Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review of "Invasion of Privacy" by Perri O'Shaughnessy




Attorney Nina Reilly's client, Terry London, is being sued to prevent the release of her film about a long missing girl named Tamara Sweet. In her film London suggests that Sweet is dead and that the crime is connected to the disappearance of several other girls in the Lake Tahoe area.

In the midst of the court proceedings Terry London is brutally murdered and Nina's ex-boyfriend Kurt - who is also the father of her son Bob - is accused of the crime. Turns out Kurt used to date Tamara and was also previously married to Terry London. So a lot of coincidences here.

Of course Nina decides to defend Kurt and runs around questioning witnesses and so on. There are plenty of possible suspects for the incidents, including Tamara's parents and friends.....and Terry's rough-guy neighbors. The case goes to court and the courtroom scenes are the best part of the story.

There are some interesting characters including Nina's Native American secretary; her private investigator/would-be boyfriend; and a nasty local defense attorney who doesn't like women rivals.

My problem with this book is that there's some egregious unethical lawyering and I was actually hoping the people involved would be exposed. For me the book could have been edited to be quite a bit shorter but I thought it was a decent mystery with an appropriate ending.


Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review of "A Conspiracy of Friends: Corduroy Mansions # 3" by Alexander McCall Smith


 

This laid back series centers around an apartment building called 'Corduroy Mansions' in the Pimlico section of London - its residents, their friends, relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, and co-workers. In this book we visit with some familar characters and see what they're up to.

Twenty-something Caroline Jarvis has a degree in art history and works as a photograher's assistant. Caroline's parents want their daughter to spend less time with her best friend James, a gay young man who's not a viable marriage prospect. Thus, Caroline's mom engages in a little behind the scenes manipulation for her daughter's own good. And Caroline makes a regrettable mistake.

Middle-aged Willam French owns a wine store and lives with his beloved dog, Freddie de la Hay. One weekend William and Freddie de la Hay go to the country to visit William's lifelong friend Gerald and his wife Maggie. Unfortunate consequences ensue.

Freddie de la Hay disappears and Maggie reveals a disturbing secret she's been harboring for decades. A bit of trouble follows and William gets assistance from his friend Marcia Light - who carries a torch for him, and his neighbor Mr. Singh.

FYI: I was amused to learn that Freddie de la Hay (my favorite character) can fasten his own seat belt in a car.

Berthea Snark is a psychologist and writer who can't stand her son, Oedipus Snark, a self-absorbed minor politician with delusions of grandeur. Berthea does love her brother Terry Moongrove, a good-natured fellow with his head in the clouds. Terry is always on the brink of either accidently killng himself or being victimized by con artists, so Berthea keeps a close eye on him.

In this book, we see Oedipus (as usual) avoiding work and trying to throw his weight around. He also joins colleagues on a trip to the CERN supercollider, where he tries to be a know-it-all and embarasses himself. Terry also reveals his latest obsession - owning and driving a race car.

Barbara Ragg, a book editor, is the ex-girlfirend of Oedipus Snark, who was a neglectful, indifferent boyfriend. She's now dating Hugh, whom she hopes to marry. Barbara feels guilty about a couple of things and 'confesses' them to Hugh. Hugh returns the favor, relating a shocking story about working in Colombia, South America.

We also look in on some other characters including William's ne'er do well son Eddie and his girlfriend; Barbara's resentful business partner, Rupert Porter; an author writing a true-life book about a Yeti; and others.

This is a humorous, entertaining book that should probably be enjoyed with a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Recommended for people who want a restful, low-stress book for a relaxing read.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Other Clinical Tales" by Oliver Sacks




Dr. Oliver Sacks was a physician, author, and professor of neurology who published several books about individuals with neurological problems. In this book Dr. Sacks discusses patients whose brain malfunctions cause a variety of 'maladies' including: a musician who lost the ability to see faces or recognize familiar objects; a former sailor who believed the year was permanently 1945; a man who thought his leg belonged to someone else; and other unusual afflictions.

To provide a feel for the book I'll just give a capsule description of (what I think are) the most interesting cases.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

Dr. P was a talented musician and music teacher whose problems began when he lost the ability to see people's faces - though he could recognize them by their voices and movements. The problem worsened to the point where Dr. P mistakenly thought inanimate objects - like fire hydrants, parking meters, and furniture knobs - were humans.

In time Dr. P could no longer identify everybody objects. For example, he thought his shoe was his foot and vice versa. Though Dr. P was not diagnosed, physicians speculate that he had a brain tumor or brain damage that caused 'agnosia' - "the loss of ability to recognize objects, persons, sounds, shapes, or smells."

The title of the story refers to the fact that - when looking for his hat one day - Dr. P mistook his wife for a hatrack, took hold of her head.....and tried to put it on.

Luckily, Dr. P retained the ability to play and teach music, and was able to continue with his fulfilling career.

*****

The Lost Mariner

In 1975, Dr. Sacks saw Jimmie G - a 49-year-old man who left the Navy in 1965 after serving for more than two decades. Jimmie seemed confused about his current situation but was able to describe his school days and his experiences during and after WWII - which he talked about in the present tense.

Dr. Sacks learned that - in Jimmie's mind - the year was perpetually 1945 and he was 19-years-old. Jimmie couldn't recall anything that post-dated 1945 and was unable to form ANY new memories. In fact, if Dr. Sacks walked out of the room and returned, Jimmie thought they were meeting for the first time.

When shown a mirror, Jimmie was shocked at his 'old' appearance, and - though his brother was long-married with grandchildren - thought his sibling was a single man in accounting school.

Apparently Jimmie was competent until he left the Navy, but by 1971 was totally disoriented - probably from severe alcohol abuse. It was determined that Jimmie suffered from amnesia due to 'Korsakov's Syndrome' - "an amnestic disorder usually associated with prolonged ingestion of alcohol."

*****

The Disembodied Lady

Christina was a bright, athletic 27-year-old computer programmer who worked from home. When health problems required the removal of her gall bladder, Christina was treated with prophylactic antibiotics prior to the operation. This was a common precaution, not expected to have any deleterious effects.

Shortly before the surgery Christina had a dream in which she lost sensation in her hands and feet. A couple of days later Christina REALLY lost sensation.....in her entire body. Christina couldn't feel her arms, hands, legs, feet, etc. She couldn't walk, was unable to pick things up, and so on. Christina felt like her body was 'dead, not real, not hers.'

Christina was diagnosed with inflammation of the nerves in her limbs. As a result, Christina lost her sense of 'proprioception' - "the ability to sense the relative positions of body parts without looking at them or thinking about it." It's unknown whether the prophylactic antibiotics caused this or not.

Eventually, Christina learned to use her other senses - especially vision - to compensate for her loss of propioception. Christina had to consciously monitor and regulate every motion, making her movements difficult and clumsy. Nevertheless, Christina persevered and tried to live as normal a life as possible.

*****

The Man Who Fell Out Of Bed

Dr. Sacks was called in to see a man who had been admitted to the hospital because of a problem with his leg. After falling asleep in the hospital, the patient woke up to find 'someone's leg in the bed'.....a severed human limb. The man was horrified, and concluded that a nurse had perpetrated a bizarre joke. The patient threw the leg out of bed, but he went with it.....because the limb was attached to him.

While Dr. Sacks was in the room, the patient began punching and tearing at his left leg. Dr. Sacks advised the man to stop, as he was injuring his own limb, but the patient refused to accept this.

The man apparently had hemiplegia - "paralysis on one side of the body".....probably caused by brain damage.

*****

Phantom

A 'phantom' is the sensation that a lost body part (usually an amputated limb) is still there.

Dr. Sacks tells the story of a sailor who accidently cut off his right index finger, but couldn't dislodge the notion that the digit was still sticking out of his hand. For the next 40 years, the sailor was wary of bringing his damaged hand near his face - to eat or scratch his nose - because the finger might poke his eye out. The sailor knew this couldn't really happen, but was unable to make the feeling go away.

The sailor was finally 'cured' when he lost sensation in ALL of his fingers due to diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage). The phantom finger 'disappeared' with the rest of his digits.

*****

Tilt

Mr. Dunston, a 93-year-old man with Parkinson's disease, tilted to the side when walking - to the point he was in danger of falling over. However Mr. Dunston was unaware of the slant, and refused to believe he wasn't upright.....until Dr. Sacks filmed him in motion.

Mr. Dunston, who had been a carpenter, attributed the problem to the loss of his inner 'spirit level' (an instrument used to determine whether a surface is perfectly horizontal or vertical).

Mr. Dunston, being a clever fellow, rigged up a 'level' that could be attached to his eyeglasses - called 'spirit spectacles' - which he could use to correct his posture. The spirit spectacles became very popular with patients afflicted with Parkinson's disease.

*****

Eyes Right

After a massive stroke, Mrs. S - a woman in her sixties - lost the ability to see anything on the left side. If Mrs. S's dessert was on the left side of her tray, she couldn't see it; in fact Mrs. S couldn't even see the food on the left side of her plate. This 'left blindness' extended to everything, so that Mrs. S. would only make up the right side of her face, etc.

To compensate, Mrs. S got a rotating wheelchair and swiveled in a circle until things came into view - a crafty solution to (some of) her problems.

*****

Cupid's Disease

Natasha, a 90-year-old woman, had begun feeling unusually 'frisky' at the age of 88 - giggling, telling jokes, and flirting with men.

Natasha realized this was 'inappropriate', and - surmising she was physically ill - consulted a doctor. Natasha reported that, at age twenty, she had contracted 'Cupid's Disease' (syphilis) - which was treated, but apparently not eradicated.

In fact Natasha WAS suffering from neurosyphilis - an infection of the brain and/or spinal cord caused by Treponema pallidum (the bacteria that causes syphilis). The bacteria were stimulating her cerebral cortex and affecting her behavior.

Natasha didn't want to get end-stage syphilis, but didn't want to be cured either.....since she was enjoying her girlish feelings. So doctors gave Natasha penicillin to kill the microbes, but did nothing to repair her cerebral cortex - allowing the elderly woman to remain playful. (At 90 years old, why not. LOL)

*****

Reminiscence

Mrs. O'C - an 88-year-old Irishwoman living in an old age home in NY - was a little deaf but otherwise in good health. One night Mrs. O'C dreamed of her childhood in Ireland, complete with a woman singing Irish songs. When Mrs. O'C awoke, she still heard the Irish songs - very loud - and went to turn off the radio broadcasting the music. But there was no radio. Mrs. O'C then thought her dental fillings were picking up a broadcast, but this wasn't the case either. Finally, Mrs. O'C concluded something was wrong with her ears - and consulted a doctor.

Mrs. O'C was eventually sent to a neurologist - Dr. Sacks - but had trouble hearing him through the music. Dr. Sacks determined that the songs were neurological, probably due to a stroke that caused seizures in Mrs. O'C's temporal lobe (a part of the brain that processes music). As Mrs. O'C recovered, the music faded away.

*****

The Dog Beneath The Skin

Stephen D. was a 22-year-old medical student who regularly used amphetamines, cocaine, and PCP. One night Stephen dreamed he was a dog, and woke up with a greatly heightened sense of smell.

Stephen was able to distinguish all kinds of things by their 'aroma' including: friends, patients, streets, stores, sexual activity, foods, and so on. Unfortunately, unpleasant odors were stronger as well. Moreover, Stephen felt COMPELLED to sniff everything (like a pooch)....and had to be careful to avoid being inappropriate (LOL).

After three weeks the enhanced sense of smell disappeared, and Stephen returned to normal.

Years later, Dr. Sacks revealed that HE was Stephen D. (Naughty naughty)

*****

The World of the Simple

**I have to insert a note here. To modern ears, some of the language used in this section is very disturbing. Talking about people who are mentally challenged, Dr. Sacks uses terms like: simple, simpleton, retardate, mental cripple, idiot, moron, and dullard. Granted, these essays were written before such terms became 'forbidden.' Still, the book has been re-released several times over the years, and these words could have been changed (IMO).**

John and Michael

John and Michael were 26-year-old twins who had been institutionalized since the age of seven. They had an IQ under 60, and were variously diagnosed as autistic, psychotic, or severely retarded.

As happens with some autistic people, the twins were 'idiot savants' - "mentally handicapped persons who display brilliance in a specific area, especially involving memory."

The twins had clear memories of ALL their experiences and had a 'calender program' in their heads so that - given any date, past or future - they could instantly pair it with a day of the week. The twins were also able to recall and repeat a long string of numbers (over 300 digits).....explaining that they 'could see it.'

Perhaps most remarkable of all, the twins made up a game in which they recited increasingly large prime numbers to each other.....a feat that's almost impossible without a computer. In fact, Dr. Sacks - wanting to join the game - got a 'cheat book' of prime numbers. (Ha ha ha)

Dr. Sacks waxes poetic about the twins, saying: "The twins, though morons, hear the world's symphony, but hear it entirely in the form of numbers."

Eventually the twins were separated - 'for their own good' - which seems very sad to me.

The Autist Artist

José was a mentally handicapped man whose epileptic seizures and (possible) autism became obvious when he was eight. At that time José's family confined him to the cellar, where he was isolated and deprived of stimulation for 15 years. Finally, at the age of 22, José 'blew up in a rage' and was hospitalized.

In the hospital, José - now properly medicated - showed a remarkable talent for drawing. This was when Dr. Sacks met the patient. Dr. Sacks showed José his pocket watch and asked him to draw it. José studied the timepiece, then quickly and confidently drew a faithful fascimile.....with creative flourishes. Dr. Sacks was impressed, thinking José had more mental agility than people thought.

Durng a later visit, Dr. Sacks showed José an issue of 'Arizona Highways' magazine, which had a scene of people canoeing. José swiftly copied the canoe and canoers - making the people seem even more intense and alive than the original. To Dr. Sacks, this demonstrated José's powers of imagination and creativity.

Then, when Dr. Sacks showed José an image of a rainbow trout, the patient drew a fish of his own - with an amusing roguish look.....like a 'fish-person.' This showed not only imagination, but a sense of humor.

Eventually, surrounded by caring doctors and staff, José began to blossom. He no longer accepted his deprived state, strived to recover speech and understanding, and began to draw for self-expression.

*****

Dr. Sacks' case studies are interesting and informative, and - when originally published - shed light on afflictions that were not well understood at the time. Dr. Sacks' stories are still fascinating and instructive, and I enjoyed reading them.

I also applaud the fact that Dr. Sacks showed that mentally challenged individuals can have talents and abilities that rival those of mainstream society - which usually marginalizes these people. And I admire Dr. Sacks attempts to help his patients find happiness and meaning in their lives.

That said, there are parts of the book I didn't like. Dr. Sacks includes a GREAT DEAL of philosophical musing in his stories, in an attempt (I think) to imbue neurological afflictions with some deeper meaning. In my opinion, illnesses (even brain malfunctions) are biological phenomena. Thus they have no abstract significance, and I found the 'philosophical' sections of the book boring and sometimes incomprehensible.

I'd recommend the book to readers interested in neurology and brain function. Though I listened to the audiobook version, the individual case studies are readily available online - in case you're especially interested in one or two.


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review of "The Fall" by John Lescroart




In this addition to John Lescroat's Dismas Hardy series, Hardy's daughter Rebecca - all grown up and working in her dad's law firm - is lead attorney on a murder case.

The story: In San Francisco, Greg Treadway is a middle school teacher who volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for foster children. His client is Max Paulson, a black, 17-year-old high school student who lives with his Aunt Junie because his mother is a drug addict. Greg is also friendly with Max's twin sister Anlya, who lives in a group home.

One evening, Greg stops for a beer at 'The Little Shamrock' - the bar co-owned by Dismas Hardy - and strikes up a conversation with Rebecca Hardy. Before long the TV news reports that Anlya Paulson was thrown from an overpass and is dead. Greg is horrified. He tells Rebecca he had dinner with Anlya earlier in the evening. At Dismas's urging Greg calls the police. He reports that he took Anlya to a Chinese restaurant, after which she went shopping. Turns out Greg's story has some holes and a homeless man claims he saw Greg at the scene of the crime.

Meanwhile, activists in San Francisco have been agitating, claiming that crimes against black people aren't being vigorously investigated and prosecuted. The cops and DA feel pressured and Greg is indicted after a fast, shoddy investigation. He's quickly brought to trial and hires Rebecca to be his lawyer.

Rebecca, looking for information to clear Greg, asks private investigator Wyatt Hunt to investigate. Wyatt's findings unearth possible alternative suspects.

There are some dramatic courtroom scenes in the story and Rebecca, though inexperienced with murder cases, proves to be a skilled attorney. It's fun to see her try to poke holes in the prosecution's evidence.

Familar characters in the series make an appearance, including Dismas's wife Frannie and DA's investigator (and former Chief of Homicide) Abe Glitsky. Various secondary characters add interest to the story, including Rebecca's roommate Ally - a brand new law school graduate who takes an interest in Greg and the trial; Anlya's mother - who can't shake her drug habit or get rid of the wrong kind of men; the police detectives who are determined to find a suspect fast; the judge, who's got his head screwed on right; and more.

There are a few twists in the story and a dramatic climax which some readers might see coming. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to mystery fans.

Though the book is part of a series, it can be read as a standalone.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Review of "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt




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

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

                                                             SPOILER ALERT!

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

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


                                                               END SPOILER ALERT!

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


Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of "The Scarred Woman: A Department Q novel" by Jussi Adler-Olsen




Detective Carl Mørck is the head of Department Q, a cold case squad that works out of the dingy basement of a Copenhagen, Denmark police station. Carl's unit consists of himself and three others, Assad, Rose, and Gordon.

- Assad, originally from Syria, is Carl's partner. He's a smart, congenial fellow with an oddly sophisticated skill set.....but he doesn't talk about his mysterious background. (I'm guessing secret police.)

- Rose, an office manager/investigator, is a troubled woman who exhibits multiple personalities. Her problems come to a head in this book.

- Gordon is relatively new to the cold case squad and excels at background searches and other computer work. He has a crush on Rose.

*****

The story: When Department Q is threatened with budget cuts - or even closure - because of low solve rates Carl is furious. After all, his squad has successfully closed 65 percent of their cases. Turns out the alleged poor statistics are due to a clerical error, but a fire has been lit under Carl. Against the orders of his boss - Head of Homicide Lars Bjørn - Carl decides to investigate a CURRENT case.

An elderly woman named Rigmor Zimmermann was killed by a blow to the head and robbed of 10,000 kroner. Oddly enough, the Zimmermann murder resembles a cold case from a decade ago, when a schoolteacher called Stephanie Gundersen was killed in a similar fashion. Carl and his cohorts get on the job, looking for a connection between Zimmermann and Gundersen, and investigating who might have wanted them dead.

Meanwhile, the Head of Homicide has his own plans to keep the kroner flowing into the police station. Lars Bjørn arranges for Olaf Borg-Pedersen - host of a true crime television show - to film Carl and his team while they work. Carl wants no part of this publicity, and his efforts to evade and elude Pedersen provide some comic relief in the book.

As Department Q looks into the Zimmermann/Gundersen homicides, a handful of women in Copenhagen are making their own nefarious plans. Anne-Line Svendsen (Anneli), a case worker for Danish social services, is fed up with the useless young women - beautifully dressed with perfect hair and make-up - who parade through her office on a regular basis. The fashionistas have myriad excuses for not working, and invariably demand handouts and favors. On top of that, Anneli overhears several of these layabouts making fun of her.

When Anneli gets breast cancer, it's the final straw. Since she might die soon anyway, Anneli resolves to kill women who abuse the Danish welfare system, especially three young ladies named Michelle, Denise, and Jazmine....as well as others who get on her nerves. Anneli decides on 'hit and run' as her modus operandi, and - after carefully consulting the internet - practices stealing cars, staking out her victims, making a getaway, and so on. When she's ready, Anneli starts mowing down her good-for-nothing clients. I can't say more because of spoilers.

For their part, Michelle, Denise and Jazmine - who always need money - decide to embark on their own life of crime. They've heard that Anneli won a huge lottery some time back (she didn't), and - ironically - decide to kill the social worker and steal her jackpot. Before that, though, the trio rob a nightclub that employs Michelle's boyfriend as a bouncer.....and this leads to plenty of drama, including a death and an abduction.

While all this is going on, Department Q's Rose Knudson is having a mental breakdown. She comes to work late, neglects her job, shouts at Carl, drinks too much, writes all over her apartment walls, etc. Pressured by her sisters, Rose enters a mental health facility.

The Knudson sisters tell Carl that Rose was psychologically abused by their father for years; that Rose saw her dad killed in a horrific industrial accident; and that Rose has been keeping journals since she was a child. Wanting to help his colleague, Carl reads the journals....which turn out to have VERY odd entries. Department Q spends a lot of time analyzing Rose's diaries, which seriously delays their other work. (The journal rigmarole gets a bit boring, IMO, and takes up too much of the book).

All these plot threads slowly and cleverly come together..... and it's fun to see each puzzle piece click into place. Saying more would ruin the fun for readers.

As usual with this series, we get a peek at Carl's personal life. Carl shares his home with a former partner named Hardy who - injured in the line of duty - is now a quadriplegic. Carl moons over the police psychologist, Mona, whom he once dated. And Carl decides to find out about the factory 'mishap' that killed Rose's obnoxious father.

The novel is entertaining, with an interesting array of characters and a nicely wrought plot. Highly recommended to mystery fans.

Though this is book seven of the series, it can be read as a standalone.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review of "Two Kinds of Truth: A Bosch Novel" by Michael Connelly




Detective Harry Bosch worked for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for more than three decades before he retired. Not happy being a 'man of leisure' Harry took a volunteer job with the tiny San Fernando Police Department (SFPD), looking into cold cases. Harry also agreed to train the SFPD's three young detectives, playfully nicknamed Huey, Duey, and Louie.

In his capacity as a mentor Harry accompanies Detective Bella Lourdes (probably Louie) to the scene of a double homicide. Two druggists - a father and son - were shot in their pharmacy. It turns out the drug store was part of a 'pill mill' operation - a gangster-run enterprise in which prescriptions for pain killers from phony clinics are filled by pharmacies that turn a blind eye. The shooting was meant to look like a robbery gone wrong, but evidence points to deliberate cold-blooded murder.....and Lourdes takes lead on the case.

Wanting to catch the 'pill-mill' gang leader, the DEA decides to send in an undercover cop who'll pretend to be an addict needing pain meds - and Harry gets picked for the job. Harry pretends to be a smelly bum with a knee injury, but infiltrating the drug ring turns out to be SUPER dangerous.

Meanwhile, Harry is also involved with another investigation. Thirty years ago Harry helped put a man named Preston Borders on death row for a vicious rape and murder. Now, new DNA evidence points to a different perp - a serial rapist who recently died in prison. Even worse, Harry is being accused of planting evidence during the original inquiry. As a result, the district attorney is looking to vacate Borders' conviction, and a court hearing is scheduled.

Harry is sure the 'new DNA' was planted and that he's being framed - especially since Harry KNOWS he did nothing wrong. Unfortunately, the DA - and some detectives in the LAPD - seem to think Harry is a dirty cop. (This is par for the course in these books. Harry's usually on the outs with one or more LAPD honchos.)

Luckily Harry's half-brother is attorney Mickey Haller - who's probably the smartest, craftiest lawyer in Los Angeles. Harry and Mickey - along with Mickey's investigator Cisco - dig up some useful information to use against Borders and his attorneys.....and that's all I'll say about that. (I invariably picture Mickey Haller as a smooth-talking Matthew McConaughey, who played Haller in the film "The Lincoln Lawyer. LOL)

In this book Harry shows a little of his softer side. He's very solicitous toward his college-age daughter Maddie and demonstrates sympathy for a drug addict, whom he tries to help.....though he knows it might be a losing proposition.

I always enjoy Michael Connelly's books, which provide a fascinating peek at crime and criminal investigation around Los Angeles. In "Two Kinds of Truth", though, Harry seems to slide through the book a tad too easily. Harry and/or Mickey just happen to have exactly the right contact; or unearth exactly the right piece(s) of evidence; or carry exactly the correct unconventional (or jury-rigged) weapon; and so on. This occurs again and again and again, to the point where it stretched credibility (for me).

Still, I liked the book and highly recommend it to mystery fans.

Though the novel is the 29th in the series, it can be read as a standalone.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Review of "Gone Missing" by Linda Castillo




In this fourth book in the series, Police Chief Kate Burkholder of Painter's Mill, Ohio assists the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) in their search for missing Amish girls. Kate was raised Amish and speaks Pennsylvania Dutch, so she can help interview Amish people - who normally eschew interaction with 'the English.'

The book opens with a dramatic scene in which an Amish girl - distraught about long-term sexual abuse by her brother - commits suicide by jumping into an ice fishing hole on a frozen lake.

Leap ahead and Agent John Tomasetti of the BCI (who happens to be Kate's boyfriend) asks her to help investigate when two Amish teenagers - from different Ohio towns- are reported missing. Information from a national database reveals that these incidents may be related to other local missing persons cases. Two Amish girls vanished in the past - 12 months ago and four years ago - and an Amish boy disappeared nine years ago. What's going on with these teens? Could they be runaways? Suicides? Abductees? Snatched by aliens? (Just kidding)

When Kate and Tomasetti question the parents and friends of the missing youngsters, they learn that the teens had been taking advantage of Rumspringa - a time when Amish adolescents are allowed extra freedom - to act out. Thus the kids may have been doing things like: hanging out with 'Englisher' friends; drinking; smoking; fighting; having sex; getting pregnant; and so on. This is all very 'un-Amish' behavior that goes agains the Ordnung (set of rules).

While looking for the missing persons, Kate and Tomasetti consider various suspects and come across a photographer who uses a telephoto lens to snap inappropriate photos of unsuspecting Amish youngsters - at least one of whom has vanished. Other possible suspects include an Amish girl's secret boyfriend and a jealous 'English' girl who made threats.

Eventually Kate makes a momentous discovery that helps solve the case.....and endangers her life. The book has a dramatic and bloody climax that's suspenseful and exciting.

Some readers will probably have suspicions about possible motives for the crimes, but the 'big picture' will elude even the most astute armchair sleuth.

The novel has an undercurrent of angst between Kate and Tomasetti who - though they care for each other - have a lot of baggage from their pasts. This is worrisome for Kate, who's on the cusp of getting REALLY serious with her sexy beau. So we'll have to see what happens there.

This is a solid, entertaining thriller that I'd recommend to mystery lovers, especially 'Kate Burkholder' fans.

Though the book is part of a series, it can be read as a standalone with no problems.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of "Who Asked You?" by Terry McMillan




Betty Jean (BJ), an African American hotel employee, lives in a middle-class, mixed-race neighborhood in Los Angeles with her husband Lee David, who has Alzheimer's disease. As the book opens BJ's drug-addict daughter Trinetta drops off her two school-aged sons, Luther and Ricky, 'for a few days' while she 'applies for a job'. Trinetta then takes off for Atlanta with her new guy, leaving the kids behind.

BJ also has other things on her mind. Her oldest son Quentin, a wealthy chiropracter who's distanced himself from the family, has just married his fifth blonde caucasian wife. BJ's middle son Dexter is in prison and constantly sends letters complaining about his wrongful conviction for carjacking (he did it), talking about his big plans for the future (delusional), and asking for money (which BJ doesn't have). BJ has Dexter's number though, and she lets him know it.

BJ is also concerned about her two sisters: Arlene - proud of her psychology degree - is a single mother who dotes on her obese 29-year old son Omar (Arlene overfeeds him)...but she won't let him grow up; and Venetia - a religious Bible thumper - has a lovely house, a cheating husband who 'travels' constantly, and two children bound for college.

To top it off, BJ's worried she might have to put Lee David - a good man and loyal spouse - into 'one of those places'. Lee David has become a shadow of his former self, largely unaware of his surroundings, who lies in bed watching "Dora the Explorer" (a children's show).

Two other major characters in the book are Tammy and Nurse Kim. Tammy is BJ's neighbor and best friend, a caring helpful woman who BJ can confide in. Tammy, a white woman married to a black man, is funny when she talks about the attitude she gets from black women. And Nurse Kim is David Lee's skilled caregiver, a sexy lady whose 'caregiving' is all-inclusive (and maybe a little over-the top).



ALERT: The rest of this review might contain (what you consider) spoilers. So read at your own risk.
                                                        SPOILER ALERT!


The story, told in rotating voices by all the main characters, follows the lives of these people for more than a decade. Luther and Ricky move from grade school through college, with some ups and downs along the way. Luther, a good student and caring brother, loves Grandma's cooking, reading, and football. I was glad when he gave his Uncle Quentin a richly deserved 'what for'. Ricky - affected by drugs in the womb - struggles with school, joins the swim team, and falls off the rails a bit (selling drugs). But BJ knows how to set him straight.

Through it all BJ struggles to feed, clothe, and support these beloved grandsons with limited financial resources. Unfortunately, BJ has to give up the hard won 'zero balance' on her Sears credit card.

As for the other characters: Quentin and his wife have a baby, but he remains aloof from the family until things go downhill and he has an epiphany. Dexter gets out on parole, forgets his 'big plans', sponges off his mom, and gets into trouble (again). Arlene is more than dismayed when Omar moves out to lead his own life and come to terms with his sexuality. Venetia can't admit her marriage is over, even when her husband leaves her for another woman - until she finally 'grows up'. Nurse Kim eventually leaves to become a traveling nurse - which makes young Luther (who has a crush) a bit sad. And more.

                                                      END SPOILER ALERT

All the characters are believable, well-rounded, and stir our emotions....whether we like them or have disdain for them. This is a well-written engaging book that provides an authentic picture of one family's dynamics. Highly recommended.


Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review of "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng



In "Little Fires Everywhere" the lives of two very different families - the Richardsons and the Warrens - overlap for a time in the mid-1990s, resulting in dramatic changes in both.

The six-member Richardson family is comprised of mother Elena - a journalist; father Bill - an attorney; and their four teenage children: Trip - the high school athlete and local heartthrob; Lexie - the pretty fashonista aiming for the Ivy League; Moody - the serious thinker who enjoys playing the guitar; and Izzy - the rebel who feels like a fish-out-of-water.

The Richardsons have a large, beautiful home in upscale Shaker Heights, Ohio - a planned liberal-thinking community where everything is orderly and 'no one sees race.' In fact Lexie has an African-American boyfriend named Brian, and no one blinks an eye. In Elena's eyes she and her family have the perfect life, one that should be emulated by everyone.

The Warrens could hardly be more different than the Richardsons. Their two-member household consists of Mia - a professional photographer/artist, and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl - a bright, quiet girl. The Warrens are almost itinerants, pulling up stakes whenever Mia feels the need for a fresh artistic inspiration. In fact the Warrens have moved over 45 times since Pearl was born.....so the girl never really had a close friend.

When the Warrens' ramblings bring them to Shaker Heights, they lease the upstairs apartment in a rental home owned by Mrs. Richardson. The rent is reasonable, but Mia still has to supplement her photography income with a job at the local Chinese restaurant. To make ends meet, Mia and Pearl eat leftovers from the restaurant, shop in thrift stores, and furnish their home with castoffs found in the street. Pearl's one yearning is to know who her father is, but Mia consistently fobs off the question with redirection and humor.

As it happens Moody Richardson and Pearl are high school classmates, and - after they become friends - Pearl starts to hang out at the Richardson home. She goes over after school to watch 'Jerry Springer' (the Richardson teens' favorite show); mingles with the family; helps Lexie with her college application; and develops a crush on Trip. Pearl is thrilled to finally have friends, especially such a bright, stimulating bunch.

Mia gets drawn into the Richardsons orbit as well when Mrs. Richardson - in a burst of altruism - offers the photographer a job in her home to help defray the Warrens' rent. Mia's duties are to clean the house in the morning and prepare dinner in the evening, leaving plenty of time for her artistic endeavors.

In an ironic exchange, young Izzy becomes enthralled with Mia and her work. The youngest Richardson starts to drop by Mia's apartment after school, to help with the artist's photography and learn the craft. In fact Izzy is rather desperate for a benevolent 'mother figure' in her life. We come to learn that Izzy was a premature baby who nearly died. The incident so upset Mrs. Richardson that she resents Izzy, whom she criticizes and chastises relentlessly. Izzy, in turn, acts out in outrageous ways. (I was somewhat surprised that Mr. Richardson didn't intervene with his wife here; it quite put me off him.)

All this interaction results in the Richardsons and Warrens becoming closely - but casually - intertwined.

Relations between the two families are unremarkable until Mia happens to overhear that Mrs. Richardson's friends, the McCulloughs, have almost completed their adoption of a one-year-old Chinese baby they call Mirabelle. It so happens that Mia knows something about the child. The girl's mother, Bebe Chow, is an immigrant who works at the Chinese restaurant with Mia - and she had previously confided her story: Ten months ago, when Bebe was homeless and penniless, she left her little daughter, May Ling, at a fire station. When Bebe got a job, she tried to get the baby back.....but couldn't find her.

So Mia tells Bebe where the baby is. Shortly afterward, there's a court case for custody of the tot, and a media circus surrounding the event.

Mrs. Richardson becomes infuriated by Mia's 'interference' and - already put off by the artist's lifestyle - makes it her business to look into Mia's background. Mrs. Richardson's motives aren't entirely clear, but she seems bent on making trouble. In my opinion Mrs. Richardson is a sneaky, self-righteous bitch, who - in the end - suffers the consequences of her actions. I can't say more than that without spoilers.

As for the adoption, I was empathetic to both sides. The McCulloughs had suffered numerous miscarriages and were desperate for a child. Moreover, their wealth would provide many benefits for Mirabelle/May Ling. On the other hand, Bebe was distraught at the thought of losing her biological child.

In the end though, is it right to steal someone's child? The McCulloughs cold, calculating efforts to do this offended me. Not to mention, Mirabelle/May Ling would grow up to read all this on the internet....and then what? The citizens of Shaker Heights and the various Richardsons have different opinions about the custody issue, which sows dissension in the ranks.

The court case about Mirabelle/May Ling's custody is almost a caricature. When Mrs. McCullough is asked about providing a cultural environment for a Chinese baby, she cites things like: displaying Chinese art in her home; feeding Mirabelle rice; and plans to take Mirabelle to a Chinese restaurant when she's older.

In any case, my personal view doesn't rely on culture OR wealth, but on DNA. In my opinion, Bebe should get her baby. Case closed. (I mean, the government doesn't grab babies from low-income homes and redistribute them to rich people, does it? Not yet anyway.) I was on tenterhooks to find out how the judge in the Mirabelle/May Ling case would rule.

The major characters in the book are well-drawn and - for the most part - believable. However, it struck me as unrealistic that ALL the Richardson kids gathered in the living room every day to watch Jerry Springer - as it's my experience that disparate siblings aren't that chummy. I also thought Lexie's infatuation with infants was exaggerated. My elderly mom adores babies to distraction.....but a college-bound teenager? I don't think so. Lastly, I wouldn't be as nice as Mia in her circumstances. In general, though, the characters act in ways that reflect their personalities.

I'm a bit at odds with the book's plethora of stellar reviews. I agree that the story is compelling and well-written, but the 'nicey-nicey' Shaker Heights environment seems too good to be true and I don't buy the novel's ending. The book does address interesting social issues - especially 'motherhood' - and would probably appeal to many fans of literary novels. For me though, it doesn't hit a bullsye.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Review of "Dead Water" by Ann Cleaves




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 promoting 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.

FYI: 'Shetland' - adapted from Ann Cleeves books - is a BBC crime series starring Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. It's available on Netflix.


Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review of "Breaking Silence" by Linda Castillo



 
Police Chief Kate Burkholder of Painter's Mill, Ohio was raised Amish, but left the fold after a traumatic incident in her teens. Nevertheless, Kate understands and empathizes with the local Amish community, an insular group that avoids interaction with the 'English.'

In this third book in the series Kate has to deal with a series of hate crimes as well as multiple deaths.

Like many minorities, the Painter's Mill Amish are sometimes subject to prejudice and abuse, and - as the story opens - a couple of thugs sneak into an Amish farm and slaughter four sheep.....just for fun. This is followed by other hate crimes such as: a Molotov cocktail being hurled into an Amish buggy; an Amish farmer being beaten, tied, and left out in the freezing cold; an Amish teen being brutalized and slashed with a buggy whip; a deliberately set barn fire that results in a death; and so on.

In the midst of these incidents an Amish family experiences an unthinkable tragedy. Solly Slabaugh, his wife Rachel, and his brother Abel are found dead in the Slabaugh farm's manure pit, where the decomposing hog poop gives off deadly methane gas. The tragedy leaves four orphans - Mose (17), Salome (15), Samuel (12), and Ike (10) - whose custody becomes a contentious issue. An excommunicated uncle wants to care for the kids, but he's strongly opposed by Amish Bishop Troyer and his congregants.

The Slabaugh disaster seems like an accident at first, but turns out to be murder. Kate and her team investigate with the help of John Tomasetti from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who's also Kate's (secret) boyfriend. The cops have to figure out whether the Slabaugh deaths are part of the string of hate crimes - or something else - before they can identify and catch the perpetrator. This isn't easy, especially since the persecuted Amish refuse to cooperate with the authorities and won't say what they saw, who attacked them, etc.

The case takes a heavy toll on Kate, who - try as she might - can't avoid getting emotionally involved with the investigation. As a result Kate broods a lot, drinks too much, and has some blind spots in relation to the crimes. Tomasetti, who's very protective, does his best to keep Kate grounded.

The developing romance between Kate and Tomasetti is low-key since they both have distressing histories and problems with committment. However, Kate does tend to go on a bit about how attractive and sexy Tomasetti is.....so if you like that kind of thing, there you have it! (LOL)

There are some surprises in the story as well as scenes where Kate is attacked and placed in jeopardy - so there's plenty of excitement. Kate's a very tough cookie, though, who can take care of herself.

I enjoy the 'Kate Burkholder' books, which are well-plotted, well-written, and provide interesting glimpses into Amish life. In this book the author emphasizes how important family is to the Amish, how much they value their children, and how kind they are to other people. It's touching to see Amish friends and neighbors rally around after the Slabaughs are killed - to take care of the children; look after the farm; and see to the livestock.

This is a good book that I'd recommend to readers who enjoy mysteries, especially Kate Burkholder fans.

Though it's best to read the series from the beginning to know the backstories of the main characters, I've found that each book can be read as a standalone without any problems.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of "A Question of Honor: A Bess Crawford Mystery" by Charles Todd

"


 In the early 1900's, young teen Bess Crawford lives in India where her father, Colonel Crawford, is in charge of a British regiment. The school-age children of the regiment's soldiers are usually sent to England to be educated, where they live with foster families. When Lieutenant Standish and his wife get word that their youngest daughter died of typhoid in England, Mrs. Standish returns home escorted by the much respected Lieutenant Wade. But when Lt. Wade returns to India he's accused of murdering a family while in England and of killing his parents upon his return to India.

The regiment is shocked, unable to devine a motive for these horrendous crimes. Rather than face the charges Lt. Wade makes a run for it. The military police are unable to capture him and there are reports that Wade died while trying to escape through Afghanistan. This leaves a blot on the honor of the regiment. 

Ten years later, during WWI, Bess Crawford is an army nurse. While working at a field clinic in France Bess comes across a dying Indian soldier who tells her that he's seen Lt. Wade. Bess is soon off and running, determined to find Lt. Wade and bring him to justice, thus restoring the  honor of her father's regiment. 

During her investigations Bess discovers that some foster homes were terrible places, giving her a hint of a possible motive for the murders. The usual characters are on hand in this story, including Beth's parents and her good friend Simon. The book provides an authentic feel for the horrors of combat; the pain and plight of wounded soldiers; and the difficult conditions in field hospitals. The story's resolution seems a little out of left field but believable enough. A good book for fans of historical mysteries.


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review of "People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman" by Richard Lloyd Parry




In 2000, a 21-year-old English girl named Lucie Blackman - unhappy with her job as an airline hostess, deeply in debt, and wanting an adventure - moved to Japan with her friend Louise Phillips. Lucie and Louise rented a cheap apartment and took jobs as hostesses in the 'Casablanca' nightclub in Roppongi, a district of Tokyo teeming with nightspots and night life.

The job of a hostess was to chat up Japanese businessmen and get them to buy pricey drinks and expensive bottles of champagne. The hostesses were also encouraged to go on dinner dates with the clients, which would encourage return visits to the club. The nightspots made handsome profits by employing these female companions - many of whom were tall, English-speaking blondes like Lucie and Louise. The girls, in turn, could make a lot of money in salary and bonuses.

Long conversations with Japanese businessmen were often boring, uncomfortable, and inappropriate (one man would ask 'do you fart when you pee?') - and Lucie was only a mildly successful hostess. Moreover, the striking blonde didn't get invited for many dinner dates - which put her job in jeopardy. So it's not surprising that Lucie agreed to go to lunch with thirtysomething business mogul Joji Obara, especially when he promised to give her a cell phone. Sadly, Lucie never returned from that luncheon.

When Lucie didn't get back from her date on time, her friend Louise - sensing that something was wrong - raised the alarm immediately. However, the Tokyo police paid little attention. Even when Lucie was gone for days, and then weeks, the cops - who thought most hostesses were druggies on the fringes of the sex trade - didn't take the matter seriously. This despite the fact that several women had reported Obara previously, for drugging and raping them.....charges the police brushed off.

Lucie's divorced parents, Jane and Tim, were terribly alarmed when their daughter vanished, especially since it happened in Japan - a foreign country with unfamiliar customs and laws. Tim - and Lucie's sister Sophie - flew to Japan almost immediately, to consult with the authorities. When Tim was unable to light a fire under the Tokyo police, he used his influence at the British Embassy, and Prime Minister Tony Blair made a public appeal for Lucie. In addition, Blair implored Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on behalf of Lucie's family.

Faced with widespread publicity about the missing English citizen - as well as pressure from the government - the Japanese police made a greater effort to find Lucie. Sadly, Lucie was already dead. Unfortunately, the Tokyo detectives, who had poor leadership and inept investigative practices, didn't unearth Lucie's body for months - even though Obara behaved VERY suspiciously and the corpse was buried near his seaside condo. In retrospect, it seems like the cops REALLY didn't know what they were doing. (They needed more female police officers, IMO.)

During all this time Lucie's dad, Tim Blackman, behaved something like the ringleader of a circus - calling press conferences; checking out Roppongi nightclubs; entertaining journalists; making speeches; organizing tip lines; and keeping himself (and Lucie) in the public eye. Tim was severely criticized for his over-the-top behavior, and for accepting a VERY large payment from Obara's lawyers - with the expectation he would 'go easy' on the suspect in public. Hard to know what Tim was thinking!

In this book, English journalist Richard Lloyd Parry explores two narratives: Lucie's story, from her childhood to her death; and Obara's tale, from his youth to his trial - where he was charged with a series of sexual assaults and two unlawful deaths. Parry was able to reconstruct the lives of both the victim and the alleged murderer, using extensive research and interviews with many people who knew them.

As for Lucie's killing, Parry gives a thorough account of everything that happened: the girl's disappearance; the police investigation; the arrest of Obara; the interrogation; the years-long trial; and the subsequent appeals. During all this time Lucie's mother, father, and sister traveled back and forth to Japan, and the ordeal had a profound effect on the entire Blackman family.

This is an interesting true crime story that includes fascinating tidbits about Japanese history, customs, and society. For instance, Joji Obara's family were ethnic Koreans and - as such - were subject to serious discrimination. Korean-Japanese citizens were treated with disdain and not permitted to rise high in society or obtain prestigious jobs. Obara's parents - who were very wealthy - made their money from real estate, parking lots, and pachinko gambling parlors.....and Joji followed in their footsteps.

It was also instructive to learn that Japanese cops expect suspects to confess (most do) and that prosecutors get convictions in more than 99% of cases that are tried. Thus, almost no one wants to be a defense lawyer (LOL). Nevertheless, Obara didn't confess to any crimes and went through a plethora of defense attorneys as he prepared for and participated in his trial. Furthermore, Obara never allowed his lawyers to be in charge. He coordinated his entire defense, published a book about himself while he was in jail, and made a valiant attempt to dismiss the evidence or explain it away. This was no easy task since Obara made tapes of himself raping unconscious women AND kept a detailed log. I won't say if Obara got convicted or not....but you can Google the verdict(s) if you're curious.

This is an engaging book that I highly recommend to fans of true crime stories.


Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review of "The Liar in the Library: A Fethering Mystery" by Simon Brett




Jude Nicholls and Carole Seddon are friends who live next door to each other in the English seaside village of Fethering. Jude - who's a hippyish free spirit - works as a healer and Carole - who's a bit starchy - is a retired civil servant who worked for the Home Office. Jude and Carole are local amateur sleuths who enjoy solving murders and drinking glasses of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Carole also likes to spend time with her young granddaughters, Lily and Chloe.

As this 18th book in the series opens, Jude is attending an 'Author's Evening' at the Fethering Public Library. The speaker is Burton St. Clair, author of a recent bestseller called 'Stray Leaves in Autumn' - a literary romance. As it happens Jude knew the writer many years ago when he was married to her friend Megan and his name was plain old Albert Sinclair. At that time, the writer penned unsuccessful crime novels.

In the question and answer session after St. Clair's talk it's clear that some of the evening's attendees have issues with the author - either resenting his success or considering him a phony. Moreover, St. Clair is one of those guys who'll grope any woman within reach. When St. Clair offers Jude a ride home, he gets handsy.....and she slaps his face and walks off. The next day, Jude gets a visit from the local police - St. Clair was found dead in his car, which is still in the library parking lot.

It turns out St. Clair had a walnut allergy and died from anaphylactic shock. Moreover, when the police detectives speak to the writer's ex-wife Megan, she tells them that Jude had an affair with St. Clair - which broke up their marriage - and that Jude knew all about his walnut allergy. Jude denies ALL of this, but she still becomes the prime suspect for St. Clair's murder.

When Jude starts to investigate St. Clair's killing in an attempt to clear her name, she's warned off by the cops. So Jude gets Carole to take over the inquiries. Jude and Carole discuss the possible suspects (over glasses of wine) and think of several people who might have wanted to get rid of St. Clair, including: his ex-wife; his current wife; a failed science fiction writer; women he harassed; and more. In fact the sleuths discover many local people who knew St. Clair in the past, and might not have wished him well. Eventually Jude gets back on the case, and the friends work together to solve the crime.

One of the most amusing characters in the story is Professor Nessa Perks, an expert in 'golden age mysteries.' Perks believes she can solve real crimes by comparing them to her beloved vintage detective stories, and thinks the cops should solicit her help. Perks will tell anyone within earshot about her theories, which - for St. Clair's murder - include the following scenarios: WKH (wife kills husband) or MKL (mistress kills lover) or WAMKH (wife and mistress kill husband). Ha ha ha.

Another interesting character is poet Nemone Coote, who - when chatting with Jude - drops the humorous names of her self-published poems and collections, such as Divergent Parallels and A Partridge in a Parent.....none of which Jude has read (or heard of).

Several characters discuss problems associated with library funding, xenophobia among Fethering's residents, and alcohol/drug abuse - which are real life problems in many communities today. So that feels very current.

The Liar in the Library is a simple cozy with no huge complications or plot twists. Actually, it feels like the author didn't expend much energy on the book, which is a shame.....because it's been a decent series. Still, the book is okay for an afternoon's light reading, with well-known characters that are fun.

Though the book is part of a series, it can be read as a standalone with no problems.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Simon Brett) and the publisher (Crème de la Crime; First World Publication) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 2.5 stars

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review of "The Accursed" by Joyce Carol Oates




This book - a (pseudo) historical, supernatural, mystery horror story - is supposedly written by M.W. van Dyck, descendant of one of the most prominent families of Princeton, New Jersey. Claiming to have access to newly decoded journals and other materials available only to himself van Dyck unspools the story of the "Crosswicks Curse" that took a horrific toll on some wealthy, influential Princeton families in 1905 and 1906.

The first conspicuous manifestation of the curse occurs when pretty, young Annabel Slade absconds from her elaborate wedding immediately after exchanging marriage vows with handsome Lieutenant Dabney Bayard. The man she runs off with, Axson Mayte, is in town (purportedly) advising Woodrow Wilson - then President of Princeton University.

As Annabel's brother Josiah Slade, a Princeton graduate who can't quite seem to find his role in life, relentlessly pursues the runaways Annabel is trapped in a filthy, hidden castle called the 'Bog Kingdom' - where she's abused, starved, impregnated, and eventually reduced to the status of a slovenly cleaning woman alongside previous Mayte victims.

Mayte has no fixed appearance, looking tall and handsome to some and ugly and toadlike to others. Thus the wily Mayte is able to appear in different guises - including François D’Apthorp and Count English von Gneist - a great favorite with the snobby ladies of Princeton. Mayte is apparently able to exert a hypnotic effect on people, manipulating their thoughts and behavior.

Mayte's most amusing incarnation occurs when he appears as Sherlock Holmes to Pearce van Dyck (the narrator's father) who's convinced that Sherlock Holmes' "cases" - which he believes are real - hold the key to the mystery of the Curse. The elder van Dyck's compulsive analysis of the Curse using Holmes' work as a guide are the funniest parts of the book.

Soon after Annabel Slade disappears her pre-teen cousins Todd and Oriana Slade are also afflicted by the Curse as are other important Princeton families. Several husbands become obsessed with the notion that their wives are committing adultery, with unfortunate consequences and a woman decides that her newborn's 'deliberate misbehavior' requires a drastic solution.

Reverend Winslow Slade, who was previously President of Princton University and Governor of New Jersey is especially disturbed by the Curse because he's grandfather to Annabel, Josiah, Todd, and Oriana, as well as friend and counselor to other afflicted families. Moreover, the Reverend has a shameful secret that's haunted him for five decades.

The book is very long, incorporating a number of historic figures. These include grossly obese (former) President Grover Cleveland, who tries to jump out a window after seeing his daughter's ghost, but he's too fat to fit (ha ha ha); Jack London, famous author of adventure stories - who flaunts his mistress at a speaking engagement, then has a pub party and gets wildly drunk; Upton Sinclair, the painfully self-conscious author of "The Jungle" (which exposes the horrific practices of the meat industry) - who neglects his family and dreams of establishing a socialist colony in New Jersey; President Teddy Roosevelt, who invites the vegetarian Sinclair to an uncomfortable meat-filled lunch; and of course Woodrow Wilson - who has a plethora of health problems and an ongoing feud with Andrew Fleming West, Dean of Princeton's Graduate School. During the story Wilson, happily married with several daughters, also becomes victim to the Curse when he's bewitched by a beautiful woman.

True to the time period, many of the characters exhibit (what would now be considered) atrocious behavior including rampant racism, sexism, opposition to women's suffrage, disdain for immigrants, disregard for the suffering of the 'lower classes', and way too high an opinion of themselves.

By the end of the book the Curse has run it's course and the reader learns what it was all about in a satisfying conclusion. For me the book was overly long and spent too much time on ancillary characters like Jack London - whose speech to a socialist group and subsequent partying seemed to go on forever; and Upton Sinclair - whose personal life and socialist musings took up too many pages. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles about a book that's well-researched, well-written, and a rollicking good story.

I'd highly recommend the book to readers who enjoy Gothic literary fiction.



Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review of "The Child" by Fiona Barton




Like many print journalists in the internet age, Kate Waters - a reporter for the 'London Daily Post' - is anxious about her employment. The paper is slated to let some reporters go, and Kate - wanting job security - needs a good story to impress her boss. Hence, when Kate learns that an infant's bones were dug up at a London excavation site, she thinks it's just the ticket. Kate proceeds to investigate the incident, with an eye to publishing the identity of the child's mother and the circumstances surrounding the burial.

Kate's initial article about the tiny corpse strikes a chord with two women, former nurse Angela Irving and book editor Emma Simmonds.

Angela Irving gave birth to a baby girl, Alice, over forty years ago - but didn't get to take the infant home. The newborn was stolen from the hospital and never found. Angela, who still hasn't recovered from the loss, thinks the unearthed baby might be her child.

Emma Simmonds grew up on the street where the baby was found, and lived there until she was sixteen. News of the uncovered newborn makes Emma very anxious, but we don't learn why until later.

Most of the story is told from three rotating points of view: Kate, Angela, and Emma.

Kate, an experienced journalist with helpful police contacts, interviews both Angela and Emma - and gets on the inside track with both of them. Thus, when the cops compare Angela's DNA with the baby's DNA, Kate is one of the first to know the results. And when Emma decides to recount her story, she tells it to the reporter. The police aren't always happy about Kate's 'interference', but she actually helps their investigation.

Kate Waters was first introduced in Fiona Barton's previous novel, 'The Widow', in which she was a VERY aggressive journalist - who'd do anything to get her story. I found Kate to be overly abrasive in that novel, and didn't like her much.

In this book Kate is STILL pushy, but demonstrates some of her softer side - both at home and at work.....where she's mentoring a young reporter named Joe. Kate remains focused on getting scoops and writing juicy articles, but shows empathy for Angela and Emma. So that's good.

In Angela's narrative, we learn about her husband Nick and their two grown children, who find it difficult to deal with Angela's unquenchable grief. Angela is desperate for closure regarding Alice - even if it means learning that the child died a long time ago.

In Emma's story, we find out that she was a troubled girl who had a turbulent relationship with her mother Jude, an attorney. Jude raised Emma alone, and though Emma asked constantly, Jude wouldn't identify the father. This had unfortunate consequences.

Things got even worse when Jude's boyfriend, Will, moved in with them. Jude was forced to choose between her man and her daughter, and she chose Will - forcing 16-year-old Emma to move out. As a result, mother and daughter didn't speak for years.

Emma is married to an 'older man' - a college professor named Paul - who's very solicitous of her welfare. Emma loves Paul, but has kept a lot of secrets from him. For her part, Jude doesn't like Paul and would like to see her daughter split up with him. In fact Jude - who recounts some sections of the book - shows herself to be a callous, selfish woman who's desperate for a man. She's also a terrible mother (IMO).

As Kate and the police pursue their inquiries, big secrets are revealed - things that eventually pull all the threads of the story together in a very satisfying way. My major qualm with the book is a plot point that stretches credibility quite a bit - more than I'm comfortable with.

Overall, I enjoyed this suspenseful, well-written book, which has compelling characters and a page-turner storyline. I highly recommend the book to mystery lovers, who'll enjoy trying to puzzle out what's going on.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review of "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What's She's 'Learned' " by Lena Dunham




I listened to the audio version of this book (read by the author). I picked it up from the library because I think Lena Dunham is smart and talented and I like her TV show "Girls" - which is bold and clever. That said, there were parts of the book I liked and parts I didn't. For me Dunham describes too many sexual exploits that don't provide enlightenment about anything. She seems to be a free spirit in this realm but I don't need the details - and too many of her sexual interactions go badly and provide pictures I don't need in my head.

More interesting were the descriptions of Dunham's demons. She was a troubled child, fearful of everything. She disliked sleeping alone from childhood on - which eventually led to numerous sleeping companions, platonic and otherwise. Dunham was obsessed with death and felt compelled to spread the fear to everyone. She was disorganized, hid half-finished homework under her bed, and couldn't make friends. Her parents - a loving, caring couple - took her to analysts as needed and Dunham's closest relationship as a child/young adult was apparently with a professional who helped her complete assignments and cope with her life.

In the fifth grade Dunham's problems relating to peers led to a close relationship with her male teacher - a "friendship" that got too close and became slightly inappropriate. Dunham's irate mother descended on the school to straighten out the situation. Dunham more or less ends the story there (too bad, because I was curious to know more).

At one point Dunham had insufficiently safe sex with a bisexual guy who proceeded to tell her he'd recently slept with an AIDS patient. Being a hypochondriac anyway Dunham proceeded to live her life as an "AIDS victim" for months, until she got a clean bill of health. She also describes a few anxiety-filled summers at sleepaway camps, where her biggest (maybe only) triumph was diving off a cliff with the help of a counselor. There are plenty more such stories in the book.

Interspersed with the essay portions of the book are semi-humorous 'lists' of various kinds such as: things Dunham learned from her mother; things she learned from her father; e-mails she'd write if she had the nerve; things she was afraid of; etc.

Through all the stress and anxiety and crises however, Dunham seems to have recognized her gifts and talents. After a couple of mundane jobs perfomed poorly she learned to strive for and achieve success. Even this wasn't all good however. Dunham provides a disheartening description of "Hollywood Men" that glom onto successful women to enhance themselves.

I imagine Dunham will have plenty more to say about her life in the future, which might be interesting to read about. I'm be looking out for another memoir.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, December 4, 2017

Review of "The Chalk Man" by C.J. Tudor




The book's narrator is 42-year-old Eddie (Ed) Adams, an unmarried English teacher who still lives in his childhood home in the English village of Anderbury. Lonely and longing for company, Ed has taken in a lodger - a pretty, twentysomething called Chloe who works at an alternative clothing shop in Boscombe.

As the story opens Ed is anxiously expecting a visit from his childhood friend, Metal Mickey, whom he hasn't seen in decades. Whatever Metal Mickey wants.....it can't be good.

The story alternates back and forth between events that occurred thirty years ago, in 1986 and what's happening now, in 2016.

*****

During the summer of 1986, twelve-year-old Eddie Adams had a little gang of friends that would meet to ride their bikes, visit each other's houses, go to the playground, traipse through the woods, and so on. The group included Eddie, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and a girl called Nicky. As the novel unfolds, we learn about each of these characters - their quirks, personalities, and home lives.

When the fair came to town that summer Eddie and his pals met on a Saturday, to attend the big event. That was the day 'everything stopped being normal.' Eddie - searching the fairgrounds for his lost wallet - happened to be nearby when the Waltzer ride snapped and threw a carriage. The flying metal sheared half the face off a pretty teenage girl, and almost severed her leg. Pressed into service by Mr. Halloran - a new teacher in town - Eddie helped save the girl's leg.....and life. From that moment on Eddie thought of the mutilated teen as 'Waltzer girl', and had a lasting bond with Mr. Halloran.

When Eddie was chatting with Mr. Halloran one day, the teacher - who liked to draw with pastels - described a game he played as a youth. He and his friends made up a secret code using 'chalk men', which they employed to leave covert messages for each other - like 'meet me at the park.' Eddie and his friends thought this was a nifty idea, and invented chalk men symbols to communicate with one another. Each kid had his/her own color, to identify the message writer.

This was all good fun until the day chalk men drawn in white, which was nobody's color, led the boys to the woods. There they found the body of a dead girl, dismbembered and scattered around. An Anderbury resident was blamed for the crime, but Eddie had doubts about the person's guilt.

Skip ahead to 2016, and Metal Mickey - during his visit with Ed - says he's writing a book about the girl's murder and wants Ed to help. When Ed seems reluctant, Metal Mickey throws in the clincher - he claims to know 'who really killed the girl.'

That's the backbone of the novel, but only part of the story, since there was (and is) a lot going on in Anderbury.

In 1986, for example, drama in Anderbury included: child abuse; bullying; an accidental drowning; anti-abortion protests; an unwanted pregnancy; a man being beaten senseless; a pet tragedy; inappropriate romances; a suicide; and Eddie talking to ghosts. During that year Metal Mickey distanced himself from the gang and - later on - a car accident made the estrangement permanent.

In 2016 things are pretty quiet in Ed's life, though he drinks and smokes too much. Ed's sedate existence changes, however, when he and his friends receive envelopes containing a stick of chalk and a chalk man drawing. These mailings are followed by Metal Mickey's visit - which leads to another death.

By the end of the book, all the story's mysteries are resolved (well.....maybe not the ghosts), and Waltzer girl's story comes full circle.

The characters in the book are three-dimensional and interesting, and the story is well-crafted and engaging. There are clever surprises that aren't over-the-top, which I appreciate. (Hyperbolic revelations at the climax of thrillers seem to be very popular lately).

All in all, this is an enjoyable psychological thriller that I'd recommend to fans of the genre.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (C.J. Tudor) and the publisher (Crown) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, December 3, 2017

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.


Rating: 3 stars