Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review of "Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink




Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans did not have the resources to adequately care for patients following the flooding and power loss caused by Hurricane Katrina. In addition, evacuations were slow and difficult and people feared potential violence from looters and desperate citizens. After a few days, the air conditioning failed and temperatures soared, toilet facilities were inadequate and the building reeked, halls and stairways were dark, and the staff was sleep-deprived and exhausted. In short, conditions were unbearable.

In this book Sheri Fink describes the difficult decisions of several healthcare professionals to over-medicate (euthanize) a number of patients who they believed would not make it out in time. Afterwards, state authorities initiated a murder investigation with plans to prosecute Dr. Anna Pou, and two nurses - Sheri Landry and Lori Budo - who allegedly administered the fatal injections.

There's plenty of blame to go around for the calamity at Memorial, including the hospital's inadequate preparation for disaster, poor government planning and response, chaos and violence in the streets, and the foibles of human nature.

The families of the deceased were angry and wanted justice but many people were outraged at the charges leveled against the women and accused Charles Foti, the Attorney General of Louisiana, of attempting to further his own career at the expense of the healthcare professionals.

Sheri Fink does a masterful job of describing the situation at Memorial during the crisis and the legal maneuverings of all parties - prosecution and defense - afterwards. It's hard to say I enjoyed the book since the subject matter was so depressing and horrific - but it was a compelling read. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review of "Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan




At the age of 24 Susannah Cahalan was doing just fine. She was lively, talkative, and fun-loving; she worked as a reporter for the New York Post; she lived in an apartment in Hell's Kitchen; and she had a great boyfriend named Stephen.

Then Susannah began to change: she forgot to prepare for an important work meeting; started to get migraines; felt compelled to snoop through Stephen's things; developed numbness.....then pins and needles. Before long these symptoms morphed into intense crying; rambling speech; facial grimaces; chewing motions; puppet-like movements; aggressive behavior; out-of-body experiences; seizures; paranoia; and delusions. Susan started to imagine that people were saying nasty things about her (or to her) and became convinced that her father had killed his wife (who was alive). In time, Susannah could hardly walk or speak.

Susannah saw doctor after doctor and had numerous medical and psychological tests, but physicians couldn't agree on a diagnosis. Suggestions included: excessive drinking and partying; anxiety attacks; epilepsy; bipolar disorder; schizoid disorder; schizophrenia; meningitis; encephalitis; and more. Eventually, Susannah broke down completely and had to be hospitalized. At this point, Susannah 'lost' a month of her life.....she has no memory of this period. However, Susannah was able to reconstruct this time using hospital videos, doctors' files, interviews with medical personnel, recollections of friends and family, and a journal kept by her parents.

Susannah might have descended into permanent psychosis, or even died - but was lucky enough to be diagnosed by a Syrian neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar. Dr. Najjar determined that Susannah had a rare autoimmune disorder called "anti–NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis" - in short, antibodies from Susannah's immune system were attacking her brain.

Dr. Najjar prescribed an intensive and prolonged regimen of steroid drugs, which ultimately halted the antibody assault on Susannah's head. The question remained.....could she recover completely? Fortunately Susannah had enormous support from her parents, stepparents, and Stephen - as well as excellent medical care (and good insurance).

In this memoir Susannah presents a thorough and vivid description of her descent into 'madness' and her difficult step by step recovery - which required her to re-learn how to walk, talk, and interact with people. Susannah also provides general information about the brain, how it works, how memories are formed, etc. This is interesting and accessible to the lay person.

Susannah's case became a 'cause celebre' - with articles in medical journals and newspapers as well as television appearances. As it turns out, the widespread publicity benefitted people who shared Susannah's illness, but were misdiagnosed. Some doctors, seeing articles about anti–NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis, were able to re-assess their patients. In some cases, this saved lives.

One BIG lesson I took away from this book is that it's very important to find the right doctor and get the correct diagnosis. As Susannah points out, people throughout history who were thought to be psychotic may have had anti–NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis.....or some other organic brain disorder. Of course this is true about health issues in general - ongoing research and new information often sheds light on previously 'mysterious' maladies.

I'd recommend this book to readers interested in memoirs about illness and recovery, especially brain disorders.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of "Cold Service" by Robert B. Parker




In this 32nd book in the series, Hawke is shot and almost killed while protecting a bookie named Luther Gillespie - and Gillespie and most of his family are subsequently assassinated. The culprits are part of the Ukranian mob who control the city of Marshport near Boston.

To regain his sense of self after his prolonged convalescence Hawke has to destroy the entire mob element in Marshport and set up a trust fund for the remaining Gillespie child. So Hawke and Spenser spend a lot of time talking to mobsters, thugs, and cops and cooking up a plan to achieve the goal.

It's a thin plot, but the pleasure of these books is not so much the story as it is visiting with familiar characters. I always enjoy the conversation and clever patter among Hawke and Spenser.....and everyone else.

A side issue of the story involves Hawke and his current lady, Cecile, who would like Hawke to be a different kind of guy. I alway enjoy lovable pets in stories and some of my favorite scenes are Spenser and Susan at home, catering to the whims of their pooch Pearl.

An enjoyable fast read.

Review of "As the Pig Turns" by M.C. Beaton




Private detective Agatha Raisin - a stout fiftyish Englishwoman with small bear-like eyes and shiny brown hair - lives alone in Carsley, a pretty village in the Cotswolds. In this 22nd book in the series, business is slow and Agatha is bored - so she takes some friends and employees to nearby Winter Parva for a festive pig roast. As the pig is being basted, Agatha notices that the porker has a tattoo that spells out 'Amy.' Stop the roast! Turns out a pig's head has been attached to a human torso!

The victim is Gary Beech, a local policeman known for giving everyone traffic tickets for minor infractions. In fact Beech has recently given Agatha two tickets: for wiping her nose in the car and for driving 2 miles over the speed limit. Agatha has even loudly wished Beech dead. The murdered cop was an unpopular guy - but would village residents perpetrate such a bizarre crime?

Beech's ex-wife, Amy, hires Agatha to find the murderer - and the detective and her team get on the job. However, someone wants the inquiry stopped, and Agatha and her cohorts are threatened and harassed.....and one is even kidnapped. To top it off, Amy is soon found dead. Agatha is frightened off, but (of course) gets drawn back into the case.

Many familiar characters make an appearance in the story, including Agatha's ex-husband James - who assists with the investigation; public relations rep Roy - who loves to get his face on TV; aristocrat Charles - who always tries to get someone else to pay the check; agency employee Toni - who's tired of Agatha interfering in her life; Bill Wong - a policeman and friend; and Simon, a former employee who has reason to resent Agatha. Various thugs and miscreants round out the cast.

The premise of the book is interesting but the plot doesn't pan out. The detectives question people, gather evidence, and identify suspects - but it's all rather dull and and strays down too many mundane paths. By the end I didn't much care who committed the crime or why.

The personal lives of the regular characters are a little more engaging, but not much. Toni has a new beau; Simon is engaged; Roy has a new punk look; etc. Towards the end of the story Agatha falls into an old habit - developing a crush on a handsome man. I cringed for poor Agatha who's acting silly and getting ready to make a fool of herself (again).....probably in the next book.

This isn't one of the best Agatha Raisin books but if you're a big fan of the series you might enjoy it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review of "The Racketeer" by John Grisham




Malcolm Bannister was an attorney in a small firm when he was inadvertently caught up in a money laundering scheme, convicted under the RICO statutes, and sent to federal prison. There he became a 'prison lawyer' helping other convicts with their appeals. etc. When Judge Fawcett - a federal judge in Virginia - is murdered, Bannister contacts the FBI, claiming he will name the killer in exchange for immediate release from prison.

This happens, and once he is free Bannister, with help from a woman he met in the visitor's room at prison, embarks on an elaborate scheme to enrich himself. To say more would be a spoiler.

I will say, however, that Bannister's scheme is completely unbelievable - to the point where I consider this almost a fantasy novel. Moreover, Bannister is an unlikable character who - though he claims to be bereft by his divorce and loss of his son - completely forgets about the boy, making no attempt whatsoever to see or contact him once he's out of prison.

This book is slow, boring, and poorly plotted. The characters are two-dimensional and uninteresting. I almost can't believe John Grisham wrote this book.

 I'd recommend skipping this one.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of "Rock-A-Bye Bones" by Carolyn Haines



In this 16th book in the series, Sarah Booth Delaney finds a baby, and a pool of blood, on the front porch of her home - Dahlia House in Zinnia, Mississippi. Sarah Booth and her partner, Tinkie Richmond, run a private detective agency - and Sarah Booth is determined to find the baby's mother.

Meanwhile Tinkie, who's unable to have children, convinces the sheriff to let her care for the baby until the mother is located. Tinkie 'temporarily' names the infant Libby and proceeds to buy the tyke a room full of baby gear and fashionable baby clothes. Uh-oh!! Sarah Booth fears Tinkie and her husband Oscar are getting too attached to little Libby.

Since baby Libby has red hair and polydactyly (an extra toe) Sarah Booth soon discovers that the mother is Pleasant Smith, a pregnant high school senior who disappeared a month ago. The authorities, thinking Pleasant ran away, did little to find her. Sarah Booth, however, thinks foul play was involved - especially since the blood near the baby has been traced to Rudy Uxall, a neighborhood boy who's been discovered dead in his car.

Sarah Booth fears Pleasant might also be dead so she arranges a seance with Madame Tomeeka. The psychic 'channels' Pleasant, who desperately begs: "My baby, my baby. Help me. He's going to kill me." Sarah Booth is galvanized to save the endangered mother.....though Tinkie seems less than thrilled. (Uh-oh again!)

Sarah Booth learns that Pleasant, a gifted musician/song writer, was a candidate for a recording contract and a college scholarship. Further investigation reveals a number of possible suspects for Pleasant's disappearance, including: a clique of snobby high school girls; a music teacher; and several mercenary thugs.

While Sarah Booth tries to locate and rescue Pleasant, other things are going on in her life.
Jitty, the resident ghost of Dahlia House, periodically shows up to nag Sarah Booth about having an heir. Jitty - who cunningly morphs into various historic/celebrity characters - natters on about 'dried up eggs', which irks Sarah Booth.
A psychopath named Gertrude Strom - who skipped bail - is trying to kill Sarah Booth for delusional reasons. I got a kick out of the bounty hunters hired to locate Gertrude - Clete Purcell and his friend Dave. (If you're a fan of James Lee Burke books, you know these guys.)
Three attractive men - Coleman the sheriff; Harold the banker; and Scott the club owner - are vying for Sarah Booth's love....and a couple of them REALLY curl her toes! (Nice problem. LOL)
Various endearing pets hang out with Sarah Booth, and save her from a snake attack.

The story has plenty of drama, as well as humor and warmth - as all Sarah Booth's friends come together to organize a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at Dahlia House. In one funny scene Sarah Booth dons a garish orange sweater decorated with autumn leaves and a pumpkin pie....and fasionista Tinkie rushes over to cover baby Libby's eyes. Ha ha ha.

I enjoy this book and recommend it to readers who enjoy cozy mysteries - especially fans of the Sarah Booth Delaney series.

I don't usually mention bookcovers, but I really like this one. Very colorful and pretty.

Review of "The Stolen Ones" by Owen Laukkanen




A human trafficking ring is kidnapping girls in Eastern Europe and selling them in the United States. When a deputy sheriff in Minnesota becomes suspicious of a truck carrying a shipment of girls he's killed by one of the drivers, and a Romanian girl named Irina manages to escape. Irina, found near the deputy's body, is suspected of killing him. Minnesota cop Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windemere are called in to investigate the crime. With the aid of a translator Stevens and Windemere learn that Irina is a victim and that her sister, Catalina, is still in the clutches of the traffickers. Law enforcement officials set out to save the enslaved girls and capture the traffickers.

The man running the local trafficking ring is Andrei Volovoi, a mid-level hoodlum operating under the thumb of the Dragon, a ruthless murderer and pervert. Volovoi has a gang of men working for him, mostly drivers that deliver the girls to buyers around the country. When Volovoi - and then the Dragon - learn that two drivers let Irina escape there's deadly fallout amongst the bad guys and a scramble to punish Irina's family - especially Catalina.

During their pursuit of the criminals Stevens and Windemere learn there's a complex array of foreign holding companies that control the slave trade. The cops do manage to locate and close down a couple of brothels that bought some girls. The accompanying arrests make Volovoi start to panic as he scrambles to cover his tracks, elude the FBI, and keep the Dragon happy.

The story is full of action as Stevens and Windemere rush from one state to another following clues and Volovoi tears around to get his hands on Catalina so he can deliver her to the Dragon. Irina even gets in on the action, being determined to find and rescue her sister (though how she plans to do this with no money, no English, and almost no knowledge about the U.S. is bewildering).

The characters are engaging and sufficiently fleshed out. Stevens has a wife and family, including a 16-year-old daughter in love - very tough on dad. Windermere is in the midst of an affair with a rookie FBI agent who keeps making frustrating mistakes. And even evil Volovoi has a sister and beloved young nieces, which causes him a twinge of conscience about selling girls.

I found the book exciting and engaging for about the first two-thirds; then the action got repetitive. The same thing seemed to happen again and again. For example, someone almost escapes, gets recaptured, then it happens again, then once more, etc. Still, the climax of the story is exciting and satisfying. I'd recommend the book to fans of thrillers.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review of "The Robots of Dawn" by Isaac Asimov




This sci-fi mystery takes place in the distant future when the Earth is vastly overcrowded and the entire population lives underground and has severe phobias about going outside.

When the story opens a humanoid robot has been "killed" on the planet Aurora which was colonized by Earth people long ago. A famous roboticist - the only one in the galaxy who knows how to create humanoid robots - is accused of the crime. The detective Elijah Baley, an Earth-man, is called in to investigate with his robot partner. Elijah's job is made doubly difficult because most Aurorans despise Earth people, considering them to be infectious and vastly inferior to themselves.

The case is very important because its solution may determine whether space is further colonized solely by humanoid robots and Aurorans or whether Earth people will be allowed to participate.

Some interesting twists and turns lead to a satisfying surprise ending.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of "The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year" by Andy Cohen




I need to be up front here and admit that I checked this audio book (narrated by the author) out of the library because I wanted something very light and frothy. More honesty: I don't watch any of the "Real Housewives" shows that Andy Cohen produces, nor do I watch his late night talk show "Watch What Happens Live". Rather, I know Andy as the (former) executive producer of two Bravo shows I do like: Project Runway and Top Chef.

All that said, the book is exactly what the title implies - diary entries that detail Andy's everyday activities. Andy notes up front that he'll be doing a lot of name dropping, and indeed he does. He's acquainted with a wide assortment of celebrities and there's tons of stuff like: had frozen yogurt with SJP (Sarah Jessica Parker); met Matthew (Broderick) at a bar; invited myself to Kelly (Ripa) and Mark (Consuelos) for lunch; got a phone call from Cher; discussed producing a new show with Joan Rivers; went to a party at Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld's house; hob-nobbed with Madonna; texted Anderson (Cooper), and so on.

There are also innumerable entries about Andy's frequent visits to Fire Island, where scads of eating, drinking, partying, and hooking up goes on.

In fact Andy constantly talks about drinking, both in his daily life and on his late night talk show. Andy also admits to flirting with every atttractive male he sets eyes on - even if they're straight, too young, married, not interested, etc. In his defense, Andy seems to be seeking a loving long-term partner rather than a series of one night stands. Still, the constant flirting comes off as adolescent, desperate, and icky.

On a different note Andy documents a self-improvement program in which he's determined to eat well, drink less, work out a lot, and lose weight. And Andy does buff up over the year covered by this diary.

My favorite parts of the book are about Andy's dog, Wacha (AKA Norman Reedus...ha ha ha). It's fun to read about Andy adopting Wacha, a beagle mix, and about Wacha's activities - chasing his shadow for hours, running on the beach, cuddling with Andy, playing with other dogs, etc. These diary entries are sweet and touching. I also like that Andy is a devoted son, frequently skyping with and visiting his parents. Andy's mom, Evelyn - who sounds like a hoot - even acts as an occasional bartender on her son's late night talk show.

When it comes to work, Andy often mentions his "Real Housewives" series. There's apparently a lot of cast juggling on these shows - hirings and firings, demotions from permanent status to guest appearances, and cast members leaving and returning. Andy's descriptions of phone calls from spouses of fired (or downsized) housewives, begging Andy to reconsider because hubby gave up his job to be on the show, are sad and funny. Not too bright to quit your day job, Mr. Housewife!

I think the book probably gives a skewed impression of Andy, who comes off as a shallow, good-natured fellow who's sole concerns in life are eating, drinking, flirting, getting massages, hanging out with celebrities, getting good guests for his talk show, visiting with family members (a bit), and so forth. I imagine, in truth, that Andy also reads books, follows the news, and is concerned with deep issues - but I guess that's a different book.

I'd recommend this book to fans of Andy Cohen and his TV shows. These readers would probably enjoy the inside look into Andy's life. Other people, not so much.

Review of "Home" by Harlan Coben




In this 11th book in the series, Myron Bolitar and Windsor Home Lockwood III (Win) are back on the job - determined to rescue two missing boys.

For those not familiar with the Myron Bolitar books:
Myron was a college basketball star who was injured before his first NBA game. So Myron went to law school and became a sports rep and unofficial private detective. Myron is a great guy who loves his parents, treats his girlfriends well, and feels compelled to help people.

Win is a rich, handsome, expensively-dressed, well-coifed, blonde playboy. To look at him you'd never know Win's a sociopath - ready and willing to use all manner of weapons, martial arts, explosives, and other means of destruction when he deems it necessary. Win is super-protective of his friends (like Myron), but you'd never want to get on his bad side, as he'd kill you in a millisecond.

The story: Ten years ago a playdate ended in diaster. Two six-year-old boys - Patrick Moore and Rhys Baldwin - were kidnapped from Patrick's home, never to be seen or heard from again....until now. As the book opens, Win - who's been 'underground' for a year - gets an anonymous email with information about where to find the boys, who are working as prostitutes in London. Win is especially invested in the case because Rhys is his cousin.

Win's first rescue attempt goes south, so he calls Myron for help. Myron flies to London and meets up with an unsavory character called Fat Gandhi - a computer gamer who also runs a child prostitute ring. Fat Gandhi claims Patrick and Rhys work for him, but he'll release them for a ransom. Win and Myron don't trust Fat Gandhi so they hatch a daring scheme that manages to rescue Patrick.... but Rhys runs away.

Reunited with his family in the U.S., sixteen-year-old Patrick seems disoriented and frightened. Myron and Win, however, insist on interviewing the teen so they can get information about Rhys's whereabouts. Patrick acts squirrelly, though, and can't provide any useful particulars. All this is very tough on Rhys's parents, who want to get their son back.....or at least find out what happened to him.

Myron and Win continue their efforts to bring Rhys home and discover some surprising information along the way. I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say there's A LOT of murder and mayhem in the story, and Myron and Win get to show off plenty of their combat skills. The story also has a perk for romance fans since Myron is engaged to his long-time, on-off girlfriend Terese.

The book features some favorite characters including: Esperanza (Little Pocahontas) and Big Cyndi - former professional wrestlers who worked for Myron's sports rep agency; Myron's mom and dad, who love to bicker; and Mickey - Myron's teenage nephew who helps draw out Patrick with pizza and videogames. As usual there's lots of humorous banter between Myron and Win, and some amusing scenes. I thought it was hilarious when Myron threw an arrogant young thug's laptop out a car window. LOL.

The suspenseful story leads to a dramatic denouement that I never saw coming. Very good mystery, recommended to fans of the genre.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review of "Trust No One" by Paul Cleave




Jerry Grey, 49 years old, lives in Christchurch, New Zealand and writes popular mystery/crime novels under the pseudonym Henry Cutter. Jerry has a lovely wife Sandra and a beloved daughter Eva. He also has early onset Alzheimer's disease, a devastating illness that will soon steal away all Jerry's memories.

In an attempt to hold on to some bits of himself as his brain deteriorates Jerry keeps a journal, addressed to 'future Jerry', detailing aspects of his daily life. These include preparations for his daughter Eva's upcoming wedding, hiding bottles of gin - and a gun - from his wife Sandra, his conviction that Sandra is sleeping with every man she meets, anger at his illness, visits from old friends, and more.

As Jerry's Alzheimer's clouds his brain he begins to confuse his real life with the plots of his books. Thus, as the story opens Jerry knows he's in a police station and thinks he's being questioned by detectives. In the interrogation room Jerry fantasizes about seducing the female detective and confesses to murdering a girl name Suzan. As it turns out Jerry has escaped from his residential nursing home and the 'female detective' is his daughter Eva, come to take him back. Moreover, Jerry is taking credit for a crime committed in one of his books.

As it turns out, people ARE being killed in Christchurch. And the murders seem to occur on days when Jerry sneaks out of his nursing home. Before long, Jerry becomes a suspect. This is one of those books where anything said about the central plot is a spoiler so I'll say no more about the killings.

Aside from that though, the book provides (what seems like) a realistic picture of the toll of Alzheimer's Disease. Told in the first person, the story jumps back and forth in time, flits from one thought/observation to another, and demonstrates the confusion in Jerry's mind. Jerry has frequent conversations with his alter ego Henry Cutter, 'wakes up' not knowing where he is, can't remember his escapes from the residential facility, doesn't recall where he lives, and so on. It's impossible not to feel bad for Jerry and to admire his struggles to leave behind some bits of himself in his journals.

There's an array of interesting characters in this page turner, and I was caught up in the story - wanting to know what was real and what was just in Jerry's mind, and anxious to discover what was going on in Christchurch.

A good psychological thriller, recommended to mystery fans.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Review of "I Suck at Girls" by Justin Halpern




Justin Halpern's book 'Sh*t My Dad Says' is very funny, so when this memoir was recommended on Goodreads I decided to listen to the audio version. Halpern's anecdotes about incidents in his life - ranging from childhood through early adulthood - are very entertaining. Justin's dad again contributes some priceless bon mots, but most of the yarns focus on the author himself.

I'll give some examples of stories in the book.

Nine-year-old Justin, hearing about sex from a friend, gets worried about his wedding night. Eager to consult his mom about this troubling issue, Justin picks the lock on his parents' closed bedroom door..... and what do you think he sees? Good opportunity for Justin's dad to teach him the word 'ironic.'

Young Justin and his Little League teammate find a stash of porn near the ball field and plan to steal it. Their codeword, in case the coach is spotted, is 'my dog peed in the house.' Of course the coach comes right over and Justin - wanting to warn his porn-hiding friend - hysterically yells 'my dog peed in the house.....my dog peed in house.' The coach must have thought Justin was nuts.

After high school Justin goes on a jaunt to Europe with his friend Ryan, hoping to meet girls and have sex. In a Florence hostel, Justin and Ryan pal up with a young Asian man, 'Vietnam Joe.' Joe's English vocabulary is very limited. Food is either 'large delicious', 'delicious', or 'not delicious'; temperatures are either 'large hot' or 'not hot.' Joe's one complete sentence is 'Second-year guard Ray Allen has a silky smooth NBA ready game'.....cribbed from a basketball card. Still, Joe is the first of the group to meet a girl and go off with her. (Maybe she was a basketball fan. LOL)

Eventually, Justin and Ryan arrive at the 'party island' of Ibiza. The boys ask a party promoter about 'the hottest party in Ibiza'.....and are told they can't handle it. The boys are also warned off 'the second hottest party' on the island. Frustrated, Ryan finally says 'Just tell us about a party that's appropriately hot for us!' This made me laugh.

Overdoing the partying in Ibiza, Justin gets a terrible stomach ache and has to go to an emergency room in Spain. The doctor, not fluent in English, points to two dark spots on Justin's x-ray and says "Your stomach is very mad. It do not work." The doctor then says a few words to the nurse who adds "Too much poo poo and fart." Ryan thinks this is the most awesome diagnosis he ever heard.....and I have to agree. (Justin got meds for the constipation and gas, and all was well.)

In other anecdotes Justin talks about working at Hooters Restaurant, losing his virginity, dating a hot girl that's out of his league, and - by the end of the book - proposing to his girlfriend.

The book is all good fun, recommended to readers who like humorous memoirs.

Review of "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith




In this second book in the series, private detective Cormoran Strike - an Army veteran who lost a leg in the Afghanistan war - is hired to find eccentric writer Owen Quine. Quine walked out after a dispute with his agent and hasn't been home for two weeks. Before long Strike finds Quine's rotting body - trussed, disemboweled, and burnt with acid.

Quine was an unpopular guy who had recently written a book maligning almost everyone in his orbit: his wife, agent, editor, publisher, mistress, fellow writers, and so on. Thus there are plenty of suspects in this mystery, which is essentially a cozy. The cozy atmosphere is bumped up however by Strike's bum leg and the bad weather. Strike repeatedly injures his bad knee and is forced to hobble around on his prosthesis or crutches, often in freezing temperatures with snow incessantly falling. The author's descriptions were so vivid that I could almost feel the icy weather myself.

As in the first book in the series Strike's secretary and assistant Robin Ellacott - who longs to be a detective herself - is ready and anxious to lend a hand in the investigation. Some characters from the first book are on hand, including Strike's loving sister Lucy; his wealthy (almost high-society) half-brother Al; and Robin's resentful, jealous fiance Matthew (when will Robin realize he's not right for her?).

Strike's constant financial woes make it necessary for him to work on other cases while looking for Quine's killer and these investigations - which generally involve getting evidence on cheating spouses or lovers - were entertaining additions to the main story. For me the resolution of the mystery didn't quite ring true and wasn't completely satisfying. However I enjoyed the book and would read more adventures involving Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.  

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review of "Red 1-2-3" by John Katzenbach




The story's villain, who calls himself 'The Big Bad Wolf' (BBW), is a childless married man in his sixties who had mild success as a mystery novelist years ago. Now, feeling unappreciated and forgotten, the BBW plans to write a book that - he thinks - will make him wildly famous.

The BBW is a narcissistic psychopath who's been inspired by the tale of 'Little Red Hiding Hood' - where Red gets eaten by the wolf. Thus, the BBW's big idea is to murder three redheaded women, all on the same day, and then write a book about it. The BBW thinks everyone will be fascinated by the details of his crimes - how he planned and executed them - and that he'll become a legendary criminal. Moreover, the pompous writer is convinced he's too clever to be caught.

To carry out his grand plan the BBW chooses three flaming redheads, two of whom have a connection with his wife (referred to as Mrs. BBW). The proposed victims are:

Redhead 1. Karen Jayson - a fortyish single doctor and amateur stand-up comedian. (Mrs. BBW is her patient.)

Redhead 2. Sarah Locksley - a hard-drinking school teacher who's deeply depressed by the recent death of her husband and child. (Mrs. BBW doesn't seem to know her.)

Redhead 3 . Jordan Ellis - a high school student on the basketball team, who - reeling from her parents' divorce - is struggling in her classes. (Mrs. BBW works in the principal's office at Jordan's boarding school.)

As the book opens the BBW sends a letter to each of the women, announcing that he plans to kill her. From this point on the women's behavior is completely unbelievable. Karen (at least) talks to the cops on the phone, but lets them blow her off. She doesn't bother taking the letter to the police station and doesn't mention the threatening missive to anyone else. Sarah and Jordan don't tell a single other person about the frightening letter....not even a friend or relative.....much less the cops. Plain and simple, this would NOT HAPPEN in real life.

The BBW, who's been stalking and photographing the redheads, continues his nefarious behavior. Because he's unknown to the victims the killer is able to escort Mrs. BBW to her doctor appointments with Karen, and to accompany his wife to Jordan's high school basketball games. The BBW persists in frightening the redheads with phone calls and internet videos and - soon enough - the ladies learn about each other. They make arrangements to meet up in secret and discuss ways to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, Mrs. BBW remains blithely ignorant of what's going on. The BBW - claiming he needs 'a private space' for his writing - locks the home office where he keeps his stalker pictures and incriminating manuscripts. Then one day the BBW leaves his keys behind and....(I won't give away spoilers).

The book's third person POV alternates between the BBW and the other characters. The BBW is a supreme egotist who endlessly talks about how clever he is, the thrill he gets from 'torturing' the redheads, and all his 'delicious' plans. (I HATE that term unless it's referring to food). Mrs. BBW comes across as a naive middle-aged (almost) spinster who's thankful she finally snagged a husband - and a 'famous writer' at that!

The three redheads turn out to be rather clever and resourceful. They get gutsy and hatch a plan - however they don't get all their ducks in a row. The ladies set out to kill the man they think is the BBW.....with no proof he's the right guy! This doesn't seem like the smartest idea in the world.

I don't want to give away too much so let's just say the book's finale strains credulity (A LOT). The ending left me feeling cheated and unsatisfied. I know John Katzenbach is skilled writer but this book isn't among his best. It's amateurish, way too long, and poorly thought out. Not recommended.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review of "Ed King" by David Guterson


 

The storyline in this modern take on the 'Oedipus' tale is well known, so the basic plot is not a surprise.

In 1962, Walter Cousins - a nebbishy, married actuary living in Seattle - gets his 15-year-old British au pair, Diane Burroughs, pregnant. The wily girl leaves the baby on a doorstep and demands that Walter send her monthly payments in perpetuity. Walter, thinking Diane is raising the child, accedes.

As it happens the baby is put into a foundling home and adopted by an upscale Jewish couple, Dan and Alice King. They name the child Edward Aaron. The Kings soon have a biological son, Simon. 'Eddie and Simie" have very happy childhoods including schools for gifted children, a loving extended family, sports, hobbies, bar mitzvahs, etc.

When Ed enters the teen years, his rebellious nature leads him to become very sexually active, both with teen girls and an 'an older woman' (his teacher). Young Ed's reckless behavior soon causes a road accident that kills his biological father, Walter Cousins. Ed feels terrible guilt about the accident though he doesn't know who Walter is. In fact Ed doesn't even know he's adopted.

Some time after Ed finishes college he meets his biological mother Diane - an older woman who's maintained her beauty with rigorous dieting, work-outs, and plastic surgery - and marries her. And that's the jist of the story.

The book is very long and follows the life of each of the main characters in great detail.

Walter: has numerous affairs and is a failure as a husband and father; his children - Barry and Tina - don't like him and flee home as soon as they can.

Diane: starts her own 'escort' business when she's sixteen (her smarts here are completely not believable); marries a rich ski manufacturing scion; fools her husband into thinking she's infertile; eventually becomes single again.

Dan and Alice King: fine Jewish parents who raise their kids right. The King family atmosphere - including all the 'stick their two cents in' grandparents - is amusing, entertaining, and rings true.

Ed King: very bright young man who apparently inherited his biological mother's wiliness and business acumen. As the book's main protagonist we follow Ed's life step by step, including his youthful love for candy and comic books, swimming ability, math smarts, sexual exploits, psychiatric therapy, success as a 'search engine king', eventual wealth...all the way to middle age when Ed discovers some troubling truths.

I had a hard time getting through this book. The story plods along slowly, most of the people are not likable. and - in the end - I really didn't care what happened to Ed, Diane, or most of the other characters. Narcissistic Diane is especially appalling to me. She's clearly a capable girl who didn't need to be a blackmailer, prostitute, user, and liar.

This is a hard book for me to rate. I debated giving it 2 stars (for tediousness) but the effort put into the writing and characterizations get 3 stars.

Note: I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by Arthur Morey. Though most of Morey's narration is fine, his 'British accent' (for Diane) is appalling. British accents are pretty familiar to most people from TV and movies and his is weird and nowhere near authentic. This became quite off-putting and pulled me right out of the story time after time.

Review of "The Broken Ones" by Stephen M. Irwin




On "Gray Wednesday" the Earth's poles suddenly reverse, world electronics are thrown into disarray, and ghosts suddenly appear. Every human being gets their own ghost, visible only to themselves, who shadows them 24/7. The ghosts are so disturbing that some people go insane and ghost-induced murders become pardonable offenses.

Three years later police detective Oscar Mariani starts to investigate the torture/murder of a teenage girl who has a strange 7-pointed star carved into her stomach. This is an especially distressing case for Oscar because he badly injured a teenage girl when the sudden appearance of his ghost on Gray Wednesday caused him to swerve his car.

Oscar's police colleagues and superiors want him to hand off the case but Oscar refuses. The disappearance of additional girls convinces Oscar that a serial killer is at work, and - despite many barriers thrown in his path - Oscar continues to hunt the murderer.

Oscar's investigation leads him to bizarre and dangerous situations that endanger his and his police partner's lives. It's an engrossing story that contains supernatural creatures, bad cops, beautiful women, disgraced friends and more...all leading to a satisfying concluson.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Review of "Not in the Flesh" by Ruth Rendell




A long-buried body is unearthed in Flagford, England - on the property of grouchy John Grimble - and Chief Inspector Wexford and his team investigate. The detectives learn that Grimble dug a trench eleven years before to prepare the property for additional homes. Denied permission to build the houses an incensed Grimble filled in the trench - which by then apparently contained a dead body. Soon afterwards another set of human remains is found on Grimble's property, in his old abandoned home. This body appears to have died about eight years before.

Much of the story involves the detectives trying to figure out the identity of the dead people, and then discovering who killed them. To do this they need to question all the people living around the area at the relevant times. This includes old Grimble himself, the writer Owen Tredown - an author with one successful and several mediocre books, Tredown's wife and ex-wife - two controlling women both of whom live with the author, and elderly Irene McNeil - a snobby bigot who previously resided across from the Grimble house. These characters are well wrought and believable.

A side story concerns the population of Somalis in the region, and their tradition of female circumcision. Wexford - spurred on by his daughter and child health advocates - tries to prevent a Somali family from performing this horrific procedure (which is illegal in England) on their little girl. This is a serious and worthy issue but it felt like an add-on that didn't really fit with the mystery story at the heart of the book.

Much of the book consists of detectives searching through missing persons files and questioning and re-questioning persons of interest. Little by little they discover information that leads to the resolution of the case. The story's climax seemed somewhat unlikely and wasn't totally satisfying. Many of Rendell's other books are better; this is just an okay mystery.

Review of "The Corpse on the Court" by Simon Brett




Carole and Jude are next door neighbors and amateur sleuths who live in Fethering, a town in England. In this 14th volume in the series Jude has fallen for Piers, a suave, handsome businessman obsessed with "real tennis", a game played on an indoor court. Piers takes Jude to watch a real tennis match at Lockleigh House Tennis Club where she meets his friends and fellow enthusiasts.

Afterwards Piers convinces Jude to take lessons in the sport as well. Jude's preoccupation with Piers leaves Carole feeling neglected so Carole decides to look into an old unsolved mystery, 'the girl in the lake', by herself. Meanwhile, the body of an elderly tennis club member, Reggie Playfair, is found dead on the Lockleigh House tennis court. Though Reggie's death is apparently from natural causes Jude is suspicious. Thus Carole and Jude undertake simultaneous - but largely independent - investigations.

During their sleuthing Carole meets a woman looking for her long lost daughter and Jude discovers that the Lockleigh House Tennis Club is a late-night trysting place for lovers. The book has some fun, interesting characters and the dual investigations dovetail nicely at the end.

I do have a quibble with Reggie's cause of death but - since the book is a cozy - I'll give it a pass. I'd recommend the book as an entertaining light mystery.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review of "Born A Crime" by Trevor Noah




Trevor Noah, a comedian and the current host of 'The Daily Show' is a very funny guy.....and I expected this memoir to be full of witty jokes. It's not. The book is about Trevor growing up in South Africa when apartheid was coming to an end. Apartheid and it's aftermath left the impoverished black population of South Africa with hard lives and few opportunities. Nevertheless, Trevor infuses his story with hope and humor.

Trevor was born in 1984, to a white Swiss father and a black mother from the Xhosa tribe. At that time, apartheid was still in effect and mixing of the races was forbidden by law. Thus, light-skinned Trevor was evidence of a crime. The child - who lived with his mother in a black neighborhood - had to stay hidden inside during his early childhood....lest he be grabbed by the authorities and taken to an orphanage.

The dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990's eased the situation for blacks and people of mixed race (classified as 'colored'), and Trevor and his mother - named Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah - embarked on a rather tumultuous life. Patricia acquired secretarial skills and got an office job, which meant the Noahs were a little bit better off than many black South African families. Patricia even had a junky old car which - being a devout Christian - she used to 'schlep' Trevor to three or four different churches every Sunday.

When Patricia wasn't working or at church she loaded Trevor into the car and took him to places that cost no money, like parks, picnics, and sightseeing past white people's mansions. Trevor's mom had the attitude "I'm going to give you everything I never had." Patricia made it her mission to provide food for Trevor's body and books for his mind - and to afford this, spent almost no money on anything else. As Trevor describes it: their car was a tin can on wheels; they lived in the middle of nowhere; they had shabby furniture; they changed the channels on their tiny black and white TV with pliers; and they wore clothes from thrift stores.

During good times Trevor's family ate chicken, but when times were tough they ate food meant for dogs like 'sawdust' (meat scraps) and 'soup bones.' During one terrible month - when the mechanic business of Trevor's stepfather was failing - the family had to live on marogo (wild spinach) cooked with mopane worms (caterpillars). Trevor describes this as the worst time of his life.

Trevor was a self-described 'naughty child' whose high energy level and mischievous pranks got him into lots of trouble. Trevor also loved fire and once burned down the house of a white family. To escape spankings from his mother, Trevor would streak out of the house and through the neighborhood - with Patricia close behind. As a result Trevor became a very fast runner, a talent that would be useful later on - when he had to run away from cops and tough guys. Though Patricia didn't spare the spankings, she punished Trevor 'out of love' - and he reciprocated the affection.

Trevor was an enterprising youth and found inventive ways to make money. By the time he was in high school Trevor was selling pirated CDs he made at home - an enterprise that led to deejaying parties in black townships. Trevor also partnered up with a couple of friends to run a kind of 'loan and barter' business, which netted plenty of extra cash for McDonald's, beer, and electronic equipment.

On the downside, Trevor never fit in anywhere. Being a light-skinned black, Trevor wasn't accepted by blacks, whites, Indians, Asians, or colored people (most of whom have a complicated ancestry beginning with Dutch settlers and black women). To compensate Trevor made it his business to learn many of the languages spoken in South Africa, including English, Afrikaans, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and more. This made Trevor a sort of 'chameleon' who could get by with everyone.

Trevor also had bad luck with girls, partly because he had terrible acne. Trevor describes several attempts to get a girlfriend, and these tales are amusing....and a little heartbreaking. In high school, for example, Trevor's friend set him up with a beautiful girl named Babiki for the matric dance (prom). Trevor and his friend hung out with Babiki and her sisters for a couple of months before the dance, getting acquainted. Then, on the night of the matric dance, Babiki refused to get out of the car and go inside. Trevor realized - for the very first time - that Babiki couldn't speak English and he couldn't speak Pedi (her language). Ha ha ha.

The worst thing that happened in Trevor's life was his mother's marriage to Abel, a car mechanic with a murderous temper and a strong 'master of the house' attitude. Patricia sold her house, quit her job, and impoverished the family to help Abel with his mechanic business....to no avail. Abel was a terrible businessman who drank up the profits and came home intoxicated and abusive. In fits of anger Abel would hit Patricia and slap Trevor around. By the time Trevor finished high school he had to move out. Patricia ultimately left Abel, who eventually became so distraught that he shot her in the head.

In addition to his personal story Trevor talks about the evils of apartheid.....how the system purposely fomented discord among black tribes (especially Zulu and Xhosa), impoverished the non-white population, denied non-whites a decent education, left them untrained for jobs, made them feel inferior, took their homes and land, forced them into barren homelands, etc. etc. etc. Trevor touches on how this affected himself, his extended family, and his friends.....and the story is sad, bleak and dismaying.

Trevor's mother survived being shot in the head.....and the book ends there. Trevor doesn't talk about becoming a comedian, his show business career, or becoming host of The Daily Show. The program's original host, Jon Stewart, was terrific and I was sad when he left. Still, Trevor is doing a good job (in my opinion). He's personable, smart and funny.....and his impressions and accents are spot on. Trevor makes me laugh every time I watch the show. If Trevor writes a sequel to this book, I'll read it for sure. :)

I'd highly recommend the book to fans of celebrity memoirs and to readers interested in apartheid and South Africa.

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

Review of "Veronika Decides to Die" by Paulo Coelho




Veronika, an attractive 24-year-old woman living in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has loving parents, an okay job, decent boyfriends, and so on. However she's tired of her routine life and tries to commit suicide. Veronika's attempt fails and she wakes up in Villete, a local mental hospital. There Veronika is told that her suicide attempt has severely damaged her heart and she has about a week to live.

Liberated from worries about going on with life - and learning that mental patients are free to exhibit any behavior they like - Veronika decides to interact with some fellow patients. She befriends Mari, who has panic attacks; Zedka, who is depressed; and Eduard, a catatonic schizophrenic who seems to enjoy Veronika's piano playing. Meanwhile, Dr. Igor,the head psychiatrist, studies Veronika and the other patients at Villete to test his theory that a body substance called "vitriol" causes mental illnes. By the end of the book Veronika's presence at Villete causes many of the patients to change their attitudes about their own mental illness as well as how they want to live their lives.

The book seems to accurately describe the behavior of some mentally ill people but I thought the depiction of the patients was generally superficial and provided little insight into true mental illness. However some of the characters were interesting and the story was okay,

Review of "The 9th Girl" by Tami Hoag




When the mutilated, acid-burned body of a teenage girl falls from a car's trunk a serial killer called 'Doc Holiday' is the prime suspect. This sadistic murderer has already taken eight lives in a ritualistic fashion and police fear the teen may be his ninth victim. Detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska investigate the murder of the unidentified girl - dubbed 'Zombie Doe' by the media.

Turns out 'Zombie Doe' is Penelope Gray, a high school classmate of Liska's son Kyle. Talking to students reveals that 'Gray' (as her friends call her) was at a teen hangout the night she disappeared, as was Kyle and a number of other students - some of whom were bullies who tormented both Gray and Kyle. Questioning Gray's mother and her fiance reveal that Gray was a troubled teen, angry about her parent's divorce several years before, who was prone to acting act and staying away from home.

The homicide detectives pursue evidence on the assumption that Doc Holiday killed Gray, wanting to stop him before he claims another victim. The book intersperses some first person scenes of Doc Holiday planning/committing his crimes with the story of the detectives' investigation. Liska's problems raising two sons as a single mother - one of whom is a witness in the case - also plays a part in the story.

The characters are realistically depicted, the police investigation proceeds at a good pace, and the ending is almost satisfying. All in all an okay mystery book.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of "Wicked Business" by Janet Evanovich




I'm a fan of Janet Evanovich's "Stephanie Plum" series, which is funny and filled with amusing characters. So I decided to give Evanovich's "Lizzy and Diesel" series a try.

The Lizzy and Diesel books take a more supernatural turn. The main characters have special abilities that they use to search for stones infused with dark magic. In this book Lizzy and Diesel are in a race against Diesel's no-good cousin Gerwulf to find the Luxuria Stone, which induces lust. Gerwulf's goal is to collect all the magic stones, which would apparently give him great power. And Diesel's job (with Lizzy's help) is to stop Gerwulf from amassing the stones.

As the story opens Gilbert Reedy, a Harvard English Professor, has been killed and Gerwulf has Reedy's book of sonnets, known to contain information about the Luxuria Stone. In the thin plot Lizzy and Diesel, who have obtained the key to the sonnet book, run all over the greater Boston area searching for clues that will lead to the stone. Hard on their heels are Gerwulf and his henchman Hatchet, who dresses in medieval garb and brandishes a sword.

The characters, though mildly amusing, are not very well developed. Lizzy is a culinary school graduate who bakes cupcakes, bread, and meat pies for the bakery that employs her. Diesel is a part-time bounty hunter with a pet monkey, Carl, and a very hot body. However, Lizzy and Diesel can't act on any physical attraction between them because this will lead to the loss of someone's special abilities - so there's always sexual tension. Other characters are even less developed. Gerwulf looks like a sexy vampire. Lizzy works with two women, bakery owner Clara and co-worker Gloria - who can detect clues invisible to others. And then there's Anarchy, a mysterious woman who also wants the stone. And so on. To me, the most fun characters are Carl the monkey and Hatchet the swordsman - who actually made me laugh out loud.

The plot of the book is not compelling and I didn't much enjoy the story. And in the end, nothing much had happened. In the future I'll probably stick to the Stephanie Plum books and skip the Lizzy and Diesel series.

Review of "Doctor Sleep" by Stephen King




As the story opens Dan Torrance (Danny Torrance from "The Shining") has grown up to be a violent, itinerant alcoholic who suffers from blackouts. His difficulties connect back to the time young Danny's father was the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. There Danny's psychic gift (called 'the shining') led to his meeting a gaggle of supernatural psychopaths and victims. The hotel's supernatural residents also drove Danny's father insane, and he tried to kill Danny and his mom.

After adult Dan has a one night stand that disturbs him greatly he hops a train and ends up in New Hampshire. There he gets a job in a hospice and joins Alcoholics Anonymous. Meanwhile, Abra, a little girl who also lives in New Hampshire, starts to exhibit a whopping amount of 'shining' herself. As Abra grows up she develops a psychic connection to Dan and mentally reaches out to say hello and get acquainted.

In time Abra's psychic gifts brings her to the attention of a group of horrific vampire-like beings called the True Knot who torture and murder psychic children to absorb their "steam" (psychic essence). The True Knot becomes desperate to get their hands on Abra who - coming to realize the danger she's in - asks Dan to help her. This leads to the thriller part of the story, with the True Knot scheming to kidnap Abra, and Dan and his cohorts scheming to save her.

The book is chock full of fascinating characters (good and evil) and gruesome events - in true Stephen King style. The story isn't one of Stephen King's scariest tales but it's a whopping good story that will stick with you. Highly recommended, especially to King fans and aficionados of horror stories.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Review of "Lie By Moonlight" by Amanda Quick



During the reign of Queen Victoria - when social conventions in England were exceptionally rigid - twenty-something teacher Concordia Glade has been hired to educate four teenage girls at an 'orphan school' housed in Ardwick Castle. Concordia gets wind of a scheme that (she thinks) involves selling the girls to brothels so - being an unusually intrepid woman - plans a daring escape.

As it happens, a private inquiry agent named Ambrose Wells is hanging around Ardwick Castle during Concordia's risky flight, and he helps the teacher and her charges get away. Ambrose then hides the ladies in the home of his wealthy benefactor. Since Ambrose knows the evil schemers will try to get the girls back, he plans to foil the bad guys and expose them. Concordia insists on helping Ambrose and he (reluctantly) agrees.

Since this is a romantic suspense novel Ambrose and Concordia feel an overpowering mutual attraction, which is very obvious to the teenage girls - who worry that Concordia will be 'ruined' if she kisses Ambrose (or heaven forbid more than that!). The girls discuss this among themselves and then 'talk to' both Ambrose and Concordia....and these parts are pretty funny.

Ambrose and Concordia have a great deal in common since they both have unusual backgrounds. Ambrose was a 'gentleman thief' and Concordia was born to unmarried parents who promoted free love and good education for women (both unusual in Victorian times).

Step by step - using clever ruses and daring gambits - Concordia and Ambrose uncover the sordid scheme to 'auction off' the girls, which (knowingly or not) involves the benefactor of an orphan school; the director of the orphan school; a gentleman who moves in upper social circles; and a criminal mastermind. Other characters round out the story, including: Mr. Stoner - a kindly, cultured gentleman who teaches the teenage girls to 'gamble' (play cards.... ha ha ha); Felix - a policeman; and employees at a men's bath house. There's a good bit of drama and death in the book, and Concordia shows her mettle.

The story has lots of romantic entanglement between Ambrose and Concordia, and some steamy sex. I'm not a big fan of romantic suspense, but I knew what to expect when I started the book (for a reading challenge) - so I won't complain too much. However I don't believe that people get engaged a few days after they meet.

The mystery/suspense part of the story is compelling, there are some surprises, and (I don't think it's a spoiler to say) there's a HEA for fans of love stories.

I'd recommend the book to fans of the romantic suspense genre.

Review of "Movie Cat" by Garrison Allen




Hollywood hotshots descend on the town of Empty Creek, Arizona to film a Western and the townsfolk - many of whom are extras - are excited. But soon after filming begins the very unpopular director, C.D. Masterly, is murdered in a most bizarre fashion.

Penelope Warren, former marine and  current owner of a bookstore - and her cat Big Mike - help the sheriff's department investigate. This is the only book I've read in the series and I'll admit I expected Big Mike to be more involved in the investigation, sort of like the cat Mrs. Murphy in another mystery series. That said, Big Mike is entertaining as he inadvertently uses the computer and inserts himself into the movie.

After Masterly's death a new director is hired and while the movie is being filmed the investigators and Penelope question lots of people, formulate several theories, and run into a lot of dead ends. Meanwhile there must be something in the air in Empty Creek because there are scads of romantic relationships with plenty of fun (not graphic) hijinks. This makes up a good portion of the book.

Eventually the mystery is solved in a (to me) surprise twist. There were a lot of characters in the story -  including Masterly's many girlfriends, the movie cast, the film crew, writers, townsfolk, investigators, etc. - and I had some trouble remembering who was who. All in all I'd recommend the book as an entertaining light mystery.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review of "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki" by Haruki Murakami




Tsukuru Tazaki, 36 years old and living in Tokyo, is a moderately wealthy, well-educated engineer who designs and builds railroad stations - a job he's wanted since childhood. Nevertheless Tsukuru has few friends, is lonely, and can't see a happy future for himself. Part of the problem is a trauma Tsukuru experienced as a teen. In high school Tsukuru was part of an extremely close group of friends - two girls and three boys - that spent most of their free time together, always had things to talk about, and loved each other's company. Soon after Tsukuru started college however, the group shut him out - told him not to try to see or call them - with no explanation.

The resulting depression almost killed Tsukuru; he lost weight and his physical appearance changed dramatically. Tsukuru eventually recovered and went on with his life but he avoided visiting his home town, rarely saw his family, and was afraid to trust people for fear of being hurt again.

At the urging of Sara, a woman he's currently dating, Tsukuru decides to find and confront his friends - one at a time- to discover what happened all those years ago. The story moves back and forth between the past and the present and we learn about Tsukuru's relationship with his friends, college years, career development, and so on.

We discover that Tsukuru swam for recreation when he was in college and developed a friendship with a fellow swimmer, Haida. Haida helps Tsukuru develop an appreciation for classical music and becomes a frequent weekend guest at his apartment. This part of the story has aspects that seem like magical realism.

Haida tells a story about his father taking a year off school as a young man to work as a handyman in a rural spa. There he met a kind of 'hippy' Jazz pianist who saw colored auras around people that revealed things about them. Tsukuru also has vivid erotic dreams about the girls in his teen group and Haida - and has difficulty separating these dreams from reality.

In the course of the story Tsukuru tracks down most of his old friends and gets an explanation for their behavior, which helps him move on. The story is slow-moving and Tsukuru is too laid back a character for my taste. It's hard to believe Tsukuru didn't act sooner to discover why his friends abandoned him. Also - when he got the explanation - his reaction should have been more dramatic. However, this probably isn't the point of the book which is about Tsukuru's quest to understand his life and find happiness.

Murikami does a good job with ambience, and provides colorful descriptions of people and thier surroundings. I got a feel for parts of Japan and Finland that are described in the story, and the characters were interesting if not always believable.

Not a bad book but not really my cup of tea. Fans of Murikami would probably enjoy the book more than I did.

Review of "Take One With You" by Oak Anderson



Charlie and Sarah, two teens saddened by the loss of supportive parents and unhappy in their homes, anonymously develop a website called "Take One With You" (Towy). Towy encourages people who are going to kill themselves anyway to first kill a criminal or dreg of society who has evaded conviction (e.g. rapist, murderer, pedophile, etc.). Charlie and Sarah go so far as to publish the names of candidates to be taken out. The idea catches on and pretty soon a rash of people all over the world are 'taking one with them.' 

Unfortunately for Sarah and Charlie the Towy idea soon expands out of control and people start taking out more than 'deserving' criminals, but the teens are powerless to stop the monster they've created. Before long a police task force is assembled to track down the creators of the website, including Detective Thane Parks and Officer Anita Hellstrom. 

In the course of the story the teens develop romantic feelings for each other as do the two cops. I thought it was unrealistic that married Officer Hellstrom would quickly fall for loutish, chauvinistic, unlikable Detective Parks who seems to view all women as sex objects - so this romance fell flat for me.

Oak Anderson does a nice job interspersing his narrative with news reports, scripts from television interviews, government records, and so on - which adds interest to the story. The author provides thumbnail sketches of 'bad guys' who deserve to die and 'good guys' who take them out which helps us understand why a website like Towy would catch on.

Overall I enjoyed the book and would probably read more from this author.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Review of "The Woman in Cabin 10" by Ruth Ware




This is one of those books that's gotten lots of hype, so I decided to see what all the fuss is about. The book is okay but doesn't live up to expectations (for me).

The story: Laura (Lo) Blacklock, a travel journalist for 'Velocity' magazine, is thrilled when she gets to substitute for her pregnant boss on the 'Aurora', a 10-cabin luxury liner traveling from England to Scandinavia. The Aurora's passengers include a few wealthy tourists and investors, a professional photographer, and a cadre of reporters - meant to write (laudatory) stories about the ship and voyage.

Unfortunately - just days before the trip - Lo is deeply traumatized by a break-in and burglary at her apartment. Thus Lo arrives on the Aurora distracted, exhausted, and sleep-deprived. Still, Lo is determined to network at dinner - so she chooses one of her three rented evening gowns and starts to put on her make-up. Realizing she has no mascara Lo steps over to the next room - Cabin 10 - and borrows a tube of Maybelline from the pretty girl inside.

Fast forward to the middle of the night and Lo is woken from a deep sleep by a scream and a splash. Looking out Lo observes something pale - a body? - slipping into the ocean and sees a streak of blood on Cabin 10's veranda. Frightened and troubled, Lo reports the incident. Head of security Nilsson comes to investigate but Cabin 10 is completely empty (there aren't even sheets on the bed) and there's no blood stain. In addition, the room is not assigned to any passenger. The journalist INSISTS there was a woman in Cabin 10 so Nilsson arranges for Lo to meet all the female crew members - but none of them is the right girl....and no one is missing.

Lo is not about to sit back and do nothing so she proceeds to launch her own inquiry. Lo talks to passengers and staff and looks around the ship but gets no satisfaction. Then Ben Howard, a fellow writer and Lo's (long ago) ex-boyfriend, suggests she might have imagined the incident because she was drunk and taking prescription medicine. This infuriates Lo and makes her (and me) suspicious of Ben. Before long important items go missing and Lo gets an intimidating message, which makes her even more determined to carry on - and (of course) endangers her life.

I liked the descriptions of the opulent vessel; the gourmet meals (molecular gastronomy); the well-appointed cabins; the passenger activities (spas and lectures); the relaxing hot tub; etc. Sounds like a fun cruise if you don't get thrown overboard (ha ha ha). The depictions of the various crew members and passengers - mogul, drunk, lecher, cancer patient, tart, and so on - also add interest to the book.

The book is engaging but Lo spends a lot of time questioning people, which becomes repetitive and slows down the story. Also, the plot is clever but not original. Nevertheless, I didn't guess the perpetrator until Lo did, and the book held my interest throughout. The climax is exciting and action-packed and I liked the author's use of press releases and online comments to heighten the suspense.

All in all a pretty good mystery, recommended to fans of the genre.

If you want to read a REALLY scary story about a cruise ship try Day Four by Sarah Lotz.

Review of "Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson




As the story opens the moon explodes into a number of big chunks for reasons that are unclear, though most likely it was hit by some space object. The shock and awe among Earth's human population is soon exacerbated when scientists announce that the moon chunks will inevitably collide with each other, break up into smaller and smaller pieces, and - in two years time - begin to rain down on the Earth. This 'hard rain' will last five thousand years and destroy the entire surface of the planet.

In an effort to preserve the human race, world leaders and scientists plan to construct a space habitat for a couple of thousand people - with the International Space Station (ISS) as the hub. The book is almost 900 pages long and approximately the first three-quarters describes, in great detail, the construction of this habitat. This part of the book is very technical and (for me) hard to picture.

My overall impression is that people would live in roundish space pods, each about the size of a trailer home, that can attach to and detach from the ISS and each other. This would allow the pods to move about to avoid being hit by space debris. It would also enable them to connect to each other and rotate, to generate a gravitational field.

The space habitat would need to generate food, oxygen, and energy. It would also need to house a huge amount of tools, medicine, scientific equipment, technology, and so on. The habitat would also include a chromosome bank to preserve the genomes of plants, animals, and humans left behind on Earth. The long range plan is, when the Earth becomes habitable in five thousand years, it will be repopulated by the descendants of the space people as well as other living things generated from the genome bank.

Naturally there's some drama attached to the selection of the tiny percentage of people who will be sent aloft, since everyone else would die. The author doesn't really address what would happen among those destined to be left behind. He seems, in fact, to suggest they would (for the most part) benignly accept their fate. This seems completely unrealistic. Then again, covering this issue would probably be another book.

Meanwhile there's plenty going on in the space habitat. As always when there are more than five people involved in an undertaking, politics rears it ugly head. Thus things don't proceed according to plan and lots of unexpected things happen. I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say that - after many many pages - the hard rain starts and life in space commences.

Jump ahead five thousand years and the descendants of the original humans in the space habitat - now numbering several billion people divided into seven races - start to terraform and return to Earth. Inevitably, given human nature, the races are divided into the equivalent of two "countries" called Red and Blue. These are somewhat reminiscent of the old Soviet Union and the United States. There's tension between Red and Blue, and wars and peace treaties result - much as occurred on Earth before time zero (when the moon exploded).

In the last part of the book a group of seven people, including an individual from each race, are sent down to Earth on a scouting expedition. Their mission is to investigate some odd sightings and to see what's what down there. This leads to the climax of the book and perhaps presents some hope for the future of humankind.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this book. The premise is fascinating, and the author - who clearly did a phenomenal amount of research - seems to cover every aspect of what's required to make a successful space habitat. The details of constructing the habitat, however, are overly long, detailed, and tedious. For me, the human interactions in the habitat are more interesting. I also feel that the story becomes more compelling toward the end, when the new human races are preparing to go back to Earth. There are a few surprises in the story, which some readers might anticipate.

I think a mini-series based on this book might be quite successful. It would provide visual images of technical details that are hard to follow when described in scientific jargon. It would also provide a picture of the new races - which seem to be signifcantly different from modern humans. Just a thought.

I'm not sure the average reader would enjoy this book but I'd certainly recommend it to fans of 'hard' science fiction. In any case, this book could definitely generate lots of intelligent, engaging conversations at book clubs, dinner tables, and parties.

Review of "Dead Water" by Ann Cleeves




Journalist Jerry Markham, a former resident of Shetland Island in Scotland, goes back for a visit and ends up dead. His body is found by Procurator Fiscal (prosecutor) Rhona Laing, in a boat she regularly uses.

Detetive Inspector Willow Reeves is brought in to investigate the crime. She works with two local detectives: Sandy Wilson - an insecure lad who lacks confidence in his abilities, and Jimmy Perez - who is still in deep mourning after the death of his girlfriend, Fran. Willow immediately pegs Rhona Laing as "knowing something" but the local police - loyal to Shetland Islanders - resist the idea.

Investigations reveal that Jerry Markham may have been looking into an island group promotiing tidal energy. 'Green initiatives' are a controversial issue on the island, with some people promoting the idea and others agitating against it. The police come to suspect shenanigans in this proposed business venture. The detectives also discover that Markham is generally considered a spoiled, self-centered fellow who - several years before - had run out on his pregnant girlfriend, breaking her heart and angering her family. Moreover, another body soon turns up, complicating the investigation and widening the list of suspects.

The story's setting is well described, and the reader gets (what seems to be) an authentic glimpse of the terrain and culture of the Scottish islands. The characters - including the detectives and a wide array of suspects - are well-rounded and interesting. In addition to his professional duties we get to know a bit about Jimmy Perez's private life, in which he's raising Fran's young daughter - a sweet, precocious child.

The police investigation proceeds in a logical fashion leading to a finale that's believable but too long and drawn out. All in all an enjoyable mystery.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Review of "The Innocent" by Harlan Coben


 

Matt Hunter is doing fine until he accidentally kills a fellow college student during a drunken brawl and goes to prison for 4 years. Now, 9 years after his release Matt is happily married to Olivia, expecting a baby, working as a paralegal, and looking to buy a house in his New Jersey home town. He's also a big support to his sister-in-law Marsha and his nephews since his brother recently died.

And then Matt's life starts to unravel. A mysterious nun - with ties to Las Vegas - is murdered, and it's found she recently made a phone call to Marsha's house. While Olivia is at a conference in Boston Matt receives photos from her phone showing her dressed as a hooker in the company of a black-haired man, but Olivia denies everything. Matt tracks down the black-haired man - also from Las Vegas - who soon turns up dead. As the dead bodies pile up local investigators as well as FBI agents from Las Vegas look to Matt, the ex-con, as a likely suspect.

Determined not to go back to prison Matt embarks on his own investigation, but everyone in this story has secrets to keep and Matt and his family are soon in danger. There are a lot of characters in the book - parents, thugs, strippers, law enforcement agents, private detectives, family, friends, etc. - which can be confusing, but most are decently enough developed. And the story is a page-turner as we go from the quiet streets of the suburbs to the roiling sex clubs of Las Vegas. Some of the twists in the story are telegraphed but I didn't anticipate all the surprises toward the end. All in all a good read.