Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review of "The Red Road" by Denise Mina

This Scottish mystery begins in 1997, on the night Princess Diana died. Fourteen-year-old Rose Wilson is out with her pimp Sammy who regularly rents her out to groups of older men. On that fateful night, however, Rose kills two people and promptly surrenders to the police. Her appointed lawyer, Julius Macmillan, sees potential in Rose and makes arrangements to insure that she gets a light prison sentence and a job when she gets out.

Skip to the present and Detective Inspector Alex Morrow is questioning Michael Brown, an ex-con who has been arrested for having illegal weapons. Brown is a hardened criminal who was previously imprisoned for murdering his brother.

Meanwhile, Julius Macmillan has just died and his son Robert has disappeared after giving the authorities evidence of his father's illegal activities. Also dead is a Pakistani man, Aziz, known for his charitable work. And big surprise, Michael Brown - who was in jail at the time of death - seems to have left his fingerprints at the Aziz murder scene.

Clearly something isn't kosher in Glasgow. The complex plot alternately focuses on Rose Wilson, Robert Macmillan, and Alex Morrow - so we see what's going on with each of them in mind and body. The reader needs to pay close attention to hold on to all the story threads but it's worth the effort.

Denise Mina gives us a fascinating (presumably fictional) glimpse of Glasgow's underbelly of bad cops, shady lawyers, murderous gangsters, child molesters, and other unsavory folks. It's a good mystery, but not a light read.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review of "A Mercy" by Toni Morrison

This story occurs in the late 1600s, during early days of slavery in America (that is, African people being used as slaves). By that time however, the tradition of using 'indentured servants' - essentially white slaves - was already well established.

In this tale, several slaves work on a small farm run by Jacob and Rebekka Vaark: Native American Lina - whose tribe has been decimated by disease; black child Florens - who was given away by her mother; and jinxed Sorrow, who seems to bring bad luck wherever she goes.

As Jacob and Rebekka fall victim to smallpox the women - Lina, Florens, Sorrow, and Rebekka - each tells her tale in her own voice. We learn that Lina is a capable farmer who forged a friendship with Rebekka; that Florens yearns for affection and fell in love with a free African blacksmith; that uneducated Sorrow - who may be more clever than she seems - still can't fathom why she keeps getting pregnant; and that Rebekka traveled to America to marry a man she didn't know.

Though the Vaarks are relatively kind masters the book touches on the evils of slavery and demonstrates the soul-deep damage caused by this practice. A well-written book with compelling and interesting characters.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, October 28, 2016

Review of "Fatal Passions" by Adrian Vincent

This book, which contains 16 true tales about gruesome and unusual murders, is just the ticket for true crime aficionados. Each story gives a brief profile of the people involved in the events, describes what led up to the crime (or crimes), and relates what happened afterward - usually a trial followed by imprisonment or hanging. But some people got away with murder.

These curious cases were often 'the talk of the town' when they hit the news, usually because of the dastardly culprits. Some examples follow.

"The Love Bungalow" (England, 1924): Patrick Mahon - a married father - kills his lover, Emily Kaye, and hides her body in a bedroom of a rented bungalow. He then calmly brings his new lover, Ethel Duncan, to spend Easter weekend at the same love nest....with Emily decomposing in the bedroom next to theirs. Ewww!

"The Cupboard Lover" (United States, 1922): Walburga Oesterreich - a large, passionate woman - is married to overbearing, sexually inadequate Fred Oesterreich. To satisfy her sexual needs Walburga takes a 17-year-old lover, a slim lad named Otto Sanhuber. Otto is Walburga's paramour for the next 19 years, usually living hidden in the attic of the Oesterreichs' home. Otto spends his days reading books and writing stories in his eyrie, coming out for whoopee when Fred is away....until Walburga gets rid of Fred for good. Apparently Fred was a pretty unobservant guy!

"A Mother's Tender Concern" (United States, 1958): Middle-aged Elizabeth Duncan enlists the help of an elderly friend to get rid of Elizabeth's hated daugter-in-law, Olga Kupczyk. Elizabeth - who wants her son Frank all to herself - warned Olga not to marry Frank, but Olga (being pregnant) paid no attention. So Elizabeth and her accomplice head to the rough part of town where Elizabeth hires a couple of Mexican youths to knock off Olga. The inexperienced 'hitmen' get the job done (badly) after which Elizabeth pays them $120 rather than the almost $3000 she promised. Turns out Elizabeth is a murderer AND a scammer!

"The Sausage King" (United States, 1897): Adolph Luetgert, who owns a sausage factory, is hugely overweight and drinks too much beer. Adolph is married but he's a profligate philanderer, going so far as to put a bed in his office for his extramarital liasions. Wanting to be rid of his wife, Louisa, Adolph murders her. He then puts Louisa's body in a sausage vat and dissolves her with caustic chemicals. Luckily for sausage lovers Adolph is bankrupt and the factory is being shut down forever. Whew!

"A Brickbat For Mrs. Parker" (New Zealand, 1954): Two 15-year-old schoolgirls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, spend all their time together sharing secrets and fantasies. The girls' parents disapprove of the relationship, which they find worrisome. Dr. Henry Hulme decides to move to South Africa with his daughter - who wants her buddy Pauline to come along. However, Mrs. Parker (Pauline's mother ) squashes that idea. So the girls invite Mrs. Parker out for a walk and smash her skull in with a brick - a feat that takes 45 blows. The girls are convicted but spend only five years in prison because of their youth.
(Note: The book doesn't mention this but Juliet Hulme changed her name to Anne Perry and became a famous novelist. Perry is the author of the very popular 'Thomas Pitt' and 'William Monk' mysteries as well as other books. Some people refuse to read Perry's books because of her past....but I like them!)

"A Passion For Poison" (United States, 1954): Nannie Doss loves "True Romance" magazine and - inspired by the love stories - longs to find the perfect mate. So Nannie marries one man after another, fatally poisoning each husband when he doesn't live up to her expectations. Nannie doesn't confine her murder spree to husbands though. By the time Nannie is arrested she has killed eleven people, including four husbands, her mother, her two sisters - and according to Wikipedia: two children, a grandson, and a mother-in-law. It's a bad idea to eat at Nannie's house!

All the stories, which span a wide array of crimes and perpetrators, are engrossing. And it's interesting to see how the justice system has changed over the years. At one time a person could be tried and hanged within a matter of weeks. Now multiple appeals can delay executions for years.

I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to readers who like true crime stories.

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review of "The Monster of Florence" by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

From the late 1960’s to the 1980’s a serial killer sporadically stalked the countryside around Florence, murdering young couples and mutilating the female victims. Over the years, numerous men became suspects, many were jailed, and some were put on trial. To this day, however, the true killer, dubbed “the monster of Florence” has not been identified.

Douglas Preston, an author of crime novels, moved to Florence with his family to write a novel. Once there he decided to write a non-fiction book about the monster in collaboration with Mario Spezi, a journalist who had been writing about the subject for years. The result is this book, a fascinating tale about both the serial killer and the culture around Florence at the time.

Apparently a major recreational activity among the general public in Florence (at least the male half) was spying on young couples making love in cars. This activity included staking out the “best spots” to watch and even paying off the “regulars” to snag their places. Of course, this is very creepy.

Other parts of the story depict the macho culture in Italy, in which some men mistreated, starved, and beat their wives...and even murdered them – often with few consequences.

According to Preston there are probably many reasons the monster of Florence wasn’t caught. Firstly, there was a lot of shoddy police work in which crime scenes weren’t secured and people wandered around at will. Second, there was an inept judicial system in which the major players cared more about advancing their careers than convicting the right person. In fact the judges actually closed the investigation on the most likely suspects, forcing police to look elsewhere.

A fascinating part of the book depicts the harassment of Preston and Spezi by the police and the judiciary. In fact, at one point Spezi was accused of being the murderer and put in jail – perhaps in an attempt to stop the publication of this book - which casts officials in a decidedly unflattering light.

Preston and Spezi believe they know the identity of the monster and present a convincing case – but perhaps it’s too late for justice to prevail.

This is a well-written and engaging book. Both mystery fans and true crime aficionados would enjoy it.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "When She Was Good" by Philip Roth


Lucy Nelson had a difficult childhood. Along with her timid, submissive mother and her alcoholic, n’er do well father, Lucy lived with her mom’s parents. To make things worse, grandpa enabled the dad's bad behavior, continually urging the family to give the wife-hitting hubby "second chances." Finally, fed up and angry, Lucy had her father arrested and then - some time later - locked him out of the house and sent him on his way.

Through it all Lucy dreamed of going to college and making something of herself, working after school to help make it happen. Things seemed to be going okay when teen Lucy developed a crush on her friend’s cousin Roy. Roy was a little older, an army veteran with ambitions to be a photographer. Unfortunately for all concerned Roy succumbed to his baser nature and repeatedly urged Lucy to “trust him.” Before long Lucy was pregnant and reluctantly married to Roy.

Lucy, having her own ambitions thwarted, seemed determined to ruin Roy’s life as well. Their poisonous union makes up the bulk of the story. Other characters, including Lucy’s family, Roy’s extended family, Lucy’s friends, and Lucy’s one-time priest, try to influence the situation at one time or another, generally making things worse.

The book isn’t fun to read. In the beginning I felt sorry for Lucy, seeing her as the unhappy victim of a raw deal. However Lucy became a completely unpleasant, unlikable character. And Roy - though he "made his own bed" and got a bit of what he deserved - was generally a spineless wimp, incapable of standing up to his demanding, controlling wife….until he did. This led to major drama in which Lucy evolved into a true sociopath.

Though it’s interesting to read about these psychologically warped characters I can’t highly recommend the book. Philip Roth’s later work is better.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review of "The Last Precinct" by Patricia Cornwell

As the book opens Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Virginia's Chief Medical Examiner, has maimed the deformed serial killer Jean-Baptiste Chandonne ('the werewolf') in self-defense. Kay believes Chandonne killed the corrupt former police chief Diane Bray but - in a twist - Kay herself is being investigated for Bray's death.

As usual in the Scarpetta novels Kay is the target of various malevolent individuals who wish her harm (in Cornwell's books being a medical examiner is a very high risk job). Kay is more depressed and fed-up than usual for a number of reasons: she's still in deep mourning after the murder (in a previous book) of her boyfriend FBI profiler Benton Wesley; she's upset about her niece, Lucy, being suspended from her job at ATF; her 'sidekick', detective Pete Marino, is being more obnoxious than usual; and she's thinking of quitting her job as Chief Medical Examiner.

Part of the book is devoted to Kay examining her life in talks with her psychiatrist/friend Anna Zenner and much of this self-examination comes off as  whiny and complaining. The book's best parts revolve around the investigation of a couple of bizarre torture murders that are labeled hate crimes and, towards the end, a young boy's suicide.

As usual the scenes of autopsies conducted in the morgue are graphic and the forensic analyses of evidence is interesting. The book is okay but not one of the best in the series.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review of "Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder" by Joanne Fluke

I've read other books in Joanne Fluke's 'Hannah Swensen' series so it was interesting to backtrack and read 'book one' for the first time.

Hannah Swensen - a tall, attractive redhead - leaves graduate school and returns home to Lake Eden, Minnesota for family reasons. Hannah decides to stay in town and opens 'The Cookie Jar' bakery and café. Hannah's mom and two sisters live in Lake Eden and often become involved in her amateur investigations.

This book features Hannah's mom Dolores - who owns an antique shop and repeatedly tries to set Hannah up with eligible men (much to Hannah's chagrin); and Hannah's sister Andrea - a pretty fashionista, mother, and real estate agent who's married to Deputy Sheriff Bill Todd.

As the story opens Hannah and her assistant Lisa are at the 'The Cookie Jar' early, baking cookies and preparing for the morning rush. Hannah is expecting a delivery from milkman Ron LaSalle, who's late for the first time ever. When Hannah hears that Ron's delivery van entered a nearby alley she thinks he broke down and goes to help. Instead of a broken van Hannah finds a broken body....Ron has been shot dead.

Hannah's cop brother-in-law Bill is about to be promoted to detective and asks Hannah to keep her eyes and ears open - in case clues about Ron's killer come her way. Of course Hannah jumps right in and takes over the entire inquiry, keeping Bill in the loop as needed. This is a pet peeve of mine with this series....that Hannah (and whatever family members she draws in) do almost all the investigating while the cops do who knows what. I know this premise is common in cozy mysteries but it still irks me.

Between making cookies and pursuing her inquiries Hannah buys a flattering little black dress and attends the annual gala thrown by Del and Judith Woodley - one of the richest families in town. Soon afterward another dead body is discovered and Hannah learns that this second victim was a loan shark who threatened some prominent Lake Eden residents. Could the murders of the milkman and loan shark be connected? Hannah plans to find out.

In this book Hannah becomes acquainted with the two men who form part of her (seemingly eternal) romantic triangle. First Hannah meets Norman Rhodes, described as an older, balding dentist who's taking over his father's dental practice. Later Hannah meets Detective Mike Kingston, portrayed as a handsome, blue-eyed, blonde hunk who's just been hired by the the Sheriff's Department. Both men take a shine to Hannah and by the end of the book she has two dates for the weekend. (Sounds good to me....LOL)

Hannah talks to persons of interest, collects clues, and solves the crimes - putting herself in considerable danger in the process. But Hannah is a clever, resourceful gal and things turn out okay (allowing the series to continue. LOL).

The characters in the story are generally interesting and well-drawn. It would be great to know someone like Hannah, who gives away bags of cookies wherever she goes. I also like Hannah's big orange cat Moishe, a smart fellow who watches TV, tells Hannah when he's hungry, and provides affection and comfort as needed. The book also has cookie recipes sprinkled throughout, which sound delicious.

I enjoyed this cozy mystery and would recommend it to fans of the genre.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of "The Skin Collector" by Jeffery Deaver

A serial killer is plaguing New York City. He creeps through the disused underground infrastructure of Manhattan which (unknown to most people) connects with the basements of various retail shops, restaurants, hospitals, office buildings, etc. Once the murderer snags a victim he tattoos him/her with poison ink, resulting in an excruciatingly painful death. The tattoos contain numbers and seem to be conveying a message, but the meaning is inscrutable.

On the killer's trail is famous quadriplegic crime scene investigator (CSI) Lincoln Rhyme and his team. Rhyme's assistant, NYPD detective Amelia Sachs, trawls through crime scenes collecting evidence, which is analyzed in Rhyme's state of the art forensic laboratory. Rhyme believes this new serial killer has been inspired by a deceased serial killer, called 'The Bone Collector.'

Meanwhile, another murderer Rhyme helped apprehend, called 'The Watchmaker', has recently died in prison. Hoping to uncover 'The Watchmaker's' associates, Rhyme sends rookie cop Ron Pulaski, undercover, to see who picks up the cremation remains. At the funeral parlor the inexperienced rookie bumbles around a bit, but manages to meet a person of interest.

Wanting to learn as much as possible about tattooing Rhyme interviews an expert and gets a quick education in 'body modification', which helps the CSI profile the killer. This and other clues allow Rhyme's team to track the perp and to foil some attacks, but the killer always manages to get away. The murderer - who seems to be preternaturally clever and capable - is infuriated by this inteference and targets Rhyme and his crew.

While this is going on Amelia has an additional worry. Nineteen-year-old Pamela, a girl with a horrible childhood that Amelia took under her wing, wants to quit college and travel the world with her boyfriend Sean. Arguments over this drive a wedge between the women and distract Amelia.

The story is told in alternating sections, from the point of view of the killer and the point of view of Rhyme and his associates. The reader learns that the killer, named Billy Haven, is following instructions in a detailed manifesto and that his ultimate objective is bigger than than just killing people with poison tattoos.

The story is skillfully told, with twists I didn't anticipate. On the down side, the complexity of the scheme that drives the plot REALLY REALLY strains credulity.

I have a couple more quibbles with the Lincoln Rhyme series as a whole. First, in every book the serial killer goes after the CSI and his associates, which seems unlikely to happen in real life.
(Just as an aside, this also bothers me about Patricia Cornwell's 'Dr. Kay Scarpetta' series, where the serial killer always targets the medical examiner and her family/friends.)

Second, the Rhyme books have an 'incestuous' feel since we hear about the same serial killers time after time. Though this story is about Billy Haven (the tattooer), we also read a lot about 'The Bone Collector' and the 'The Watchmaker'. I kind of wish Jeffrey Deaver would let these guys rest in peace .

Reservations aside, the book is an exciting page turner with a wide array of interesting characters. Reading previous books in the series would be preferable, but the book works okay as a standalone. Recommended for mystery fans, especially people who enjoy the Lincoln Rhyme series.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "Visitation Street" by Ivy Pochoda

Two 15-year-old girls - Val and June - who live in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, get bored one night and decide to ride a pool raft out into the nearby harbor. In the morning an unconscious Val is found near the shore by  Jonathan Sprouse, a high school music teacher, and June is missing.

Though it seems this would be the beginning of a mystery book it's really a character study of the people living in this run-down Brooklyn neighborhood. Jonathan Sprouse is a disillusioned musician who drinks too much and lives in a dive. Fadi - a delicatessen owner - is trying to keep the neighborhood connected with his newsletter. Monique and some of her fellow teens are hanging out on park benches, making music.

Thugs are using drugs and harassing girls who wander into their corners. A homeless community is making do in an abandoned shipyard. Ren, a talented young graffiti artist, is making incredible murals. Cree, whose cop dad was shot years before, is trying to get out of Red Hook but his mom won't leave the place her husband died.

There are psychic women who talk to ghosts, drunkards, angry parents, shop owners, average families who do weekend barbecues...all rubbing shoulders in this small area.

Pochoda does a masterful job developing the characters and evoking the ambience of this Red Hook neighborhood. I almost felt like I lived there myself. In the end we learn what happened out in the harbor on the night June went missing and the Red Hook residents get on with their lives. Good book.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review of "The Black-Eyed Blonde" by Benjamin Black

In this new addition to the Phillip Marlowe series, a stunning, married, blonde - Clare Cavendish - asks Marlowe to look into the disappearance of her lover, Nico Peterson. Turns out Nico is dead, killed by a hit-and-run driver. But wait! Clare has seen Nico walking around San Francisco after the accident. Why didn't Clare just tell Marlowe that in the first place?  Because the devious beauty needs to manipulate and seduce Marlow into helping her. Thus we have the set-up for our noir thriller.

Marlowe sets out to find Nico and soon discovers that the missing man apparently faked his death (with a little help from his friends). Moreover, Mexican thugs are looking for Nico and don't mind a little torture and murder to help them in their quest. As in the original Phillip Marlowe books, the private investigator drinks a lot, is witty, has a smart mouth, and doesn't want to cooperate with the cops. He also has a penchant for getting beat up and almost killed.

Of course Marlowe carries on and solves the case and learns once again that a beautiful woman can harbor a lot of secrets. I thought the book felt like a pretty authentic Phillip Marlowe story and I enjoyed it.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, October 21, 2016

Review of "The Purity of Vengeance" by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Danish farm girl Nete Hermansen lost her mother at a young age, and growing up among her father and brothers, learned to curse like a sailor and freely exhibit her body - habits that shocked teachers and townsfolk. After a difficult childhood and two early pregnancies Nete was sent to Sprogo Island by evil Dr. Curt Wad, a eugenicist determined to rid Denmark of 'inferior people.'

Sprogo Island housed girls considered to be mentally defective or sexually promiscuous, and the girls were treated harshly, forced to work, and often sterilized. Year later - after Nete left Sprogo, got an education, and was happily married - a chance meeting with Dr. Curt Wad upturned her life once again.

Meanwhile, in the present, Copenhagen police Department Q is looking into a series of decades-old disappearances. The cold case squad consists of three odd but endearing individuals: Detective Carl Morck, his language-challenged assistant Assad, and his secretary Rose, who appears to have a peculiar type of multiple personality disorder. The investigations reveal that the old disappearances seem to have ties both to Dr. Curt Wad, who now heads a political party poised to institute eugenics in Denmark, and to Nete Hermansen, now an elderly lady living alone.

When the police start to look into Dr. Curt Wad he panics, afraid his old Nazi-like tactics on Sprogo will be exposed, and Wad and his allies take extreme measures to protect themselves. Nete Hermansen's connection to the disappearances revolve around retribution against those who wronged her in her youth. The story skillfully switches back and forth between past and present and engages the reader in every scene. The characters are well written and varied: some funny, some earnest, some evil creeps you'd gladly throttle. Not too many twists and surprises but a very good book. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "Sacrilege" by S.J. Parris

It's 1584 and antagonism rages between Protestant England and Catholic countries of Europe. Many people, even in England, would like nothing better than to to depose (or kill) Queen Elizabeth and install a Catholic monarch on the English throne. Thus the Queen's adviser, Sir Francis Walshingham, has an extensive network of spies working to sniff out Catholic sympathizers. One of the spies is the Italian ex-monk Giordano Bruno, currently living in the French Embassy in London.

As the story begins, Bruno is hurrying through London when he's surreptitiously approached by Sophia Underhill, an old (sort of) flame he still loves. Sophia has come from Canterbury to seek Bruno's help. Sophia tells Bruno that she was forced to marry Sir Edward Kingsley, an abusive older man who made her life a misery. Sir Edward was recently bludgeoned to death in Canterbury Cathedral and Sophia is accused of the crime. Fearing she'd be hung Sophia escaped to find Bruno, who she thinks can expose the real murderer. She's sure the killer is Sir Edward's son Nicholas - a lout interested only in women and gambling.

Bruno asks his employers' permission to go to Canterbury, which is a suspected haven for Catholic sympathizers. Catholic Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, after which he was declared a saint. Many people believe saints' bones can perform miracles, but Sir Thomas's bones have presumably been lost or destroyed.

Bruno goes to Canterbury where he has two tasks: find the real killer of Sir Edward and search for Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth. Sophia, disguised as a boy, accompanies him. In Canterbury Bruno stays with his elderly friend Dr. Harry Robinson, a Protestant official and spy for Sir Francis Walsingham while Sophia stays with protective Huguenot friends.

As Bruno pursues his investigations he learns that something sinister seems to be going on in Canterbury and that several young boys are missing or murdered. Bruno's inquiries incur hostility from various people, including his host's manservant, the local physician, and the church treasurer. Then, when a local shopkeeper is killed, Bruno himself is accused of murder. This is followed by more murders, and it seems clear that one or more Canterbury residents are covering their tracks about something.

I'm not a history buff and don't read a lot of historical fiction but the depiction of Canterbury's streets, houses, people, and ambiance feels authentic. So does old England's rather hasty (and probably unfair) dispensation of 'justice' at the time. Seems you could be accused of murder (a crime for which you were not allowed a lawyer), tried, and hung all in the space of a week or two!

The book's plot is engaging and the characters are sufficiently well-rounded and believable. There's even a courtroom scene, where Bruno (and others) are tried for their crimes. The book has some twists that surprised me and an almost satisfying ending. Could be some unfinished business is addressed in subsequent books in the series.

Over all I'd say this is a good historical mystery that fans of the genre would enjoy.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review of "My Mother Was Nuts" by Penny Marshall

I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by the author in her unmistakable deep voice and New York accent.

Penny Marshall was born to Marjorie and Tony Marshall in 1943. Her show business career started in Marjorie's dancing school in the basement of their Bronx, New York apartment building. Young Penny, who wanted to run around the neighborhood and do her own thing, grumbled mightily about the mandatory dance lessons. However the numerous performances staged by Marjorie gave Penny confidence and stage experience.

Though Marjorie Marshall loved doing shows Penny didn't become a child actress. She drifted through school and graduated with less than stellar grades. After searching for a suitable college Penny chose the University of New Mexico, which had a very lenient acceptance policy. Penny was surprised by her mom's acquiescence to this distant school....but came to realize that her mother thought all the "New" states (New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico) were clustered together. Ha ha ha. In any case, Penny headed west.

Penny liked college, especially partying and hanging out with the football team. Before long Penny - who was a little naive about sex - was pregnant. Soon afterward she was married and living in a cramped apartment with her husband Mickey and baby girl Tracy. The marriage soon foundered and twenty-year-old Penny lit out for Los Angeles, where her brother Garry Marshall was becoming a successfull writer/producer/director and her sister Ronny was a producer and actress. Penny was an indifferent mother and left little Tracy with Micky and his parents in Albuquerque. I was put off by Penny's casual attitude about her child.....but mother and daughter grew closer when Tracy grew up.

In Los Angeles Penny, helped by her brother Garry, got small parts in various movies and TV sitcoms. Penny married Rob Reiner (star of "All in the Family") in 1971 and they bought a nice home where they entertained family and friends - including many Hollywood bigwigs and celebrities. Over the course of her career Penny seems to have met almost everyone in show business (she names names.....lots and lots of names), and many of these folks became her close friends. People were always welcome to drop by Penny's house to eat, drink, do drugs, and sleep over....and some guests stayed for months (or even years). I thought this was very generous.

In 1976 Penny landed a role in "Laverne and Shirley" - she played "Laverne" and Cindy Williams played "Shirley." The program became a runaway success and Penny talks about the scripts, cast, crew, filming, locations, etc. She also mentions how pleased she was to be able to hire friends who needed a job. Cindy Williams left the show in Season 8, after which the two women didn't speak for 15 years. Penny was bewildered by Cindy's actions and suggests that Cindy's husband, Bill Hudson (Goldie Hawn's ex), wanted her to quit. It's not clear exactly what happened but Penny never badmouths her co-star. In fact this isn't a 'tell-all' book at all and Penny doesn't 'dish the dirt' on anyone.

Penny and Rob divorced in 1980, a few years before "Laverne and Shirley" ended. This was a difficult period in Penny's life. Afterwards she turned to directing movies. Penny goes into great detail about each movie she helmed, including who auditioned for the leading roles, how the stars were chosen, the film crews she selected, and all the nitty gritty of movie making. I found all this very absorbing and these were my favorite parts of the book.

Penny generously acknowledges the professionals (including Steven Spielberg) who helped her learn the craft and expresses no bitterness about being overlooked - again and again - for (well deserved) Oscar nominations. Penny says she's satisfied doing the work she loves and entertaining people.The movies Penny directed are: "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (I love that movie); "Big"; "Awakenings"; A League of Their Own"; "Renaissance Man";"The Preacher's Wife"; and "Riding in Cars With Boys." Penny also made a documentary about basketball player Dennis Rodman, called "Rodman Rebound."

Penny's personal life was eclectic and intriguing. She talks about flings with various beaus and a long romance with singer/songwriter Art Garfunkel. Penny also traveled all over the world; threw numerous joint birthday parties with Carrie Fisher (featuring fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and a roster of A-list guests); mourned the deaths of friends; welcomed the birth of grandchildren; took care of her aging parents; repeatedly went to the Pritikin Spa to get healthy and stop smoking (the smoking part didn't work); obtained season tickets to the Lakers and the Clippers; and much more. Penny also speaks about her 2010 diagnosis of lung cancer - which spread to her brain. Penny reports that - right after she heard the news - she asked someone to go out and buy her White Castle hamburgers. The actress glosses over the illness but mentions that she went into remission after treatment.

I enjoyed Penny's book and think it would be fun to join her for pizza (or hamburgers) and beer and hear more stories about television, movies, and Hollywood personalities. This is a fun light book that I'd recommend to fans of celebrity memoirs.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review of "Death's End" by Cixin Liu

This is the third book in the "Remembrance of Things Past " science fiction trilogy by Cixin Liu.


If you haven't read the first two books in the trilogy this review will contain spoilers.

Each book in the trilogy has an intricate multilayered plot, numerous scientific concepts (real and made up), and a slew of interesting, complex characters. However, in a nutshell.....

In book one - The Three-Body Problem - extraterrestrial beings called Trisolarans, from the planet Trisolaris, learn about the existence of Earth. Trisolaris is a volatile planet with hostile living conditions, so the Trisolarans announce their intention of sending a fleet to take over Earth, a trip that will take 400 years.

By the end of book two - The Dark Forest- both humans and Trisolarans have learned that advanced civilizations in the universe will wipe out any planet that shows signs of intelligent life (presumably for self-protection). So a human scientist's threat - and demonstrated ability - to broadcast the location of Trisolaris to the cosmos convinces the approaching Trisolaran fleet to alter its course....away from us. However there's a fly in the ointment: once the 'destroyers' have wiped out Trisolaris they'll inevitably discover Earth - which is very close (in astronomical terms).

As the third book - Death's End - opens, the first Trisolaran fleet has moved away from the Solar System and Earth is in the 'Deterrence Era.' That is, the alien invasion has been deterred by the above mentioned threat of exposure. Humans are doing pretty well: governments are democratic; Trisolaran knowledge - shared with Earth - has led to remarkable advances in science and technology; human habitats and industries have spread through the Solar System; people have comfortable homes, fashionable clothes, and graceful manners; etc. Everything seems hunky dory.

For reasons explained in a previous book, four spaceships have left the Solar System. The first two ships harbor 'escapists'; people who - following a battle with mysterious 'droplets' - 'escaped' out into the galaxy.....which is forbidden by law. The other two ships are in pursuit, trying to catch the runaways. At one point, some of these ships encounter a four-dimensional fragment of space that has remarkable properties.

Meanwhile, back on Earth humans remain on alert. Though the Trisolarans seem to be behaving themselves they're still potential hostiles. Thus a human scientist, called the 'Swordholder', is in charge of a 'doomsday button' that will immediately broadcast the location of Trisolaris if the aliens mount a surprise attack. The question is....will the Swordholder have the guts to push the button, knowing it will eventually lead to Earth's destruction. I liked the suspense in the book so I don't want to give too much away. Let's just say - somehow or other - the location of Trisolaris is exposed.

After Trisolaris is unmasked humans fear total annihilation. So Earth scientists propose potential survival strategies: one plan is to hide all humans in structures behind the four outer planets; another scheme is to slow down the speed of light so the Solar System becomes 'invisible' to the rest of the universe. This would prohibit space travel forever. (Blech!). Finally, a third (illegal) proposal involves building spacecraft that can travel at the speed of light, so people can flee to other star systems. (Yay!)

It's impossible to say much about the various story developments without spoilers. I will say that the trilogy extends over many centuries but - because humans can 'hibernate' - the main characters don't die. They 'go to sleep' and 'wake up' (again and again) as needed. This lends a nice continuity to the storyline.

Though I might have done things differently than some characters in the book I enjoyed the story immensely.....until the last part. The end of the book is flat, uninspiring, and scientifically impossible (in my opinion). The finale reminded me of the last episodes of the TV series' "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica"....fine shows with disappointing conclusions.

The entire trilogy is good but book three is especially ambitious, ingenious, and impressive. Moreover it's probably one of very few science fiction books to contain three original - and fantastic - fairy tales! LOL.

Cixin Liu is an excellent writer with a spectacular imagination and a wonderful ability to incorporate scientific concepts into his stories. The time and effort the author must have devoted to researching and writing this trilogy boggles my mind. And the translation from Chinese to English by Ken Liu is skillful and smooth. Good job all around!

I can't recommend this trilogy highly enough to fans of science fiction. Read it. You won't be disappointed.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Review of "Blue Diary" by Alice Hoffman

Ethan Ford - a handyman, kids' baseball coach, and volunteer fireman - is a town hero. After 13 years of marriage he's still deeply in love with his wife Jorie and a good dad to his son Collie. Then one morning Ethan is arrested for the rape and murder of a young girl fifteen years ago. Jorie and Collie are devastated and the townsfolk can hardly take it in, believing a terrible mistake has occurred. However Ethan pleads guilty to the crime, asserting that he's a 'different man' now. In one way he is, having acquired a new identity.

Collie is distraught and becomes completely withdrawn while Jorie torments herself trying to figure out how Ethan could have done such a thing. In flashbacks we learn that Ethan was a truly despicable youth who - after he committed the murder - instantaneously transformed himself into a good, caring man.

Other characters in the novel include Jorie's best friend Charlotte, who is suffering from cancer; Jorie's mother and sister who try to support her in this time of crisis; and Kat - an insightful young friend of Collie's. There are also lawyers who advise/defend Ethan, and townspeople who form an 'Ethan support group' to raise money for his defense. This group includes Kat's sister Rosarie, a beautiful but cold 17-year-old heartbreaker who becomes infatuated with Ethan.

The heart of the story involves how Jorie comes to terms with her husband's crime and the actions she decides to take. To me Ethan's sudden transformation into a 'good guy' after the murder is completely unbelievable and the story's finale also rings false. However, the characters are interesting and the book does a good job illustrating the heartbreak and devastation that can occur when a gigantic lie is exposed.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review of "Bruno, Chief of Police" by Martin Walker

Benoit Courreges - Chief of Police of St. Denis, France - is known as Bruno to everyone in the tight little community. Bruno loves the town and tries to ensure that the local traditions are not disturbed by pesky regulations from the European Union. Bruno turns a blind eye (and even helps the scofflaws), for example, when health inspectors who would ban some homemade goods from the weekly market are held up due to slashed tires or potatoes in their exhaust pipes.

Though St. Denis has a mixed population of native French men and women as well as Algerians and other foreigners, people get along and there is little serious crime. Thus Bruno has plenty of time to socialize, play tennis, teach tennis to youngsters, follow the local rugby team, make his own wine and paté, garden, and so on. Then one day an Algerian grandfather is found brutally murdered in his cabin, a swastika carved into his chest, and his medal of honor and a treasured photo missing. Members of the right-wing National Front - a political party that opposes immigration - immediately rise to the top of the suspect list.

Given the background between France and Algeria - as well as some anti-immigration sentiment - the investigation is politically sensitive. Thus big-wig detectives and officals are sent to St. Denis to take over the inquiry. Bruno has invaluable local knowledge however - and with the help of some acquaintances - is instrumental in uncovering important clues. Along the way Bruno has a romance, plays tennis doubles, has a delicious English meal prepared by two British ladies, drinks a good deal of wine and champage, has a unique picnic, and so on. The author skillfully weaves the wonderful ambiance of St. Denis into the story, and the reader is simultaneously charmed by the town and intrigued by the murder investigation.

The story is full of interesting characters, including an Algerian math teacher and his family, two patriotic World War II veterans who haven't spoken for thirty years, mischievous children, hard-partying/drug-dealing teenagers, attractive ladies, political operatives, gendarmes, and more. The murder investigation uncovers some interesting aspects of French/Algerian history while driving the story forward at a steady clip. All in all a very enjoyable cozy mystery, highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of "Die Like An Eagle" by Donna Andrews


In this 20th book in the series Meg Lanslow - blacksmith, wife, mother, amateur sleuth, and assistant to the mayor of Caerphilly - is the team mom for her twin sons' baseball team, the Eagles. The President of the Caerphilly Summerball League is local builder Biff Brown, a dictatorial bully who makes up and enforces his own rules. Moreover Biff's company is contracted to maintain the baseball field, but he does almost nothing. Thus the field is all weeds and potholes with bleachers and dugouts that are falling apart and one small smelly porta-potty. And wouldn't you know it, on Summerall League opening day the cramped porta-potty contains the body of a dead man.

First identified as Biff Brown, the body turns out to be his lookalike brother Shep. Is Biff the intended victim or is it really Shep - an umpire notorious for making calls that favor Biff's teams? Another attempt on Biff's life seems to answer the question. Police Chief Burke investigates the crimes with a little unofficial help from Meg.

As it happens Biff has been hired to remodel Caerphilly town square and - as aide to the mayor - Meg has to track his progress.....which is zero. Biff has also been ignoring Meg's phone calls and texts for weeks. So the amateur detective decides to visit Biff's estranged wife and previous clients, to find out more about him. Meg soon gets an earful: Biff's jobs are shoddy or incomplete; he has a bad temper; he extorts money from clients for the baseball league; and so on.

Besides the mystery there's plenty going on in the story: kids are practicing and playing baseball; there's a picnic for the Caerphilly Eagles and their families (the 'Biff alert' during the party is funny); the Summerball League has an important meeting; Shep's drunken ex-wife totters over to the police station and fires a gun; and so on.

LIke other books in the series, Meg's extended family is on hand to help out as needed. Meg's mom is truly a magician, able to conjure up a party for 100 people (with an enormous amount of food) in an hour and to produce volunteers for the Summerball League's snack stand at a moment's notice.

This is an enjoyable light mystery that would appeal to readers who like cozies, especailly Meg Lanslow fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Rock With Wings"s by Anne Hillerman

Anne Hillerman is following in her father - Tony Hillerman's - footsteps, carrying on with his Navaho Tribal Police series. This is the second book Anne Hillerman has written for the long series.

As the story opens Navaho Tribal Police Officers Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito, recently married, are taking a vacation in Monument Valley when fate steps in. Jim ends up helping a relative in Monument Valley while temporarily working security for a movie company. And Bernie returns to their home in Shiprock for an urgent situation involving her mom and sister.

While in Shiprock Bernie decides to resume her police duties. She had previously arrested a suspiciously nervous young man for attempted bribery during a traffic stop and she wants to find out what he was hiding. Bernie is dismayed to learn that there were no drugs in his car and that the FBI wants the tribal police to back off. Bernie can't let it go, however, and continues to investigate the fellow.

Meanwhile Jim finds a suspicious 'grave' in Monument Valley, which he suspects is a publicity stunt arranged by the movie company to advertise their zombie film. The movie company honchos deny knowing anything about the grave but Jim continues to inquire into the matter. Before long an employee of the movie company is murdered in a hotel suite and Jim investigates the crime.

As Bernie and Jim pursue their separate inquiries each meets up with various suspicious characters that need looking into. They both turn to their mentor - 'The Legendary Lieutenant' Joe Leaphorn - for assistance. This is difficult because Joe is recovering from a bullet to the head and can't speak - but he's able to use a computer to assist his mentees.

I liked the setting of the book, in the beautiful mountains of the American Southwest, and enjoyed the tidbits of Navaho culture sprinkled through the story. The dual plots, however, were confused and less than compelling. By the end of the book the crimes that Bernie and Jim were investigating didn't ring true and I didn't really care who did what. There was an interesting array of characters, though, from Bernie's loving mom and alcoholic young sister to sleazy movie makers to Navaho elders who cherish the land.

For me this was just a so-so book but I might try another Anne Hillerman book in the future.

Rating: 2 stars

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review of "Hickory Dickory Dock" by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate a rash of theft and vandalism at a boarding house for students and young workers. The items involved seem random - a diamond ring, a scarf, a backpack, light bulbs, eye wash, etc.- but Poirot suspects a sinister motive may underlie the incidents.
When Poirot threatens to call in the cops a young woman, Celia Austin, confesses to some of the small thefts but claims innocence of the other incidents. Pretty soon several people connected to the boarding house are dead and residents' dark secrets start to come to light.
To me this seemed like one of Agatha Christie's less developed (and more obvious) plots with not quite believable motivation for many of the characters. Still, it was an entertaining light mystery.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Pretty Baby" by Mary Kubica

Heidi and Chris Wood are an upscale thirty-something Chicago couple with a twelve-year-old daughter, Zoe, who exhibits typical tweenie angst. Chris is a successful investment banker and Heidi is a warm-hearted social worker who feels compelled to help everyone in need.

One rainy morning Heidi spots a teen girl with a baby and a suitcase at the train station, soaked and obviously homeless. Heidi can't get the girl and baby out of her mind and - after seeing them a few more times - offers assistance. Skip ahead a day or so and teenage Willow and baby Ruby are ensconced in the Woods' apartment, though Willow is clearly scared and uncomfortable.

Heidi knows it's illegal to harbor homeless underage juveniles for more than a couple of days but can't bring herself to call child protective services. So Willow and Ruby remain, much to the chagrin of Chris and Zoe. Chris, who suspects Willow may be dangerous, is especially perturbed.

The book is told from three rotating points of view: Heidi, Chris, and Willow. As the story unfolds the reader slowly learns about the history of the characters, what goes on in the Woods' apartment, and what happens afterward.

We find out that Willow was orphaned at age eight and placed in a frightful foster care sitiuation, that Heidi hoped to have lots of children but was thwarted for health reasons, and that Chris is a loving husband who's obsessed with making money.

Other characters add interest to the story including Heidi's best friend Jennifer and playboy neighbor Graham; Chris's sexy co-worker Cassidy; Willow's little sister, foster parents, and foster brothers; and more. To say much more would risk spoiling the plot.

The book is an interesting psychological thriller with some big surprise twists and some outcomes that are fairly predictable - but this shouldn't detract from the enjoyment of the story. For me the book moved too slowly and I got tired of Willow's frequent (and sloppy) pancake eating; Heidi cleaning, feeding, and rocking the baby; Chris's numerous business meetings; etc. I was impatient for things to move along. I did appreciate, however, the way the book's various narratives smoothly led to the dramatic climax and ending.

I wasn't a huge fan of Mary Kubica's previous book, "The Good Girl", which also has a rotating series of narrators. The format just isn't my favorite. Nevertheless, "Pretty Baby" is a decent mystery that I'd recommend to fans of psychological thrillers.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review of "Death Angel" by Linda Fairstein

A young homeless girl, dubbed "Angel", is found dead in Central Park and the trio of Assistant District Attorney Alex Cooper, Detective Mike Chapman, and Detective Mercer Wallace investigate. The three professionals are friends as well as colleagues and enjoy joking, dining, and playing "Final Jeopardy." In addtion - being free of other romantic entanglements - Alex and Mike allow their long-simmering, low-key attraction to take a tiny step forward. Though the familiar characters in the series are fun to visit, the book is not a success.

Linda Fairstein's crime novels always involve murder at iconic locations in New York City. Thus the reader is treated to a healthy dose of the architecture and history of the site(s) along with an interesting investigation, good detective work, and a satisfactory resolution. Not so in this book. It seems like about 90% of the book is devoted to discussing the geography, history, structure, and uses of Central Park and about 10% to a disjointed, sprawling, almost incomprehensible mystery novel.

As the story proceeds Angel's death somehow leads investigators to the Dakota, a super-ritzy apartment building next to Central Park. In the past, the wealthy Dalton family bought up the 8th floor of the Dakota for themselves and housed their servants on the 9th floor. The family also experienced a terrible tragedy, the disappearance of a 3-year-old Dalton child. Meanwhile - in the present - as Angel's killer is being sought a rapist with the words "Kill Coop" tattooed on his hand is attacking women and another death occurs. Are these events all connected somehow?

To top it all off, Mike Chapman has gotten himself into hot water by having an affair with - and dumping - a disturbed lady judge who's out for revenge. This causes trouble all around. Other characters in the story include an elderly Dalton, Dalton family servants, homeless people, mental patients, and more.

Eventually, Angel's killer is uncovered in a resolution that seems almost disconnected from the rest of the story. Moreover, some plot points seem to go unresolved - but by the end I didn't care. If this book was billed as a story about Central Park it would be a success. If you're looking for a good mystery, skip this book.

Rating: 2 stars

Friday, October 14, 2016

Review of "Dear Mr. M" by Herman Koch

Dutch author "Mr. M" is an older man, well past his writing prime, with a beautiful young wife and a little daughter. Mr. M's most popular book, based on a real life occurrence, is called "Payback." Published four decades ago, "Payback" tells the story of two high school students accused of killing their history teacher.

The teacher, Mr. Landzaat - a married man with two daughters - had an affair with a pretty student named Laura. When Laura dumped Landzaat to hook up with a fellow high-schooler named Herman, the teacher went a little crazy. He took to stalking Laura, even going so far as to 'drop in' (and stay over) when Herman and Laura were vacationing in her family's cabin. During this 'visit' Landzaat disappeared.

In the here and now Mr. M is being surveilled by his very creepy downstairs neighbor. The neighbor - a middle-aged man - observes Mr. M, checks the writer's mail, and 'accidently' runs into Mrs. M when she takes a short trip with her child. Eventually the neighbor inveigles himself into a mild friendship with Mr. M, and - when Mrs. M opts out - even accompanies the author to a writer's gala. Seating at the gala's entertainment reflects an author's importance in the artistic community.....and less successful (or past their peak) writers get stuck in the back row or behind pillars. Mr. M, whose fading popularity and waning sales weigh on his mind, resents his more successful friends and colleagues.

The story moves back and forth between the present time and the high school days of Laura, Herman, and their friends. The students were an independent bunch who sometimes arranged 'teenager only' holidays at Laura's family cabin. Herman - who's described as skinny with crooked teeth and unfashionable clothes - exhibits a lot of snarky manipulative behavior at school and at the cabin - and is especially disrepectful (and even hateful) to teachers. It's hard to see what Laura sees in Herman (not that Mr. Landzaat, with his 'long teeth', is any prize either).

In current times, during conversations between the downstairs neighbor and Mr. M, it's clear the snoopy acquaintance resents Mr. M's writing a book about what happened among Laura, Herman, and Mr. Landzaat. It seems that - for some reason - the neighbor is very interested in these old-time events.

The major characters in the book are intriguing but not particularly likable. Herman, Mr. M, and Mr. Landzaat are flat out noxious; and Laura, while less unpleasant, wouldn't make a good BFF. The minor characters - including Mr. M's writer colleagues, various high school students, a wily journalist, Mrs. M, and several teachers - add color and interest to the story.

The book seems to be about the ethics of exploiting other people's lives for a book as well as how far an author would go to fulfill his/her vision.

Some parts of the book were a bit slow but it held my interest throughout. I speculated a lot about the 'real identity' of some of the characters and had various theories about what happened to Mr. Landzaat. I was right about some things and wrong about others.

I'd recommend the book to readers who enjoy literary fiction, particularly fans of Herman Koch.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review of "The Girl in the Spider's Web" by David Lagercrantz


 Frans Balder, a brilliant Swedish computer scientist, created a revolutionary artificial intelligence (AI) program when he worked at the Solifon company in the United States. He then suddenly quit his job, took his program, and returned to Sweden. Balder proceeded to remove his autistic 8-year-old son August from the abusive home of his ex-wife and her boyfriend and holed up at home with the boy. It seems that Balder had discovered a conspiracy involving Solifon, the National Security Agency (NSA), and Russian mobsters - and now feared for his life and his program.

Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist - famous investigative journalist for the magazine Millenium - is having problems. The magazine has been bought by a conglomerate that wants to remove Mikael from the editorial board and 'lighten' the magazine's features. Mikael could use a juicy story to buck up his career. This seems to be on the horizon when Frans Balder contacts Mikael to tell him he has a big, important story to tell.

Before Balder can meet with Blomkvist the computer scientist is murdered in front of his son August, who can't speak and doesn't seem to connect with what's going on around him. It turns out, though, that August is an artistic savant who might be able to draw a picture of the murderer. This makes him a target for the bad guys who, of course, don't want to be identified.

While all this is going on Lisbeth Salander - computer hacker extraordinaire - has been infiltrating computers around the world, including those of the NSA. Thus, she's discovered top secret information that's connected to the conspiracy Balder uncovered. Some of the NSA files, though, are super-encrypted and Lisbeth can't figure out the mathematical keys needed to open them.

As the story unfolds, Lisbeth rescues August from an assassination attempt and - while hiding the child - learns that he's also a math savant. Lisbeth uses the boy's math skills to try to crack the super-encrypted NSA files she's uncovered.

The basic premise of the story is that criminals are hunting August while Blomkvist tries to uncover the conspiracy Balder was going to reveal. Meanwhile, Lisbeth does her thing. She protects August, beats up men who abuse children and women, and infuriates people whose computers she's hacked. Lisbeth also must (once again) deal with a demented family member - this time her murderous fraternal twin sister Camilla. (Readers familiar with the trilogy know that Lisbeth is cursed with one of the worst families in the world.)

I'm a big fan of the Millenium Trilogy and was looking forward to this addition to the series. Sadly, in my opinion this book isn't as good as the previous ones. My main problems with the book:

There are intimations in the story that Frans Balder's AI program could potentially allow computers to take over the world and dispense with humans. I thought this thread might be important to the story but it went essentially nowhere.

To 'round out' the Camilla character the author resorts to a long expository chapter. In this section Hoger Palmgren (Lisbeth's former guardian) tells Mikael about Camilla - her history and relationship with her family - in great detail. This is an indelicate and tedious technique to familiarize the reader with a character. In addition, Camilla seems more like a comic book woman than a real person. She's so over-the-top gorgeous and manipulative that everyone seems to lose their senses around her. Because of this, the behavior of other characters around Camilla is simply not believable.

The conspiracy at the center of the story is too twisty and confusing. It's not until the very end of the book that I more or less understood what it was about - and then it didn't make much sense and I didn't believe it.

Though I wasn't satisfied with the story, I admire David Lagercrantz for taking on a difficult task. It's hard to add books to a popular series after the death of the original author. If Lagercrantz writes another Millenium book I'd probably read it to see if he's able to get the correct 'vibe'.

All in all, I'd recommend this book to fans of the series, but warn them to temper their expectations.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Review of "The Dead Will Tell" by Linda Castillo

The book starts out with a horrific crime: a 1979 home invasion of the Amish Hochstetler farm in Painters Mill, Ohio. A group of teens break in to steal cash and the night ends with a family slaughtered, a mother abducted, and a lone survivor - a 14-year-old boy. Fast forward 35 years and the perpetrators of the crime, now respected members of the community, start to get threatening letters. Soon afterwards, the killings start - with one after another of the original perpetrators brutally murdered by what appears to be a ghost.

Chief of Police Kate Burkholder and her detectives investigate. They learn that phone calls have been passing between the original perpetrators, but these 'bad guys', of course, admit nothing. They make up spurious reasons for their phone calls and meetings, and claim to be bewildered by the murders. Nevertheless, they're terribly frightened: they wore masks during the home invasion and later killed and disposed of Mrs. Hochstetler - so who knows who they are?

Evidence at the crime scenes provides a connection between the Hochstetler tragedy and the current crimes, and Kate and crew proceed to ask questions of the surviving son, the Amish bishop, other people in Painters Mill, and so on. Kate gets some information that leads her to visit a fading Amish community in Pennsylvania, and the investigation proceeds. I always enjoy the peek into the Amish community that Burkholder includes in her books; good people with simple lifestyles who cherish their families and want to please God.

In Kate's personal life she's now living with her boyfriend, State Agent John Tomasetti. Though Kate and Tomasetti are happy together the agent is still torn up by the murder of his wife and daughters three years ago. In this book one of his family's murderers gets off on a technicality and Tomasetti is furious and seems to have some nefarious plans for the freed man - but it's not clear what. Kate is unhappy about this, wanting Tomasetti to let go of the past and move on. She even appears to be jealous of Tomasetti's love for his deceased family - which struck me as selfish and unattractive.

As usual in Burkholder's series there are some complicated family doings connected with the crimes, and Kate and her deputies are eventually able to unearth everyone's secrets. I enjoyed the book, but not as much as the previous entries in the series. For me there's getting to be too much similarity from book to book and the romance between Kate and Tomasetti doesn't ring quite true. Nevertheless this is an enjoyable mystery book and I'll probably continue to read the series.     

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Accused" by Lisa Scottoline

Mary DiNunzio - a brand new partner at Rosato & Associates and a softie at heart - takes on the case of 13-year-old Allegra Gardner. Allegra's older sister Fiona was murdered six years before and Ronnie Stall, a college student who moonlighted as a waiter for Gardner family parties, was imprisoned for the crime. Allegra is convinced that Ronnie is innocent and - having come into a trust fund - decides to hire a lawyer to help him.

Allegra's parents are adamantly opposed to re-opening the case, insisting that Allegra has a destructive and misplaced obsession about justice. Nevertheless Mary forges ahead. There's a big problem however: Ronnie actually pleaded guilty to the crime. Mary talks to Allegra's parents and relatives, Fiona's old boyfriend, Ronnie, Ronnie's mother and members of his church, etc. - in an attempt to find the truth.

Meanwhile, Mary has become engaged to her boyfriend Anthony, though she's not quite sure she wants to get married. Family and friends of the couple, however, are thrilled. This includes Mary's parents, their three friends named Tony ('the three Tonys') and Anthony's mother and brother - all very traditionally Italian. Mary's dad and the three Tonys even get peripherally involved with Allegra's case. Interactions among these folks adds a touch of humor to the plot.

The story visits favorite characters from Scottoline's previous books in a plot that's engaging and has an okay (though not totally believable) resolution. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to mystery fans.

Ratng: 3 stars

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review of "The Trapped Girl" by Robert Dugoni

While indulging in a spot of illicit crabbing in Seattle's Puget Sound, teenager Kurt Schill finds a dead woman in a crab pot. Detective Tracy Crosswhite and her team from the Seattle Police Department's Violent Crimes Section get the case. Having been noshed on by crabs the woman is unidentifiable by ordinary means. However implants from facial surgery lead the detectives to identify her as Andrea Strickland, a woman who disappeared months before while climbing Mount Rainier with her husband Graham.

Since Mount Rainier is in Pierce County, the missing woman case was investigated by Detective Stan Fields from that region. Detective Fields thought Andrea Strickland was dead, perhaps pushed off the mountain by her husband. So when Andrea's body turns up in Puget Sound months later, Fields - angry that Andrea might have committed insurance fraud or other hijinks - demands the case back.

Tracy - whose sister was murdered twenty years ago - hates to give up any case, especially if it involves a young woman. And Tracy is especially reluctant to yield the investigation to Detective Fields, a cocky lout who ogles women. So Tracy's pleased when the disappearance of another woman eventually returns the case to the Seattle P.D. As their inquiries proceed Tracy and her team learn that at least one person has acquired a new identity and a lot of money has disappeared.

The story switches back and forth between two points of view: the detectives investigating the crimes and excerpts from Andrea's journal. In her diary Andrea, who worked for an insurance company, talks a lot about her love of books. Andrea also describes meeting and marrying Graham, a handsome show-offy lawyer who wears designer suits and drives a red Porsche.

Soon after Andrea and Graham marry, the lawyer - who has big ideas - insists that they quit their jobs and open a marijuana dispensary (which is legal in Washington). This requires a big wad of startup money that Andrea and Graham don't have. As it happens Andrea has a trust fund, but it's strictly for her personal needs and CAN'T be used for a business. So Graham - angry about the trust fund - commits fraud to get a bank loan. And since Graham knows nothing about business, things go downhill from there.

As the story unfolds the plot gets quite complicated because there are a number of potential 'bad guys.' To keep things straight, the detectives repeatedly discuss who might have done what to whom - which includes a number of different scenarios. I found this confusing and hard to follow. I also thought the perp putting the body in a crab pot was a bad idea. If you don't want a body found you should tie it to cement blocks and drop it in deep water (just my opinion). I was also put off by the repeated references to Andrea's obsessive reading, which had a whiff of hyperbole.

On the upside, there are interesting twists in the story and Detective Tracy Crosswhite - as well as her partner Kins and fellow detectives Faz and Del - are likable characters that have a strong bond with each other. At one point - to commemorate a happy occasion for Tracy - Del's wife Vera prepares a delicious meal of lasagna, salad, garlic bread, and homemade cannoli....accompanied by good wine. (Yummy!) I also like the book's setting, Washington and Mount Rainier, which provides a nice ambiance to the story.

The book's climax is dangerous and exciting, and reveals exactly what happened and why. I predicted some bends in the story but the ending surprised me. Overall this is an enjoyable book that I'd recommend to mystery lovers, especially fans of the Tracy Crosswhite series.

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "Salvation of a Saint" by Keigo Higashino

Wealthy businessman Yoshitaka Mashiba tells his wife Ayane that he's divorcing her because she hasn't become pregnant. He reminds Ayane this was the deal when they married - a baby on the way within a year or he looks for someone new. Meanwhile Yoshitaka has been having an affair with Hiromi, Ayane's apprentice in the art of quilt making.

Heartbroken, Ayane goes off for the weekend to visit her parents. While she's away Yoshitaka is murdered with arsenic-laced coffee. The police suspect Ayane, but she has an ironclad alibi. To add to their problems, the police can't figure out how the arsenic got into the coffee.

Detective Kusanagi and his team question Yoshitaka's friends and acquaintances but have trouble advancing the case. So the female detective on the team, Kaoru Utsumi, consults the brilliant physicist Yukawa, who's a whiz at solving difficult cases.

Eventually the ingenious murder method and the killer are uncovered. To me the resolution was not very believable or satisfying. All in all I thought the book read like a typical cozy, but I would have liked the characters to be more fully developed and more interesting.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Fire and Ice" by J.A. Jance

In this book the law enforcement officials in J.A. Jance's two mystery series - Arizona Sheriff Joanna Brady and Seattle homicide investigator J.P. Beaumont (Beau) - work together (via phone) to solve some baffling crimes.

As the story opens six dead women have been found in the Seattle area. Each body is wrapped in a tarp and burned up, and all but one has no teeth and no identification. Dental records identify the last body as Marina Aquirre, a woman who was reported missing by her fiance several months before. However Marina was using a false name and is really Marcella Andramade, a woman who has connections to  Arizona.

So Beau calls Joanna to ask for assistance. This is a bit awkward because when Beau and Joanna met on a previous case sparks flew event though this was inappropriate. However both Joanna and Beau quickly moved past this and each is now happily married - so no real problem there. In addition to assisting with the Seattle homicide investigation Joanna and her deputies also have two local cases: the brutal murder of an employee at an ATV park and a criminally neglectful nursing home for Alzheimer's patients.

While working these cases Joanna is also "best man" at her former deputy's wedding which involves partying, dressing well, and attending the nuptials. These activities - along with Joanna's home life with her husband, teenage daughter, and new toddler - helps round out her character. Beau, who inherited wealth, is contentedly working with his new wife (who is also his detective partner), driving expensive cars, and living well. So not much angst involving either Beau or Joanna in this story.

The ATV park murder in Arizona and the Seattle homicides kind of braid together and even come to involve the family of Joanna's deputy, Jaime Carbajal. Eventually, there's a rather dramatic resolution to some of the homicide cases and steps are taken to deal with the owners of the nursing home. The problem is that the reasons/outcomes for some of the criminal activity is murky (to me, at least) and I was unsatisfied at the end of the book.

Though it's pleasant to visit with familiar, well-liked characters like Joanna and Beau this is a mystery novel and on that score it falls short. Just an okay book.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, October 10, 2016

Review of "Deserves to Die" by Lisa Jackson


When the bodies of a couple of murdered women - each missing a finger - turn up in Grizzly Falls, Montana it seems clear a serial killer is on the loose. Long-time detective partners Selena Alvarez and Regan Pescoli investigate the crimes. Regan is having a tough time, though, for a variety of reasons: the sheriff's department has a new acting sheriff she can't stand; she's getting ready for her marriage and new home; and her teenage daughter is acting out and giving her a hard time.

Meanwhile - just before the murders start - a woman on the run lands in town, disguising her appearance and calling herself Jessica. Jessica rents an isolated cabin in the woods and takes a job as a waitress. A man named Troy Ryder is on her trail for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds. Jessica is convinced that the 'missing finger deaths' are meant to terrify her but - because of her past - is too scared to notify the police.

There's a lot of cat and mouse activity in the book as Troy Ryder stealthily stalks Jessica, and this rachets up the suspense. There are also an array of characters that add interest to the story: a cowboy heartthrob who knew Jessica a long time ago, his rough and ready brother, the ambitious acting sheriff who craves the limelight, Regan's handsome/sexy fiance, and so on.

The story holds your attention, is fast-moving, and rolls along to a dramatic conclusion.

I enjoyed the book but there were some problems in the story for me. For example I didn't understand some of Jessica's actions. I kept thinking - why would she rent a primitive, uncomfortable cabin deep in the woods (presumably to hide out in) and then take a very public job as a waitress where anyone could (and did) find her? I also didn't buy into the reasons Jessica couldn't notify the police when she seriously believed her life was in danger. For these reasons this  was just an okay book for me.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review of "Far From True" by Linwood Barclay

This sequel to Broken Promise picks up where the first book ended. Two women in Promise Falls, New York have been brutally killed in a disturbingly similar fashion - Olivia Fisher several years ago and Rosemary Gaynor just recently. In addition the town has experienced a rash of crimes connected with the number 23.

As this second book in the trilogy opens a car full of boisterous youths is heading for the Constellation Drive-In Theater for it's last show ever. As the boys are trying to get past the gatekeeper - with one boy hiding in the trunk just for fun - there's an explosion and the movie screen collapses. Two cars are squashed, four people are killed, and many movie goers are injured. As it turns out the catastrophe occurred at 11:23 P.M. (or 23:23 in military time).

Detective Barry Duckworth is the lead investigator for all the crimes, a high stress job that interferes with his (supposed) weight loss regime. While Duckworth's wife gives him grapefruit and skinless chicken, the detective sneakily eats hamburgers and pie on the job. LOL.

Duckworth soon discovers that one couple killed at the drive-in was local celebrity Adam Chalmers and his wife Miriam. In his youth Adam belonged to a criminal biker gang but gave it up to become a successful (and wealthy) writer....and Miriam is his beautiful third wife.

As the story unfolds private detective Cal Weaver (a character in previous Barclay novels) is caught up in the drama when Adam's Chalmers' daughter, Lucy Brighton, hires him. She thinks someone has been sneaking around her deceased father's house. Weaver makes a startling discovery in the Chalmers' home, a finding that soon interests the police as well.

Various characters from the first book are on hand once again. Former journalist David Harwood continues to work for slimy disgraced ex-mayor Randall Finley, who's determined to get back into office any way he can; the scene where Finley announces his candidacy is priceless and funny. Samantha Worthington is still being harassed by her jailed ex-husband's parents, who are trying to wrest away custody of her son Carl; this leads to plenty of excitement and danger. And Clive Duncomb, Thackeray College's head of security, is once again hiding things from the 'real cops.' Clive, who thinks he's smarter than everyone else, is a truly unlikable guy.

An array of minor characters from book one also make an appearance. And - for those who like that kind of thing - the story also has a couple of budding romances. I don't like love affairs in mystery books but these aren't graphic or heavy handed.

The book is an arresting page turner that kept my interest throughout. I have to admit, though, that one of the 'secrets' in the book stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. As with Broken Promise, the end of the book leaves things unresolved. I look forward to finishing the trilogy to discover exactly what's going on. I have some theories....but we'll see.

Note: Though this book could probably be read as a standalone I'd strongly recommend readers
begin with book one of the trilogy.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "Forensics" by Val McDermid

In "Forensics" popular mystery writer Val McDermid outlines the development of modern forensics (scientific analysis of evidence) - a discipline that has literally made it much harder to 'get away with murder'. Rudimentary forensic investigations began long ago: a Chinese coroner's handbook from the 1200s records the story of a murderer caught when flies were attracted to traces of blood on his scythe. Nevertheless, it's likely that many criminals went undiscovered before modern investigative techniques were formulated.

Each section of the book covers a different topic related to criminal investigations such as: the crime scene, fire, insects, pathology, poisons, blood spatter, fingerprints, DNA, bullet markings, and so on. A brief review can't cover the wide array of subjects addressed in the book but I'll give a few examples to provide a 'taste' of the material.

Crime Scene: Modern cameras/photography techniques can record a crime scene in 3-D. Thus experts can determine where a shooter was standing, the trajectory of the bullet(s), how the victim fell, how the blood sprayed, and so on. And the photos can help a jury visualize the crime.

Arson: Additives in accelerants can be used to learn where the fuel was obtained and microbes (diatoms) in the the match heads can be used to trace the matches. One anecdote in this section was distressing: A fire in Ireland's 'Stardust' nightclub in 1981 caused many deaths and injuries because the club owner had locked or blocked most of the fire exits. Arson experts found that the owner didn't start the fire (it was apparently electrical) but he clearly caused the mass carnage. Still, the owner wasn't held legally responsible and even got a big insurance settlement. (I hope Ireland has changed some laws since then.)

Insects: Different kinds of insects attack a dead body in a specific order - so the bug population on a corpse can help determine the time of death. Moreover, the insects consuming the corpse can be ground up and analysed for poisons that were in the body. That's a 'twofer' :)

Pathology: Medical examiners study the body to determine cause of death. Stab wounds can help identify the murder weapon; contaminated body parts can reveal poisons; bullets can point to the gun used; etc. If the knife is sticking out of the victim, of course, that's a huge clue.

Blood spatter: One expert McDermid interviewed noted that she needed to study the entire crime scene in detail to make sense of the blood splatter evidence. She didn't like detectives telling her 'just look at that section of wall beside the victim'... because tiny drops of blood can spray far and wide.

Poisons: Arsenic and other poisons were apparently the murder weapon of choice for royalty (as well as the common folk) for centuries - since there was no way to prove that corpses contained toxins. Once scientists learned how to test for toxins, however, poisoners were regularly caught. Nevertheless it's daunting to think how many people got away with murder over the course of history.

DNA: This is the 'gold standard' of forensic analysis. If someone's DNA is on/in the victim or at the crime scene that person was almost certainly there. This isn't always 100% accurate though, because of human error. McDermid relates an anecdote about a lab tech who used an improperly cleaned tray (someone's saliva was already on it) to analyze the spitter was initally accused. Another possible problem here is deliberate contamination of the crime scene by the perp. (Some murder mysteries I've read use this plot device. The perp brings a condom with someone else's sperm and sprinkles it on the victim.)

I was reassured though, when one forensic expert noted that it would be almost impossible for a perp to purposely plant evidence/set up a crime scene to implicate someone else. The analyst noted that the perp would tend to overdo it or do it wrong. For example: leave too much blood; leave the wrong pattern of blood; plant too many glass shards; put evidence in the wrong places; and so on.

At the end of the book I was dismayed to read that attorneys (usually on the defense side) routinely try to intimidate/manipulate expert witnesses to spin things in a certain direction rather than to discover the truth. In some ways vigorous cross-examination is good: One section of the book tells the story of an 'expert witness' physician who insisted that - if several children in a family succumbed to crib death - the parents were definitely murderers. In one afflicted family, crib death turned out to be a genetic predispostion...but the mom, wrongly imprisoned then exonerated, committed suicide. And the 'expert doctor' had his license revoked. Still, I would wish the facts could be brought out without 'politics'.

This is a fascinating book, highly recommended - especially to readers interested in true crime.

Rating: 5 stars