg in mysterious circumstances; her mother Hannah - a free-spirit who exudes sex appeal and beds almost every man she meets; a disturbed alcoholic renter; and Eva's other children - Plum and Eva Jr. Some members of the household are lost in various tragic circumstances that are difficult to comprehend and which probably affect Sula deeply.

Nel and Sula accidentally cause the death of a young boy, which they keep secret. They also engage in the usual youthful antics, enticing young men and dreaming of their futures. Then Sula leaves town and Nel marries a local boy, has children, and becomes a respected member of the community. Ten years later Sula returns and Nel is thrilled; however there is soon an irreparable break in the women's relationship which throws Nel's life off kilter. Moreover, Sula generally acts with such abandon (copying some of her own mother's behavior) that most local people label her a witch and shun her.

This is a rather slight story whose strength lies in the memorable characters - and Toni Morrison is a master of characterization. With relatively brief but pithy descriptions and scenes she gives us a feel for the motivation of the important characters. We're able to understand (a little) about their turmoil and why they behave as they do - causing heartache and chaos around themselves.

I'm not quite sure I 'enjoyed' the book per se (as I found parts quite disturbing) but it's certainly worth reading.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, July 25, 2016

Review of "Skios" by Michael Frayn

This 'mistaken identity' farce takes place on the beautiful Greek island of Skios. Dr. Norman Wilfred, a well-known British scientist (in some very small circles), is on his way to deliver an esoteric lecture to the annual meeting of the hoity-toity Fred Toppler Foundation. Wilfred's been invited by the event organizer, Nikki Hook - who believes she's found a gem of a lecturer (unlike her predecessors' poor boring choices). The plane to Skios is also carrying fellow Brit Oliver Fox, a good-looking playboy who's planned an illicit tryst in a borrowed villa with a woman he hardly knows.

When their plane reaches the Skios airport Dr. Wilfred is briefly delayed and Oliver succumbs to a naughty impulse: when Nikki approaches him to ask if he's Dr. Wilfred he says yes. Thus Oliver is wafted off to the gorgeous Fred Toppler compound and - by dint of the language barrier - Dr. Wilfred's taxi driver takes him to the villa meant for Oliver's lovers' tryst. Moreover, because they have similar luggage, Oliver takes Dr. Wilfred's bag and Dr. Wilfred is left frustrated and luggage-less.

Nikki and the guests at the Fred Toppler event are charmed by handsome Oliver, who's adept at telling lies and making himself plausible. Meanwhile poor Dr. Wilfred is mistaken for a potential rapist by Oliver's date, who shows up at the villa before she's expected. Things get even worse when Oliver's long-time (but currently estranged girlfriend) shows up and is mistaken for the cleaning lady. True to the mistaken identity genre the complications escalate through the story, providing some fun scenes. To add to the mayhem there's rivalry among Toppler foundation employees and a gang with it's own agenda.

I found the main characters engaging (if a bit obtuse) and the book entertaining. However the story requires a huge suspension of disbelief. In this internet age, would Nikki (with access to Google) mistake young, handsome, blonde Oliver for middle-aged, chubby, balding Dr. Wilfred? And could Oliver - who knows nothing about science - convince intelligent people he's an expert? In any case the story races along to a finale that's explosive but not quite satisfactory.

Overall this is a fun easy read, good for a vacation or plane ride.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "The Merry Wives of Maggody" by Joan Hess

In this 16th book in the Maggody series, Mrs. Jim Bob Buchanon - the mayor's wife - organizes a golf tournament to benefit 'golf widows.' Mrs. Jim Bob convinces a local moonshiner/pot grower to allow his property to be used for a temporary (very makeshift) golf course and bullies a ship retailer to donate a beautiful fishing boat (repossessed from a jailed drug dealer) as the prize for the first hole-in-one. The big boat is displayed in the parking lot of the local supermarket, where it's almost a tourist attraction.

The golf tournament - especially the boat - attracts a mixed bag of entrants including professional golfers, would-be pros, college students, high schoolers, and an ex-con. The players bring along spouses, parents, managers, acquaintances, and so on. In addition, many Maggody husbands and wives enter the tournament, though they've never played golf in their lives.

Tommy Ridner, a golf pro from nearby Farberville, makes a hole-in-one on the first day and can't stop bragging about everyone's annoyance. Unfortunately for Tommy he's soon found dead on the fishing boat, his head bashed in with a golf club. Soon afterwards Tommy's best friend is killed in a similar fashion.

Chief of Police Arly Hanks investigates the crimes with some help from the Farberville sheriff. It's not that easy though because Arly's pregnant, not feeling too well, and missing her boyfriend Jack, who's far away for work. In addition, the suspects - just about everyone connected with the tournament - are often drunk, high, elusive, and untruthful.

Much of the charm of the Maggody series lies in the fun characters like: Brother Verber - the local pastor who preaches fire and brimstone but secretly loves 'sacramental wine' and soft porn; Ruby Bee - Arly's nosybody mom who runs the local diner/motel and likes to 'help' with investigations; Estelle - the beehive-coifed beautician who hangs out with Ruby Bee; Raz Buchanon - whose pig Marjorie has her own favorite television shows; and the cleaning girl,'Perkin's eldest' - who vacuums a guest's room while wearing (only) loafers and a tie. In addtition, descriptions of the many inbred Buchanons that populate Maggody are very amusing.

Unfortunately, much of the fun is missing from this book. The murder investigation plods along; the secrets revealed aren't too interesting; and the characters are flat and not as entertaining as usual. I got a few laughs but - all in all - the book isn't as good as previous entries in the series.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review of "Among the Wicked" by Linda Castillo

As this eighth book in the series opens Kate Burkholder - Chief of Police in Painters Mill, Ohio - gets a visit from two law enforcement officers from New York State. Sheriff Dan Suggs and Investigator Frank Betancourt are concerned about the suspicious death of Rachel Esh, a 15-year-old Amish girl from Roaring Springs, New York. An autopsy showed that Rachel had drugs in her system and had undergone an abortion....very unusual for an Amish girl.

Moreover there are rumors of 'bad things' going on among the Roaring Springs Amish, who recently got a new Bishop named Eli Shrock. It seems that Bishop Shrock is much stricter than his predecessor and may be using harsh punishments to enforce his rules. The officers can't investigate any of this, however, because the Amish people keep to themselves and don't speak to the "English" police.

The New York cops, feeling particularly concerned about Amish children and teens in Roaring Springs, need an undercover agent to infiltrate and investigate. Kate is the perfect person for the job since she grew up in an Amish family until the age of 18 and can speak Pennsylvania Dutch. (Note: Kate's reasons for leaving the Amish community are discussed in previous books in the series.)

So Kate borrows some Amish clothing from her sister, packs up a couple of guns and a cell phone, and heads for Roaring Springs. Kate's boyfriend, Agent John Tomasetti, disapproves of Kate's potentially dangerous undercover assignment but she promises to be careful. And what can happen in an Amish town after all? As things turn out, quite a bit.

As soon as Kate arrives in Roaring Springs she dons her Amish clothes and makes it her business to visit the Amish run coffee shop and quilt store. She introduces herself as Kate Miller from Ohio, a recent widow who's looking for a more orthodox Amish community, like Bishop Shrock's. Kate rents a small trailer home whose one advantage is electricity (which the Amish don't use). Kate then buys a used scooter, hides her gun and cell phone under her clothes, and goes about her business. She frequents the coffee shop, joins a quilting circle, and attends an Amish church service. Kate takes every opportunity to talk to people and ask questions - trying to scope out the situation and find out about Rachel.

Kate quickly senses that something's wrong in Roaring Springs. The people seem unusually furtive and paranoid, and some sport odd injuries. In addition, while walking through the woods one night Kate comes across two Amish men on snowmobiles, wearing ski masks and doling out rough treatment to two female passengers. When Kate reports these occurrences to the Bishop, his behavior is DECIDEDLY OFF. Soon afterwards Kate experiences some rough treatment herself, for being a 'nosy Amish woman.'

Kate periodically calls Sheriff Suggs and tells him about all the suspicious behavior and violent occurrences. The law enforcement officials are concerned for Kate's safety but she's determined to stick it out...fearful that the local youngsters are in danger. Kate valiantly carries on and - in some exciting scenes - puts her life in danger while she tries to discover what's going on and who's involved.

I like this series, both for the mystery elements and the descriptions of Amish life and culture. That said, I was a little disappointed with this book. Most of the criminals are pretty easy to identify and the major crime is one which shows up a lot in books and TV these days.....thus not too original. Also, the perps get caught well before the end of the book, which then moseys along to the last page. My major criticism is a spoiler, so it's at the bottom of the review.

Still, this is an enjoyable book, recommended to mystery fans - especially people who like the Kate Burkholder series.

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

                                                    BEWARE. SPOILER ALERT
My biggest criticism is that the author recycles a plot device - to do with a law enforcement officer - from an earlier book in the series.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Astonish Me" by Maggie Shipstead

Readers familiar with books/movies about ballet will recognize many of the character types in this story - youngsters desperate to be professional dancers, older men (dancers and choreographers) taking advantage of their young charges, unfaithful lovers, and so on.

The girl at the center of this story is Joan, a so-so ballet dancer who managed - by dint of many years of lessons, practice, and sacrifice - to become a minor member of an American ballet corps. During a visit to Paris teenage Joan met Arslan Rusakov, a superstar of the Russian ballet. Joan became enthralled with Arslan and a few years later, when the Russians performed in Canada, helped him defect to the United States. A brief relationship blossomed between Joan and Arslan but Rusakov was serially unfaithful and eventually married another ballerina, breaking Joan's heart. Helping Joan navigate this drama is her roommate Elaine, an excellent ballerina who becomes the muse of bisexual choreograhper Mr. K.

Meanwhile Joan's best friend since childhood, a boy named Jacob, has been pining away for her forever. After the Arslan affair, and realizing she would never be a principal dancer, Joan gave in to Jacob's pleas and married him. They had a son, Harry, a sweet boy who seemed interested in everything in the world except ballet. In time, though, Harry developed a crush on his neighbor/playmate, a little girl named Chloe.

Joan eventually becomes a ballet teacher, and when little Chloe becomes interested in dancing this seems to galvanize Harry's interest as well. The Harry/Chloe story of two kids growing up together is a little reminiscent of the relationship between Joan and Jacob except that Harry and Chloe both get involved in ballet.

The book spans a time period of about thirty years, starting in the 1970s and ending in the late 1990s. Rather than being chronological, however, the story jumps back and forth in time, eventually revealing important events in Joan's life as well as what goes on with Harry and Chloe as they grow up.

The plot coasts along to a climax that's inevitable, though it plays out in a fashion that's not very believable. I'd categorize the book as part expose of the world of professional ballet and part coming of age story. To me the book was mildly engaging, filled with characters that behaved badly and weren't particularly likable. Just an okay book for me.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Review of "Arsenic and Old Books" by Miranda James

Charlie Harris, a middle-age southern gentleman, is the archivist at the Athena College library in the town of Athena, Mississippi. Charlie strolls to work every day with his pet Diesel - a Maine Coon cat. Though Diesel doesn't talk/solve mysteries/attack bad guys like cats in some mystery books he does enjoy being petted and pampered and getting treats. As the story opens the mayor of Athena, Lucinda Beckwith Long, has found some Civil War era diaries written by her husband's ancestor and donated them to the library archives.

Almost immediately, before Charlie can prepare the diaries for public viewing, he is besieged by two women who insist on getting access to the journals. One claims to be a graduate student and the other is a history professor. Two men running for state senator are also interested in the diaries: Beck Long (the mayor's son) - who grew up entitled and privileged, and Jasper Singletary - who grew up in poor economic circumstances. Long apparently thinks his ancestor's laudatory past will help him win votes while Singletary claims the diaries will show their author was a murderer. (Though who would admit to this in a diary is beyond me.)

Pretty soon the diaries are stolen, a murder occurs, and Mayor Long happens to discover an additional diary that could affect the state senator election. Charlie Harris makes some important discoveries about the diaries in between eating chicken-and-dumpling lunches, chatting with his girlfriend, talking to his son, strolling to work and back, petting his cat Diesel, coordinating with Chief of Police Kanesha Berry, and so on. As it turns out there are some explosive revelations in the diaries, but to say more would give away spoilers.

In any case, the diary entries were quite interesting. They revealed that some southerners embarked upon the Civil War rather cheerfully, thinking it would be over in a matter of months. Instead they came to suffer privation and hardship.

The book meanders along to a satisfactory conclusion. I thought some of the goings-on in the story seemed over the top and not credible. However, modern politics (as seen on TV) demonstrates that some people would do almost anything to get elected, so who knows.

I'd recommend the book to fans of cozy mysteries (and cats).

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, July 22, 2016

Review of "The Girl On The Train" by Paula Hawkins

Thirty-something Rachel is depressed, divorced, unemployed, and an alcoholic with too much time on her hands. Not wanting her roommate to know she lost her job Rachel takes the train into London each morning and home each evening. It so happens that the train passes the street where Rachel once lived with her then husband Tom. Tom now lives there with his new wife Anna - the lover who precipitated Tom and Rachel's divorce.

 Rachel takes a great interest in her former street, and as the train passes each day she checks out the people living there and makes up stories about them. She's becomes especially interested in a couple whom she dubs "Jess and Jason". Rachel thinks the couple is blissfully happy until the day she spots Jess kissing another man in the front yard. Soon afterwards Jess disappears - and the mystery story takes off from there.

The couple's real names are Megan and Scott, and Scott soon becomes a suspect in Megan's disappearance. Rachel, knowing about the 'other man', feels compelled to insert herself into the investigation. She talks to the police and Scott, but because her alcoholism causes blackouts Rachel is deemed an unreliable witness. Rachel has other troubles as well. She's never gotten over her divorce and harrasses Tom and Anna with constant phone calls and the occasional unwanted visit.

The story is told from three rotating points of view - Rachel, Megan, and Anna - so the reader gets three perspectives on the events being narrated. To say much more would be a spoiler so I'll just say there are plenty of twists and surprises leading to a climax that's satisfyingly dramatic (if a little too long and drawn out).

The story is compelling and the characters are interesting but not particularly likable; these probably aren't people you'd want to hang out with. I enjoyed the book and would probably read more from this author.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review of "The Wurst Is Yet To Come" by Mary Daheim

In this addition to the series, guesthouse owner and amateur detective Judith Flynn solves crimes at Oktoberfest. The book can be read as a standalone.


Dead bodies turn up a lot around Bed and Breakfast owner - and amateur sleuth - Judith Flynn. In this book Judith and her ornery cousin Renie Smith travel to Little Bavaria, Washington for Oktoberfest - where Judith will help man the booth for the state 'Bed and Breakfast' organization.

Soon after their arrival Judith and Renie attend a reception where Dietrich Wessler, the elderly gent who made Little Bavaria into a tourist attraction, will speak. Amidst the abundant drinking, dancing, and loud music at the reception Herr Wessler is found stabbed to death.

Before long the local Police Chief,'Fat Matt' Duomo - who enjoys eating and drinking more than is good for him - asks Judith to investigate Herr Wessler's murder as well as another recent death. So Judith, with Renie's help, gets acquainted with local citizens, studies town records, looks into possible motives, and so on - to try to identify the killer.

During their inquiry Judith and Renie learn that Herr Wessler had many relatives, including lots of out-of-wedlock children. The sleuths also discover that some residents of Little Bavaria have connections with World War II Nazis, that several local people have 'accidently' drowned, and that some folks are not who they seem to be.

On the positive side the book provides an entertaining look at Oktoberfest celebrations, with parties, drinking, shopping, concerts, singing, a dachshund race, and other fun activities. Judith and Renie take advantage of the holiday to eat in German restaurants, enjoy a good many drinks, peruse stores, chat with people, etc.

On the negative side, the mystery part of the story is confused, with so many characters that it's hard to remember who's who. Moreover, after Judith and Renie's time-consuming, tedious, and rather boring detective work - which goes on for hundreds of pages - the killer is finally identified by pure chance. This kind of 'Deus Ex Machina' solution is unsatisfying and disappointing.

Judith is a likable character - polite, smart, friendly, and always willing to offer a helping hand. Cousin Renie, on the othe hand, is a nasty, sarcastic, bad-tempered woman who dislikes almost everybody. If the author meant for Renie to be a comic character she wasn't successful.

This seems more like a book about celebrating Oktoberfest (and eating pancakes and pastries) than a mystery story. For that reason, I wouldn't recommend this book.

Rating: 2 stars

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review of "Bonefire of the Vanities" by Carolyn Haines

Marjorie Littlefield - an immensely wealthy, older woman - is haunted by the death of her daughter Mariam many years ago. Marjorie is especially troubled because she suspects her son Chasley may have drowned his sister. Thus, Marjorie plans to leave her fortune to her cat Pluto.

Desperate to ask Mariam what really happened on the day she died Marjorie has fallen under the influence of Brandy and Sherry Westin - a mother-daughter duo who hold seances. During these Sherry supposedly contacts spirits of the dead. To hold these spiritual encounters the Westins run a kind of spa/psychic retreat/business conference center where their rich clients are held almost incommunicado with the outside world.

Enter Sarah Booth and Tinkie, private detectives who are hired to check out the Westins and protect Marjorie from being fleeced. They pose as Marjorie's maids to get into the retreat, and big trouble ensues. People at the retreat die and disappear under suspicious circumstances, and almost everyone there behaves oddly. Plenty for the gals to investigate. Meanwhile, Sarah Booth and Tinkie are under pressure in their private lives because Sarah's fiance (Graf) and Tinkie's husband (Oscar) object to their dangerous line of work.

It's an interesting premise but the book is disappointing. The characters are not well-rounded and not believable, and some of the regulars in the series are hardly present at all. In addition, the story is filled with unlikely plot contrivances: wealthy guests remain at a retreat where people are being murdered left and right; a stiff elderly butler and an obnoxious young cook engage in sado-masochistic sex; Marjorie allows Chasley - who she dislikes and distrusts - to stay in her suite; Graf and Oscar disguise themselves to lend a hand in the investigation, and so on.

One big problem with the story is that the Westins are a shrewd team. They could - in two seconds - google Sarah Booth, Tinkie, Graf, and Oscar to discover they're all imposters. Also the motives for the crimes are murky and the solution is unlikely. Finally, the end of the book strains credulity to breaking point.

One mildly amusing touch is Sarah Booth's personal 'haint'(ghost) Jitty - who shows up periodically impersonating a variety of private detectives from books and movies.

I've read several books in this series that were pretty good, but this isn't one of them.

Rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review of "Cane and Abe" by James Grippando

Abe Beckham, a prosecutor in the Miami State's Attorney Office, is attached to the case of a serial killer operating in the area. The murderer - dubbed 'Cutter' by the media - uses a machete to slaughter white women involved with black men. He then smears their faces with dark ashes and leaves their bodies in sugar cane fields in the Florida Everglades. The darkened faces are considered Cutter's signature. Thus, when the body of a black woman missing it's head is found in the Everglades, authorities aren't sure if Cutter is responsible or if it's the work of a copycat. The body is soon identified as Tyla Tomkins, an attorney that represents a huge sugar cane grower.

Most of the story is narrated in the first person by Abe Beckham, who tells investigators that he knows Tyla Tomkins, and last saw her about 10 years ago. Because he's acquainted with a possible victim, Abe is removed from the Cutter case. Turns out that Abe is a little more than just 'acquainted' with Tyla and he's forced to admit he had a one-night-stand with the beautiful lawyer all those years ago. Then - when surveillance photos from a classy restaurant come to light - Abe has to fess up that he had dinner with Tyla pretty recently. At this point, I start to think of Abe as "liar liar, pants on fire." So does FBI agent Victoria Santos, who becomes convinced that Abe killed Tyla.

Things get even worse for Abe when someone sends the restaurant photos to his wife, Angelina. The troubled couple have a blowout and the next day Angelina disappears. Agent Santos now thinks Abe killed his wife as well as Tyla. Santos, in addition to pursuing Cutter, takes it on herself to try to pin a couple of crimes on Abe. This forms the jist of the story.

Through it all, Abe has to deal with JT, the bipolar brother of his first wife Samantha, who died of cancer. JT is under house arrest for acting out in public and is constantly calling Abe in desperation, needing food, reassurance, and company. JT is one of the most vividly drawn characters in the book, and though I can't say I like him, he is compelling.

By the end, who did what is revealed and there are some surprises. There are also some revelations that might not be so surprising.

All in all this is a good suspense story that I'd recommend to mystery fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, July 18, 2016

Review of "One Kick" by Chelsea Cain

Kick Lannigan was abducted as a child, then "raised" by new parents (Mel and Linda) who were part of a child pornography ring. Apparently suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, Kick became attached to the abductors, and even came to love them in some fashion.

Rescued at age ten, a very disturbed Kick becomes determined to ensure her safety. Thus, by the time she's an adult Kick is an expert in martial arts and is always well-armed - with pistols, throwing stars, knives, nunchucks, etc. You name it, she has it - and she knows how to use it. Kick's closest companions are her elderly dog Monster and her "adopted brother" James, a troubled computer addict who lives in an apartment below hers.

When a young girl and boy are abducted a few weeks apart, Kick becomes obsessed with the case. Enter John Bishop - a mysterious, well-trained operator with endless resources - whose job seems to involve rescuing kidnapped children and investigating child pornography. After tussling with Bishop, Kick joins his mission to try to find the kidnapped youngsters.The task requires Kick to retrieve her old, painful memories and even to vist a dying Mel in prison - in an attempt to get information about child pornographers.

While they're pursuing the abductors Kick and Bishop fly in private planes, stay in a lavish home, and engaqe in a speck of romance. On the down side, some terrible things happen involving violence and torture.

This is page turner with memorable characters, including some disgusting bad guys, and good guys you can root for. Kick is a tough cookie with awe-inspiring skills and Bishop - though more enigmatic - has a good heart and high-powered connections that help him do his job.

A good thriller.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review of "The Redeemer" by Jo Nesbo

As the story opens, it's 1991 and the 14-year-old daughter of a high official in the Norwegian Salvation Army is raped by someone she knows. This apparently goes unreported as there seem to be no consequences. During that same year - during the break up of Yugoslavia - a Croation youth is dubbed "Little Redeemer" for his brave deeds against Serbian militias.

Fast forward a dozen years and the "Little Redeemer" - now a hitman for hire - goes to Norway and kills Robert Karlsen, a respected young member of the Norwegian Salvation Army. The hitman soon discovers he mistakenly assassinated the wrong guy. He then goes after Robert's brother Jon Karlsen, the true target. Enter Inspector Harry Hole and his team of detectives, whose job it is to capture the murderer and prevent further deaths. A great deal of the book involves the hitman chasing Jon Karlsen and Hole's team chasing the killer.

Much happens along the way: the killer demonstrates clever skills in escaping the cops and hiding out; Hole travels to Croatia; a police officer is stabbed; a woman is murdered in a horrifying way; another girl is raped, and much more.

Of course there are plenty of side issues: Robert Karlsen has a reputation for liking young girls and seems to have gotten friendly with a 15-year-old Croation refugee. Jon Karlsen has a girlfriend but is also involved with a married woman whose husband wants to purchase Salvation Army properties. Hole develops a relationship with the pretty Salvation Army worker, Martine, who was raped at the beginning of the book. And there are lots more interesting characters who interact in a variety of ways.

Jo Nesbo loves to include lots of misdirection and unexpected twists in his books, and he outdoes himself here. The book is chock full of surprises. This is a complex,engaging story. A good mystery thriller.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Review of "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng

In 1977 Cincinnati, Ohio the mixed race Lee family - composed of ethnically Chinese dad James, American mom Marilyn, and their children Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah - is unusual for the time period. In fact, James and the children are among the very few Orientals in the area, subjected to occasional teasing and stares from the local population. As the book opens sixteen-year-old Lydia is missing, soon to be found dead at the bottom of a lake. The remainder of the book goes back and forth in time, relating how James and Marilyn grew up, met, and married - and the devastating effect of Lydia's death on the family.

We soon learn that Lydia has sky-blue eyes like her mother and is the most 'caucasian-looking' of the Lee children. She is also the golden hope of her parents, for different reasons. James, who always felt like an outsider with no friends, would like his children to fit in and be popular. Apparently, he thinks Lydia has the best chance of accomplishing this goal. Marilyn, on the other hand, feels cheated out of her ambition of becoming a doctor and desperately wants Lydia to go to medical school.

For various reasons revealed in the book Lydia is determined to please her parents, especially her mom. On the surface, therefore, Lydia is the ideal child. As far as her parents know Lydia spends most of her time attending school, doing homework, and studying. And her few spare hours are apparently spent socializing with and phoning her girlfriends. In reality, though, Lydia is struggling in school, has no girlfriends, and hangs out with Jack - the local bad boy/teen heart-throb who lives down the street.

In the course of the story we learn that Lydia's brother Nathan, a bright boy who's interested in outer space, has gotten into Harvard - the only school his dad finds acceptable. Even so, on the very day Nathan's college acceptance packet arrives he's shunted aside, as usual, because of his parents' concerns about Lydia. Little Hannah has it even worse. She's practically invisible to the family, who generally ignore her or push her away. The only time Hannah gets attention is when she swipes a trinket or book from her parents or siblings and they come looking for it.

Lydia's death shocks the Lee family, each of whom struggles to make sense of it. Nathan hates Lydia's elusive friend Jack, and practically accuses him of killing her. Marilyn spends most of her time in Lydia's room, grieving and searching for clues. Hannah knows more than she tells but not enough to solve the mystery. And James' despair drives him to act out in uncharacterstic ways. In the end - when the actions leading to Lydia's death are revealed - they make sense.

The characters in the story are generally well-drawn and realistic and I had sympathy for them despite (in some cases) some pretty bad behavior. On the other hand the actions of one character in particular were not believable (to me) and detracted from the story.

I feel like this book is a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents - with all good intentions - try to control their children's lives. Other readers, depending on their personal experiences, will probably see different lessons in the book.

My final assessment: this is an excellent book, well-written and highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review of "The Company of Cats" by Marian Babson

As the story opens, Annabel Hinchly-Smythe - whose income relies on selling gossipy tidbits to columnist Xanthippe - has money troubles. So when multi-millionaire Arthur Arbuthbot mistakes Annabel for an interior decorater she agrees to re-do his apartment. Annabel knows nothing about decorating but - with books from the library and assistance from artist Kelda - she feels she can get the job done.

When Annabel arrives to assess Arbuthnot's apartment she meets his cat Sally, a sweet tabby that he's taken a shine to. Annabel also meets an array of Arbuthbot's employees and relatives, some of whom want her gone and others who want to offer decorating advice. Before long Arbuthnot is found insensate (or worse) in his office but his greedy relatives manage to delay the announcement of his death while they get their ducks in row. It seems Arbuthnot left his fortune to Sally (the cat) and everyone is scheming to either become Sally's guardian or to bump Sally off so the estate will be redistributed.

Fearing for Sally's welfare Annabel sneaks her out and takes her home. Sally's disappearance leads to plenty of humorous shenanigans where each interested party shows up with a tabby, claiming to have 'found Sally'. Annabel is compelled to rescue some more cats and the kitties add a lot of fun to the story. Before long another suspicious death occurs in Arbuthnot's apartment and Annabel starts to fear for her life.

The book has an array of engaging characters including Arbuthnot's secretary - a nasty, would-be cat killer, his pushy aunt who married a seemingly dim younger man, his needy nephew and his girlfriend, a bad-tempered doorman who's lost his legs, a couple of relentless journalists looking for a scoop, a smart lawyer, a savvy veterinarian, and more.

There's not much investigating in this cozy mystery but it's a fun story that I'd recommend to fans of the genre.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, July 11, 2016

Review of "Alfred Hitchcock" by Peter Ackroyd

Alfred Hitchcock was born into an English working class family in 1899 and grew up in some of London's poorer districts, among small houses, assorted shops, daily laborers, and crowded streets smelling of the Thames River. Alfie (as his family called him) had a passion for roaming and claims to have journeyed all over London - via bus and train - by the age of eight. The scenes of churning London neighborhoods remained with Hitchcock for life, and he re-created them in many of his films.

Hitchcock's family was devoutly Catholic and he was educated in Catholic schools, became an altar boy, and embraced the strict tenets of the faith. As a result, Hitchcock had an anxious disposition and was uncomfortable about his body. Hitchcock often claimed that - apart from conceiving his daughter Patricia - he was celibate for life. Hitchcock was also fat and not especially handsome, which probably affected his self-image and relationships with women.

From an early age Hitchcock loved public entertainments, especially plays and films, and began reading trade papers as a teenager. He was obsessed with themes of horror, violence, crime, and criminals, and became a devotee of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. By the age of 22, Hitchcock went to work for a London-based film company and - by volunteering to do every job available - began to learn the nuts and bolts of movie-making. Hitchcock's future wife Alma also worked for the film company and, after they married, became Hitchcock's most trusted partner - both personal and professional. By the middle of his career, Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most well-known, popular, and respected directors in the world.

This biography by Peter Ackroyd touches on many aspects of the director's life and provides a detailed overview of Hitchcock's movies. Ackroyd talks about each of the surviving (and a few lost) Hitchcock films, and describes how Hitchcock's background, upbringing, education, religion, personal foibles, likes, dislikes, hirings, firings, studios, producers - and of course Alma's input - impacted them.

Even in the midst of making a movie Hitchcock was always on the hunt for his next project, and he had 'favorite people' he liked to work when possible. This included certain script writers, photographers, dress designers, composers, actors, and so on. Moreover, Hitchcock often developed crushes on his beautiful female stars, whom he would cosset, groom, and converse with constantly - bestowing so much attention that they were often uncomfortable. Hitchcock's wife Alma was well aware of this quirk, and sometimes commiserated with and apologized to the ladies.

Hitchcock's early movies were silent black and white productions, but as new technologies became available the filmmaker happily switched to talkies, and then technicolor. Hitchcock began his career in England, where he did well. But the director was always seeking increased commercial success and more money, and he eventually moved to make Hollywood movies.

Whenever possible Hitchcock liked to control all aspects of his films, including the story, the script, the locations, the lighting, the camera angles, the sound effects, the editing, the music, the length, etc. Though he sometimes filmed on location Hitchcock preferred to work in a studio, where he was more comfortable and had access to his favorite things (like steak and salad for lunch every day).

Hitchcock was meticulous about storyboarding, planning, and blocking every scene of his movies. By contrast, the auteur took a kind of minimalist approach with respect to actors. Most stars of Hitchcock films noted that the great man rarely commented on their performances - good, bad, or otherwise. Hitchcock just told them what was expected and let them get on with it, which many found disconcerting.

Hitchcock also had a lighter side, and he liked to tell ribald stories and play practical jokes. During one production Hitchcock left a different 'dead body' in an actress's trailer every day, to see which elicited the best response. More evidence of Hitchcock's humor could be seen in his opening and closing remarks for the TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", where he tended to be droll and sarcastic.

Hitchcock achieved worldwide fame and popularity, and many of his films are considered classics.Toward the end of his career Hitchcock received two prestigious awards: a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the American Film Institute, and a "KBE" (Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth.

I enjoyed the book, which was fun and informative. I liked reading about the nitty-gritty of Hitchcock's film-making and appreciated the stories about famous actors, including Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Paul Neuman, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Anna Massey, James Mason, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Joseph Cotten, Eva Marie Saint, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman....and many more.

Reading the book brought to mind some of my favorite Hitchcock movies, like The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case (which wasn't a big success...but I liked it), Strangers on a Train, Dial M For Murder, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie (which was said to be too cerebral for mass appeal), and Frenzy. I now plan to re-watch some of these films via the magic of streaming and DVDs.

Overall, this is an interesting, enlightening, and entertaining book, recommended for fans of biographies, film buffs, and especially Alfred Hitchcock devotees.

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

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Review of "Tricky Twenty-Two" by Janet Evanovich

If you're a fan of Janet Evanovich's 'Stephanie Plum' series you know what to expect and this book delivers as usual. Stephanie, a semi-competent bounty hunter, is trying to track down Ken Globovic (Gobbles), a member of the Zeta fraternity at Kiltman College. Gobbles skipped bail after being arrested for assaulting a college administrator, Dean Mintner.

At the same time Stephanie is helping Ranger - who owns Rangeman security company - keep an eye on Doug Linken and his wife Monica. Doug's business partner, Harry Getz, was recently shot dead and Doug thinks he might be next. As things turn out, he is. All this sets the scene for a couple of viewings and funerals, where comic hijinks ensue as people fight over cookies and gun-toting Grandma Mazur tries to horn in on the protection detail.

It turns out Linken and Getz were former members of Zeta fraternity, which has an 'Animal House' vibe about it - lots of drunk carousing and no studying. Plus, the frat's faculty advisor, Professor Pooka, is a weird guy who wears a magic amulet and pajama-type pants. Dean Mintner is fed up with Zeta fraternity and determined to close it down. And soon enough there's yet another death!

In between her other activities Stephanie tries to snag a few additional bail-skippers, which doesn't go smoothly. There's lots of running and chasing; Stephanie gets roughed up; Lula hurls a giant dildo at a perp; and so on. Grandma Mazur adds some extra fun to events since she's been 'catfishing' - creating fake profiles to hook up with men online. And she's been using Stephanie's photo!

The book has all the expected elements: Stephanie waffles between her on-off boyfriend Joe Morelli and super-hot Ranger; Stephanie's co-worker Lula shoots up Zeta fraternity; Stephanie wrecks a couple of cars; Rex the hamster gets some snacks; Stephanie's mom irons and has a few shots to relieve stress; lots of fried chicken and donuts are eaten; and so on.

Eventually the diabolical plot behind the killings is revealed, and it's quite a doozy!

I got some laughs from the book and enjoyed visiting with the familiar and entertaining characters. If you're a fan of the series you'll probably like this book.

Rating: 3.5 stars