Friday, September 30, 2016

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.


Rating: 3 stars

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.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

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.


Rating: 3 stars

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.



Rating: 4 stars

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.



Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, September 24, 2016

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.


Rating: 3 stars

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.


Rating: 4 stars

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.


Rating: 2 stars

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.


Rating: 4 stars

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.


Rating: 3 stars

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.


Rating: 3.5 stars

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.


Rating: 3 stars

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.  


Rating: 3 stars

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.


Rating: 4.5 stars

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.


Rating: 4 stars

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.


Rating: 3.5 stars

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.


Rating: 3.5 stars

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.


Rating; 3 stars

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.



Rating: 3 stars

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.



Rating: 3 stars

Review of "The Snowman" by Jo Nesbo




In this sixth book in the series Police Inspector Harry Hole investigates a number of disappearances/murders in Norway - which he suspects is the work of a serial killer. Over about twenty years a number of women have disappeared, and one is known dead. In each case the woman is married and a mother. In a bizarre twist, a snowman has been left at the site of each disappearance, in one case wearing the pink scarf and containing the cell phone of the victim. This and an anonymous note sent to Harry lead to the killer being dubbed "The Snowman." 

Harry and his new partner Katrine Bratt, along with a small task force, are assigned to the case. When Harry and his team uncover a connection among the women a number of possible suspects come to light - one after another - each seeming to have a possible motive. Meanwhile, Harry struggles with his alcoholism while the love of his life, Rakel, prepares to move in with another man. On the lighter side Harry takes time to maintain his bond with Rakel's son Oleg and deals with a mold exterminator who dismantles his apartment. 

The characters in the story are well-developed, interesting, and often quirky and there are plenty of twists and turns. The book races along to a dramatic climax - where the murderer plans to stage a grande finale. A compelling, well-written thriller, highly recommended.



Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review of "The Stranger" by Harlan Coben




Adam Price, husband and father of two sons - Ryan and Thomas - attends the youth lacrosse team draft in his New Jersey town to make sure Thomas makes it onto the premier team. Just before the draft begins a young man - who identifies himself as 'the stranger' - tells Adam that his wife Corinne faked her recent pregnancy and miscarriage. Shocked, Adam finds proof and - when Corinne returns from a teacher conference in Atlantic City - confronts her. Corinne basically admits the deception and asks for a day to explain herself. She then disappears, sending Adam a message that they need time apart and asking him to take care of the kids.

Adam then proceeds to search for Corinne, discovering information about 'the stranger' along the way. Turns out the stranger is part of a group that makes it their business to discover and expose people's secrets, sometimes engaging in blackmail along the way. This is a dangerous endeavor that leads to a couple of murders, about which Adam is questioned. To add to the hubbub, a large amount of money is missing from the lacrosse team funds, and Corinne - who's on the lacrosse team board - is a suspect.

There are a number of characters and threads in the story: the lacrosse board members have personal problems; 'the stranger' confronts several people with secrets they don't want exposed; an ex-detective has a son with cancer; Ryan and Thomas are upset about their mom's disappearance; a woman police chief from Ohio inserts herself into the murder investigations; Adam Price has a secret of his own; and so on.

I have a couple of problems with the book: First, the motives and actions of 'the stranger' and his friends doesn't ring true. A group that feels compelled to reveal people's secrets for the good of society? Really? Second, in real life Corinne would probably have told Adam some things she kept secret. Because of this the plot seems more contrived than realistic.

Still, the book's a suspenseful page turner and an enjoyable mystery. Overall, I'd recommend it to mystery fans.


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review of "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt




Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker's life changes dramatically when he and his mother stop by the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the way to a conference at Theo's school. While browsing the gallery Theo spots an elderly gentleman (Welty) escorting a teenage girl (Pippa) with whom Theo is instantly enthralled. Shortly afterward a terrorist bomb levels part of the museum, Theo's mom is killed, and Theo - shocked and confused - makes off with a small masterpiece, Carel Fabritius's painting "The Goldfinch".

Theo's deep mourning over the loss of his mother, his illicit possession of the beautiful masterpiece, and his infatuation with the badly injured Pippa profoundly affect his ongoing story.

                                                             SPOILER ALERT!

Theo temporarily moves into the home of his wealthy best friend, Andy Barbour - who has eccentric parents and resentful siblings. He also makes the acquaintance of Welty's partner, James Hobart (Hobie), a furniture restorer and antique dealer who teaches Theo the trade. After a short time Theo's irresponsible, alcoholic, gambling-addicted father shows up with his girlfriend Xandra and they whisk Theo off to live in an isolated house in the Las Vegas desert. Here Theo meets his friend for life, the Ukranian Boris - and the two boys embark on a lifestyle of stealing, drinking, taking drugs, and blowing off school.

When Theo's dad dies in a car crash Theo (and Xandra's neglected dog Popper) make their way back to New York and move in with Hobie. Theo - now a drug and alcohol addict - eventually partners with Hobie in the antique shop. Needing funds for the business Theo proceeds to cheat wealthy clients by selling some of Hobie's creations as genuine antiques. In time Theo, his love for Pippa unrequited, tries to move on romantically. He also gets involved with blackmailers, gangsters, and art thieves, all of which leads to the climax of the story.


                                                               END SPOILER ALERT!

To me the very last part of the book - where the author philosophizes about art and beauty and life - was slow and somewhat incomprehensible. For the most part, though, this is an excellent book with a good story, well-rounded, engrossing characters and enough twists to keep the reader interested.


Rating: 4 stars

Review of "A String of Beads" by Thomas Perry




Before she married, Seneca Indian Jane Whitefield spent a lot of time assisting people in trouble, helping them get away, hide, and - if necessary - obtain new identities. Now, in this eighth book in the series, Jane's skills are needed once again. All eight Seneca clan mothers arrive at Jane's home in Amherst, New York to ask that she help her childhood friend, Jimmy Sanders.

Jimmy was in a bar fight with a drunk white man named Nick Bauermeister who was later shot to death. Jimmy has been accused of the murder and is being pursued by the police. The reader soon learns that Nick was actually killed by his boss, Dan Sloan, who wants Nick's girlfriend Chelsea Schnell. Dan framed Jimmy for the murder and - with the help of mafia associates - is arranging for jailhouse inmates to kill Jimmy once he's arrested. To the frustration of the cops and bad guys, however, Jimmy can't be found.

Jane has to track down Jimmy and hide him until she can look into, and hopefully rectify, the situation. Jane gets to use her smarts and extensive collection of skills to find and assist Jimmy, and the reader gets a primer on how to go about hiding from the authorities and anyone else who might be in pursuit. Meanwhile Dan creepily pursues Chelsea Schnell and the mafia thugs try to find and dispatch Jimmy.

Some characters are well-described and believable, and the reader will root for Jimmy and Jane, hate Dan, and feel sympathy for Chelsea. The mafia bad guys, however, tend to blend together and it's hard to distinguish them from each other.

Though it's interesting to read about Jane's methods, and fun to see her beat up some bad guys, the plot is thin and the story plods along. Every scene and action is described in enormous detail. This slows down the story and gets boring. In addition, some characters ignore Jane's instructions and do dumb things. This may be necessary for the plot but it's annoying.

All in all this book was just okay for me.


Rating: 3 stars

Friday, September 9, 2016

Review of "Damage Control" by Robert Dugoni




When a young law professor named James Hill is viciously murdered during a home robbery in Seattle, Washington his twin sister Dana is devastated. Dana, also a lawyer, finds an expensive earring in James' apartment and sets off to help Detective Mike Logan investigate James' death. This requires interviewing people, traveling, and skipping work - which is difficult since Dana has a vengeful boss, a toddler daughter named Molly, and a neglectful self-centered husband. Nevertheless intrepid Dana carries on and discovers that James had a hideaway cabin and that the earring belonged to a beautiful woman in the public eye.

Dana's intereference creates trouble, however, since someone knows her every move and murder follows in her wake. Moreover the two thugs who robbed and killed James also become targets of a killer. Detective Logan and Dana realize that a huge cover-up is in the works - but what is being covered up? 

During all this Dana has serious health concerns and deep-seated marital problems - and warm-hearted Detective Logan helps by providing support and sympathy. Dana's mom assists also, by caring for Molly while Dana pursues the case. There are plenty of other characters in the story, including a fey jewelry maker who seems to have psychic powers, a presidential candidate, security personnel, a witness to one of the killings, and so on. This helps round out the story. 

Though somewhat predictable this is an enjoyable fast-paced thriller, good for a plane ride or beach read.


Rating: 3 stars












Review of "The Dinner" by Herman Koch




As the story opens, Dutch couple Paul and Claire Lohman are preparing to have dinner at a fancy, high-end Amsterdam restaurant with Paul's brother Serge and his wife Babette. Paul, the book's narrator, isn't looking forward to the evening. He doesn't feel like dining at a snobby overpriced eatery and he disdains Serge - a popular politician who's slated to become the next Prime Minister of Holland.

According to Paul, Serge is too full of himself, flaunts his money and influence, is overly braggy about his vacations in France, has unpleasant eating habits, and so on. Moreover, Paul criticizes Serge and Babette for adopting an African boy from Burkina Faso when they already had a son and daughter. In Paul's opinion this was done solely for political reasons. 

It's hard to take Paul's opinions at face value, though, because they sound a lot like resentment, jealousy, and sour grapes. Paul was once a history teacher but has been 'on leave' for ten years because of inappropriate and offensive teaching practices and because he has health issues.

As the dinner proceeds from appetizer to main dish to dessert, each teeny weeny portion of nouvelle cuisine is described in great detail by the dandyish restaurant manager. These descriptions are infuriating to Paul (but rather entertaining for the reader). Meanwhile, conversation at the dinner table and flashbacks recounted by Paul inform the reader about what's going on. 

Serge has arranged this dinner so the two couples can discuss an incident involving their teenage sons. Paul and Claire's son (Michel) and Serge and Babette's son (Rick) committed a serious crime that was captured by a surveillance camera. The video of the offense is on the news and on youtube but it's grainy and the boys are not identifiable - except to their parents. 

Though all four parents want to do what's best for their children, they don't agree on what this is. As we come to know the characters better - and learn their secrets - Michel's problems come into focus and Paul's 'acting out' becomes increasingly disturbing. So does the behavior of various other characters. 

The book's power relies on its step by step revelations so to say more would be a potential spoiler. Some parts of the story, though, were not believable (see below).

The tale is a skillfully constructed and well-written psychological study, but I didn't like it. Most of the characters are deplorable, especially those who apparently have no conscience. I was also dissatisfied with the ending. One critic mentioned that Americans need likable characters in their books and I guess that's true for me.

This just isn't the book for me.


                                          SPOILER ALERT!

Paul freely admits to committing serious criminal assault on at least two occasions (with witnesses present) yet he seems to suffer no consequences. This doesn't ring true to me.


Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review of "Bury Your Dead" by Louise Penny




I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

As this sixth book in the series opens Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté de Québec and his associate, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are recovering from severe injuries incurred during a recent police action. Gamache is visiting his mentor in Québec City, where he spends his days in the Literary and Historical Society (Lit and His) researching a historical battle. When the body of a local man, Augustin Renaud, is found in the Lit and His basement Gamache is asked to assist with the murder investigation.

It turns out that Renaud was an eccentric historian obsessed with locating the missing body of Samuel de Champlain, the explorer and soldier who founded Québec City in 1608. Renaud had been digging up sites all over the city and had presumably sneaked into the Lit and His to have a look there.

All this is complicated by the fact that the Lit and His is an English establishment in the midst of the majority French population of Québec City - many of whom are separatists (i.e. want Quebec to separate from Canada). Thus finding the French hero's body on 'English soil' would increase the antagonism between English and French residents.

Meanwhile Inspector Beauvoir has been dispatched to the village of Three Pines, to secretly re-investigate the murder of a hermit. Bistro owner Olivier was convicted of the crime but there are now doubts about his guilt. So Beauvoir pretends to be on vacation while he looks into the matter.

The book rotates among three story lines: Gamache looking for Renaud's murderer; Beauvoir re-investigating the hermit case; and both detectives recalling the event that led to their injuries - a disaster involving a kidnapped police inspector, a bomb, and many deaths.

As the story unfolds the author provides a glimpse into the history of Quebec: how the region was stolen from the Cree Indians; the battles between the Engllish and French vying for the land; how bodies of soldiers and early settlers are buried all over the place; and so on. The book also offers a feel for the current appearance and atmosphere of Québec City, with it's high surrounding wall and vintage buildings - and since the story occurs in winter.....the snow, sleet, wind, icy streets, and arctic temperatures. I almost felt like donning a parka and mitts while reading the book.

While doing his historical research and investigating the Renaud murder Gamache meets an array of interesting characters, most of them on the Board of Directors of the Lit and His. He also eats numerous warm baguettes with delicious French meals and walks his beloved German Shepherd Henri - who is endearingly cowardly and loves to catch snowballs. Poor Henri can't fathom why the 'balls' disappear the second he snags them. Ha ha ha.

For his part, Beauvoir gets to hobnob with the usual array of Three Pines residents, including artist Clara, bookstore owner Myrna, café owner Gabri, crotchety poet Ruth, and others. I missed Ruth's duck, who had taken off south for the winter.

I enjoyed the three plotlines but found the book a little slow-moving in places, especially the parts detailing the physical and psychological injuries of the detectives. Still, a good addition to the ''Three Pines" series, recommended to mystery fans.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "The Crossing" by Michael Connelly




Harry Bosch has lost his job as a homicide detective for the LAPD (again) and is at loose ends. At the same time Harry's half-brother, attorney Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer), is defending former gang member Da'Quan Foster, who's accused of raping and murdering assistant city manager Lexi Park.

Mickey is convinced his client was set up and asks Harry to look into the case. Harry refuses because the idea of 'crossing' from catching criminals to helping them get off is abhorrent to him. Nevertheless, Harry takes a look at the LAPD's murder book and gets an inkling that Da'Quan might actually be innocent. The clue that intrigues Harry most is Lexi's expensive watch, which is missing. 

Meanwhile, two LAPD detectives have an inordinate interest in the Lexi Park case. They spy on Mickey and Harry, stop Mickey for a bogus DUI so they can search his car, and track the half-brothers with GPS devices. Then, when Harry starts to investigate the missing watch, more people are murdered. It's clear that something is rotten in the LAPD.

The book moves along at a steady clip as Harry uncovers one clue after another, and builds to a satisfying climax. Full disclosure: I did get a tad impatient with a couple of sections about LAPD parking lots and gangs surveilling them, but this is a minor quibble.

The secondary characters add interest to the book, including Harry's daughter Maddie - who's preparing for college, Harry's former partner Lucia - who secretly lends him a hand, and an Internal Affairs investigator that Harry has sparks with. 

The last part of the book has some juicy courtroom scenes (courtesy of Mickey Haller), which is icing on the cake of a good detective novel. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to mystery lovers - especially fans of Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller.



Rating: 4 stars

Review of "Keep Quiet" by Lisa Scottoline




Wanting to get closer to his son Ryan, Jake Buckman unwisely lets the underage teen take the wheel of his Audi. Taking his eyes of the road for an instant Ryan hits and kills a female jogger. Wanting to protect Ryan - a good student and star basketball player with a promising future - Jake decides to leave the scene of the crime. 

This unfortunate decision has dire consequences. For one thing Ryan can't live with the lies and starts to fall apart. For another, someone might have witnessed the accident and may want to cash in. 

As events proceed Ryan's mother Pam, a local judge, is nominated to ascend to the federal bench. This requires a thorough investigation by the FBI and Jake fears that Ryan won't withstand the questioning. Jake desperately tries to 'fix' the situation but it spirals out of control and threatens to destroy the family. 

Events rush toward a dramatic resolution that's not quite believable. Still, the book is a page turner that keeps the reader's attention and imparts a good moral: take responsibility for your actions.



Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review of "Little Mercies" by Heather Gudenkauf



Ohio resident Ellen Moore is a loving wife, good mother, and dedicated social worker. In the course of her job Ellen has dealt with dysfunctional families, removed children from abusive/neglectful homes, and sometimes brought parents and children back together. Nevertheless, the system sometimes failed and Ellen is haunted by cases where children suffered terrible deaths. Then one morning, the unthinkable occurs. Ellen and her husband Adam, running late and harried, fail to communicate. As a result Ellen inadvertently leaves her baby daughter Avery in a steaming car. This type of accident could literally happen to almost anybody but - in the eyes of the law and the public - Ellen is instantly dubbed a criminally neglectful parent.

A parallel story line involves ten-year-old Jenny, who was deserted by her mother years ago and now lives with her alcoholic, petty thief father who can't keep a job. Jenny's dad plans to move them from Nebraska to Iowa for new employment but gets arrested at the bus station, resulting in Jenny making the trip alone. As fate would have it Jenny ends up in the Iowa town where Ellen lives.

The book alternates between two narrators: Jenny and Ellen. Jenny is a brave and savvy ten-year-old and manages well during her bus trip, a solo meal in a pancake restaurant, and a detour to look for a relative. Luckily Jenny meets a kindly waitress named Maudene who takes her in and helps her.


Meanwhile, Ellen is in a state of high anxiety, in danger of losing her family and her job. Though Ellen's plight does elicit sympathy I found myself getting annoyed with her constant complaints about her situation.

As the story proceeds Jenny's and Ellen's parallel story lines merge resulting in a learning experience for everyone. In the end this is a book about families: how parents and children affect each other's lives.

I found the premise of the book - a social worker accused of mistreating a child - intriguing and I was interested to follow Ellen's experiences with family, friends, and the law. Jenny's tale was also compelling but less believable. At every step it seemed like Jenny had a fairy godmother looking out for her, which felt unrealistic. Still, the book tackles a sensitive subject in a sympathetic fashion and is worth reading.


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review of "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.




In this book Vonnegut presents caricatures of religion, the hubris of scientists, and the dangers of technology. Jonah, the storyteller of "Cat's Cradle", is writing a book about what some people were doing when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He focuses on the eccentric Dr. Felix Hoenikker - "father of the atomic bomb" - and his three children. 

He's told that Dr. Hoenikker was playing "Cat's Cradle" with a piece of string when the bomb went off. Jonah also learns that, when the Marines asked Dr. Hoenikker to 'do something' about mud (which was difficult to wade through while fighting), he invented a substance called Ice-Nine - which causes water to instantly crystallize and harden. Moreover, the effect rapidly spreads, solidifying all water far and wide - a very dangerous phenomenon.

Upon Dr. Hoenikker's death his children divide his stockpile of Ice-Nine to safeguard it. The children then go their own way. After a time, Frank, the oldest child, becomes the assistant of the President of a Caribbean island called San Lorenzo. When Frank plans to marry, his sister Angela and his brother Newt - along with Jonah - travel to the island to attend the wedding.

Jonah finds that San Lorenzo is a very odd place whose residents practice a forbidden religion called Bokononism, which has some strange customs (e.g. people press their feet together in lieu of sex). He also discovers that each of the siblings has given away a bit of their Ice-Nine to garner some advantage for themselves. With Ice-Nine on the loose all over the place can disaster be far behind? 

The book has an eclectic variety of weird, often funny, characters involved in a mildly engaging story.



Rating: 3 stars

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review of "Strangers on a Train" by Patricia Highsmith



Architect Guy Haines is on a train to Texas to see his estranged wife Miriam to discuss their divorce. Before long Charles Bruno, a rich n'er do well, sits down opposite him. Haines talks about his problems with Miriam and Bruno talks about his hatred for his father. Before long Bruno makes a suggestion: the two men should "exchange murders". That is, Bruno should kill Miriam and Haines should kill Bruno's dad - and having no demonstrable motive - neither man will be suspected. 

Haines strongly opposes this scheme, refuses to participate, and goes on his way. Before long, however, Bruno tracks Miriam down and murders her. He then proceeds to stalk Haines and insert himself into Haine's life at every opportunity - pressuring him to carry out his part of the plan. To say any more would be a spoiler. 

The book is a well-crafted psychological thriller with believable well-rounded characters. I wanted to jump into the book and shout at Haines to "get that nutcase out of your life" but of course that would have spoiled the plot. I enjoyed the book. And Alfred Hitchcock made it into an excellent film as well.



Rating: 4 stars

Review of "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein



This book is narrated by a pooch named Enzo, an observant insightful Labrador-Terrier mix. Enzo loves his owner Denny Swift, a race car driver who starts out as a customer service rep at a car dealership in Seattle. Enzo and Denny watch TV together, especially the Speed Channel and - when he's left home alone - Enzo likes to watch the Weather Channel, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, etc. As the book opens Enzo is old and dying but hopeful he'll be reincarnated as a human - a notion he picked up in a documentary about Mongolian cultural beliefs. 

From his old and wise vantage point Enzo looks back on his life with Denny, which began when Denny plucked him from a pile of for-sale puppies. Enzo recalls his deliriously happy life with Denny, his resentment when Denny met his girlfriend (and future wife) Eve, the 'truce' between Enzo and Eve about sharing Denny, and the birth of the couple's baby Zoe. Enzo also recalls Denny's struggle to establish a racing career and the would-be champion's long absences from home for training and racing. 

Enzo is envious of opposable thumbs (he'd love to turn doorknobs) and wishes he could talk. This is especially true when Enzo smells a rotten mushroomy odor coming from Eve's face, a harbinger of a serious illness. Unfortunately the book's humans don't discover this until much much later. 

In one harrowing scene Denny is away for a few days and Eve - suffering from a crushing headache - packs up Zoe and leaves the house. Unfortunately she forgets all about Enzo. The pooch, being a clever fellow, rations the toilet water and does his business on a mat near the door. He also has a 'hallucination' wherein Zoe's toy zebra comes to life and wrecks her room. When Denny returns he's shocked, angry with Eve, and apologetic to Enzo. Then Denny finds Zoe's room in a shambles and becomes seriously piqued....but Enzo understands and feels bad he couldn't stop the zebra. (I know people who would take the same tack. LOL)

Around the middle of the book, when Denny's racing career is getting serious traction, some really bad things happen. This part of the story is VERY disturbing because several characters behave in a way that is disgustingly venal and self-serving. I don't believe decent people would act like this but a story requires drama. And there's plenty of drama from this point on.

Throughout Enzo's tale he recalls Denny's truisms about the philosophy of racing - axioms that can be applied to real life such as: keep your eye on where you're going, not where you are. Enzo also recalls the most exciting ride of his life, when Denny secured him to the passenger seat of a race car and tore around the track at upwards of 125 mph. (I would have had a heart attack.) The book ends with a very touching scene, and you might need a tissue or two.

I enjoyed this compelling well-told story and the life lessons it imparts. Recommended for fans of literary fiction and racing aficionados.



Rating: 4 stars