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.

Review of "Love Life" by Rob Lowe

In this second memoir by Rob Lowe he talks about being a husband and father, TV shows and films he's made, partying and drinking during his younger years (he's a recovering alcoholic), his interest in history and politics, his family, and more.

He tells a moving story about sending his first-born son off to college and a hilarious tale of inadvertently "fooling" an audience - including President Clinton - with his fake saxophone playing. Unfortunately Barbra Streisand found out and tattled to Clinton. :)

Lowe tells several stories about the HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra" (starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon) in which Lowe is almost unrecognizable in the role of a plastic surgeon hired by Liberace. Some of my favorite anecdotes are about the craft of acting, where Lowe provides hints about what we can look for to separate great actors from not-so-good ones.

I listened to the audio version of this book (narrated by the author) which is a treat because Lowe skillfully mimics the voices of some featured celebrities. Some of the stories fall a little flat but there are plenty of good ones to make up for it. I enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review of "Fear the Worst" by Linwood Barclay

Tim Blake, a divorced car salesman in Milford, Connecticut, has his 17-year-old daughter Sydney living with him for the summer. Sydney has a summer job at a cheap local motel called Just Inn Time. One morning Sydney goes off to work and doesn't come home. When Tim goes to Just Inn Time looking for his daughter he's told Sydney never worked there and no one there has ever seen her. Confused and worried Tim reports his daughter missing and begins an obsessive search for her.

When she's not living with her dad Sydney lives nearby with her mother Susanne, who has recently moved them both in with her boyfriend Bob, the owner of a car dealership. When Tim learns that Bob's 19-year-old son Evan recently moved in with them Tim becomes infuriated, convinced this is a recipe for trouble. Evan claims to know nothing about Sydney's disapperance but Tim doesn't believe him. Meanwhile, Sydney's friends offer their assistance. Her ex-boyfriend Jeff Bluestein sets up a website to help search for Sydney and her girlfriend Patty Swain offers moral support and fast food while Tim continues his search.

It soon becomes clear that Sydney was involved in something that put her on the radar of some bad guys and Tim runs into trouble everywhere he turns. To add to Tim's problems the police aren't very helpful. They seem to look at Tim as a suspect in both Sydney's disappearance as well as other crimes that are happening in Milford. Tim's recently dumped girlfriend doesn't help, being angry and neurotic and willing to throw Tim under the bus when she's questioned by the police.

The story is suspenseful from beginning to end and the reader sympathizes with Tim's fear and anguish. He's clearly a nice guy in over his head. The other characters add interest to the story, which moves fast to a dramatic climax. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to fans of mystery thrillers.

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.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Review of "The Infinite Sea" by Rick Yancey

This is the second book in a trilogy that started with "The Fifth Wave."

As the book opens most humans have been wiped off the Earth by an alien race and a small group of young survivors (ranging from kindergartners to teens) are struggling to survive. For the moment they're holed up in a run-down motel infested with rats. The book basically follows several storylines. First, teen Ringer, an excellent shot, takes off to scout out a better home for the winter. She soon runs into big trouble and her story picks up again towards the latter part of the book.

Meanwhile, a small cadre of survivors, including Ben (the group leader), Cassie, her little brother Sam, and a few other survivors remain in the hotel. Cassie is awaiting the return of Evan, an unusual boy who promised he'd find her after the catastrophic finale of book one. Evan was badly injured and has been nursed back to health by Stella, who's his female counterpart. Evan and Stella have different goals, however, which leads to some of the more dramatic scenes in the story.

For the most part, there's not a lot of action in this book. The characters speculate a lot about the aliens' reasons for coming to Earth, why they didn't just annilihate the entire human race with a meteorite, why some aliens have 'downloaded' themselves into human bodies, and so on. As a reader, I hoped some of this would be explained in book two - but it wasn't.

This book is clearly just a bridge in the trilogy. By the end Ringer has had some experiences which (presumably) will be important in book three and the other surviving members of the crew are also poised to forge ahead. Overall the book is disappointing but I'll read book three in hopes of getting the scoop about what's going on with the aliens.

Review of "Pest Control" by Bill Fitzhugh

In this comic thriller New York City exterminator Bob Dillon loses his job when he refuses to use high concentrations of bug-killing chemicals, fearing they'll harm the environment. Instead, Bob has a home lab where he experiments with 'assassin bugs' - natural predators of termites, roaches, etc. - in an attempt to find a strain that can wipe out pests naturally and efficiently.

Wanting to advertise his natural pest control business Bob distributes flyers with a photo of himself in a cap emblazoned 'Exterminator.' This falls into the hands of Marcel, a middleman who connects hit men/women with people who want to hire them. Marcel, marveling that Bob advertises himself so freely, hires the NY exterminator to kill someone - thinking Bob's assertion that he only kills bugs is a 'wink wink' code.

Before long a couple of Bob's 'hits' are killed - without his participation or knowledge - and his lucrative payments for the jobs go astray. Thus, though Bob is a rising star in the assassin business, he remains completely oblivious to what's going on.

So Bob continues his experiments, breeding assassin bugs and placing them in roach-infested buildings to test them out. Meanwhile, Bob's usually devoted wife Mary - hoping to spur Bob into getting a real job that helps pay the bills - takes their daughter and leaves.

Things get even more confused when the CIA - which maintains a top ten list of the world's best assassins - becomes aware of Bob and hires him for a job. Before long a Bolivian drug lord puts a ten million dollar bounty on Bob's head and things get really out of control. The world's best assassins - as well as a few amateurs - flood into New York searching for the exterminator. These assassins, each having a unique (sometimes quite unusual) appearance and technique, are hilarious.

There's a lot of action in the story, with people running around, shooting, stabbing, getting mobbed by savage insects, and so on. Even Mary, sympathetic but confused, returns to help out. The slew of characters in the story are amusing, exchanging plenty of fun dialog and remarks.

I liked the story as well as the descriptions of Bob's experiments. His attempts to breed bugs with specific roach-killing characterstics is interesting and informative. Good book, recommended for thriller fans who want a light, easy read that's 'out of the box'.  

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review of "The Last Precinct" by Patricia Cornwell

As the book opens Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Virginia's Chief Medical Examiner, has maimed the deformed serial killer Jean-Baptiste Chandonne ('the werewolf') in self-defense. Kay believes Chandonne killed the corrupt former police chief Diane Bray but - in a twist - Kay herself is being investigated for Bray's death.

As usual in the Scarpetta novels Kay is the target of various malevolent individuals who wish her harm (in Cornwell's books being a medical examiner is a very high risk job). Kay is more depressed and fed-up than usual for a number of reasons: she's still in deep mourning after the murder (in a previous book) of her boyfriend FBI profiler Benton Wesley; she's upset about her niece, Lucy, being suspended from her job at ATF; her 'sidekick', detective Pete Marino, is being more obnoxious than usual; and she's thinking of quitting her job as Chief Medical Examiner.

Part of the book is devoted to Kay examining her life in talks with her psychiatrist/friend Anna Zenner and much of this self-examination comes off as  whiny and complaining. The book's best parts revolve around the investigation of a couple of bizarre torture murders that are labeled hate crimes and, towards the end, a young boy's suicide.

As usual the scenes of autopsies conducted in the morgue are graphic and the forensic analyses of evidence is interesting. The book is okay but not one of the best in the series.

Review of "This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection" by Carol Burnett

Carol Burnett had amiable, but alcoholic, parents and was raised in the Hollywood area by her grandmother. Early in life Carol realized she wanted to be an entertainer and, with talent and drive, became a very successful comedian, singer, and actor. Along the way Carol acted in stage plays, TV shows, and movies. She was a regular on the Garry Moore TV variety show for years and then had her own TV variety show for 11 seasons. Carol was also married three times, had three daughters, and met entertainers and show business personnel of every kind.

This book contains a variety of anecdotes about all aspects of Carol's life. Some are funny, some are touching, and some are sad. One of my favorites is a story about Carol and four other young, struggling, would-be actresses pooling five dollars each to buy an orange 'community dress' for auditions - bright colors being necessary to catch the director's eye. When Carol lost a part to another gal in an orange dress she switched to yellow.

Carol talks about how thrilled she was to meet Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant and about an hour-long telephone conversation she had with Marlon Brando while she desperately needed to pee. Carol tells tales about doing shows with Julie Andrews and Beverly Sills, and of course the regulars on her TV show - Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner. There are lots of anecdotes about actors, and singers, and playwrights, and directors, and so on that Carol knew, but the book never comes across as name-dropping.

Carol also talks about her marriages and raising her three children. For a long time Carol was married to Joe Hamilton, the producer of her variety show and father of her three daughters. An array of stories in the book revolve around raising the girls - dealing with their little fibs, their naughty behavior in restaurants, etc. A sad anecdote talks about Carol's daughter Carrie struggling with and dying from lung cancer.

I thought the book was interesting and entertaining though not as laugh out loud funny as I expected. I'd recommend it to folks interested in celebrity memoirs.  

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.

Review of "Career of Evil" by Robert Galbraith

This is the third book in Robert Galbraith's (aka J.K. Rowling) series about grizzled private detective Cormoran Strike - a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lost his leg during the hostilities, and his former secretary, now partner - pretty, strawberry blonde Robin Ellacott.

As the story opens Strike and Robin are working on a couple of cases and getting on with their private lives: Strike is dating beautiful (almost) divorcée Elin and Robin is planning her wedding to Matthew - a handsome but insensitive guy who resents Robin's job and her friendship with Strike. (As before, most readers probably wonder how Robin can continue her relationship with this irritating guy.)

Robin receives a package at the Detective Agency and - thinking it's some wedding doodads - opens it to find the severed right leg of a young woman. Not only is this horrifying but it seems to be sending a message because Strike is missing his right leg. Strike concludes that the package was most likely sent by one of three men who hate him:

Jeff Whittaker, Strike's former stepfather - a loutish, abusive, would-be rock star that Strike believes murdered his mother.

Donald Laing, a vicious man who once bit Strike's face during an Army boxing match. Later, when Strike was in the Military Police, he arrested Laing for horrific wife abuse and helped imprison him for 16 years.

Noel Brockbank, a serial pedophile who escaped prison because Strike struck him during an arrest. Brockbank blames Strike for his brain injury and epileptic fits.

Strike reports his suspicions of the three men to the police but they decide to concentrate on other leads, in part because they resent Strike - who became famous after solving a couple of high-profile cases that eluded the cops. So Strike and Robin take it upon themselves to track down the three suspects while continuing to work their ongoing cases.

Meanwhile, the killer goes on with his murderous spree. Parts of the story are narrated by the perp, who graphically describes how he abducts and kills young women. The psychopath seethes with jealousy and hatred for Strike and is determined to ruin his life, partly through targeting Robin. Thus, the killer sends another body part to Strike's partner.

Though it's clear the killer has Robin in his sights, she's determined to be a good detective and an asset to the agency. Thus, Robin refuses to take proper precautions and finds herself in some dangerous situations. For me, this was hard to buy into. If I knew a depraved serial killer was following me around I'd for sure take cover - preferably in a bomb shelter.

Strike and Robin's pursuit of the killer takes them around London and to other parts of Great Britain as they follow leads, question people, investigate dwellings, and so on. During their inquiries the detectives come across a group of people that have 'body integrity disorder', a mental illness that creates an obsession to have one or more limbs amputated. This is especially infuriating to Strike, whose life is greatly hampered by the absence of a leg.

As all this is going on, Strike and Robin struggle with a mutual attraction that both seem reluctant to acknowledge. Matthew also inadvertently reveals a secret that throws a spanner into his and Robin's upcoming marriage plans. In addition, the story reveals incidents that profoundly affected Robin and Strike in their pasts, which have continuing repercussions. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in future books.

After a good deal of drama and danger, Strike gets a 'eureka moment' that helps him solve the case. For me, this part didn't ring true and I felt unsatisfied with the story's climax. Other than that though, I enjoyed the book and recommend it to mystery fans.

Review of "Knots and Crosses" by Ian Rankin

Detective Sergeant John Rebus joined the Edinburgh police force 15 years ago, after leaving the special forces unit of the British Army (SAS). Rebus is a solid cop, respected (if not quite liked) by his superiors. As the story unfolds we learn that Rebus's brutal SAS training left him profoundly troubled, so that he drinks too much, has a failed marriage behind him, and has a somewhat distant relationship with his young teenage daughter Samantha.

When a serial killer starts murdering young girls in Edinburgh, Rebus is drafted onto the team investigating the deaths. At about the same time Rebus starts getting anonymous letters with cryptic messages, which he thinks are from some joker - maybe even his ex-wife or daughter.

As Rebus assists with the serial killer inquiry he's unaware that a reporter, Jim Stevens, is stalking him. It seems that Stevens thinks Rebus's brother Michael - a successful stage hypnotist - is pushing drugs and that detective Rebus is helping him. Stevens hopes that by cracking this 'conspiracy' he'll become famous and successful. The reporter becomes even more determined to nail Rebus when the detective starts dating attractive Detective Inspector Gillian Templer - who once went out with Stevens (literally once).

As the killings continue, and the anonymous letters keep coming, it becomes clear that the murderer has a fixation on Rebus himself. Unfortunately, Rebus can't think who might have a grudge against him, especially since he's blocked memories of his SAS days. Eventually (with a little help) Rebus recalls his past and a tip from the public provides needed clues. The detective puts all this together and figures out the identity and motives of the killer, which leads to a dramatic confrontation.

Though I've read many books in the Rebus series, I hadn't read this first one until now. The story serves as a good introduction to detective Rebus himself, but the plot is too simplistic and somewhat unlikely. It also starts off overly slowly but starts zipping along once Rebus gets into the thick of the investigation.

For a cop on the job for 15 years Rebus's intuition is underdeveloped. He's way too slow on the uptake about the anonymous letters. Granted Rebus has a clouded memory due to his SAS training, but getting weird letters in the midst of a murder spree should ring a bell in ANY detective's mind.

The author violates one of my pet peeves in this book. As much as I like Rebus as a detective I don't believe his paunchy, sloppy-looking self would get beautiful DI Gill Templer to sleep with him right off the bat. In my opinion (some) male authors are especially prone to write this kind of male fantasy and I never find it credible.

Overall, I enjoyed this first book in the series and feel like it's a good introduction to Rebus and his personality. The series gets even better in later books, with Rebus becoming more fully realized as a character and the mysteries themselves becoming more sophisticated and complex.

Still, I'd recommend the book to mystery fans. The Rebus books are well-worth reading and this is a good place to start.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review of "Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - The World's Most Dangerous Weapon" by Steve Sheinkin

This is the story of the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Once scientists learned that uranium atoms could be split, leading to a chain reaction that would cause an enormous explosion, the race was on. The U.S. asssembled a team of physicists, chemists, and other specialists which secretly worked night and day to build a bomb from radioactive uranium and plutonium. At the same time Germany was producing and shipping large quantities of heavy water out of Norway, to facilitate their own bomb development. And the Soviet Union, lacking the know-how to make an atom bomb, planted spies to steal the plans from the U.S.

Steve Sheinkin's book presents a fascinating picture of how the first atomic bombs were built. Needing a large number of top physicists to accomplish the task, the U.S recruited people from universities across the country. Overrnight, scientists would 'disappear' from their jobs, secretly making their way to Los Alamos, New Mexico where a bomb-making research facility was assembled.

The book mentions many scientists/support staff at Los Alamos, especially Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the facility. Oppenheimer oversaw every aspect of the work, working himself to the bone to accomplish the goal. At the same time a few scientists sympathetic to the Soviet cause stole plans to send to Russia.

As they builit their own bomb the Allies were desperate to prevent Germany from doing the same. Thus they trained a skilled team to parachute into Norway, sneak into the heavy water plant, and sabotage the facility - which would greatly slow down Germany's research. This is a fascinating section of the book, suspenseful and exciting.

Though the outcome of the bomb research is not a mystery, the reader inevitably gets caught up in the excitement of the tale. The story covers building, testing, and eventually using atomic bombs - and the ambivalence of the scientists who created this devastating weapon. A well-written interesting book.

Review of "Dust" by Patricia Cornwell

Medical examiner Kay Scarpetta has an abundance of troubles: she's traumatized after the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings; she's recovering from a bad flu; her head investigator Pete Marino has bailed on her; her FBI profiler husband - Benton Wesley - is on the outs with his boss; and a serial killer seems to be at work in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she lives.

As usual in Patricia Cornwell's series, Kay and Benton are in the cross-hairs of self-serving or demented bad guys - and have to contend with them while concurrently chasing criminals. Pete Marino is also true to form, resentful that Kay never fell in love with him and determined to make her life difficult by behaving in a childish, crude, and unpleasant manner. Personally, I've had about enough of Pete Marino and wish that Kay would cut him loose so he'd disappear from future books.

Kay's genius niece Lucy is also on hand - and in this book she's behaving a little better than usual - refraining from getting involved with psychopaths and using her IT skills to help the investigation. Lucy, however, is a hard to believe "over-the-top" character: she drives around town in an armored SUV worthy of the Russian mob, flies helicopters, hacks into any computer anywhere, and so on. I liked Lucy much better when she was a youngster in the early Scarpetta books.

The plot of the book is fairly straightforward. Kay is determined to help capture a sadistic murderer who apparently killed several people in Washington, D.C. before heading for Massachusetts. Kay is thwarted, however, because the head of the FBI seems to be tampering with the evidence and a large, wealthy, corrupt corporation is also obstructing the investigation. Kay carries on trying to catch the perp, however, and does numerous forensic examinations that are described in great detail. Readers interested in this type of thing will probably like this book.

Though this book is a little better than the last couple of books in the Scarpetta series it isn't as good as the early books. I'd mildly recommend it to mystery fans, a little more if they're huge Scarpetta fans.

Review of "The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party" by Alexander McCall Smith

In this addition to the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series - set in Botswana - Mma Makutski plans her long-awaited wedding to Phuti Radiphuti while Mma Ramotswe handles a difficult case.

Mma Ramotswe, the detective agency owner, is approached by Mr. Botsalo Moeti, a cattle farmer who reports that two of his cows were purposely maimed. Mr. Moeti doesn't want to contact the police and asks Mma Ramotswe to investigate. The detective drives to the client's farm and finds a fairly common situation: Mr. Moeti bullies his servants and pays them poorly. Further inquiries reveal that the client is a difficult man who quarrels with his neighbor about fences and wandering cattle. So there are plenty of suspects for the cow injuries.

As the case proceeds Mma Ramotswe acquires troubling information and, not sure what to do, consults "The Principles of Private Detection" by Clovis Anderson. This is the book that launched Mma Ramotswe on her detective career and serves as her investigative 'bible.' As always Mma Ramotswe exhibits common sense, sagacity, and thoughtfulness as she solves the case of the injured cattle.

While Mma Ramotswe is detecting Mma Makutsi is making wedding arrangements. She has to get wedding shoes (a happy chore that doesn't go quite right), make a guest list, arrange accomodations for relatives, organize two wedding feasts, etc. To add to her worries Mma Makutski has to deal with a greedy uncle who demands too many cattle for the bride price. It's interesting to read about wedding customs in other cultures and I enjoyed these parts of the book. Also the beef stew, mashed pumpkin, fruit cake and other wedding foods sound very tasty. (Yum!)

As all this is going on both ladies have something else on their minds. Through the grapevine they've heard that Charlie - apprentice to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (Mma Ramotswe's husband) at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors - abandoned the girl who gave birth to his twin babies. Mma Makuski, in her usual combative fashion, gives Charlie 'what for.' And Charlie calls her a warthog and runs off. So Mma Ramotswe - wanting Charlie to do the right thing - has to deal with this issue as well.

I enjoyed this cozy mystery but the case and side issues are less engaging than other books in the series. Moreover the resolution of the problems has a 'fairy tale' whiff...too convenient to be believed. Still, it's nice to visit with the familiar likable characters as they go about their everyday lives. I can just picture Mma Ramotswe sitting on the porch after dinner, sipping bush tea, and thinking deep thoughts.

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.

Review of "Visitation Street" by Ivy Pochoda

Two 15-year-old girls - Val and June - who live in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, get bored one night and decide to ride a pool raft out into the nearby harbor. In the morning an unconscious Val is found near the shore by  Jonathan Sprouse, a high school music teacher, and June is missing.

Though it seems this would be the beginning of a mystery book it's really a character study of the people living in this run-down Brooklyn neighborhood. Jonathan Sprouse is a disillusioned musician who drinks too much and lives in a dive. Fadi - a delicatessen owner - is trying to keep the neighborhood connected with his newsletter. Monique and some of her fellow teens are hanging out on park benches, making music.

Thugs are using drugs and harassing girls who wander into their corners. A homeless community is making do in an abandoned shipyard. Ren, a talented young graffiti artist, is making incredible murals. Cree, whose cop dad was shot years before, is trying to get out of Red Hook but his mom won't leave the place her husband died.

There are psychic women who talk to ghosts, drunkards, angry parents, shop owners, average families who do weekend barbecues...all rubbing shoulders in this small area.

Pochoda does a masterful job developing the characters and evoking the ambience of this Red Hook neighborhood. I almost felt like I lived there myself. In the end we learn what happened out in the harbor on the night June went missing and the Red Hook residents get on with their lives. Good book.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review of "Light of the World" by James Lee Burke

Louisiana Sheriff's Detective Dave Robichaux is on vacation in Montana with his wife Molly, novelist daughter Alafair, and private detective friend Clete Purcell. They are soon joined by Gretchen Horowitz, the daughter Clete first met when she was an adult. Gretchen, severely abused as a child, was once a hit-woman for the mob. She's now a filmmaker, making a documentary about oil shale drilling. The visitors are staying at the ranch of Dave's friend Albert Hollister, a famous writer and environmental activist.

Trouble soon rears it head when someone shoots an arrow at Alafair while she's jogging. In addition, a local teenage girl, Angel Deer Heart, is abducted and killed. Angel is the adopted daughter of Caspian Younger and his wife Felicity Louviere; Angel's grandfather is Love Younger, one of the wealthiest men in the country. As usual in Burke's books, the 'evil wealthy family' - in this case the Youngers - harbor dark secrets and are apparently up to no good. Clete Purcell also stays true to character and falls under the spell of a beautiful young woman, this time the married Felicity Louviere. As Clete gets older and less healthy in book after book, this trope gets increasingly harder to accept.

Dave comes to suspect that the perpetrator of bad deeds is the sadistic serial killer Asa Surrette, about whom Alafair wrote a series of scathing articles when he was in prison. Though Surette is officially 'dead' - killed when a prison transport was in a fiery collision - Dave is convinced he survived and is in Montana. Dave fears that Surette means to continue his murderous spree in Montana and that he has Alafair in his sights.

Basically the story is about Dave and Clete trying to stop Asa Surette while they expose the sinister doings of the Younger family. Alafair and Gretchen are on board with this agenda, getting into various kinds of trouble along the way. Gretchen especially has the bad luck to meet the worst people imaginable.

There are a plenty of additional characters in the story: a troubled but tough rodeo cowboy, his lady friend, a local sheriff, corrupt law enforcement officers, some vicious thugs, and so on. There is also a prominent sub-theme about whether evil is a real, tangible thing. Dave's frequent musings on the subject seemed a bit hazy to me and somewhat disconnected from the story.

Burke's ongoing characters are favorites of mine and I always enjoy visiting with them in his books. I also liked the basic mystery premise of the story, and even some of the sub-plots. However, there were elements of the story that didn't come together at the end and one odd character seemed to be completely unexplained.

All in all I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to mystery fans.   

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.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Review of "The Purity of Vengeance" by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Danish farm girl Nete Hermansen lost her mother at a young age, and growing up among her father and brothers, learned to curse like a sailor and freely exhibit her body - habits that shocked teachers and townsfolk. After a difficult childhood and two early pregnancies Nete was sent to Sprogo Island by evil Dr. Curt Wad, a eugenicist determined to rid Denmark of 'inferior people.'

Sprogo Island housed girls considered to be mentally defective or sexually promiscuous, and the girls were treated harshly, forced to work, and often sterilized. Year later - after Nete left Sprogo, got an education, and was happily married - a chance meeting with Dr. Curt Wad upturned her life once again.

Meanwhile, in the present, Copenhagen police Department Q is looking into a series of decades-old disappearances. The cold case squad consists of three odd but endearing individuals: Detective Carl Morck, his language-challenged assistant Assad, and his secretary Rose, who appears to have a peculiar type of multiple personality disorder. The investigations reveal that the old disappearances seem to have ties both to Dr. Curt Wad, who now heads a political party poised to institute eugenics in Denmark, and to Nete Hermansen, now an elderly lady living alone.

When the police start to look into Dr. Curt Wad he panics, afraid his old Nazi-like tactics on Sprogo will be exposed, and Wad and his allies take extreme measures to protect themselves. Nete Hermansen's connection to the disappearances revolve around retribution against those who wronged her in her youth. The story skillfully switches back and forth between past and present and engages the reader in every scene. The characters are well written and varied: some funny, some earnest, some evil creeps you'd gladly throttle. Not too many twists and surprises but a very good book. Highly recommended.

Review of "Sacrilege" by S.J. Parris

It's 1584 and antagonism rages between Protestant England and Catholic countries of Europe. Many people, even in England, would like nothing better than to to depose (or kill) Queen Elizabeth and install a Catholic monarch on the English throne. Thus the Queen's adviser, Sir Francis Walshingham, has an extensive network of spies working to sniff out Catholic sympathizers. One of the spies is the Italian ex-monk Giordano Bruno, currently living in the French Embassy in London.

As the story begins, Bruno is hurrying through London when he's surreptitiously approached by Sophia Underhill, an old (sort of) flame he still loves. Sophia has come from Canterbury to seek Bruno's help. Sophia tells Bruno that she was forced to marry Sir Edward Kingsley, an abusive older man who made her life a misery. Sir Edward was recently bludgeoned to death in Canterbury Cathedral and Sophia is accused of the crime. Fearing she'd be hung Sophia escaped to find Bruno, who she thinks can expose the real murderer. She's sure the killer is Sir Edward's son Nicholas - a lout interested only in women and gambling.

Bruno asks his employers' permission to go to Canterbury, which is a suspected haven for Catholic sympathizers. Catholic Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, after which he was declared a saint. Many people believe saints' bones can perform miracles, but Sir Thomas's bones have presumably been lost or destroyed.

Bruno goes to Canterbury where he has two tasks: find the real killer of Sir Edward and search for Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth. Sophia, disguised as a boy, accompanies him. In Canterbury Bruno stays with his elderly friend Dr. Harry Robinson, a Protestant official and spy for Sir Francis Walsingham while Sophia stays with protective Huguenot friends.

As Bruno pursues his investigations he learns that something sinister seems to be going on in Canterbury and that several young boys are missing or murdered. Bruno's inquiries incur hostility from various people, including his host's manservant, the local physician, and the church treasurer. Then, when a local shopkeeper is killed, Bruno himself is accused of murder. This is followed by more murders, and it seems clear that one or more Canterbury residents are covering their tracks about something.

I'm not a history buff and don't read a lot of historical fiction but the depiction of Canterbury's streets, houses, people, and ambiance feels authentic. So does old England's rather hasty (and probably unfair) dispensation of 'justice' at the time. Seems you could be accused of murder (a crime for which you were not allowed a lawyer), tried, and hung all in the space of a week or two!

The book's plot is engaging and the characters are sufficiently well-rounded and believable. There's even a courtroom scene, where Bruno (and others) are tried for their crimes. The book has some twists that surprised me and an almost satisfying ending. Could be some unfinished business is addressed in subsequent books in the series.

Over all I'd say this is a good historical mystery that fans of the genre would enjoy.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review of "My Mother Was Nuts" by Penny Marshall

I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by the author in her unmistakable deep voice and New York accent.

Penny Marshall was born to Marjorie and Tony Marshall in 1943. Her show business career started in Marjorie's dancing school in the basement of their Bronx, New York apartment building. Young Penny, who wanted to run around the neighborhood and do her own thing, grumbled mightily about the mandatory dance lessons. However the numerous performances staged by Marjorie gave Penny confidence and stage experience.

Though Marjorie Marshall loved doing shows Penny didn't become a child actress. She drifted through school and graduated with less than stellar grades. After searching for a suitable college Penny chose the University of New Mexico, which had a very lenient acceptance policy. Penny was surprised by her mom's acquiescence to this distant school....but came to realize that her mother thought all the "New" states (New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico) were clustered together. Ha ha ha. In any case, Penny headed west.

Penny liked college, especially partying and hanging out with the football team. Before long Penny - who was a little naive about sex - was pregnant. Soon afterward she was married and living in a cramped apartment with her husband Mickey and baby girl Tracy. The marriage soon foundered and twenty-year-old Penny lit out for Los Angeles, where her brother Garry Marshall was becoming a successfull writer/producer/director and her sister Ronny was a producer and actress. Penny was an indifferent mother and left little Tracy with Micky and his parents in Albuquerque. I was put off by Penny's casual attitude about her child.....but mother and daughter grew closer when Tracy grew up.

In Los Angeles Penny, helped by her brother Garry, got small parts in various movies and TV sitcoms. Penny married Rob Reiner (star of "All in the Family") in 1971 and they bought a nice home where they entertained family and friends - including many Hollywood bigwigs and celebrities. Over the course of her career Penny seems to have met almost everyone in show business (she names names.....lots and lots of names), and many of these folks became her close friends. People were always welcome to drop by Penny's house to eat, drink, do drugs, and sleep over....and some guests stayed for months (or even years). I thought this was very generous.

In 1976 Penny landed a role in "Laverne and Shirley" - she played "Laverne" and Cindy Williams played "Shirley." The program became a runaway success and Penny talks about the scripts, cast, crew, filming, locations, etc. She also mentions how pleased she was to be able to hire friends who needed a job. Cindy Williams left the show in Season 8, after which the two women didn't speak for 15 years. Penny was bewildered by Cindy's actions and suggests that Cindy's husband, Bill Hudson (Goldie Hawn's ex), wanted her to quit. It's not clear exactly what happened but Penny never badmouths her co-star. In fact this isn't a 'tell-all' book at all and Penny doesn't 'dish the dirt' on anyone.

Penny and Rob divorced in 1980, a few years before "Laverne and Shirley" ended. This was a difficult period in Penny's life. Afterwards she turned to directing movies. Penny goes into great detail about each movie she helmed, including who auditioned for the leading roles, how the stars were chosen, the film crews she selected, and all the nitty gritty of movie making. I found all this very absorbing and these were my favorite parts of the book.

Penny generously acknowledges the professionals (including Steven Spielberg) who helped her learn the craft and expresses no bitterness about being overlooked - again and again - for (well deserved) Oscar nominations. Penny says she's satisfied doing the work she loves and entertaining people.The movies Penny directed are: "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (I love that movie); "Big"; "Awakenings"; A League of Their Own"; "Renaissance Man";"The Preacher's Wife"; and "Riding in Cars With Boys." Penny also made a documentary about basketball player Dennis Rodman, called "Rodman Rebound."

Penny's personal life was eclectic and intriguing. She talks about flings with various beaus and a long romance with singer/songwriter Art Garfunkel. Penny also traveled all over the world; threw numerous joint birthday parties with Carrie Fisher (featuring fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and a roster of A-list guests); mourned the deaths of friends; welcomed the birth of grandchildren; took care of her aging parents; repeatedly went to the Pritikin Spa to get healthy and stop smoking (the smoking part didn't work); obtained season tickets to the Lakers and the Clippers; and much more. Penny also speaks about her 2010 diagnosis of lung cancer - which spread to her brain. Penny reports that - right after she heard the news - she asked someone to go out and buy her White Castle hamburgers. The actress glosses over the illness but mentions that she went into remission after treatment.

I enjoyed Penny's book and think it would be fun to join her for pizza (or hamburgers) and beer and hear more stories about television, movies, and Hollywood personalities. This is a fun light book that I'd recommend to fans of celebrity memoirs.

Review of "Exclusive" by Sandra Brown

After having coffee with First Lady Vanessa Merritt, whose baby recently died from SIDS, TV reporter Barrie Travis decides - with just about zero evidence - that the baby was murdered and sets out to prove it. This leads to big trouble because President David Merritt, who is as corrupt as they come and has his own hit squad, doesn't relish adverse publicity for his administration.

Looking for evidence Barrie tracks down Gray Bondurant, a former advisor to the President who allegedly had an affair with Vanessa. Barrie travels to Gray's ranch in Wyoming and falls into bed with the handsome hottie minutes after meeting him. He is the strong silent type though, and refuses to give out much info. Nevertheless, the reporter becomes more and more convinced that something is rotten in the Merritt administration and continues to snoop; Gray, apparently smitten after sex with Barrie, follows her back to Washington to watch her back.

As the President scrambles to hide his past actions, protect himself from bad publicity, and win a second term he plans to kill off anyone who might expose him, including his wife. This all plays out more or less as you might expect and leads to a conclusion that doesn't quite jive with all the characters' personalities.

To me the plot of this book was unbelievable, over the top, and full of cliches. There were also too many gratuitous, repetitive sex scenes. This might be an okay beach or plane read, but I wouldn't have missed anything by skipping it. 

Review of "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

On the same night that Toronto-based movie/stage actor Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack while playing King Lear the 'Georgia flu' begins a deadly rampage that soon kills 99.99% of the human population. Societies collapse and the few remaining individuals eventually congregate in small communities and try to get on with their lives.

Most of this book follows the story of a few people connected to Arthur Leander - family, friends, acquaintances - that survived the flu. This includes ex-wives, his son, his best friend, fellow actors, and a paramedic in the audience who tried to save his life. There are threads that vaguely connect this group of people. For example, Arthur's first wife, Miranda was a writer/artist who wrote comic books about a group of people who escaped an alien invasion of Earth to live on a space station. This group is led by a character named Dr. Eleven. Some of these comics end up in the hands of Kirsten Raymonde, who was a child actor in the fateful production of King Lear. Fifteen years after the disastrous flu Kirsten is part of a traveling symphony/acting troupe that makes a circuit of upper Michigan, entertaining people in small settlements.

Arthur's second wife was Elizabeth, an actress with whom he had a son. When the flu hit, Elizabeth and her son happened to be on the same plane as Arthur's best friend Clark. The plane was forced to land at an airport short of their destination and the surviving passengers took up residence there, inhabiting the various concourses and now useless planes. After a time Clark starts a museum in the airport, displaying relics - such as phones, credit cards, passports - of the 'old times'.

The story jumps around in time from the years before Arthur's death, to the night of his heart attack, to the days following, to twenty years later, and to various times in between. It was interesting to read the author's take on what would happen in the aftermath of a disaster that wiped out almost all of humanity: practial considerations like getting food, clothing, and shelter; people in denial; people trying to make sense of the calamity; violence and looting; cults forming; and so on.

As the story proceeds the members of the traveling symphony come into contact with other survivors, and - in the various conversations and inner thoughts among the characters - there's plenty of introspection and philosophical thinking.

What bothers me a little about dystopian stories like this is the unrealistic (to me) notion that people would continue to live in primitive conditions for years and years. These aren't, after all, cave people who never heard of technology, electricity, industry, computers, and so on. It seems likely that some smart, capable people would make it their business to improve living conditions very quickly.

The characters in the book are interesting and there's some danger/suspense as 'good guys' encounter 'bad guys'. There's also a little bit of a mystery with clues for the reader to ponder. All in all, an okay book.  

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.


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.

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.

Review of "The Accursed" by Joyce Carol Oates

This book - a (pseudo) historical, supernatural, mystery horror story - is supposedly written by M.W. van Dyck, descendant of one of the most prominent families of Princeton, New Jersey. Claiming to have access to newly decoded journals and other materials available only to himself van Dyck unspools the story of the "Crosswicks Curse" that took a horrific toll on some wealthy, influential Princeton families in 1905 and 1906.

The first conspicuous manifestation of the curse occurs when pretty, young Annabel Slade absconds from her elaborate wedding immediately after exchanging marriage vows with handsome Lieutenant Dabney Bayard. The man she runs off with, Axson Mayte, is in town (purportedly) advising Woodrow Wilson - then President of Princeton University.

As Annabel's brother Josiah Slade, a Princeton graduate who can't quite seem to find his role in life, relentlessly pursues the runaways Annabel is trapped in a filthy, hidden castle called the 'Bog Kingdom' - where she's abused, starved, impregnated, and eventually reduced to the status of a slovenly cleaning woman alongside previous Mayte victims.

Mayte has no fixed appearance, looking tall and handsome to some and ugly and toadlike to others. Thus the wily Mayte is able to appear in different guises - including François D’Apthorp and Count English von Gneist - a great favorite with the snobby ladies of Princeton. Mayte is apparently able to exert a hypnotic effect on people, manipulating their thoughts and behavior.

Mayte's most amusing incarnation occurs when he appears as Sherlock Holmes to Pearce van Dyck (the narrator's father) who's convinced that Sherlock Holmes' "cases" - which he believes are real - hold the key to the mystery of the Curse. The elder van Dyck's compulsive analysis of the Curse using Holmes' work as a guide are the funniest parts of the book.

Soon after Annabel Slade disappears her pre-teen cousins Todd and Oriana Slade are also afflicted by the Curse as are other important Princeton families. Several husbands become obsessed with the notion that their wives are committing adultery, with unfortunate consequences and a woman decides that her newborn's 'deliberate misbehavior' requires a drastic solution.

Reverend Winslow Slade, who was previously President of Princton University and Governor of New Jersey is especially disturbed by the Curse because he's grandfather to Annabel, Josiah, Todd, and Oriana, as well as friend and counselor to other afflicted families. Moreover, the Reverend has a shameful secret that's haunted him for five decades.

The book is very long, incorporating a number of historic figures. These include grossly obese (former) President Grover Cleveland, who tries to jump out a window after seeing his daughter's ghost, but he's too fat to fit (ha ha ha); Jack London, famous author of adventure stories - who flaunts his mistress at a speaking engagement, then has a pub party and gets wildly drunk; Upton Sinclair, the painfully self-conscious author of "The Jungle" (which exposes the horrific practices of the meat industry) - who neglects his family and dreams of establishing a socialist colony in New Jersey; President Teddy Roosevelt, who invites the vegetarian Sinclair to an uncomfortable meat-filled lunch; and of course Woodrow Wilson - who has a plethora of health problems and an ongoing feud with Andrew Fleming West, Dean of Princeton's Graduate School. During the story Wilson, happily married with several daughters, also becomes victim to the Curse when he's bewitched by a beautiful woman.

True to the time period, many of the characters exhibit (what would now be considered) atrocious behavior including rampant racism, sexism, opposition to women's suffrage, disdain for immigrants, disregard for the suffering of the 'lower classes', and way too high an opinion of themselves.

By the end of the book the Curse has run it's course and the reader learns what it was all about in a satisfying conclusion. For me the book was overly long and spent too much time on ancillary characters like Jack London - whose speech to a socialist group and subsequent partying seemed to go on forever; and Upton Sinclair - whose personal life and socialist musings took up too many pages. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles about a book that's well-researched, well-written, and a rollicking good story.

I'd highly recommend the book to readers who enjoy Gothic literary fiction.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review of "Bruno, Chief of Police" by Martin Walker

Benoit Courreges - Chief of Police of St. Denis, France - is known as Bruno to everyone in the tight little community. Bruno loves the town and tries to ensure that the local traditions are not disturbed by pesky regulations from the European Union. Bruno turns a blind eye (and even helps the scofflaws), for example, when health inspectors who would ban some homemade goods from the weekly market are held up due to slashed tires or potatoes in their exhaust pipes.

Though St. Denis has a mixed population of native French men and women as well as Algerians and other foreigners, people get along and there is little serious crime. Thus Bruno has plenty of time to socialize, play tennis, teach tennis to youngsters, follow the local rugby team, make his own wine and paté, garden, and so on. Then one day an Algerian grandfather is found brutally murdered in his cabin, a swastika carved into his chest, and his medal of honor and a treasured photo missing. Members of the right-wing National Front - a political party that opposes immigration - immediately rise to the top of the suspect list.

Given the background between France and Algeria - as well as some anti-immigration sentiment - the investigation is politically sensitive. Thus big-wig detectives and officals are sent to St. Denis to take over the inquiry. Bruno has invaluable local knowledge however - and with the help of some acquaintances - is instrumental in uncovering important clues. Along the way Bruno has a romance, plays tennis doubles, has a delicious English meal prepared by two British ladies, drinks a good deal of wine and champage, has a unique picnic, and so on. The author skillfully weaves the wonderful ambiance of St. Denis into the story, and the reader is simultaneously charmed by the town and intrigued by the murder investigation.

The story is full of interesting characters, including an Algerian math teacher and his family, two patriotic World War II veterans who haven't spoken for thirty years, mischievous children, hard-partying/drug-dealing teenagers, attractive ladies, political operatives, gendarmes, and more. The murder investigation uncovers some interesting aspects of French/Algerian history while driving the story forward at a steady clip. All in all a very enjoyable cozy mystery, highly recommended.

Review of "A Death In Vienna" by Daniel Silva

Multi-lingual Israeli spy/art restorer Gabriel Allon is restoring a painting in Venice when a bomb destroys the 'Wartime Claims and Inquiries Office' in Vienna, Austria. Gabriel's friend Eli Lavon is badly wounded and Eli's staff is killed. When Gabriel travels to Vienna to investigate he meets an elderly Holocaust survivor who claims that a prominent, wealthy, local businessman - Ludwig Vogel - is really a Nazi war criminal named Erich Radek.

Before long the elderly Holocaust survivor is murdered and Gabriel's further inquiries - which require trips to the Vatican and Argentina - seem to confirm that Vogel is indeed Radek. Gabriel suspects that the bombing and murder were perpetrated to prevent Vogel/Radek from being exposed - and there's a little side-story associated with this presumption. Along the way Gabriel learns more about his mother, a Holocaust survivor who's been very reluctant to speak about her wartime experiences. This makes Gabriel even more determined to bring Radek to justice.

During Gabriel's travels there are several attempts on his life but none are successful due to a little help from his friends. These various friends also help Daniel hatch up a complex scheme to snatch Radek, and this leads to the book's dramatic climax.

As usual in Daniel Silva's writing, the book has a political bent. In this story, the Vatican, the Catholic Church, and Pope Pius XII are depicted as having collaborated with the Nazis and having helped war criminals escape. Also, Austria is described as having been sympathetic to the Nazis, with people willing to run concentration camps and cover up war crimes. FYI: The parts of the book that described Nazi treatment of the Jews are graphic and disturbing.

There are an array of interesting characters in this thriller, including Gabriel's art mentor, his girlfriend, a clock restorer/assassin, residents of the Vatican, members of Israeli's intelligence service, and more. The story is fast-paced with plenty of action, but there aren't a lot of twists. Spy thrillers aren't my favorite genre but I enjoyed the book. Recommended for thriller fans.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of "Die Like An Eagle" by Donna Andrews


In this 20th book in the series Meg Lanslow - blacksmith, wife, mother, amateur sleuth, and assistant to the mayor of Caerphilly - is the team mom for her twin sons' baseball team, the Eagles. The President of the Caerphilly Summerball League is local builder Biff Brown, a dictatorial bully who makes up and enforces his own rules. Moreover Biff's company is contracted to maintain the baseball field, but he does almost nothing. Thus the field is all weeds and potholes with bleachers and dugouts that are falling apart and one small smelly porta-potty. And wouldn't you know it, on Summerall League opening day the cramped porta-potty contains the body of a dead man.

First identified as Biff Brown, the body turns out to be his lookalike brother Shep. Is Biff the intended victim or is it really Shep - an umpire notorious for making calls that favor Biff's teams? Another attempt on Biff's life seems to answer the question. Police Chief Burke investigates the crimes with a little unofficial help from Meg.

As it happens Biff has been hired to remodel Caerphilly town square and - as aide to the mayor - Meg has to track his progress.....which is zero. Biff has also been ignoring Meg's phone calls and texts for weeks. So the amateur detective decides to visit Biff's estranged wife and previous clients, to find out more about him. Meg soon gets an earful: Biff's jobs are shoddy or incomplete; he has a bad temper; he extorts money from clients for the baseball league; and so on.

Besides the mystery there's plenty going on in the story: kids are practicing and playing baseball; there's a picnic for the Caerphilly Eagles and their families (the 'Biff alert' during the party is funny); the Summerball League has an important meeting; Shep's drunken ex-wife totters over to the police station and fires a gun; and so on.

LIke other books in the series, Meg's extended family is on hand to help out as needed. Meg's mom is truly a magician, able to conjure up a party for 100 people (with an enormous amount of food) in an hour and to produce volunteers for the Summerball League's snack stand at a moment's notice.

This is an enjoyable light mystery that would appeal to readers who like cozies, especailly Meg Lanslow fans.