Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review of "The Red Road" by Denise Mina




This Scottish mystery begins in 1997, on the night Princess Diana died. Fourteen-year-old Rose Wilson is out with her pimp Sammy who regularly rents her out to groups of older men. On that fateful night, however, Rose kills two people and promptly surrenders to the police. Her appointed lawyer, Julius Macmillan, sees potential in Rose and makes arrangements to insure that she gets a light prison sentence and a job when she gets out.

Skip to the present and Detective Inspector Alex Morrow is questioning Michael Brown, an ex-con who has been arrested for having illegal weapons. Brown is a hardened criminal who was previously imprisoned for murdering his brother.

Meanwhile, Julius Macmillan has just died and his son Robert has disappeared after giving the authorities evidence of his father's illegal activities. Also dead is a Pakistani man, Aziz, known for his charitable work. And big surprise, Michael Brown - who was in jail at the time of death - seems to have left his fingerprints at the Aziz murder scene.

Clearly something isn't kosher in Glasgow. The complex plot alternately focuses on Rose Wilson, Robert Macmillan, and Alex Morrow - so we see what's going on with each of them in mind and body. The reader needs to pay close attention to hold on to all the story threads but it's worth the effort.

Denise Mina gives us a fascinating (presumably fictional) glimpse of Glasgow's underbelly of bad cops, shady lawyers, murderous gangsters, child molesters, and other unsavory folks. It's a good mystery, but not a light read.


Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review of "A Mercy" by Toni Morrison




This story occurs in the late 1600s, during early days of slavery in America (that is, African people being used as slaves). By that time however, the tradition of using 'indentured servants' - essentially white slaves - was already well established.

In this tale, several slaves work on a small farm run by Jacob and Rebekka Vaark: Native American Lina - whose tribe has been decimated by disease; black child Florens - who was given away by her mother; and jinxed Sorrow, who seems to bring bad luck wherever she goes.

As Jacob and Rebekka fall victim to smallpox the women - Lina, Florens, Sorrow, and Rebekka - each tells her tale in her own voice. We learn that Lina is a capable farmer who forged a friendship with Rebekka; that Florens yearns for affection and fell in love with a free African blacksmith; that uneducated Sorrow - who may be more clever than she seems - still can't fathom why she keeps getting pregnant; and that Rebekka traveled to America to marry a man she didn't know.

Though the Vaarks are relatively kind masters the book touches on the evils of slavery and demonstrates the soul-deep damage caused by this practice. A well-written book with compelling and interesting characters.


Rating: 4 stars

Friday, October 28, 2016

Review of "Fatal Passions" by Adrian Vincent




This book, which contains 16 true tales about gruesome and unusual murders, is just the ticket for true crime aficionados. Each story gives a brief profile of the people involved in the events, describes what led up to the crime (or crimes), and relates what happened afterward - usually a trial followed by imprisonment or hanging. But some people got away with murder.

These curious cases were often 'the talk of the town' when they hit the news, usually because of the dastardly culprits. Some examples follow.

"The Love Bungalow" (England, 1924): Patrick Mahon - a married father - kills his lover, Emily Kaye, and hides her body in a bedroom of a rented bungalow. He then calmly brings his new lover, Ethel Duncan, to spend Easter weekend at the same love nest....with Emily decomposing in the bedroom next to theirs. Ewww!

"The Cupboard Lover" (United States, 1922): Walburga Oesterreich - a large, passionate woman - is married to overbearing, sexually inadequate Fred Oesterreich. To satisfy her sexual needs Walburga takes a 17-year-old lover, a slim lad named Otto Sanhuber. Otto is Walburga's paramour for the next 19 years, usually living hidden in the attic of the Oesterreichs' home. Otto spends his days reading books and writing stories in his eyrie, coming out for whoopee when Fred is away....until Walburga gets rid of Fred for good. Apparently Fred was a pretty unobservant guy!

"A Mother's Tender Concern" (United States, 1958): Middle-aged Elizabeth Duncan enlists the help of an elderly friend to get rid of Elizabeth's hated daugter-in-law, Olga Kupczyk. Elizabeth - who wants her son Frank all to herself - warned Olga not to marry Frank, but Olga (being pregnant) paid no attention. So Elizabeth and her accomplice head to the rough part of town where Elizabeth hires a couple of Mexican youths to knock off Olga. The inexperienced 'hitmen' get the job done (badly) after which Elizabeth pays them $120 rather than the almost $3000 she promised. Turns out Elizabeth is a murderer AND a scammer!

"The Sausage King" (United States, 1897): Adolph Luetgert, who owns a sausage factory, is hugely overweight and drinks too much beer. Adolph is married but he's a profligate philanderer, going so far as to put a bed in his office for his extramarital liasions. Wanting to be rid of his wife, Louisa, Adolph murders her. He then puts Louisa's body in a sausage vat and dissolves her with caustic chemicals. Luckily for sausage lovers Adolph is bankrupt and the factory is being shut down forever. Whew!

"A Brickbat For Mrs. Parker" (New Zealand, 1954): Two 15-year-old schoolgirls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, spend all their time together sharing secrets and fantasies. The girls' parents disapprove of the relationship, which they find worrisome. Dr. Henry Hulme decides to move to South Africa with his daughter - who wants her buddy Pauline to come along. However, Mrs. Parker (Pauline's mother ) squashes that idea. So the girls invite Mrs. Parker out for a walk and smash her skull in with a brick - a feat that takes 45 blows. The girls are convicted but spend only five years in prison because of their youth.
(Note: The book doesn't mention this but Juliet Hulme changed her name to Anne Perry and became a famous novelist. Perry is the author of the very popular 'Thomas Pitt' and 'William Monk' mysteries as well as other books. Some people refuse to read Perry's books because of her past....but I like them!)

"A Passion For Poison" (United States, 1954): Nannie Doss loves "True Romance" magazine and - inspired by the love stories - longs to find the perfect mate. So Nannie marries one man after another, fatally poisoning each husband when he doesn't live up to her expectations. Nannie doesn't confine her murder spree to husbands though. By the time Nannie is arrested she has killed eleven people, including four husbands, her mother, her two sisters - and according to Wikipedia: two children, a grandson, and a mother-in-law. It's a bad idea to eat at Nannie's house!

All the stories, which span a wide array of crimes and perpetrators, are engrossing. And it's interesting to see how the justice system has changed over the years. At one time a person could be tried and hanged within a matter of weeks. Now multiple appeals can delay executions for years.

I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to readers who like true crime stories.

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


Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review of "The Monster of Florence" by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi




From the late 1960’s to the 1980’s a serial killer sporadically stalked the countryside around Florence, murdering young couples and mutilating the female victims. Over the years, numerous men became suspects, many were jailed, and some were put on trial. To this day, however, the true killer, dubbed “the monster of Florence” has not been identified.

Douglas Preston, an author of crime novels, moved to Florence with his family to write a novel. Once there he decided to write a non-fiction book about the monster in collaboration with Mario Spezi, a journalist who had been writing about the subject for years. The result is this book, a fascinating tale about both the serial killer and the culture around Florence at the time.

Apparently a major recreational activity among the general public in Florence (at least the male half) was spying on young couples making love in cars. This activity included staking out the “best spots” to watch and even paying off the “regulars” to snag their places. Of course, this is very creepy.

Other parts of the story depict the macho culture in Italy, in which some men mistreated, starved, and beat their wives...and even murdered them – often with few consequences.

According to Preston there are probably many reasons the monster of Florence wasn’t caught. Firstly, there was a lot of shoddy police work in which crime scenes weren’t secured and people wandered around at will. Second, there was an inept judicial system in which the major players cared more about advancing their careers than convicting the right person. In fact the judges actually closed the investigation on the most likely suspects, forcing police to look elsewhere.

A fascinating part of the book depicts the harassment of Preston and Spezi by the police and the judiciary. In fact, at one point Spezi was accused of being the murderer and put in jail – perhaps in an attempt to stop the publication of this book - which casts officials in a decidedly unflattering light.

Preston and Spezi believe they know the identity of the monster and present a convincing case – but perhaps it’s too late for justice to prevail.

This is a well-written and engaging book. Both mystery fans and true crime aficionados would enjoy it.


Rating: 4 stars

Review of "When She Was Good" by Philip Roth


 

Lucy Nelson had a difficult childhood. Along with her timid, submissive mother and her alcoholic, n’er do well father, Lucy lived with her mom’s parents. To make things worse, grandpa enabled the dad's bad behavior, continually urging the family to give the wife-hitting hubby "second chances." Finally, fed up and angry, Lucy had her father arrested and then - some time later - locked him out of the house and sent him on his way.

Through it all Lucy dreamed of going to college and making something of herself, working after school to help make it happen. Things seemed to be going okay when teen Lucy developed a crush on her friend’s cousin Roy. Roy was a little older, an army veteran with ambitions to be a photographer. Unfortunately for all concerned Roy succumbed to his baser nature and repeatedly urged Lucy to “trust him.” Before long Lucy was pregnant and reluctantly married to Roy.

Lucy, having her own ambitions thwarted, seemed determined to ruin Roy’s life as well. Their poisonous union makes up the bulk of the story. Other characters, including Lucy’s family, Roy’s extended family, Lucy’s friends, and Lucy’s one-time priest, try to influence the situation at one time or another, generally making things worse.

The book isn’t fun to read. In the beginning I felt sorry for Lucy, seeing her as the unhappy victim of a raw deal. However Lucy became a completely unpleasant, unlikable character. And Roy - though he "made his own bed" and got a bit of what he deserved - was generally a spineless wimp, incapable of standing up to his demanding, controlling wife….until he did. This led to major drama in which Lucy evolved into a true sociopath.

Though it’s interesting to read about these psychologically warped characters I can’t highly recommend the book. Philip Roth’s later work is better.



Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review of "Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder" by Joanne Fluke




I've read other books in Joanne Fluke's 'Hannah Swensen' series so it was interesting to backtrack and read 'book one' for the first time.

Hannah Swensen - a tall, attractive redhead - leaves graduate school and returns home to Lake Eden, Minnesota for family reasons. Hannah decides to stay in town and opens 'The Cookie Jar' bakery and café. Hannah's mom and two sisters live in Lake Eden and often become involved in her amateur investigations.

This book features Hannah's mom Dolores - who owns an antique shop and repeatedly tries to set Hannah up with eligible men (much to Hannah's chagrin); and Hannah's sister Andrea - a pretty fashionista, mother, and real estate agent who's married to Deputy Sheriff Bill Todd.

As the story opens Hannah and her assistant Lisa are at the 'The Cookie Jar' early, baking cookies and preparing for the morning rush. Hannah is expecting a delivery from milkman Ron LaSalle, who's late for the first time ever. When Hannah hears that Ron's delivery van entered a nearby alley she thinks he broke down and goes to help. Instead of a broken van Hannah finds a broken body....Ron has been shot dead.

Hannah's cop brother-in-law Bill is about to be promoted to detective and asks Hannah to keep her eyes and ears open - in case clues about Ron's killer come her way. Of course Hannah jumps right in and takes over the entire inquiry, keeping Bill in the loop as needed. This is a pet peeve of mine with this series....that Hannah (and whatever family members she draws in) do almost all the investigating while the cops do who knows what. I know this premise is common in cozy mysteries but it still irks me.

Between making cookies and pursuing her inquiries Hannah buys a flattering little black dress and attends the annual gala thrown by Del and Judith Woodley - one of the richest families in town. Soon afterward another dead body is discovered and Hannah learns that this second victim was a loan shark who threatened some prominent Lake Eden residents. Could the murders of the milkman and loan shark be connected? Hannah plans to find out.

In this book Hannah becomes acquainted with the two men who form part of her (seemingly eternal) romantic triangle. First Hannah meets Norman Rhodes, described as an older, balding dentist who's taking over his father's dental practice. Later Hannah meets Detective Mike Kingston, portrayed as a handsome, blue-eyed, blonde hunk who's just been hired by the the Sheriff's Department. Both men take a shine to Hannah and by the end of the book she has two dates for the weekend. (Sounds good to me....LOL)

Hannah talks to persons of interest, collects clues, and solves the crimes - putting herself in considerable danger in the process. But Hannah is a clever, resourceful gal and things turn out okay (allowing the series to continue. LOL).

The characters in the story are generally interesting and well-drawn. It would be great to know someone like Hannah, who gives away bags of cookies wherever she goes. I also like Hannah's big orange cat Moishe, a smart fellow who watches TV, tells Hannah when he's hungry, and provides affection and comfort as needed. The book also has cookie recipes sprinkled throughout, which sound delicious.

I enjoyed this cozy mystery and would recommend it to fans of the genre.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of "The Skin Collector" by Jeffery Deaver




A serial killer is plaguing New York City. He creeps through the disused underground infrastructure of Manhattan which (unknown to most people) connects with the basements of various retail shops, restaurants, hospitals, office buildings, etc. Once the murderer snags a victim he tattoos him/her with poison ink, resulting in an excruciatingly painful death. The tattoos contain numbers and seem to be conveying a message, but the meaning is inscrutable.

On the killer's trail is famous quadriplegic crime scene investigator (CSI) Lincoln Rhyme and his team. Rhyme's assistant, NYPD detective Amelia Sachs, trawls through crime scenes collecting evidence, which is analyzed in Rhyme's state of the art forensic laboratory. Rhyme believes this new serial killer has been inspired by a deceased serial killer, called 'The Bone Collector.'

Meanwhile, another murderer Rhyme helped apprehend, called 'The Watchmaker', has recently died in prison. Hoping to uncover 'The Watchmaker's' associates, Rhyme sends rookie cop Ron Pulaski, undercover, to see who picks up the cremation remains. At the funeral parlor the inexperienced rookie bumbles around a bit, but manages to meet a person of interest.

Wanting to learn as much as possible about tattooing Rhyme interviews an expert and gets a quick education in 'body modification', which helps the CSI profile the killer. This and other clues allow Rhyme's team to track the perp and to foil some attacks, but the killer always manages to get away. The murderer - who seems to be preternaturally clever and capable - is infuriated by this inteference and targets Rhyme and his crew.

While this is going on Amelia has an additional worry. Nineteen-year-old Pamela, a girl with a horrible childhood that Amelia took under her wing, wants to quit college and travel the world with her boyfriend Sean. Arguments over this drive a wedge between the women and distract Amelia.

The story is told in alternating sections, from the point of view of the killer and the point of view of Rhyme and his associates. The reader learns that the killer, named Billy Haven, is following instructions in a detailed manifesto and that his ultimate objective is bigger than than just killing people with poison tattoos.

The story is skillfully told, with twists I didn't anticipate. On the down side, the complexity of the scheme that drives the plot REALLY REALLY strains credulity.

I have a couple more quibbles with the Lincoln Rhyme series as a whole. First, in every book the serial killer goes after the CSI and his associates, which seems unlikely to happen in real life.
(Just as an aside, this also bothers me about Patricia Cornwell's 'Dr. Kay Scarpetta' series, where the serial killer always targets the medical examiner and her family/friends.)

Second, the Rhyme books have an 'incestuous' feel since we hear about the same serial killers time after time. Though this story is about Billy Haven (the tattooer), we also read a lot about 'The Bone Collector' and the 'The Watchmaker'. I kind of wish Jeffrey Deaver would let these guys rest in peace .

Reservations aside, the book is an exciting page turner with a wide array of interesting characters. Reading previous books in the series would be preferable, but the book works okay as a standalone. Recommended for mystery fans, especially people who enjoy the Lincoln Rhyme series.


Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review of "The Black-Eyed Blonde" by Benjamin Black



In this new addition to the Phillip Marlowe series, a stunning, married, blonde - Clare Cavendish - asks Marlowe to look into the disappearance of her lover, Nico Peterson. Turns out Nico is dead, killed by a hit-and-run driver. But wait! Clare has seen Nico walking around San Francisco after the accident. Why didn't Clare just tell Marlowe that in the first place?  Because the devious beauty needs to manipulate and seduce Marlow into helping her. Thus we have the set-up for our noir thriller.

Marlowe sets out to find Nico and soon discovers that the missing man apparently faked his death (with a little help from his friends). Moreover, Mexican thugs are looking for Nico and don't mind a little torture and murder to help them in their quest. As in the original Phillip Marlowe books, the private investigator drinks a lot, is witty, has a smart mouth, and doesn't want to cooperate with the cops. He also has a penchant for getting beat up and almost killed.

Of course Marlowe carries on and solves the case and learns once again that a beautiful woman can harbor a lot of secrets. I thought the book felt like a pretty authentic Phillip Marlowe story and I enjoyed it.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review of "Death's End" by Cixin Liu




This is the third book in the "Remembrance of Things Past " science fiction trilogy by Cixin Liu.

SPOILER ALERT / SPOILER ALERT / SPOILER ALERT

If you haven't read the first two books in the trilogy this review will contain spoilers.


Each book in the trilogy has an intricate multilayered plot, numerous scientific concepts (real and made up), and a slew of interesting, complex characters. However, in a nutshell.....

In book one - The Three-Body Problem - extraterrestrial beings called Trisolarans, from the planet Trisolaris, learn about the existence of Earth. Trisolaris is a volatile planet with hostile living conditions, so the Trisolarans announce their intention of sending a fleet to take over Earth, a trip that will take 400 years.

By the end of book two - The Dark Forest- both humans and Trisolarans have learned that advanced civilizations in the universe will wipe out any planet that shows signs of intelligent life (presumably for self-protection). So a human scientist's threat - and demonstrated ability - to broadcast the location of Trisolaris to the cosmos convinces the approaching Trisolaran fleet to alter its course....away from us. However there's a fly in the ointment: once the 'destroyers' have wiped out Trisolaris they'll inevitably discover Earth - which is very close (in astronomical terms).

As the third book - Death's End - opens, the first Trisolaran fleet has moved away from the Solar System and Earth is in the 'Deterrence Era.' That is, the alien invasion has been deterred by the above mentioned threat of exposure. Humans are doing pretty well: governments are democratic; Trisolaran knowledge - shared with Earth - has led to remarkable advances in science and technology; human habitats and industries have spread through the Solar System; people have comfortable homes, fashionable clothes, and graceful manners; etc. Everything seems hunky dory.

For reasons explained in a previous book, four spaceships have left the Solar System. The first two ships harbor 'escapists'; people who - following a battle with mysterious 'droplets' - 'escaped' out into the galaxy.....which is forbidden by law. The other two ships are in pursuit, trying to catch the runaways. At one point, some of these ships encounter a four-dimensional fragment of space that has remarkable properties.

Meanwhile, back on Earth humans remain on alert. Though the Trisolarans seem to be behaving themselves they're still potential hostiles. Thus a human scientist, called the 'Swordholder', is in charge of a 'doomsday button' that will immediately broadcast the location of Trisolaris if the aliens mount a surprise attack. The question is....will the Swordholder have the guts to push the button, knowing it will eventually lead to Earth's destruction. I liked the suspense in the book so I don't want to give too much away. Let's just say - somehow or other - the location of Trisolaris is exposed.

After Trisolaris is unmasked humans fear total annihilation. So Earth scientists propose potential survival strategies: one plan is to hide all humans in structures behind the four outer planets; another scheme is to slow down the speed of light so the Solar System becomes 'invisible' to the rest of the universe. This would prohibit space travel forever. (Blech!). Finally, a third (illegal) proposal involves building spacecraft that can travel at the speed of light, so people can flee to other star systems. (Yay!)

It's impossible to say much about the various story developments without spoilers. I will say that the trilogy extends over many centuries but - because humans can 'hibernate' - the main characters don't die. They 'go to sleep' and 'wake up' (again and again) as needed. This lends a nice continuity to the storyline.

Though I might have done things differently than some characters in the book I enjoyed the story immensely.....until the last part. The end of the book is flat, uninspiring, and scientifically impossible (in my opinion). The finale reminded me of the last episodes of the TV series' "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica"....fine shows with disappointing conclusions.

The entire trilogy is good but book three is especially ambitious, ingenious, and impressive. Moreover it's probably one of very few science fiction books to contain three original - and fantastic - fairy tales! LOL.

Cixin Liu is an excellent writer with a spectacular imagination and a wonderful ability to incorporate scientific concepts into his stories. The time and effort the author must have devoted to researching and writing this trilogy boggles my mind. And the translation from Chinese to English by Ken Liu is skillful and smooth. Good job all around!

I can't recommend this trilogy highly enough to fans of science fiction. Read it. You won't be disappointed.


Rating: 4.5 stars

Review of "Blue Diary" by Alice Hoffman




Ethan Ford - a handyman, kids' baseball coach, and volunteer fireman - is a town hero. After 13 years of marriage he's still deeply in love with his wife Jorie and a good dad to his son Collie. Then one morning Ethan is arrested for the rape and murder of a young girl fifteen years ago. Jorie and Collie are devastated and the townsfolk can hardly take it in, believing a terrible mistake has occurred. However Ethan pleads guilty to the crime, asserting that he's a 'different man' now. In one way he is, having acquired a new identity.

Collie is distraught and becomes completely withdrawn while Jorie torments herself trying to figure out how Ethan could have done such a thing. In flashbacks we learn that Ethan was a truly despicable youth who - after he committed the murder - instantaneously transformed himself into a good, caring man.

Other characters in the novel include Jorie's best friend Charlotte, who is suffering from cancer; Jorie's mother and sister who try to support her in this time of crisis; and Kat - an insightful young friend of Collie's. There are also lawyers who advise/defend Ethan, and townspeople who form an 'Ethan support group' to raise money for his defense. This group includes Kat's sister Rosarie, a beautiful but cold 17-year-old heartbreaker who becomes infatuated with Ethan.

The heart of the story involves how Jorie comes to terms with her husband's crime and the actions she decides to take. To me Ethan's sudden transformation into a 'good guy' after the murder is completely unbelievable and the story's finale also rings false. However, the characters are interesting and the book does a good job illustrating the heartbreak and devastation that can occur when a gigantic lie is exposed.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of "Rock With Wings"s by Anne Hillerman



Anne Hillerman is following in her father - Tony Hillerman's - footsteps, carrying on with his Navaho Tribal Police series. This is the second book Anne Hillerman has written for the long series.

As the story opens Navaho Tribal Police Officers Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito, recently married, are taking a vacation in Monument Valley when fate steps in. Jim ends up helping a relative in Monument Valley while temporarily working security for a movie company. And Bernie returns to their home in Shiprock for an urgent situation involving her mom and sister.

While in Shiprock Bernie decides to resume her police duties. She had previously arrested a suspiciously nervous young man for attempted bribery during a traffic stop and she wants to find out what he was hiding. Bernie is dismayed to learn that there were no drugs in his car and that the FBI wants the tribal police to back off. Bernie can't let it go, however, and continues to investigate the fellow.

Meanwhile Jim finds a suspicious 'grave' in Monument Valley, which he suspects is a publicity stunt arranged by the movie company to advertise their zombie film. The movie company honchos deny knowing anything about the grave but Jim continues to inquire into the matter. Before long an employee of the movie company is murdered in a hotel suite and Jim investigates the crime.

As Bernie and Jim pursue their separate inquiries each meets up with various suspicious characters that need looking into. They both turn to their mentor - 'The Legendary Lieutenant' Joe Leaphorn - for assistance. This is difficult because Joe is recovering from a bullet to the head and can't speak - but he's able to use a computer to assist his mentees.

I liked the setting of the book, in the beautiful mountains of the American Southwest, and enjoyed the tidbits of Navaho culture sprinkled through the story. The dual plots, however, were confused and less than compelling. By the end of the book the crimes that Bernie and Jim were investigating didn't ring true and I didn't really care who did what. There was an interesting array of characters, though, from Bernie's loving mom and alcoholic young sister to sleazy movie makers to Navaho elders who cherish the land.

For me this was just a so-so book but I might try another Anne Hillerman book in the future.


Rating: 2 stars

Friday, October 14, 2016

Review of "Dear Mr. M" by Herman Koch




Dutch author "Mr. M" is an older man, well past his writing prime, with a beautiful young wife and a little daughter. Mr. M's most popular book, based on a real life occurrence, is called "Payback." Published four decades ago, "Payback" tells the story of two high school students accused of killing their history teacher.

The teacher, Mr. Landzaat - a married man with two daughters - had an affair with a pretty student named Laura. When Laura dumped Landzaat to hook up with a fellow high-schooler named Herman, the teacher went a little crazy. He took to stalking Laura, even going so far as to 'drop in' (and stay over) when Herman and Laura were vacationing in her family's cabin. During this 'visit' Landzaat disappeared.

In the here and now Mr. M is being surveilled by his very creepy downstairs neighbor. The neighbor - a middle-aged man - observes Mr. M, checks the writer's mail, and 'accidently' runs into Mrs. M when she takes a short trip with her child. Eventually the neighbor inveigles himself into a mild friendship with Mr. M, and - when Mrs. M opts out - even accompanies the author to a writer's gala. Seating at the gala's entertainment reflects an author's importance in the artistic community.....and less successful (or past their peak) writers get stuck in the back row or behind pillars. Mr. M, whose fading popularity and waning sales weigh on his mind, resents his more successful friends and colleagues.

The story moves back and forth between the present time and the high school days of Laura, Herman, and their friends. The students were an independent bunch who sometimes arranged 'teenager only' holidays at Laura's family cabin. Herman - who's described as skinny with crooked teeth and unfashionable clothes - exhibits a lot of snarky manipulative behavior at school and at the cabin - and is especially disrepectful (and even hateful) to teachers. It's hard to see what Laura sees in Herman (not that Mr. Landzaat, with his 'long teeth', is any prize either).

In current times, during conversations between the downstairs neighbor and Mr. M, it's clear the snoopy acquaintance resents Mr. M's writing a book about what happened among Laura, Herman, and Mr. Landzaat. It seems that - for some reason - the neighbor is very interested in these old-time events.

The major characters in the book are intriguing but not particularly likable. Herman, Mr. M, and Mr. Landzaat are flat out noxious; and Laura, while less unpleasant, wouldn't make a good BFF. The minor characters - including Mr. M's writer colleagues, various high school students, a wily journalist, Mrs. M, and several teachers - add color and interest to the story.

The book seems to be about the ethics of exploiting other people's lives for a book as well as how far an author would go to fulfill his/her vision.

Some parts of the book were a bit slow but it held my interest throughout. I speculated a lot about the 'real identity' of some of the characters and had various theories about what happened to Mr. Landzaat. I was right about some things and wrong about others.

I'd recommend the book to readers who enjoy literary fiction, particularly fans of Herman Koch.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review of "The Girl in the Spider's Web" by David Lagercrantz


 

 Frans Balder, a brilliant Swedish computer scientist, created a revolutionary artificial intelligence (AI) program when he worked at the Solifon company in the United States. He then suddenly quit his job, took his program, and returned to Sweden. Balder proceeded to remove his autistic 8-year-old son August from the abusive home of his ex-wife and her boyfriend and holed up at home with the boy. It seems that Balder had discovered a conspiracy involving Solifon, the National Security Agency (NSA), and Russian mobsters - and now feared for his life and his program.

Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist - famous investigative journalist for the magazine Millenium - is having problems. The magazine has been bought by a conglomerate that wants to remove Mikael from the editorial board and 'lighten' the magazine's features. Mikael could use a juicy story to buck up his career. This seems to be on the horizon when Frans Balder contacts Mikael to tell him he has a big, important story to tell.

Before Balder can meet with Blomkvist the computer scientist is murdered in front of his son August, who can't speak and doesn't seem to connect with what's going on around him. It turns out, though, that August is an artistic savant who might be able to draw a picture of the murderer. This makes him a target for the bad guys who, of course, don't want to be identified.

While all this is going on Lisbeth Salander - computer hacker extraordinaire - has been infiltrating computers around the world, including those of the NSA. Thus, she's discovered top secret information that's connected to the conspiracy Balder uncovered. Some of the NSA files, though, are super-encrypted and Lisbeth can't figure out the mathematical keys needed to open them.

As the story unfolds, Lisbeth rescues August from an assassination attempt and - while hiding the child - learns that he's also a math savant. Lisbeth uses the boy's math skills to try to crack the super-encrypted NSA files she's uncovered.

The basic premise of the story is that criminals are hunting August while Blomkvist tries to uncover the conspiracy Balder was going to reveal. Meanwhile, Lisbeth does her thing. She protects August, beats up men who abuse children and women, and infuriates people whose computers she's hacked. Lisbeth also must (once again) deal with a demented family member - this time her murderous fraternal twin sister Camilla. (Readers familiar with the trilogy know that Lisbeth is cursed with one of the worst families in the world.)

I'm a big fan of the Millenium Trilogy and was looking forward to this addition to the series. Sadly, in my opinion this book isn't as good as the previous ones. My main problems with the book:

There are intimations in the story that Frans Balder's AI program could potentially allow computers to take over the world and dispense with humans. I thought this thread might be important to the story but it went essentially nowhere.

To 'round out' the Camilla character the author resorts to a long expository chapter. In this section Hoger Palmgren (Lisbeth's former guardian) tells Mikael about Camilla - her history and relationship with her family - in great detail. This is an indelicate and tedious technique to familiarize the reader with a character. In addition, Camilla seems more like a comic book woman than a real person. She's so over-the-top gorgeous and manipulative that everyone seems to lose their senses around her. Because of this, the behavior of other characters around Camilla is simply not believable.

The conspiracy at the center of the story is too twisty and confusing. It's not until the very end of the book that I more or less understood what it was about - and then it didn't make much sense and I didn't believe it.

Though I wasn't satisfied with the story, I admire David Lagercrantz for taking on a difficult task. It's hard to add books to a popular series after the death of the original author. If Lagercrantz writes another Millenium book I'd probably read it to see if he's able to get the correct 'vibe'.

All in all, I'd recommend this book to fans of the series, but warn them to temper their expectations.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Review of "The Dead Will Tell" by Linda Castillo




The book starts out with a horrific crime: a 1979 home invasion of the Amish Hochstetler farm in Painters Mill, Ohio. A group of teens break in to steal cash and the night ends with a family slaughtered, a mother abducted, and a lone survivor - a 14-year-old boy. Fast forward 35 years and the perpetrators of the crime, now respected members of the community, start to get threatening letters. Soon afterwards, the killings start - with one after another of the original perpetrators brutally murdered by what appears to be a ghost.

Chief of Police Kate Burkholder and her detectives investigate. They learn that phone calls have been passing between the original perpetrators, but these 'bad guys', of course, admit nothing. They make up spurious reasons for their phone calls and meetings, and claim to be bewildered by the murders. Nevertheless, they're terribly frightened: they wore masks during the home invasion and later killed and disposed of Mrs. Hochstetler - so who knows who they are?

Evidence at the crime scenes provides a connection between the Hochstetler tragedy and the current crimes, and Kate and crew proceed to ask questions of the surviving son, the Amish bishop, other people in Painters Mill, and so on. Kate gets some information that leads her to visit a fading Amish community in Pennsylvania, and the investigation proceeds. I always enjoy the peek into the Amish community that Burkholder includes in her books; good people with simple lifestyles who cherish their families and want to please God.

In Kate's personal life she's now living with her boyfriend, State Agent John Tomasetti. Though Kate and Tomasetti are happy together the agent is still torn up by the murder of his wife and daughters three years ago. In this book one of his family's murderers gets off on a technicality and Tomasetti is furious and seems to have some nefarious plans for the freed man - but it's not clear what. Kate is unhappy about this, wanting Tomasetti to let go of the past and move on. She even appears to be jealous of Tomasetti's love for his deceased family - which struck me as selfish and unattractive.

As usual in Burkholder's series there are some complicated family doings connected with the crimes, and Kate and her deputies are eventually able to unearth everyone's secrets. I enjoyed the book, but not as much as the previous entries in the series. For me there's getting to be too much similarity from book to book and the romance between Kate and Tomasetti doesn't ring quite true. Nevertheless this is an enjoyable mystery book and I'll probably continue to read the series.     


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review of "The Trapped Girl" by Robert Dugoni




While indulging in a spot of illicit crabbing in Seattle's Puget Sound, teenager Kurt Schill finds a dead woman in a crab pot. Detective Tracy Crosswhite and her team from the Seattle Police Department's Violent Crimes Section get the case. Having been noshed on by crabs the woman is unidentifiable by ordinary means. However implants from facial surgery lead the detectives to identify her as Andrea Strickland, a woman who disappeared months before while climbing Mount Rainier with her husband Graham.

Since Mount Rainier is in Pierce County, the missing woman case was investigated by Detective Stan Fields from that region. Detective Fields thought Andrea Strickland was dead, perhaps pushed off the mountain by her husband. So when Andrea's body turns up in Puget Sound months later, Fields - angry that Andrea might have committed insurance fraud or other hijinks - demands the case back.

Tracy - whose sister was murdered twenty years ago - hates to give up any case, especially if it involves a young woman. And Tracy is especially reluctant to yield the investigation to Detective Fields, a cocky lout who ogles women. So Tracy's pleased when the disappearance of another woman eventually returns the case to the Seattle P.D. As their inquiries proceed Tracy and her team learn that at least one person has acquired a new identity and a lot of money has disappeared.

The story switches back and forth between two points of view: the detectives investigating the crimes and excerpts from Andrea's journal. In her diary Andrea, who worked for an insurance company, talks a lot about her love of books. Andrea also describes meeting and marrying Graham, a handsome show-offy lawyer who wears designer suits and drives a red Porsche.

Soon after Andrea and Graham marry, the lawyer - who has big ideas - insists that they quit their jobs and open a marijuana dispensary (which is legal in Washington). This requires a big wad of startup money that Andrea and Graham don't have. As it happens Andrea has a trust fund, but it's strictly for her personal needs and CAN'T be used for a business. So Graham - angry about the trust fund - commits fraud to get a bank loan. And since Graham knows nothing about business, things go downhill from there.

As the story unfolds the plot gets quite complicated because there are a number of potential 'bad guys.' To keep things straight, the detectives repeatedly discuss who might have done what to whom - which includes a number of different scenarios. I found this confusing and hard to follow. I also thought the perp putting the body in a crab pot was a bad idea. If you don't want a body found you should tie it to cement blocks and drop it in deep water (just my opinion). I was also put off by the repeated references to Andrea's obsessive reading, which had a whiff of hyperbole.

On the upside, there are interesting twists in the story and Detective Tracy Crosswhite - as well as her partner Kins and fellow detectives Faz and Del - are likable characters that have a strong bond with each other. At one point - to commemorate a happy occasion for Tracy - Del's wife Vera prepares a delicious meal of lasagna, salad, garlic bread, and homemade cannoli....accompanied by good wine. (Yummy!) I also like the book's setting, Washington and Mount Rainier, which provides a nice ambiance to the story.

The book's climax is dangerous and exciting, and reveals exactly what happened and why. I predicted some bends in the story but the ending surprised me. Overall this is an enjoyable book that I'd recommend to mystery lovers, especially fans of the Tracy Crosswhite series.

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


Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "Salvation of a Saint" by Keigo Higashino



Wealthy businessman Yoshitaka Mashiba tells his wife Ayane that he's divorcing her because she hasn't become pregnant. He reminds Ayane this was the deal when they married - a baby on the way within a year or he looks for someone new. Meanwhile Yoshitaka has been having an affair with Hiromi, Ayane's apprentice in the art of quilt making.

Heartbroken, Ayane goes off for the weekend to visit her parents. While she's away Yoshitaka is murdered with arsenic-laced coffee. The police suspect Ayane, but she has an ironclad alibi. To add to their problems, the police can't figure out how the arsenic got into the coffee.

Detective Kusanagi and his team question Yoshitaka's friends and acquaintances but have trouble advancing the case. So the female detective on the team, Kaoru Utsumi, consults the brilliant physicist Yukawa, who's a whiz at solving difficult cases.

Eventually the ingenious murder method and the killer are uncovered. To me the resolution was not very believable or satisfying. All in all I thought the book read like a typical cozy, but I would have liked the characters to be more fully developed and more interesting.


Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Fire and Ice" by J.A. Jance




In this book the law enforcement officials in J.A. Jance's two mystery series - Arizona Sheriff Joanna Brady and Seattle homicide investigator J.P. Beaumont (Beau) - work together (via phone) to solve some baffling crimes.

As the story opens six dead women have been found in the Seattle area. Each body is wrapped in a tarp and burned up, and all but one has no teeth and no identification. Dental records identify the last body as Marina Aquirre, a woman who was reported missing by her fiancé several months before. However Marina was using a false name and is really Marcella Andramade, a woman who has connections to Arizona.

So Beau calls Joanna to ask for assistance. This is a bit awkward because when Beau and Joanna met on a previous case sparks flew event though this was inappropriate. However both Joanna and Beau quickly moved past this and each is now happily married - so no real problem there.

In addition to assisting with the Seattle homicide investigation Joanna and her deputies also have two local cases: the brutal murder of an employee at an ATV park and a criminally neglectful nursing home for Alzheimer's patients.

While working these cases Joanna is also "best man" at her former deputy's wedding - which involves partying, dressing up, and attending the nuptials. These activities - along with Joanna's home life with her husband, teenage daughter, and new toddler - helps round out her character.

Beau, who inherited wealth, is contentedly working with his new wife (who is also his detective partner), driving expensive cars, and living well. So not much angst involving either Beau or Joanna in this story.

The ATV park murder in Arizona and the Seattle homicides kind of braid together and even come to involve the family of Joanna's deputy, Jaime Carbajal. Eventually, there's a rather dramatic resolution to some of the homicide cases and steps are taken to deal with the owners of the feckless nursing home. The problem is that the reasons/outcomes for some of the criminal activity is murky (to me, at least) and I was unsatisfied at the end of the book.

Though it's pleasant to visit with familiar, well-liked characters like Joanna and Beau this is a mystery novel and on that score it falls short. Just an okay book.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, October 10, 2016

Review of "Deserves to Die" by Lisa Jackson


 

When the bodies of a couple of murdered women - each missing a finger - turn up in Grizzly Falls, Montana it seems clear a serial killer is on the loose. Long-time detective partners Selena Alvarez and Regan Pescoli investigate the crimes. Regan is having a tough time, though, for a variety of reasons: the sheriff's department has a new acting sheriff she can't stand; she's getting ready for her marriage and new home; and her teenage daughter is acting out and giving her a hard time.

Meanwhile - just before the murders start - a woman on the run lands in town, disguising her appearance and calling herself Jessica. Jessica rents an isolated cabin in the woods and takes a job as a waitress. A man named Troy Ryder is on her trail for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds. Jessica is convinced that the 'missing finger deaths' are meant to terrify her but - because of her past - is too scared to notify the police.

There's a lot of cat and mouse activity in the book as Troy Ryder stealthily stalks Jessica, and this rachets up the suspense. There are also an array of characters that add interest to the story: a cowboy heartthrob who knew Jessica a long time ago, his rough and ready brother, the ambitious acting sheriff who craves the limelight, Regan's handsome/sexy fiance, and so on.

The story holds your attention, is fast-moving, and rolls along to a dramatic conclusion.

I enjoyed the book but there were some problems in the story for me. For example I didn't understand some of Jessica's actions. I kept thinking - why would she rent a primitive, uncomfortable cabin deep in the woods (presumably to hide out in) and then take a very public job as a waitress where anyone could (and did) find her? I also didn't buy into the reasons Jessica couldn't notify the police when she seriously believed her life was in danger. For these reasons this  was just an okay book for me.



Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review of "Far From True" by Linwood Barclay




This sequel to Broken Promise picks up where the first book ended. Two women in Promise Falls, New York have been brutally killed in a disturbingly similar fashion - Olivia Fisher several years ago and Rosemary Gaynor just recently. In addition the town has experienced a rash of crimes connected with the number 23.

As this second book in the trilogy opens a car full of boisterous youths is heading for the Constellation Drive-In Theater for it's last show ever. As the boys are trying to get past the gatekeeper - with one boy hiding in the trunk just for fun - there's an explosion and the movie screen collapses. Two cars are squashed, four people are killed, and many movie goers are injured. As it turns out the catastrophe occurred at 11:23 P.M. (or 23:23 in military time).

Detective Barry Duckworth is the lead investigator for all the crimes, a high stress job that interferes with his (supposed) weight loss regime. While Duckworth's wife gives him grapefruit and skinless chicken, the detective sneakily eats hamburgers and pie on the job. LOL.

Duckworth soon discovers that one couple killed at the drive-in was local celebrity Adam Chalmers and his wife Miriam. In his youth Adam belonged to a criminal biker gang but gave it up to become a successful (and wealthy) writer....and Miriam is his beautiful third wife.

As the story unfolds private detective Cal Weaver (a character in previous Barclay novels) is caught up in the drama when Adam's Chalmers' daughter, Lucy Brighton, hires him. She thinks someone has been sneaking around her deceased father's house. Weaver makes a startling discovery in the Chalmers' home, a finding that soon interests the police as well.

Various characters from the first book are on hand once again. Former journalist David Harwood continues to work for slimy disgraced ex-mayor Randall Finley, who's determined to get back into office any way he can; the scene where Finley announces his candidacy is priceless and funny. Samantha Worthington is still being harassed by her jailed ex-husband's parents, who are trying to wrest away custody of her son Carl; this leads to plenty of excitement and danger. And Clive Duncomb, Thackeray College's head of security, is once again hiding things from the 'real cops.' Clive, who thinks he's smarter than everyone else, is a truly unlikable guy.

An array of minor characters from book one also make an appearance. And - for those who like that kind of thing - the story also has a couple of budding romances. I don't like love affairs in mystery books but these aren't graphic or heavy handed.

The book is an arresting page turner that kept my interest throughout. I have to admit, though, that one of the 'secrets' in the book stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. As with Broken Promise, the end of the book leaves things unresolved. I look forward to finishing the trilogy to discover exactly what's going on. I have some theories....but we'll see.

Note: Though this book could probably be read as a standalone I'd strongly recommend readers
begin with book one of the trilogy.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "Forensics" by Val McDermid




In "Forensics" popular mystery writer Val McDermid outlines the development of modern forensics (scientific analysis of evidence) - a discipline that has literally made it much harder to 'get away with murder'. Rudimentary forensic investigations began long ago: a Chinese coroner's handbook from the 1200s records the story of a murderer caught when flies were attracted to traces of blood on his scythe. Nevertheless, it's likely that many criminals went undiscovered before modern investigative techniques were formulated.

Each section of the book covers a different topic related to criminal investigations such as: the crime scene, fire, insects, pathology, poisons, blood spatter, fingerprints, DNA, bullet markings, and so on. A brief review can't cover the wide array of subjects addressed in the book but I'll give a few examples to provide a 'taste' of the material.

Crime Scene: Modern cameras/photography techniques can record a crime scene in 3-D. Thus experts can determine where a shooter was standing, the trajectory of the bullet(s), how the victim fell, how the blood sprayed, and so on. And the photos can help a jury visualize the crime.

Arson: Additives in accelerants can be used to learn where the fuel was obtained and microbes (diatoms) in the the match heads can be used to trace the matches. One anecdote in this section was distressing: A fire in Ireland's 'Stardust' nightclub in 1981 caused many deaths and injuries because the club owner had locked or blocked most of the fire exits. Arson experts found that the owner didn't start the fire (it was apparently electrical) but he clearly caused the mass carnage. Still, the owner wasn't held legally responsible and even got a big insurance settlement. (I hope Ireland has changed some laws since then.)

Insects: Different kinds of insects attack a dead body in a specific order - so the bug population on a corpse can help determine the time of death. Moreover, the insects consuming the corpse can be ground up and analysed for poisons that were in the body. That's a 'twofer' :)

Pathology: Medical examiners study the body to determine cause of death. Stab wounds can help identify the murder weapon; contaminated body parts can reveal poisons; bullets can point to the gun used; etc. If the knife is sticking out of the victim, of course, that's a huge clue.

Blood spatter: One expert McDermid interviewed noted that she needed to study the entire crime scene in detail to make sense of the blood splatter evidence. She didn't like detectives telling her 'just look at that section of wall beside the victim'... because tiny drops of blood can spray far and wide.

Poisons: Arsenic and other poisons were apparently the murder weapon of choice for royalty (as well as the common folk) for centuries - since there was no way to prove that corpses contained toxins. Once scientists learned how to test for toxins, however, poisoners were regularly caught. Nevertheless it's daunting to think how many people got away with murder over the course of history.

DNA: This is the 'gold standard' of forensic analysis. If someone's DNA is on/in the victim or at the crime scene that person was almost certainly there. This isn't always 100% accurate though, because of human error. McDermid relates an anecdote about a lab tech who used an improperly cleaned tray (someone's saliva was already on it) to analyze DNA...so the spitter was initally accused. Another possible problem here is deliberate contamination of the crime scene by the perp. (Some murder mysteries I've read use this plot device. The perp brings a condom with someone else's sperm and sprinkles it on the victim.)

I was reassured though, when one forensic expert noted that it would be almost impossible for a perp to purposely plant evidence/set up a crime scene to implicate someone else. The analyst noted that the perp would tend to overdo it or do it wrong. For example: leave too much blood; leave the wrong pattern of blood; plant too many glass shards; put evidence in the wrong places; and so on.

At the end of the book I was dismayed to read that attorneys (usually on the defense side) routinely try to intimidate/manipulate expert witnesses to spin things in a certain direction rather than to discover the truth. In some ways vigorous cross-examination is good: One section of the book tells the story of an 'expert witness' physician who insisted that - if several children in a family succumbed to crib death - the parents were definitely murderers. In one afflicted family, crib death turned out to be a genetic predispostion...but the mom, wrongly imprisoned then exonerated, committed suicide. And the 'expert doctor' had his license revoked. Still, I would wish the facts could be brought out without 'politics'.

This is a fascinating book, highly recommended - especially to readers interested in true crime.


Rating: 5 stars

Review of "Off The Grid" by P.J. Tracy




Grace MacBride is on a relaxing sailing trip with her friend, retired FBI agent John Smith, when a couple of Saudi nationals try to kill John. Grace handily dispatches the killers and John goes underground temporarily. Turns out John has been tracking terrorist activities and may have information about their plans to attack American cities. Thus John and his friends, especially Grace and her colleagues at the software company Monkeewrench, become targets for the terrorists.

So Grace, her Monkeewrench cohorts - voluptuous fashionista Annie Belinsky; big guy Harley Davidson; and beanpole Roadrunner - pick up John and make a run for it. They take back roads, drive dangerously, and so on to avoid being followed by the terrorist assassins.

Meanwhile, Somali gangs and Native American thugs have teamed up to kidnap young girls for the sex trade and detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth are on the job. Before long the hunt for terrorists and the pursuit of gang members and thugs dovetail because the sex trade is being used to fund terrorist activities.

While all this is going on terrorists around the country are being killed in their homes - a few at a time. Seems someone has been distributing information about where they live.

There's a race against time as 'the good guys' try to stop the planned terrorist attacks before becoming victims themselves. Before the end there are some exciting battles that involve guns, knives, and bows and arrows.

There's also some humor in the story: Gino's fear of flying provides a few laughs as does the banter between the secondary characters Claude and the Chief.

For me the book was just so-so. Grace wasn't in top form in her strategy to run from the terrorists and the book's ending was a bit of a let down. Still, fans of the series will enjoy visiting with favorite characters in the series and seeing how Grace's personal relationship with Leo Magozzi is affected by everything that's going on.


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review of "Tatiana" by Martin Cruz Smith




Investigator Arkady Renko is attending the funeral of businessman/mafia leader Grisha Grigorenko in Moscow when he encounters a group of demonstrators protesting the death of Tatiana Petrovna, a journalist who uncovers government corruption and exposes government officials who collude with criminals. Tatiana's death was ruled a suicide but Renko doesn't believe it and - against department regulations - starts an investigation.

Tatiana's death seems to be linked to the recovered notebook of a murdered international translator, a book filled with indecipherable pictures and symbols. Renko gets the notebook but can't figure it out. Renko's investigation soon takes him to Kaliningrad, a port city run by Grigorenko and his cohorts, considered one of the most corrupt cities in Russia. Everyone - the mob, cops, government officials, and Tatiana's editor - wants Renko to quit investigating Tatiana's death. In addition, many people want to get their hands on the mysterious notebook. All this leads to intimidation, violence, and betrayal but Renko carries on.

There are various interesting characters in the story including Renko's gruff but likable partner Victor; a broke, middle-aged, dissolute poet who was Tatiana's former lover; Renko's chess-hustler ward Zhenya who's a whiz with puzzles; an intrepid journalist who hopes to take over Tatiana's beat; criminals on the make; and more. In time, the notebook is translated and Tatiana's death is resolved.

To me Renko's investigation seemed more plodding and less compelling than in previous books but the Russian ambiance of the story is fascinating and memorable. All in all a pretty good mystery/thriller.


Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D. James



In this 'sequel' the characters of "Pride and Prejudice" find additional drama in their lives when a murder occurs on the Pemberley estate.

As the book opens Elizabeth Darcy, who's been happily married to Fitzwilliam Darcy for six years now, is preparing for Lady Anne's ball - an annual event at Pemberley. On the evening before the grand event a horse drawn carriage careens up to the Pemberley mansion and Elizabeth's flighty young sister Lydia emerges, screaming that her husband is dead. Turns out a hired carriage was carrying Lydia, her irresponsible, rakish husband George Wickham, and Wickham's friend Captain Denny to Pemberley when Denny demanded the driver stop the carriage. Denny then got out, hurled harsh words at Wickham, and entered the woods. Wickham, trying to stop Denny, followed him. Soon afterwards shots were heard, Lydia became hysterical, and the driver took off for Pemberley. Lydia's appearance was completely unexpected since she and Wickham were not invited to the ball and Wickham was not welcome at Pemberly under any circumstances.

Darcy organizes a search of the woods and Captain Denny is found dead with grievous wounds on his head. Wickham, beside the body, is distraught - moaning that it's his fault that Denny is dead. The authorities are notified, witnesses are questioned, there's an inquest, and Wickham is put on trial for murder.

I know some people liked this book, part of the pleasure being the opportunity to visit familiar characters including members of Elizabeth's family, and Darcy's sister Georgiana and her suitors. There are other interesting personalities in the book as well, including members of the too full-of-themselves British 'upper classes', servants in the Pemberley household, workers on the estate, an extortionist, and so on. I found the plot slow-moving and tedious, however. The story moseys along to a climax after which there's a very long section of exposition explaining everything that happened.

In my opinion this is a rare case where the the TV adaptation of the story (a three-part miniseries available on Netflix) is much better than the book. In the TV series the important plot points are distributed throughout the story, a structure that's much more compelling than having a couple of guys explain everything at the end. Plus there's more dramatic tension, which admittedly takes a little  licence with the story but makes it more engaging.

All in all, not a great book.


Rating: 2 stars

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Review of "Nine Lives To Die" by Rita Mae Brown



I've enjoyed many books in Rita Mae Brown's cozy mystery series that features amateur sleuth "Harry" Haristeen and her adorable talking animals.....tiger cat Mrs. Murphy, chubby gray cat Pewter, and corgi Tucker. After a while Brown's series became more political diatribes than light mysteries and I stopped reading them. When I heard this new book wasn't political I decided to give it a shot. Bottom line: I heard wrong. The 'cause' in this story (the plight of the poor) is toned down a bit, but the book is still more social commentary than mystery.

The story: It's Christmas season in Crozet, Virginia and local churches and charitable organizations are sponsoring a HUGE drive to distribute food and clothing to the needy. Silver Linings Youth Organization - devoted to helping young people - is especially important to the town. Harry Haristeen, her husband Fair, and their friends and neighbors spend a lot of time assisting the charities. They also attend a classy fund-raiser for Silver Linings...one of the season's many social events.

Before long two successful local businessmen lauded for their work with Silver Linings are found murdered - each missing two fingers. Moreover, a long-dead skeleton, heaved up by tree roots, is discovered by an enterprising coyote named Odin. Odin makes off with a skeletal arm that's wearing a gold bracelet. When the jewelry falls off it's quickly commandeered by Harry's pets as a Christmas gift for 'mom.' This part of the story is cute.

In the mystery part of the story Deputy Sheriff Cynthia Cooper investigates the various deaths. In the best books in the Crozet series Harry and her pets get VERY involved in solving the crimes. This is entertaining and adds fun elements to the tales. In this addition to the series, though, Harry spends most of her time delivering goods to the needy (in hazardous snowy conditions) and talking about the plight of the poor. This is an important issue but shouldn't make up the major part of a cozy mystery.

Harry's pets are still charming but they mostly hang out with 'mom', tease each other, have mock fights, converse with other animals on the farm, and sneak off with food scraps for the coyote Odin. In a pinch the pets fearlessly protect Harry....and Tucker gets to sink his teeth into someone's calf.

In the end there's very little detective work in the story and the crimes are solved because the perps just up and confess. Not much of a mystery book.

Fans of the series might enjoy reading about their favorite characters but most of the best characters - like Boom Boom, LIttle Mim, Big Mim, Blair, and Miranda - are largely (or completely) absent from the story. I didn't much like this book and - unless Rita Mae Brown goes back to her original formula - I'm done with this series.


Rating: 2.5 stars

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review of "I Shall Not Want" by Julia Spencer-Fleming



As this sixth book in the Millers Kill series opens the relationship between Reverend Clare Fergusson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne is strained. Still, Clare manages to get involved with law enforcement when she decides to help immigrant laborers (i.e. illegal aliens) who work on the local dairy farms. Though the laborers are necessary for the economic viability of the farms they're often short-changed in terms of pay, living condtions, legal issues, medical care, and so on - and some local religious groups assist them as necessary. When the dead bodies of several immigrants turn up in different parts of the woods it becomes clear that some of them are involved in activities other than farming - things of interest to the police. Russ would prefer that Clare keep her nose out of these police investigations but she inserts herself into them in her usual fearless fashion.

Meanwhile the Millers Kill Police Department has a new female rookie cop - a single mom named Hadley Knox - who was hired just before the bodies started turning up. Thus Hadley has a steep on-the-job learning curve and shows spunk in difficult circumstances.

In addition to the romantic angst between Russ and Clare there are some sparks between Hadley and a fellow cop and between an immigrant worker and the sister of some local thugs.

Thus the book is a sort of mystery/multiple romance that touches on the topic of illegal immigration. Though the mystery part of the book is interesting it's overly complicated and the bad guys do some things that don't ring true. Therefore, the book's climax isn't completely satisfying. Still, fans of the series will probably enjoy this book.



Rating: 3 stars

Monday, October 3, 2016

Review of "The 7the Canon" by Robert Dugoni




Father Thomas Martin - who sports a shaved head, earring, and tattoo - runs a shelter for homeless boys in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. When the bloody body of a teenage youth, Andrew Bennet, is found in the shelter's recreation room, Father Martin is accused of murder.

Lou Giantelli's law firm represents Father Martin and Lou plans to defend the priest himself. First, though, Lou sends his nephew Peter Donley - a young attorney inexperienced in criminal law - to accompany the priest to the preliminary hearing. When Lou suffers a sudden heart attack the Catholic Archdiocese arranges for another law firm to represent Father Martin. However Peter convinces the Archbishop to let HIM defend the priest even though the 'tough on crime' D.A. is expected to seek the death penalty.

As it turns out, the D.A. has a problem.The first detective at the crime scene, Dixon Connor, did a warrantless search of the priest's room and the 'best evidence' may be inadmissable. The D.A. can't offer a plea bargain for political reasons so he tries to manipulate Peter into requesting one. Moreover, the D.A. rushes the legal proceedings even though it's Christmas season. At this point I expected the story to involve an exciting courtroom battle, with Peter pitting his wits against a wily prosecutor. I was wrong.

It turns out that powerful men have been consorting with underage boy prostitutes - and someone has videotapes of the encounters. Moreover, two adolescent boys in San Francisco were killed prior to Andrew Bennet, but the investigations were cursory and no one was arrested. In a separate plotline, a past accusation of rape led to a ruined career and a suicide.....and someone wants revenge. So the book is actually a thriller with plenty of action including: blackmail; breaking and entering; threats; beatings; abductions; frantic car rides; vicious guard dogs; and so on.

To say more would be a spoiler but I can say that Peter, trying to prove Father Martin's innocence, gets involved in some dangerous situations. The attorney also has frequent flashbacks to his abusive alcoholic father who died in suspicious circumstances. Luckily, Peter didn't follow in his father's footsteps. The attorney is happily married with a baby and a dog.

Interesting characters in the story include Frank Ross - a suspended cop/private investigator who helps Peter; Red - a boy on the run who was at the shelter on the night of the murder; D.A. Gil Ramsey - who's determined to be next California Governor; Augustus Ramsey - the D.A.'s pushy overbearing father; Dixon Connor - an old style rough and tumble cop; and more.

I've read other books by Robert Dugoni, which were well-plotted and well-written. When I started this 'new book' I expected it to be just as good....but it's not.

As I was reading I kept thinking: "This seems like a first novel. Some of the plot points and action sequences feel like rookie writing." And during one intense scene the perp - holding a gun on our hero - calmly explains the whole crime, why it was done, how it was done, etc. Most experienced authors don't write like this (anymore). So I wasn't too surprsed when - at the end of the book - Robert Dugoni explains that he wrote this story 20 years ago and recently 'revised it' for publication. Several of the book's main characters are based on Dugoni's close friends and relatives, and he wanted to see the book in print. The bottom line is that this book isn't as well crafted as the author's more recent work.

Still, it's a good story with plenty of action and suspense. I think mystery/thriller fans would enjoy it.

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


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Review of "Charcoal Joe" by Walter Mosley




As this 14th book in the series opens Easy Rawlins is riding pretty high. With a windfall from a previous case Easy has opened a private detective agency in Los Angeles with his two partners, Whisper and Saul. Easy's also about to propose to his girlfriend Bonnie. Things don't go that well with Bonnie but Easy - getting busy with a case - pushes that to the back of his mind.

Easy's new case comes via his lifelong friend Mouse Alexander, a stone cold killer who's always had Easy's back. It seems that a 22-year-old black post-doc with a Ph.D. in physics, Seymour Braithwaite, has been arrested for murdering two white men - Peter Boughman and Ducky. Mouse explains that criminal mastermind (and very scary guy) Charcoal Joe, currently in prison, is interested in Seymour's welfare. Charcoal Joe wants Easy to clear the boy's name. Of course Easy says yes and soon realizes that, unless he finds out who really killed Peter and Ducky, the authorities will pin the crimes on Seymour.

Easy has to be careful while conducting his investigations - and living life in general - because he's a black man in 1968 Los Angeles. When Easy goes to a diner for a bite to eat, the waitress - for no good reason - calls the cops. When Easy encounters police, either at a traffic stop or while doing his job, the cops are hostile and condescending....making it clear they'd as soon arrest him/beat him up/shoot him as look at him. In some ways this is reminiscent of things happening in the country today.

As Easy tries to prove Seymour's innocence he comes across a wide array of colorful characters including Seymour's foster mother and her cantankerous estranged husband; various gangsters and criminals; a pretty jewelry store clerk; a racist prison guard; a sexy female prison administrator and an obnoxious male prison administrator; a prostitute; Fearless Jones - Easy's good friend who never lost a fight; and more. Walter Mosley's descriptions of these characters are exceptionally vivid (i.e. skin color, hairstyle, clothing, behavior) and Easy's interactions with them make up a substantial part of the story.

Easy soon discovers that millions of dollars in cash and diamonds are at the heart of the murders, and some people will stop at nothing to get them. Thus Easy almost gets killed, lots of people die, and bad guys are running around all over the place. For me the abundance of criminals - and their complicated hijinks - were too confusing. I didn't understand what was going on...and some of what I did understand was contrived and unlikely (i.e. a mysterious journal in a foreign language; Feynman's Physics Lectures). This would be the kiss of death for most mysteries but this book is as much about the characters as the plot...so it gets a (small) pass.

Easy himself is a compelling guy: smart and well-spoken; a wonderful dad who dotes on his school-age daughter Feather; a decent cook; a man whose friends would (literally) kill for him; a fellow who's nice-looking, well-dressed and irresistible to women; etc. (Easy's effect on women bothers me. It's what I call 'male fantasy writing' - when almost every woman the protagonist meets whips off her clothes and has sex with him...or at least snuggles up and kisses him. LOL)

I always enjoy Easy Rawlins books, though this isn't among the best I've read. Still, the story is engaging and I'd recommend the book to mystery readers, especially fans of the series.


Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Murder 101" by Faye Kellerman

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In this 22nd book in the series, former LAPD homicide detective Peter Decker - who's close to retirement age - is now working for the Greenbury, NY police department. He and his wife Rina Lazarus have moved East to be closer to their children. As the book opens, a couple of valuable Tiffany stained glass panels have been stolen from a mausoleum in the local cemetery, replaced by cheap fakes. A couple of suspects come to light, a young female student and an award-winning professor, each of whom is associated with a different artsy college in upstate New York. Before long both are brutally murdered.

Decker leads the investigation along with a brash, young, too-full-of himself, Harvard-educated partner named Tyler McAdams who's taken a temporary job with the Greenbury Police Department. Decker and McAdams discover that the murders seem to be associated with art thefts, perhaps of some very valuable works such as Russian icons, a historic Russian 'amber room', Nazi-confiscated art, panels from valuable reference books, and so on.

Rina and Decker's old partner Oliver help with the investigation; everyone puts heir heads together to make sense of the clues, twists, and numerous suspects. Even McAdams - who starts out as a rather irritating snob - mellows out and makes himself useful. Rina also fosters camaraderie among the disparate personalities by organizing a delicious kosher dinner and serving tasty sandwiches and snacks as needed.

I enjoyed visiting with familiar characters and I liked the plot until the climax. The unmasking of the killer and the reasons for the crimes are anti-climactic and, in fact, don't make a lot of sense. It feels like Faye Kellmerman ran out of steam and just hurriedly wrapped up the book. Up to then, though, it's a pretty good story. I can't whole heartedly recommend the book but fans of the series will probably like it okay.



Rating: 3 stars