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

Monday, November 28, 2016

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

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

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 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 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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

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

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

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

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of "Before I Go To Sleep" by S.J. Watson

Since a severe head injury 17 years ago, forty-something Christine Lucas has had amnesia. She's lost all her long-term memories, and short term recollections from any given day are wiped out when she sleeps. So Christine wakes up each morning not knowing where she is, not recognizing her husband, and thinking she's still a young woman. And every morning Christine's husband Ben has to remind her who he is, tell her about her life, show her a scrapbook with photos, etc.

Unknown to Ben - who feels Christine has seen enough doctors - she is being treated by Dr. Nash, a specialist in amnesia. Dr. Nash has advised Christine to keep a journal, where she records what happens each day. Every morning Dr. Nash calls Christine, tells her who he is, and reminds her to read the journal. This helps Christine put together pieces of her life and gives her some day to day continuity.

Dr. Nash has also been taking Christine to places she's lived, in the hopes of reviving old memories. And Christine does get flashes from the past which she faithfully records in her journal - along with mundane day to day occurrences. As Christine begins comparing her journal to things Ben tells her, she realizes Ben is lying about important matters. As the story unfolds the reader slowly learns the truth about Christine's past as well as what's going on in her life now.

The book has an interesting premise. However, it's very slow moving and tediously repetitive as Christine constantly relearns aspects of her life. Thus this 'thriller' isn't that thrilling, though there's some excitement as the story approaches it's climax - and Christine confronts difficult truths.

From the buzz around the book I expected to like it better, but it was just okay.

Note: The movie adaptation of the book, starring Nicole Kidman (Christine) and Colin Firth (Ben) is half-faithful to the story. It's not a great film (2 stars for me) but it does zip along much faster than the book.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Review of "X" by Sue Grafton

As this 24th book in the series opens private detective Kinsey Milhone has money in the bank (for a change) and time on her hands. So when Ruthie Wolinksy - widow of Kinsey's deceased colleague Pete Wolinksy - is preparing for a tax audit, Kinsey agrees to look through Pete's old files for pertinent documents. Instead, Kinsey finds two surprising things. One is a coded document that turns out to be a list containing six women's names. At least some of the women have a connection to an obnoxious man named Ned Lowe, who has a history of stalking and mistreating his old girlfriends and wives. Another is a three-decades-old manila envelope containing mementos from Lowe's first wife, meant for his now grown daughter.

Kinsey had disdained Pete Wolinsky when he was alive, thinking of him as a dishonest rogue. So when Kinsey learns that Pete had the list and envelope because he was trying to do good things, she decides to carry on with his inquiries. This isn't smooth sailing, though, because nasty Ned Lowe makes every attempt to derail Kinsey's investigation and keep her away from his daughter.

Meanwhile Kinsey takes on another case. Wealthy fashionista Hallie Bettancourt asks Kinsey to locate the son she gave up for adoption thirty years ago. The man, Christian Satterfield, was in prison for bank robbery and has just been paroled. Because Kinsey thinks the job will be quick and easy she accepts the modest payment of two hundred dollars in cash. Kinsey then performs a spot of surveillance, finds Christian's address, and sends it to Hallie.

As it turns out, Hallie Bettancourt's entire persona is false. Her name isn't Hallie, she isn't Christian's mother, and the cash payment she gave Kinsey is 'marked' - part of a $25,000 ransom paid to retrieve a stolen painting a couple of years before. So Kinsey decides to find out what the unknown woman actually wants with the ex-convict. Could she be planning a robbery?

Kinsey also has one other concern. An elderly couple, Edna and Joseph Shallenbarger, have recently moved next door to Kinsey's landlord, nonagenarian Henry Pitts. Joseph is wheelchair-bound and Edna is a sly old bird who constantly wangles Henry into helping her, buying her groceries, taking her to the store and the dentist and so on. Kinsey resents the Shallenbargers taking advantage of Henry. In additiion - as it turns out - the old couple are even worse neighbors than Kinsey feared.

In the course of her inquiries Kinsey makes a lot of phone calls, follows people, conducts interviews, looks up documents, meets a millionaire, writes up her index cards, and so on. She also spends some time dining in her friend Rosie's bar, making peanut butter and pickle sandwiches at home, and talking with old friends and acquaintances.

I enjoy this series and like visiting with the familiar characters. For me, though, the plot in this book is not riveting. Kinsey's cases seem unfocused, and her investigative procedures are a little slow and rambling. This contrasts with previous books where Kinsey's investigations were driven and fast-paced.

Still, I recommend this book to Sue Grafton fans. A flawed Kinsey Milhone story is better
than none. :)

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, November 4, 2016

Review of "A Conspiracy of Friends: A Corduroy Mansions Novel" by Alexander McCall Smith

This laid back series centers around an apartment building called 'Corduroy Mansions' in the Pimlico section of London - its residents, their friends, relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, and co-workers. In this book we visit with some familar characters and see what they're up to.

Twenty-something Caroline Jarvis has a degree in art history and works as a photograher's assistant. Caroline's parents want their daughter to spend less time with her best friend James, a gay young man who's not a viable marriage prospect. Thus, Caroline's mom engages in a little behind the scenes manipulation for her daughter's own good. And Caroline makes a regrettable mistake.

Middle-aged Willam French owns a wine store and lives with his beloved dog, Freddie de la Hay. One weekend William and Freddie de la Hay go to the country to visit William's lifelong friend Gerald and his wife Maggie. Unfortunate consequences ensue.

Freddie de la Hay disappears and Maggie reveals a disturbing secret she's been harboring for decades. A bit of trouble follows and William gets assistance from his friend Marcia Light - who carries a torch for him, and his neighbor Mr. Singh.

FYI: I was amused to learn that Freddie de la Hay (my favorite character) can fasten his own seat belt in a car.

Berthea Snark is a psychologist and writer who can't stand her son, Oedipus Snark, a self-absorbed minor politician with delusions of grandeur. Berthea does love her brother Terry Moongrove, a good-natured fellow with his head in the clouds. Terry is always on the brink of either accidently killng himself or being victimized by con artists, so Berthea keeps a close eye on him.

In this book, we see Oedipus (as usual) avoiding work and trying to throw his weight around. He also joins colleagues on a trip to the CERN supercollider, where he tries to be a know-it-all and embarasses himself. Terry also reveals his latest obsession - owning and driving a race car.

Barbara Ragg, a book editor, is the ex-girlfirend of Oedipus Snark, who was a neglectful, indifferent boyfriend. She's now dating Hugh, whom she hopes to marry. Barbara feels guilty about a couple of things and 'confesses' them to Hugh. Hugh returns the favor, relating a shocking story about working in Colombia, South America.

We also look in on some other characters including William's ne'er do well son Eddie and his girlfriend; Barbara's resentful business partner, Rupert Porter; an author writing a true-life book about a Yeti; and others.

This is a humorous, entertaining book that should probably be enjoyed with a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Recommended for people who want a restful, low-stress book for a relaxing read.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review of "Finders Keepers" by Stephen King

"Finders Keepers" is the second book in a trilogy that begins with "Mr. Mercedes." The trilogy features detective Bill Hodges and his makeshift (but capable) group of amateur helpers. In "Mr. Mercedes" the team assists in the capture of psychopath Brady Hartfield, who briefly shows up in this book as well.

"Finders Keepers" is a long book with a lot happening so I'll just summarize the main points.

The story begins in 1978. Morris Bellamy - a vicious young criminal - breaks into the home of famous, reclusive author John Rothstein. Morris is obsessed with Jimmy Gold, the protagonist in Rothstein's "Runner" trilogy. In the first couple of "Runner" books Jimmy is a rebellious, young man that Morris identifies with. In the third book, however, Jimmy 'sells out' by having a family and working in advertising. This infuriates Morris and compels him to confront the author.

Morris ends up killling Rothstein and raiding his safe for money and a huge stack of moleskin notebooks that contain Rothstein's unpublished writings - including two more "Runner" books. Morris buries his stash just before he's sentenced to life imprisonment for another crime.

Jump ahead to 2010. The economy is bad and thirteen-year-old Pete Saubers is distressed because his parents are constantly fighting over money. Pete comes upon Morris's buried treasure and anonymously starts sending the cash to his parents, $500 a month. The money helps the family get back on its feet. Pete also becomes obsessed with the writings in Rothstein's notebooks, especially the last two "Runner" books.

By 2014 the money from the buried treasure is gone and the Saubers can't afford to send Pete's little sister, Tina, to the private school of her dreams. Thus Pete cooks up a scheme to sell some of Rothstein's notebooks. He contacts a rare book dealer named Andrew, who happens to be Morris Bellany's former acquaintance. This turns out to be a bad idea.

Also in 2014, Morris finally gets out of prison on parole and tries to retrieve his buried treasure. When he discovers it's gone, Morris - who's been obsessing about reading the Rothstein notebooks for over 35 years - goes nuts. A violent man with no conscience, Morris will do anything to get 'his" notebooks back.

Enter Bill Hodges and his team, which includes African-American computer whiz Jerome Robinson (currently a student at Harvard) and eccentric Holly Gibney (a gifted amateur sleuth who has Asperger's syndrome). Through Jerome's little sister Barbara, who's friends with Tina Saubers, the team learns that Pete is in some kind of trouble. Hodges et al. - being sympathetic, do-gooders - decide to try to help Pete. The inevitable confluence of Pete, Morris, and Andrew (the book seller) - plus the detective team - lead to a series of events that are dramatic, violent, creepy, and horrific.

"Mr. Mercedes" is a mystery/thriller and "Finders Keepers" (more or less) follows along those lines as well."Finders Keepers", however, has a little more of the horror vibe that King is famous for. The character Morris Bellamy is reminiscent of the crazy book lover in "Misery" and his greedy book dealer pal Andrew is a devilishly dislikable guy.

For a detective novel, Bill Hodges and his compadres show up late in the story and play only a minor role in resolving the situation. The story also goes a bit long detailing Morris's boyhood, his relationship with his controlling mother, his feelings about Rothstein's writing, what happens to him in prison, and so on. There's also a lot of exposition about Pete - his concerns about his mom and dad, his reactions to Rothstein's journals, his worries about his sister, etc. All this made the book seem rather lengthy, but I was never bored.

All in all, the story is engaging and Morris and Pete are compelling characters. I know there are a wide range of opinions about this book, but I'd recommend it as entertaining and worth reading.   

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review of "Missing You" by Harlan Coben

When NYPD Detective Kat Donovan learns that Monte Leburne - the hitman convicted of killing her cop father 18 years ago - is dying, she visits him in prison. It's her last chance to get indisputable evidence about who ordered the hit. While in a drug-induced twilight state Leburne denies killing the policeman. He says he admitted to the crime because he was already on the hook for two other murders, so when he was asked to take the rap, he agreed. This startling information sets Kat off on a quest to discover the truth about her beloved dad's death.

Kat has other issues as well. The love of her life, Jeff Raynes, called off their enagagement soon after her father's death and Kat never got over it. In an attempt to kickstart Kat's love life her best friend Stacy signs Kat up for a dating website. When Kat peruses the site she sees the picture/profile of a man she thinks is Jeff, now apparently a widower with a child. But when Kat contacts Jeff she gets a discouraging response, hurting her all over again.

While Kat continues to look into her dad's murder, which antagonizes her superiors and the cops who originally investigated the crime - nineteen-year-old Brandon Phelps asks for her help. He claims his mother is missing after leaving for a romantic getaway with a man from a dating website. The cops are skeptical about Jeff's claims, however, because he's gotten text messages from his mom.

The reader (though not the cops) soon learns that Brandon's mother is indeed missing. She's being held by a group of murderous criminals who abduct wealthy people to force money out of them. Unfortunately for the bad guys one mob member made a serious error, which eventually puts Kat on the criminals' trail.

The book alternates between accounts of Kat's investigations and descriptions of the gang's activities, which are seriously stomach churning. Though mystery/thrillers often have story lines that are a little outlandish I think parts of this book strain credulity too much.

Interesting characters in the story include Kat's bosses - who try to discourage her inquiries into her dad's death; Kat's yoga teacher - who was a brilliant student before his nervous breakdown; Kat's friend Stacy - who's gorgeous and adept at warding off unwanted advances; Kat's mom - an alcoholic with two loyal, but quirky, friends; Titus - the cold-blooded leader of the abduction gang; Bo - a Labrador who likes to chase balls; and others.

Kat is a talented, capable detective who eventually resolves both cases. The book is a suspenseful page turner that has major twists, leads to a dramatic climax, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

One thing that irked me about the story is the adolescent behavior of too many male characters that come on to Kat and Stacy with childish, offensive pickup lines. I could hardly believe Harlen Coben penned these parts because they sound like they were written by a fifteen-year-old boy who thinks he's clever. And there's quite a bit of this stuff! (Some of Coben's best characters in other books, like Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood, would never talk like this.)

Overall, I'd rate this as a pretty good book that would appeal to a lot of mystery fans. 

Rating: 3 stars