Friday, September 30, 2016

Review of "This Dark Road To Mercy" by Wiley Cash




Easter and Ruby Quilby have lived in a foster home in Gastonia, North Carolina since their mother died from a drug overdose. Their father, Wade Chesterfield - an unsuccesful former minor league baseball player - had unwillingly given up parental rights and longs to get his daughters back. So when Wade gets the chance he robs a gangster of money from an armored truck heist, sneaks his daughters out of the foster home, and runs off with them.

The story is told from three points of view: Easter Quilby, a mature wry young lady who sees things as they are; Bobby Pruitt, a vengeful bouncer/hit man hired to get the money back; and Brady Weller, former cop and guardian ad litem for the girls who's determined to bring them home.

In the background of the story is the 1998 rivalry between major league baseball players Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, who are both trying to break the home run record. On the road, Wade hustles to evade Pruitt as he takes the girls around the country. Unfortunately Pruitt is hot on their heels and will stop at nothing - not even murder - to accomplish his mission. And Brady, struggling with his own demons, is chasing them all.

Though suspenseful and dark, the story is also warm and touching. Good book.

Review of "Lion Plays Rough" by Lachlan Smith




In this second book in the series, defense attorney Leo Maxwell works in Jeanie Maxwell's law firm in Oakland, California. Jeanie is the ex-wife of Leo's brother Teddy - a once formidable lawyer mentally disabled by a bullet to the brain. Leo now lives with/takes care of Teddy, who still does odd jobs in Jeanie's firm.

While going for his morning bike ride Leo is knocked down by Lavinia Martin in a speeding car. Later on, Lavinia tells Leo that her brother Jamil was set up for a murder charge by a corrupt cop, Eric Campbell. Lavinia then suckers Leo into taking photos of Campbell meeting with known criminal Damon Watson - who presumably wants the murder charge pinned on Jamil.

Well, things aren't exactly as they seem and Leo gets into hot water with both the district attorney and Nikki Madsen, who represents Jamil. Moreover, the corrupt cop issue is much more complicated than Leo was led to believe, and delving into it gets him into serious trouble: Leo gets beat up, accused of murder, thrown in jail, nearly run off the road, almost killed, etc.

Meanwhile, Leo also works on another couple of cases. He defends Marty Scarsdale, accused of raping a teenage girl; and he looks into the cold case of Jeremy Walker, who was shot the year before. As a result Leo's brother Teddy gets re-acquainted with Jeremy's widow, Tamara, a brain damaged woman he met in rehab.

By the end of the book Leo has finally figured out what's what at the expense of a lot of lives and limbs. For me, the plot is overly convoluted and too much of the book is devoted to Leo being beat up, imperiled, and so on. Still, there are interesting characters in the story, and it holds the reader's attention.

Overall, an okay book, mildly recommended to fans of thrillers.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of "Shadow Dancer" by Margaret Coel


 

 Vicky Holden, an Arapaho who grew up on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, recently returned to the region and set up her new law office. After a huge public fight with her abusive ex-husband, Ben Holden, he is shot dead - and Vicky is a suspect. Other troubles are also brewing in the area. A self-proclaimed prophet named Orlando has revived the Shadow Dance religion, meant to rid the region of white people and restore the land to the Indians. Moreover, a young computer expert named Dean Little Horse is missing.

Vicky's situation is made more difficult because Ben's family and the Indians on the reservation revered Ben and thought Vicky should have reconciled with him. This was perplexing (to me) since it was known that Ben was an unfaithful wife-beater. Neverthless, everyone is ready to believe that Vicky killed Ben, and she is taunted and harassed. Determined to clear her name Vicky investigates. She learns that, just before he was killed, Ben had a confrontation with two Lakota Indians who stole something from the ranch he managed. Vicky feels sure they were involved in Ben's death and sets out to find them - running into various kinds of trouble along the way.

Vicky is assisted by Father John O'Malley, the priest in charge of the Catholic mission on the Wind River Reservation. Father John, who is not-so-secretly in love with Vicky, sets out to help Vicky prove her innocence, find Dean Little Horse, and shut down Orlando's cult. He's also busy trying to save the mission, which may be shut down for financial reasons.

Margaret Coel skillfully includes glimpses about the Arapaho people and culture, which was an enjoyable addition to the story. The motive for the killings made sense and the mystery - and tangential issues - were resolved in a satisfactory manner. I'd recommend the book as light reading for mystery fans.

Review of "Robert B. Parker's Kickback" by Ace Atkins




Ace Atkins does a good job capturing the feel of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, with a straightforward plot and characters that feel authentic.

As the story opens a distraught mother from Blackburn, Massachusetts, armed with one of Spenser's favorite sandwiches as inducement, asks the PI to help her son Dillon Yates. The teen has been sentenced to 9 months in a privately run juvenile lockup for the 'crime' of 'twitter-pranking' his vice principal. Spenser soon learns that Judge Joe Scalli, who presides over youth hearings in Blackburn, is notorious for sending kids to privately run jails - almost always without benefit of counsel.

Further investigation reveals that Judge Scalli and others - including another Blackburn judge, a network of mobsters, and a crooked attorney - are part of a complex crime network that has connections to the juvie jails. And the lockups, whose main purpose is making money, hire inept administrators and sadistic guards. Scenes of Dillon and his fellow inmates in juvie prison are interspersed through the story, and they're quite disturbing.

Spenser wants to get Dillon out of jail, expose the judges, and close down the corrupt prisons. Since the PI has all kinds of useful acquaintances he soon rounds up people to assist him. As part of Spenser's inquiries he travels to Florida with his friend Hawk - one of the toughest characters in literature. Of course Spenser and Hawk exchange clever quips with tough guys, get in fights, shoot people...the usual. I especially like the scene where Spenser and Hawk make a surprise visit to Dillon's prison. I don't think it's a spoiler to say this doesn't bode well for some bad guys.

Spenser also spends time with his longtime love Susan, hangs out with his dog Pearl, and waxes eloquent about soup dumplings and lobster rolls (which made me very hungry). Spenser is clearly getting on in years and - in this story - recovering from a knee injury. I'll admit the idea of Spenser's mortality makes me sad. :(

The story, though fictional, makes a good point about private prisons - which seem ripe for corruption, bribery, kickbacks, etc.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review of "The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes" by Lyndsay Faye




If you're a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories penned by Arthur Conan Doyle you'll enjoy this book. This collection of Sherlock Holmes tales written by Lyndsay Faye captures Conan Doyle's style, characterizations, old-timey language, flowery descriptions, quirky mysteries, sly humor.....everything that defines the original chronicles.

In these narratives Holmes artfully deals with a variety of intriguing cases such as: the haunting of Colonel Warburton, a former soldier in the Texas Army who has terrifying nightly visions of murderous Tejanos; an injured beggar dressed to the nines and a toff dressed in rags; the inexplicable poisoning of an entire family; a heinous country clinic for disturbed patients; a mysteriously missing twin brother; a corpse in the bath - with no wounds - drained of blood; a spiritualist with newfangled photochemical methods; an opera singer who's repeatedly kidnapped and released; and more.

In one very amusing story Lord Templeton, an effete dandy, invites Holmes and his 'doctor friend' (Weston? Wilson?) to a secret meeting of the Diadem Club. It seems the wealthy club members - ministers, baronets, and so on - are tasked with finding 'clever and famous people to bring into the fold'. (This strongly reminds of the Steve Carell movie "Dinner for Schmucks." LOL). Holmes, of course, is appalled by the idea, but goes at the urging of his brother Mycroft.

As in the original stories Holmes often disdains food and sleep, razzes on Scotland Yard detectives, makes lightning quick assessments of strangers, exchanges humorous banter with Watson, meets colorful ruthless miscreants, and collaborates with Inspector Lestrade. For his part, Watson sadly grieves after the death of his wife and happily rejoices when Holmes (whose 'death' devastated him) returns. On this note, a scene where Lestrade upbraids Holmes about the heartache caused by his phony demise at the Reichenbach Falls is very fitting.

Lyndsay Faye does a wonderful job continuing the Sherlock Holmes saga with these excellent stories. I'd highly recommend this book to mystery readers, particularly Sherlock Holmes fans. Keep on writing Ms. Faye!

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

Review of "Watchman" by Ian Rankin




This espionage novel is one of Ian Rankin's early books, written before he started the John Rebus detective series. In this story, Miles Flint is a British spy, a "watchman" who surveils individuals suspected of  illegal/terorist activity in London. While watching an Arab suspect in a hotel lobby Flint gets distracted by a beautiful woman; the suspect - an assassin - gets away and kills an Israeli man.

Flint thinks the woman was sent purposely and starts to look into the incident. Soon afterward, having trouble at home, Flint spends a few nights in a residence where fellow British agents are spying on suspected Irish terrorists. This surveillance is called off prematurely and Flint starts to think something isn't kosher in his spy agency.

Next thing you know Flint is sent to northern Ireland on assignment and things go badly wrong. His suspicions confirmed, Flint sets out to uncover the dirty secrets people are trying to hide. There are a lot of similar characters in this story and you have to pay close attention to remember who's who. Not as good as the Rebus books but it's an okay espionage novel.

Review of "Lemon Meringue Pie Murder" by Joanne Fluke




Hannah Swensen, owner of a cookie shop, is surprised to hear that one of her boyfriends, dentist Norman Rhodes, has purchased a house - lock, stock, and barrel - from Rhonda Scarf. He plans to tear down the house and build a dream home.

Before the house is demolished Hannah and her mom, an antique shop owner, go out to look for treasures. In addition to a few valuable antiques they find the dead body of Rhonda Scarf. Hannah's other boyfriend, detective Mike Kingston tells her to keep her nose out of the investigation but Hannah can't resist and dives right in.

This is a real cozy mystery in the sense that the police/detectives seem to do nothing at all. As Hannah runs around questioning people and making phone calls and taking photos of the crime scene, etc. it seems like she's the first one on the scene every time.

Soon after the murder money from an old bank robbery starts circulating through town, which provides clues to the crime. The book is chock full of fun characters - Hannah's sisters, mom, and friends. It's a fun light mystery that includes recipes for lemon meringue pie and a variety of (what sounds like) delicious cookies.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of "Homer's Odyssey" by Gwen Cooper




At 24-years-old Gwen Cooper was already "mommy" to two cats, Vashti and Scarlett. So when a veterinarian friend asked Gwen to consider adopting a blind black two-week old kitten, Gwen was hesitant....this seemed like a lot to take on. But the sweet loving kittie immediately won Gwen's heart and "Homer" joined the family in the South Beach neighbohood of Miami.

Despite his inability to see, Homer was anything but a 'fraidy cat'. The intrepid kitten was everywhere, investigating everything. He climbed bookcases, drapes, furniture, and people; he got into kitchen cabinets and unerringly found unopened cans of tuna ('feed me this'); he constantly tried to sneak up on Scarlett - from directly in front - not understanding how she always knew he was there; he loved to play fetch with his favorite stuffed toy - a worm with a bell; he made friends with almost everyone he met; Homer even viciously attacked a burglar and chased him out of Gwen's apartment. In fact Homer immeasurably enhanced Gwen's life.

This memoir is Gwen's story as much as Homer's. Inspired by Homer's joie de vivre and indomitable spirit, Gwen - broke and needing a better paying job - moved back in with her parents (not easy). She took a series of intern and volunteer positions and finally came out on the other side with highly marketable skills - and the means to get her own place again. Over time Gwen and the cats moved four times, which is daunting for a human, never mind a blind cat. But Homer always adapted quickly, making his way from his food and litter box (the first things Gwen 'showed him') to investigate every millimeter of his new dwelling.

Homer met Gwen's friends and a few guys she dated (one who hissed at /frightened Homer was thrown out immediately) and almost everyone loved the little black cat. In one amusing anecdote, Gwen's ex-boyfriend George was babysitting Homer for a few days when Gwen popped by for a visit. To Gwen's horror George's friend - with baby Homer lying on the palm of his outstretched hand - was spinning around, making helicopter noises, and affectionately calling Homer 'El Mocho' (something like stumpy). When Gwen made a fuss, Homer was put down. But the kitten immediately ran over to his playmate and pawed him....'more more more'.

In time Gwen moved to New York for work and got an apartment near the World Trade Center. When the twin towers came down on 9/11, Homer and his sister cats were stranded in their apartment when the district was blocked off for safety. Gwen's tale of trying to get back to her cats with food and water - which took days - was as harrowing a story as I've read in some thrillers.

After some years Gwen met her future husband Laurence (not a spoiler). Laurence's big booming voice intimidated Homer, who avoided this barrel-chested intruder. Nevertheless, Homer's super-hearing alerted him when Laurence opened the refrigerator to make a turkey sandwich - and the cat immediately rushed over to get (more than his share) of the meat. Laurence had to resort to loudly running the faucet so he could sneak out the sandwich fixings, then hide in the bathroom to make his snack (ha ha ha).

The book doesn't focus solely on Homer and there are plenty of fun stories about the other cats. Scarlett for instance divided the world into mom (Gwen) - who she loved; and everyone/everything else - who she had little use for. And Vashti, a beautiful shy cat, seduced dog-lover Laurence with her adoring gazes and affectionate behavior.

I always like books with endearing pets (in real life or in fiction) and this is a very good one. Highly recommended for animal lovers.

Review of "Alphabet House" by Jussi Adler-Olsen




As the story opens it's 1944 and World War II is raging. English flyboys Bryan Young and James Teasdale are sent on a mission to do aerial reconnaissance over Germany, where they get shot down. After some hide-and-seek with German soldiers Bryan and James make their way onto a German medical transport train, throw off the bodies of a couple of Nazi officers, and assume their identities. They soon find themselves in a mental hospital, called Alphabet House, for shell-shocked SS officials; there Bryan and James must endure endless electroshock and drug therapy. Though their 'mental illness' allows them to remain silent Bryan and James are still in a very precarious situation; if they're exposed as either Brits or malingerers they'll be killed immediately. Thus they live in a constant state of anxiety and fear.

As it turns Alphabet House seems to be chock full of Nazis faking mental illness. One group of malingerers consists of officers who are in the habit of whispering at night, bragging about murders they've committed and their secret horde of riches. These men are extremely suspicious of their fellow patients, fearing someone might discover their deception and expose them. Thus they watch everyone closely, not hesitating to harass or even murder someone they suspect is faking. Bryan and James come under intense scrutiny by these men and James especially suffers greatly at their hands. This part of the book is very long and very disturbing.

Eventually Bryan escapes from Alphabet House, which is bombed soon afterwards by the advancing Allies. Skip ahead to 1972 and Bryan is a wealthy, successful physician who owns a pharmaceutical company and is happily married. Bryan has never given up trying to find James, however, and when circumstances align he returns to Germany and travels to the town where Alphabet House was located. There he comes across some people he knew in the mental ward and things take a very dramatic turn. This section of the book is also very long and disturbing.

In the prologue of the book Jussi Adler-Olsen talks about his interest in mental illness and speculates whether faking a mental disability can lead to the real thing. He explains that his interests in both World War II and mental illness led him to write this book. It's hard for me to rate this story because - though it's well-written and compelling - the subject matter is distressing and many of the characters are sadistic and disgusting. This just wasn't the book for me. I'll probably stick to Jussi Adler Olsen's mysteries from now on.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Review of "Black Skies" by Arnaldur Indridason




Though nominally an Inspector Erlendur novel the detective in this book is his team member, Sigurdur Óli. In Reykjavík, Iceland, Detective Sigurdur Óli is approached for a favor by his friend Patrekur. It seems that Patrekur's sister-in-law and her husband have engaged in a spot of wife swapping and are being blackmailed by another swinger couple, Lina and Ebbi. Patrekur asks Sigurdar Óli to pressure the blackmailers to back off and to get their incriminating photos. 

Sigurdur Óli goes to the couple's house at the exact moment Lina is being viciously attacked with a baseball bat and fatally injured. The attacker runs past Sigurdur Óli and escapes. Despite his personal involvement in the case Sigurdur Óli joins the investigative team. He soon discovers that Lina and Ebbi owe a large amount of money and frequently engage in extramarital trysts. Thus the detective team looks for suspects among Reykjavík's debt collectors as well as men who have received sexual favors from Lina. 

Meanwhile Sigurdur Óli is repeatedly contacted by an elderly alcoholic tramp, Andrés, who has has taken an old man hostage and tied him up in a basement. Andrés is incoherent, however, and can't make Sigurdur Óli understand his situation. 

Sigurdur Óli has to dig through layers of intrigue to discover who attacked Lina and why. He also looks into Andrés difficulties and uncovers some shocking secrets. 

The book has an array of interesting characters, including Sigurdar Óli's girlfriend and mother, fellow detectives, local thugs, and shady bankers. The story has an engaging plot that leads to a satisfying resolution. Very good mystery.

Review of "No Safe House" by Linwood Barclay




The Archer family - dad Terry, mom Cynthia, and teen daughter Grace - experienced serious personal trauma so it's not a surprise that Cynthia is over-protective of her daughter. In the spirit of rebellion Grace dates a juvenile delinquent and ends up breaking into a house to 'borrow' a sports car for a joy ride. Coincidentally someone else has also broken into the house. Before long a gun goes off and things go seriously belly up.

In an attempt to protect Grace from the consequences of her actions the Archers need help from an old acquaintance - known criminal Vince - who has been using 'respectable houses' to hide loot acquired in his criminal enterprises. At the same time another set of killers has become interested in these houses - apparently looking for a specific mysterious object. This all leads to a complicated plot in which Vince needs to quickly recover all the loot from the safe houses before the police or the rival killers get to it. Terry becomes unwillingly caught up in these plans, as does Grace.

Meanwhile Cynthia, to avoid constant arguments with rebellious Grace, is taking a break from the family. She's temporarily moved into an apartment building and become acquainted with a down-on-his-luck techie who now walks dogs, and a landlord who still pines for a long lost love.

There's a somewhat complicated relationship between the characters that overshadows their interactions: Vince was seriously injured several years before when he was helping the Archers, which he still resents; Grace is friendly with Vince's somewhat shady stepdaughter Jane - who was Terry's former student; Grace's boyfriend is the son of a thug in Vince's gang, and so on.

The story is a somewhat suspenseful page-turner but most of the characters are not likable and the plot strains credulity. Just a so-so thriller.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review of "Star Trek Movie Memories" by William Shatner with Chris Kreski




I enjoyed William Shatner's memoir "Star Trek Memories," about the original TV series. This follow-up book, about the spin-off movies, isn't quite as good but it's entertaining and informative.

When the original series aired it wasn't a huge success. Star Trek had respectable ratings but wasn't a big money-maker and was cancelled in 1969 after three seasons. Shatner, not being the megastar he later became, had to scramble to get work. For a while Shatner traveled around the country, touring with Broadway shows and - needing to provide for his children - economized by driving a mini-trailer where he could bed down, prepare food, and watch a small staticky television. Shatner talks lovingly about his two daughters, how much he missed them when he was away, and his rush to get home after a tour.

This was the era of the first moon landing and people were enthralled with space. Thus the idea of making a Star Trek movie took hold and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" came out in 1979. The movie was successful and was followed by six sequels. Shatner reveals the nuts and bolts of making the films: how the plots evolved, the budgets, sets, locations, actors, writers, directors, producers, and so on. Leonard Nimoy directed two of the movies, and this is discussed in some detail.

As he did for the first book Shatner interviews people involved with the Star Trek movies, but the anecdotes tend to be drier this time - with lots of talk about finances and creative differences. Some of Shatner's most memorable stories involve the difficulties of obtaining good special effects with limited funds. In "Star Trek: The Final Frontier" for example, God appears at the film's climax. Created with a small budget God looked like a big spotlight with a face pasted on. LOL

With some dismay Shatner relates how creative control of the movies was wrested away from series creator Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry, who wanted to preserve his vision of Star Trek, would pepper the movies' writers, directors, and producers with memos...but these were largely ignored. Roddenberry's pet idea for a movie script - in which the Enterprise traveled back in time and Spock shot JFK (for good reasons) - never happened.

Shatner talks extensively about "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," which he directed. The actor/director discusses how much work went into making the movie, starting with the story - which changed considerably from initial idea to final product. He also talks about the film's budget; cinematography problems ('losing the light'); the teamster strike (he had to hire strikebreakers to drive); filming in the desert when the temperatures were 110 degrees; watching the dailies; difficulties with special effects; the rush to get the film done in time; etc. Shatner admits, in retrospect, that he was disappointed by the film's ending - which looked cheesy (i.e. the God spotlight). He also notes that, though he thought the movie was good, it was the least successful of the Star Trek films.

The book contains engaging stories about each of the Star Trek movies, which are:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek: Generations (which 'passed the baton' to "Star Trek: The Next Generation")

Shatner fills the book with informative tidbits about film-making, which is a difficult and time-consuming business - but also lots of fun. One humorous anecdote involves blueberry muffins, a toaster, and making DeForest Kelley think he's losing his mind. Ha ha ha.

I liked the book and would recommend it to Star Trek fans.

Review of "Shadow Play" by Iris Johansen




After a storm the skeleton of a nine-year-old girl, who has been buried for eight years, is exposed in a forest in Sonderville, California. Needing a facial reconstruction to get an identification, Sheriff John Nalchek sends the skull to famous forensic sculptor Eve Duncan in Atlanta, Georgia.

It turns out that Eve can communicate with the child's ghost, who says her name is Jenny. Jenny recalls being frightened and hurt at the time of her death, but can't remember much else. Eve - who lost her own daughter Bonnie years ago - forms a relationship with Jenny's ghost and is determined to bring Jenny's killer to justice.

Meanwhile, Jenny's murderer - a demented sociopath named Walsh - is furious that the skeleton has been unearthed and will do anything to prevent the girl's identification. Walsh makes his way to Georgia to steal the reconstructed skull, hoping to kill Eve and her protective boyfriend, Detective Joe Quinn while he's there. Walsh gets the skull but doesn't get the chance to kill Eve and Joe.

After the skull is stolen Eve and Joe go to California to help with the investigation. Sheriff Nalchek is chagrined by their presence because he doesn't like interference on his turf. Nalchek is even more annoyed when Eve's friend/protegé, nineteen-year-old Margaret, shows up. Margaret can communicate with animals and receives clues about the case from a coyote who has been watching over Jenny's grave. The supernatural episodes are common in this series and form an integral part of the story.

Meanwhile the murderer Walsh is looking for a certain young girl whom he plans to kill. As the story continues we learn who the girl is and why Walsh is determined to find her. To me the reason is overly complicated, doesn't make a lot of sense, and isn't believable.

Once the action shifts to California the story unfolds as a kind of cat and mouse game. Walsh maneuvers to get rid of Eve and Joe while he searches for the girl. At the same time Eve, Joe, and Nalchek try to identify and locate the girl and stop the sociopath.

The book seemed to concentrate mostly on the personal lives of the characters, especially Eve and Joe, with the murder investigation taking a back seat. Moreover, many of Walsh's actions seemed irrational and didn't make sense to me. For these reasons I didn't love the book.

Big fans of the Eve Duncan series will probably like this book. For other mystery fans I would only mildly recommend it.  

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review of "Curse of the Spellmans" by Lisa Lutz




Thirty-year-old Isabel (Izzy) Spellman - as well as her mom, dad, and teenage sister Rae - all work for the family private detective business. Spying seems to be ingrained in the Spellman DNA because, besides taking on cases, they constantly snoop on each other and anyone else who comes into their orbit.

Izzy is always on the alert for a new boyfriend (or as puts it, a new future ex-boyfriend), so an attractive fellow who moves in next door to the Spellmans quickly catches her eye. Izzy immediately becomes suspicious, though, because the guy's name is John Brown (sounds phony) and he's a landscaper (seems fishy). John Brown soon becomes "The Subject" of Izzy's inquiries and she engages in various ruses to try to discover his place and date of birth and his SS number - so she can pry into his life. The subject is pretty cagey though and Izzy is stymied. Then, when nosey Izzy discovers that the subject keeps a door in his apartment locked, she becomes obsessed with getting into the closed room. Izzy's increasingly desperate (and funny) attempts to break in eventually lead to a restraining order and the four arrests....a serious matter, because she could lose her P.I. licence.

All this is quite entertaining and leads Izzy to other humorous situations including: meetings with a wise octogenarian lawyer who can't get the temperature of his coffee quite right; staying with a staid police inspector who has a lot of house rules; watching a bunch of episodes of "Dr. Who"; paying her teen sister Rae (a very tough negotiator) for services rendered; and more.

Meanwhile, Izzy is trying to find out who's committing vandalism on a retired teacher's yard displays....a crime that eerily resembles some of Izzy's youthful misbehavior. To top it off, EVERY member of the Spellman family seems to have a secret. Dad is working out on the sly and eating healthy; mom is creeping out at night; Rae has mysterious new friends; and attorney brother David is (uncharacteristically) dirty and drunk. Of course Izzy feels compelled to find out what's going on with everyone.

The book is entertaining but I found Izzy to be irritating. She has no boundaries, is intrusive, never asks permission, and seems oblivious of other people's feelings. In real life a person who met Izzy would probably want to move to the other side of the country...or world. Still, the story is fun and would probably appeal to fans of comical cozy mysteries.

Review of "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card




In this sci-fi book Earth is at war with the "Buggers" an insect-like alien species that has attacked Earth several times. Ender Wiggins is a brilliant six-year-old boy with a sadistic older brother Peter, a loving sister Valentine, and parents embarrassed to have three children in a society where two is the norm.

Ender is given the opportunity to attend Battle Academy, a space-based school where children are groomed to be military officers in the war against the Buggers. Though Academy students must leave Earth and their families for many years Ender decides to go. The commanders of the Academy believe Ender might be "the one" who can defeat the Buggers and purposely make his training very difficult. Even when Ender is the target of jealous bullies he is left to handle his problems by himself in the hopes of shaping Ender into a superior self-reliant officer.

Most of the book describes Ender's training at Battle Academy where combat strategies in zero gravity are learned. Ender is a good student and even helps train his friends, all of which leads to a strong militia. Any more description would contain spoilers so I'll just say the story has some interesting characters and a few surprises.

For me the repetitive scenes of battle training got a bit old but I think a lot of people would like this book. There's also a movie adaptation.

Review of "As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner




This book is narrated by numerous characters - each from their own point of view - in a stream of consciousness style. Thus it takes time, effort, and concentration for the reader to catch on to the subtleties of the story - the characters' states of mind, secrets, and in one case - psychosis.
Basically the story is about the Bundren family of Mississippi taking the corpse of their wife/mother, Addie Bundren, to be buried in her distant hometown, as she has requested. Because of self-imposed delays in securing the appropriate carriage, storms wiping out bridges, the tragic death of their mules, a family member's broken leg, and so on (the events of a black comedy essentially), the trip to the cemetery takes well over a week, as the corpse decomposes and stinks to high heaven.

The patriarch of the Bundren family is Anse, a lazy, n'er do well, disrespected in the community. The Bundren children are: Cash - talented carpenter; Darl - insightful and well-spoken young man; Jewel - impulsive youth; Dewey Dell - adolescent daughter; and Vardamon - school-age child. Other characters include local people in the community - minister, doctor, neighbors, etc.

In the course of the story various characters exhibit a variety of behaviors including gallantry, foolishness, infidelity, fear, selfishness, kindness, meanness, and more - which for me, etched them in my mind. Though some people in the story are not particularly likable, most of the characters are (at least) engaging and memorable.

This is a good book, quite interesting, but it's best for readers who don't mind putting a lot of effort into their pleasure reading.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Review of "Killer" by Jonathan Kellerman




Psychologist Alex Delaware can't anticipate the trouble that will ensue when he consults on a custody case. Constance Sykes - a pathologist, claims her sister Cherie Sykes - a band groupie, is an unfit parent. So Constance tries to get custody of Cherie's toddler. When Alex comes down on Cherie's side Constance becomes enraged and hires a hit man to get rid of him. Unfortunately for Constance the hit man is Alex's former patient and spills the beans. Soon afterward Constance is killed, Cherie and the baby disappear, and several other people in Cherie's orbit turn up dead. Is Cherie the killer? Or the baby's unknown dad? Alex is on the case with his detective friend Lt. Milo Sturgis.

This turns out to be a rather thin story without much going on. The new characters are not terribly interesting and even the series regulars aren't particularly compelling. They don't engage in their typical humorous banter and Blanche the pet French bulldog - who usually provides a few smiles - is hardly there.

A disappointing addition to the series.

Review of "Saints of the Shadow Bible" by Ian Rankin




John Rebus, previously retired, is back working for the CID in Scotland. Having accepted a demotion Rebus is now supervised by his previous mentee Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke. They're investigating a car accident in which Jessica Traynor, the daughter of influential businessman Owen Traynor, was injured. Jessica claims she was the sole occupant of the crashed car but Rebus and Siobhan suspect someone else may have been driving - perhaps her boyfriend Forbes McCuskey, son of the Justice Minister.

Meanwhile, Rebus and his former colleagues are being investigated by Inspector Malcolm Fox, who probes charges of police misconduct. Fox is looking into a 30-year-old murder case that occurred during Rebus's first posting at Summerhall. The murderer, Billy Saunders, escaped prosecution because the shady police badly mishandled the case. Rebus was a junior officer at the time and had little involvement with the Saunders fiasco. Now, however, his former colleagues are pressuring him to deflect the investigation. But Rebus - inherently honest - feels compelled to find out what really happened 30 years ago.

Before long the Justice Minister is badly injured during a robbery, Billy Saunders disappears, illegal drugs get involved, a mummified dead body appears, and the game is on. As usual Rebus resists following orders and goes his own way, pissing off the brass and getting into trouble. This is a good mystery book with familiar well-liked characters.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review of "The Fala Factor: by Stuart M. Kaminsky




It's 1942 and private detective Toby Peters is hired by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to retrieve the President's beloved pooch Fala. Mrs. Roosevelt believes Fala was snatched and a substitute left in his place. It seems a crackpot rival political party is trying to take over the government and may have kidnapped the dog to throw the President off his stride.

This quirky plot is aided by the usual offbeat characters including Toby's amusing elderly landlady who calls him Mr. Peelers and thinks he's an exterminator/book editor; Toby's intrepid best friend, Gunther, a little person; Toby's landlord, the incompetent dentist Shelly Minck, who's as likely to land you in the hospital as fix your teeth; Toby's pal Jeremy, an ex-wrestler/would be poet who provides muscle for Toby's team; and so on. The famous actor Buster Keaton even makes a brief appearance.

Not that much mystery to the plot but it's a fun, light read.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review of "A Passage to India" by E.M. Forster




This book was once a favorite of mine and this is the third time I've read it. I have to admit I didn't like it as well this time. The plot revolves around an Englishwoman unfairly accusing a Muslim Indian doctor of attempting to assault her while sightseeing some Indian caves. However, set in a time when the British controlled India, the book has several sub-themes.

One is the condescending attitude and behavior of the Brits toward the Indian people and the consequent mistrust and dislike the Indians felt toward the Brits. Another is the vast cultural divide that made friendship almost impossible between the Indians and Brits at that time.

My problem with the book is that many of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that E.M. Forster attributed to the Indian people don't ring true to me. It feels like the author's personal attitudes about India were foisted onto the native characters. Nevertheless, it's an interesting story, lyrically told, and gives little glimpses into the Hindu and Muslim customs of old India.

Review of "The Private Patient" by P.D. James




Investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn - who's exposed her fair share of secrets - schedules plastic surgery to remove a disfiguring facial scar. Her surgeon, George Chandler-Powell runs a private clinic in his ritzy country estate at Cheverell Manor, where he employs a motley assortment of characters including an assistant surgeon, a manager/housekeeper, a married pair of young chefs, an accountant, a girl from the village, a sexy nurse, an irascible gardener, and so on. The scarred journalist has her share of detractors at the clinic, who fear she'll find some secrets to expose - but the surgeon is unmoved by these concerns.

When Rhoda shows up a Cheverell Manor for her preliminary visit and then for her surgery, she's followed by her friend Robin Boyton - an attractive young man who can't find a way to make a living. It so happens that Robin's cousins (the assistant surgeon and his sister) work at Cheverell Manor. Robin rents a cabin on the estate and plans to exhort his cousins to give him some of the fortune they've recently inherited from a mutual grandfather who cut off Robin's side of the family.

Rhoda has successful surgery after which she's brutally murdered in her room at the clinic. Enter Adam Dalgliesh and his team of detectives to investigate the crime. This sets up the remainder of the story which involves a long, old-fashioned inquiry. Seriously....a modern mystery wouldn't start an investigation by assembling all the suspects in the library for a mass questoning. The Cheverell Manor residents would love to pin the crime on a 'stranger' but a second death on the estate makes this very unlikely.

Some additional goings on add variety to the story: Dalgliesh gets engaged, a tangential female character gets assaulted and raped; a teacher fears he may be (wrongly) accused of being inappropriate with a child; and so on.

For most of the book the detectives collect evidence, question persons of interest, make discoveries, narrow down the list of suspects, and so on. In the end, the perpetrator essentially exposes themself - and even then we're not quite sure the case has been successfully closed. In my opinion, the book should end right after this climax. However it meanders on for several more chapters to bestow 'happy endings' on various characters.

This isn't one of PD James best books. Fans of the author might enjoy the book for old times sake but it's not a great mystery.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Review of "Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul" by Shamini Flint




Following a terrorist bombing in Bali, Inspector Singh is sent from Singapore to help catch the terrorists. Homicide detective Singh knows nothing about hunting terrorists, however, and is at a loose end. Then, it's discovered that one 'bomb victim', a British expat named Richard Crouch, was actually shot in the head before the blast and Singh is in his element - looking for a murderer.

Singh, a short plump Sikh who alway wears a turban, suit, and white sneakers, has a high opinion of his own investigative skills and likes to be the boss. Thus Singh is annoyed when he's partnered with Australian Federal Policewoman Bronwyn Taylor, a big woman in a white shirt and khakis, who has no homicide experience. Nevertheless, Singh and Bronwyn make a good team and - after sharing innumerable dangerous rides in a rickety Balinese taxi and too many high-calorie meals in local eateries - become something like friends.

There are numerous suspects for the murder, including Richard Crouch's wife and the small community of expats that comprise her social circle. There's a lot going on in this community, including bad marriages, gambling debts, and illicit romance, all of which is quite entertaining.

Before long evidence emerges that Richard spent a good deal of time with Muslim immigrants to Bali, who also become suspects in the killing. Most of the Muslim characters are family, and it's illuminating to see the interactions among a devout Muslim man, his very much younger wife, and her two brothers - even the youngest of whom feels free to criticize and chastise his sister. I was happy when she finally upped and slapped him across the face :)

The expats and Muslims are well-rounded, believable characters, most of whom have something to hide. Thus, Singh and Bronwyn are obliged to question and re-question them, organize surveillance, and step outside the law (a little bit) as they search for the truth.. Singh is an interesting man, a clever detective who often muses about his expanding belly, difficult wife, and desire to go home. Bronwyn is a likable gal, sympathetic to almost everyone, who holds her own in the investigation. There are also a variety of secondary characters including a helpful taxi driver, a hunky tan Australian surfer, a pimply hotel clerk, and an ambitious Balinese police officer.

I enjoyed the story and almost felt like I could experience the ambiance of Bali - the oppressive heat, crowded roads, crazy drivers, Hindu temples, devout citizens, innumerable snack booths, and friendly native people.

I'd recommend this book to mystery fans, especially readers who enjoy exotic settings.

Review of "Holy Orders" by Benjamin Black




Young journalist Jimmy Minor is found beaten to death in Dublin and the pathologist, Dr. Quirke, realizes the dead man is a friend of his daughter Phoebe. As usual Dr. Quirke teams up with police Inspector Hackett to investigate the crime.

Though ostensibly a murder mystery this book is more of a character study than a detective story. Quirke and Hackett discover that Jimmy was pursuing a story involving a Catholic priest and a community of Irish tinkers (gypsies). This leads the hard-drinking Quirke to brood about his childhood as an unhappy resident of Catholic orphan homes, where he was severely mistreated. At the same time Quirke starts to experience hallucinations that he can't separate from reality.

Meanwhile Quirke's daughter Phoebe is also disturbed: she's upset about Jimmy's murder and is unsure about her romance with Quirke's assistant David. In addition, Phoebe still  has mixed feelings toward Quirke, who she recently learned was her father and not the uncle she always thought he was. As the story proceeds Phoebe befriends Jimmy's sister Sally, a London journalist, and the ladies - as well as David - develop an awkward friendship that preys on Phoebe's mind.

In the midst of all this introspection Quirke and Hackett solve Jimmy's murder - a solution that contains few surprises. I prefer my murder mysteries to have more detective work than was displayed here but the book does provide interesting insight into the personalities of Quirke and Phoebe. Recommended to fans of the series.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review of "Hallowed Bones" by Carolyn Haines




Doreen Mallory - a spiritual healer living in New Orleans - is accused of murdering her severely handicapped infant daughter. Doreen is visiting her dead mother's grave in Zinnia, Mississippi when she's arrested, and private detectives Sarah Booth Delaney and Tinkie Richmond are hired to prove Doreen's innocence. Turns out that Doreen's mother - who she never knew - was the unmarried "street corner preacher" Lillith, who used to harangue the local teens with rants against unwed sex. Sarah Booth and Tinkie look into Lillith's past and are surprised to discover that she had three children out of wedlock. They then travel to New Orleans, where Doreen is jailed, to look into her case.

Doreen admits that several men - a senator, a preacher, and a financial advisor - are candidates for father of the child, and the detectives proceed to question these men, thinking one of them may be the real murderer. Most of these characters are rather two-dimensional but serve their purpose as possible suspects.

Many of the recurring characters in the series are on hand, including Jiffy - the fashionista ghost that gives Sarah Booth life advice, Coleman - the married cop in Sarah Booth's life, Connie - the married cop's mentally disturbed wife, and Sarah Booth's friend CeCe - the tough transgender reporter. Sarah's handsome former lover Hamilton also puts in an appearance, and Sarah is conflicted between her attraction to Hamilton and her love for Coleman.

This is just an okay cozy mystery with detective work that seems rather superficial and uninspired. It's entertaining though, to visit with the characters in Sarah Booth's circle and observe their familiar shenanigans.  

Review of "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr




New York City in 1896 isn't the nicest place to live. Outside of the ritzy neighborhoods the apartment buildings are shabby, overcrowded, and smelly; the streets are dirty and dangerous; and whore houses of every kind are prolific and unregulated. Moreover criminals operate freely and government agencies and police are largely corrupt. To add to the city's problems a serial killer is murdering and mutilating children, mostly young boy prostitutes who dress up as girls. The murderer gouges out their eyes, cuts off their genitals and buttocks, leaves them in gruesome positions, and so on.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt, the new Police Commissioner of New York, who wants to route out police corruption. Roosevelt has dismissed some of the worst offenders and, in the face of strong opposition, is willing to use unorthodox methods to catch the child killer. Thus a rather unconventional secret investigative team is assembled, led by Dr. Laszlo Kreizler - a psychiatrist (or alienist as they were known at the time).

Laszlo's other team members are John Schuyler Moore, a newspaper reporter; Sara Howard, a would-be detective who's currently Roosevelt's secretary; and Detective Sergeants Marcus Isaacson and Lucius Isaacson, two talented and incorruptible cops. A couple of Kreizler's former patients also help out: Cyrus, a big black man who functions as a bodyguard and assistant; and young Stevie, a messenger and carriage driver.

Laszlo and his group are more or less distant precursors to the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. They study psychology books and lectures to suss out how and why the perpetrator evolved into a vicious psychopath. The team also assembles clues by examining crime scenes, collecting fingerprints, interviewing witnesses, consulting old records, visiting places the killer may have lived, etc. Step by step, the team assembles a physical and psychological picture of the killer.

During their inquiries, the investigators are constantly followed, threatened, harassed, hampered, and even attacked. It seems that powerful forces in the city - including slumlords, businessmen, gang bosses, ex-cops, and religious leaders - don't want the child killings investigated. They fear widespread public awareness of the horrific crimes will rile up the populace and interfere with their money-making schemes. This of course is reprehensible, especially for churches.

The investigation is long and complex, and - though it isn't exactly boring - feels like a lot for the reader to slog through at times. We also gets a peek at how some wealthier New York residents live, with fine dining at Delmonico's; classy homes; luxe furnishings; servants; attendance at the opera; and so on.

Needless to say the team's hard work eventually pays off and leads to a dramatic climax.

The characters in the story are engaging and sufficiently fleshed out for a thriller. I especially liked tough, fearless, gun-toting Sara. She holds her own as the only female on the investigative team and, in fact, the only woman working in the police department - where most people think she doesn't belong. And I got a kick out of little Stevie, who's anxious to help and always cadging cigarettes despite numerous anti-smoking lectures from Lazslo. A jarring note in the story (for me) is a nebulous, unlikely romance that doesn't ring true.

Over all, a very good psychological thriller, recommended for fans of the genre.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review of "Star Trek Memories" by William Shatner with Chris Kreski




In this book William Shatner, the original 'Captain Kirk' from Star Trek, talks about the birth of the original TV series, the long struggle it took to get it on the air, and the people involved in making it a success.

Star Trek was created by producer and writer Gene Roddenberry, who was fascinated with space since childhood. It took years, though - and a lot of missteps - before a studio picked up the show and a successful pilot was made. Eventually Roddenberry assembled the core cast, including Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), George Takei (Sulu), William Koenig (Chekov), and Majel Barrett (Nurse Chapel).

An interesting tidbit: Majel Barrett was Roddenberry's girlfriend and played the first officer (Number One) in the original pilot, which failed. The public wasn't ready for a woman in the role.

Shatner's writing is light and breezy and contains fun interesting anecdotes. One Star Trek episode, for instance, featured alien women with green skin. As a test before shooting an actress was slathered in green makeup and filmed....but the developed footage came back with flesh-toned skin. A more intense shade of green makeup was used, with the same result. In desperation, the makeup folks tried very thick, very dark green goop - to no avail....the skin still looked beige. Eventually a call to the film developers revealed that they were exhausting themselves, working overtime to 'fix' the skin color problem. (ha ha ha)

Another story details how difficult it was to get Spock's pointy ears right. The studio, being cost conscious, wanted the ears done on the cheap. So one inexpensive fake ear after another was tried, but they all looked terrible....and Nimoy - not wanting to look ridiculous - was becoming seriously perturbed. In the end, 'expensive' ears had to be ordered behind the backs of the bean counters. Moreover, Spock was originally supposed to be half Martian with red skin! In any case it took a long time to get Spock's appearance just right (pointed ears, devilish eyebrows, the iconic hairdo), and required a lot of negotiation with network honchos. They thought the public wouldn't accept an alien-looking crew member. (How wrong they were!)

When Star Trek was in danger of being cancelled after the first season Roddenberry recruited a couple of avid fans to organize a 'keep Star Trek on the air' campaign. One enterprising woman sneaked into the VIP parking lot of a Hollywood studio and slapped a 'Star Trek' bumper sticker on every limousine and luxury car. Johnny Carson probably went home with a Star Trek sticker on his car that night! The fans were convincing and the show was renewed. By season three, however, Star Trek was out of luck. It was stuck in a Friday night time slot (a death knell), the budget was slashed, and the episodes became mundane (or worse). Viewership fell and the show was cancelled. In a way this was a blessing because it led to many spinoff series and Star Trek movies.

Shatner covers every aspect of the original TV series, including the actors, costumes, set design, special effects, stories, scripts, directors, producers, lighting, editing, etc. To get the inside scoop Shatner interviewed many of the people involved with the show and includes their stories verbatim. This adds a lot of personality and interest to the book.

Though the Star Trek franchise eventually became a juggernaut, the original series wasn't a big success (at first) - and producing it wasn't all sweetness and light. Shatner reveals that Nimoy had serious disagreements with Roddenberry about many issues, including the sale of Star Trek merchandise (the actors didn't benefit) and the sale of blooper reels (which Nimoy thought were embarassing). Moreover, when Shatner interviewed his co-stars, many revealed hostile feelings toward him. In their opinion Shatner made it his business to inflate his role and cut theirs. In fact James Doohan refused to speak to Shatner and wasn't interviewed for the book.

From Shatner's point of view he doesn't recall doing this.....but he probably did. I remember Shatner - a married man - had a reputation for being conceited and trying to 'romance' (wink wink) all the female guest stars. (He doesn't talk about this in the book. LOL)

I've always liked Star Trek and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. My one caveat: I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Shatner, and he tends to talk too fast sometimes. This is a minor quibble though.

If you're Star Trek fan you'll like this book. Me....I'm inspired to go back and watch all the original Star Trek episodes looking for things that Shatner mentions.

Review of "Slaughter-House Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.




Kurt Vonnegut based this book at least partly on his own experiences during WWII. In the story, Billy Pilgrim, an optometry student, is drafted into the army. He's not a good soldier and is eventually captured by the Germans. Billy and other American POWs are housed in a former pig slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse Five) in Dresden, German, where they are used as laborers. Billy is present in February, 1945 when the allies bomb Dresden, destroying the city and killing over 130,000 people - an incident which affects Billy deeply.

After the war Billy goes home to Illium, New York, marries his sweetheart Valencia, and has two children. Years later, in 1968, Billy survives a plane crash and Valenica dies from carbon monoxide poisoning as she's rushing to his side in a damaged car.  In 1976 Billy is killed by a kook with a gun because of incidents that occurred during the war.

Sounds like a normal enough life. However, there's something very unusual about Billy. He's  unstuck in time. He moves back and forth, here and there, visiting and re-visiting past and future incidents in his life. Moreover, at one point, Billy is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. He's taken to Tralfamadore, put on display in a zoo, and given an Earthling movie star as a mate.

The Tralfamadorans teach Billy that all times exist simultaneously and death isn't important because people are still alive in other times of their lives. In his older age Billy is determined to share these insights with the world via letters to newspapers, TV, and radio but is viewed as a nut; he also greatly frustrates his daughter who's trying to take care of him.

It's an unusual but easily readable book that (I guess) serves as a sounding board for some of Vonnegut's views about war and death. It certainly gives you something to think about. I recommend it.

Review of "Blue Moonlight" by Vincent Zandri




Private Investigator Dick Moonlight - who has a bullet fragment in his head - is snatched up by the FBI, roughed up a bit, and accused of being a domestic terrorist. Turns out this is a ploy to force Dick to go to Venice, Italy to retrieve a flash drive containing nuclear secrets. The flash drive is in the hands of a trio composed of a rogue cop, a dirty FBI agent, and Dick's former girlfriend Lola - whom he still loves. The sinister threesome plan to sell the flash drive to the highest bidder, most likely dastardly Russians or Iranians.

Courtesy of the FBI, Dick gets some powerful guns and a fashionable wardrobe (to fit in with the snappy dressers in Florence) - and off he goes. From here, the story is a fast-paced thriller with Dick being threatened and chased by people who want to kill him. Dick performs some brave feats of derring-do while he attempts to retrieve the flash drive and make his way back to the U.S.

There is an array of engaging characters in the book starting with Dick (and his somewhat bullet-addled brain); a huge, intimidating FBI agent who calls Dick 'sweetie'; a couple of big, leather-clad Russian bad guys; a female FBI agent who takes a shine to Dick; and more.

There's no complicated plot in this book. It's basically just an action-packed story with lots of hitting, fighting, shooting, hiding, running, climbing, and so on. A quick, entertaining read.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review of "The Second Chair" by John Lescroart




High school student Laura Wright and her drama teacher Mr. Mooney are rehearsing for the school play in his apartment when both are shot dead. The prime suspect is Laura's on/off boyfriend, 17-year-old Andy Bartlett, reputed to be jealous of Laura's crush on the teacher.

Defense attorney Amy Wu, an associate in Dismas Hardy's law firm, gets the case. However Amy's dad died recently and she's been drinking and partying too much and using good judgment too little. Thus - without Andy's agreement - Amy makes a deal for the boy to "admit" to the crimes. This is supposed to guarantee that Andy will be incarcerated in the juvenile system for 8 years rather than being tried as an adult and risking life in prison without parole. When Andy refuses to "admit" this "misunderstanding" leads to the wrath of the prosecutor and judge, who think Amy tried to pull a fast one.

To help Amy out of the hole she dug herself Hardy says he'll act as second chair (i.e. assistant) during Andy's subsequent court hearings. Once involved in the case Hardy launches his own investigation, questioning witnesses and examining evidence in the author's usual satisfying style. Meanwhile, Hardy's cop friend Abe Glitsky - now San Francisco's Deputy Chief of Investigations - is dealing with a bizarre string of serial murders around town.

I thought the early part of the book - dealing with Andy's admitting or not admitting - was too slow and drawn out. Past that part, though, the action picked up, the story got more intricate, and the intermingling of Hardy's and Glitsky's cases was deftly handled. Overall a good mystery book.

Review of "Death at the Spring Plant Sale" by Ann Ripley




Louise Eldridge - wife, mother, amateur sleuth, and host of a public television gardening show - drives from her Virginia home to Bethesda, Maryland to tape a show at the Bethesda Garden Club's spring sale. The TV episode showcases the club's president, Catherine Freeman, a wealthy, capable leader accustomed to winning first place in all garden club competitions. Naturally, this irks other club members who crave recognition for their own prowess in growing plants and arranging flowers, etc. As it happens Catherine inspires further envy in some of the local ladies because she's married to Walter Freeman, a high-profile government economist who hobnobs with important people in Washington.

While in Bethesda Louise stays with her old friend Emily Holiday, a once independent, vibrant woman who now seems to be under the thumb of her conservative, repressive husband Tom. On the evening after the garden show taping, Louise, Emily, and Tom are walking the Holiday family dog around their Bethesda neighborhood when they hear gunfire. They come to discover that Catherine Freeman was shot and killed in the car as she and her husband Walter were returning from an evening out. The question arises: was the shooter really aiming at Walter? Louise, unable to resist her sleuthing instincts, is compelled to investigate the crime and Emily, in need of some excitement, is an enthusiastic sidekick.

This is one of those books where the amateur sleuths are more capable than the police of figuring out what the important evidence is, who the real suspects should be, etc. Louise repeatedly tries to put the police on the right track, but they reject her interference - which only makes her more adamant to solve the crime. Louise and Emily decide the killer must be one of the women in the garden club (apparently because these are the only suspects they have easy access to) and proceed to investigate the ladies.

I like cozies, but in books set in modern times - with police having access to forensics, phone records, CCTV, and so on - it strains credulity to think amateur detectives are more capable of solving a crime than the cops. Even accepting that amateurs are better, however, this story relies too much on blind luck and an unlikely confession to unveil Catherine's killer.

The characters in the story - with their jealousies and clandestine maneuverings - are mildly interesting but the plot is not credible. The author does, however, weave some interesting gardening tips into the story, and provides a useful essay in the back of the book about gardening in times of drought.

For me, the story was too unrealistic to be totally enjoyable but fervent cozy fans might like the book more than I did.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review of "Broken Promise" by Linwood Barclay




When his newspaper shuts down widowed journalist David Harwood and his son Ethan move in with David's parents in Promise Falls, New York. One morning, as a favor to his mother, David brings some prepared food to his cousin Marla - a troubled young woman whose baby died at birth nearly a year ago. Since then Marla has been consumed by grief and once even tried to snatch a baby from the hospital. Luckily for Marla this was hushed up by her mother, the hospital's top administrator.

When David gets to Marla's house he's shocked to find that she's feeding a baby, who she claims was dropped off by 'an angel.' Marla says the baby, named Matthew, now belongs to her, and insists that David take her shopping for a crib and baby accoutrements. As it happens 'the angel' left a stroller with the baby and David finds an address in the folds of the pram. Ostensibly taking Marla shopping, David drives to the address and - lo and behold - finds a bloody dead woman in the house.

Of course the police suspect that Marla committed the murder, and David, concerned for his cousin, agrees to try to help her. During his inquiries David speaks to the dead woman's husband and doctor, and tries to find the baby's nanny - who seems to be missing.

Meanwhile Promise Falls is having a rash of other crimes. Twenty-plus dead squirrels were hung from a fence, three mannequins were found riding the ferris wheel of a defunct amusement park, and several girls were assaulted on the campus of a local college.

Detective Barry Duckworth, a 20-year veteran of the Promise Falls Police Department, is lead investigator on all these cases. Duckworth is a capable intuitive cop, good at connecting the dots - but clues seem to be scarce. Duckworth assigns his temporary assistant, uniformed cop Angus Carlson, to look into the squirrels, ferris wheel, and assaults - but Carlson is less than enthusiastic about this.

This is the first book of a series and various characters seem likely to show up in future stories. These include David's mom Arlene - who's starting to show signs of dementia; David's dad Don - who has a dark secret; disgraced former mayor Randall Finley - a weasel who's going to make another run for the job; Samantha (Sam) Worthington - the pretty mother of a school bully; and Angus Carlson, who hopes to make detective.

Linwood is a deft hand at characterization and every character has unique issues. Overweight Detective Duckworth is doing his best to avoid those tempting chocolate-frosted donuts. Sleazy ex-mayor (and would-be blackmailer) Finlay is trying to find dirt on people. Sam Worthington - in the midst of a dirty custody fight - routinely answers the door holding a gun. Arlene is trying to get her son David remarried; Carlson wants to impress his wife and has mother issues; and so on.

I enjoyed this well-written book, which has some shocking moments and unexpected twists. My major objection to the story are the loose ends at the book's end. I think a mystery novel - of all genres - should wrap up cleanly. Still, I'll probably read the next book in the series to (hopefully) find out what's what.

I'd recommend this book to mystery fans.

Review of "One More Thing" by B.J. Novak




B.J. Novak, the author of this collection of short stories, anecdotes, and random thoughts is probably best known for playing Ryan Howard on the popular TV series "The Office." He was also a writer and executive producer on the show and has appeared in a number of Hollywood movies.

Most of the stories in the collection are humorous and some are thought-provoking. One story that made me smile is called "The Something by John Grisham". In this tale John Grisham sends his new editor a manuscript that he provisionally calls 'The Something' because he hasn't decided on a title. Next thing Grisham knows his book, named 'The Something', is #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, courtesy of the inexperienced editor. Mortifying for the perfectionist author.

The story "The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela" is clever and fun. Comedians Jeff Ross, Lisa Lampenelli, Sarah Silverman and others poke gentle fun at the iconic anti-apartheid activist and President of South Africa - with a few embarassing missteps along the way. Afterwards Mandela shows some humor chops of his own.

In "No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg", a deceased couple in Heaven can hardly decide on a concert to attend since famous dead musicians give free concerts every night. After a Frank Sinatra concert, the duo finally get to see hubby's elusive Grandma - who has better things to do in Heaven than visit with relatives.

In the story "Kellogg's", a young boy wins a $100,000 prize in a box of sugary name-brand cereal that's forbidden in his home. When the lad's parents refuse to claim the prize he sneaks off to Kellogg's headquarters to get his winnings. There he meets an executive who tells the boy he can't have the prize because he's related to a Kellogg's employee. Turns out the executive is the kid's real dad! Lots of food for thought in this story.

In "Sophia", a man orders a sex robot, then returns her when she falls in love with him. He's soon being kidded by anyone and everyone - on late night TV, the news, and social media. This part is very funny. Later, the robot tries to change the man's mind and he tries to explain that she'll get over him.

Some anecdotes have oblique follow-ups later in the book. In a story called "All You Have To Do" a young man wears a bright red t-shirt every day. He hopes that some gal might like the look of him and try to locate him via social media. So far, he's had no luck at all. In a later story titled "Missed Connection...." a girl who had a romantic night with a stranger is heartbroken because he never came back. As it happens, the fellow was wearing a red shirt.

The book contains many more entries, some a few pages long, some composed only of a sentence or two. B.J. Novak has an offbeat sense of humor that won't appeal to everyone. I liked some parts of the book better than others, but overall I found the stories entertaining. I wouldn't buy the book (for one thing a lot of the stories are available online)....but it's certainly worth getting from the library.

Review of "The Devil's Breath" by Tessa Harris




A burning fog drifts over England in summer 1783 sickening and killing those exposed. Dr. Thomas Silkstone, a colonist transplanted to London, is in the country visiting his fiance Lady Lydia Farrell when the deadly fog hits. A scientist at heart, Silkstone studies the phenomenon and tries to devise treatments.

At the same time, Lady Lydia learns the son she thought died in infancy - now six years old - is still alive. Anxious to find her son, Lydia and Thomas set out to look for him. Unfortunately, nefarious parties bent on controlling Lydia and choosing the heir to her estate are also on the trail of the boy.

Meanwhile, in the chaos of the deaths from 'fog disease' several murders occur. Victims include a married temptress, a corrupt estate steward, and a brother and sister accused of being possessed by the devil. Reverend George Lightfoot, whose wife succumbs to the illness, is sure God's wrath is responsible and preaches fire and brimstone (there's a little too much of this for me).

Though the historical atmosphere and characters are interesting, and the saga of Lydia and her son is compelling, I became bored with the book. For me it doesn't measure up as a mystery story. I've grown accustomed to modern detective stories with scads of forensic evidence, and in this book the culprits are discovered as much by luck as anything else. To me this seems more like a historical novel than a historical mystery.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review of "The Night Searchers" by Marcia Muller




San Francisco private detective Sharon McCone is asked to look into the case of Camilla and Jay Givens. It seems Camilla has been frightened by odd occurrences, the latest being a satanic ritual and baby sacrifice on an abandoned building site. Sharon wonders if Camilla needs a psychiatrist more than a detective but becomes concerned when she realizes that Camilla is frightened of her husband. 

Meanwhile Sharon's husband Hy Ripinsky, head of an international security firm, is negotiating with the kidnappers of Van Hoffman, a muckety-muck who works for a government think tank. The kidnappers threaten to extract state secrets from Hoffman unless they're paid $45,000 - which happens to be the exact amount the Hoffmans have in their savings account.

When Sharon goes to investigate the 'satanic building site' she learns that her case seems to be connected to Hy's. It turns out that Jay Givens and Van Hoffman both belong to "The Night Searchers", a group of people that go on evening scavenger hunts. On these hunts they follow cryptic clues hidden all over the city to find a (supposedly) valuable prize. 

When Hy has to leave the country Sharon is recruited to help with the Hoffman situation. She learns that Hoffman is an arrogant guy who's disliked by his family and about to lose his job. Simultaneously, Sharon's investigation of the Givens case reveals that Camilla may not be nuts after all. 

Sharon recruits her nephew Mick to help her infiltrate the Night Searchers, a group that seems to contain a lot of weirdos and misfits. Some of Sharon's other relatives and the usual members of her detective agency also help with the investigation. In addition, Sharon is assisted by people in Hy's firm and - when she has to hide - makes use of one of Hy's safe houses. Unfortunately this is a defunct roach-infested motel with no electricity or water. Sharon perseveres and eventually uncovers information that helps resolve both the Givens and Hoffman situations, a resolution that some readers may see coming in advance. 

Part of the pleasure of this series is visiting with the familiar characters, many of whom are on hand in this book. In the current story, some changes have occurred in the lives of Sharon and Hy; they've moved into a lovely new home after Sharon's old house was burned to the ground and are considering merging their agencies. The couple also promise each other an exotic vacation when they complete their current cases - something they both need.

I think this is an okay mystery that most fans of the series will enjoy.

Review of "Generation X" by Douglas Coupland




This is the story of a handful of Generation X-ers, defined as people born between 1960 and 1980. 

In the book three late-twenty somethings - Andy, Claire, and Dag - separately give up their upwardly mobile jobs and move to Palm Springs, California. There they take up residence in modest digs, take low-paying service jobs, and attempt to live more or less minimalist lives. They entertain themselves by telling stories (made up or real), drinking, snacking, having picnics, and - for the most part - eschewing serious relationships. Their purpose, apparently, is to reject traditional society, which they find oppressive. Though the characters reject the values of their nuclear families (which are not perfect, but whose family is?) they do maintain contact via phone calls, visits, and so on....so their isolation is not complete. 

Though the hippie-ish lifestyle of Andy and his friends/acquaintances is amusing to read about, it strikes the reader (at least this reader) as unrealistic and unsustainable. Though a small segment of society can decide to do 'nothing' with their lives and suffer few consequences - if everyone took up this lifestyle the country's economy would soon collapse. And even for those who are determined to stick it out, this kind of freewheeling behavior becomes unattractive when people are no longer 'young' (that is, approach their mid-thirties and older). 

The main characters try to be committed to their 'no-strings' lifestyle, but life does impinge: Claire develops a huge crush on Tobias, an exceptionally handsome man - and follows him to New York - where their lives don't mesh. Dag is attracted to Claire's friend Elvissa, and tries to develop a relationship with her - until Elvissa skips town for an even more minimal lifestyle. Dag is also an obsessive vandal, damaging other people's cars and even destroying one by setting it on fire. I would have liked to see Dag punished for this, though he would undoubtedly bitterly resent the fines/jail imposed by outside society.

Regardless of my opinion of the characters (whom I didn't admire), the book is well-written and the characters are believable. It's interesting to get a peek into the thought processes of some Gen X-ers. I think the best part of the book is in the margins, where Douglas Coupland defines some of the original and entertaining Gen-X expressions/vocabulary. If you're curious about Gen X, this is a good book for you.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review of "Blowback" by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett




As the story opens, beautiful, blonde CIA operative Vanessa Pierson is meeting her Iranian asset - a nuclear physicist - in Vienna. The physicist reveals that the CIA's nemesis Bhoot - an international arms supplier - will soon be visiting a nuclear facility in Iran. Before the informant can reveal the facility's location he's assassinated by Chechen sharpshooter Pauk. 

Vanessa soon learns that Pauk has been killing off her assets far and wide. Is there a leak in the CIA? Driven to protect both her assets and her country Vanessa sets off on a country-hopping odyssey to find the location of the nuclear facility, capture Bhoot, and stop Pauk.

During Vanessa's quest she feels compelled to insure the safety of her Iranian informant's family, get a hidden message decoded, have a couple of shoot-outs with Pauk, and engage in a prohibited romantic dalliance with a fellow CIA operative. Vanessa is a kind of daredevil rogue agent who defies rules so she has to hide much of this activity from her bosses in the CIA. Unfortunately this maneuver may just get her booted off the case.

Blowback is a fast-paced story with plenty of action but limited depth. A good choice for a beach or vacation read.