Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review of "Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink




Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans did not have the resources to adequately care for patients following the flooding and power loss caused by Hurricane Katrina. In addition, evacuations were slow and difficult and people feared potential violence from looters and desperate citizens. After a few days, the air conditioning failed and temperatures soared, toilet facilities were inadequate and the building reeked, halls and stairways were dark, and the staff was sleep-deprived and exhausted. In short, conditions were unbearable.

In this book Sheri Fink describes the difficult decisions of several healthcare professionals to over-medicate (euthanize) a number of patients who they believed would not make it out in time. Afterwards, state authorities initiated a murder investigation with plans to prosecute Dr. Anna Pou, and two nurses - Sheri Landry and Lori Budo - who allegedly administered the fatal injections.

There's plenty of blame to go around for the calamity at Memorial, including the hospital's inadequate preparation for disaster, poor government planning and response, chaos and violence in the streets, and the foibles of human nature.

The families of the deceased were angry and wanted justice but many people were outraged at the charges leveled against the women and accused Charles Foti, the Attorney General of Louisiana, of attempting to further his own career at the expense of the healthcare professionals.

Sheri Fink does a masterful job of describing the situation at Memorial during the crisis and the legal maneuverings of all parties - prosecution and defense - afterwards. It's hard to say I enjoyed the book since the subject matter was so depressing and horrific - but it was a compelling read. Highly recommended.


Rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review of "Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan




At the age of 24 Susannah Cahalan was doing just fine. She was lively, talkative, and fun-loving; she worked as a reporter for the New York Post; she lived in an apartment in Hell's Kitchen; and she had a great boyfriend named Stephen.

Then Susannah began to change: she forgot to prepare for an important work meeting; started to get migraines; felt compelled to snoop through Stephen's things; developed numbness.....then pins and needles. Before long these symptoms morphed into intense crying; rambling speech; facial grimaces; chewing motions; puppet-like movements; aggressive behavior; out-of-body experiences; seizures; paranoia; and delusions. Susan started to imagine that people were saying nasty things about her (or to her) and became convinced that her father had killed his wife (who was alive). In time, Susannah could hardly walk or speak.

Susannah saw doctor after doctor and had numerous medical and psychological tests, but physicians couldn't agree on a diagnosis. Suggestions included: excessive drinking and partying; anxiety attacks; epilepsy; bipolar disorder; schizoid disorder; schizophrenia; meningitis; encephalitis; and more. Eventually, Susannah broke down completely and had to be hospitalized. At this point, Susannah 'lost' a month of her life.....she has no memory of this period. However, Susannah was able to reconstruct this time using hospital videos, doctors' files, interviews with medical personnel, recollections of friends and family, and a journal kept by her parents.

Susannah might have descended into permanent psychosis, or even died - but was lucky enough to be diagnosed by a Syrian neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar. Dr. Najjar determined that Susannah had a rare autoimmune disorder called "anti–NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis" - in short, antibodies from Susannah's immune system were attacking her brain.

Dr. Najjar prescribed an intensive and prolonged regimen of steroid drugs, which ultimately halted the antibody assault on Susannah's head. The question remained.....could she recover completely? Fortunately Susannah had enormous support from her parents, stepparents, and Stephen - as well as excellent medical care (and good insurance).

In this memoir Susannah presents a thorough and vivid description of her descent into 'madness' and her difficult step by step recovery - which required her to re-learn how to walk, talk, and interact with people. Susannah also provides general information about the brain, how it works, how memories are formed, etc. This is interesting and accessible to the lay person.

Susannah's case became a 'cause celebre' - with articles in medical journals and newspapers as well as television appearances. As it turns out, the widespread publicity benefitted people who shared Susannah's illness, but were misdiagnosed. Some doctors, seeing articles about anti–NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis, were able to re-assess their patients. In some cases, this saved lives.

One BIG lesson I took away from this book is that it's very important to find the right doctor and get the correct diagnosis. As Susannah points out, people throughout history who were thought to be psychotic may have had anti–NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis.....or some other organic brain disorder. Of course this is true about health issues in general - ongoing research and new information often sheds light on previously 'mysterious' maladies.

I'd recommend this book to readers interested in memoirs about illness and recovery, especially brain disorders.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of "Cold Service" by Robert B. Parker




In this 32nd book in the series, Hawke is shot and almost killed while protecting a bookie named Luther Gillespie - and Gillespie and most of his family are subsequently assassinated. The culprits are part of the Ukranian mob who control the city of Marshport near Boston.

To regain his sense of self after his prolonged convalescence Hawke has to destroy the entire mob element in Marshport and set up a trust fund for the remaining Gillespie child. So Hawke and Spenser spend a lot of time talking to mobsters, thugs, and cops and cooking up a plan to achieve the goal.

It's a thin plot, but the pleasure of these books is not so much the story as it is visiting with familiar characters. I always enjoy the conversation and clever patter among Hawke and Spenser.....and everyone else.

A side issue of the story involves Hawke and his current lady, Cecile, who would like Hawke to be a different kind of guy. I alway enjoy lovable pets in stories and some of my favorite scenes are Spenser and Susan at home, catering to the whims of their pooch Pearl.

An enjoyable fast read.


Rating: 3 stars

Review of "As the Pig Turns" by M.C. Beaton




Private detective Agatha Raisin - a stout fiftyish Englishwoman with small bear-like eyes and shiny brown hair - lives alone in Carsley, a pretty village in the Cotswolds. In this 22nd book in the series, business is slow and Agatha is bored - so she takes some friends and employees to nearby Winter Parva for a festive pig roast. As the pig is being basted, Agatha notices that the porker has a tattoo that spells out 'Amy.' Stop the roast! Turns out a pig's head has been attached to a human torso!

The victim is Gary Beech, a local policeman known for giving everyone traffic tickets for minor infractions. In fact Beech has recently given Agatha two tickets: for wiping her nose in the car and for driving 2 miles over the speed limit. Agatha has even loudly wished Beech dead. The murdered cop was an unpopular guy - but would village residents perpetrate such a bizarre crime?

Beech's ex-wife, Amy, hires Agatha to find the murderer - and the detective and her team get on the job. However, someone wants the inquiry stopped, and Agatha and her cohorts are threatened and harassed.....and one is even kidnapped. To top it off, Amy is soon found dead. Agatha is frightened off, but (of course) gets drawn back into the case.

Many familiar characters make an appearance in the story, including Agatha's ex-husband James - who assists with the investigation; public relations rep Roy - who loves to get his face on TV; aristocrat Charles - who always tries to get someone else to pay the check; agency employee Toni - who's tired of Agatha interfering in her life; Bill Wong - a policeman and friend; and Simon, a former employee who has reason to resent Agatha. Various thugs and miscreants round out the cast.

The premise of the book is interesting but the plot doesn't pan out. The detectives question people, gather evidence, and identify suspects - but it's all rather dull and and strays down too many mundane paths. By the end I didn't much care who committed the crime or why.

The personal lives of the regular characters are a little more engaging, but not much. Toni has a new beau; Simon is engaged; Roy has a new punk look; etc. Towards the end of the story Agatha falls into an old habit - developing a crush on a handsome man. I cringed for poor Agatha who's acting silly and getting ready to make a fool of herself (again).....probably in the next book.

This isn't one of the best Agatha Raisin books but if you're a big fan of the series you might enjoy it.


Rating: 2.5 stars

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review of "The Racketeer" by John Grisham




Malcolm Bannister was an attorney in a small firm when he was inadvertently caught up in a money laundering scheme, convicted under the RICO statutes, and sent to federal prison. There he became a 'prison lawyer' helping other convicts with their appeals. etc. When Judge Fawcett - a federal judge in Virginia - is murdered, Bannister contacts the FBI, claiming he will name the killer in exchange for immediate release from prison.

This happens, and once he is free Bannister, with help from a woman he met in the visitor's room at prison, embarks on an elaborate scheme to enrich himself. To say more would be a spoiler.

I will say, however, that Bannister's scheme is completely unbelievable - to the point where I consider this almost a fantasy novel. Moreover, Bannister is an unlikable character who - though he claims to be bereft by his divorce and loss of his son - completely forgets about the boy, making no attempt whatsoever to see or contact him once he's out of prison.

This book is slow, boring, and poorly plotted. The characters are two-dimensional and uninteresting. I almost can't believe John Grisham wrote this book.

 I'd recommend skipping this one.


Rating: 1 star

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of "Rock-A-Bye Bones" by Carolyn Haines



In this 16th book in the series, Sarah Booth Delaney finds a baby, and a pool of blood, on the front porch of her home - Dahlia House in Zinnia, Mississippi. Sarah Booth and her partner, Tinkie Richmond, run a private detective agency - and Sarah Booth is determined to find the baby's mother.

Meanwhile Tinkie, who's unable to have children, convinces the sheriff to let her care for the baby until the mother is located. Tinkie 'temporarily' names the infant Libby and proceeds to buy the tyke a room full of baby gear and fashionable baby clothes. Uh-oh!! Sarah Booth fears Tinkie and her husband Oscar are getting too attached to little Libby.

Since baby Libby has red hair and polydactyly (an extra toe) Sarah Booth soon discovers that the mother is Pleasant Smith, a pregnant high school senior who disappeared a month ago. The authorities, thinking Pleasant ran away, did little to find her. Sarah Booth, however, thinks foul play was involved - especially since the blood near the baby has been traced to Rudy Uxall, a neighborhood boy who's been discovered dead in his car.

Sarah Booth fears Pleasant might also be dead so she arranges a seance with Madame Tomeeka. The psychic 'channels' Pleasant, who desperately begs: "My baby, my baby. Help me. He's going to kill me." Sarah Booth is galvanized to save the endangered mother.....though Tinkie seems less than thrilled. (Uh-oh again!)

Sarah Booth learns that Pleasant, a gifted musician/song writer, was a candidate for a recording contract and a college scholarship. Further investigation reveals a number of possible suspects for Pleasant's disappearance, including: a clique of snobby high school girls; a music teacher; and several mercenary thugs.

While Sarah Booth tries to locate and rescue Pleasant, other things are going on in her life.
Jitty, the resident ghost of Dahlia House, periodically shows up to nag Sarah Booth about having an heir. Jitty - who cunningly morphs into various historic/celebrity characters - natters on about 'dried up eggs', which irks Sarah Booth.
A psychopath named Gertrude Strom - who skipped bail - is trying to kill Sarah Booth for delusional reasons. I got a kick out of the bounty hunters hired to locate Gertrude - Clete Purcell and his friend Dave. (If you're a fan of James Lee Burke books, you know these guys.)
Three attractive men - Coleman the sheriff; Harold the banker; and Scott the club owner - are vying for Sarah Booth's love....and a couple of them REALLY curl her toes! (Nice problem. LOL)
Various endearing pets hang out with Sarah Booth, and save her from a snake attack.

The story has plenty of drama, as well as humor and warmth - as all Sarah Booth's friends come together to organize a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at Dahlia House. In one funny scene Sarah Booth dons a garish orange sweater decorated with autumn leaves and a pumpkin pie....and fasionista Tinkie rushes over to cover baby Libby's eyes. Ha ha ha.

I enjoy this book and recommend it to readers who enjoy cozy mysteries - especially fans of the Sarah Booth Delaney series.

I don't usually mention bookcovers, but I really like this one. Very colorful and pretty.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "The Stolen Ones" by Owen Laukkanen



A human trafficking ring is kidnapping girls in Eastern Europe and selling them in the United States. When a deputy sheriff in Minnesota becomes suspicious of a truck carrying a shipment of girls he's killed by one of the drivers, and a Romanian girl named Irina manages to escape. Irina, found near the deputy's body, is suspected of killing him. Minnesota cop Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windemere are called in to investigate the crime. With the aid of a translator Stevens and Windemere learn that Irina is a victim and that her sister, Catalina, is still in the clutches of the traffickers. Law enforcement officials set out to save the enslaved girls and capture the traffickers.

The man running the local trafficking ring is Andrei Volovoi, a mid-level hoodlum operating under the thumb of the Dragon, a ruthless murderer and pervert. Volovoi has a gang of men working for him, mostly drivers that deliver the girls to buyers around the country. When Volovoi - and then the Dragon - learn that two drivers let Irina escape there's deadly fallout amongst the bad guys and a scramble to punish Irina's family - especially Catalina.

During their pursuit of the criminals Stevens and Windemere learn there's a complex array of foreign holding companies that control the slave trade. The cops do manage to locate and close down a couple of brothels that bought some girls. The accompanying arrests make Volovoi start to panic as he scrambles to cover his tracks, elude the FBI, and keep the Dragon happy.

The story is full of action as Stevens and Windemere rush from one state to another following clues and Volovoi tears around to get his hands on Catalina so he can deliver her to the Dragon. Irina even gets in on the action, being determined to find and rescue her sister (though how she plans to do this with no money, no English, and almost no knowledge about the U.S. is bewildering).

The characters are engaging and sufficiently fleshed out. Stevens has a wife and family, including a 16-year-old daughter in love - very tough on dad. Windermere is in the midst of an affair with a rookie FBI agent who keeps making frustrating mistakes. And even evil Volovoi has a sister and beloved young nieces, which causes him a twinge of conscience about selling girls.

I found the book exciting and engaging for about the first two-thirds; then the action got repetitive. The same thing seemed to happen again and again. For example, someone almost escapes, gets recaptured, then it happens again, then once more, etc. Still, the climax of the story is exciting and satisfying. I'd recommend the book to fans of thrillers.



Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review of "The Robots of Dawn" by Isaac Asimov



This sci-fi mystery takes place in the distant future when the Earth is vastly overcrowded and the entire population lives underground and has severe phobias about going outside.

When the story opens a humanoid robot has been "killed" on the planet Aurora which was colonized by Earth people long ago. A famous roboticist - the only one in the galaxy who knows how to create humanoid robots - is accused of the crime. The detective Elijah Baley, an Earth-man, is called in to investigate with his robot partner. Elijah's job is made doubly difficult because most Aurorans despise Earth people, considering them to be infectious and vastly inferior to themselves.

The case is very important because its solution may determine whether space is further colonized solely by humanoid robots and Aurorans or whether Earth people will be allowed to participate.

Some interesting twists and turns lead to a satisfying surprise ending.



Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of "Home" by Harlan Coben




In this 11th book in the series, Myron Bolitar and Windsor Home Lockwood III (Win) are back on the job - determined to rescue two missing boys.

For those not familiar with the Myron Bolitar books:
Myron was a college basketball star who was injured before his first NBA game. So Myron went to law school and became a sports rep and unofficial private detective. Myron is a great guy who loves his parents, treats his girlfriends well, and feels compelled to help people.

Win is a rich, handsome, expensively-dressed, well-coifed, blonde playboy. To look at him you'd never know Win's a sociopath - ready and willing to use all manner of weapons, martial arts, explosives, and other means of destruction when he deems it necessary. Win is super-protective of his friends (like Myron), but you'd never want to get on his bad side, as he'd kill you in a millisecond.

The story: Ten years ago a playdate ended in diaster. Two six-year-old boys - Patrick Moore and Rhys Baldwin - were kidnapped from Patrick's home, never to be seen or heard from again....until now. As the book opens, Win - who's been 'underground' for a year - gets an anonymous email with information about where to find the boys, who are working as prostitutes in London. Win is especially invested in the case because Rhys is his cousin.

Win's first rescue attempt goes south, so he calls Myron for help. Myron flies to London and meets up with an unsavory character called Fat Gandhi - a computer gamer who also runs a child prostitute ring. Fat Gandhi claims Patrick and Rhys work for him, but he'll release them for a ransom. Win and Myron don't trust Fat Gandhi so they hatch a daring scheme that manages to rescue Patrick.... but Rhys runs away.

Reunited with his family in the U.S., sixteen-year-old Patrick seems disoriented and frightened. Myron and Win, however, insist on interviewing the teen so they can get information about Rhys's whereabouts. Patrick acts squirrelly, though, and can't provide any useful particulars. All this is very tough on Rhys's parents, who want to get their son back.....or at least find out what happened to him.

Myron and Win continue their efforts to bring Rhys home and discover some surprising information along the way. I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say there's A LOT of murder and mayhem in the story, and Myron and Win get to show off plenty of their combat skills. The story also has a perk for romance fans since Myron is engaged to his long-time, on-off girlfriend Terese.

The book features some favorite characters including: Esperanza (Little Pocahontas) and Big Cyndi - former professional wrestlers who worked for Myron's sports rep agency; Myron's mom and dad, who love to bicker; and Mickey - Myron's teenage nephew who helps draw out Patrick with pizza and videogames. As usual there's lots of humorous banter between Myron and Win, and some amusing scenes. I thought it was hilarious when Myron threw an arrogant young thug's laptop out a car window. LOL.

The suspenseful story leads to a dramatic denouement that I never saw coming. Very good mystery, recommended to fans of the genre.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review of "Trust No One" by Paul Cleave




Jerry Grey, 49 years old, lives in Christchurch, New Zealand and writes popular mystery/crime novels under the pseudonym Henry Cutter. Jerry has a lovely wife Sandra and a beloved daughter Eva. He also has early onset Alzheimer's disease, a devastating illness that will soon steal away all Jerry's memories.

In an attempt to hold on to some bits of himself as his brain deteriorates Jerry keeps a journal, addressed to 'future Jerry', detailing aspects of his daily life. These include preparations for his daughter Eva's upcoming wedding, hiding bottles of gin - and a gun - from his wife Sandra, his conviction that Sandra is sleeping with every man she meets, anger at his illness, visits from old friends, and more.

As Jerry's Alzheimer's clouds his brain he begins to confuse his real life with the plots of his books. Thus, as the story opens Jerry knows he's in a police station and thinks he's being questioned by detectives. In the interrogation room Jerry fantasizes about seducing the female detective and confesses to murdering a girl name Suzan. As it turns out Jerry has escaped from his residential nursing home and the 'female detective' is his daughter Eva, come to take him back. Moreover, Jerry is taking credit for a crime committed in one of his books.

As it turns out, people ARE being killed in Christchurch. And the murders seem to occur on days when Jerry sneaks out of his nursing home. Before long, Jerry becomes a suspect. This is one of those books where anything said about the central plot is a spoiler so I'll say no more about the killings.

Aside from that though, the book provides (what seems like) a realistic picture of the toll of Alzheimer's Disease. Told in the first person, the story jumps back and forth in time, flits from one thought/observation to another, and demonstrates the confusion in Jerry's mind. Jerry has frequent conversations with his alter ego Henry Cutter, 'wakes up' not knowing where he is, can't remember his escapes from the residential facility, doesn't recall where he lives, and so on. It's impossible not to feel bad for Jerry and to admire his struggles to leave behind some bits of himself in his journals.

There's an array of interesting characters in this page turner, and I was caught up in the story - wanting to know what was real and what was just in Jerry's mind, and anxious to discover what was going on in Christchurch.

A good psychological thriller, recommended to mystery fans.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, November 21, 2016

Review of "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith




In this second book in the series, private detective Cormoran Strike - an Army veteran who lost a leg in the Afghanistan war - is hired to find eccentric writer Owen Quine. Quine walked out after a dispute with his agent and hasn't been home for two weeks. Before long Strike finds Quine's rotting body - trussed, disemboweled, and burnt with acid.

Quine was an unpopular guy who had recently written a book maligning almost everyone in his orbit: his wife, agent, editor, publisher, mistress, fellow writers, and so on. Thus there are plenty of suspects in this mystery, which is essentially a cozy. The cozy atmosphere is bumped up however by Strike's bum leg and the bad weather. Strike repeatedly injures his bad knee and is forced to hobble around on his prosthesis or crutches, often in freezing temperatures with snow incessantly falling. The author's descriptions were so vivid that I could almost feel the icy weather myself.

As in the first book in the series Strike's secretary and assistant Robin Ellacott - who longs to be a detective herself - is ready and anxious to lend a hand in the investigation. Some characters from the first book are on hand, including Strike's loving sister Lucy; his wealthy (almost high-society) half-brother Al; and Robin's resentful, jealous fiance Matthew (when will Robin realize he's not right for her?).

Strike's constant financial woes make it necessary for him to work on other cases while looking for Quine's killer and these investigations - which generally involve getting evidence on cheating spouses or lovers - were entertaining additions to the main story. For me the resolution of the mystery didn't quite ring true and wasn't completely satisfying. However I enjoyed the book and would read more adventures involving Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.  


Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review of "Red 1-2-3" by John Katzenbach




The story's villain, who calls himself 'The Big Bad Wolf' (BBW), is a childless married man in his sixties who had mild success as a mystery novelist years ago. Now, feeling unappreciated and forgotten, the BBW plans to write a book that - he thinks - will make him wildly famous.

The BBW is a narcissistic psychopath who's been inspired by the tale of 'Little Red Hiding Hood' - where Red gets eaten by the wolf. Thus, the BBW's big idea is to murder three redheaded women, all on the same day, and then write a book about it. The BBW thinks everyone will be fascinated by the details of his crimes - how he planned and executed them - and that he'll become a legendary criminal. Moreover, the pompous writer is convinced he's too clever to be caught.

To carry out his grand plan the BBW chooses three flaming redheads, two of whom have a connection with his wife (referred to as Mrs. BBW). The proposed victims are:

Redhead 1. Karen Jayson - a fortyish single doctor and amateur stand-up comedian. (Mrs. BBW is her patient.)

Redhead 2. Sarah Locksley - a hard-drinking school teacher who's deeply depressed by the recent death of her husband and child. (Mrs. BBW doesn't seem to know her.)

Redhead 3 . Jordan Ellis - a high school student on the basketball team, who - reeling from her parents' divorce - is struggling in her classes. (Mrs. BBW works in the principal's office at Jordan's boarding school.)

As the book opens the BBW sends a letter to each of the women, announcing that he plans to kill her. From this point on the women's behavior is completely unbelievable. Karen (at least) talks to the cops on the phone, but lets them blow her off. She doesn't bother taking the letter to the police station and doesn't mention the threatening missive to anyone else. Sarah and Jordan don't tell a single other person about the frightening letter....not even a friend or relative.....much less the cops. Plain and simple, this would NOT HAPPEN in real life.

The BBW, who's been stalking and photographing the redheads, continues his nefarious behavior. Because he's unknown to the victims the killer is able to escort Mrs. BBW to her doctor appointments with Karen, and to accompany his wife to Jordan's high school basketball games. The BBW persists in frightening the redheads with phone calls and internet videos and - soon enough - the ladies learn about each other. They make arrangements to meet up in secret and discuss ways to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, Mrs. BBW remains blithely ignorant of what's going on. The BBW - claiming he needs 'a private space' for his writing - locks the home office where he keeps his stalker pictures and incriminating manuscripts. Then one day the BBW leaves his keys behind and....(I won't give away spoilers).

The book's third person POV alternates between the BBW and the other characters. The BBW is a supreme egotist who endlessly talks about how clever he is, the thrill he gets from 'torturing' the redheads, and all his 'delicious' plans. (I HATE that term unless it's referring to food). Mrs. BBW comes across as a naive middle-aged (almost) spinster who's thankful she finally snagged a husband - and a 'famous writer' at that!

The three redheads turn out to be rather clever and resourceful. They get gutsy and hatch a plan - however they don't get all their ducks in a row. The ladies set out to kill the man they think is the BBW.....with no proof he's the right guy! This doesn't seem like the smartest idea in the world.

I don't want to give away too much so let's just say the book's finale strains credulity (A LOT). The ending left me feeling cheated and unsatisfied. I know John Katzenbach is skilled writer but this book isn't among his best. It's amateurish, way too long, and poorly thought out. Not recommended.


Rating: 2.5 stars

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review of "The Broken Ones" by Stephen M. Irwin



On "Gray Wednesday" the Earth's poles suddenly reverse, world electronics are thrown into disarray, and ghosts suddenly appear. Every human being gets their own ghost, visible only to themselves, who shadows them 24/7. The ghosts are so disturbing that some people go insane and ghost-induced murders become pardonable offenses.

Three years later police detective Oscar Mariani starts to investigate the torture/murder of a teenage girl who has a strange 7-pointed star carved into her stomach. This is an especially distressing case for Oscar because he badly injured a teenage girl when the sudden appearance of his ghost on Gray Wednesday caused him to swerve his car.

Oscar's police colleagues and superiors want him to hand off the case but Oscar refuses. The disappearance of additional girls convinces Oscar that a serial killer is at work, and - despite many barriers thrown in his path - Oscar continues to hunt the murderer.

Oscar's investigation leads him to bizarre and dangerous situations that endanger his and his police partner's lives. It's an engrossing story that contains supernatural creatures, bad cops, beautiful women, disgraced friends and more...all leading to a satisfying concluson.


Rating: 3 stars

Friday, November 18, 2016

Review of "Not in the Flesh" by Ruth Rendell




A long-buried body is unearthed in Flagford, England - on the property of grouchy John Grimble - and Chief Inspector Wexford and his team investigate. The detectives learn that Grimble dug a trench eleven years before to prepare the property for additional homes. Denied permission to build the houses an incensed Grimble filled in the trench - which by then apparently contained a dead body. Soon afterwards another set of human remains is found on Grimble's property, in his old abandoned home. This body appears to have died about eight years before.

Much of the story involves the detectives trying to figure out the identity of the dead people, and then discovering who killed them. To do this they need to question all the people living around the area at the relevant times. This includes old Grimble himself, the writer Owen Tredown - an author with one successful and several mediocre books, Tredown's wife and ex-wife - two controlling women both of whom live with the author, and elderly Irene McNeil - a snobby bigot who previously resided across from the Grimble house. These characters are well wrought and believable.

A side story concerns the population of Somalis in the region, and their tradition of female circumcision. Wexford - spurred on by his daughter and child health advocates - tries to prevent a Somali family from performing this horrific procedure (which is illegal in England) on their little girl. This is a serious and worthy issue but it felt like an add-on that didn't really fit with the mystery story at the heart of the book.

Much of the book consists of detectives searching through missing persons files and questioning and re-questioning persons of interest. Little by little they discover information that leads to the resolution of the case. The story's climax seemed somewhat unlikely and wasn't totally satisfying. Many of Rendell's other books are better; this is just an okay mystery.



Rating: 3 stars

Review of "The Corpse on the Court" by Simon Brett



Carole and Jude are next door neighbors and amateur sleuths who live in Fethering, a town in England. In this 14th volume in the series Jude has fallen for Piers, a suave, handsome businessman obsessed with "real tennis", a game played on an indoor court. Piers takes Jude to watch a real tennis match at Lockleigh House Tennis Club where she meets his friends and fellow enthusiasts.

Afterwards Piers convinces Jude to take lessons in the sport as well. Jude's preoccupation with Piers leaves Carole feeling neglected so Carole decides to look into an old unsolved mystery, 'the girl in the lake', by herself. Meanwhile, the body of an elderly tennis club member, Reggie Playfair, is found dead on the Lockleigh House tennis court. Though Reggie's death is apparently from natural causes Jude is suspicious. Thus Carole and Jude undertake simultaneous - but largely independent - investigations.

During their sleuthing Carole meets a woman looking for her long lost daughter and Jude discovers that the Lockleigh House Tennis Club is a late-night trysting place for lovers. The book has some fun, interesting characters and the dual investigations dovetail nicely at the end.

I do have a quibble with Reggie's cause of death but - since the book is a cozy - I'll give it a pass. I'd recommend the book as an entertaining light mystery.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review of "Born A Crime" by Trevor Noah




Trevor Noah, a comedian and the current host of 'The Daily Show' is a very funny guy.....and I expected this memoir to be full of witty jokes. It's not. The book is about Trevor growing up in South Africa when apartheid was coming to an end. Apartheid and it's aftermath left the impoverished black population of South Africa with hard lives and few opportunities. Nevertheless, Trevor infuses his story with hope and humor.

Trevor was born in 1984, to a white Swiss father and a black mother from the Xhosa tribe. At that time, apartheid was still in effect and mixing of the races was forbidden by law. Thus, light-skinned Trevor was evidence of a crime. The child - who lived with his mother in a black neighborhood - had to stay hidden inside during his early childhood....lest he be grabbed by the authorities and taken to an orphanage.

The dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990's eased the situation for blacks and people of mixed race (classified as 'colored'), and Trevor and his mother - named Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah - embarked on a rather tumultuous life. Patricia acquired secretarial skills and got an office job, which meant the Noahs were a little bit better off than many black South African families. Patricia even had a junky old car which - being a devout Christian - she used to 'schlep' Trevor to three or four different churches every Sunday.

When Patricia wasn't working or at church she loaded Trevor into the car and took him to places that cost no money, like parks, picnics, and sightseeing past white people's mansions. Trevor's mom had the attitude "I'm going to give you everything I never had." Patricia made it her mission to provide food for Trevor's body and books for his mind - and to afford this, spent almost no money on anything else. As Trevor describes it: their car was a tin can on wheels; they lived in the middle of nowhere; they had shabby furniture; they changed the channels on their tiny black and white TV with pliers; and they wore clothes from thrift stores.

During good times Trevor's family ate chicken, but when times were tough they ate food meant for dogs like 'sawdust' (meat scraps) and 'soup bones.' During one terrible month - when the mechanic business of Trevor's stepfather was failing - the family had to live on marogo (wild spinach) cooked with mopane worms (caterpillars). Trevor describes this as the worst time of his life.

Trevor was a self-described 'naughty child' whose high energy level and mischievous pranks got him into lots of trouble. Trevor also loved fire and once burned down the house of a white family. To escape spankings from his mother, Trevor would streak out of the house and through the neighborhood - with Patricia close behind. As a result Trevor became a very fast runner, a talent that would be useful later on - when he had to run away from cops and tough guys. Though Patricia didn't spare the spankings, she punished Trevor 'out of love' - and he reciprocated the affection.

Trevor was an enterprising youth and found inventive ways to make money. By the time he was in high school Trevor was selling pirated CDs he made at home - an enterprise that led to deejaying parties in black townships. Trevor also partnered up with a couple of friends to run a kind of 'loan and barter' business, which netted plenty of extra cash for McDonald's, beer, and electronic equipment.

On the downside, Trevor never fit in anywhere. Being a light-skinned black, Trevor wasn't accepted by blacks, whites, Indians, Asians, or colored people (most of whom have a complicated ancestry beginning with Dutch settlers and black women). To compensate Trevor made it his business to learn many of the languages spoken in South Africa, including English, Afrikaans, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and more. This made Trevor a sort of 'chameleon' who could get by with everyone.

Trevor also had bad luck with girls, partly because he had terrible acne. Trevor describes several attempts to get a girlfriend, and these tales are amusing....and a little heartbreaking. In high school, for example, Trevor's friend set him up with a beautiful girl named Babiki for the matric dance (prom). Trevor and his friend hung out with Babiki and her sisters for a couple of months before the dance, getting acquainted. Then, on the night of the matric dance, Babiki refused to get out of the car and go inside. Trevor realized - for the very first time - that Babiki couldn't speak English and he couldn't speak Pedi (her language). Ha ha ha.

The worst thing that happened in Trevor's life was his mother's marriage to Abel, a car mechanic with a murderous temper and a strong 'master of the house' attitude. Patricia sold her house, quit her job, and impoverished the family to help Abel with his mechanic business....to no avail. Abel was a terrible businessman who drank up the profits and came home intoxicated and abusive. In fits of anger Abel would hit Patricia and slap Trevor around. By the time Trevor finished high school he had to move out. Patricia ultimately left Abel, who eventually became so distraught that he shot her in the head.

In addition to his personal story Trevor talks about the evils of apartheid.....how the system purposely fomented discord among black tribes (especially Zulu and Xhosa), impoverished the non-white population, denied non-whites a decent education, left them untrained for jobs, made them feel inferior, took their homes and land, forced them into barren homelands, etc. etc. etc. Trevor touches on how this affected himself, his extended family, and his friends.....and the story is sad, bleak and dismaying.

Trevor's mother survived being shot in the head.....and the book ends there. Trevor doesn't talk about becoming a comedian, his show business career, or becoming host of The Daily Show. The program's original host, Jon Stewart, was terrific and I was sad when he left. Still, Trevor is doing a good job (in my opinion). He's personable, smart and funny.....and his impressions and accents are spot on. Trevor makes me laugh every time I watch the show. If Trevor writes a sequel to this book, I'll read it for sure. :)

I'd highly recommend the book to fans of celebrity memoirs and to readers interested in apartheid and South Africa.

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


Rating: 4.5 stars

Review of "Veronika Decides to Die" by Paulo Coelho



Veronika, an attractive 24-year-old woman living in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has loving parents, an okay job, decent boyfriends, and so on. However she's tired of her routine life and tries to commit suicide. Veronika's attempt fails and she wakes up in Villete, a local mental hospital. There Veronika is told that her suicide attempt has severely damaged her heart and she has about a week to live.

Liberated from worries about going on with life - and learning that mental patients are free to exhibit any behavior they like - Veronika decides to interact with some fellow patients. She befriends Mari, who has panic attacks; Zedka, who is depressed; and Eduard, a catatonic schizophrenic who seems to enjoy Veronika's piano playing. Meanwhile, Dr. Igor,the head psychiatrist, studies Veronika and the other patients at Villete to test his theory that a body substance called "vitriol" causes mental illnes. By the end of the book Veronika's presence at Villete causes many of the patients to change their attitudes about their own mental illness as well as how they want to live their lives.

The book seems to accurately describe the behavior of some mentally ill people but I thought the depiction of the patients was generally superficial and provided little insight into true mental illness. However some of the characters were interesting and the story was okay.


Rating: 3 stars

Review of "The 9th Girl" by Tami Hoag




When the mutilated, acid-burned body of a teenage girl falls from a car's trunk a serial killer called 'Doc Holiday' is the prime suspect. This sadistic murderer has already taken eight lives in a ritualistic fashion and police fear the teen may be his ninth victim. Detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska investigate the murder of the unidentified girl - dubbed 'Zombie Doe' by the media.

Turns out 'Zombie Doe' is Penelope Gray, a high school classmate of Liska's son Kyle. Talking to students reveals that 'Gray' (as her friends call her) was at a teen hangout the night she disappeared, as was Kyle and a number of other students - some of whom were bullies who tormented both Gray and Kyle. Questioning Gray's mother and her fiance reveal that Gray was a troubled teen, angry about her parent's divorce several years before, who was prone to acting act and staying away from home.

The homicide detectives pursue evidence on the assumption that Doc Holiday killed Gray, wanting to stop him before he claims another victim. The book intersperses some first person scenes of Doc Holiday planning/committing his crimes with the story of the detectives' investigation. Liska's problems raising two sons as a single mother - one of whom is a witness in the case - also plays a part in the story.

The characters are realistically depicted, the police investigation proceeds at a good pace, and the ending is almost satisfying. All in all an okay mystery book.


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of "Wicked Business" by Janet Evanovich



I'm a fan of Janet Evanovich's "Stephanie Plum" series, which is funny and filled with amusing characters. So I decided to give Evanovich's "Lizzy and Diesel" series a try.

The Lizzy and Diesel books take a more supernatural turn. The main characters have special abilities that they use to search for stones infused with dark magic. In this book Lizzy and Diesel are in a race against Diesel's no-good cousin Gerwulf to find the Luxuria Stone, which induces lust. Gerwulf's goal is to collect all the magic stones, which would apparently give him great power. And Diesel's job (with Lizzy's help) is to stop Gerwulf from amassing the stones.

As the story opens Gilbert Reedy, a Harvard English Professor, has been killed and Gerwulf has Reedy's book of sonnets, known to contain information about the Luxuria Stone. In the thin plot Lizzy and Diesel, who have obtained the key to the sonnet book, run all over the greater Boston area searching for clues that will lead to the stone. Hard on their heels are Gerwulf and his henchman Hatchet, who dresses in medieval garb and brandishes a sword.

The characters, though mildly amusing, are not very well developed. Lizzy is a culinary school graduate who bakes cupcakes, bread, and meat pies for the bakery that employs her. Diesel is a part-time bounty hunter with a pet monkey, Carl, and a very hot body. However, Lizzy and Diesel can't act on any physical attraction between them because this will lead to the loss of someone's special abilities - so there's always sexual tension. Other characters are even less developed. Gerwulf looks like a sexy vampire. Lizzy works with two women, bakery owner Clara and co-worker Gloria - who can detect clues invisible to others. And then there's Anarchy, a mysterious woman who also wants the stone. And so on. To me, the most fun characters are Carl the monkey and Hatchet the swordsman - who actually made me laugh out loud.

The plot of the book is not compelling and I didn't much enjoy the story. And in the end, nothing much had happened. In the future I'll probably stick to the Stephanie Plum books and skip the Lizzy and Diesel series.


Rating: 2.5 stars

Review of "Doctor Sleep" by Stephen King




As the story opens Dan Torrance (Danny Torrance from "The Shining") has grown up to be a violent, itinerant alcoholic who suffers from blackouts. His difficulties connect back to the time young Danny's father was the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. There Danny's psychic gift (called 'the shining') led to his meeting a gaggle of supernatural psychopaths and victims. The hotel's supernatural residents also drove Danny's father insane, and he tried to kill Danny and his mom.

After adult Dan has a one night stand that disturbs him greatly he hops a train and ends up in New Hampshire. There he gets a job in a hospice and joins Alcoholics Anonymous. Meanwhile, Abra, a little girl who also lives in New Hampshire, starts to exhibit a whopping amount of 'shining' herself. As Abra grows up she develops a psychic connection to Dan and mentally reaches out to say hello and get acquainted.

In time Abra's psychic gifts brings her to the attention of a group of horrific vampire-like beings called the True Knot who torture and murder psychic children to absorb their "steam" (psychic essence). The True Knot becomes desperate to get their hands on Abra who - coming to realize the danger she's in - asks Dan to help her. This leads to the thriller part of the story, with the True Knot scheming to kidnap Abra, and Dan and his cohorts scheming to save her.

The book is chock full of fascinating characters (good and evil) and gruesome events - in true Stephen King style. The story isn't one of Stephen King's scariest tales but it's a whopping good story that will stick with you. Highly recommended, especially to King fans and aficionados of horror stories.


Rating: 4 stars

Monday, November 14, 2016

Review of "Lie By Moonlight" by Amanda Quick




During the reign of Queen Victoria - when social conventions in England were exceptionally rigid - twenty-something teacher Concordia Glade has been hired to educate four teenage girls at an 'orphan school' housed in Ardwick Castle. Concordia gets wind of a scheme that (she thinks) involves selling the girls to brothels so - being an unusually intrepid woman - plans a daring escape.

As it happens, a private inquiry agent named Ambrose Wells is hanging around Ardwick Castle during Concordia's risky flight, and he helps the teacher and her charges get away. Ambrose then hides the ladies in the home of his wealthy benefactor. Since Ambrose knows the evil schemers will try to get the girls back, he plans to foil the bad guys and expose them. Concordia insists on helping Ambrose and he (reluctantly) agrees.

Since this is a romantic suspense novel Ambrose and Concordia feel an overpowering mutual attraction, which is very obvious to the teenage girls - who worry that Concordia will be 'ruined' if she kisses Ambrose (or heaven forbid more than that!). The girls discuss this among themselves and then 'talk to' both Ambrose and Concordia....and these parts are pretty funny.

Ambrose and Concordia have a great deal in common since they both have unusual backgrounds. Ambrose was a 'gentleman thief' and Concordia was born to unmarried parents who promoted free love and good education for women (both unusual in Victorian times).

Step by step - using clever ruses and daring gambits - Concordia and Ambrose uncover the sordid scheme to 'auction off' the girls, which (knowingly or not) involves the benefactor of an orphan school; the director of the orphan school; a gentleman who moves in upper social circles; and a criminal mastermind. Other characters round out the story, including: Mr. Stoner - a kindly, cultured gentleman who teaches the teenage girls to 'gamble' (play cards.... ha ha ha); Felix - a policeman; and employees at a men's bath house. There's a good bit of drama and death in the book, and Concordia shows her mettle.

The story has lots of romantic entanglement between Ambrose and Concordia, and some steamy sex. I'm not a big fan of romantic suspense, but I knew what to expect when I started the book (for a reading challenge) - so I won't complain too much. However I don't believe that people get engaged a few days after they meet.

The mystery/suspense part of the story is compelling, there are some surprises, and (I don't think it's a spoiler to say) there's a HEA for fans of love stories.

I'd recommend the book to fans of the romantic suspense genre.



Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review of "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki" by Haruki Murakami



Tsukuru Tazaki, 36 years old and living in Tokyo, is a moderately wealthy, well-educated engineer who designs and builds railroad stations - a job he's wanted since childhood. Nevertheless Tsukuru has few friends, is lonely, and can't see a happy future for himself. Part of the problem is a trauma Tsukuru experienced as a teen. In high school Tsukuru was part of an extremely close group of friends - two girls and three boys - that spent most of their free time together, always had things to talk about, and loved each other's company. Soon after Tsukuru started college however, the group shut him out - told him not to try to see or call them - with no explanation.

The resulting depression almost killed Tsukuru; he lost weight and his physical appearance changed dramatically. Tsukuru eventually recovered and went on with his life but he avoided visiting his home town, rarely saw his family, and was afraid to trust people for fear of being hurt again.

At the urging of Sara, a woman he's currently dating, Tsukuru decides to find and confront his friends - one at a time- to discover what happened all those years ago. The story moves back and forth between the past and the present and we learn about Tsukuru's relationship with his friends, college years, career development, and so on.

We discover that Tsukuru swam for recreation when he was in college and developed a friendship with a fellow swimmer, Haida. Haida helps Tsukuru develop an appreciation for classical music and becomes a frequent weekend guest at his apartment. This part of the story has aspects that seem like magical realism.

Haida tells a story about his father taking a year off school as a young man to work as a handyman in a rural spa. There he met a kind of 'hippy' Jazz pianist who saw colored auras around people that revealed things about them. Tsukuru also has vivid erotic dreams about the girls in his teen group and Haida - and has difficulty separating these dreams from reality.

In the course of the story Tsukuru tracks down most of his old friends and gets an explanation for their behavior, which helps him move on. The story is slow-moving and Tsukuru is too laid back a character for my taste. It's hard to believe Tsukuru didn't act sooner to discover why his friends abandoned him. Also - when he got the explanation - his reaction should have been more dramatic. However, this probably isn't the point of the book which is about Tsukuru's quest to understand his life and find happiness.

Murikami does a good job with ambience, and provides colorful descriptions of people and thier surroundings. I got a feel for parts of Japan and Finland that are described in the story, and the characters were interesting if not always believable.

Not a bad book but not really my cup of tea. Fans of Murikami would probably enjoy the book more than I did.



Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Take One With You" by Oak Anderson



Charlie and Sarah, two teens saddened by the loss of supportive parents and unhappy in their homes, anonymously develop a website called "Take One With You" (Towy). Towy encourages people who are going to kill themselves anyway to first kill a criminal or dreg of society who has evaded conviction (e.g. rapist, murderer, pedophile, etc.). Charlie and Sarah go so far as to publish the names of candidates to be taken out. The idea catches on and pretty soon a rash of people all over the world are 'taking one with them.' 

Unfortunately for Sarah and Charlie the Towy idea soon expands out of control and people start taking out more than 'deserving' criminals, but the teens are powerless to stop the monster they've created. Before long a police task force is assembled to track down the creators of the website, including Detective Thane Parks and Officer Anita Hellstrom. 

In the course of the story the teens develop romantic feelings for each other as do the two cops. I thought it was unrealistic that married Officer Hellstrom would quickly fall for loutish, chauvinistic, unlikable Detective Parks who seems to view all women as sex objects - so this romance fell flat for me.

Oak Anderson does a nice job interspersing his narrative with news reports, scripts from television interviews, government records, and so on - which adds interest to the story. The author provides thumbnail sketches of 'bad guys' who deserve to die and 'good guys' who take them out which helps us understand why a website like Towy would catch on.

Overall I enjoyed the book and would probably read more from this author.



Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Review of "The Woman in Cabin 10" by Ruth Ware



This is one of those books that's gotten lots of hype, so I decided to see what all the fuss is about. The book is okay but doesn't live up to expectations (for me).

The story: Laura (Lo) Blacklock, a travel journalist for 'Velocity' magazine, is thrilled when she gets to substitute for her pregnant boss on the 'Aurora', a 10-cabin luxury liner traveling from England to Scandinavia. The Aurora's passengers include a few wealthy tourists and investors, a professional photographer, and a cadre of reporters - meant to write (laudatory) stories about the ship and voyage.

Unfortunately - just days before the trip - Lo is deeply traumatized by a break-in and burglary at her apartment. Thus Lo arrives on the Aurora distracted, exhausted, and sleep-deprived. Still, Lo is determined to network at dinner - so she chooses one of her three rented evening gowns and starts to put on her make-up. Realizing she has no mascara Lo steps over to the next room - Cabin 10 - and borrows a tube of Maybelline from the pretty girl inside.

Fast forward to the middle of the night and Lo is woken from a deep sleep by a scream and a splash. Looking out Lo observes something pale - a body? - slipping into the ocean and sees a streak of blood on Cabin 10's veranda. Frightened and troubled, Lo reports the incident. Head of security Nilsson comes to investigate but Cabin 10 is completely empty (there aren't even sheets on the bed) and there's no blood stain. In addition, the room is not assigned to any passenger. The journalist INSISTS there was a woman in Cabin 10 so Nilsson arranges for Lo to meet all the female crew members - but none of them is the right girl....and no one is missing.

Lo is not about to sit back and do nothing so she proceeds to launch her own inquiry. Lo talks to passengers and staff and looks around the ship but gets no satisfaction. Then Ben Howard, a fellow writer and Lo's (long ago) ex-boyfriend, suggests she might have imagined the incident because she was drunk and taking prescription medicine. This infuriates Lo and makes her (and me) suspicious of Ben. Before long important items go missing and Lo gets an intimidating message, which makes her even more determined to carry on - and (of course) endangers her life.

I liked the descriptions of the opulent vessel; the gourmet meals (molecular gastronomy); the well-appointed cabins; the passenger activities (spas and lectures); the relaxing hot tub; etc. Sounds like a fun cruise if you don't get thrown overboard (ha ha ha). The depictions of the various crew members and passengers - mogul, drunk, lecher, cancer patient, tart, and so on - also add interest to the book.

The book is engaging but Lo spends a lot of time questioning people, which becomes repetitive and slows down the story. Also, the plot is clever but not original. Nevertheless, I didn't guess the perpetrator until Lo did, and the book held my interest throughout. The climax is exciting and action-packed and I liked the author's use of press releases and online comments to heighten the suspense.

All in all a pretty good mystery, recommended to fans of the genre.

If you want to read a REALLY scary story about a cruise ship try Day Four by Sarah Lotz.



Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Dead Water" by Ann Cleeves




Journalist Jerry Markham, a former resident of Shetland Island in Scotland, goes back for a visit and ends up dead. His body is found by Procurator Fiscal (prosecutor) Rhona Laing, in a boat she regularly uses.

Detetive Inspector Willow Reeves is brought in to investigate the crime. She works with two local detectives: Sandy Wilson - an insecure lad who lacks confidence in his abilities, and Jimmy Perez - who is still in deep mourning after the death of his girlfriend, Fran. Willow immediately pegs Rhona Laing as "knowing something" but the local police - loyal to Shetland Islanders - resist the idea.

Investigations reveal that Jerry Markham may have been looking into an island group promotiing tidal energy. 'Green initiatives' are a controversial issue on the island, with some people promoting the idea and others agitating against it. The police come to suspect shenanigans in this proposed business venture. The detectives also discover that Markham is generally considered a spoiled, self-centered fellow who - several years before - had run out on his pregnant girlfriend, breaking her heart and angering her family. Moreover, another body soon turns up, complicating the investigation and widening the list of suspects.

The story's setting is well described, and the reader gets (what seems to be) an authentic glimpse of the terrain and culture of the Scottish islands. The characters - including the detectives and a wide array of suspects - are well-rounded and interesting. In addition to his professional duties we get to know a bit about Jimmy Perez's private life, in which he's raising Fran's young daughter - a sweet, precocious child.

The police investigation proceeds in a logical fashion leading to a finale that's believable but too long and drawn out. All in all an enjoyable mystery.


Rating: 3 stars

Friday, November 11, 2016

Review of "Cherry Cheesecake Murder" by Joanne Fluke



The star of this series is Hannah Swensen - amateur sleuth and entrepreneur - who owns a cookie bakery and loves to create new cookies for her shop and prepare treats for her friends and relatives. Luckily for readers who'd like to try the sweets, recipes are provided.

In this story some scenes for a Hollywood movie are slated to be shot in Hannah's home town of Lake Eden, Minnesota. The producer, director, actors and supporting staff flood into town, and - to the delight of the townsfolk - local citizens will be involved as advisors and bit players.

The murder in this book involves a character dying from a bullet wound from what was supposed to be a prop gun. This doesn't occur until about page 200, however, and until then we visit with the characters and follow Hannah's apparently eternal romantic triangle with Norman the dentist and Mike the detective. In fact, this book has an additional boyfriend - Hannah's attractive friend Ross - who's on the movie staff. It's hard to believe Hannah's beaus would put up with her indecisiveness forever, but it's a book - not real life.

Once the murder occurs Hannah and her sisters are on the job - not "investigating" (which is frowned on by Mike the detective) but rather "snooping" to help find the killer. As usual with amateur detectives in these kinds of stories, they withhold information from the police, go where they shouldn't, etc.

This isn't a complex mystery but rather an entertaining cozy with fun characters that are staples of the series - and lots of good pastries.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Review of "Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult




In "Small Great Things" Jodi Picoult addresses the topic of racism in America. The story revolves around Ruth Jefferson, an educated black woman who's been a skilled labor and delivery nurse in a Connecticut hospital for over 20 years. Ruth, the widow of a decorated soldier, lives in a nice neighborhood with her teenage son Edison - a fine student who plans to attend college. Ruth has high hopes for Edison, who's been raised to strive for success.

Things are going well for Ruth until she tends to Davis Bauer, the newborn son of Turk and Brittany Bauer. The Bauer parents are white supremacists who can't abide a black person touching their child. They make a fuss and complain to the charge nurse, who puts a note in the infant's file stating 'no African-American personnel can handle this baby.' As it happens Ruth is the only black nurse in the unit, so it's clear the note refers to her.

Before long two white nurses who work in the nursery are called away for critical situations and Ruth is left alone with Davis. The baby - who just had a medical procedure - stops breathing and Ruth is torn about what to do. If she helps Davis she could be fired. If she doesn't help him she's violating her nurse's oath. Very soon a 'code blue' is called and Ruth gives Davis CPR, but the baby dies. To Ruth's shock, her nursing license is suspended and she loses her job.

Turk and Brittany are devastated by their child's death and want someone to blame. The hospital's attorney - who needs to protect her employer - points them in Ruth's direction. In a harrowing scene, the cops hustle into Ruth's house at 3:00 A.M, handcuff Edison, and arrest Ruth - who's charged with murder. As things play out Ruth is represented by a legal aid attorney named Kennedy McQuarrie. Kennedy knows the case has a strong racial element but insists she can't use the 'race card' during the trial because it wouldn't play well with with the jury. This seems wrong to Ruth...(and I didn't understand it either.)

The story is told from the rotating points of view of Ruth, Kennedy, and Turk - so the reader learns about the characters' backstories as well as what's going on with them now. We find out that Ruth felt like an outsider at the 'white' schools she attended; that she felt embarrassed to wrap her hair at a white girls' sleepover; that some merchants regard her as a probable thief; that her son Edison was turned down when he asked a white girl to a dance; etc. In short, almost all white people in Ruth's orbit are at least a little bit racist, whether they realize it or not.

As Ruth and Kennedy prepare for the trial, other things are going on. Ruth - out on bail - has to take a minimum wage job. This embarrasses Edison, who's already acting out and getting into trouble. Ruth's situation also attracts the attention of an Al Sharpton-type character who wants to use her case to rouse the black community. All this adds to Ruth's anxiety.

Additional characters in the story include Ruth's mother - a housekeeper for a wealthy white family; Ruth's sister - the militant member of the family; Ruth's co-workers - who don't step up when things get rough; Kennedy's husband and daughter - loving antidotes to her difficult job; and Turk's father-in-law - who taught young Bauer to be a vicious skinhead.

The trial part of the book is compelling, and I liked the scenes of jury selection and questioning of witnesses (I'm a big fan of Perry Mason. LOL). The book's climax and ending are a bit contrived, but satisfying.

The author tells a good story that's relevant to what's going on today, with young black men being shot by cops and African-Americans still experiencing discrimination. My biggest problem is that the author sets up a situation so extreme that it's hard to believe. Ruth is the ONLY black person in her hospital group. The note is SUPER offensive; Turk is EXCEPTIONALLY vicious; and so on. To me it seems like every important character in the book is more of a 'type' than a real person.

Still, this is a good book, recommended to fans of literary fiction.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe" by Bill Bryson




In this book travel writer Bill Bryson wrote about a whirlwind trip through Europe that seemed designed solely to give him something to write about rather than a journey he actually wanted to take. I didn't take notes so Bryson's stops in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Lichtenstein, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Austria, Italy, etc. blended together into a continuous blur of traveling, finding hotels, walking around, looking at things, eating, drinking, and so on. I could hardly distinguish one city from another.

Bryson's observations are meant to be humorous (and sometimes are) but they're almost always snide and critical. Again and again Bryson complains that the cities he visited were dirty and filled with litter; had menus he couldn't read; served bad food that cost too much; harbored surly, unhelpful or purposely obstructive service workers (clerks, waiters, hotel staff); sported poor transportation with inconvenient schedules; wouldn't accept whatever kind of money he happened to have; allowed panhandlers in the streets;  sold useless merchandise; and on and on and on. 
 
Bryson has a (probably well-deserved) animus toward Germany for the Holocaust and Austria for electing a former Nazi to be president - but his extreme hostility is a jarring note in what's supposed to be an entertaining romp. The book is also heavy with sexual innuendos, has numerous comments about prostitutes, describes lots of excessive drinking, and contains 'dirty' language that's off-putting in the context of a light-hearted travel story (and I'm no prude). 

On the positive side Bryson's descriptions of some of the sights he sees are interesting: the northern lights, museums, parks, historic sites, artworks, and so on. Still, I had to force myself to finish and was glad when he finally went home. Not one of Bryson's best efforts. 


Rating: 2 stars

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review of "Miss Seeton Rocks the Cradle" by Hamilton Crane



Years ago I read several "Miss Seeton" books by Heron Carvic (the original author of the series) and enjoyed them very much. Miss Emily Dorothea Seeton is a gray-haired, retired art teacher who - due to her daily yoga exercises - is unusually agile and spry. Miss Seeton (or MissEss as she's dubbed at Scotland Yard) has the uncanny ability to aid criminal investigations with her perceptive drawings. Miss Seeton also tends to cause havoc wherever she goes and has been known to foil crooks with her trusty brolly (umbrella)....always on hand in case of rain. Miss Seeton is especially amusing because she's generally oblivious to the criminal activity around her.

In this additon to the series, written by Hamilton Crane, a baby named Marguerite MacSporran - the child of Scottish aristocrats Lord and Lady Glenclachan - is kidnapped. The kidnappers soon get cold feet and leave the infant in a phone booth, where (of course) Miss Seeton finds her. Lord and Lady Glenclachan are very grateful to Miss Seeton for rescuing Marguerite, and take the art teacher back to Scotland with them for a wee visit. First, however, Miss Seeton is cajoled into making a sketch that (eventually) helps the police catch the baby snatchers.

When Miss Seeton goes to Scotland, ace reporter Amelita (Mel) Forby follows, thinking MissEss will generate some juicy news stories. Mel takes a room in a small hotel, waits for something to happen, and is soon rewarded. Miss Seeton ventures out for a walk.....and finds a dead body!

While in Scotland, both Miss Seeton and Mel chat with local residents and learn a good bit about Scottish history and the House of Stuart - the 'true heirs' to the British throne as far as the Scots are concerned. It soon becomes clear that something to do with the Stuarts is brewing around Glenclachan and Miss Seeton - quite unintentionally - thrusts herself into the center of the action.

Some additional interesting characters in the story are Hamish McQueest, owner of the Pock and Tang hotel/pub - who purposely antagonizes his customers; Mrs. McScurrie, Lord and Lady Glenclachan's housekeeper, who takes a shine to Miss Seeton and fiercely protects her; and Philomena Beigg, a Scottish historian who tells a lot of interesting stories.

As the action swirls around Miss Seeton the art teacher takes recreational walks through the hills of Glenclachan, has a couple of picnics, looks at birds, meets interesting townspeople, reads her yoga book to baby Marguerite....and makes several drawings that (quite unknown to herself) reveal dark doings around town.

I enjoyed the story and thought the bits about Scottish history and geography were interesting. Miss Seeton's antics weren't as hilarious as in previous books but it's an entertaining tale, recommended to fans of cozy mysteries.

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



Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Review of "Plague Land" by S.D. Sykes




Oswald de Lacy, sent to live in a monastery when he was 7 years old, returns home to become Lord of Somerhill Manor after his father and brothers succumb to the plague. It's the mid-1300s, and being head of the plague-afflicted manor isn't easy. Many of the estate's rent-paying tenants died and their dilapidated homes are falling apart; there are barely enough workers to harvest the manor's crops; the self-serving village priest, John of Cornwall, encourages superstition and sells fake religious relics; Lacy's mother is domineering and his unmarried sister Clemence is difficult; and to top it off a young girl, Alison Starvecrow, has been found dead in the woods. Moreover, the dead girl visited Somerhall Manor looking for Oswald shortly before she was murdered.

Because the plague killed the village constable, it falls to Oswald to look into Alison's death. However Oswald is seriously unequipped for the task. He's only 18 years old, has been sheltered for most of his life, and knows much more about the bible and Greek literature than everyday life. Neverthless, Oswald's mentor, elderly Brother Peter, convinces the boy to investigate Alison's demise. This is made more difficult by Priest John, who claims that satanic dog-headed men killed the girl. The priest organizes prayer sessions and relic sales to ward off the creatures - coincidentally drawing the villagers away from their much-needed work in the fields.

Oswald looks into Alison's death, concludes she was murdered, and promises to find the killer. And matters escalate even further when another girl disappears. Oswald looks for clues, questions witnesses, and tries to find viable suspects - but criminal investigations in the 1300s were pretty primitive. (Note: I can't help but think a lot of people literally got away with murder in those days.)

While all this is going on, Oswald's sister Clemence becomes engaged to a neighbor, a bad-natured, previously married wife-abuser who hopes to take over Somerhill Manor by any means. As a result Oswald's life is endangered, he has some dreadful adventures, and he meets a boy with terrible birth defects. Oswald also has to deal with his mother - who tries to get him betrothed to a dull young cousin he doesn't like, and with the shocking (to him) discovery that his father left a dozen or so illegitimate children scattered around the village.

I think the book succeeds pretty well as a historical novel, giving the reader a little taste of life in England in the Middle Ages: the feudal system, the arranged marriages, the weddings, the jails, the courts, and so on. It's also an okay suspense story, and Oswald does solve the crimes in the end. I prefer modern mysteries but I think fans of historical mysteries would enjoy this book.


Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Invasion of Privacy" by Perri O'Shaughnessy



Attorney Nina Reilly's client, Terry London, is being sued to prevent the release of her film about a long missing girl named Tamara Sweet. In her film London suggests that Sweet is dead and that the crime is connected to the disappearance of several other girls in the Lake Tahoe area.

In the midst of the court proceedings Terry London is brutally murdered and Nina's ex-boyfriend Kurt - who is also the father of her son Bob - is accused of the crime. Turns out Kurt used to date Tamara and was also previously married to Terry London. So a lot of coincidences here.

Of course Nina decides to defend Kurt and runs around questioning witnesses and so on. There are plenty of possible suspects for the incidents, including Tamara's parents and friends and Terry's rough-guy neighbors. The case goes to court and the courtroom scenes are the best part of the story.

There are some interesting characters including Nina's Native American secretary, her private investigator/would-be boyfriend, and a nasty local defense attorney who doesn't like women rivals.

My problem with this book is that there's some egregious unethical lawyering and I was actually hoping the people involved would be exposed. For me the book could have been edited to be quite a bit shorter but I thought it was a decent mystery with an appropriate ending.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, November 7, 2016

Review of "Secondhand Souls" by Christopher Moore



This comic novel is the sequel to "A Dirty Job." As the story opens Charlie Asher - enemy of the forces of darkness who was killed in the last book - now inhabits a makeshift foot-high body made of mismatched animal parts and luncheon meats. Charlie and the other 'Death Merchants' of San Francisco, whose job is to collect souls from the dying and pass them on to new bodies, have been shirking their responsibilities. Thus there are thousands of loose souls in the city, a situation that opens a door to the Underworld and allows weird and murderous creatures to come through.

These deadly creatures include a banshee - who warns of trouble and swipes a stun gun; the Morrigan - a trio of women demons who eat souls to become solid; and Lemon Fresh - an Underworld honcho who favors yellow suits and a yellow car.

The Underworld eruption means that Charlie and his family/friends must once again fight wicked forces that threaten to destroy the world. The first order of business is to get Charlie a human body, which turns out to be Mike Sullivan - a well-built, nice-looking fellow whose job is to paint the Golden Gate Bridge. For various reasons Mike was planning to jump off the bridge anyway....so why not? Other members of Charlie's team include a Buddhist nun, a retired cop, a crisis-center counselor, a homeless man, a book store owner, and others.

Also on hand is Charlie's seven year old potty-mouthed daughter Sophie (who happens to be the 'Great Death' who can kill with a word) and Sophie's two goggies (enormous black hellhounds). Sophie and the 'aunties' and 'grannies' who take care of her are some of the funniest characters in the story. Other entertaining characters are ghosts at the Golden Gate Bridge who have stories to tell and the 'squirrel people' (made of animal parts) that live under the Buddhist center.

All kinds of kooky (and sometimes deadly) occurrences eventually lead to the story's climax, where Charlie's team goes head to head with the Underworld creatures.

Though the story is a sequel it can be read as a standalone. I thought the book was fun and entertaining and I'd highly recommend it to readers who who like off-beat humor and out-of-the-box characters.


Rating: 3.5 stars