Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review of "The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat" by Edward Kelsey Moore

The Supremes are three African-American girlfriends who bonded as teenagers in Plainview, Indiana in the 1960s, and remained friends for all their lives.

Odette, self-confident and assertive, married a sensitive man and raised three loving and successful children. Odette also converses with ghosts, particularly her mother and Eleanor Roosevelt (ha ha ha).

Clarice, a talented pianist, married a handsome womanizer and suffered endless embarrassment and distress because of his adultery - much to the chagrin of her friends.

And Barbara Jean, the town beauty, married a wealthy businessman and tragically lost a young son, an event which deeply affected her life.

After church on Sundays the three couples assemble for lunch at 'Earl's All-You-Can-Eat' to dine and schmooze. As the story proceeds we learn about life-altering events associated with Earl's restaurant - many witnessed by kind fatherly Earl himself. Racism, prevalent during the events of the story, also profoundly affects the lives of the Plainview residents.

All the major characters are fully realized, believable, and relatable (though, of course, I didn't have much sympathy for the womanizer) and the male author was able to capture the voices of his female characters with great authenticity.

I thought the book was funny, profound, dramatic, and sad in turn, and well worth reading.

Review of "Pretty Girls" by Karin Slaughter

At one time the Carrolls, living near Atlanta, were a happy family. The dad, Sam, was a veterinarian; the mom, Helen, was a librarian; and the three pretty blonde daughters - Julia, Lydia, and Claire - were in school. Then, when she was nineteen years old, Julia vanished and the family was torn apart.

The local sheriff and his officers investigated but thought that Julia was a rebellious teen who took off on her own and would come back on her own. But she never did. Julia's father Sam continued to relentlessly pursue the case, haunting the police station and searching for his daughter until he was driven to suicide. Julia's mom Helen, needing to get on with life, divorced Sam and remarried - but she kept Julia's room intact for remembrance.

Julia's sisters, Lydia and Claire, matured in this broken household - where they suffered greatly from Julia's disappearance. Lydia became a drug addict who lied, stole, and became estranged from her family. Later on, Lydia had a daughter and developed a relationship with her neighbor Rick, which provided her some peace.

Meanwhile, Claire went to college where she met wealthy Paul Scott, a budding architect. They eventually married and lived in luxury, with a huge home, pricey clothes, club memberships, and expensive cars.

As the story opens Claire Scott - now in her late thirties - has just been released from house arrest after violently assaulting a tennis partner. The Scotts celebrate Julia's freedom by dining at a classy eatery. When the couple leaves the restaurant, however, a mugger attacks them, robs them, roughs them up, and stabs Paul to death.

A day or so later Paul’s business partner, Adam, asks Claire to send him files from Paul’s home computer for a business presentation. While looking for the files Claire comes across a cache of shocking snuff pornography, and assumes her husband was a fan. That would be bad enough, but the truth turns out to be even worse.

Almost immediately Claire’s troubles escalate when - following a foiled burglary at her home - a number of cops show up, ranging from the local sheriff to an FBI agent from the Georgia office. Claire is understandably puzzled by this over-reaction to an attempted theft, but is eventually told that Paul embezzled money from his firm.

When Claire starts to question what was going on with Paul she learns about a snuff pornography conspiracy and calls on her estranged sister Lydia to help her investigate. A lot happens afterwards, and there are some surprising twists.

The book is very graphic in it’s description of violence to women, which I found hard to read. My main criticism of the book, though, hinges on unrealistic behavior by some of the characters.

In real life a woman like Julia – who has experience with lawyers and is rich – would probably call a high-powered attorney or the Washington office of the FBI when she senses big trouble. Instead Julia calls her older sister, and together they embark on a dangerous investigation. This is necessary for the book's plot but it doesn’t ring true. I also thought the seemingly omniscient perp – who knew everything that was going on everywhere - was not credible.

A number of ancillary characters add interest to the story, including the local cops who seem indifferent and incompetent; a creepy Georgia-based FBI agent; Paul's partner Adam, who had an affair with Claire; Lydia's boyfriend Rick, who seems like a nice guy; dad Sam Carroll - whose letters to his missing daughter are interspersed throughout the book; mom Helen Carroll, who's willing to help in a pinch; and others.

Karin Slaughter's books tend to be violent and disturbing and this one is at the top of the heap in that regard. Still this is a well-written, compelling thriller that I’d recommend to mystery lovers who have a strong stomach.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review of "The Last Dead Girl" by Harry Dolan

David Malone - a house inspector in Rome, New York - is engaged to a young doctor when he makes the chance acquaintance of law student Jana Fletcher. Malone falls hard for Jana and spends the next 10 days with her - until she's brutally murdered. Malone is an early  suspect but attention soon shifts elsewhere and Malone begins his own investigation. He discovers that Jana was working with a law professor on an "innocence project", trying to prove that Gary Pruett, a convicted high school teacher, didn't kill his wife.

During Malone's investigation he finds that a police detective may have suborned perjury to help convict Pruett. Moreover, other people in Jana's orbit have been attacked or murdered, including a woman living on Jana's street and the jailhouse snitch who testified against Pruett. Pruett himself claims that a couple of former students - one dead and one missing - killed his wife.

As the story moves along we learn that several people in the area, including Jana, have been harboring shocking secrets that explain the local "crime spree." To say more would spoil the surprises that Dolan packs into the story. This book's intricate structure and startling twists puts it a step above the usual mystery novel. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Review of "Not My Father's Son: A Memoir" by Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming is a Scottish actor who's probably best known in America for hosting "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS and playing Eli Gold on "The Good Wife". He's also a very successful stage and movie actor, now happily married to his husband Grant.

Alan's life wasn't always so bright though. In this memoir Alan talks about growing up with a father, Alex Cumming, who was physically, psychologically, and emotionally abusive. The book starts off with a bang as Alan describes a childhood scene where his vicious father yanked him out to the barn, threw him down on a table, and roughly shaved his head with sheep shears. Alan and his brother Tom lived in constant fear of their dad, who perpetually criticized and banged them around.

The impetus to write this book came from Alan's planned 2010 appearance on the British TV show "Who Do You Think You Are?". Celebrities who go on the show have aspects of their ancestry/past revealed, things that are often a surprise to them. (In an American version of this show, for example, Ben Affleck was shocked to learn his ancestors owned slaves.)

In Alan's case, he hoped to find out more about his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling. Tommy survived fighting in World War II but didn't come home when hostilities ended. Instead Tommy became a police officer in Malaya, where he was supposedly killed by an accidental gunshot wound. Tommy left behind his wife, Mary Darling, and four children. The Darlings struggled to get by without Tommy's income or pension. Alan wanted to find out more about this mysterious granddad, as well as other aspects of his own past.

While Alan was filming "Who Do You Think You Are?" - which required traveling around the world with the show's production team - Alex Cumming dropped a bombshell. He revealed that he wasn't Alan's father. Alex claimed that he had caught his wife leaving a bedroom with another man nine months before Alan was born, and that this man was Alan's father. According to Alex he wanted to give Alan a heads-up so the actor wouldn't be blindsided when this news came to light on the TV show.

The book jumps back and forth between Alan's youth and adulthood. In the 'then' sections Alan describes childhood incidents where his father yelled at him, threw him around, hit him, degraded him, embarassed him, and so on. Alan also talks about his father's constant public infidelities, which humiliated his wife and sons. In fact Alex sometimes took Alan along when he was meeting other women. These parts of the book are very disturbing.

In the 'now' sections Alan reveals the residual anxiety he feels from his childhood. He also writes about his acting gigs; professional successes; ex-wife; fears about having children (he has no kids); nervous breakdown; therapist; husband; friends; beloved mother, brother, and granny; parties; dinners; wine; etc. - in short, his life as an adult.

Alan also discusses his reaction to Alex Cumming announcing that he isn't the actor's biological father. Could this explain why Alex was always so cruel and hateful? Or did Alex just make this up to cause Alan more pain? Alan makes sure to find out the truth!

The book is well-written, enlightening, entertaining, and uplifting. It's good to learn that children with awful childhoods can go on to live happy, successful lives.

I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy celebrity memoirs. This is a very good one.

Review of "Everybody's Fool" by Richard Russo

I randomly chose this audiobook from the library shelf, not realizing it was a follow-up to "Nobody's Fool," which I haven't read. Still, the people in "Everybody's Fool" have enough backstory - and are so vividly depicted - that I felt okay reading it as a standalone. I found the story engaging, touching, and funny - filled with great characters and memorable scenes. 

The story takes place in the down-on-its-luck town of North Bath in upstate New York. As the book opens, Chief of Police Douglas Raymer is attending the funeral of Judge Barton Flatt, who often made fun of the hapless cop - especially when Raymer's wild shot almost hit an elderly woman on her toilet. Raymer's also brooding because he found a garage remote in the car of his late wife Becka. Raymer's sure the remote belonged to Becka's secret lover and thinks he can identify the man by testing the device on garages around town. 

But a series of adventures and misadventures - including fainting into the judge's grave, losing the remote, getting hit by lightning, hunting for a loose cobra, dealing with a dim deputy, and tracking down a hit-and-run driver - make it hard for Raymer to carry out his plan. Raymer also has a soft spot for his assistant Charice, whose back porch he nearly wrecks, and worries that Charice's cop brother Jerome might be after his job.

Meanwhile, Raymer's 'frenemy' Sully - a sort of bad boy construction worker who's now 70 years old and unexpectedly wealthy - has developed a serious heart ailment. Sully still likes to stop by the diner run by his married ex-lover Ruth and hang out in Gert's bar - where he's usually joined by Rub, a mentally slow grave digger who views Sully as his best friend. Over the course of the story Sully offers to assist Carl Roebuck - a huckster developer whose shoddy projects have been (spectacularly) exposed; helps Chief Raymer dig up a body; and faces off with Roy Purdy - a thief, wife-beater, and ex-con who has scores to settle. Purdy is easily the most despicable character in the story. 

Other interesting characters include: the mayor's wife Alice, who frequently 'speaks to people' on the detached handset of her pink princess phone - which she seems to think is a cell phone; Alice's former husband - a horrible man and gifted mimic who delights in manipulating and tormenting people; Sully's dog, also called Rub - a neurotic pooch who's always getting the pee scared out of him; a shiftless apartment sitter who drinks beer, watches TV, and not quite knowingly signs for packages containing venomous snakes; Ruth's daughter (and Purdy's ex-wife) Janey - who can't stay away from her violent ex; and Miss Beryl - the deceased teacher who really cared about Sully and Raymer.

I was amused by the humorous situations the characters get into and liked the book's comic tone. On the other hand I hated Roy Purdy and hoped he'd get what was coming to him. The zany action in the story leads to a plausible and satisfying ending...with room for another volume in the series. I'd highly recommend the book to fans of humorous literary novels.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review of "The Hidden Ones: Legacy of the Watchers, Vol. 1" by Nancy Madore

In The Hidden Ones Nancy Madore deftly crafts a tale that encompasses present day terrorism, myths about the ancient world, and mystical scrolls found in Qumran in the late 1940s. As the story opens Nadia Adeire, CEO of a charitable foundation, is kidnapped by a cryptic group of men who believe she has knowledge of roaming djinn (spirits of the dead) who mean to unleash terror on the world. The men who abduct Nadia are anxious to learn about her grandmother Helene.

In 1948, at the age of 16, Helene traveled to Qumran with her father to witness a ritual meant to raise Lilith, an ancient warrior, from the dead. Lilith - tall, beautiful, headstrong, cunning, and cruel - was the first of the female Nephilim, the offspring of unions between male angels and human women. After the Qumran ritual Helene was orphaned and forced to marry an Arab man, a distressing event that completely changed her life. Helene eventually became ill and died but she left her descendants a legacy of stories about Lilith. These tales - which stir debate among the characters about truth vs. myth - fascinate Nadia's kidnappers. They fear the djinn left behind by Lilith and other Nephilim are currently planning murderous attacks on humans.

The story is told from three points of view: Nadia in the present, Helene in the mid-1900s, and Lilith in ancient times.... but the reader can easily follow the threads. I found the stories about the ancient world engaging, with massive Nephilim battling for control of cities and forests, and benevolent angels at first helping mankind and then becoming harsh masters trying to evade the wrath of God. Helene's life in a strict Muslim household was also absorbing and instructive. Nadia's storyline was the least developed, largely being a vehicle to talk about Helene and Lillith.

The book is described as partly science fiction but I didn't find much evidence of this genre in the story other than speculation that the 'angels' may have been aliens. Some of the characters, such as Lilith, ancient warrior/king Asmodeus, and immortality-seeking Gilgamesh are captivating and memorable. Others, like Helene's father and his traveling companions, are more two-dimensional and functional.

There's a bit of romance in the book, some of it not quite credible in the context of the story. I also felt that Nadia and her abductors got unrealistically chummy and that the ancients incongruously spoke in very modern lingo. Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the sequel. I'm curious to see what happens to the remaining characters and to learn how the conflict between humans and djinn plays out. I recommend the book to all readers, especially fans of adventure, legends, and myths.

Review of "Broken Harbour" by Tana French

Patrick and Jenny Spain and their two young children - Emma and Jack - living in an unfinished, decaying housing development in Brianstown (formerly Broken Harbour) Ireland are attacked. Patrick and the children are dead and Jenny is barely alive. Mike ("Scorcher") Kennedy and his rookie partner Richie Curran are assigned the case.

As usual with Tana French's books one of the detectives (in this case Scorcher Kennedy) has an unfortunate history with the murder locale. When Scorcher was a child his family spent summer vacations at Broken Harbour and it was there that his mother committed suicide. Moreover, the tragedy apparently triggered mental illness in Scorcher's sister Dina, who has episodes of paranoia and erratic behavior.

When Scorcher and Richie begin to investigate the Spain calamity Patrick emerges as an early likely suspect. The recession has led to the loss of his high-paying job and the formerly happy family has been experiencing severe money problems. The Spains have had to give up their SUV, their friends, their social life, their recreational activities, and a good part of their self-respect. Maybe Patrick wanted to end all the suffering? However, further investigation reveals that the Spains seem to have attracted a couple of stalkers: one human and one elusive animal that ostensibly crawls through their house at will.

Questioning Jenny, the Spains' relatives, and their rather unsavory neighbors provides a number of clues to the crimes as does information gleaned from the Spains incompletely erased computer files. Scorcher and Richie don't agree about who the prime suspect should be, which leads to some friction between them. However the two detectives seem to work well together and Scorcher thinks about a possibly enduring partnership. And - at least for this case - Scorcher can use the help. His sister Dina, seeing the name "Broken Harbor" in the news has had a break-down and Scorcher is compelled to take care of her.

I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say that this well-written story has compelling characters and interesting twists, all of which lead to a satisfying, believable conclusion. A great addition to Tana French's mystery series.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Review of "Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story of the Most Audacious Heist in History"

This is a (sort of) true story about the July, 2002 moon rock heist pulled off by NASA intern Thad Roberts...and presumably what put Thad on this foolish course.

Thad grew up in a strict Mormon community in Utah. Even so, temptation got the better of him and Thad had sex with his high school girlfriend Sonya. Confessing to this when he was at the Mormon Missionary Training Center got Thad thrown out of the church and banned from his family - apparently forever. Was this the traumatic event that shaped Thad's future? Who knows. In any case Thad and Sonya married and Thad became a student at the University of Utah.

Thad, an excellent student with a wide variety of interests, decided he wanted to be an astronaut. Thus Thad made it his business to develop a wide-ranging skill set including scuba diving; getting a pilot's licence; mastering several languages (space travel is international); studying geology, astronomy, and physics; and so on. With persistence Thad made it into the highly competitive NASA intern program in Houston, Texas where he met some of the country's top scientists plus a few astronauts.

Ben Mezrich's writing style is 'creative non-fiction' and it's hard to know how much of the story happened as described. Thus when Thad, a self-described shy youth, is depicted as the 'star' of the intern program - partaking in risky pranks; organizing activities like skinny dipping, cliff jumping, sky diving, rock climbing, and wild parties; hob-nobbing with numerous scientists; and so on - I don't quite believe it all.

Thad, who fully cooperated with this book, also seems a bit self-serving when he (more or less) justifies having an affair with fellow intern Rebecca by putting the onus on his wife. According to Thad, Sonya - who remained back in Utah - became over-involved with her modeling career and model friends and distanced herself from him. So Thad felt no guilt about cheating. I'm calling shenanigans on Thad!

In any case Thad fell madly in love with Rebecca, and four weeks after meeting her pulled off the moon rock heist. He wanted to 'give Rebecca the moon' - and of course sell the specimens for a lot of money. The idea of stealing the moon rocks had been brewing in Thad's mind for quite some time. The background: moon rocks that have been studied/used for experiments are no longer considered valuable scientific specimens. In Thad's mind, therefore, it was hardly a crime to steal these 'trash rocks.' I got the impression Thad equated his heist with taking garbage out of a dumpster.

Moreover, Thad wasn't new to the thief game. He regularly stole fossils being prepared for storage from the University of Utah. In Thad's opinion, it was a waste to hide these items away. As a scientist I was appalled by this! Apparently Thad never heard of specimens (be it moon rocks or fossils or whatever) being stored for rotating/traveling displays, gifts to museums, public interest, later studies (perhaps with new technques), etc. Ben Mezrich also seems oblivious to this concept, perhaps because he isn't a scientist.

For the moon rock theft Thad had two accomplices besides Rebecca - his friends Gordon and Sandra. These two come across as underdeveloped characters with unclear motivations. My favorite person in the book is Axel Emmerman, the Belgian rock hound who's ostensibly going to buy the purloined moon rocks. Instead, Axel alerts the FBI. Axel's enthusium and excitement at being involved in this 'undercover' operation is fun and infectious.

In the end, of course, Thad was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. My overall impression of Thad is that he was an immature and thoughtless young man who cared little for anyone other than himself. Perhaps the worst outcome of the heist, which involved the theft of a safe containing moon rocks and written materials, was the permanent loss of scientist Everett Gibson's notebooks - which contained 30 years worth of research. This debacle literally made me cry.

For me Mezrich's writing style is off-putting, with over-abundant dialog, numerous descriptions of the inner thoughts of the characters, a detailed step-by-step depiction of the theft and attempted sale of the moon specimens, a long description of a drunk/high Gordon stumbling around on 'sale day'...all stuff that seems (at least partly) made up. Mezrich also mentions Thad's 'bright green eyes' and Rebecca's 'gorgeous face and body' a few too many times. In the end, I felt what should have been a really good magazine article was padded to make a book.

Still - though the moon rock heist is far from the 'crime of the century' suggested by the author - it's an interesting story, worth reading.

Review of "Tail Gait" by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown

This cozy series - set in Crozet, Virginia - was once a favorite of mine. The main character, 'Harry' Harristeen, was a divorced postmistress and amateur sleuth. Harry solved mysteries with the help of her 'talking pets', two cats and a corgi. The lovable animals commented on Harry's activities, philosophized about people, rode mail carts around the post office, protected Harry, and helped solve crimes. The stories also had an array of recurring characters that added fun and depth to the tales. Most importantly, the mysteries were interesting, with plenty of suspects and clues. The last few books in the series, however, were more political diatribes than cozy mysteries and I decided I'd had enough.

Nevertheless, I decided to check this latest addition out of the library. This book is more of a historical novel about the American Revolution than a mystery and many of the well-liked recurring characters are absent or marginally present. As for Harry, she's now re-married and living on her farm. Thus, there's no chit-chatting with folks in the post office or snacking on baked goods prepared by fellow postmistress Miranda - which was an entertaining aspect of previous books. The talking pets are still present, but not as fun as they once were.

The story: A beloved retired history professor, Greg "Ginger" McConnell, whose specialty is researching and writing about the American Revolution, is shot on the golf course. Harry and a cadre of college football players - who were Ginger's students decades before - are profoundly grieved. Soon afterwards the death of another person with a connection to Ginger occurs.

Harry and the cops don't know anyone who disliked or had a grudge against Ginger. Thus Harry decides (for no obvious reason) that the murder probably was linked to Ginger's historical research. Unlike standard mysteries, there's not much questioning of suspects or searching for clues. Instead, Harry examines local geography, maps, and old records and becomes very interested in a historically accurate housing development under construction.

The book alternates between the present and the past. In the 'now' parts Harry investigates the murders, caddies for her golfing friend Susan, assists some homeless people, and tends her farm and horses. In the 'then' parts the American Revolution has started and British prisoners of war are housed in a barracks in Virginia. The historical sections are depictions of the lives of the POW's, who were treated fairly well in the circumstances. They had beds and food and were sent out to work at local farms and businesses. The POWs were friendly with their guards and the local population, and many remained in the colonies when the Revolution ended.

The story is okay, and the solution to the crimes makes sense. Still, the book seems more like an excuse to write about the American Revolution than a mystery. It would make more sense for Rita Mae Brown to publish literary novels about her areas of interest rather than add more psedo-mysteries to this (formerly well-liked) series.

I wouldn't recommend this book to mystery fans but if you're interested in POWs during the American Revolution you might like it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review of "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren

Meaning to do good, Willie Stark rises from self-educated lawyer to political bigwig and eventually governor. Along the way he loses his moral compass and develops a taste for power, resorting to bullying, bribery, blackmail - whatever it takes - to get what he wants.

Willie does manage to help some of his constituents, taxing the wealthy to provide schools and hospitals for the poor, but he also betrays his wife, raises a selfish self-absorbed son, corrupts good people, and eventually reaps the consequences of his actions.

Willie's story is told by Jack Burden, a journalist who signs on to be Willie's right hand man. Thinking of himself as essentially a good guy Jack believes he's 'only doing his job' when he betrays some of his closest friends at Willie's behest.

I liked the book but the philosophical rantings of some characters was tedious and incomprehensible (to me). Overall, this is a superbly written book with fascinating characters and the trajectory of a Greek tragedy. Though published in the 1940s the book seems just as relevant today in it's depiction of political machinations. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review of "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke talked non-stop as a child in Bloomington, Indiana but grew up to be a quiet student at The University of California, Davis. She's been in college too long, unable to settle on a major and troubled by the long ago disappearance of her sister and brother.

We come to learn that Rosemary's father was an experimental psychologist and - around the time Rosemary was born - the Cooke family took in an infant chimp to raise as a member of the family. The chimp, Fern, was reared as a sister to Rosemary and her older brother Lowell until she 'disappeared' when Rosemary was five years old.

Karen Joy Fowler does a masterful job of slowly revealing how this incident profoundly affected the Cooke household. We come to know, understand, and empathize with each member of the family (mom, dad, Lowell, and Rosemary) as they deal with the effects of this aborted experiment. Some light relief is provided by Rosemary's interactions with college acquaintances, which also gives us insight into her behavior and personality.

This is a deeply moving, though somewhat disturbing, story with lessons to teach about how humans treat our fellow animals. Good book, highly recommended.

Review of "Penny: The Story of a Free-Soul Basset Hound" by Hal Borland

One day a nice-looking, well-mannered basset hound shows up at Hal and Barbara Borland's Connecticut farmhouse and makes herself at home. The Borlands name her Penny but soon learn that the dog lives elsewhere and is named Pokey. Pokey-Penny (as Hal calls her) is brought back to her original family but starts nipping at the local kids and is returned to the Borlands permanently.

Penny is a quirky gal with a mind of her own. She enjoys walks with the Borlands but also likes to take off by herself, returning tired and mud-spattered. The basset hound visits local families to cadge treats and has her own 'charge account' at the butcher shop - where she's given bones. Penny almost wrecks the living room chasing a ball and chews up Hal's hat. She hangs out with Hal when he's writing and shelters with Barbara during thunderstorms. When the basset hound is hungry she stands at the fridge.....and she can put away an ENORMOUS amount of food. The book has lots of stories like this about Penny, many of which will be familiar to dog owners.

In one of my favorite anecdotes Penny refuses her kibble, only deigning to eat canned dog food or cereal and milk. Wanting to use up the kibble they bought, the Borlands crush it and put it in the bird feeder. The birds don't like the kibble either and toss it on the ground....where Penny happily consumes it all (ha ha ha). In another amusing tale, Hal relates that Penny has her own 'bus pass.' During the pooch's lone perambulations she sometimes waits at school bus stops to hitch a ride home. That's one smart dog!!

Unfortunately Penny has some bad habits as well. She chases trucks on the road and harasses the neighbor's cows - a big no no. When Penny can't be broken of these behaviors she's given away to a dog-loving family that lives in a safer environment...and one day Penny disappears.

In addition to stories about Penny Hal writes A LOT about nature: the changing seasons; flowers; trees; birds; rabbits, woodchucks; other animals; weather; temperature; rain; snow; thunder; lightning; etc. I didn't find these parts very interesting.

The last part of the book is composed of two rather long, fanciful stories - one by Hal and one by Barbara - of what may have happened to Penny. These two yarns read like children's tales and might make good bedtime stories....but again, not that interesting to me.

My favorite parts of the book are about Penny and I hope - wherever she went- that Penny had a good life. If you're a dog lover, you'll probably enjoy this book. It will make your smile.

Thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author's estate for a copy of this book.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review of "A Conspiracy of Friends" 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 daugter'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. We also discover Terry's 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.

Review of "Dick Francis's Damage" by Felix Francis

Someone seems bent on disrupting British horseracing. A couple of trainers have been suspended for doping horses - though they claim innocence - and one has been driven to murder. Soon afterwards mandatory testing after a big race reveals that many horses - from stables across the United Kingdom - have been tainted with an illegal substance. Soon enough the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) receives a message - pay five million pounds or horseracing will be brought to its knees.

Jeff Hinkley, undercover investigator for the BHA, is tasked with investigating the matter and stopping the extortionist. Jeff soon comes to suspect that the suspended trainers were set up, figures out how the drugs were administered, and takes steps to stop the attacks. The horse doper is clever however, and finds another way to disrupt one of the biggest races of the year. The BHA tries paying the extortionist a small amount of appeasement money while Jeff continues to investigate but the attacks continue and escalate. Jeff and some BHA members want to inform the police but others fear the publicity will ruin horseracing, a huge industry in Britain.

While all this is going on Jeff is also contending with personal issues: his sister is being treated for cancer, he's become jaded with his long-time girlfriend, and he's trying to help his step-nephew who's been accused of selling drugs.

Like his father (Dick Francis), Felix Francis sprinkles the story with interesting tidbits about horsetracks, racing, trainers, jockeys, betting, and the people who govern the sport. I enjoyed the story and Jeff Hinkley is an engaging character - clever and a master of disguise. It's a treat to see how he goes undercover to search for information and clues.

The resolution of the story is somewhat predictable and a little unsatisfying but it's still an enjoyable book, recommended for mystery lovers.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review of "Death of a Liar" by M.C. Beaton

When a woman in the Scottish village of Cronish falsely reports that she was raped Sergeant Hamish Macbeth thinks of her as the 'woman who cried wolf' and ignores her next call for help. Unfortunately her body is soon found in her house and her death seems to be connected with the disappearance of a couple who recently moved to Hamish's village of Lochdubh. Hamish investigates the cases and as usual, Detective Inspector Blair - an alcoholic and barely competent officer - tries to sideline Hamish and get the credit for himself.

Hamish also socializes a bit with his ex-girlfriends Priscilla and Elspeth as he simultaneously tries to get a date with Anka, a polish beauty who's a deft hand at baking baps (Scottish breakfast rolls). Unfortunately for Hamish, Anka is more friendly to Hamish's assistant Dick Fraser - a homebody cop who's excellent at cooking, cleaning, and keeping the police station (and police home) in tip top shape. Through it all Hamish gathers clues that help him discover the connection between the crimes and solve the cases.

A large part of the fun of the series lies in the interactions between Hamish and the other characters, especially those that recur from book to book. Hamish resents Dick Fraser for cramping his style with the ladies. dislikes Blair for messing up investigations and trying to get the Lockdubh police station closed, and longs for a lady to love. Though problems often arise and Hamish's life is sometime endagered he's never down for long. It seems the Scottish detective was born under a lucky star.

The mystery plot of the book is engaging and satisfactorally resolved. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to fans of light mysteries. A good addition to the series.

Review of "Breed" by Chase Novak

Alex and Leslie Twisden are a golden couple with money, good jobs, and a beautiful home. Their big problem - they can't conceive a child. Hearing of a doctor in Slovenia who works miracles for infertile couples they hop a plane to get the treatments. Fast forward ten years and the Twisdens have boy and girl twins but something is wrong. Their home is a wreck, they're almost broke, they avoid social interactions, and they always lock their children's bedroom doors at night.

Turns out the Slovenian doctor's methods were unorthodox and resulted in frightening side effects. The twins make a break for it, seek help, and happen to  come across other families like theirs. As a result they see some disgusting and horrific things. There's plenty of blood and gore and tragedy in this page turner but I was dissatisfied with the ending which (I felt) didn't wrap up the story properly. Perhaps there will be a sequel.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Review of "After the Storm" by Linda Castillo

 A ferocious tornado rips through Painters Mill, Ohio causing damage and fatalities. Two consequences of the tornado are especially relevant to Chief of Police Kate Burkholder. First, Kate rescues a baby from a crumpled trailer. The baby later dies and the parents blame Kate. Second, the bones of a man who disappeared decades ago are found among the ruins of an old barn on an Amish farm. Kate - who was raised Amish but left the fold long ago - investigates with her detectives.

Though it takes the police some time to identify the dead man the reader can guess who it is pretty quickly from the book's prolog where a man is pushed into a pen of hogs and eaten.

Meanwhile, Kate is now living with her boyfriend, investigator John Tomasetti, from whom she's hiding a secret. To add to Kate's problems, someone is trying to kill her - and Kate suspects it's the baby's meth-head father. He's elusive, though, and the police can't track him down.

The investigation into the dead man requires Kate to question several Amish families, who are less than cooperative. Nevertheless, Kate is able to put together a number of clues, connect the dots, and get on track to solve the crime. This isn't all smooth sailing because Kate tends to be reckless and keeps putting herself in dangerous situations - a bad idea when someone is trying to kill you.

The plot is well-crafted and the book's characters - including the various suspects, Kate's detectives, the police dispatchers, Kate's family, the baby's parents, and more - add interest to the story. I also liked the peeks into the Amish community, including aspects of their lifestyle and beliefs. I enjoyed the book and recommend it highly to mystery fans.

Review of "The Long Way Home" by Louise Penny


Clara and Peter Morrow are residents of the lovely village of Three Pines near Montreal along with a cadre of other interesting and eccentric characters, including former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Homicide Bureau. Both Clara and Peter are artists, but Peter became jealous of his wife's increasing success and impossible to live with, so Clara asked him to leave for a year. After that time Peter was supposed to return so they could re-evaluate their marriage. Peter didn't come back (or communicate in any fashion) so Clara asks Gamache to help her find out what, if anything, happened to her husband.

It's a promising beginning that doesn't pan out. The story wanders much too far from a detective novel, being mostly a treatise on art and muses. Even visiting with familiar, well-liked characters was unsatisfying because they mostly just blabbed on and on about art. I like and appreciate art but I wanted to read a mystery, not an art book - and this book didn't deliver. I don't recommend it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of "Wicked Ways" by Lisa Jackson & Nancy Bush

Elizabeth Gaines - wife, mother, and real estate agent living in California - seems to have a unique problem. People who infuriate her die soon afterwards, including her overbearing boss, a nasty cop, her cheating husband, a rude driver, and so on. Elizabeth feels anxious and guilty about this, and in the case of her husband, comes under suspicion by the police.

Elizabeth, an adoptee, does seem to have some unusual abilities. As a child she predicted a bridge collapse - but this is a far cry from 'wishing' people to death. Elizabeth's little daughter Chloe also seems to have some psychic ability, but she's a stubborn, headstrong child determined to get her way - not a sweet little girl.

Elizabeth's social group consists mostly of the women in a 'mother's group', a friendship/support group for young moms. Some of the ladies are quite inappropriate though, attempting to set Elizabeth up with a new man less than a week after her husband's death. (Would anyone really do this?) Moreover, the women and their husbands, who are recurring characters in the story, are hard to disinguish from one another.

Elizabeth's blood relatives - who are unknown to her - live in an old-fashioned, insular community in Oregon and also seem to have unusual powers. Getting the sense that Elizabeth is in danger Aunt Catherine dispatches 19-year-old cousin Ravinia to find and warn her. Ravinia takes off with a few wrinkled clothes and very little money and makes her way to California along with a supernatural wolf who seems to shadow her. In California Ravinia inveigles a private detective, Rex Kingston, to help her. Though Kingston tries to keep his distance, Ravinia keeps inserting herself into his life and his investigations, insisting she wants to be a partner in the detective business. To me this was not only pushy and annoying but unrealistic and I didn't like Ravinia.

The book follows two story lines. The first is Elizabeth and her everyday troubles: people are dying around her; the police suspect her of killing hubby; she's almost broke; unwanted men are asking her out; fellow realtors resent her recent success; her daughter is having spells, etc. The second is Ravinia's search for for Elizabeth. Neither thread is very compelling. Moreover the end of the book, which supposedly explains what's going on, is so convoluted as to be almost incomprehensible - and the reason for the danger to Elizabeth is never made completely clear.

I didn't think this was a terrible book but there seem to be some missing elements. Still, I probably won't be reading the next book in the series to find out.

Review of "Not That Kind of Girl" by Lena Dunham

I listened to the audio version of this book (read by the author). I picked it up from the library because I think Lena Dunham is smart and talented and I like her TV show "Girls." That said, there were parts of the book I liked and parts I didn't. For me Dunham describes too many sexual exploits that don't provide enlightenment about anything. She seems to be a free spirit in this realm but I don't need the details - and too many of her sexual interactions go badly and provide pictures I don't need in my head.

More interesting were the descriptions of Dunham's demons. She was a troubled child, fearful of everything. She disliked sleeping alone from childhood on - which eventually led to numerous sleeping companions, platonic and otherwise. Dunham was obsessed with death and felt compelled to spread the fear to everyone. She was disorganized, hid half-finished homework under her bed, and couldn't make friends. Her parents - a loving, caring couple - took her to analysts as needed and Dunham's closest relationship as a child/young adult was apparently with a professional who helped her complete assignments and cope with her life.

In the fifth grade Dunham's problems relating to peers led to a close relationship with her male teacher - a "friendship" that got too close and became slightly inappropriate. Dunham's irate mother descended on the school to straighten out the situation. Dunham more or less ends the story there (too bad, because I was curious to know more).

At one point Dunham had insufficiently safe sex with a bisexual guy who proceeded to tell her he'd recently slept with an AIDS patient. Being a hypochondriac anyway Dunham proceeded to live her life as an "AIDS victim" for months, until she got a clean bill of health. She also describes a few anxiety-filled summers at sleepaway camps, where her biggest (maybe only) triumph was diving off a cliff with the help of a counselor. There are plenty more such stories in the book.

Interspersed with the essay portions of the book are semi-humorous 'lists' of various kinds such as: things Dunham learned from her mother, things she learned from her father, e-mails she'd write if she had the nerve, things she was afraid of, etc.

Through all the stress and anxiety and crises however, Dunham seems to have recognized her gifts and talents. After a couple of mundane jobs perfomed poorly she learned to strive for and achieve success. Even this wasn't all good however. Dunham provides a disheartening description of "Hollywood Men" that glom onto successful women to enhance themselves.

I imagine Dunham will have plenty more to say about her life in the future, which might be interesting to read about.

Review of "Before The Fall" by Noah Hawley

Multimillionaire David Bateman - who runs a conservative TV news station (something like Fox news) - charters a private plane to fly his family from their vacation retreat in Martha's Vineyard to their home in New York City.

On board are:
Bateman, his wife Maggie, and their children Rachel (9) and JJ (4).
Gil, the family's head of security, whose firm was hired after a kidnapping.
Ben and Sarah Kipling, wealthy friends of the Batemans. Ben is a Wall Street operator who's being investigated for illegal money laundering.
Scott Burroughs, a recovering alcoholic and artist who's trying to revitalize his career.
The plane's pilot, copilot, and cabin attendant.

After a smooth take-off the plane crashes into the Atlantic Ocean 18 minutes into the flight. Scott Burroughs and JJ survive, and Burroughs - pulling JJ behind him - swims for 8 hours to come ashore on Montauk Beach. Burroughs is initially hailed as a hero. However, bombastic newscaster Bill Cunningham (a friend and employee of David Bateman) relentlessly throws out accusations and insinuations about the artist.

Cunningham suggests that Burroughs was having an affair with Maggie Bateman; that he might have caused the crash; that he's after the Bateman fortune; and so on. Burroughs also comes under intense scrutiny from a determined FBI agent who thinks the artist's paintings - which depict disasters - make him a very suspicious character. All this exemplifies the phrase "no good deed goes unpunished."

Various agencies investigate the crash, whose cause is not immediately clear. Was it a terrorist attack? Sabotage? An equipment malfunction? Human error? In rotating chapters the book shifts between the crash probe, the backstory of each character, and what's going on now. For example, JJ is taken in by his aunt and her hard-drinking, unsuccessful, would-be restaurateur husband - who can't hide his glee at the thought of 'sharing' JJ's inheritance. And Burroughs takes shelter in the luxurious Manhattan apartment of a sexy billionaire socialite, who likes the idea of secretly harboring a hero.

As the story unfolds revelations indicate that many characters have something to hide, be it illegal activities; secret insecurities; selfish and craven natures; etc. The people are well-drawn, interesting, and realistic. I hated big-mouth newsman Bill Cunningham. On the other hand I liked no-nonsense bodyguard Gil, who knew his job and did it well. Other characters are equally well-rounded.

After retrieving the wreckage, the black box, and the flight recorder, the government investigators discover the cause of the crash. The ending will probably satisfy some readers and disappoint others (like me).

This book got lots of great reviews but it was just okay for me. I was hoping the story would be more about the nuts and bolts of the crash investigation. Instead, it focuses on the characters, who - though engaging - aren't that unique in the annals of literature. Still, it's an entertaining story, good for a beach or plane read (or maybe not).

One more thought: the author has a kind of writing tic where the characters - when asked a question - "think about" the response: JJ thinks about this; Burroughs thinks about this; Rachel thinks about this; Maggie thinks about this; they think about this; and so on. I found this distracting.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review of "Fool Me Once" by Harlan Coben

Flight instructor Maya Stern Burkett is anxious, sad, and distressed. Her sister Claire was tortured and murdered four months ago; her husband Joe was recently killed by muggers, almost right in front of her eyes; and she has recurring nightmares about a mission that went badly wrong half a year ago, when she was a special ops pilot in Iraq. To make things worse, some details of the mission have been exposed on a 'tell-all' internet site...and more damaging information might be coming out soon.

Still, Maya has her two-year-old daughter Lily to raise, helped by nanny Isabella - a woman whose relatives have worked for Joe Burkett's very rich family for generations. Concerned about Lily's welfare - and encouraged by a friend - Maya installs a nanny cam in her den. Upon checking the camera a few days later Maya is shocked to see a video of her (supposedly) dead husband playing with Lily. When Maya confronts Isabella with this clip the nanny promptly attacks her with pepper spray and runs off with the camera's memory card.

Maya isn't sure what to do. She could tell Detective Roger Kierce - who's investigating Joe's death - but he acts pushy and suspicious with Maya and she doesn't like him. So Maya decides to do her own inquiry. She soon learns that the same gun was used to kill both Claire and Joe; that Claire had a secret second cell phone; that a retired private detective has been on the Burkett payroll for decades; and that something bad happened at Joe's exclusive prep school many years ago. To top it off, Maya finds another dead body...which Detective Kierce thinks is REALLY fishy.

While all this is going on Maya enrolls Lily in a good daycare; visits with Joe's family - who have always viewed her as an outsider; enlists the help of her former army platoon mate Shane; questions persons of interest; visits a strip club; pulls down the pants of her niece's soccer coach - who doesn't abide by the rules (ha ha ha); is viciously attacked; and so on. Plenty of action and intrigue.

The book is a suspenseful page turner, and the unfolding events lead to a surprise climax. A problem I have with the book is that some 'secrets' unearthed by Claire would - in the real world - have come to light a long time ago. Moreover, several characters say and do things that are not credible. I understand the need for author's license in fiction but too many 'not believable' elements in a book bother me.

Still, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to mystery fans.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review of "Fin & Lady" by Cathleen Schine

In the early 1960s, beautiful twenty-four-year-old Lady Hadley swoops in to take over the care of her half-brother Fin Hadley when he's orphaned at eleven. Lady is a free spirit - able to travel, maintain a luxurious home, and indulge in favorite political causes - due to a generous trust fund.

Lady and Fin soon move to Greenwich Village where Fin is enrolled in an 'alternative' school that favors lots of freedom and little homework. Fin is also exposed to Lady's rather eccentric lifestyle, which includes several boyfriends, whimsical activities, and plenty of drinking and partying. Fin also becomes an advocate of Lady's political views. This is the era of the Viet Nam War and of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. President Johnson is unpopular with anti-war activists and there's plenty to protest about. Thus, Fin accompanies Lady to rallies and marches, and even manages to get taken into police custody. Fin is devoted to Lady and considers all this great fun.

One thing Fin isn't please about is Lady's request that he help her find a husband since he doesn't like most of her beaus. Lady insists she needs to marry by twenty-five but is perfectly happy to give herself extensions as needed. Lacy's looking for someone to love but can't seem to find him.

The book doesn't really have a plot as such. Instead it's a character study of Lady, Fin, their black housekeeper Mabel, and their friends. Mabel is the loving motherly figure who takes care of Fin when his sister flakes out. Lady has two former roommates who enjoy suggestive chit-chat and she has three boyfriends who are very different from each other: a lawyer, a jock, and a Hungarian refugee. Fin makes friends with kids on the block and at school and roams the city with them. The closest relationship in the story, though, is between Lady and Fin - who have a tight, loving bond. Lady's whims eventually result in a lovely summer on the island of Capri in Italy, which sets up a big change in everyone's life.

I thought the book was slow and plodding in places, which lessened my enjoyment of the story. Overall it was an okay book with some interesting characters.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Review of "Remains of Innnocence" by J.A. Jance

Massachusetts resident Selma Matchett, a cantakerous, mean-sprited hoarder, is estranged from both her children, Liza and Guy. When Selma enters hospice care, Liza cleans out her mom's house and finds nearly $150,000 hidden in books and magazines. Liza proceeds to spend some of the cash to renovate her mother's decrepit house for sale. Then, at Selma's funeral, an old man approaches Liza and tells her that be once knew her long-absent father and that Liza needs to be careful because some people 'don't forget'. Murder and mayhem soon begin and Liza takes off across the country on the 'underground railroad' operated by long-haul truckers, which is meant for abused women. Liza's plan is to get to her older brother Matthew in Bisbee, Arizona to see if he can explain what's going on.

Meanshile, across the country in Bisbee, Sheriff Joanna Brady has a lot to deal with. Junior, a handicapped man beloved by his adoptive parents and the community, is found murdered - his body lying in a cave with the remains of several abused animals and a live but tortured kitten. Joanna fears a budding serial killer might be responsible. The medical examiner, Dr. Guy Matchett (Liza's brother), is scheduled to do Junior's autopsy but he is soon found brutally murdered himself, his body showing evidence of torture. Joanna thinks the Junior and Guy deaths are unrelated and - when she's contacted by authorities in Massachusetts looking for Liza - concludes there's a connection between the crimes in Massachusetts and what happened to Guy Matchett.

The story skips back and forth between Liza's trek across the U.S. and Joanna's investigations in Arizona. Liza is handed off from one long haul rig to another and meets a series of interesting personalities along the way. In the Arizona sections, Joanna has a competent team of deputies and crime scene analysts and their work is well-described and informative. Joanna's family also plays a part in the story, including her supportive husband Butch, rodeo-loving daughter Jenny, and the family dogs and horses. This adds a homey touch to the book.

Joanna solves Junior's murder with the help of forensic evidence and the Matchett case with the help of federal authorities. The Machett solution, however, didn't quite ring true for me. This book is a fine addition to the Joanna Brady series and recommended for mystery fans.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review of "Then Again" by Diane Keaton

In this memoir Diane Keaton talks about growing up in a large family in California, her career, her romances, her adopted children, and especially her mother. She calls this a story about her mother and herself.

Diane grew up in a loving home, with an especially warm and creative mother and a father who - though somewhat distant - tried to do right by his family. Diane's mother, Dorothy Hall, was addicted to documenting her life, and left behind a large number of journals that are excerpted in this book. We come to know her as a woman devoted to her family and proud of her talented daughter, though perhaps somewhat unfulfilled in her own life. Diane also writes a good deal about her siblings, with whom she has close and affectionate relationships. A couple of eccentric grandparents also make an appearance, whose exploits are sometimes humorous, sometimes touching or sad.

Diane devotes a good deal of the book to her career: her love of singing, her move to New York to look for work, her acting coaches, her entry into show business, movies she's acted in and directed, her friends in the industry, and more. This is engaging and gives a small but interesting glimpse into the world of show business.

Diane is honest about her love life, and speaks openly and kindly about her romances with Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, and Al Pacino. Diane badly wanted to marry Pacino, with whom she made three Godfather movies, but could never convince him to take the plunge. Nevertheless, all Diane's boyfriends apparently remained friends for life.

Diane is devoted to the two children she adopted later in life, her daughter Dexter and her son Duke. We learn details about their arrival at her home, gifts they received from Diane's celebrity friends, their birthdays, what they liked to do, their loving interactions with their mom, and so on.

Diane devotes many pages to the death of her father from cancer, and to her mother Dorothy's struggle with Alzheimer's disease; we see Dorothy's slow decline and eventual death. To me, these parts of the book - though clearly very meaningful to the author, whose anguish is clear - were overly long and the least interesting parts of the story.

I enjoyed the first part of the book, about Diane's career, much more than the parts devoted to her parents' illnesses, which were sad but not gripping. If the author writes another book concentrating on her show business experiences I'd read it.         

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn

On a tragic evening 25 years ago farm-owner Patty Day and two of her young daughters, Debby and Michelle, were slaughtered. Seven-year-old Libby Day survived and her brother, fifteen-year-old Ben Day was convicted of the crimes and imprisoned. Libby testified against Ben, is convinced of his guilt, and has had nothing to do with him for a quarter century.

As an adult Libby lived off a fund donated by a sympathetic public, but now, at she age of thirty-one, her money is depleted. Libby - a traumatized, maladjusted, petty thief who is barely able to get out of bed, much less keep a job - happens across a new way to make money. Members of an organization called 'The Kill Club', who study crime, believe Ben Day is innocent and are trying to get him freed. They're willing to fund Libby if she'll talk to people they view as suspects/persons of interest. Libby agrees and, after talking to Ben, begins to waver in her belief that he's guilty.

The story alternates between events that occurred 25 years ago and what is happening today. Between Libby's current investigation and flashbacks to events leading to the murders, we learn about various characters: Ben was a troubled, angst-ridden teen, ashamed of his family's poverty, who fell in with a bad crowd. His story makes up a good part of the book. Patty's husband Runner Day, instrumental in bankrupting the farm, was an absentee dad who came home only to ask for money; Patty, exhausted physically and mentally by the age of thirty-two, couldn't cope with her four children and was barely able to scrape together money to feed them. Various other characters, including Patty's sister, a banker, Ben's friends, members of The Kill Club, etc., round out the story.

The book made me uncomfortable at times because most of the characters are unlikable people who behave badly. It would be a spoiler to tell more so I'll just say the book has many threads which are skillfully woven together to lead to the twisty, satisfying conclusion. This is a well-written mystery, highly recommended.

Review of "The Good, the Bad, and the Emus" by Donna Andrews

Meg Lanslow - wife, mother of young twins, blacksmith, and amateur sleuth - gets pulled into a murder inquiry when she sets out to learn about the grandmother she never knew. Many years ago Granny Cordelia, an unwed mom, gave up Meg's dad for adoption. Now Meg's grandfather, Dr. Montgomery Blake (the unwed dad), has hired detective Stanley Denton to find Cordelia. While assisting Stanley with the search Meg meets Cordelia's agoraphobic sister Annabel, who says Cordelia was killed in a generator explosion. The authorities say this was an accident but Annabel believes that Cordelia was murdered by an ornery neighbor who lives across the fence. Annabel convinces Meg and Stanley to investigate the crime - promising to tell Meg all about Cordelia if she finds the killer. 
It also happens that Annabel and Cordelia were actively involved in trying to rescue a flock of emus released from a failed emu farm. Meg gets her grandfather, Dr. Blake - an avid wildlife enthusiast - interested in the project and he soon arrives with a small army of volunteers and helpers. The emu rescuers and Meg's family  all camp out on Annabel's property. The do-gooders plan to round up the emus and deliver them to a sanctuary while Meg plans to look into Cordelia's death. All this creates a kind of humorous madhouse atmosphere.
Soon enough a mysterious flagon of scotch and box of chocolates - both laced with deadly poison - make an appearance, apparently targeting Dr. Blake and Annabel. The need to guard and protect these two elderly people adds to the mayhem.  As the story unfolds the reader is treated to vivid descriptions of the Virginia countryside, the emu hunt, delicious meals in the mess tent, and spy acivity on both sides of the fence. Much of the hectic goings on in the book are extraneous to the central mystery - which is eventually solved in a believable enough fashion. A fun light mystery to spend a few hours with.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Review of "Bellweather Rhapsody" by Kate Racculia

Every year the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York hosts a musical event called "Statewide" where talented young students get the opportunity to show off their skills. In 1997, twin high school seniors - Rabbit and Alice Hatmaker - have both qualified to attend. Rabbit plays the bassoon in the orchestra, and Alice, an aspiring singer/actress, is in the chorus. This year the head of Statewide is Viola Fabian, a cruel, unpopular woman who delights in crushing the aspirations of young talent, and uses and abuses people to further her goals. Coincidentally, Viola's daughter - flute prodigy Jill Facelli - is Alice's roommate in Room 712.

On the first evening of Statewide Alice discovers Jill's hanging body in their hotel room. When Alice rushes out to get help Jill's body disappears. This incident is eerily reminiscent of an occurrence 15 years before when a newlywed bride shot her husband and hanged herself in Room 712 of the Bellweather.

The crux of the story revolves around what happened to Jill. Viola insists that Jill, prone to acting out, faked this incident and is perfectly okay. Alice, however, fears that Jill is dead and is determined to investigate. Meanwhile Rabbit has his own issues to deal with: he develops his first heart-rending crush on a handsome acapella singer and debates telling Alice that he's gay.

There's plenty of additional drama going on in the story, which is populated by an array of intriguing characters: Natalie Wilson - the Hatmakers' chaperone - has no rapport with young people and was once Viola Fabian's student; Fisher Brodie - Rabbit's orchestra conductor - is an eccentric former pianist who purposely mangled his hand and has a romantic history with Viola Fabian; Minnie Graves - a troubled young woman - was a child when she was the first person to discover the Belllweather's hanged bride in 1982; Auggie - a cute, deaf dog - is Minnie's comfort pet; Harold Hastings - the elderly hotel concierge - is a kind-hearted, troubled man who can't stand Viola being in charge of Statewide.

Could one of these people have harmed Jill, perhaps to get back at Viola? Alice tries to find out while the characters and situations play out in various ways. There's a major snowstorm, lovely music, some romance, psychotic behavior, bad food, drunk teens, amateur detective work, and so on.

This is a face-paced, amusing, and entertaining mystery that's a little off the beaten track for this genre. I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Review of "A Time of Torment" by John Connolly

Roger Ormsby is an evil man who delights in making people 'disappear' so their families will endure maximum long-term suffering. Ormsby is about to do away with a little girl he snatched when Private Detective Charlie Parker and his partners, Angel and Louis, show up to save the day. As it happens ANY bad guys on Parker's radar better watch their backs because Charlie and his pals are the best killers around. Moreover, Parker has a complicated relationship with some supernatural beings who lend a hand on occasion. Thus Charlie's a guy you'd always want in your corner (at least I would).

The main story in this 14th book in the series revolves around ex-convict Jerome Burnel. Burnel was once an unhappily married jewelry dealer who saved the lives of several people by killing a couple of sadistic thieves. The thieves' enraged relatives then framed Burnel for child pornography and got him sent to prison for five years, where Burnel was regularly tormented and beaten. Burnel - now a broken man - is out on parole and convinced his enemies are still after him. Thus Burnel tells Parker the whole story and hires the detective to investigate if he disappears.

As things turn out Burnel soon vanishes and Parker's investigation leads him to a secluded enclave called 'The Cut' in Plassey County, West Virginia. The families in The Cut, who've lived there for generations, don't allow outsiders on their land. The Cut grows its own food and - to make money - steals and perpetrates other crimes. The Cut also harbors some vicious killers - and the stunts the residents get up to with kidnapped women are unspeakable! On top of all that, The Cut is led by a strange entity called 'The Dead King.'

Parker becomes convinced that people from The Cut killed Burnel and - learning that the community is evil - makes it his mission to destroy it. Of course Angel and Louis are on hand to help, as are other law enforcement officials and agencies. In one of my favorite scenes killers from The Cut try to ambush Parker in his motel. The action - including some deft work by Angel and Louis - is dramatic and exciting.

There are plenty of interesting characters in the story including: a trio that entices men with a sexy woman, then robs them; Burnel's ex-wife - who's a piece of work; a depraved convict Burnel meets in prison; hillbillies living in The Cut; a mentally-challenged boy living outside The Cut; and a sheriff that - unlike most of his neighbors - stands up to leaders of The Cut. There are also a couple of ghosts and some of Parker's other-worldly acquaintances.

I enjoyed the story, and highly recommend it readers who enjoy thrillers - especially fans of Charlie Parker.

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review of "The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss" by Anderson Cooper & Gloria Vanderbilt


This book is based on email correspondence between journalist Anderson Cooper and his nonagenarian mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Though perhaps not so well known today, Gloria was once a darling of the media. During her long and eventful life Gloria was an heiress, socialite, actress, artist, designer, fashion mogul, and author. She had numerous affairs with famous men and was married four times. All this made Gloria fascinating to the public.

Though Gloria had an enviable life in many ways - with ritzy apartments, beautiful clothes, celebrity friends, a fulfilling career, and so on - she was a troubled soul. Gloria was born in 1924 and lost her father when she was just 15 months old. Gloria's mother, a young and beautiful free spirit, had no interest in raising a child. Thus, little Gloria was brought up by her caregiver (Dodo) with the help of her grandmother (Nanny)...and later on her Aunt Gertrude (Auntie Ger).

Gloria's young life was chaotic. Her mother, wanting to attend all the best parties in Europe, towed little Gloria (and her caretakers) all over France and England. Thus the child was constantly moving from one hotel or apartment to another, packing, unpacking, meeting new people, etc. - with no stability in her life. Gloria considered Dodo and Nanny her 'mother and father' and the lack of a real dad had a lasting impact. From the time Gloria was 17 years old she tended to fall in love with much older men.

One of the most significant events in Gloria's life was a highly publicized custody battle when she was 10 years old and residing in the United States. Nanny and Auntie Ger went to court to wrest Gloria away from her mom, who they deemed an unfit mother who was squandering Gloria's support money. Nanny and Auntie Ger won custody, and mom got visitation rights. This apparently caused lasting bad feelings and may even have played a role in Gloria's first marriage. At 17 Gloria wed an abusive gambler named Pat DiCicco - a superficial charmer in his mid-thirties. According to Gloria, her mother quickly planned the (ill-considered) wedding to get Gloria away from Auntie Ger.

Reading about Gloria's life, I was struck by her odd behavior with men For example, Gloria was in the midst of a torrid affair with the billionaire Howard Hughes - whom she said she was going to marry - when she suddenly got engaged to (her previous beau) DiCicco. After Gloria's first divorce - at the age of 21 - she 'fell in love at first sight' with 63-year-old conductor Leopold Stokowski...and married him. When this union ended, Gloria 'fell in love at first sight' once again, this time with director Sidney Lumet...and they wed. Finally, Gloria fell madly in love with and married Wyatt Cooper - who fathered Anderson and his brother Carter. The book also mentions affairs with Frank Sinatra and an unnamed married man. Gloria attributes these impulsive relationships to the absence of a father in her life.

Sadly, Gloria and Anderson experienced two terrible tragedies, with the death of Wyatt Cooper in 1978 and the suicide of Carter Cooper in 1988. Gloria also had the misfortune of trusting people too much. She was defrauded by her psychiatrist and attorney - who 'managed' her business affairs and didn't pay her taxes. Gloria lost a fortune, but her spirit was never broken. She sued the crooks and won but - since the doctor was disgraced and the lawyer died - Gloria never recovered her money. Still, (over time) Gloria rebuilt her fortune and paid off the IRS.

Anderson is much more reticent about himself in the book, though he does mention the discomfort he felt about telling his mother he was gay. He also talks about feeling driven to establish a career, and choosing to become a foreign correspondent in some of the world's most dangerous regions.

It's interesting to learn a little about Gloria Vanderbilt's life, but - in all honesty (and making allowances for her difficult childhood) - I don't find her to be a completely sympathetic character. Gloria talks a lot about her loves, marriages, acquaintances, painting career, acting roles, etc. in the early 1940s - during World War II - but there's almost no mention of the fighting. It seems like Gloria and her social circle just partied on, unaffected by the cataclysmic event. I was also put off by some of Gloria's relationships with men. For instance, two months after the death of her beloved husband, Wyatt Cooper, Gloria was entangled in a serious romance with her former spouse, Sidney Lumet. Gloria also (rather shamefacedly) admits that she burned an unread letter from the nurse taking care of her beloved (now elderly) Dodo....just before the woman died.

Of course it's not for me to judge Gloria, and I did enjoy the peek into the lives of some privileged and wealthy people. I was also touched by the close relationship between Gloria and Anderson, who love and admire each other; have the same the drive to succeed on their own merits; and share the sadness of their early losses.

I'd recommend the book to readers who enjoy celebrity memoirs.