Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of "Shadow Dancer" by Margaret Coel


 Vicky Holden, an Arapaho who grew up on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, recently returned to the region and set up her new law office. After a huge public fight with her abusive ex-husband, Ben Holden, he is shot dead - and Vicky is a suspect. Other troubles are also brewing in the area. A self-proclaimed prophet named Orlando has revived the Shadow Dance religion, meant to rid the region of white people and restore the land to the Indians. Moreover, a young computer expert named Dean Little Horse is missing.

Vicky's situation is made more difficult because Ben's family and the Indians on the reservation revered Ben and thought Vicky should have reconciled with him. This was perplexing (to me) since it was known that Ben was an unfaithful wife-beater. Neverthless, everyone is ready to believe that Vicky killed Ben, and she is taunted and harassed. Determined to clear her name Vicky investigates. She learns that, just before he was killed, Ben had a confrontation with two Lakota Indians who stole something from the ranch he managed. Vicky feels sure they were involved in Ben's death and sets out to find them - running into various kinds of trouble along the way.

Vicky is assisted by Father John O'Malley, the priest in charge of the Catholic mission on the Wind River Reservation. Father John, who is not-so-secretly in love with Vicky, sets out to help Vicky prove her innocence, find Dean Little Horse, and shut down Orlando's cult. He's also busy trying to save the mission, which may be shut down for financial reasons.

Margaret Coel skillfully includes glimpses about the Arapaho people and culture, which was an enjoyable addition to the story. The motive for the killings made sense and the mystery - and tangential issues - were resolved in a satisfactory manner. I'd recommend the book as light reading for mystery fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review of "Watchman" by Ian Rankin

This espionage novel is one of Ian Rankin's early books, written before he started the John Rebus detective series. In this story, Miles Flint is a British spy, a "watchman" who surveils individuals suspected of  illegal/terorist activity in London. While watching an Arab suspect in a hotel lobby Flint gets distracted by a beautiful woman; the suspect - an assassin - gets away and kills an Israeli man.

Flint thinks the woman was sent purposely and starts to look into the incident. Soon afterward, having trouble at home, Flint spends a few nights in a residence where fellow British agents are spying on suspected Irish terrorists. This surveillance is called off prematurely and Flint starts to think something isn't kosher in his spy agency.

Next thing you know Flint is sent to northern Ireland on assignment and things go badly wrong. His suspicions confirmed, Flint sets out to uncover the dirty secrets people are trying to hide. There are a lot of similar characters in this story and you have to pay close attention to remember who's who. Not as good as the Rebus books but it's an okay espionage novel.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, September 26, 2016

Review of "Black Skies" by Arnaldur Indridason

Though nominally an Inspector Erlendur novel the detective in this book is his team member, Sigurdur Óli. In Reykjavík, Iceland, Detective Sigurdur Óli is approached for a favor by his friend Patrekur. It seems that Patrekur's sister-in-law and her husband have engaged in a spot of wife swapping and are being blackmailed by another swinger couple, Lina and Ebbi. Patrekur asks Sigurdar Óli to pressure the blackmailers to back off and to get their incriminating photos. 

Sigurdur Óli goes to the couple's house at the exact moment Lina is being viciously attacked with a baseball bat and fatally injured. The attacker runs past Sigurdur Óli and escapes. Despite his personal involvement in the case Sigurdur Óli joins the investigative team. He soon discovers that Lina and Ebbi owe a large amount of money and frequently engage in extramarital trysts. Thus the detective team looks for suspects among Reykjavík's debt collectors as well as men who have received sexual favors from Lina. 

Meanwhile Sigurdur Óli is repeatedly contacted by an elderly alcoholic tramp, Andrés, who has has taken an old man hostage and tied him up in a basement. Andrés is incoherent, however, and can't make Sigurdur Óli understand his situation. 

Sigurdur Óli has to dig through layers of intrigue to discover who attacked Lina and why. He also looks into Andrés difficulties and uncovers some shocking secrets. 

The book has an array of interesting characters, including Sigurdar Óli's girlfriend and mother, fellow detectives, local thugs, and shady bankers. The story has an engaging plot that leads to a satisfying resolution. Very good mystery.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review of "As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner

This book is narrated by numerous characters - each from their own point of view - in a stream of consciousness style. Thus it takes time, effort, and concentration for the reader to catch on to the subtleties of the story, including: the characters' states of mind, secrets, and in one case - psychosis.

Basically the story is about the Bundren family of Mississippi taking the corpse of their wife/mother, Addie Bundren, to be buried in her distant hometown - as she has requested. Because of self-imposed delays in securing the appropriate carriage; storms wiping out bridges; the tragic death of their mules; a family member's broken leg; and so on (the events of a black comedy essentially), the trip to the cemetery takes well over a the corpse decomposes and stinks to high heaven.

The patriarch of the Bundren family is Anse, a lazy, n'er do well, disrespected in the community. The Bundren children are: Cash - talented carpenter; Darl - insightful and well-spoken young man; Jewel - impulsive youth; Dewey Dell - adolescent daughter; and Vardamon - school-age child. Other characters include local people in the community - minister, doctor, neighbors, etc.

In the course of the story various characters exhibit a variety of behaviors including gallantry, foolishness, infidelity, fear, selfishness, kindness, meanness, and more - which for me, etched them in my mind. Though some people in the story are not particularly likable, most of the characters are (at least) engaging and memorable.

This is a good book, quite interesting, but it's best for readers who don't mind putting a lot of effort into their pleasure reading.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, September 23, 2016

Review of "Saints of the Shadow Bible" by Ian Rankin

John Rebus, previously retired, is back working for the CID in Scotland. Having accepted a demotion Rebus is now supervised by his previous mentee Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke. They're investigating a car accident in which Jessica Traynor, the daughter of influential businessman Owen Traynor, was injured. Jessica claims she was the sole occupant of the crashed car but Rebus and Siobhan suspect someone else may have been driving - perhaps her boyfriend Forbes McCuskey, son of the Justice Minister.

Meanwhile, Rebus and his former colleagues are being investigated by Inspector Malcolm Fox, who probes charges of police misconduct. Fox is looking into a 30-year-old murder case that occurred during Rebus's first posting at Summerhall. The murderer, Billy Saunders, escaped prosecution because the shady police badly mishandled the case. Rebus was a junior officer at the time and had little involvement with the Saunders fiasco. Now, however, his former colleagues are pressuring him to deflect the investigation. But Rebus - inherently honest - feels compelled to find out what really happened 30 years ago.

Before long the Justice Minister is badly injured during a robbery, Billy Saunders disappears, illegal drugs get involved, a mummified dead body appears, and the game is on. As usual Rebus resists following orders and goes his own way, pissing off the brass and getting into trouble. This is a good mystery book with familiar well-liked characters.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review of "A Passage to India" by E.M. Forster

This book is a classic, but its motifs of culture clash and racialism strike an unfortunate chord in current times.


The plot revolves around an Englishwoman who wrongly accuses a Muslim Indian doctor of attempting to assault her while they're visiting mystical Indian caves. Set in a time when the British controlled India, the book has several sub-themes.

One is the condescending attitude and behavior of the Brits toward the Indian people and the consequent mistrust and dislike the Indians felt toward the Brits. Another is the vast cultural divide that made friendship almost impossible between the Indians and Brits at that time.

My problem with the book is that many of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that E.M. Forster attributed to the Indian people don't ring true to me. It feels like the author's personal attitudes about India were foisted onto the native characters.....and not in a favorable way.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting story, lyrically told, and gives little glimpses into the Hindu and Muslim customs of old India.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, September 19, 2016

Review of "Holy Orders" by Benjamin Black

Young journalist Jimmy Minor is found beaten to death in Dublin and the pathologist, Dr. Quirke, realizes the dead man is a friend of his daughter Phoebe. As usual Dr. Quirke teams up with police Inspector Hackett to investigate the crime.

Though ostensibly a murder mystery this book is more of a character study than a detective story. Quirke and Hackett discover that Jimmy was pursuing a story involving a Catholic priest and a community of Irish tinkers (gypsies). This leads the hard-drinking Quirke to brood about his childhood as an unhappy resident of Catholic orphan homes, where he was severely mistreated. At the same time Quirke starts to experience hallucinations that he can't separate from reality.

Meanwhile Quirke's daughter Phoebe is also disturbed: she's upset about Jimmy's murder and is unsure about her romance with Quirke's assistant David. In addition, Phoebe still  has mixed feelings toward Quirke, who she recently learned was her father and not the uncle she always thought he was. As the story proceeds Phoebe befriends Jimmy's sister Sally, a London journalist, and the ladies - as well as David - develop an awkward friendship that preys on Phoebe's mind.

In the midst of all this introspection Quirke and Hackett solve Jimmy's murder - a solution that contains few surprises. I prefer my murder mysteries to have more detective work than was displayed here but the book does provide interesting insight into the personalities of Quirke and Phoebe. Recommended to fans of the series.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review of "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr

New York City in 1896 isn't the nicest place to live. Outside of the ritzy neighborhoods the apartment buildings are shabby, overcrowded, and smelly; the streets are dirty and dangerous; and whore houses of every kind are prolific and unregulated. Moreover criminals operate freely and government agencies and police are largely corrupt. To add to the city's problems a serial killer is murdering and mutilating children, mostly young boy prostitutes who dress up as girls. The murderer gouges out their eyes, cuts off their genitals and buttocks, leaves them in gruesome positions, and so on.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt, the new Police Commissioner of New York, who wants to route out police corruption. Roosevelt has dismissed some of the worst offenders and, in the face of strong opposition, is willing to use unorthodox methods to catch the child killer. Thus a rather unconventional secret investigative team is assembled, led by Dr. Laszlo Kreizler - a psychiatrist (or alienist as they were known at the time).

Laszlo's other team members are John Schuyler Moore, a newspaper reporter; Sara Howard, a would-be detective who's currently Roosevelt's secretary; and Detective Sergeants Marcus Isaacson and Lucius Isaacson, two talented and incorruptible cops. A couple of Kreizler's former patients also help out: Cyrus, a big black man who functions as a bodyguard and assistant; and young Stevie, a messenger and carriage driver.

Laszlo and his group are more or less distant precursors to the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. They study psychology books and lectures to suss out how and why the perpetrator evolved into a vicious psychopath. The team also assembles clues by examining crime scenes, collecting fingerprints, interviewing witnesses, consulting old records, visiting places the killer may have lived, etc. Step by step, the team assembles a physical and psychological picture of the killer.

During their inquiries, the investigators are constantly followed, threatened, harassed, hampered, and even attacked. It seems that powerful forces in the city - including slumlords, businessmen, gang bosses, ex-cops, and religious leaders - don't want the child killings investigated. They fear widespread public awareness of the horrific crimes will rile up the populace and interfere with their money-making schemes. This of course is reprehensible, especially for churches.

The investigation is long and complex, and - though it isn't exactly boring - feels like a lot for the reader to slog through at times. We also gets a peek at how some wealthier New York residents live, with fine dining at Delmonico's; classy homes; luxe furnishings; servants; attendance at the opera; and so on.

Needless to say the team's hard work eventually pays off and leads to a dramatic climax.

The characters in the story are engaging and sufficiently fleshed out for a thriller. I especially liked tough, fearless, gun-toting Sara. She holds her own as the only female on the investigative team and, in fact, the only woman working in the police department - where most people think she doesn't belong. And I got a kick out of little Stevie, who's anxious to help and always cadging cigarettes despite numerous anti-smoking lectures from Lazslo. A jarring note in the story (for me) is a nebulous, unlikely romance that doesn't ring true.

Over all, a very good psychological thriller, recommended for fans of the genre.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review of "The Second Chair" by John Lescroart

High school student Laura Wright and her drama teacher Mr. Mooney are rehearsing for the school play in his apartment when both are shot dead. The prime suspect is Laura's on/off boyfriend, 17-year-old Andy Bartlett, reputed to be jealous of Laura's crush on the teacher.

Defense attorney Amy Wu, an associate in Dismas Hardy's law firm, gets the case. However Amy's dad died recently and she's been drinking and partying too much and using good judgment too little. Thus - without Andy's agreement - Amy makes a deal for the boy to "admit" to the crimes. This is supposed to guarantee that Andy will be incarcerated in the juvenile system for 8 years rather than being tried as an adult and risking life in prison without parole. When Andy refuses to "admit" this "misunderstanding" leads to the wrath of the prosecutor and judge, who think Amy tried to pull a fast one.

To help Amy out of the hole she dug herself Hardy says he'll act as second chair (i.e. assistant) during Andy's subsequent court hearings. Once involved in the case Hardy launches his own investigation, questioning witnesses and examining evidence in the author's usual satisfying style. Meanwhile, Hardy's cop friend Abe Glitsky - now San Francisco's Deputy Chief of Investigations - is dealing with a bizarre string of serial murders around town.

I thought the early part of the book - dealing with Andy's admitting or not admitting - was too slow and drawn out. Past that part, though, the action picked up, the story got more intricate, and the intermingling of Hardy's and Glitsky's cases was deftly handled. Overall a good mystery book.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review of "Broken Promise" by Linwood Barclay

When his newspaper shuts down widowed journalist David Harwood and his son Ethan move in with David's parents in Promise Falls, New York. One morning, as a favor to his mother, David brings some prepared food to his cousin Marla - a troubled young woman whose baby died at birth nearly a year ago. Since then Marla has been consumed by grief and once even tried to snatch a baby from the hospital. Luckily for Marla this was hushed up by her mother, the hospital's top administrator.

When David gets to Marla's house he's shocked to find that she's feeding a baby, who she claims was dropped off by 'an angel.' Marla says the baby, named Matthew, now belongs to her, and insists that David take her shopping for a crib and baby accoutrements. As it happens 'the angel' left a stroller with the baby and David finds an address in the folds of the pram. Ostensibly taking Marla shopping, David drives to the address and - lo and behold - finds a bloody dead woman in the house.

Of course the police suspect that Marla committed the murder, and David, concerned for his cousin, agrees to try to help her. During his inquiries David speaks to the dead woman's husband and doctor, and tries to find the baby's nanny - who seems to be missing.

Meanwhile Promise Falls is having a rash of other crimes. Twenty-plus dead squirrels were hung from a fence, three mannequins were found riding the ferris wheel of a defunct amusement park, and several girls were assaulted on the campus of a local college.

Detective Barry Duckworth, a 20-year veteran of the Promise Falls Police Department, is lead investigator on all these cases. Duckworth is a capable intuitive cop, good at connecting the dots - but clues seem to be scarce. Duckworth assigns his temporary assistant, uniformed cop Angus Carlson, to look into the squirrels, ferris wheel, and assaults - but Carlson is less than enthusiastic about this.

This is the first book of a series and various characters seem likely to show up in future stories. These include David's mom Arlene - who's starting to show signs of dementia; David's dad Don - who has a dark secret; disgraced former mayor Randall Finley - a weasel who's going to make another run for the job; Samantha (Sam) Worthington - the pretty mother of a school bully; and Angus Carlson, who hopes to make detective.

Linwood is a deft hand at characterization and every character has unique issues. Overweight Detective Duckworth is doing his best to avoid those tempting chocolate-frosted donuts. Sleazy ex-mayor (and would-be blackmailer) Finlay is trying to find dirt on people. Sam Worthington - in the midst of a dirty custody fight - routinely answers the door holding a gun. Arlene is trying to get her son David remarried; Carlson wants to impress his wife and has mother issues; and so on.

I enjoyed this well-written book, which has some shocking moments and unexpected twists. My major objection to the story are the loose ends at the book's end. I think a mystery novel - of all genres - should wrap up cleanly. Still, I'll probably read the next book in the series to (hopefully) find out what's what.

I'd recommend this book to mystery fans.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "The Devil's Breath" by Tessa Harris

A burning fog drifts over England in summer 1783 sickening and killing those exposed. Dr. Thomas Silkstone, a colonist transplanted to London, is in the country visiting his fiance Lady Lydia Farrell when the deadly fog hits. A scientist at heart, Silkstone studies the phenomenon and tries to devise treatments.

At the same time, Lady Lydia learns the son she thought died in infancy - now six years old - is still alive. Anxious to find her son, Lydia and Thomas set out to look for him. Unfortunately, nefarious parties bent on controlling Lydia and choosing the heir to her estate are also on the trail of the boy.

Meanwhile, in the chaos of the deaths from 'fog disease' several murders occur. Victims include a married temptress, a corrupt estate steward, and a brother and sister accused of being possessed by the devil. Reverend George Lightfoot, whose wife succumbs to the illness, is sure God's wrath is responsible and preaches fire and brimstone (there's a little too much of this for me).

Though the historical atmosphere and characters are interesting, and the saga of Lydia and her son is compelling, I became bored with the book. For me it doesn't measure up as a mystery story. I've grown accustomed to modern detective stories with scads of forensic evidence, and in this book the culprits are discovered as much by luck as anything else. To me this seems more like a historical novel than a historical mystery.

Rating; 3 stars

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review of "The Snowman" by Jo Nesbo

In this sixth book in the series Police Inspector Harry Hole investigates a number of disappearances/murders in Norway - which he suspects is the work of a serial killer. Over about twenty years a number of women have disappeared, and one is known dead. In each case the woman is married and a mother. In a bizarre twist, a snowman has been left at the site of each disappearance, in one case wearing the pink scarf and containing the cell phone of the victim. This and an anonymous note sent to Harry lead to the killer being dubbed "The Snowman." 

Harry and his new partner Katrine Bratt, along with a small task force, are assigned to the case. When Harry and his team uncover a connection among the women a number of possible suspects come to light - one after another - each seeming to have a possible motive. Meanwhile, Harry struggles with his alcoholism while the love of his life, Rakel, prepares to move in with another man. On the lighter side Harry takes time to maintain his bond with Rakel's son Oleg and deals with a mold exterminator who dismantles his apartment. 

The characters in the story are well-developed, interesting, and often quirky and there are plenty of twists and turns. The book races along to a dramatic climax - where the murderer plans to stage a grande finale. A compelling, well-written thriller, highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review of "The Stranger" by Harlan Coben

Adam Price, husband and father of two sons - Ryan and Thomas - attends the youth lacrosse team draft in his New Jersey town to make sure Thomas makes it onto the premier team. Just before the draft begins a young man - who identifies himself as 'the stranger' - tells Adam that his wife Corinne faked her recent pregnancy and miscarriage. Shocked, Adam finds proof and - when Corinne returns from a teacher conference in Atlantic City - confronts her. Corinne basically admits the deception and asks for a day to explain herself. She then disappears, sending Adam a message that they need time apart and asking him to take care of the kids.

Adam then proceeds to search for Corinne, discovering information about 'the stranger' along the way. Turns out the stranger is part of a group that makes it their business to discover and expose people's secrets, sometimes engaging in blackmail along the way. This is a dangerous endeavor that leads to a couple of murders, about which Adam is questioned. To add to the hubbub, a large amount of money is missing from the lacrosse team funds, and Corinne - who's on the lacrosse team board - is a suspect.

There are a number of characters and threads in the story: the lacrosse board members have personal problems; 'the stranger' confronts several people with secrets they don't want exposed; an ex-detective has a son with cancer; Ryan and Thomas are upset about their mom's disappearance; a woman police chief from Ohio inserts herself into the murder investigations; Adam Price has a secret of his own; and so on.

I have a couple of problems with the book: First, the motives and actions of 'the stranger' and his friends doesn't ring true. A group that feels compelled to reveal people's secrets for the good of society? Really? Second, in real life Corinne would probably have told Adam some things she kept secret. Because of this the plot seems more contrived than realistic.

Still, the book's a suspenseful page turner and an enjoyable mystery. Overall, I'd recommend it to mystery fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review of "A String of Beads: A Jane Whitefield Novel" by Thomas Perry

Before she married, Seneca Indian Jane Whitefield spent a lot of time assisting people in trouble, helping them get away, hide, and - if necessary - obtain new identities. Now, in this eighth book in the series, Jane's skills are needed once again. All eight Seneca clan mothers arrive at Jane's home in Amherst, New York to ask that she help her childhood friend, Jimmy Sanders.

Jimmy was in a bar fight with a drunk white man named Nick Bauermeister who was later shot to death. Jimmy has been accused of the murder and is being pursued by the police. The reader soon learns that Nick was actually killed by his boss, Dan Sloan, who wants Nick's girlfriend Chelsea Schnell. Dan framed Jimmy for the murder and - with the help of mafia associates - is arranging for jailhouse inmates to kill Jimmy once he's arrested. To the frustration of the cops and bad guys, however, Jimmy can't be found.

Jane has to track down Jimmy and hide him until she can look into, and hopefully rectify, the situation. Jane gets to use her smarts and extensive collection of skills to find and assist Jimmy, and the reader gets a primer on how to go about hiding from the authorities and anyone else who might be in pursuit. Meanwhile Dan creepily pursues Chelsea Schnell and the mafia thugs try to find and dispatch Jimmy.

Some characters are well-described and believable, and the reader will root for Jimmy and Jane, hate Dan, and feel sympathy for Chelsea. The mafia bad guys, however, tend to blend together and it's hard to distinguish them from each other.

Though it's interesting to read about Jane's methods, and fun to see her beat up some bad guys, the plot is thin and the story plods along. Every scene and action is described in enormous detail. This slows down the story and gets boring. In addition, some characters ignore Jane's instructions and do dumb things. This may be necessary for the plot but it's annoying.

All in all this book was just okay for me.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, September 9, 2016

Review of "The Dinner" by Herman Koch

As the story opens, Dutch couple Paul and Claire Lohman are preparing to have dinner at a fancy, high-end Amsterdam restaurant with Paul's brother Serge and his wife Babette. Paul, the book's narrator, isn't looking forward to the evening. He doesn't feel like dining at a snobby overpriced eatery and he disdains Serge - a popular politician who's slated to become the next Prime Minister of Holland.

According to Paul, Serge is too full of himself, flaunts his money and influence, is overly braggy about his vacations in France, has unpleasant eating habits, and so on. Moreover, Paul criticizes Serge and Babette for adopting an African boy from Burkina Faso when they already had a son and daughter. In Paul's opinion this was done solely for political reasons. 

It's hard to take Paul's opinions at face value, though, because they sound a lot like resentment, jealousy, and sour grapes. Paul was once a history teacher but has been 'on leave' for ten years because of inappropriate and offensive teaching practices and because he has health issues.

As the dinner proceeds from appetizer to main dish to dessert, each teeny weeny portion of nouvelle cuisine is described in great detail by the dandyish restaurant manager. These descriptions are infuriating to Paul (but rather entertaining for the reader). Meanwhile, conversation at the dinner table and flashbacks recounted by Paul inform the reader about what's going on. 

Serge has arranged this dinner so the two couples can discuss an incident involving their teenage sons. Paul and Claire's son (Michel) and Serge and Babette's son (Rick) committed a serious crime that was captured by a surveillance camera. The video of the offense is on the news and on youtube but it's grainy and the boys are not identifiable - except to their parents. 

Though all four parents want to do what's best for their children, they don't agree on what this is. As we come to know the characters better - and learn their secrets - Michel's problems come into focus and Paul's 'acting out' becomes increasingly disturbing. So does the behavior of various other characters. 

The book's power relies on its step by step revelations so to say more would be a potential spoiler. Some parts of the story, though, were not believable (see below).

The tale is a skillfully constructed and well-written psychological study, but I didn't like it. Most of the characters are deplorable, especially those who apparently have no conscience. I was also dissatisfied with the ending. One critic mentioned that Americans need likable characters in their books and I guess that's true for me.

This just isn't the book for me.

                                          SPOILER ALERT!

Paul freely admits to committing serious criminal assault on at least two occasions (with witnesses present) yet he seems to suffer no consequences. This doesn't ring true to me.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review of "Bury Your Dead" by Louise Penny

I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

As this sixth book in the series opens Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté de Québec and his associate, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are recovering from severe injuries incurred during a recent police action. Gamache is visiting his mentor in Québec City, where he spends his days in the Literary and Historical Society (Lit and His) researching a historical battle. When the body of a local man, Augustin Renaud, is found in the Lit and His basement Gamache is asked to assist with the murder investigation.

It turns out that Renaud was an eccentric historian obsessed with locating the missing body of Samuel de Champlain, the explorer and soldier who founded Québec City in 1608. Renaud had been digging up sites all over the city and had presumably sneaked into the Lit and His to have a look there.

All this is complicated by the fact that the Lit and His is an English establishment in the midst of the majority French population of Québec City - many of whom are separatists (i.e. want Quebec to separate from Canada). Thus finding the French hero's body on 'English soil' would increase the antagonism between English and French residents.

Meanwhile Inspector Beauvoir has been dispatched to the village of Three Pines, to secretly re-investigate the murder of a hermit. Bistro owner Olivier was convicted of the crime but there are now doubts about his guilt. So Beauvoir pretends to be on vacation while he looks into the matter.

The book rotates among three story lines: Gamache looking for Renaud's murderer; Beauvoir re-investigating the hermit case; and both detectives recalling the event that led to their injuries - a disaster involving a kidnapped police inspector, a bomb, and many deaths.

As the story unfolds the author provides a glimpse into the history of Quebec: how the region was stolen from the Cree Indians; the battles between the Engllish and French vying for the land; how bodies of soldiers and early settlers are buried all over the place; and so on. The book also offers a feel for the current appearance and atmosphere of Québec City, with it's high surrounding wall and vintage buildings - and since the story occurs in winter.....the snow, sleet, wind, icy streets, and arctic temperatures. I almost felt like donning a parka and mitts while reading the book.

While doing his historical research and investigating the Renaud murder Gamache meets an array of interesting characters, most of them on the Board of Directors of the Lit and His. He also eats numerous warm baguettes with delicious French meals and walks his beloved German Shepherd Henri - who is endearingly cowardly and loves to catch snowballs. Poor Henri can't fathom why the 'balls' disappear the second he snags them. Ha ha ha.

For his part, Beauvoir gets to hobnob with the usual array of Three Pines residents, including artist Clara, bookstore owner Myrna, café owner Gabri, crotchety poet Ruth, and others. I missed Ruth's duck, who had taken off south for the winter.

I enjoyed the three plotlines but found the book a little slow-moving in places, especially the parts detailing the physical and psychological injuries of the detectives. Still, a good addition to the ''Three Pines" series, recommended to mystery fans.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "The Crossing" by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch has lost his job as a homicide detective for the LAPD (again) and is at loose ends. At the same time Harry's half-brother, attorney Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer), is defending former gang member Da'Quan Foster, who's accused of raping and murdering assistant city manager Lexi Park.

Mickey is convinced his client was set up and asks Harry to look into the case. Harry refuses because the idea of 'crossing' from catching criminals to helping them get off is abhorrent to him. Nevertheless, Harry takes a look at the LAPD's murder book and gets an inkling that Da'Quan might actually be innocent. The clue that intrigues Harry most is Lexi's expensive watch, which is missing. 

Meanwhile, two LAPD detectives have an inordinate interest in the Lexi Park case. They spy on Mickey and Harry, stop Mickey for a bogus DUI so they can search his car, and track the half-brothers with GPS devices. Then, when Harry starts to investigate the missing watch, more people are murdered. It's clear that something is rotten in the LAPD.

The book moves along at a steady clip as Harry uncovers one clue after another, and builds to a satisfying climax. Full disclosure: I did get a tad impatient with a couple of sections about LAPD parking lots and gangs surveilling them, but this is a minor quibble.

The secondary characters add interest to the book, including Harry's daughter Maddie - who's preparing for college, Harry's former partner Lucia - who secretly lends him a hand, and an Internal Affairs investigator that Harry has sparks with. 

The last part of the book has some juicy courtroom scenes (courtesy of Mickey Haller), which is icing on the cake of a good detective novel. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to mystery lovers - especially fans of Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "Keep Quiet" by Lisa Scottoline

Wanting to get closer to his son Ryan, Jake Buckman unwisely lets the underage teen take the wheel of his Audi. Taking his eyes of the road for an instant Ryan hits and kills a female jogger. Wanting to protect Ryan - a good student and star basketball player with a promising future - Jake decides to leave the scene of the crime. 

This unfortunate decision has dire consequences. For one thing Ryan can't live with the lies and starts to fall apart. For another, someone might have witnessed the accident and may want to cash in. 

As events proceed Ryan's mother Pam, a local judge, is nominated to ascend to the federal bench. This requires a thorough investigation by the FBI and Jake fears that Ryan won't withstand the questioning. Jake desperately tries to 'fix' the situation but it spirals out of control and threatens to destroy the family. 

Events rush toward a dramatic resolution that's not quite believable. Still, the book is a page turner that keeps the reader's attention and imparts a good moral: take responsibility for your actions.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review of "Little Mercies" by Heather Gudenkauf

Ohio resident Ellen Moore is a loving wife, good mother, and dedicated social worker. In the course of her job Ellen has dealt with dysfunctional families, removed children from abusive/neglectful homes, and sometimes brought parents and children back together. Nevertheless, the system sometimes failed and Ellen is haunted by cases where children suffered terrible deaths. Then one morning, the unthinkable occurs. Ellen and her husband Adam, running late and harried, fail to communicate. As a result Ellen inadvertently leaves her baby daughter Avery in a steaming car. This type of accident could literally happen to almost anybody but - in the eyes of the law and the public - Ellen is instantly dubbed a criminally neglectful parent.

A parallel story line involves ten-year-old Jenny, who was deserted by her mother years ago and now lives with her alcoholic, petty thief father who can't keep a job. Jenny's dad plans to move them from Nebraska to Iowa for new employment but gets arrested at the bus station, resulting in Jenny making the trip alone. As fate would have it Jenny ends up in the Iowa town where Ellen lives.

The book alternates between two narrators: Jenny and Ellen. Jenny is a brave and savvy ten-year-old and manages well during her bus trip, a solo meal in a pancake restaurant, and a detour to look for a relative. Luckily Jenny meets a kindly waitress named Maudene who takes her in and helps her.

Meanwhile, Ellen is in a state of high anxiety, in danger of losing her family and her job. Though Ellen's plight does elicit sympathy I found myself getting annoyed with her constant complaints about her situation.

As the story proceeds Jenny's and Ellen's parallel story lines merge resulting in a learning experience for everyone. In the end this is a book about families: how parents and children affect each other's lives.

I found the premise of the book - a social worker accused of mistreating a child - intriguing and I was interested to follow Ellen's experiences with family, friends, and the law. Jenny's tale was also compelling but less believable. At every step it seemed like Jenny had a fairy godmother looking out for her, which felt unrealistic. Still, the book tackles a sensitive subject in a sympathetic fashion and is worth reading.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review of "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

In this book Vonnegut presents caricatures of religion, the hubris of scientists, and the dangers of technology. Jonah, the storyteller of "Cat's Cradle", is writing a book about what some people were doing when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He focuses on the eccentric Dr. Felix Hoenikker - "father of the atomic bomb" - and his three children. 

He's told that Dr. Hoenikker was playing "Cat's Cradle" with a piece of string when the bomb went off. Jonah also learns that, when the Marines asked Dr. Hoenikker to 'do something' about mud (which was difficult to wade through while fighting), he invented a substance called Ice-Nine - which causes water to instantly crystallize and harden. Moreover, the effect rapidly spreads, solidifying all water far and wide - a very dangerous phenomenon.

Upon Dr. Hoenikker's death his children divide his stockpile of Ice-Nine to safeguard it. The children then go their own way. After a time, Frank, the oldest child, becomes the assistant of the President of a Caribbean island called San Lorenzo. When Frank plans to marry, his sister Angela and his brother Newt - along with Jonah - travel to the island to attend the wedding.

Jonah finds that San Lorenzo is a very odd place whose residents practice a forbidden religion called Bokononism, which has some strange customs (e.g. people press their feet together in lieu of sex). He also discovers that each of the siblings has given away a bit of their Ice-Nine to garner some advantage for themselves. With Ice-Nine on the loose all over the place can disaster be far behind? 

The book has an eclectic variety of weird, often funny, characters involved in a mildly engaging story.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review of "Strangers on a Train" by Patricia Highsmith

Architect Guy Haines is on a train to Texas to see his estranged wife Miriam to discuss their divorce. Before long Charles Bruno, a rich n'er do well, sits down opposite him. Haines talks about his problems with Miriam and Bruno talks about his hatred for his father. Before long Bruno makes a suggestion: the two men should "exchange murders". That is, Bruno should kill Miriam and Haines should kill Bruno's dad - and having no demonstrable motive - neither man will be suspected. 

Haines strongly opposes this scheme, refuses to participate, and goes on his way. Before long, however, Bruno tracks Miriam down and murders her. He then proceeds to stalk Haines and insert himself into Haine's life at every opportunity - pressuring him to carry out his part of the plan. To say any more would be a spoiler. 

The book is a well-crafted psychological thriller with believable well-rounded characters. I wanted to jump into the book and shout at Haines to "get that nutcase out of your life" but of course that would have spoiled the plot. I enjoyed the book. And Alfred Hitchcock made it into an excellent film as well.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein

This book is narrated by a pooch named Enzo, an observant insightful Labrador-Terrier mix. Enzo loves his owner Denny Swift, a race car driver who starts out as a customer service rep at a car dealership in Seattle. Enzo and Denny watch TV together, especially the Speed Channel and - when he's left home alone - Enzo likes to watch the Weather Channel, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, etc. As the book opens Enzo is old and dying but hopeful he'll be reincarnated as a human - a notion he picked up in a documentary about Mongolian cultural beliefs. 

From his old and wise vantage point Enzo looks back on his life with Denny, which began when Denny plucked him from a pile of for-sale puppies. Enzo recalls his deliriously happy life with Denny, his resentment when Denny met his girlfriend (and future wife) Eve, the 'truce' between Enzo and Eve about sharing Denny, and the birth of the couple's baby Zoe. Enzo also recalls Denny's struggle to establish a racing career and the would-be champion's long absences from home for training and racing. 

Enzo is envious of opposable thumbs (he'd love to turn doorknobs) and wishes he could talk. This is especially true when Enzo smells a rotten mushroomy odor coming from Eve's face, a harbinger of a serious illness. Unfortunately the book's humans don't discover this until much much later. 

In one harrowing scene Denny is away for a few days and Eve - suffering from a crushing headache - packs up Zoe and leaves the house. Unfortunately she forgets all about Enzo. The pooch, being a clever fellow, rations the toilet water and does his business on a mat near the door. He also has a 'hallucination' wherein Zoe's toy zebra comes to life and wrecks her room. When Denny returns he's shocked, angry with Eve, and apologetic to Enzo. Then Denny finds Zoe's room in a shambles and becomes seriously piqued....but Enzo understands and feels bad he couldn't stop the zebra. (I know people who would take the same tack. LOL)

Around the middle of the book, when Denny's racing career is getting serious traction, some really bad things happen. This part of the story is VERY disturbing because several characters behave in a way that is disgustingly venal and self-serving. I don't believe decent people would act like this but a story requires drama. And there's plenty of drama from this point on.

Throughout Enzo's tale he recalls Denny's truisms about the philosophy of racing - axioms that can be applied to real life such as: keep your eye on where you're going, not where you are. Enzo also recalls the most exciting ride of his life, when Denny secured him to the passenger seat of a race car and tore around the track at upwards of 125 mph. (I would have had a heart attack.) The book ends with a very touching scene, and you might need a tissue or two.

I enjoyed this compelling well-told story and the life lessons it imparts. Recommended for fans of literary fiction and racing aficionados.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review of "I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman" by Nora Ephron

Multi-talented Nora Ephron was a journalist, director, and author. In her heyday Ephron wrote the screenplays for some very popular movies including 'Julie and Julia', 'You've Got Mail', 'Sleepless in Seattle', 'When Harry Met Sally', and 'Silkwood.' This audiobook - read by the author - contains a collection of humorous essays written when Ephron was 60 years old...and stopped having birthdays. In fact Ephron notes that, upon publication of this book, she'll have been 60 for five years (ha ha ha).

As might be expected, many of the essays touch on the subject of aging. The book's title, for instance, refers to the fact that 'older ladies' in Ephron's circle always wear turtlenecks or scarves to hide those crepey necks. (I think this is an exaggeration but I get the idea.) Ephron's semi tongue-in-cheek description of her maintainance regime includes regular coloring sessions at the hairdresser followed by bi-weekly blowouts, frequent manicures and pedicures, a rigorous exercise schedule, constant dieting, botox injections, bath oils, and endless containers of expensive lotions for specific parts of the body (hands, face, feet, etc.) - which must NEVER cross over. All this is costly and time-consuming...but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do to keep from looking like the bag lady on the corner.

Ephron lovingly describes her large rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan's Apthorp building, which was close to every kind of store, hairdresser, nail salon, restaurant, etc. that a person could want - as well as a playground for the kids. Ephron lived in this heavenly residence for many years until - with the end of rent control - the rent was set to rise to $12,000 a month. Wow!

In another entertaining story Ephron speaks about her dismay when cabbage strudel disappeared from Manhattan restaurants and bakeries. Ephron was an excellent cook who - like the character in 'Julie and Julia' - worked her way through much of Julia Child's cookbook. However, hard as she tried, Ephron couldn't reproduce the strudel. The writer goes to great lengths, and even consults friends in high places, to try to find this savory delight. Does she succeed? You'll have to read the book to know.

Ephron was an intern in President John F. Kennedy's White House and - inspired by one of Kennedy's blabby flings - tells the 'true story' of her relationship with the handsome politician. She also talks about her 'love affair' with Bill Clinton. Nothing scandalous...I don't want to start any rumors. LOL.

Other essays mention Ephron's discomfort with aging, her numerous marriages, her kids, her career, her celebrity neighbors, and her sadness when her best friend became ill and died.

Complete honesty: The book lags in places and the author's narrating style - slow with odd emphases - is a little distracting.

The essays are aimed at metropolitan 'women of a certain age', but many people would probably enjoy the book. I'd recommend it to readers who want an entertaining light read.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Hounded" by David Rosenfelt

I plucked this book from the library shelf when I saw a picture of an appealing beagle on the cover. I thought it might be one of those books with a "dog narrator" or where the dog is a major character. That's not the case but I enjoyed the book anyway.

In this book (number 12 in the series) New Jersey defense attorney Andy Carpenter - who's wealthy enough to take very few cases - agrees to defend his friend Pete Stanton, a cop accused of murdering Danny Diaz. Diaz, a police informer, allegedly snitched about Pete selling drugs and was shot in his home - leaving behind his son Ricky and dog Sebastian (the hound on the cover). Pete was observed at the scene of the crime and drugs were found in his apartment, so things look dark for him.

Andy looks into the case with his live-in investigator girlfriend Melanie and a cadre of assistants, including a bone-breaker tough guy, a computer whiz, an accountant, etc. They soon find that some kind of conspiracy involving the deaths of several people from "natural causes" seem to be tied to the Diaz killing. Meanwhile, Ricky and Sebastian move in with Andy and Melanie (and their dog Tara) while the cops look for the boy's absent stepmother who left the home a while back.

The book reminded me of 'Perry Mason' novels, being partly investigation and partly courtroom scenes, all well-written and compelling. In addition, Andy is a wise-cracking funny guy, and the humor in the book was an added bonus.

An enjoyable mystery, recommended for all fans of the genre.

Rating: 3.5 stars