Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See



The story revolves around Lily and Snow Flower, two girls in rural China who - as seven-year-olds - become laogong, official lifelong best friends. The girls have their feet bound on the same day (a horrifying practice in which a girl's feet are bound until the bones break and they can be contorted into a small shape), visit on occasion, and frequently write each other on a fan in a language called Nu Shu or women's writing - supposedly unreadable by men.

As the girls grow up they marry, move to their husbands familial homes, have children, and face the many challenges of being a woman in 19th century China. Traditionally, women in China had no rights. Once their feet were bound girls were mostly confined to a 'woman's room' where they sewed and embroidered and so on, and - once married - were expected to obey their husbands and mothers-in-law and to produce sons. In Chinese culture it seems wives jobs were to have sons, and this is almost all they were good for. The husbands, on the other hand, could apparently do whatever they liked - take concubines, beat their wives, discard their wives, etc.

From the first time they meet as children Lily and Snow Flower have a strong emotional bond. They share hopes and dreams and plan to be friends forever. Secrets in Snow Flower's life challenge the friendship but the girls' manage to get past this and maintain their bond. Eventually Lily makes a fortunate marriage into an influential family with a decent husband while Snow Flower marries into a low family that treats her badly. Lily produces two strong sons while Snow Flower endures difficult pregnancies, miscarriages, and stillbirths - and when she finally has a son - he is a weakling who seens destined to die young. In time both women go on to produce more children, and when they have daughters, plan that the girls will also be laogong.

Through it all - as Snow Flower's difficulties come to weigh heavily on her - Lily is constantly counseling her best friend to behave correctly, be a good wife, obey her husband, placate her mother-in-law, and continue to get pregnant. Events conspire to produce a crisis betweent the friends where their true feelings are dramatically exposed.

It was interesting to read about the Chinese traditions, lifestyles, and people of the time but the book is slow and meandering and the characters, though well-drawn, were not likable and hard to care about. In addtion - for me - the description of how women were treated is hard to stomach. I was also reminded that the devaluation of women continues in China today - where female infants are often killed or discarded. This ensures that many men can't find women to marry. One might speculate that - with the one child policy - the Chinese government should have seen this coming.

For those interested in learning about 19th century China I'd recommend reading a non-fiction book and skipping this one.


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review of "The Last Alibi" by David Ellis




While recuperating from a knee injury, criminal defense lawyer Jason Kolarich - a partner in the Midwestern lawfirm 'Tasker and Kolarich' - becomes addicted to the painkiller oxycodone. To hide his drug habit, Jason conceals the tablets in an Altoids box and munches them throughout the day. Jason's opiod dependency may explain the lack of judgment and misguided behavior that results in his being tried for first degree murder.

Early in the story, Jason has a meeting with a potential client named James Drinker - a big stocky man with curly red hair, large black glasses, and a substantial beer gut. Drinker announces that two women of his acquaintance have recently been murdered, and - though he claims 'I didn't do it' - Drinker fears he'll be framed for the killings.

Drinker asks Jason EXACTLY how a person might go about framing someone, and the lawyer provides a step by step primer. (So that's not too bright.) Before long more women are killed, and each time Drinker claims 'I didn't do it.' As the bodies pile up, however, Jason comes to believe Drinker DID do it. All this leads to big problems for the attorney.

Meanwhile, Jason meets a beautiful court reporter named Alexa Himmel. Jason and Alexa go on a few dates, have a lot of hot sex, and become a couple. Alexa is very sympathetic about Jason's 'hurting knee' (which is completely healed) and encourages him to take all the painkillers he needs. In fact, Alexa even obtains (illegal) pills for her boyfriend. Soon afterwards, Alexa manipulates the situation so that she's practically living with Jason.

Jason's law partner, Shauna Tasker - who's concerned about Jason's sickly appearance, weight loss, and odd behavior - hints that Alexa is bad news.....but the drug addict doesn't want to hear it.

In a coup de grâce Jason returns home one night to find a dead woman in his living room, shot with HIS gun. The attorney is arrested, charged with murder, and put on trial. It looks like someone very cleverly framed Jason!

Jason insists on being defended by Shauna, even though she's a civil litigator, not a criminal lawyer. Shauna nervously takes on the task, knowing she'll have guidance from her partner.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of Jason and Shauna, and switches back and forth between the trial and the events leading up to it. There are numerous court scenes, with lots of maneuvering by the prosecution and defense - so plenty of fun for fans of legal thrillers.

The book is well-written, with a variety of interesting secondary characters, including: the district attorney, the judge, and the private investigator - Joel Lightner - who maked inquiriies for Jason. Lightner's discoveries are very important to the story.

The author does a good job with twists and surprises, which are cleverly woven into the novel. We also see Jason deal with his opiate addiction and withdrawal, a topic that's very relevant these days.

All in all an enjoyable mystery/thriller, recommended to fans of the genre.

Though this is book 4 in the series it can be read as a standalone.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, November 20, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review of "Breakdown" by Jonathan Kellerman




In this long-running series, Dr. Alex Delaware is a child psychologist who spends a lot ot time assisting his friend - LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis - solve crimes.

As this 31st book in the series opens, Alex gets a call from his colleague, Dr. Lou Sherman. Sherman is treating a beautiful actress named Zelda Chase, whose bizarre actions have (temporarily) landed her in a mental health facility.

Alex is asked to evaluate Zelda's 5-year-old son, Ovid, to see whether mother and son should be reunited. Ovid turns out to be a smart, sensible little boy who likes to build things with his toys. After Alex assesses Ovid - and meets Zelda - he determines that Ovid can live with his mom.

Skip ahead five years and Zelda - who's become an unemployed, homeless, broken shell of her former self - is found dead on the estate of a wealthy heiress. Zelda has a history of wandering around Los Angeles and digging up the yards of random mansions - actions thought to be related to her mental illness. At first it looks like Zelda died from natural causes. However an autopsy and blood tests prove that Zelda was murdered - and Milo gets the case. Alex assists because he's concerned about Ovid, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Before long two other incidents occur in the neighborhood where Zelda died: a cleaning lady is murdered and a housemaid disappears. Milo and Alex suspect that all these occurrences are related and question residents of the area as well as friends and relatives of the victims. The investigators learn that Zelda frequently muttered the word 'mother'.....which turns out to be an important clue.

To obtain information that will help their investigations Alex and Milo proceed to do a spate of data mining: they read police reports; look at birth certificates and obituaries; study real estate purchases; look up wills and trusts; use Google and Google Earth; find people on Facebook.....and generally access a slew of public records. This section of the book is long, boring, adds little to the story, and feels like a lot of padding.

Alex and Milo use the data they collect - plus a helicopter - to identify suspects, get search warrants, and make arrests. I don't want to say more than that because of spoilers.

Some regular characters in the series make a brief appearance, including Alex's girlfriend Robin and the couple's French bulldog Blanche. As always in these stories, Milo is careless about his appearance and eats too much. In one scene, Milo raids Alex's fridge and makes himself an omelette with five eggs, a leftover steak, cooked chicken, and a load of veggies. (LOL)

This isn't one of Jonathan Kellerman's best books. The plot feels like a hodgepodge of random elements forced together and there are too many unmemorable minor characters - whose main function seems to be meeting Alex in coffee shops or restaurants. I did get a kick out of one secondary character - a slick lawyer who tries to convince Milo and Alex that up is down (figuratively). It was fun to see him try to weasel his way around the investigators.

Another quibble: Though Alex is supposedly very worried about Ovid, the psychologist seems to quit looking for the boy halfway through the book....and Ovid isn't mentioned again until the very end. This feels like careless plotting.

Unless you're determined to read Jonathan Kellerman's entire ouvre, you can probably skip this book without missing much.


Rating: 2.5 stars

Friday, November 17, 2017

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



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

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

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

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


Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review of "The Mistake" by K.L. Slater



 
Rose Tinsley, who's lived in Newstead all her life, is the librarian at the Newstead Library - one of the smallest in Nottinghamshire County. When budget woes dictate that the library might close, Rose becomes very concerned about her job. Employment opportunities have been scarce in Newstead since the coal pits closed decades ago, and Rose - who has HUGE anxiety issues - CAN'T move away from the security of her home and her 'safety routines.'

Rose's troubles stem from things that happened sixteen years ago, when she was a naive 18-year-old college student. At that time Rose met a man - thirtyish Gareth Farnham - who was in Newstead to manage a construction project. Rose was flattered by the attentions of the handsome 'older man', and would sneak around to meet him behind her parents' backs.

Step by step Gareth manipulated Rose into isolating herself from her family and friends. He also convinced her to accede to his increasingly intrusive demands. Gareth wanted to control every aspect of Rose's life - from the movies she saw, to the flavor of ice cream she ate, to her college plans. When Rose resisted Gareth's 'requests', he became furious and made ominous threats. In time, Rose tried to break away from Gareth.....but it was harder than she'd hoped.

At about this time, another tragedy occurred in Rose's life. One sunny afternoon Rose took her 8-year-old brother Billy to Newstead Abbey - to fly his kite - and the little boy disappeared. His body was found two days later.

Rose and her parents were devastated by the loss and never fully recovered. Though a culprit was tried and convicted for Billy's murder, Rose became neurotically fearful. She developed compulsive behaviors like bulimia and hyper-awareness of her surroundings. From that time on Rose has been constantly looking over her shoulder for stranger-danger; has hardly ever left town; has been afraid to go out after dark; has been unable to leave her windows open; has been compulsively locking her doors; and so on. To add to her woes, Rose lost both her parents a few years after Billy died.

Now, sixteen years after Billy's death, Rose is living a quiet, mundane, not-so-happy life. She has little fun and no friends - except for her elderly, next-door-neighbor Ronnie. Ronnie has always been extremely solicitous of Rose's family, and Rose reciprocates by looking in on her housebound neighbor and doing his grocery shopping.

One day Ronnie is hospitalized with the flu and Rose decides to tidy his house - to thank him for being such a fine person. While Rose is in Ronnie's attic, she finds something that casts doubt on the identity of Billy's killer. In fact, it's possible the wrong person has been imprisoned for the crime. No matter the consequences, Rose feels she MUST discover the truth.

The book alternates back and forth between 16-years-ago and the present. In the past, Ruth interacts with her parents; plays with Billy; goes to school; hangs out with her best friend Cassie; volunteers at the library; dates Gareth; and so on.

In the present, Rose goes to work; chats with the library patrons; shops at the local co-op; binges and purges; locks herself in the house; etc. Most importantly, Ruth follows up on the discovery she made in Ronnie's attic, despite getting an ominous note that says 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.'

The book is an engaging psychological thriller, but I'm not as big a fan as many other readers.

First, most of the story is told from Rose's point of view, in a 'step-by-step' format. I have a problem with this kind of narrative, which tends to be circumscribed and slow-moving.

Second, I have an issue with Rose as a character. Though I understand a teenage girl being infatuated with a dashing older man, Rose seems overly foolish. She constantly makes excuses for Gareth's terrible behavior; believes whatever he says; and gives in to him against her better judgement. Even as an adult, Rose has trouble dealing with the manipulative creep. I just don't like to see a character being such a doormat (and a little whiny to boot).

I do like the book's ending, and for that I give Rose three cheers.....rah rah rah Rose!!

Though I have some criticisms, I'd recommend the book to fans of psychological thrillers.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (K.L. Slater), and the publisher (Bookouture) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review of "The October List" by Jeffery Deaver




Jeffery Deaver tried a different approach with this mystery, which begins with the last chapter and works backwards to the first chapter. Thus things happen that seem inexplicable in the moment.....but lead to "AHA" moments as you keep reading. It's good fun once you get used to it.

I don't want my review to be a spoiler, so I'll just give a brief description of the plot.

*****

Gabriela McKenzie is the office manager for investment counselor Charles Prescott, whose company - Prescott Investments - has an office in Manhattan. When Prescott comes into possession of a secret document called the 'October List' - reputed to be worth a lot of money - he steals all his clients' assets and skips town with the list. Gabriela is questioned by the police, but isn't able to tell them anything about her boss's whereabouts.

One of Prescott's clients, Joseph Astor, lost $400,000 when the investment counselor absconded with the company's loot. Joseph wants his money back AND he wants a copy of the October List. So Joseph - a very creepy guy - kidnaps Gabriela's six-year-old daughter Sophie and calls the officer manager with a ransom demand. He wants $500,000 and the list, or little Sophie will suffer the consequences.

Gabriela finds a copy of the October List in Prescott's office, but can't locate his assets - so she doesn't have the money.

Gabreila is beside herself with anxiety, but her acquaintance - venture capitalist Daniel Reardon - has a company that's dealt with kidnappers before.....since executives in foreign countries frequently get snatched for ransom. Daniel offers to lend Gabriela the money AND to provide two associates who'll drop off the ransom and (hopefully) retrieve young Sophie.

As the book opens, Gabriela is waiting to hear news about the ransom exchange.

The story works backward from there, and - as we move along to the beginning of the tale - there's plenty of action. This includes: a break-in; a shooting; a fatal traffic accident; a severed finger; a romantic tryst; meetings with a Russian crime boss; police surveillance; a double murder; and more.

The are plenty of surprises in the story, and it's all very entertaining.

Deaver did a great job with the 'backwards story' format; I think he must have constructed a detailed flowchart/spreadsheet to keep all the story elements straight....so credit to the author.

I'd recommend the book to mystery fans in the mood for something a little different.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, November 13, 2017

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.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review of "The Wife Between Us" by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen




To avoid spoilers, which is especially important for this book, I'm going to provide a bare bones review - just to give you an idea what the story is about.

*****

Years ago - when Vanessa was attending college in her home state of Florida - she was outgoing, happy, and the social director of her Chi Omega sorority. After graduation Vanessa was living in New York City and riddled with anxiety - nervous about flying, going out alone at night, scary movies, and other things.

Vanessa was teaching pre-school during the day, working as a bartender at night, and coping with her insecurities as best she could when she met Richard - a handsome, wealthy, 36-year-old hedge fund manager. Richard was attentive, sophisticated, fun, and - most of all- reassuring about Vanessa's fears. In fact Richard affectionately nicknamed Vanessa 'Nellie' (for being a nervous Nellie).

Vanessa and Richard fell in love, got married, moved to the suburbs, and planned to start a family. Some years later the couple divorced.

Vanessa is now living with her Aunt Charlotte in New York City and working as a fashion consultant at pricey Saks Department Store. Vanessa has lost a lot of weight, can't sleep, and is drinking WAY too much. For his part, Richard is involved with his beautiful office assistant Emma.

When Vanessa hears that Richard and Emma are engaged, she loses it. Vanessa pretends to be ill, neglects her job, and starts acting out....determined to prevent Richard and Emma's nuptials.

The story alternates back and forth between the past and the present. In the chapters set in the past we learn about Vanessa's mother; her college experiences; her move to NYC; and her best friend/roommate Samantha - with whom Vanessa does facials, eats Chinese take-out, and watches movies. We also follow Vanessa's engagement to Richard and their marriage.

In the present, we tag along as Vanessa tries to derail her ex-husband's wedding, much to his chagrin. At one point Richard threatens to get a restraining order if Vanessa doesn't stay away from Emma and himself.

The story is interesting, the characters are well-developed, and there are some big shockers (which seems to be de rigueur for current books). I empathized with Vanessa and admired her solicitude for her aging Aunt Charlotte. I also liked Samantha, a good and caring friend who planned a wonderful bachelorette party. I had an inkling about one of the surprises, but certainly didn't guess them all. So well done, Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.

On the downside, the story is slow in places, has a plotline that's somewhat derivative, and should wrap up more quickly after the climax (IMO). The final sections are too drawn out, with too much blather and too little action.

All in all, 'The Wife Between Us' is a well-wrought suspense novel that I would recommend to mystery fans.

Thanks to Netgalley, the authors (Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen), and the publisher (St. Martin's Press) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Review of "The Dark Vineyard" by Martin Walker



Police Chief Bruno Correges of Saint-Denis, France is on the spot when a fire destroys a field of genetically modified crops (GMOs) and a nearby barn - which unexpectedly contains a batch of office equipment. Bruno becomes suspicious of the local ecolos (green party members), who vehemently oppose GMOs. He questions Alphonse, the elderly, hippie leader of the "greens' and his foster son Max, a handsome young man who works for a local wine maker and hopes to become a vintner himself. Alphonse and Max claim to know nothing about the fire. Bruno isn't convinced but he has no proof and is reluctant to accuse the locals because of his love for Saint-Denis and its people.

To heighten the mystery, the burned GMO field is owned by a shadowy corporation called Agricolae that did not have the proper permits to grow the crops. The national police arrive to look into the arson, including Bruno's old flame Isabelle, a detective who recently moved to Paris. There's angst between Bruno and Isabelle because she wants big city opportunities while Bruno is determined to remain in Saint-Denis.

Meanwhile a partnership of foreign wine makers - led by Monsieur Dupuy and Fernando Bondino - arrive in Saint-Denis with an offer to take over the local vineyards. This foreign syndicate plans to use cutting edge techniques to make wine, attract tourists, run hotels, and so on. To add to the goings on, a beautiful Canadian girl named Jacqueline - also a wine expert - takes a job with a local wine maker and has liasions with Max and Fernando.

Before long there are physcial fights over Jacqueline and two peculiar deaths, all of which engages Bruno's attention. Bruno is also concerned that the foreign wine syndicate will harm Saint-Denis, unlike the mayor - who thinks they're a great idea. In between investigating the arson, looking into the peculiar deaths, and trying to derail the wine syndicate Bruno engages in romance, has a fabulous barbecue, and hobnobs with an interesting array of friends/acquaintances - including an old friend who's dying of cancer.

Much of the charm of this series is the ambiance of the French countryside, which is on vivid dsplay once more in this story. All in all this is an enjoyable mystery with engaging characters, an interesting (if not totally realistic) plot, and a satisfying climax that ties everything together. An entertaining light read.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review of "My Absolute Darling" by Gabriel Tallent



Many reviewers praise this debut novel by Gabriel Tallent, citing the lyrical prose and powerful coming-of-age story. Other reviewers skewer the book for its graphic scenes of rape, violence, and psychological torture. I'm in the latter camp.

The book relates an intense tale of an adolescent girl finding her voice - and guts - in very difficult circumstances. This is an admirable theme. To me though, the book is disturbing and - in some places - quite horrific.

*****

Julia Alveston, called Turtle, is a 14-year-old girl who - after her mother died years ago - has been raised by her father Martin. They live on a woodsy property in Mendocino, California, in a house that's falling apart. Martin's pet name for Turtle is Kibble, but he's just as likely to refer to her as bitch or cunt - names she's adopted to think about herself and most other females.

Martin, who apparently works as a free-lance carpenter, is highly intelligent and well-read. He often sermonizes about global warming, war in the Middle East, and other issues that demonstrate how flawed the human race is. Martin seems to believe the world is on the brink of collapse, and he's amassed a large supply of non-perishable foods, veterinary medical supplies (which he uses for people), and guns.....lots and lots of guns.

Martin taught Turtle to shoot when she was six-years-old, and the girl is now a dead shot, constantly practicing with and cleaning her weapons. Unfortunately Turtle isn't as capable in her middle-school classes, and - goaded by Martin - thinks of herself as stupid and incapable of learning.

In fact, Turtle is profoundly psychologically damaged. Martin has isolated Turtle for years - discouraging relationships with other people - and has brainwashed her into thinking he's the 'best daddy in the world' who 'loves her more than anyone's ever been loved.' In fact, Martin has been battering and sexually abusing Turtle since she was small, but she accepts this as evidence of how much she's cherished. There are explicit rape scenes in the book, as well as chapters in which Martin hits Kibble, beats her with an iron rod, throws her around, and mentally torments her.

Martin is extremely jealous of Turtle, and doesn't want her to have any friends. Martin even resents Kibble's affection for her grandfather (Martin's dad) who lives in a trailer on the property. When Grandpa gives Turtle his cherished army knife - which she plans to keep in pristine condition - Martin promptly takes the knife and spoils the smooth blade. Daddy then holds the knife beneath Kibble's crotch while he forces her to do a series of agonizing pull-ups. Afterwards, Martin (literally) can't stop laughing at the 'expression on Kibble's face.' Clearly, Martin - who calls Kibble 'my absolute darling' and constantly tells her 'you are mine' - is a manipulative psychopath.

For her part, Turtle can't imagine life without her beloved Daddy. Thus, when anyone - a teacher, school parent, or Grandpa - tries to reach out and ask about Martin, Turtle - fiercely protective - lies. Moreover, Turtle knows that, if confronted, Martin would shoot to kill - and she doesn't want to lose him to prison.

Turtle does appear to make tiny bids for independence. One day she takes off on a long barefoot hike in the woods (Turtle's calloused feet are as tough as shoe leather) and comes across two high school boys - Brett and Jacob - who've become lost during an orienteering project. Turtle assists the boys and camps out with them, and the lads - VERY IMPRESSED with her outdoorsy skills - call her a ninja.

Brett and Jacob are smart, well-educated boys from hippy-dippy households, and much of their conversation sounds like Greek philosophers chatting.....which struck me as very unrealistic. In any case, the three kids become friends, and there's a clear attraction between Turtle and Jacob. When Martin finds out about this, all hell breaks loose.

At one point Martin goes off on a trip and returns with a nine-year-old girl named Cayenne - whose presence he doesn't really explain. This leads to a nightmare scene in which - following a shooting accident - Martin and Turtle amputate the child's fingertip. When Turtle tries to address Martin about Cayenne's pain, he's dismissive and goes off on a rant about pain making us aware of other people (I couldn't make heads or tails of this diatribe.) To me Martin is a monster.

I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say that Turtle eventually realizes she has to make a change.....and guns are fired.

I'm not clear what Tallent's intentions were in writing this book. Perhaps he wanted to showcase a courageous young lady who - despite overwhelmingly difficult circumstances - tries to break away and do right. This would be a laudable lesson, but comes at a high cost (to the reader).

Though I didn't enjoy the book I do acknowledge that it's well-written. The author's prose brings the characters and their surroundings vividly to life, and I could picture all the scenes in my mind. Martin is described as a large muscular man and - for some reason - his 'huge stubby toes' are etched in my mind.....a picture I don't like. (LOL)

I'm giving the book three stars because - though I hate the story - I admire the writing. I personally wouldn't recommend the book to anyone. However, since the novel has received so much praise, maybe you have to take gander at it and make up your own mind.


Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review of "No Safe House" by Linwood Barclay




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

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

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

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

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

Though the book is a sequel it can easily be read as a standalone.


 Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review of "Elementary, She Read" by Vicki Delany



Gemma Doyle moved from England to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to manage 'The Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium.' Gemma co-owns the establishment with her 90-year-old great uncle Arthur Clive Doyle, who claims distant kinship with Arthur Conan Doyle - the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Spry Uncle Arthur is often off on excursions (or with lady friends), leaving Gemma in charge of the business.

Gemma also co-owns the adjoining shop, 'Mrs. Hudson's Tea Room', which is run by her best friend Jayne Wilson. The Emporium and the Tea Room do good business, especially during the tourist season, when customers flock in to enjoy shopping and refreshments. (I wouldn't mind having some of the the café's scones with butter, clotted cream, and strawberry jam myself. LOL)

Like Sherlock Holmes, Gemma is very observant and has exceptional deductive abilities - which she demonstrates at every opportunity. For instance, when Gemma's beau (at the time) showed up at a restaurant with his best suit, a new tie, a fresh shave, polished shoes, and a sweaty brow - and reached toward his bulging pocket - Gemma pre-emptively announced "Yes, I'll marry you"..... ruining the entire occasion. Thus, Gemma is still single (ha ha ha).

One day, a tourist group consisting of 28 bridge-playing ladies visits the Emporium, and - while they're shopping- Gemma notices a small middle-aged woman come in and mingle with the crowd. After everyone leaves, Gemma finds a rare 1887 copy of Beeton’s Christmas Annual - the magazine that published the first Sherlock Holmes story - hidden on a bookshelf. If authentic, the Beeton's would be worth around HALF-A-MILLION DOLLARS!

Thinking back on the afternoon, Gemma is convinced the small woman hid the magazine, and meant to retrieve it at a later time. Gemma carefully places the valuable publication in a plastic bag and - to keep it secure - locks it in Uncle Arthur's household safe. Then, having traced the small woman to a local hotel, Gemma and Jane Wilson (à la Holmes and Watson) drive over to speak to her. For various reasons the two friends sneak up to the woman's room - and find her murdered in her bed!

Jane goes off to tell the hotel manager and call the police, and Gemma - who fancies herself an amateur sleuth - scurries back to photograph the victim and her belongings. Subsequent investigations reveal that the Beeton's magazine was owned by an elderly gentleman who collected Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. The old fellow recently died, and his nurse (the murder victim) claimed the magazine was left to her. The man's family, however, say it's theirs. Thus, there's a whole parade of people after the precious publication.

As things play out Gemma becomes a suspect in the small woman's murder. After all, Gemma discovered the body and 'hid' the magazine in her house. Before long, Gemma and Jane find ANOTHER dead body, and Gemma knows she'd better clear her name.....or she'll end up in prison.

Unlike many cozy mysteries - where the amateur detective inserts herself directly into the police investigaion - Gemma is ordered to STAY OUT OF IT. Thus, she works on the periphery, eking out information using her smarts and intuition.

To solve the case Gemma utilizes her tradtional Holmes-like skills: her excellent memory, powers of observation. and deductive abilities. She also uses a smartphone, IPAD, and computer (like the Jonny Lee Miller/Benedict Cumberbatch versions of Sherlock).

The story has a variety of interesting characters, including: Moriarty - the wily Emporium cat who loves everyone except Gemma (he smirks when Gemma's almost arrested); Ryan - the detective who has a history with our heroine; Louise -the tough cop who wants to arrest Gemma; Grant - the handsome book collector; Robbie - Jayne's shiftless boyfriend; Andy - the successful restaurateur; Irene - the local journalist looking for a story; and more.

I'm a fan of Sherlock Holmes and I liked the references and homages to the great fictional detective. The author also does a great job describing Cape Cod, with its ocean setting; historic homes, tourist shops, and fine restaurants.

I enjoyed the book but some parts of the storyline seem a little unlikely, and a couple of characters behave in a less-than-realistic fashion (IMO). This lowered my rating.

Still, all in all this is a good cozy mystery, recommended to fans of the genre.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, November 6, 2017

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.


Rating: 2.5 stars

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review of "A Legacy of Spies" by John Le Carré




In "A Legacy of Spies" John Le Carré takes us from the present day back to the time and setting of his most famous book "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."

*****

As the story opens Peter Guillam, a former protegé/right-hand-man of spy-master George Smiley, is a senior citizen living on his ancestral farm in Brittany. The elderly Guillam is summoned back to London by the British Intelligence Service ('the Circus') to answer questions about a cold war operation that went badly wrong. During the mission - decades ago - British agent Alec Leamas and his girlfriend Elizabeth Gold were shot dead at the Berlin Wall.

Now, Leamas' son (Christoph) and Gold's daughter (Karen) have joined forces to sue the British spy agency for milllions of pounds.....for the wrongful deaths of their parents.

Two current honchos at the Circus - a man called Bunny and a woman named Laura - are investigating the case, hoping to stave off the lawsuit. They can't find George Smiley - who's apparently gone deep underground - so they want Guillam to tell them the whole story about the operation that got Alec and Elizabeth killed.

The 'whole story' is quite complicated, but I'll provide the basic outline (avoiding spoilers). During the cold war an attractive East German woman named Doris Gamp - a low level employee of the Stasi - became disenchanted with her life. Doris's Stasi husband was a closet homosexual who beat and abused her, and Doris's Stasi boss was a pig who expected sexual favors. The one light in Doris's life was her five-year-old son Gustav.

Wanting to help 'reform' communist East Germany - so creepy men wouldn't have all the power - Doris began photographing secret Stasi documents and passing them to the British. The Circus dubbed the espionage operation 'Wallflower' and Doris was given the codename 'Tulip.' Peter Guillam became Tulip's contact, and being a notorious ladies' man, fell in love with her. Such relationships were STRICTLY FORBIDDEN by the Circus, so Peter kept his trap shut about it.

Over the course of time Tulip passed priceless information to the west. Eventually, Tulip's husband became suspicious of her activities, and exposure seemed imminent. So British agent Alec Leamas, a seasoned operator, took it upon himself to exfiltrate Tulip to Britain. Unfortunately, little Gustav couldn't go but Leamas promised that mother and son would be reunited at a later time. Alec and Tulip's exfiltration trip was quite harrowing, and provides the major excitement in the story.

In any case, a tragedy ensued and - due to various circumstances I can't divulge - a high-placed Stasi spy called Hans Dieter Mundt was forced to become a double agent for the British. Later, when the Stasi began to suspect Mundt of double-dealing, Alec Leamas undertook a super-secret mission to save the communist's skin and keep him in power. The task required a female sidekick, so Elizabeth Gold - a naive English girl who happened to be a communist - was roped into the operation by Peter Guillam. Alec and Elizabeth became involved romantically and - when things went belly up - ended up dead.

Christoph Leamas blames the British Intelligence Service - and especially Peter Guillam - for his father's death. Christoph, a big man who's no stranger to criminal activity, means to get restitution one way or another. Thus Christoph stalks elderly Peter, tries to extort him, and threatens his life.

From the point of view of the Circus, proof of this entire cold war operation - which greatly benefitted Britain - would make Cristoph and Karen's lawsuit moot. However, only George Smiley knows the location of all the pertinent documents, and he can't be found.

And that's the gist of the novel. There's also a sub-theme about a possible mole in the Circus during the cold war, who was outing agents to the enemy. Unfortunately this thread didn't really go anywhere (much to my disappointment.)

I enjoyed the book, especially the insights into the spy game and how agents operate. (In grade school I wanted to be a spy, and wrote the CIA. At that time women were considered more secretarial than spy material, so I was disappointed with the CIA's response.....and my dreams didn't pan out. Their loss!! Ha ha ha.)

I'd highly recommend this book to all readers who like espionage novels, especially fans of John Le Carré.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Review of "The Long Drop" by Denise Mina




"The Long Drop" is a fictionalized story about a real multiple murderer named Peter Manuel - who's known as 'Scotland's First Serial Killer.' Manuel was convicted of killing seven people across southern Scotland in the 1950s, and was hanged at Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison in 1958. The trial scenes in the novel are based on transcripts of Manuel's actual court proceedings.

*****

As the book opens in December 1957, a man named William Watt is accused of killing his wife, sister-in-law, and 17-year-old daughter in Lanarkshire, Scotland - but the evidence is too thin to keep him locked up. Nevertheless, Watt - who owns a string of bakeries - is desperate to clear his name. Thus Watt takes the bait when Peter Manuel contacts Watt's lawyer, Laurance Dowdall, and says he 'wants to help.' Manuel says he knows who murderered Watt's family, has the gun that was used, and is willing to produce the evidence.

Attorney Dowdall is very skeptical since Manuel is a known criminal, having been convicted of a string of burglaries, thefts, and sexual assaults. In fact it's very likely that Manuel killed the three women himself and then hid the gun.

Reluctantly, Dowdall sets up a meeting in a restaurant between Watt, Manuel, and himself. Dowdall warns Watt NOT TO PAY Manuel, as this would undermine any evidence he has. Moreover, Dowdall plans to hang around to make sure no cash changes hands. However, Watt and Manuel soon get rid of Dowdall, and set off on a night of drinking and carousing, during which each man tries to get something from the other.

The book alternates between the night of December 2, 1957 - when Watt and Manuel go on their pub crawl; and May, 1958 - when Manuel is on trial for killing eight people.

During the night of December 1957 Watt tries to wheedle out the location of the gun (for the police), but Manuel makes it clear he won't talk without compensation. So Watt agrees to pay Manuel, but doesn't want the criminal to see where he hides his loot - which complicates the situation.

And Manuel has a big dilemma as well. Crime boss Dandy McKay - who's as tough as they come - wants to see Manuel ASAP.....to tell him exactly what he's going to say and do. Manuel and Watt try to avoid McKay, but the criminal leader sends out his goons to round up the duo.

As things turn out, Manuel is soon arrested - and put on trial - for committing a series of murders. He's accused of killing Watt's wife Marion (45), daughter Vivienne (17), and sister-in-law Margaret Brown (41). Manuel is also charged with murdering a teenager named Isabelle Cooke (17) and a family called the Smarts - father Peter (45), mother Doris (42), and son Michael (10). Manuel apparently re-visited the Smart house several times (before the bodies were discovered) - to eat food, steal cash, take the car, and (oddly enough) feed the cat. In actual fact, Manuel probably killed at least fifteen people, but was tried for only eight murders.

Manuel seems a bit dim-witted during his drunken revelry with Watt. However, partway through his trial Manuel takes over his own defense, and demonstrates that he can be clever and strategic.

There are some surprises in the book, which are probably Denise Mina's 'author's licence.'

I thought the story was interesting, but the sections about the pub crawl were a bit slow and repetitive - and I got a little bored with all the drinking, drunken staggering, and drunk driving. The chapters about the trial, though, were riveting - and it was interesting to see psychopathic Manuel get too clever for his own good.

I'd recommend the book to fans of murder mysteries and true crime stories.


Rating: 3 stars

Friday, November 3, 2017

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




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

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

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

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

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

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


Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review of "Beartown" by Fredrik Backman




Beartown, a declining hamlet in the middle of a Swedish forest, has one big hope - ice hockey. Beartown's junior hockey team, the Bears, has made it to the national semi-finals, and - if they go on to win a championship - might attract a new sports arena to Beartown, along with tournaments, hotels, tourist traffic, and so on.

This boon to Beartown's economy would be welcome to business owners, residents, and hockey sponsors. Thus, the high school boys who play for the Bears are pressured by both personal ambition and the dreams of everyone around them.

The Bears' star player is the team captain, Kevin, a 17-year-old phenomenon who's been practicing day and night since he was a kid. Kevin's best friend is Benji, the team's 'enforcer' - who protects his squad from opposing players during games. Benji and the other Bears look up to Kevin and are intensely loyal to him.

Kevin's mother and father - a wealthy, successful couple - are proud of their son's achievements and have high hopes for his future. In some ways, however, Kevin's parents are oddly distant. They travel frequently, rarely attend hockey practices, and seem to brush off signs of boyish misbehavior.

Since hockey is Beartown's obsession, the adults who run the Hockey League are always in the public eye. These include the league's General Manager Peter - who made it to the Canadian pros before returning to Beartown; the junior team coach David - whose sole mantra is "Win"; the A-team (older boys) coach Sune - a hockey veteran who's about to be replaced; and the board of directors/sponsors - who pull the strings behind the scenes. Many of these men are anxious - and losing sleep - in anticipation of the important upcoming games.

The first part of the book introduces the major characters in the story. In addition to the people mentioned above, this includes: the other teenage boys on the junior team and their families; the pub owner - an upstanding woman who's still mourning the death of her long-dead husband; Peter's 15-year-old daughter Maya - an aspiring guitarist/singer; Maya's best friend Anna - who has a troubled home life; Peter's wife Kira - a high-powered business attorney; David's pregnant girlfriend - who keeps him centered; and more.

The initial chapters also establish the ambiance in Beartown - a village that eats, breathes, and sleeps hockey, hockey, hockey. Kids in Little League hockey hope to play for the Bears; Bears players dream of becoming pros; and everyone in town basks in the league's reflected glory. In addition, hopes for economic success related to hockey light up a lot of Beartown eyes.

The future of Beartown looks pretty bright until things go badly wrong.

As part of the revelry in Beartown - and with his parents away - Kevin throws a big bash at his house.....with plenty of booze. The teenage boys and girls at the party drink too much, and - at one point - Kevin takes Maya to his room and won't take no for an answer. When Maya reports the assault, Beartown becomes a divided town - with a pro-Kevin cabal and a (much smaller) pro-Maya faction.

In many ways this is par for the course. Most readers are probably aware of news stories about 'entitled males' (athletes, politicians, celebrities, business moguls, etc.) who take advantage of females.....with little or no fear of negative consequences. Kevin seems poised to join this maleficent group since most Beartown citizens are determined to deny (or excuse) his bad behavior. After all, Kevin is a hockey star!!. Thus, there's a lot of ugly talk and bad conduct directed toward Maya and her family.

The author handles these trends deftly, showing us the self-justifications and rationalizations of the people involved. Of course there's no real excuse for this kind of thing, and I was quite disturbed by the book's theme. (In fact, I wish Backman would have chosen some other topic to write about.) Still, several Beartown residens DO step up in an admirable fashion, much to their credit.

'Beartown' is well-written, the characters are engaging, and I like the mini-epilogs, which give us a glimpse of the future of some Beartownians. I think many readers would enjoy this book and I'd recommend it to fans of hockey, literary fiction, and Frederik Backman.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review of "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" 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 their 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.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review of "A Death in Vienna" by Daniel Silva




Multi-lingual Israeli spy/art restorer Gabriel Allon is restoring a painting in Venice when a bomb destroys the 'Wartime Claims and Inquiries Office' in Vienna, Austria. Gabriel's friend Eli Lavon is badly wounded and Eli's staff is killed. When Gabriel travels to Vienna to investigate he meets an elderly Holocaust survivor who claims that a prominent, wealthy, local businessman - Ludwig Vogel - is really a Nazi war criminal named Erich Radek.

Before long the elderly Holocaust survivor is murdered and Gabriel's further inquiries - which require trips to the Vatican and Argentina - seem to confirm that Vogel is indeed Radek. Gabriel suspects that the bombing and murder were perpetrated to prevent Vogel/Radek from being exposed - and there's a little side-story associated with this presumption. Along the way Gabriel learns more about his mother, a Holocaust survivor who's been very reluctant to speak about her wartime experiences. This makes Gabriel even more determined to bring Radek to justice.

During Gabriel's travels there are several attempts on his life but none are successful due to a little help from his friends. These various friends also help Daniel hatch up a complex scheme to snatch Radek, and this leads to the book's dramatic climax.

As usual in Daniel Silva's writing, the book has a political bent. In this story, the Vatican, the Catholic Church, and Pope Pius XII are depicted as having collaborated with the Nazis and having helped war criminals escape. Also, Austria is described as having been sympathetic to the Nazis, with people willing to run concentration camps and cover up war crimes. FYI: The parts of the book that described Nazi treatment of the Jews are graphic and disturbing.

There are an array of interesting characters in this thriller, including Gabriel's art mentor, his girlfriend, a clock restorer/assassin, residents of the Vatican, members of Israeli's intelligence service, and more. The story is fast-paced with plenty of action, but there aren't a lot of twists. Spy thrillers aren't my favorite genre but I enjoyed the book. Recommended for thriller fans.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review of "Nutshell" by Ian McEwan




In Nutshell, a sort of modern take on 'Hamlet', a son becomes aware that his mother Trudy and her lover Claude are planning to murder his father John - who happens to be Claude's brother. The twist in Ian McEwan's novel is that the son, and narrator of the book, is a late term fetus.....in utero.

The not-yet-born baby, who's preternaturally knowledgable and articulate, explains that he got his smarts from overheard conservations and the many podcasts his mother listens to. (The descriptions of the podcasts alone make the book worth reading. LOL)

Trudy is separated from her husband John but continues to live in the London home he inherited from his parents, while hubby languishes in a small apartment. The family property is worth millions of pounds, and the greedy adulterers plan to kill John, sell the house, and reap the rewards.

To add insult to injury, Claude has mentioned 'placing the baby somewhere' after the murder - so the couple can go on their merry way unencumbered. Naturally, this doesn't sit right with the unborn infant.

Trudy and Claude think John - a rather dreamy poet - is unaware of their liasion. To the adulterers dismay, John shows up unexpectedly one day and disabuses them of this notion. John tells his wife and brother that he's moving back into the house, and they have to leave. Taken aback, the adulterers decide to accelerate their murder plot. That's about all I can say about the story without spoilers.

The eavesdropping fetus is quite a hoot. He's like a tiny sommelier - very smart about wine - and tipsy half the time from Trudy's drinking. The infant is also savvy about sex, and privy to lots of hot coupling between Trudy and Claude. As a result, the baby frequently worries about his uncle's weiner poking (and spraying) his head.....thinking he might absorb some of Claude's (unwanted) characteristics.

In fact, the poor baby has a lot to worry about as he ruminates about everything he overhears. So....concerned for his personal welfare, the fetus takes matters into his own hands at the book's climax.

I enjoyed this unique story and would recommend the book to fans of literary novels, and readers looking for something a little different.


Rating: 4 stars

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review of "The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos" by Leonard Mlodinow




For humans to advance from wandering hunter-gatherers to the savvy beings we are today - able to use all kinds of intricate gadgets and even send spacecraft out into the cosmos - there had to be significant advancements in knowledge and technology. In this book Mlodinow talks about the major leaps of mankind and how they came about.

Mlodinow focuses on three areas: evolution of the human mind; discoveries related to astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology; and the revolutionary field of quantum mechanics. The book, which covers a wide array of topics, can't be summarized in a short review...and I won't try. I'd just strongly encourage anyone interested in the topic of human advancement to read the book themselves. It's exceptionally well written, has loads of fascinating information, and (against all odds) is VERY funny. The author has a great sense of humor and includes lots of humorous quips and examples throughout the book.

Just for fun, I'll mention a few things in the book that I found particularly memorable.

One of the most important human discoveries occurred when some cavewoman (or man) - banging a couple of rocks together - accidently produced a shard with a sharp edge....the first knife! This helped early humans, who were mostly vegetarians, expand their diet to include more meat. It made a good weapon as well. In any case, these sharpened rocks apparently helped us get much more clever.

I was surprised to learn that Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered the laws of motion, wasn't a nice guy at all. He worked constantly, shunned human interaction, and was very vengeful toward people who disagreed with him or criticized his research. If someone angered Newton he would write lots of nasty letters and viciously criticize them in scientific journals. You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of this genius!

Charles Darwin, who at the age of 22 bravely undertook his extensive voyage on the Beagle, was a physical wreck by the age of 30. Poor Darwin was so sick that he sometimes couldn't work for months at a time. The biologist visited many doctors and tried innumerable remedies, but nothing helped. (My own theory is that Darwin picked up a parasite on his trip.) Still Darwin married and had lots of children. He also carried on (through the pain) for many years to develop his theory of evolution. (Yay!)

The book's author, Leonard Mlodinow, specializes in theoretical physics but had to learn some applied physics as well. For one such class young Mlodinow had to build a radio from scratch. As the author describes it, the radio only got one unpopular station.... and only worked when he held it upside down and shook it. (Ha ha ha.)

I completely enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in science.


Rating: 4.5 stars

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review of "The Cat-Nappers" by P.G. Wodehouse

  


I listened to the audio book and the narrator - using different voices and accents for the various characters - added even more fun to this humorous book.

The story: Bertie Wooster, advised by his doctor to get a rest, rents a cottage in the country. As it turns out, all manner of Bertie's former acquaintances, most of whom he'd rather not see, are in the area. These include: Vanessa Cook - a strong-minded girl who turned down Bertie's marriage proposal; Orlo Porter, Vanessa's current boyfriend - who's ready to throttle Bertie over Vanessa; Captain Plank - a hot-tempered hunter who thinks Bertie is the notorious thief Alpine Joe; and more.

Bertie's Aunt Dahlia is also vacationing in the area and - having received a tip on a horse race - bet every cent she has on Simla. Too late, Aunt Dahlia learns that Simla has a worthy opponent named Potato Chip. As it happens Potato Chip has fallen in love with a local cat who sleeps in his stall, and the consensus is that Potato Chip will lose the race if the cat disappears. So Aunt Dahlia and other interested parties hatch up a scheme to kidnap and hide the cat until the race is over.

Bertie, against his moral code and better judgement, is drawn into this scheme. Of course the various attempts at cat-napping and then cat-returning cause all manner of hilarious problems. Through it all Bertie's valet/butler Jeeves - who barely raises an eyebrow even when he finds Bertie tied up and gagged - keeps a straight face and a stiff upper lip.

This is a fun story filled with cases of mistaken identity, misunderstood intentions, shifting marriage engagements, and a cat with a mind of his own. Wodehouse has a gift for comedic writing and every scene in the book draws at least a smile. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster/Jeeves books are just what you need when you're in the mood for a light read. Highly recommended.



Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review of "The Alphabet House" by Jussi-Adler Olsen



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

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

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

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


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, October 23, 2017

Review of "He, She and It" by Marge Piercy




It's the near future and the Earth has been decimated by war and pollution. The world is run by huge corporations (multis) whose chosen employees adhere to rigid, stylized rules for dressing, working, and living. Most people, however, live in far-reaching, dangerous, poverty-ridden slums called The Glop. A few towns that are able to create and sell original technology to the multis remain free.

People around the world have access to an extensive computer network into which they can project themselves to obtain information, do research, play games, communicate, and so on. However, users of the network can be cyber-attacked and even killed so defensive computer technology is in high demand.

As the story opens, Shira, an employee of the Yakamura-Stichen (Y-S) corporation has divorced her husband and lost custody of her son, Ari. Devastated, Shira returns to her original home in Tikva, a free Jewish town. There she lives with her beloved grandmother Malkah - a whiz at designing protective computer technology, and takes a job with  Avram - a scientist who has created a humanoid cyborg called Yod, designed to protect the townsfolk from corporate raiders and assassins who want to co-opt its technology. Shira's childhood boyfriend Gadi, who broke her heart, is also back in town, having been suspended from his job  creating stimmies (recreational interactive holograms).

Much of the story revolves around Yod, who develops desires and emotions - essentially becoming more of a person - as he works with Malkah, Shira, and other townspeople. As the story proceeds the Y-S corporation perpetrates various shenanigans in an attempt to get their hands on Yod, going so far as to use Shira's child, Ari, as bait. Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, Malkah relates a story to Yod about a medieval Jewish ghetto in Prague where the  rabbi created a Golem (a powerful clay being) to protect the ghetto from raids staged by the surrounding Christian population. Like Yod, the Golem developed the characteristics of a human.

The book examines the question of what it means to be a 'real person' and whether an artificially created being has rights. I thought the various characters in the story were well-written and interesting and I cared about their lives and what happened to them. I also enjoyed the story though I felt it should have ended with more of a bang instead of a fizz.

It's a good book though, and I recommend it, especially to fans of sci-fi cyberpunk literature.


Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Review of "Asta's Book" by Barbara Vine




In the early 1900s Rasmus Westerby moves his wife Asta and their two young boys from their native Denmark to London. Rasmus parks his family in the middling neighborhood of Hackney and leaves for long stretches of time, trying to become a business success.

For her part Asta doesn't like Hackney, disdains English people, has little interest in her sons, and has no love for her husband - who she thinks only married her for the dowry of 5,000 kroner. As it happens Asta is pregnant again (characters in this book have no concept of birth control), and is desperate to have a girl. So when little Swanhild (Swanny) is born in 1905, Asta is thrilled. A few years later another daughter, Marie, comes along - and the family is complete.

Asta is a conventional and conservative woman of her time but she's well-educated and loves to read - especially Charles Dickens in Danish. To assauge some of the loneliness Asta feels in the alien environs of England, she keeps a diary. In the journal, Asta talks about many things: daily activities, thoughts, feelings, people (children, husband, friends, relatives, servants, neighbors, acquaintances, etc.), food, clothes, homes, furniture, ornaments, parties, gossip, newspaper stories, and so on....anything that pops into her head. Asta's diary entries - spanning more than sixty years - are interspersed throughout the book, which goes back and forth between past and present.

After Asta's death (in her eighties) her oldest daughter Swanny finds the diaries. Swanny has the first couple of volumes translated from Danish to English and publishes them, as a sort of lark. To Swanny's surprise the diaries become wildly popular - a worldwide phenomenon! In time, additional volumes of the diary are published and Swanny, as the editor, becomes a celebrity in her own right. There are meetings with publishers, book signings, public appearances, photos in magazines, and world travel. After Swanny dies, her niece Ann (Marie's daughter) - a professional researcher - takes over as editor of the remaining diaries.

As the story unfolds a couple of 'mysteries' are revealed.

Swanny's conundrum: When Asta is widowed she moves in with Swanny, who has a rich successful husband and a lovely large house. Asta loves to socialize and - for her own 83rd birthday - arranges a lavish 'chocolate party' at Swanny's home. On the day of the party Swanny receives an anonymous letter that says ".....You are not your mother's child or your father's. They got you from somewhere when their own one died...."

Swanny, who always knew her father didn't like her, intuitively believes this. She confronts her mother, who (more or less) admits Swanny is not her natural born child, but refuses to say anything more.....ever! Swanny is devastated and haunted by this revelation, and desperately tries to discover her origins. When Swanny (and then Ann) get custody of the diaries, they study them for clues to Swanny's origin - but several vital pages are missing. For Swanny the enigma of her parentage has severe psychological consequences.

The Roper murder : In her 1905 diary Asta briefly mentions that her maid, Hansine, has become acquainted with Florence - the servant of a family called the Ropers. Hansine asks permission to invite her new friend Florence to tea, and Asta agrees.

Soon afterward Lizzie Roper is murdered and her toddler daughter Edith disappears. Lizzie's husband, Alfred Roper, is accused of murdering his wife - and the trial is avidly followed by the public.

Jump to the present and true crime stories are very popular. A producer named Cary is planning to make a movie about the old Roper case. She asks Ann (the current editor of the Asta diaries) for a peek at the yet unpublished diaries - to see if the Ropers are mentioned again. This leads to a loose collaboration between Cary and Ann as they look for information about the Roper affair.

'Asta's Book' is both a novel of psychological suspense and the story of Asta Westerby and her family. Asta's story is quite compelling. As Rasmus's fortunes rise and fall she goes from lower middle class to prosperity to struggling once again, before moving in with Swanny. I enjoyed the diary entries about Asta's fashionable clothes, Danish foods (blekage and kransekage), household trappings, love for Swanny, 'crush' on her driver, and so on. I also liked the description of the dollhouse Rasmus made for Ann, called Padanaram. This masterpiece took years to complete and was a faithful reproduction of the Westerby's posh home at the time. (I would have loved to have this dollhouse as a child. LOL)

The mystery portion of the story is also quite engaging. I wanted to know about Swanny's heritage and was intrigued by the various theories proposed by different characters. I was also eager to discover whether Alfred Roper was guilty or innocent of murdering his wife.

"Asta's Book" - published in 1993 - has the vibe of an 'old fashioned' mystery. It moves slowly and thoughtfully, contains provacative red herrings, and has no graphic violence (except for one slit throat). The book would appeal to a wide array of readers, including fans of literary novels, psychological suspense stories, and traditional mysteries. Highly recommended.


Rating: 4 stars

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review of "Song of the Lion" by Anne Hillerman




The alumni basketball game at New Mexico's Shiprock High School always draws a big crowd, and Navajo Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito (Bernie) is on hand to watch the teams play. An explosion in the parking lot draws Bernie outside, where she sees a car in flames. Bernie calls for backup, and the police and FBI soon discover that the vehicle was ignited by a car bomb and one man was seriously injured - and soon died.

It turns out the car belongs to Aza Palmer, a Navajo lawyer slated to mediate a conference in Tuba City, Arizona. The conference concerns a proposed resort at the Grand Canyon - a project that's very controversial. The attendees will include the resort developers; local Indian tribes (Navajo and Hopi); and various enviromental organizations. In addition, 'open microphone sessions' are expected to attract a large number of opinionated people, determined to have their say.

Palmer isn't injured by the bomb but the Navajo police think it might have been intended to kill him, to stop him attending the conference. For this reason Sergeant Jim Chee (Bernie's husband) is assigned to drive Palmer to Tuba City and act as a bodyguard.

When the bomb victim is identified as twenty-something Rick Horseman, Palmer is very upset. He's known Rick for years, and tried to help the boy when he was abusing drugs and alcohol. Palmer can't fathom what happened at Shiprock High School, won't accept that he's in danger, and doesn't want a bodyguard. This negative thinking doesn't help when Palmer and Chee get to Tuba City, and all kinds of trouble erupts.

Someone in a car follows Palmer; the lights go out in the conference venue; the heating malfunctions in the building; demonstraters mill around and cause one ruckus after another; detractors shout at Palmer - claiming he's in the pocket of the builders; a violent protester bangs up a car with his sign; and so on.

Since Bernie has a few days off, she joins Chee in Tuba City, where they cooperate to protect Palmer and investigate the bombing. The inquiry is really the job of the FBI, but the two Navajo cops want to help.

To get needed advice, Bernie contacts Joe Leaphorn, 'The Legendary Lieutenant' who mentored herself and Chee. Leaphorn is retired now, recovering from a head injury that impaired his speech. The Lieutenant can still email, however, and - when he hears the name Rick Horseman - realizes he knew the victim. In fact Leaphorn rescued Rick from an abusive home when he was a child.

Bernie, Chee, and Leaphorn all make a contribution to the resolution of the case, and the book has a believable and satisfying conclusion. I like that Bernie really shows her mettle at the book's climax.

The original 'Navajo Tribal Police Mysteries' were written by Tony Hillerman, and his daughter Anne is following in his footsteps, continuing to write stories with the same characters. Anne does a creditable job, and provides a nod to Navajo customs, but I liked Tony's books better.

Tony's mysteries had more scenes concerning Navajo culture and beliefs, and - in Tony's novels - Jim Chee was studying to be a traditional healer.....which was very interesting. In addition, Tony's main character was 'The Legendary Lieutenant' himself - an unbeatable detective with a compelling background.

Still, 'The Song of the Lion' is a good mystery with an interesting setting; Bernie and Chee are likable characters; and fans of the series would enjoy the book.

The novel provides sufficient background to be read as a standalone.


Rating: 3 stars