Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review of "The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat" by Edward Kelsey Moore

The Supremes are three African-American girlfriends who bonded as teenagers in Plainview, Indiana in the 1960s, and remained friends for all their lives.

Odette - a short, round woman who's self-confident and assertive - had a happy childhood with two jazz-loving parents. Odette grew up to marry a sensitive man called James, and they raised three loving and successful children. Unknown to most people, Odette often converses with ghosts, particularly her mother and Eleanor Roosevelt (ha ha ha). 😃

Clarice is a talented musician whose daddy encouraged her ambition to be a concert pianist. Clarice abandoned her dream when she wed handsome football star Richmond, a womanizer who embarrasses and hurts Clarice with his constant, blatant adultery. Richmond's behavior chagrins Clarice's friends.

Barbara Jean, whose mother was a drug addict and prostitute, grew up to be the town beauty and local fashionista. Barbara Jean married a wealthy businessman and tragically lost a young son - an event that deeply affected her life.

After church on Sundays the three couples assemble for lunch at 'Earl's All-You-Can-Eat' to dine and schmooze. As the story proceeds we learn about life-altering events associated with Earl's restaurant - many witnessed by kind fatherly Earl himself. Everyone loves Earl, who's always ready to lend a helping hand.....particularly to troubled teens.

Racism, prevalent during the events of the story, profoundly affects the lives of the Plainview residents.

All the major characters are fully realized, believable, and relatable - and the male author was able to capture the voices of his female characters with great authenticity.

I thought the book was funny, profound, dramatic, and sad in turn, and well worth reading.

Rated: 4 stars

Review of "Pretty Girls" by Karin Slaughter

At one time the Carrolls, living near Atlanta, were a happy family. The dad, Sam, was a veterinarian; the mom, Helen, was a librarian; and the three pretty blonde daughters - Julia, Lydia, and Claire - were in school. Then, when she was nineteen years old, Julia vanished and the family was torn apart.

The local sheriff and his officers investigated but thought that Julia was a rebellious teen who took off on her own and would come back on her own. But she never did. Julia's father Sam continued to relentlessly pursue the case, haunting the police station and searching for his daughter until he was driven to suicide. Julia's mom Helen, needing to get on with life, divorced Sam and remarried - but she kept Julia's room intact for remembrance.

Julia's sisters, Lydia and Claire, matured in this broken household - where they suffered greatly from Julia's disappearance. Lydia became a drug addict who lied, stole, and became estranged from her family. Later on, Lydia had a daughter and developed a relationship with her neighbor Rick, which provided her some peace.

Meanwhile, Claire went to college where she met wealthy Paul Scott, a budding architect. They eventually married and lived in luxury, with a huge home, pricey clothes, club memberships, and expensive cars.

As the story opens Claire Scott - now in her late thirties - has just been released from house arrest after violently assaulting a tennis partner. The Scotts celebrate Julia's freedom by dining at a classy eatery. When the couple leaves the restaurant, however, a mugger attacks them, robs them, roughs them up, and stabs Paul to death.

A day or so later Paul’s business partner, Adam, asks Claire to send him files from Paul’s home computer for a business presentation. While looking for the files Claire comes across a cache of shocking snuff pornography, and assumes her husband was a fan. That would be bad enough, but the truth turns out to be even worse.

Almost immediately Claire’s troubles escalate when - following a foiled burglary at her home - a number of cops show up, ranging from the local sheriff to an FBI agent from the Georgia office. Claire is understandably puzzled by this over-reaction to an attempted theft, but is eventually told that Paul embezzled money from his firm.

When Claire starts to question what was going on with Paul she learns about a snuff pornography conspiracy and calls on her estranged sister Lydia to help her investigate. A lot happens afterwards, and there are some surprising twists.

The book is very graphic in it’s description of violence to women, which I found hard to read. My main criticism of the book, though, hinges on unrealistic behavior by some of the characters.

In real life a woman like Julia – who has experience with lawyers and is rich – would probably call a high-powered attorney or the Washington office of the FBI when she senses big trouble. Instead Julia calls her older sister, and together they embark on a dangerous investigation. This is necessary for the book's plot but it doesn’t ring true. I also thought the seemingly omniscient perp – who knew everything that was going on everywhere - was not credible.

A number of ancillary characters add interest to the story, including the local cops who seem indifferent and incompetent; a creepy Georgia-based FBI agent; Paul's partner Adam, who had an affair with Claire; Lydia's boyfriend Rick, who seems like a nice guy; dad Sam Carroll - whose letters to his missing daughter are interspersed throughout the book; mom Helen Carroll, who's willing to help in a pinch; and others.

Karin Slaughter's books tend to be violent and disturbing and this one is at the top of the heap in that regard. Still this is a well-written, compelling thriller that I’d recommend to mystery lovers who have a strong stomach.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review of "The Last Dead Girl" by Harry Dolan

David Malone - a house inspector in Rome, New York - is engaged to a young doctor when he makes the chance acquaintance of law student Jana Fletcher. Malone falls hard for Jana and spends the next 10 days with her - until she's brutally murdered. Malone is an early  suspect but attention soon shifts elsewhere and Malone begins his own investigation. He discovers that Jana was working with a law professor on an "innocence project", trying to prove that Gary Pruett, a convicted high school teacher, didn't kill his wife.

During Malone's investigation he finds that a police detective may have suborned perjury to help convict Pruett. Moreover, other people in Jana's orbit have been attacked or murdered, including a woman living on Jana's street and the jailhouse snitch who testified against Pruett. Pruett himself claims that a couple of former students - one dead and one missing - killed his wife.

As the story moves along we learn that several people in the area, including Jana, have been harboring shocking secrets that explain the local "crime spree." To say more would spoil the surprises that Dolan packs into the story. This book's intricate structure and startling twists puts it a step above the usual mystery novel. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review of "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren

Meaning to do good, Willie Stark rises from self-educated lawyer to political bigwig and eventually governor. Along the way he loses his moral compass and develops a taste for power, resorting to bullying, bribery, blackmail - whatever it takes - to get what he wants.

Willie does manage to help some of his constituents, taxing the wealthy to provide schools and hospitals for the poor, but he also betrays his wife, raises a selfish self-absorbed son, corrupts good people, and eventually reaps the consequences of his actions.

Willie's story is told by Jack Burden, a journalist who signs on to be Willie's right hand man. Thinking of himself as essentially a good guy Jack believes he's 'only doing his job' when he betrays some of his closest friends at Willie's behest.

I liked the book but the philosophical rantings of some characters was tedious and incomprehensible (to me). Overall, this is a superbly written book with fascinating characters and the trajectory of a Greek tragedy. Though published in the 1940s the book seems just as relevant today in it's depiction of political machinations. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review of "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke talked non-stop as a child in Bloomington, Indiana but grew up to be a quiet student at The University of California, Davis. She's been in college too long, unable to settle on a major and troubled by the long ago disappearance of her sister and brother.

We come to learn that Rosemary's father was an experimental psychologist and - around the time Rosemary was born - the Cooke family took in an infant chimp to raise as a member of the family. The chimp, Fern, was reared as a sister to Rosemary and her older brother Lowell until she 'disappeared' when Rosemary was five years old.

Karen Joy Fowler does a masterful job of slowly revealing how this incident profoundly affected the Cooke household. We come to know, understand, and empathize with each member of the family (mom, dad, Lowell, and Rosemary) as they deal with the effects of this aborted experiment. Some light relief is provided by Rosemary's interactions with college acquaintances, which also gives us insight into her behavior and personality.

This is a deeply moving, though somewhat disturbing, story with lessons to teach about how humans treat our fellow animals. Good book, highly recommended.

Rating: 5 stars

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review of "Death of a Liar: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery" by M.C. Beaton

When a woman in the Scottish village of Cronish falsely reports that she was raped Sergeant Hamish Macbeth thinks of her as the 'woman who cried wolf' and ignores her next call for help. Unfortunately her body is soon found in her house and her death seems to be connected with the disappearance of a couple who recently moved to Hamish's village of Lochdubh. Hamish investigates the cases and as usual, Detective Inspector Blair - an alcoholic and barely competent officer - tries to sideline Hamish and get the credit for himself.

Hamish also socializes a bit with his ex-girlfriends Priscilla and Elspeth as he simultaneously tries to get a date with Anka, a polish beauty who's a deft hand at baking baps (Scottish breakfast rolls). Unfortunately for Hamish, Anka is more friendly to Hamish's assistant Dick Fraser - a homebody cop who's excellent at cooking, cleaning, and keeping the police station (and police home) in tip top shape. Through it all Hamish gathers clues that help him discover the connection between the crimes and solve the cases.

A large part of the fun of the series lies in the interactions between Hamish and the other characters, especially those that recur from book to book. Hamish resents Dick Fraser for cramping his style with the ladies. dislikes Blair for messing up investigations and trying to get the Lockdubh police station closed, and longs for a lady to love. Though problems often arise and Hamish's life is sometime endagered he's never down for long. It seems the Scottish detective was born under a lucky star.

The mystery plot of the book is engaging and satisfactorally resolved. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to fans of light mysteries. A good addition to the series.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Breed" by Chase Novak

Alex and Leslie Twisden are a golden couple with money, good jobs, and a beautiful home. Their big problem - they can't conceive a child. Hearing of a doctor in Slovenia who works miracles for infertile couples they hop a plane to get the treatments. Fast forward ten years and the Twisdens have boy and girl twins but something is wrong. Their home is a wreck, they're almost broke, they avoid social interactions, and they always lock their children's bedroom doors at night.

Turns out the Slovenian doctor's methods were unorthodox and resulted in frightening side effects. The twins make a break for it, seek help, and happen to come across other families like theirs. As a result they see some disgusting and horrific things. There's plenty of blood and gore and tragedy in this page turner but I was dissatisfied with the ending which (I felt) didn't wrap up the story properly. Perhaps there will be a sequel.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Review of "The Long Way Home: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel" by Louise Penny


In this 10th book in the series, former police detective Armand Gamache helps search for a 'lost' husband. The book can be read as a standalone.


Clara and Peter Morrow are residents of the lovely village of Three Pines near Montreal along with a cadre of other interesting and eccentric characters, including former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec Homicide Bureau). Both Clara and Peter are artists, but Peter became jealous of his wife's increasing success and impossible to live with, so Clara asked him to leave for a year. After that time Peter was supposed to return so they could re-evaluate their marriage. Peter didn't come back (or communicate in any fashion) so Clara asks Gamache to help her find out what, if anything, happened to her husband.

It's a promising beginning that doesn't pan out. The story wanders much too far from a detective novel, being mostly a treatise on art and muses. Even visiting with familiar, well-liked characters was unsatisfying because they mostly just blabbed on and on about art. I like and appreciate art but I wanted to read a mystery, not an art book - and this book didn't deliver. I don't recommend it.

Rating: 2 stars

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of "Wicked Ways" by Lisa Jackson & Nancy Bush

Elizabeth Gaines - wife, mother, and real estate agent living in California - seems to have a unique problem. People who infuriate her die soon afterwards, including her overbearing boss, a nasty cop, her cheating husband, a rude driver, and so on. Elizabeth feels anxious and guilty about this, and in the case of her husband, comes under suspicion by the police.

Elizabeth, an adoptee, does seem to have some unusual abilities. As a child she predicted a bridge collapse - but this is a far cry from 'wishing' people to death. Elizabeth's little daughter Chloe also seems to have some psychic ability, but she's a stubborn, headstrong child determined to get her way - not a sweet little girl.

Elizabeth's social group consists mostly of the women in a 'mother's group', a friendship/support group for young moms. Some of the ladies are quite inappropriate though, attempting to set Elizabeth up with a new man less than a week after her husband's death. (Would anyone really do this?) Moreover, the women (and their husbands), who are recurring characters in the story, are hard to distinguish from one another.

Elizabeth's blood relatives - who are unknown to her - live in an old-fashioned, insular community in Oregon and also seem to have unusual powers. Getting the sense that Elizabeth is in danger Aunt Catherine dispatches 19-year-old cousin Ravinia to find and warn her. Ravinia takes off with a few wrinkled clothes and very little money and makes her way to California along with a supernatural wolf who seems to shadow her. In California Ravinia inveigles a private detective, Rex Kingston, to help her. Though Kingston tries to keep his distance, Ravinia keeps inserting herself into his life and his investigations, insisting she wants to be a partner in the detective business. To me this was not only pushy and annoying but unrealistic and I didn't like Ravinia.

The book follows two story lines. The first is Elizabeth and her everyday troubles: people are dying around her; the police suspect her of killing hubby; she's almost broke; unwanted men are asking her out; fellow realtors resent her recent success; her daughter is having spells, etc. The second is Ravinia's search for for Elizabeth. Neither thread is very compelling. Moreover the end of the book, which supposedly explains what's going on, is so convoluted as to be almost incomprehensible - and the reason for the danger to Elizabeth is never made completely clear.

I didn't think this was a terrible book but there seem to be some missing elements. Still, I probably won't be reading the next book in the series to find out.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Review of "Before The Fall" by Noah Hawley

Multimillionaire David Bateman - who runs a conservative TV news station (something like Fox news) - charters a private plane to fly his family from their vacation retreat in Martha's Vineyard to their home in New York City.

On board are:
Bateman, his wife Maggie, and their children Rachel (9) and JJ (4).
Gil, the family's head of security, whose firm was hired after a kidnapping.
Ben and Sarah Kipling, wealthy friends of the Batemans. Ben is a Wall Street operator who's being investigated for illegal money laundering.
Scott Burroughs, a recovering alcoholic and artist who's trying to revitalize his career.
The plane's pilot, copilot, and cabin attendant.

After a smooth take-off the plane crashes into the Atlantic Ocean 18 minutes into the flight. Scott Burroughs and JJ survive, and Burroughs - pulling JJ behind him - swims for 8 hours to come ashore on Montauk Beach. Burroughs is initially hailed as a hero. However, bombastic newscaster Bill Cunningham (a friend and employee of David Bateman) relentlessly throws out accusations and insinuations about the artist.

Cunningham suggests that Burroughs was having an affair with Maggie Bateman; that he might have caused the crash; that he's after the Bateman fortune; and so on. Burroughs also comes under intense scrutiny from a determined FBI agent who thinks the artist's paintings - which depict disasters - make him a very suspicious character. All this exemplifies the phrase "no good deed goes unpunished."

Various agencies investigate the crash, whose cause is not immediately clear. Was it a terrorist attack? Sabotage? An equipment malfunction? Human error? In rotating chapters the book shifts between the crash probe, the backstory of each character, and what's going on now. For example, JJ is taken in by his aunt and her hard-drinking, unsuccessful, would-be restaurateur husband - who can't hide his glee at the thought of 'sharing' JJ's inheritance. And Burroughs takes shelter in the luxurious Manhattan apartment of a sexy billionaire socialite, who likes the idea of secretly harboring a hero.

As the story unfolds revelations indicate that many characters have something to hide, be it illegal activities; secret insecurities; selfish and craven natures; etc. The people are well-drawn, interesting, and realistic. I hated big-mouth newsman Bill Cunningham. On the other hand I liked no-nonsense bodyguard Gil, who knew his job and did it well. Other characters are equally well-rounded.

After retrieving the wreckage, the black box, and the flight recorder, the government investigators discover the cause of the crash. The ending will probably satisfy some readers and disappoint others (like me).

This book got lots of great reviews but it was just okay for me. I was hoping the story would be more about the nuts and bolts of the crash investigation. Instead, it focuses on the characters, who - though engaging - aren't that unique in the annals of literature. Still, it's an entertaining story, good for a beach or plane read (or maybe not).

One more thought: the author has a kind of writing tic where the characters - when asked a question - "think about" the response: JJ thinks about this; Burroughs thinks about this; Rachel thinks about this; Maggie thinks about this; they think about this; and so on. I found this distracting.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review of "Fool Me Once" by Harlan Coben

Flight instructor Maya Stern Burkett is anxious, sad, and distressed. Her sister Claire was tortured and murdered four months ago; her husband Joe was recently killed by muggers, almost right in front of her eyes; and she has recurring nightmares about a mission that went badly wrong half a year ago, when she was a special ops pilot in Iraq. To make things worse, some details of the mission have been exposed on a 'tell-all' internet site...and more damaging information might be coming out soon.

Still, Maya has her two-year-old daughter Lily to raise, helped by nanny Isabella - a woman whose relatives have worked for Joe Burkett's very rich family for generations. Concerned about Lily's welfare - and encouraged by a friend - Maya installs a nanny cam in her den. Upon checking the camera a few days later Maya is shocked to see a video of her (supposedly) dead husband playing with Lily. When Maya confronts Isabella with this clip the nanny promptly attacks her with pepper spray and runs off with the camera's memory card.

Maya isn't sure what to do. She could tell Detective Roger Kierce - who's investigating Joe's death - but he acts pushy and suspicious with Maya and she doesn't like him. So Maya decides to do her own inquiry. She soon learns that the same gun was used to kill both Claire and Joe; that Claire had a secret second cell phone; that a retired private detective has been on the Burkett payroll for decades; and that something bad happened at Joe's exclusive prep school many years ago. To top it off, Maya finds another dead body...which Detective Kierce thinks is REALLY fishy.

While all this is going on Maya enrolls Lily in a good daycare; visits with Joe's family - who have always viewed her as an outsider; enlists the help of her former army platoon mate Shane; questions persons of interest; visits a strip club; pulls down the pants of her niece's soccer coach - who doesn't abide by the rules (ha ha ha); is viciously attacked; and so on. Plenty of action and intrigue.

The book is a suspenseful page turner, and the unfolding events lead to a surprise climax. A problem I have with the book is that some 'secrets' unearthed by Claire would - in the real world - have come to light a long time ago. Moreover, several characters say and do things that are not credible. I understand the need for author's license in fiction but too many 'not believable' elements in a book bother me.

Still, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to mystery fans.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review of "Fin & Lady" by Cathleen Schine

In the early 1960s, beautiful twenty-four-year-old Lady Hadley swoops in to take over the care of her half-brother Fin Hadley when he's orphaned at eleven. Lady is a free spirit - able to travel, maintain a luxurious home, and indulge in favorite political causes - due to a generous trust fund.

Lady and Fin soon move to Greenwich Village where Fin is enrolled in an 'alternative' school that favors lots of freedom and little homework. Fin is also exposed to Lady's rather eccentric lifestyle, which includes several boyfriends, whimsical activities, and plenty of drinking and partying. Fin also becomes an advocate of Lady's political views. This is the era of the Viet Nam War and of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. President Johnson is unpopular with anti-war activists and there's plenty to protest about. Thus, Fin accompanies Lady to rallies and marches, and even manages to get taken into police custody. Fin is devoted to Lady and considers all this great fun.

One thing Fin isn't please about is Lady's request that he help her find a husband since he doesn't like most of her beaus. Lady insists she needs to marry by twenty-five but is perfectly happy to give herself extensions as needed. Lacy's looking for someone to love but can't seem to find him.

The book doesn't really have a plot as such. Instead it's a character study of Lady, Fin, their black housekeeper Mabel, and their friends. Mabel is the loving motherly figure who takes care of Fin when his sister flakes out. Lady has two former roommates who enjoy suggestive chit-chat and she has three boyfriends who are very different from each other: a lawyer, a jock, and a Hungarian refugee. Fin makes friends with kids on the block and at school and roams the city with them. The closest relationship in the story, though, is between Lady and Fin - who have a tight, loving bond. Lady's whims eventually result in a lovely summer on the island of Capri in Italy, which sets up a big change in everyone's life.

I thought the book was slow and plodding in places, which lessened my enjoyment of the story. Overall it was an okay book with some interesting characters.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review of "The Good, the Bad, and the Emus" by Donna Andrews

Meg Lanslow - wife, mother of young twins, blacksmith, and amateur sleuth - gets pulled into a murder inquiry when she sets out to learn about the grandmother she never knew. Many years ago Granny Cordelia, an unwed mom, gave up Meg's dad for adoption. Now Meg's grandfather, Dr. Montgomery Blake (the unwed dad), has hired detective Stanley Denton to find Cordelia.

While assisting Stanley with the search Meg meets Cordelia's agoraphobic sister Annabel, who says Cordelia was killed in a generator explosion. The authorities say this was an accident but Annabel believes that Cordelia was murdered by an ornery neighbor who lives across the fence. Annabel convinces Meg and Stanley to investigate the crime - promising to tell Meg all about Cordelia if she finds the killer.

It also happens that Annabel and Cordelia were actively involved in trying to rescue a flock of emus released from a failed emu farm. Meg gets her grandfather, Dr. Blake - an avid wildlife enthusiast - interested in the project and he soon arrives with a small army of volunteers and helpers. The emu rescuers and Meg's family all camp out on Annabel's property. The do-gooders plan to round up the emus and deliver them to a sanctuary while Meg plans to look into Cordelia's death. All this creates a kind of humorous madhouse atmosphere.

Soon enough a mysterious flagon of scotch and box of chocolates - both laced with deadly poison - make an appearance, apparently targeting Dr. Blake and Annabel. The need to guard and protect these two elderly people adds to the mayhem.

As the story unfolds the reader is treated to vivid descriptions of the Virginia countryside, the emu hunt, delicious meals in the mess tent, and spy activity on both sides of the fence. Much of the hectic goings on in the book are extraneous to the central mystery - which is eventually solved in a believable enough fashion. A fun light mystery to spend a few hours with.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, August 12, 2016

Review of "Bellweather Rhapsody" by Kate Racculia

Every year the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York hosts a musical event called "Statewide" where talented young students get the opportunity to show off their skills. In 1997, twin high school seniors - Rabbit and Alice Hatmaker - have both qualified to attend. Rabbit plays the bassoon in the orchestra, and Alice, an aspiring singer/actress, is in the chorus. This year the head of Statewide is Viola Fabian, a cruel, unpopular woman who delights in crushing the aspirations of young talent, and uses and abuses people to further her goals. Coincidentally, Viola's daughter - flute prodigy Jill Facelli - is Alice's roommate in Room 712.

On the first evening of Statewide Alice discovers Jill's hanging body in their hotel room. When Alice rushes out to get help Jill's body disappears. This incident is eerily reminiscent of an occurrence 15 years before when a newlywed bride shot her husband and hanged herself in Room 712 of the Bellweather.

The crux of the story revolves around what happened to Jill. Viola insists that Jill, prone to acting out, faked this incident and is perfectly okay. Alice, however, fears that Jill is dead and is determined to investigate. Meanwhile Rabbit has his own issues to deal with: he develops his first heart-rending crush on a handsome acapella singer and debates telling Alice that he's gay.

There's plenty of additional drama going on in the story, which is populated by an array of intriguing characters: Natalie Wilson - the Hatmakers' chaperone - has no rapport with young people and was once Viola Fabian's student; Fisher Brodie - Rabbit's orchestra conductor - is an eccentric former pianist who purposely mangled his hand and has a romantic history with Viola Fabian; Minnie Graves - a troubled young woman - was a child when she was the first person to discover the Belllweather's hanged bride in 1982; Auggie - a cute, deaf dog - is Minnie's comfort pet; Harold Hastings - the elderly hotel concierge - is a kind-hearted, troubled man who can't stand Viola being in charge of Statewide.

Could one of these people have harmed Jill, perhaps to get back at Viola? Alice tries to find out while the characters and situations play out in various ways. There's a major snowstorm, lovely music, some romance, psychotic behavior, bad food, drunk teens, amateur detective work, and so on.

This is a face-paced, amusing, and entertaining mystery that's a little off the beaten track for this genre. I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review of "The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss" by Anderson Cooper & Gloria Vanderbilt

This book is based on email correspondence between journalist Anderson Cooper and his nonagenarian mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Though perhaps not so well known today, Gloria was once a darling of the media. During her long and eventful life Gloria was an heiress, socialite, actress, artist, designer, fashion mogul, and author. She had numerous affairs with famous men and was married four times. All this made Gloria fascinating to the public.

Though Gloria had an enviable life in many ways - with ritzy apartments, beautiful clothes, celebrity friends, a fulfilling career, and so on - she was a troubled soul. Gloria was born in 1924 and lost her father when she was just 15 months old. Gloria's mother, a young and beautiful free spirit, had no interest in raising a child. Thus, little Gloria was brought up by her caregiver (Dodo) with the help of her grandmother (Nanny)...and later on her Aunt Gertrude (Auntie Ger).

Gloria's young life was chaotic. Her mother, wanting to attend all the best parties in Europe, towed little Gloria (and her caretakers) all over France and England. Thus the child was constantly moving from one hotel or apartment to another, packing, unpacking, meeting new people, etc. - with no stability in her life. Gloria considered Dodo and Nanny her 'mother and father' and the lack of a real dad had a lasting impact. From the time Gloria was 17 years old she tended to fall in love with much older men.

One of the most significant events in Gloria's life was a highly publicized custody battle when she was 10 years old and residing in the United States. Nanny and Auntie Ger went to court to wrest Gloria away from her mom, who they deemed an unfit mother who was squandering Gloria's support money. Nanny and Auntie Ger won custody, and mom got visitation rights. This apparently caused lasting bad feelings and may even have played a role in Gloria's first marriage. At 17 Gloria wed an abusive gambler named Pat DiCicco - a superficial charmer in his mid-thirties. According to Gloria, her mother quickly planned the (ill-considered) wedding to get Gloria away from Auntie Ger.

Reading about Gloria's life, I was struck by her odd behavior with men For example, Gloria was in the midst of a torrid affair with the billionaire Howard Hughes - whom she said she was going to marry - when she suddenly got engaged to (her previous beau) DiCicco. After Gloria's first divorce - at the age of 21 - she 'fell in love at first sight' with 63-year-old conductor Leopold Stokowski...and married him. When this union ended, Gloria 'fell in love at first sight' once again, this time with director Sidney Lumet...and they wed. Finally, Gloria fell madly in love with and married Wyatt Cooper - who fathered Anderson and his brother Carter. The book also mentions affairs with Frank Sinatra and an unnamed married man. Gloria attributes these impulsive relationships to the absence of a father in her life.

Sadly, Gloria and Anderson experienced two terrible tragedies, with the death of Wyatt Cooper in 1978 and the suicide of Carter Cooper in 1988. Gloria also had the misfortune of trusting people too much. She was defrauded by her psychiatrist and attorney - who 'managed' her business affairs and didn't pay her taxes. Gloria lost a fortune, but her spirit was never broken. She sued the crooks and won but - since the doctor was disgraced and the lawyer died - Gloria never recovered her money. Still, (over time) Gloria rebuilt her fortune and paid off the IRS.

Anderson is much more reticent about himself in the book, though he does mention the discomfort he felt about telling his mother he was gay. He also talks about feeling driven to establish a career, and choosing to become a foreign correspondent in some of the world's most dangerous regions.

It's interesting to learn a little about Gloria Vanderbilt's life, but - in all honesty (and making allowances for her difficult childhood) - I don't find her to be a completely sympathetic character. Gloria talks a lot about her loves, marriages, acquaintances, painting career, acting roles, etc. in the early 1940s - during World War II - but there's almost no mention of the fighting. It seems like Gloria and her social circle just partied on, unaffected by the cataclysmic event. I was also put off by some of Gloria's relationships with men. For instance, two months after the death of her beloved husband, Wyatt Cooper, Gloria was entangled in a serious romance with her former spouse, Sidney Lumet. Gloria also (rather shamefacedly) admits that she burned an unread letter from the nurse taking care of her beloved (now elderly) Dodo....just before the woman died.

Of course it's not for me to judge Gloria, and I did enjoy the peek into the lives of some privileged and wealthy people. I was also touched by the close relationship between Gloria and Anderson, who love and admire each other; have the same the drive to succeed on their own merits; and share the sadness of their early losses.

I'd recommend the book to readers who enjoy celebrity memoirs.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Lucky Stuff" by Sharon Fiffer

Private detective Jane Wheel collects 'antiques' from dumpsters, flea markets, house sales, etc. Having recently divorced, sent her son off to prep school, and put her house on the market, Jane packs up her best collectibles and sends them off to her hometown of Kankakee, Illinois. When her house sells Jane sets off for Kankakee herself, where her parents still live. Unfortunately Jane's belongings go astray en route, and she has to contemplate the possibility of losing them forever.

It so happens that Jane arrives in Kankakee at about the same time as second-tier comedian Lucky Miller. Lucky spent his childhood in Kankakee and has returned to stage a 'roast' for himself, thinking this might revitalize his career. Lucky is also spreading around a lot of cash to restore some of his old hangouts. It seems Lucky has lost his childhood memories and hopes that re-staging old experiences will help him recover them.

Before long a suspicious death occurs and Lucky hires Jane to be his temporary assistant. This gives Jane a good vantage point to look into what's going on with the comedian, who seems to be an eccentric sort of guy. Jane also gets a little help from her investigative partner, Bruce Oh. It turns out that Lucky had a childhood friend who died tragically, after which Lucky's family moved away and his life took an odd turn. It seems Lucky needs to recall the details about all this to find peace.

Various characters add interest to the story including Jane's difficult mother and kindly father, her best friend Tim - who meets a new boyfriend, Lucky's employees, and more. I liked the scenes where Jane visited a favorite old soda shop - which reminded me of my own childhood.

I liked parts of the book but Lucky's quest to recover old memories - and the way he went about it - rang a false note for me. I didn't find this part of the story credible. The 'mystery' at the core of the story was also not believable to me, and was a letdown.

This is the first Jane Wheel book I've read and I might try another one.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Yes Please" by Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler is an American actress, comedian, and writer. She gained television fame as a cast member on 'Saturday Night Live' and is probably best know for her role as Leslie Knope on the sitcom 'Parks and Recreation.'

I listened to the audio version of this memoir, narrated by the author. The audio book also has 'cameos' from a handful of celebrities and dialog with Amy's family, friends, and colleagues. Thus there are snippets from Patrick Stewart, Carol Burnett, and Kathleen Turner as well as contributions from Seth Meyers (from Saturday Night Live), Michael Schur (showrunner of Parks and Recreation), and Amy's mom and dad. All this adds to the charm and humor of the book

Amy talks about growing up in a Boston suburb (she demonstrates her original Boston accent - which is way earthier than that of of John F. Kennedy) and how she became interested in acting and improv as a youngster. Amy's first foray into improv was in grade school when she played Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz' and did 'a bit' with the dog who played Toto. Amy's rise to fame required a lot of hard work and practice/training with improv groups while she made rent by waiting tables. During these times Amy sometimes lived in shabby apartments in scary neighborhoods but she makes it all sound rather fun. Amy also notes that she met a lot of now famous comedians/actors during this time, some of whom became good friends and colleagues.

The book is not a linear narration of Amy's life and achievements. It skips back and forth in time and is a conglomeration of many subjects including autobiographical sketches from Amy's youth; anecdotes about 'Saturday Night Live' - including the Hillary Clinton impersonations; chat about helping to create the Upright Citizen's Brigade Improv Theater; talk about 'Parks and Recreation' - with a humorous tribute to each cast member; a chapter about attending Boston College; a section about assisting in Haiti after a deadly hurricane; confessions about teen drinking; a mention of the sadness caused by her divorce from Will Arnett; snippets about pregnancy, motherhood and her sons; a chapter about her sleep problems; fun descriptions of award show skits performed with an array of comedy actresses; how she enjoyed (finally) winning an award ('getting the pudding'); a self-assessment of her appearance; and much more. Through it all Amy comes across as a personable gal with plenty of talent, drive, and ambition.

Amy's rise to fame wasn't all sweetness and light however. Along the way she had to deal with manipulative producers and diffciult people - and Amy makes it clear she's no pushover. Get on her wrong side and she'll let you have it! This is a side of Amy I didn't anticipate, but quite admire. An important lesson in the book - perhaps aimed at aspiring performers - is not to expect overnight success.

Some parts of the book are laugh out loud funny, some are moving and insightful, and some drag along. Overall, however, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to readers who enjoy celebrity memoirs.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Review of "The Probable Future" by Alice Hoffman

Each of the Sparrow women of Unity, Massachusetts has an unusual ability which manifests itself on her 13th birthday. In this book - due to a confluence of circumstances - three generations of Sparrow women find themselves living together in the family's vintage "cake house" - which has the shape of a giant wedding cake. Brought together are grandmother Elinor - who can detect liars, her daughter Jenny - who can see people's dreams, and granddaughter Stella - who can see how people will die.

At the beginning of the story Jenny, her husband Will, and her daughter Stella are living in Cambridge, Massachusetts when 13-year-old Stella 'sees' that a woman is going to be murdered. Stella insists her father tell the police and when the woman is killed Will, having 'suspicious knowledge of the crime', is arrested for the murder. Stella's parents ship her off to Unity to protect her from the real killer and Jenny soon joins her there.

There is conflict in the family because Jenny, who had been neglected by her grieving mother Elinor, ran off to marry her ne'er do well, lying, cheating boyfriend Will when she was seventeen; and Stella feels smothered and controlled by Jenny. In the course of the story we learn a lot about the history of the Sparrow women (one of whom was drowned as a witch), which is interesting. There are also a variety of additional characters who help round out the tale but don't really 'pop' off the page. As Jenny and Stella settle into Unity several couples fall in love or admit their love, which - in fairy tale fashion - is beneficial to their lives. In this book at least love cures a lot of ills.

I thought the initial premise of the book was intriguing but before long the story bogged down for me and I found that I didn't particularly like most of the characters. In fact some of the characters are so self-absorbed and oblivious and others are so self-effacing that I didn't much care what happened to them. Though skillfully written this book is more of a miss than a hit for me.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review of "The Jezebel Remedy" by Martin Clark

Married couple Joe and Lisa Stone are partners in a small law firm in Virginia. Married for twenty years, they have no children but dote on their pooch Brownie. Most of the law firm's work is routine with the big exception of Lettie VanSandt.

Lettie is an ill-tempered, eccentric woman with a small income; a bunch of tattoos; a large, gold, front tooth; various piercings; frazzled hair; an assortment of thrift-store clothes; a home full of cats and dogs; and a penchant for inventing useless things. Joe has a soft spot for Lettie however, and acts as her (largely unpaid) attorney as she sues everyone in sight, constantly changes her will, files patent applications, and sets up loopy trusts she can't fund.

As the story opens, Lisa is vaguely dissatisfied with her marriage and embarks on a liaison with Brett Brooks, a handsome, suave, fellow attorney. This includes an illicit trip to the Bahamas which proves to have troublesome consequences later on.

Meanwhile, shortly after making a will that gives the bulk of her assets to her son Neal, Lettie's body is found in an exploded meth lab. Before she died Lettie changed her will once more, and a handwritten version is found that leaves her estate to Joe Stone. The police believe Lettie was a druggie who died as the result of an accident, but Joe can't believe Lettie used meth. In any case, Joe's a nice guy and renounces his claim to Lettie's assets (which he believes are minimal), giving everything to Neal.

A few days later Dr. Stephen Downs - a brilliant but unstable scientist who was fired from Benecorp Pharmaceutical Company - shows up in Joe's office. His story: Lettie invented a skin healing cream called Wound Velvet (WV) and sent it to Benecorp for evaluation. The cream didn't heal anything but Benecorp discovered it was valuable for something else and was determined to acquire it. To get it, Benecorp apparently made a deal with Lettie's son Neal.

This sets up the rest of the story. Joe and Lisa - convinced that Benecorp tried to take advantage of Lettie and maybe even killed her - attempt to wrest WV from the firm's unsavory clutches. The pharmaceutical company, however, has a crafty, manipulative director who will do anything to retain control of WV - including lying, inventing evidence, manipulating the system, harassing Dr. Downs, and crushing the Stone's law firm.

As part of its legal proceedings, Benecorp claims that Lisa and Joe extorted money from them. Part of their 'evidence' includes photos that apparently show Lisa collecting a pay-off from a Bahamian bank when she visited the island. So, to add to her other troubles, Lisa fears that Joe will learn of her dalliance with Brett.

The legal shenanigans in the story, as Benecorp tries to ruin Joe and Lisa, are fascinating and infuriating. They're also plausible, which is no surprise since the book's author is a judge.

The tale is full of interesting characters including: M.J. - Lisa's loyal friend who collects inappropriate boyfriends and comes through in a pinch; Neal - Lettie's nervous, timid son who's craftier than he seems; Seth Garrison - Benecorp's rich but nasty president; lawyers on both sides of the aisle; Brownie - a sweet dog; and of course Lettie. I had to laugh when Lettie tried to sue her neighbors for coaxing songbirds away from her yard by buying birdseed - which she couldn't afford. I had to wonder if the author (in his job as a judge) had actually seen cases like this.

I enjoyed the book but feel like it had a very slow start. For me, the first part of the book concentrated too much on Joe's annoying habits, Lisa's affair, how Lisa came to know M.J., Lisa and Joe's farm, and so on. Once the action got started, however, the story was a compelling page turner with plenty of drama.

I'd recommend this book to fans of mystery/legal thrillers.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Review of "Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon" by Donna Andrews

Once again there's trouble brewing in Caerphilly, Virginia. Rob Lanslow feels something is amiss at his computer game company 'Mutant Wizards'. So he convinces his sister Meg Lanslow - blacksmith and amateur sleuth - to sign on as temporary receptionist, hoping she can uncover the problem. Sure enough, Ted - the office practical joker/pain in the neck - is soon murdered as he rides around on the automated mail cart.

The Chief of Police, who pays minimal attention to evidence, arrests Rob for the murder. So Meg, convinced her brother is innocent, jumps into action to investigate. 'Mutant Wizards' employs a full array of oddball characters as well as sharing their premises with a group of psychotherapists, so there are plenty of suspects. Also on hand are Meg's dad, who enjoys a spot of sleuthing himself, and Meg's fiance Michael, who phones in his admonitions from an acting gig in California.

As Meg uncovers a variety of clues several possible motives present themselves. Did someone murder Ted to get his living quarters in housing-deprived Caerphilly? was Ted a blackmailer? was Ted involved in a harmful lawsuit? Meg has to find out.

The murderer is revealed in a finale that's mildly amusing but so drawn out that it becomes a bit tiresome.

This is an entertaining light mystery with fun characters, my favorites being George the one-winged Buzzard who eats microwaved mice, and Spike the bad tempered dog who bites anyone within reach.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review of "Murder in the Afternoon" by Frances Brody

It's the early 1920's in England and youngsters Harriet and Austin Armstrong take lunch to their dad, stone mason Ethan, at the quarry where he works. Shockingly, they find him on the ground, apparently dead. The kids run off to get help but when they return the body is gone. Dissatisfied with the police response Ethan's wife, Mary Jane, asks private detective Kate Shackleton for help. As it happens Kate was adopted as a baby and Mary Jane reveals she's Kate's biological sister. Thus, in this third book in the series, Kate gets to meet some of her biological relatives.

Ethan's body is subequently found and Mary Jane becomes a prime suspect. However, Kate - feeling her blood ties - is determined to demonstrate Mary Jane's innocence. Kate learns that, on the day he died, Ethan was working on a sundial for the wife of local bigwig Colonel Ledger - a sundial that's since been vandalized and destroyed. Kate also discovers that Mary Jane once had a close association with the Ledger household and was well-acquainted with other people that had conflicts with Ethan. Adding to Kate's problem, her beau - Scotland Yard Detective Marcus Charles - seems to think Mary Jane is guilty.

Kate continues to investigate with the help of her assistant, former policeman Jim Sykes. This provides a few smiles as Sykes pretends to be a hosiery salesman to do his sleuthing. Some humor is also provided by Kate's scheme to unmask an apparent gold-digger who advertises for a wealthy husband in the newspaper.

There are plenty of potential suspects in this cozy, and an interesting peek into the lives of some of the British 'upper-crust' and 'lower-crust'. I enjoyed the story, which is well-written and contains an engaging array of characters.

Rating: 3 stars