Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of "In This Grave Hour" by Jacqueline Winspear



On the day Britain enters World War II, private detective Maisie Dobbs gets a visit from her old colleague, Dr. Francesca Thomas. Francesca, a Belgian national, asks Maisie to investigate the death of Frederick Addens - a Belgian refugee who came to Britain as a teenager during World War I.....and never went home. Instead, Addens made a life in England and became a railway engineer.

Addens was shot in the head while kneeling, which seems like deliberate murder to Francesca. However, Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell of Scotland Yard contends that the railway man was killed during a robbery. Moreover, Scotland Yard is especially taxed during the gear up for war, and isn't making much progress catching Addens' killer. So Maisie takes Francesca's case and starts looking into Addens' death with the assistance of her employees, Billy and Sandra.

Shortly afterward another Belgian refugee from World War I - a banker named Albert Durant - is killed. Scotland Yard again connects the homicide with a robbery. However, Maisie learns that both Addens and Durant were shot with the same kind of gun, and concludes that the killings are linked.

Maisie interviews people who assist Belgian war refugees.....and some of them also turn up dead. The detective decides that the key to all these murders lies in Belgium, and makes her way there - a VERY diffcult undertaking during wartime. While on the continent, Maisie gleans information that helps her solve the crimes.

Though the murder mystery is at the heart of the story, the book provides fascinating glimpses into London during the early days of World War II. Everyone carries gas masks at all times, barrage balloons hover above the city, and blackouts are mandatory at night - when even a tiny chink of light will garner a visit from the 'light police.' In addtion, many children are evacuated to the country, and schools are re-purposed for wartime activities.

A secondary plotline involves the evacuation of a small girl named Anna, about five years old, to Chelstone Manor - the estate of Maisie's patron. At the manor, Maisie's father and stepmother help look after the child, whose family is unknown. Furthermore, Anna refuses to speak and clings tenaciously to a little suitcase she brought along. When Maisie visits Chelstone Manor she's very taken with the girl, and becomes determined to help her. Maisie's dad warns his daughter not to get too involved with Anna - who will have to leave at some point - but Maisie can't help herself. This part of the story is sweet and moving.

The war causes all kinds of concerns. Maisie's office assistant Sandra - who's pregnant - is worried about bringing a child into a conflicted world. Everyone thinks about the inevitable rationing of food and fuel. People are frightened of German bombs. And so on.

There are a great many ancillary characters in the story, and I had some trouble remembering who's who. All in all, however, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of historical mysteries.

This is the 13th book in the Maisie Dobbs series, but can be read as a standalone without missing much.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review of "Anatomy of a Scandal" by Sarah Vaughan



James Whitehouse seems to have it all. He grew up privileged, went to school at Eton and Oxford, and is now a junior government minister with a promising future. James has a beautiful wife, Sophie, and two sweet children, Emily and Toby - whom he dotes on. For her part, Sophie adores her husband - a tall, handsome, charismatic man who still makes her heart flutter after twelve years of marriage.

Unfortunately, a costly mistake is about to shatter James' world.

James was a 'player' in his youth, and Oxford University was a particularly rich playground. James and Sophie became a couple at college, but James still hooked up with other co-eds all the time - thinking it was his natural right. James and Sophie broke up for other reasons, but met again seven years later - and got married. Once he wed, James made up his mind to be a faithful husband and good father - and he stuck to his pledge for a long time.....until five months ago.

At that time James started an affair with his parliamentary researcher, Olivia Lytton - a lithe, blonde, beautiful 28-year-old. The affair began almost accidentally, but escalated to the point where James and Olivia shared a hotel room at a Tory party conference. James broke off the liaison soon afterward, leaving Olivia bereft and heartbroken. Nevertheless, a week or so later James and Olivia had one last romp in an elevator in Parliament - an equivocal incident that Olivia now views as rape. The authorities agree with her, and James is put on trial.

The story is told from the rotating points of view of several of the main characters, including James, his wife Sophie, and QC Kate Woodcroft, who's prosecuting the case. The story also has flashbacks to the early 1990s, when James and other characters were students at Oxford.

In the present, Sophie is crushed by her husband's perfidy. But she's a political wife, and feels pressured to put the best face on things. Sophie talks about her raw emotions, her concerns about her children, her belief in James' innocence, and the terrible impact the trial has on her. She also remembers back when she was a co-ed in college, where she was a rower with high hopes for her future.

QC Kate is thrilled to have such a high profile case to prosecute. The lawyer is divorced with no children, and devotes most of her time to work. Socially, Kate likes to visit with her best friend Ali, and has the occasional tryst with Richard, her married former pupil-master.

Kate believes that Olivia was raped, and badly wants James to be found guilty. She's aware, though, that a jury will be reluctant to convict a respected government official - especially one as good-looking and charming as James. Thus, Kate's quite anxious about the trial.

For his part, James feels guilty about the affair with Olivia, and wants to make things right with his wife. Assuming he gets exonerated of the rape charge, James thinks he can survive the scandal and rehabilitate his career. That's because James is best friends with the current Prime Minister, Tom Southern.

James and Tom met at Eton, and attended Oxford together. There they belonged to an elite dining club called The Libertines, who were renowned for their bad behavior.....generally smoothed over with large handfuls of cash. In 1993, an unfortunate incident at Oxford left Tom in James' debt. In fact, Tom owes James big time!

The book is largely a character study, showing how people are molded by their life experiences - and how they react to a humiliating public scandal. James' trial and its aftermath are compelling, and I was curious to see the ramifications for everyone involved. I'm not a proponent of 'stand by your man no matter what', so I especially wanted to find out what Sophie does. I won't say any more because of spoilers.

The storyline seems quite realistic, since sexual peccadillos among prominent men are a dime a dozen. Just off the top of my head: Bill Clinton, David Petraeus, Eliot Spitzer, Gary Condit, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner.....and fictional Peter Florrick (The Good Wife) and Fitzgerald Grant (Scandal). On that note - except for the addition of the alleged rape - the story in 'Anatomy of a Scandal' isn't that original.

It might be an intriguing change to see a book about an unfaithful woman Prime Minister (or whatever) whose husband has to 'stand by his gal.' (LOL) Still, this type of gossipy tale is always engaging and - for the most part - I enjoyed the book.

On the downside the characters inner musings are excessive, and there's too much minutiae in each of their narratives....too much description of every little thing they say and do. This slowed down the story and made me impatient to get on with the action.

All in all, this is a good suspense novel, and I'd recommend it to fans of that genre.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Sarah Vaughan), and the publisher (Atria/Emily Bestler Books) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review of "Curse of the Spellmans" by Lisa Lutz




Thirty-year-old Isabel (Izzy) Spellman - as well as her mom, dad, and teenage sister Rae - all work for the family private detective business. Spying seems to be ingrained in the Spellman DNA because, besides taking on cases, they constantly snoop on each other and anyone else who comes into their orbit.

Izzy is always on the alert for a new boyfriend (or as she puts it, a new future ex-boyfriend), so an attractive fellow who moves in next door to the Spellmans quickly catches her eye. Izzy immediately becomes suspicious, though, because the guy's name is John Brown (sounds phony) and he's a landscaper (seems fishy). John Brown soon becomes "The Subject" of Izzy's inquiries and she engages in various ruses to try to discover his place and date of birth and his SS number - so she can pry into his life. The subject is pretty cagey though and Izzy is stymied. Then, when nosey Izzy discovers that the subject keeps a door in his apartment locked, she becomes obsessed with getting into the closed room. Izzy's increasingly desperate (and funny) attempts to break in eventually lead to a restraining order and four arrests....a serious matter, because she could lose her P.I. licence.

All this is quite entertaining and leads Izzy to other humorous situations including: meetings with a wise octogenarian lawyer who can't get the temperature of his coffee quite right; staying with a staid police inspector who has a lot of house rules; watching a bunch of episodes of "Dr. Who"; paying her teen sister Rae (a very tough negotiator) for services rendered; and more.

Meanwhile, Izzy is trying to find out who's committing vandalism on a retired teacher's yard displays....a crime that eerily resembles some of Izzy's youthful misbehavior. To top it off, EVERY member of the Spellman family seems to have a secret. Dad is working out on the sly and eating healthy; mom is creeping out at night; Rae has mysterious new friends; and attorney brother David is (uncharacteristically) dirty and drunk. Of course Izzy feels compelled to find out what's going on with everyone.

The book is entertaining but I found Izzy to be irritating. She has no boundaries, is intrusive, never asks permission, and seems oblivious of other people's feelings. In real life a person who met Izzy would probably want to move to the other side of the country.....or world. Still, the story is fun and would probably appeal to fans of comical cozy mysteries.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review of "Remains of Innocence" by J.A. Jance




Massachusetts resident Selma Matchett, a cantakerous, mean-sprited hoarder, is estranged from both her children, Liza and Guy. When Selma enters hospice care, Liza cleans out her mom's house and finds nearly $150,000 hidden in books and magazines. Liza proceeds to spend some of the cash to renovate her mother's decrepit house for sale. Then, at Selma's funeral, an old man approaches Liza and tells her that be once knew her long-absent father and that Liza needs to be careful because some people 'don't forget'. Murder and mayhem soon begin and Liza takes off across the country on the 'underground railroad' operated by long-haul truckers, which is meant for abused women. Liza's plan is to get to her older brother Matthew in Bisbee, Arizona to see if he can explain what's going on.

Meanshile, across the country in Bisbee, Sheriff Joanna Brady has a lot to deal with. Junior, a handicapped man beloved by his adoptive parents and the community, is found murdered - his body lying in a cave with the remains of several abused animals and a live but tortured kitten. Joanna fears a budding serial killer might be responsible. The medical examiner, Dr. Guy Matchett (Liza's brother), is scheduled to do Junior's autopsy but he is soon found brutally murdered himself, his body showing evidence of torture. Joanna thinks the Junior and Guy deaths are unrelated and - when she's contacted by authorities in Massachusetts looking for Liza - concludes there's a connection between the crimes in Massachusetts and what happened to Guy Matchett.

The story skips back and forth between Liza's trek across the U.S. and Joanna's investigations in Arizona. Liza is handed off from one long haul rig to another and meets a series of interesting personalities along the way. In the Arizona sections, Joanna has a competent team of deputies and crime scene analysts and their work is well-described and informative. Joanna's family also plays a part in the story, including her supportive husband Butch, rodeo-loving daughter Jenny, and the family dogs and horses. This adds a homey touch to the book.

Joanna solves Junior's murder with the help of forensic evidence and the Matchett case with the help of federal authorities. The Machett solution, however, didn't quite ring true for me. This book is a fine addition to the Joanna Brady series and recommended for mystery fans.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of "Bad Blood" by Arne Dahl




Stockholm's Intercrime Unit A squad deals with serious crimes that extend beyond Sweden's borders. As this second book in the Nordic crime series opens, the team hasn't had a case in quite some time and is concerned about being split up.

Before that happens though, the FBI calls Unit A leader, Detective Superintendent Jan-Olov Hultin, to report that a Swedish literary critic named Lars-Erik Hassel has been murdered at Newark International Airport.....and the killer is on a plane headed for Stockholm.

The FBI tells DS Hultin that - before he was killed - critic Hassel was rendered mute by a diabolical device inserted into his neck.....and mercilessly tortured. This is the modus operandi of a serial murderer called the Kentucky Killer, who first used this torture method during the Vietnam War - to squeeze information out of the enemy. Afterwards, the Kentucky Killer employed this technique for his own deadly purposes. However, the Kentucky Killer died in a fiery car crash many years ago. So it looks like a copycat killer is on his way to Sweden.

Detectives from Unit A are deployed to Stockholm Airport to try to apprehend the copycat when he deplanes. However, there are too many passengers and too much confusion, and the murderer gets away. As the intercrime unit waits for the killer to make his next move they investigate Lars-Erik Hassel, to see who might have wanted the literary critic dead. Turns out Hassel was a self-important snob who mistreated his former wives and skewered many writers, ruining their careers. Almost everyone disliked Hassel, including his son. Was Hassel's murder random? A hit? Something else?

Meanwhile, the copycat killer gets busy in Sweden, and dead bodies turn up here and there. The police try to see connections among the victims, but make slow progress. Thus two members of Unit A, Detective Paul Hjelm and Detective Kerstin Holm, fly to the U.S. to consult FBI Special Agent Ray Larner - who spent years pursuing the Kentucky Killer. Hjelm and Holm makes important discoveries in America.....and their colleagues back home also obtain new evidence. This leads to some startling discoveries and a dramatic denouement.

The detectives in Unit A are an interesting bunch who navigate diverse private and professional lives. Paul Hjelm and Kirstin Holm deal with the aftermath of their illicit affair; Gunnar Nyberg - a former Mr. Sweden - is torn with guilt about his previous bad behavior; computer whiz Jorge Chavez adds a light, exotic touch to the team; and so on. The ongoing characters add engaging elements to the novel.

Although this is the second book in the series, it can be read as a standalone. I enjoyed the story and recommend it to fans of Scandinavian thrillers.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review of "The Handsome Man's Deluxe Café" by Alexander McCall Smith




As the story opens Mma Precious Ramotswe has made her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi - now happily married with a new baby - a partner in the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." This makes little difference to Grace's job duties, however, since business is sparse. Economic problems also make it necessary for Mma Ramotswe's husband, Mr. J.L.B. Mateconi - who owns a garage - to fire his lackadaisical apprentice Charlie. Feeling bad for Charlie, Mma Ramotswe offers him a position in her detective agency - a chancy proposition since Charlie would rather put on flashy outfits and chase ladies than do his work.

Meanwhile Mma Ramotswe is looking into the case of an Indian woman, called "Mrs." who apparently has lost her memory. Mrs. has been taken in by a kindly Indian brother and sister who hire Mma Ratowswe to find out who Mrs. is before the authorities deport her to South Africa.

Also on Mma Ramotswe's mind is a new project of Mma Makutski, who has decided to open a café and call it "The Handsome Man's Deluxe Café." Unfortunately Mma Makutski has little knowledge of the restaurant industry and makes some unfortunate hiring and menu decisions.

As always in this series the story meanders along, with many cups of tea and homey chit-chat among the characters. Mma Makutski, a strong-minded lady with definite opinions, is her usual abrasive - though amusing - self and Mma Ramotswe does her best to smooth things over as always.

As a heads up to mystery lovers I'll say there's little mystery or detective work in this book. It's more of an update about what the familiar, well-liked characters are up to. The author's relaxed method of story-telling is what makes these books charming and enjoyable and fans of the series will probably like this book.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of "Deal Breaker" by Harlan Coben




Myron Bolitar was a basketball phenomenon in high school and college and an early draft pick for the NBA. Unfortunately he was severely injured in his first exhibition game and had to quit basketball. Instead Myron got a law degree and became a sports representative. Now in his early thirties Myron represents a small stable of players, including football player Christian Steele - a star college quarterback who's just been drafted by the Titans.

Myron is a master of wisecracks and sarcastic remarks and is endlessly amusing to himself (and probably many readers). He reminds me of Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' and Rex Stout's 'Archie' in the Nero Wolfe books.

In any case, Myron is having trouble negotiating Christian's contract because the thuggish owner of the Titans, wanting to knock down the pay package, says Christian has a public relations problem. His beautiful girlfriend Kathy Culver disappeared 18 months ago and Christian was suspected of being involved. And Kathy (or her body) has never been found.

Just before training camp begins Christian, in a highly agitated state, calls Myron. Someone has sent him the latest edition of 'Nips' Magazine, a soft-porn rag that contains ads for phone sex. Shockingly, one of the ads features a nude picture of Kathy. Moreover Christian received a phone call from someone who sounds like his missing girlfriend.

At about the same time Myron's drop-dead gorgeous ex-girlfriend Jessica Culver (Kathy's older sister) shows up. Dr. Culver, her pathologist father, was just killed by a mugger and Jessica thinks this might be connected to Kathy's vanishing. Since Myron has known investigative skills, Jessica asks him to look into it.

So Myron investigates, with the help of his old college roommate Windsor Horne Lockwood III. Win is a rich, blonde, handsome, American aristocrat - but his dapper, dandyish appearance is misleading. Win is a sixth degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do, handy with guns, and perfectly happy to maim and kill his (or Myron's) enemies if necessary. In fact, Win is a sociopath (but a lovable one if he's on your side).

As Myron does the dual jobs of working out Christian's contract and looking into the 'Nips' and Kathy situation he comes across various thugs and shady characters as well as a college dean, a seductive married woman, a detective, Dr. Culver's best friend, a porn magazine publisher, a porn photographer, Kathy's mother, former college football players, and more. Most of the male characters are flat and blur together, so I had a problem remembering who was who. We do get to meet a regular in the series, Myron's assistant Esperanza - a Latin fireball who used to wrestle under the moniker 'Little Pocahontas'. Esperanza is always an entertaining senorita.

The first two-thirds or so of the book moves along pretty smoothly. Then, when Myron starts to figure out the truth about Kathy's disapperance, the story gets convoluted, confusing, and (frankly) not believable. Another irritant in the book is Myron's constant gushing about how beautiful his ex-girlfriend Jessica is. He mentions this on about every third or fourth page. At one point Jessica walks past an elegant society party and the jaws of ALL the men in the room drop as they turn to stare at her. (Come on!!! Really???)

It feels like, in this first book, Harlen Coben hasn't found his 'Myron Bolitar' legs yet. The book reminds me of the pilot episode of a TV series that starts out shaky but gets better later on. Overall I'd mildly recommend this book to mystery fans - not for the story but for a first meeting with characters that might just become favorites over time.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review of "The Little Book of Hygge" by Meik Wiking



Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) - the Danish art of living well - has become quite trendy these days. To find out what it's all about I read 'The Little Book of Hygge' by Meik Wiking (pronounced Mike Viking). Wiking is the CEO of 'The Happiness Research Institute' - a Danish think tank that studies satisfaction, happiness, and the quality of life.

In a nutshell, hygge is a feeling of well-being that can be engendered by pleasant surroundings, tasty food, and good company.....or whatever else makes you feel safe and content. As Wiking describes it, hygge is 'an atmosphere, an experience' - what we feel when we're with people we love in a warm and comfortable place.

Things that promote hygge are called 'hyggelig.' For instance, the following would be hyggelig: a small group of friends sitting around a fireplace in a cabin, wearing big jumpers (sweaters) and wooly socks, drinking malt wine. It would be even more hyggelig if a storm was raging outside. LOL

Danish people strive to have all their life experiences be as hyggelig as possible. They try to have hyggelig homes; go to hyggeling restaurants; entertain hyggelig visitors; play hyggelig games; work at hyggelig jobs; go on hyggelig trips; etc.

**********

A lot of creating hygge is common sense, but - if you want some pointers - Wiking provides a guide:

- Use lots of candles. The Danes place candles everywhere - in bedrooms living rooms, bathrooms, classrooms, boardrooms, etc.

- Place dim lighting in strategic locations. Wiking recommends light fixtures designed by Poul Henningsen, whose lamps provide soft, diffuse light.

- Create a feeling of togetherness with friends and relatives; togetherness is 'like a hug without touching.'

- Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Spend a lot of time with your family.

- Socilaize with friends and colleagues.

- Good food. Danish people like meat and potatoes.....and they love sweets - especially cake. A traditional feature of Danish children's birthday parties is 'Cakeman' - a pastry in the shape of a large gingerbread man, decorated with flags, sweets, and candles.

In the book, Wiking includes recipes for a few of his favorite Danish dishes. One is called Skipperlabskovs (Skipper Stew), which is brisket sitting in potato mash - served wtih pickled beets and rye bread.

- Hot beverages. Danes love coffee. If you watch Danish TV series, the characters are always making coffee, drinking coffee, and offering each other coffee.....(like tea in British TV series....LOL)

- Comfortable clothing. For professional wear, Danish men like a T-shirt or sweater under a blazer, usually in black or gray. Danes don't favor three-piece-suits. For casual wear, Danes like a comfortable jumper.....with leggings for girls or skinny jeans for boys. And Danes LOVE scarves.

- Casual hairdos. Danish hairstyles are 'wake up and go'.....or maybe a loose bun for women.

- Comfortable furnishings. Danes enjoy interior decorating, and their decor often includes wood furniture, vintage items, and an open fireplace and/or a wood-burning stove.

- Blankets and cushions. Necessary for snuggling up and getting cozy.

**********

After providing this overview of hygge, Wiking goes on to talk about how to be hyggelig outside the home; during every month of the year - from January to December; and during every season of the year. Wiking also describes various hyggelig experiences he's had with his friends, and writes about his happiness research.

Wiking's suggestions for hyggelig pastimes include things like: spend a weekend in a cabin; have a cooking party with your friends; go out on a rowboat and bring a picnic basket; put couches in your office; have a movie night - with popcorn; go to a hyggelig restaurant and order pickled herring and schnapps; buy confections at a bakery; enjoy exhibitions of Christmas lights; have smorrebrod (an open sandwich on rye bread) with beer or schnapps; read a good book; and so on.

You can probably think up hundreds of 'hyggelig' activities yourself. For example, here's one: invite a couple of friends over; watch Netlfix; bring in Mexican food; drink sangria....and later on - have chocolate eclairs for dessert. If you have some hygge suggestions, feel free to comment below.

Wiking sums up his treatise on hygge by noting that a complete hygge experience includes 'taste, sound, smell, and texture.'
- Hyggelig tastes are familiar and sweet.
= Hyggelig sounds might be: the crackling of burning wood; the pitter patter of raindrops; and trees waving in the breeze.
- Hyggelig smells could be aromas that trigger fond memories.
- Hyggeling textures might be wooden surfaces; smooth ceramic cups; and reindeer fur.

I feel like I gained a pretty good understanding of hygge from Wiking's book. However, Wiking's numerous suggestions for 'hyggelig experiences' got very repetitive.....and after awhile, it seemed like a lot of padding to have enough words for an entire book.

Still, if you're curious about hygge, this is a good crash course.


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Review of "After the Storm" by Linda Castillo




A ferocious tornado rips through Painters Mill, Ohio causing damage and fatalities. Two consequences of the tornado are especially relevant to Chief of Police Kate Burkholder. First, Kate rescues a baby from a crumpled trailer. The baby later dies and the parents blame Kate. Second, the bones of a man who disappeared decades ago are found among the ruins of an old barn on an Amish farm. Kate - who was raised Amish but left the fold long ago - investigates with her detectives.

Though it takes the police some time to identify the dead man the reader can guess who it is pretty quickly from the book's prolog where a man is pushed into a pen of hogs and eaten.

Meanwhile, Kate is now living with her boyfriend, investigator John Tomasetti, from whom she's hiding a secret. To add to Kate's problems, someone is trying to kill her - and Kate suspects it's the baby's meth-head father. He's elusive, though, and the police can't track him down.

The investigation into the dead man requires Kate to question several Amish families, who are less than cooperative. Nevertheless, Kate is able to put together a number of clues, connect the dots, and get on track to solve the crime. This isn't all smooth sailing because Kate tends to be reckless and keeps putting herself in dangerous situations - a bad idea when someone is trying to kill you.

The plot is well-crafted and the book's characters - including the various suspects, Kate's detectives, the police dispatchers, Kate's family, the baby's parents, and more - add interest to the story. I also liked the peeks into the Amish community, including aspects of their lifestyle and beliefs. I enjoyed the book and recommend it highly to mystery fans.


Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review of "How the Light Gets In" by Louise Penny



In the 9th book in the series Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a troubled guy: his best homicide detectives have been transferred out of his squad and he's been saddled with a bunch of lazy losers; his former mentee Lt. Jean-Guy Beavoir is not speaking to him and is once again abusing prescription drugs; he's still trying to ferret out corrupt individuals in the Sûreté du Québec (police department) and in return the powers that be want him gone; and he's landed a homicide investigation involving elderly Constance Oullet, the last member of the once famous Oullet quintuplets.

Turns out Constance Oullet recently visited the village of Three Pines, where Gamache has good friends and where he adopted his beloved German Shepherd Henri. Gamache simultaneously investigates the Oullet murder and assembles a secret squad that retreats to Three Pines in an effort to foil an evil plot hatched by the above-mentioned corrupt individuals.

The story is well-crafted and engrossing though there are some slow spots about the lives of the quints and the 'voyeur-industry' that sprang up around them. The characters are well-drawn and the residents of Three Pines are the kind of loyal friends we'd all like to have.

Every book needs a light side and there's an endearing scene where Henri (the dog) falls in love with Rose (the duck). All of Gamache's determined activity leads to an excellent, exciting conclusion. A good mystery.


Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review of "Every Last Lie" by Mary Kubica




Nick and Clara Solberg seem to be a happily married, successful young couple living on the outskirts of Chicago.....until something terrible happens.

Nick is driving his little girl home from ballet class when a terrible accident takes his life.....and miraculously spares his four-year-old daughter Maisie. Nick's wife Clara - who's home nursing their 4-day-old infant Felix when the tragedy occurs - is shocked and disoriented by the loss. One minute she's married to a successful dentist, and the next she's a 28-year-old widow with two small children.

Clara has other problems as well. Her mother is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and her father - who cares for his wife with the help of an aide - can barely cope.

The police investigate the crash and conclude that Nick's reckless driving caused the accident. Clara refuses to accept this; she doesn't think Nick would put his child at risk. Clara's beliefs are reinforced when Maisie says 'a bad man' was following the car.....and freaks out at the sight of a black automobile. Clara concludes that someone in a black car forced Nick off the road - in other words, murdered him!

Clara does some investigating of her own, and talks to people who live near the accident site. She brings her 'evidence' to the police, who say they'll look into 'the black car' murder theory. However, the cops are clearly skeptical.

Meanwhile, Clara - a photographer with little income at the moment - knows she has to pull things together. She needs to collect Nick's life insurance to pay for hefty funeral expenses and household bills; and she has to sell Nick's dental practice. When Clara looks into doing these things, however, she discovers that Nick was keeping BIG secrets from her!

The story is told in the alternating voices of Nick and Clara. Nick relates his experiences before the accident; and Clara talks about what happens right before and then after the crash.

In Nick's narrative we learn that he had a big fight with his bullying neighbor across the street; he pulled the tooth of a patient from hell, with dire consequences; he fell out with his 'partner' in the dental practice; he gambled with the family's funds; he became reacquainted with his (now married) former girlfriend, whose son might be his; and so on. Nick was becoming undone by these problems - but felt he couldn't tell Clara because she was pregnant.

In Clara's chapters, we see her find out about Nick's secrets.....one by one. Clara discovers that the dental practice is in disarray and that Nick's life insurance policy was cancelled. Clara also sees a receipt for a pricey necklace among Nick's things and learns that a woman had a restraining order against him. These discoveries - and other 'clues' - lead Clara to speculate that Nick was having an affair; that he was a drug dealer; that he was planning to leave her; etc.

Clara adds to her own troubles by refusing to tell Maisie that her father is dead. Maisie's continual request 'to see daddy' is met with lies and misdirection.

On top of all that, Clara's parents are in crisis. Her mother no longer recognizes her; acts out when Clara's visits; and - when no one is looking - swipes the car keys and goes for rides. For his part, Clara's father seems to be having problems with his memory and is apparently mishandling the family's finances.

As Clara tries to identify Nick's killer; take care of her money woes; figure out who Nick really is; and take care of a toddler and an infant - she starts to break down. She can't sleep, can't eat, and edges toward becoming delusional - unable to separate speculation from fact. Moreover, Clara's paranoia is exacerbated by a real life 'stalker.'

The story is engaging and kept my attention, but at some point - around the middle of the book - the characters' woes started to strain credulity.

For instance, Nick's problems became so immense that I no longer believed he could keep them from his wife. A man with so much on his mind couldn't act act completely normal at home. Surely Clara would suss something out!

As for Clara, she seemed to lose all her common sense and - at one point - behaved like a psychopath.....with her children right there. I found this behavior to be unbelievable.

Even with these problems, though, the story is a compelling thriller with surprises I never saw coming. The book doesn't require much deep thinking and would be a good choice for vacation entertainment (IMO).


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review of "Merchants in the Temple" by Gianluigi Nuzzi




"Merchants in the Temple" by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi is an exposé of the entrenched, morally suspect and financially unscrupulous culture of the Vatican. It's well known that power corrupts, that human nature can be self-serving, and that Church bigwigs are no angels....for many years they protected pedophile priests (as seen in the movie "Spotlight"). Still, I was shocked by the revelations in this story.

If Nuzzi is right, Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 because he couldn't deal with the engrained, powerful, self-indulgent, sometimes criminal (money laundering) Cardinals that run the Vatican. Benedict's resignation led to the election of Pope Francis, who apparently has a stronger stomach than Benedict. Pope Francis is determined to clean house - which has proven to be extremely difficult.

The book gives a detailed picture of financial shenanigans perpetrated by Cardinals and Vatican employees. I got a feel for what was going on but - there are so many people involved (with very long titles and names) and so much economic hocus pocus - it's very hard to understand the exact details and how it all works.

As far as I can tell the financial schemes and malfeasance in the Vatican involves: using donation money meant for poor parishes to bail out Vatican overspending; hiding money from auditors; laundering Mafia money; underwriting lavish apartments and lifestyles for Cardinals and other employees (food, wine, clothing, interior decorating, prostitutes/lovers, etc.); paying blackmail to keep Cardinals' sexual peccadillos out of the public eye (sexual liasions are supposedly very common among the Catholic clergy); patronage and nepotism - hiring WAY too many employees and paying excessively high salaries; using overpriced outside printshops for Vatican publications, rather than the fully capable Vatican printers; hiring contractors without getting estimates, and allowing them to overspend....with no oversight; permitting pension funds to become nearly bankrupt; being financially ignorant and inept (Cardinals aren't usually economists or businessmen); and more.

According to Nuzzi, Pope Francis has brought in financial experts and auditors- both religious and lay people - to fix some of this mess. However, the Cardinals have no intention of giving up their power. They resist reform; refuse to cooperate; pretend to cooperate; wage secret - and not so secret - campaigns to discredit the reformers; perhaps commit murder (Pope John Paul I died 33 days after he was elected, allegedly just before he was going to remove some Cardinals from power); and more.

Thus, Pope Francis might have to wait until the ensconced Cardinals reach mandatory retirement age (80) or die, and replace them with people he trusts. However, the 'power corrupts' problem might begin a new cycle of bad behavior (just my opinion)......

When I finished the book I admired Pope Francis but had very little respect for the Vatican. The self-serving Cardinals mentioned in the book apparently forgot what priests are supposed to do - minister to the Catholic people. In fact, the Catholic flock seems to be the last thing on their minds.

Overall, this is an interesting book, a real eye-opener - though perhaps a bit too detailed and confusing (though I admire the enormous amount of research Nuzzi must have done). In any case, I hope Pople Francis succeeds in his mission to 'fix' the Vatican and wish him luck.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review of "99 Red Balloons" by Elisabeth Carpenter



As the story opens a schoolgirl is abducted from a sweet shop in England, having been led to believe that the man in the woolly hat was sent by her mom. As the man drives the girl away, the song 'Ninety Nine Red Balloons' - which she likes - is playing on the car radio.

**********

Stephanie arrives at her sister Emma's house to find her sibling near hysteria. Emma's 8-year-old daughter Grace hasn't arrived home from school, and none of the neighbors have seen her. The police arrive to hunt for the child, but Grace can't be found anywhere. DI Lee Hines and DS Rachel Berry question Grace's relatives about where the girl might go, but the family doesn't believe Grace would wander off on her own.

As time ticks by - and the situation looks dire - Graces's family draws together to support each other. This includes the parents, Emma and Matt; Aunt Stephanie and her 13-year-old son Jamie; and the widowed grandmother. When the police leave to continue their search elsewhere, the Family Liasion Officer (FLO) - PC Nadia Sharma - stays to assist Grace's relatives.....who are falling apart.

Across England, in another town, a seventy-something woman named Maggie is disturbed when she sees the news story about Grace. Maggie's granddaughter Zoe was abducted 30 years ago, and the loss destroyed the family. Maggie's son Scott turned into a drug addict and criminal; Maggie's grief-stricken husband Ron died; Maggie's son-in-law David left to search for his girl; and Maggie's daughter Sarah became an alcoholic and committed suicide.

Maggie's lived alone since then, and has continued to follow news stories of vanished children. Maggie always sends a card to the parents of missing kids - with her name and address - in case the current police investigation turns up news of Zoe....who's never been found.

Most of the story is told in the alternating voices of Stephanie and Maggie. There are also sections narrated by an abducted child, and glimpses into the thoughts and behavior of a kidnapper.

In Stephanie's chapters we get insight into a frightened family trying to deal with a dreadful situation. As days pass, family members blame themselves and each other; can't bring themselves to shower or change clothes; drink too much; ignore the food dropped off by neighbors; and generally fall into despair. Stephanie has the added responsiblity of looking after her son Jamie, who gets a break from the suffocating environment by visiting his dad and going to school.

We also learn that Emma is not Stephanie's biological sister. Emma was adopted at the age of 10 after being rescued from an abusive home. Nevertheless, the siblings have a very strong bond and are devoted to each other. Still, Stephanie and Matt (Emma's husband) have a secret between them, which causes added tension in the already strained household. This is exacerbated by the presence of PI Sharma - who's always around.....listening.

In Maggie's narrative she describes her family tragedy; her continuing depression; her day to day activities; and the discomfort she feels with local people - who seem to exude pity. Maggie also talks about her friend Jim - a caring man who comes by regularly to check up on her. When Maggie and Jim see a photo of Grace's family in the newspaper, someone looks familiar.

In the chapters recounted by the child she seems drugged and sleepy during a long car journey - and frightened by her situation. She continually asks when she'll see her mommy.

And finally we see a nervous abductor trying to keep a child calm while he disguises or hides her, to keep from getting caught as he crosses borders. (Uh-oh!) I wanted to know what this was all about.

The police investigation continues behind the scenes, and the family is kept updated by the detectives and the FLO. But the cops don't divulge everything they find out until the book's climax, which is appropriately dramatic.

I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say the author has a deft touch with misdirection and the story has some big surprises.

The narrative is proabably an accurate depiction of how families react when a child goes missing. If you've ever mislaid a kid temporarily - in a store or park - you've probably felt a little of this. I found the story compelling and was anxious to discover what happened to Grace..... and what secrets people were keeping.

I'd recommend this engaging book to fans of psychological thrillers.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Elisabeth Carpenter), and the publisher (Avon) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review of "Top Secret Twenty-One" by Janet Evanovich



Stephanie Plum, bail enforcement agent, needs to round up Jimmy Poletti - a used car salesman accused of  trafficking girls. Jimmy is an elusive crook though, and while he's on the loose members of his gang are getting bumped off, one after another. Jimmy seems especially anxious to get rid of Briggs, a little person who was Jimmy's accountant and knows too much. After Briggs' apartment is blown up he convinces Stephanie to let him stay with her, with unfortunate consequences for Stephanie's abode.

The two men in Stephanie's life are on hand. Cop Joe Morelli is trying to capture Poletti and shows up at the various murder scenes and in Stephanie's love life - often with pizza or donuts. And security firm honcho Ranger is being threatened by a member of the Russian mob, who tries to wipe out his entire staff with the deadly poison polonium. Stephanie, worried about Ranger's safety, joins him on various exploits to catch the Russian.

Meanwhile, gun-toting Lula helps Stephanie run down some eccentric bail jumpers, Grandma Mazur goes to viewings at funeral parlors, Stephanie's mom drinks and irons to calm her nerves, Rex (the hamster) runs on his wheel, bombs and rocket propelled grenades blow up Stephanie's stuff.....all the usual shenanigans that go on in this series.

Many of the previous books in the Stephanie Plum series are laugh out loud funny, but it feels like Evanovich is really running out of steam with this one. The book felt stale, it recycled the same old scenes, and Stephanie still lusts after both Joe and Ranger - which is tiresome by now.

Moreover, by the end of the story it felt like Evanovich just wanted to get it over with, and the finale is rushed and tacked on.

A disappointing book.


Rating: 2 stars

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review of "Magpie Murders" by Anthony Horowitz



"Magpie Murders" is a cleverly constructed double whodunit.....two mystery books in one. Here's how it works:

Susan Ryeland, a fiction editor at London's 'Cloverleaf Books', is reading the manuscript of 'Magpie Murders' - the ninth book in Alan Conway's Atticus Pünd mystery series. Pünd - a fictional private detective inspired by Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot - is a German Holocaust survivor who lives and works in England.

Conway's Atticus Pünd books have been Cloverleaf's bread-and-butter.....and have even been optioned for a television show. Thus, Susan has high hopes for Magpie Murders. The only downside to the successful series is the author himself, who's not Susan's favorite person.

**********

Alan Conway's 'Magpie Murders' Manuscript

The plot of Magpie Murders, set in 1955, involves two deaths at Pye Hall - the manor house in the village of Saxby-on-Avon. The first fatality is Mary Blakiston, Pye Hall's housekeeper, who dies from a fall down the stairs. Mary had a tragic history: her teenage son Tom drowned many years ago, after which her husband left for good. Mary then clung tightly to her remaining son, Robert, who chafed under Mary's smothering attention. Robert left home as soon as he could, and works as an auto mechanic at the local garage. Mary and Robert have a fractious relationship.....and had a big, public argument shortly before Mary died.

In Saxby-on-Avon Mary was known as a do-gooder, always helping at church and lending her neighbors a hand. However, Mary was also the town busybody, who stuck her nose into everybody's business.....and learned people's secrets.

Mary's death is officially ruled an accident, but local scuttlebutt suggests foul play.....and there are whispers about Robert pushing his mother down the stairs. This disturbs Robert's fiancée, Joy Sanderling, who travels to London to ask Atticus Pünd to 'clear Robert's name.' However Pünd - who has a terminal illness - declines to help.

A few days later, Sir Magnus Pye, the owner of Pye Manor, is killed in his front hall....beheaded with a sword! When Pünd hears of this development he changes his mind and - with his assistant James Fraser - journeys to Saxby-on-Avon to help Inspector Chubb investigate the recent deaths. It turns out that Sir Magnus was a haughty, diffcult man who planned to sell a tree-filled copse, called Dingle Dell, to building developers.....a move universally opposed by the townsfolk.

As in all cozy mysteries, there's a handy group of suspects for the possible murder of Mary, and the definite murder of Sir Magnus. These include Sir Magnus's disenfranchised sister; his cheating wife; the vicar and his spouse; the doctor; the cleaning lady; Mary's estranged husband; and so on.

Pund and Chubb question persons of interest, collect clues, speculate about this and that.....and Pünd eventually reaches a conclusion.

*********

Editor Susan Ryeland is about to read the final chapters of Magpie Murders - where Pünd reveals all - when she realizes the last section of the manuscript is missing. Susan calls her boss, Charles Clover, whose copy of the book is also incomplete. This shouldn't be an insurmountable problem. Susan can just contact the author, Alan Conway, and ask for the missing pages. Except that Conway has committed suicide!

Susan looks for the lost chapters in Conway's home and office - and reaches out to his sister and other loved ones - but can't find the book's finale. This is a potential disaster for Cloverleaf Books, which depends on the megabucks generated by the Atticus Pünd novels.

Susan continues to search and learns that - like his character, Atticus Pünd - Conway was seriously ill. This could be a reason for his suicide. However, Alan's sister insists that the writer would NEVER take his own life. Moreover, Conway's diary reveals that he made plans and appointments for the days following his death.

Thinking it all over, Susan concludes that Conway was murdered, and that his death is connected to the missing pages of Magpie Murders. Thus Susan decides she'll track down the killer AND locate the vanished chapters. Lo and behold, a new amateur sleuth is born!

As before, there's a ready set of suspects for Alan's demise, including: his ex-wife; his boyfriend; a would-be writer who thinks Alan stole his idea; Conway's former colleagues; the producer who optioned the Atticus Pünd books for TV; and other folks acquainted with the cantankerous author.

Since the police accept that Conway killed himself, some people discourage Susan's investigations. Why rock the boat, after all? The intrepid editor carries on regardless, putting herself in grave peril.

In the end, Susan uncovers all. She learns the the truth about Alan Conway and finds the chapters that conclude Magpie Murders. So job well done!

Anthony Horowitz's dual suspense novel is well-crafted and a fitting homage to the 'golden age of British mysteries.' For added fun, Magpie Murders contains cunning tributes to people and places in Agatha Christie's mystery books.....and clever allusions and puzzles. Very amusing all around.

I enjoyed this entertaining novel and highly recommend it to mystery lovers. For fans of Dame Agatha, it's a must read.


Rating: 4.5 stars

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review of "Vicious Circle" by C.J. Box



  

Joe Pickett is a Wyoming Game Warden who's very good at catching wrongdoers in his district, Twelve Sleep County, a sprawling region of forests, mountains, rivers, and so on. Twelve Sleep County seems to be chock full of miscreants who have a grudge against Joe.....and are prone to target the warden AND his family: wife Marybeth and daughters Sheridan, April, and Lucy.

In this 17th book in the series, Joe is in the sights of former rodeo star Dallas Cates, who just got out of prison. Joe has a long history with the Cates family, all of whom are violent sociopaths. Joe's previous altercations with the Cates crew resulted in the death of Dallas's father and two brothers and the crippling of his (now imprisoned) mother....so Dallas is out for revenge.

Toward this end Dallas puts together a gang composed of himself, two ex-cons, and a meth-addicted woman. The gang saunters into Stockman's Bar for drinks and, while there, quietly discuss their heinous plans. Joe's acquaintance, Dave Farkus, happens to overhear the thugs and leaves a phone message warning Joe of a dire threat to his family. Farkus then goes on a hunting trip and ends up shot to death.....apparently by Dallas Cates and his buddies. Moreover, the bartender at Stockman's, Wanda Stacy, disppears.

Dallas is arrested for Farkus's murder, and hires defense attorney Marcus Hand - a high-priced legal shark who rarely loses - to defend him. In the courtroom, Hand accuses Undersheriff Lester Spivak of shenanigans with the evidence, and Cates is soon out of jail. With Cates on the loose, Joe and his family are in serious peril.

In an ironic touch, lawyer Hand's new wife is Joe's mother-in-law, Missy - a vain, self-centered golddigger with a nasty streak. Missy hates Joe, and is constantly trying to get her daughter, Marybeth, to leave him. (Missy is so over-the-top that's she's almost a comic character.)

A lot of the book involves the unsavory behavior of Dallas and his co-horts, including his jailed mother Brenda. There are some clever surprises as Joe susses out exactly what's going on, and tries to get justice for the gang's victims.

Joe's not all alone in his fight against the killers. The game warden gets some help from his notorious friend Nate Romanowski - a former special ops agent who's the cleverest, most capable, and toughest outdoorsman in the country. (Nate - who's a sort of 'Jack Reacher of the mountains' - is one of my favorite characters in the series. LOL)

In the midst of Joe's struggles with Dallas and his hooligans, some local poachers are targeting non-trophy animals. The hunters attack at random locations every few days, making it hard for the wildlife cops to catch them. In addition, Joe is approached by Wyoming's new governor, Colter Allen, who mentions Joe's 'special assignments' for the previous governor - and asks for similar favors. In Governor Allen's case, though, the requests are overtly self-serving and political. Will Joe comply? You'll have to read the book to find out.

The book has an interesting plot, but has less action and more talk than previous entries in the series - which makes the story feel a little slow. This isn't a major flaw though, and there IS plenty of excitement.

I'd recommend the book to readers who enjoy action thrillers, especially fans of the Joe Pickett series.


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review of "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" by Douglas Coupland




This is the story of a handful of Generation X-ers, defined as people born between 1960 and 1980.

In the book three late-twenty someones - Andy, Claire, and Dag - separately give up their upwardly mobile jobs and move to Palm Springs, California. There they take up residence in modest digs, take low-paying service jobs, and attempt to live more or less minimalist lives. They entertain themselves by telling stories (made up or real), drinking, snacking, having picnics, and - for the most part - eschewing serious relationships. Their purpose, apparently, is to reject traditional society, which they find oppressive. Though the characters reject the values of their nuclear families (which are not perfect, but whose family is?) they do maintain contact via phone calls, visits, and so on....so their isolation is not complete.

Though the hippie-ish lifestyle of Andy and his friends/acquaintances is amusing to read about, it strikes the reader (at least this reader) as unrealistic and unsustainable. Though a small segment of society can decide to 'do nothing' with their lives and suffer few consequences - if everyone took up this lifestyle the country's economy would soon collapse. And even for those who are determined to stick it out, this kind of freewheeling behavior becomes unattractive when people are no longer young (that is, approach their mid-thirties and older).

The main characters try to be committed to their 'no-strings' lifestyle, but life does impinge: Claire develops a huge crush on Tobias, an exceptionally handsome man - and follows him to New York - where their lives don't mesh. Dag is attracted to Claire's friend Elvissa, and tries to develop a relationship with her - until Elvissa skips town for an even more minimal lifestyle. Dag is also an obsessive vandal, damaging other people's cars and even destroying one by setting it on fire. I would have liked to see Dag punished for this, though he would undoubtedly bitterly resent the fines/jail imposed by outside society.

Regardless of my opinion of the characters (whom I didn't admire), the book is well-written and the characters are believable. It's interesting to get a peek into the thought processes of some Gen X-ers. I think the best part of the book is in the margins, where Douglas Coupland defines some of the original and entertaining Gen-X expressions/vocabulary. If you're curious about Gen X, this is a good book for you.
  


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review of "Stop the Presses! - A Nero Wolfe Mystery" by Robert Goldsborough




Rex Stout's "Nero Wolfe" books - set in the middle years of the 20th century - are among my favorite light mysteries. Wolfe is an eccentric, obese private detective who lives in a brownstone in New York City; almost never leaves his house; spends four hours a day tending his orchids; has a chef who prepares delicious gourmet meals; loves beer; and employs Archie Goodwin as his assistant, legman, and gadfly.

Stout's last Nero Wolfe book was published over 40 years ago, so - when I saw this 2016 pastiche by Robert Goldsborough available as an audiobook on Hoopla - I decided to give it a try.

The plot: It's the 1970s and Cameron Clay - who writes the "Stop the Presses" gossip column for the New York Gazette - has been getting death threats. This isn't surprising since Clay makes it his mission to insult and embarrass New York's better known citizens - and to expose what he thinks are illegal and immoral acts.

"Stop the Presses" is the most popular feature in The Gazette, so Lon Cohen - the paper's editor - asks Nero Wolfe if he would speak to Clay, assess the level of danger, and make appropriate suggestions. Wolfe gets Saul Panzer - the best free-lance operative in New York - to provide an in-depth profile of Clay, after which Wolfe agrees to see the journalist.

When Clay shows up at Wolfe's house - looking and sounding ill - he explains that he's been getting menacing phone calls, but can't identify the speaker from the muffled voice. The columnist does, however, provide a list of five 'suspects' who wish him dead:

- Mike Tobin - a cop who lost his job and went to prison after Clay tagged him for beating up suspects.

- Kerwin Andrews - a builder and developer who lost a big project after Clay revealed his shoddy construction methods.

- Millard Beardsley - A Harlem city counselman whom Clay has accused of taking bribes and putting the 'financial squeeze' on his constituents.

- Roswell Stokes - a shifty lawyer who's been pilloried repeatedly in Clay's column.

- Serena Sanchez - an opera singer who was married to Clay. She's publicly declared that she'd like to kill her ex-husband.

Wolfe tells Clay he can't help him, and suggests the columnist get private security or contact the police - but Clay refuses to do either. Cut to the chase, and Clay is found shot dead in his apartment. The cops quickly rule it a suicide, but the publishers of The Gazette think Clay was murdered, and hire Wolfe to expose the killer.

The story slows down at this point as Archie schemes to get each of the five 'suspects' to Wolfe's house for an interview - one at a time, over a series of evenings. Wolfe has a rule about hospitality under his roof, so there's a lot of blather about Archie taking hats and coats, making everyone drinks, seeing people in and out, etc. Of course every 'suspect' complains about Clay doing them wrong, and each one proclaims their innocence (naturally). Wolfe's 'frenemy' in the police department, Inspector Cramer, also shows up - to warn Wolfe not to embarrass the cops.

In between Wolfe's interviews, Archie attends a weekend soirée at the country estate of his wealthy girlfriend, Lily Rowan. The party includes playing cards, dining, and dancing, and Serena Sanchez - who's a guest - does some serious flirting with Archie.

After Wolfe speaks to all the persons of interest he mulls things over.....and eventually resolves the case. Now Archie has to, once again, persuade all the relevant people to come to Wolfe's house for the big reveal. Thus, there's more politeness and drink-making and so on. All this cajoling and cordiality serves to pad a rather thin plot and minimal mystery.

This book isn't a great addtion to the Nero Wolfe collection, but it's fun to visit with some favorite characters. For that reason, I'd recommend the book to fans of the series.

I don't think you have to start with book one to enjoy these stories. You can just jump in anywhere, and the author will catch you up very quickly.

I do have one HUGE problem with the book. All the Nero Wolfe books are narrated in the first person by Archie Goodwin - a midwestern boy whose accent would be 'neutral.' However, "Stop the Presses!" is read by Peter Berkrot, a New Englander who has a refined, rather poncy accent (he almost sounds British). This is absolutely inauthentic (I'd say terrible) for Archie, and kept pulling me right out of the story. I think a different narrator should be found for future Nero Wolfe audiobooks.


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Review of "The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare" by Lilian Jackson Braun




In this 7th book in the series, Jim Qwilleran (Quill) - formerly a crime reporter in Chicago - is living in a town called Pickax in Moose County.....a region that's '400 miles north of everywhere.' Qwill moved to the nether regions because he's required to live in Pickax for five years to get his inheritance: the Klingenschoen fortune and the Klingenschoen mansion. One of Qwills notable characteristics is his luxuriant moustache, which twitches when something is 'off.'

Qwill isn't very interested in the trappings of wealth, so he uses the Klingenschoen billions to establish the philanthrophic 'K-Fund'.....and is converting the Klingenschoen mansion into a museum. To this end, Qwill hires Mrs. Iris Cobb to be his housekeeper/house manager. This works out well because Mrs. Cobb - an antiques expert - will catalogue the contents of the mansion. Moreover, Iris is a wonderful cook, and bakes delicious cookies and cakes.

Two other members of Qwill's entourage are his beloved Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum, who have their own 'apartment', eat gourmet food, and get lots of attention: Qwill talks to them, reads to them, brushes them, and so on.

Yum Yum is a normal kitty - who likes to swipe and hide shiny things, but Koko is very unsual: he's a sort of 'cat clairvoyant' who can sniff out evil; predict crimes; mount rescue operations; etc. Koko communicates via yowls, facial expressons, and unusual behavior. In this book, Koko continually knocks Shakespeare books off the shelf.....especially Macbeth.

Though 'the cat who' books are ostensibly cozy mysteries, the 'mystery' part of the stories is sometimes rather nebulous.That's certainly the case here. For the most part, Qwill keeps busy with normal everyday things such as: dating the head librarian, Polly Duncan; taping the remembrances of elderly Pickax residents; hobnobbing with acquaintances from 'down below' who've moved to town for employment; conferring with Junior Goodwinter - the editor of 'The Picayune' - about modernizing the newspaper; avidly following the weather reports to see when 'the big one' (a huge snowstorm) will hit; and doing other mundane things.

On the 'suspense' side, a few things do concern Qwill: several people, including Senior Goodwinter (Junior's father) are killed in car accidents; Qwill's old friend Hixie Rice - a restaurateur - is acting hinky; and Mrs. Cobb is dating a businesman named Herb Hackpole - an unpopular, bad-mannered lout who drinks a lot and is mean to the cats. (Boo! Hiss!)

By the end of the book a crime is uncovered and a tragedy has occurred....and it looks like Koko predicted it all.

SPOILER ALERT

I have to say, Lillian Jackson Braun is not shy about divesting Moose County of people and property in her books. LOL

END SPOILER ALERT


I've been a long-time fan of this series, and I enjoyed this book (which is a re-read for me). It would be preferable to start at the beginning of the series, but "The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare" can be read as a standalone without missing much.

Recommended to fans of cozy myteries.


Rating: 3 stars

Friday, July 21, 2017

Review of "All the Light We Cannot See: by Anthony Doerr



 
Just before the start of World War II Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a little girl living in Paris with her father, the keeper of keys at the Museum of Natural History. Marie is blinded by cataracts at age six, so her father - who's clever at building models and puzzle boxes - constructs a wooden model of the neighborhood to teach Marie to get around. Marie is an intelligent child and budding naturalist who enjoys hanging out with scientists at the museum. She also cherishes her braille book "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne.

As it happens, the Natural History Museum is rumored to house a large, beautiful diamond called the "Sea of Flame. Myths say that whoever possesses the diamond becomes immortal but his/her loved ones suffer terrible misfortunes. After the war starts - when the Germans are about to take over Paris - the museum packs up and sends off its treasures in an attempt to keep them safe. Many people also flee the city and Marie and her father make their way to the coast city of Saint-Malo. There they live with Marie's great uncle, an eccentric, kindly gentleman who, like Marie, has an interest in science.

Meanwhile, in a German town, teenager Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta live in an orphanage. Like all boys in the area, at the age of fifteen Werner will be forced to work in the local coal mines where his father was killed. Werner, however, has an almost genius talent with electronics, especially radios. When this comes to the attention of the Nazis, Werner is sent to a select school to hone his skills. Soon afterwards young Werner is conscripted into the German army, where he joins a unit that tracks down radios used by the resistance to broadcast seditious information. When found, the resistance members are killed and the radio equipment confiscated.

Meanwhile a terminally ill Nazi officer - who apparently believes the stories about the "Sea of Flame" - is obsessively searching all over France to get his hands on the stone.

As the story unfolds, we follow Marie and Werner's experiences during the war. As Werner aids the Nazis in their destructive path around Europe Marie is drawn into a resistance movement. Towards the end of the war (and the end of the book), when the Allies are bombing Germany to smithereens, Werner's army unit arrives in Saint-Malo. At this point the various story lines come together and Werner and Marie become acquainted and form an unlikely friendship.

As expected in a book about war, there are many disturbing scenes. The Nazis are especially brutal, even to fellow Germans. At Werner's school, for example, 'weak students' are singled out and harassed. Werner's gentle friend Frederick, a dreamer who likes to bird-watch, becomes the focus of a particularly sadistic school official. Werner, in turn, suffers tremendous guilt for his inability to help his friend. Another unpleasant character is a French perfumer in Saint-Malo, who - wanting to gain favor with the Nazis - snitches (or make up lies) about his neighbors. This leads to fear, paranoia, and the arrest of Marie's father. In contrast, there are scenes of a vicious Nazi thinking about his beloved children, a reminder that (hard as it is to believe) Nazis had some human instincts.

The book has a strong, compelling plot and characters that are well-drawn and believable. And Anthony Doerr does a masterful job of interweaving the various story lines so that they all mesh at the book's climax.

This is a good book, worth reading.


Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review of "The Unbearable Lightness of Scones" by Alexander McCall Smith




This is the fifth book in the "44 Scotland Street" series.

In these affable, humorous books Alexander McCall Smith follows the lives of a group of people who reside in Edinburgh's "New Town" neighborhood. Many of the characters live in apartments at 44 Scotland Street - and others are their friends and acquaintances.
__________

Bertie is a sweet, bright 6-year-old boy whose mother, Irene, would win gold if 'helicoptering' was an Olympic sport. In addition to attending school, Bertie gets Italian lessons, goes to yoga, and regularly sees a psychotherapist named Dr. Fairbairn. Irene decorates Bertie's room in pink, dictates his playdates, and almost never lets him do anything fun. Poor Bertie wishes Irene would get a hobby.....but realizes HE'S her hobby.

With a little help from his dad, Bertie fulfills his dream of joining the Cub Scouts, along with his friend Tofu. Unfortunately, the Cub Scouts are now co-ed, so classmate Olive - a supercilious know-it-all who's declared herself Bertie's 'girlfriend' (over his strenuous objections) - joins as well. Gear up for friction in the Cubbies! I thought it was fun that Bertie and Tofu met Ian Rankin (the writer) during a Cub Scout map-reading activity.

Bertie repeatedly puzzles over the fact that his new little brother, Ulysses, looks just like Dr. Fairbairn. Uh Oh! Moreover, Dr. Fairbairn has been offered 'a chair' at a Scottish university, and is leaving town. (Bertie is bewildered....he thought the doctor already had a chair. Ha ha ha) In any case, a new psychotherapist is coming on board, which may be a good thing for Bertie.
__________

Angus is a portrait painter whose boon companion is his dog Cyril, who has a gold tooth. Cyril had 'an affair' in the last book, and Angus has been presented with six puppies. The pups cause a ruckus until a home is found for them....but the little guys might just be in peril. Concerned readers are worried ;(

Angus inadvertently becomes the custodian of a famous 'lost' (stolen) portrait that's come into the hands of Lard O'Conner - a local gangster. Lard and his cohorts know nothing about the painting's value.....so Angus hatches a plan to do right by the artwork.

Angus starts to think about marriage - and likes his friend Domenica.....but can these two independent spirits come together?
__________

Matthew, a sedate art gallery owner, marries schoolteacher Elspeth - and they go off to Australia for their honeymoon. While enjoying a romantic walk on the beach Matthew gets swept away by an undertow - and the subsequent misunderstandings almost land him in a mental hospital.

Matthew visits an uncle in Singapore who (accidently) imparts news that leaves Matthew poleaxed. Matthew has a lot to think about now.
__________

Domenica, an independent anthropologist, is irked because her neighbor Antonia 'stole' her blue Spode cup and is brazenly using it (the nerve!). So, when Domenica is asked to oversee a furniture delivery to Antonia's apartment, she sends Angus in to retrieve the cup.

This results in a 'cup crisis' AND reveals that Antonia is (apparently) a big drug dealer. Shocking.....but there may be an upside. If Antonia is arrested, Angus might be able to snag her apartment.....right next door to Domenica.

Lots of amusing misunderstandings in this plotline.
__________

Bruce, an erstwhile surveyor, thinks his spectacular good looks are his ticket to success. Bruce has become engaged to a pretty heiress named Julia and now lives in her upscale apartment, has a car and job - courtesy of her father, and has plenty of spending money for clothes, men's cosmetics, expensive meals, and so on.

Bruce views Julia as rather empty-headed - and thinks he's got it made - but he's dead wrong. After a rude awakening Bruce rethinks his lifestyle.....and might just become an upstanding guy.
__________

Big Lou is an amiable gal who owns a coffee shop.....and always gets involved with wrong 'uns. Her current boyfriend doesn't cheat (at least) but he's involved in a bizarre Jacobite plot to bring the 'Pretender to the Throne of Scotland' back from France.....and restore him to his rightful place.

The 'Pretender' is installed Lou's apartment - where he expects to be waited on hand and foot - while the Jacobites make their plans. There's a funny scene where the 'king' and his associate - dressed in historical togs - are mistaken for transvestites.

The book's title refers to the fact that Angus and Matthew suggest that Big Lou 'lighten up' her dense scones......but Lou has no use for feathery baked goods.
__________

This is an enjoyable addition to the series, highly recommend to fans. Even if you aren't familiar with the series, you could probably enjoy this entertaining book.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review of "The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation" by Melissa Rivers




I'm a fan of Joan Rivers and enjoyed her comedy routines, early 90's daytime talk show, and Fashion Police program. I've also seen the documentary "A Piece of Work" and read Joan's book "I Hate Everyone....Starting With Me."

In this memoir Joan's daughter, Melissa Rivers, relates amusing stories about her mother. Unlike Joan, Melissa is not a natural comic and some of her quips feel forced...or as if they were cribbed from her mom's joke collection. Nevertheless I enjoyed many stories in the book, which made me smile (or occasionally laugh out loud).

Some amsuing yarns revolve around Melissa herself. For instance, as a youngster Melissa was part of a 'kids club' in Las Vegas, composed of children of celebrities who were performing in the casinos. At one point Melissa's friends helped her pull out a loose tooth so the 'tooth fairy' would provide enough cash for the 'kid's club' to enjoy a whole night of arcade games and snacks. Apparently Joan was a VERY generous tooth fairy!

Then one time, during a road trip with her mother and father (Edgar Rosenberg), Melissa got hungry. Edgar drove to the drive-thru of a hamburger joint...which was OUT OF HAMBURGERS. This was a good opportunity for Joan to squash over Edgar to get to the car window and deliver a series of snippy, sarcastic remarks. Then the family went to Waffle House.

Melissa relates how her parents - who had similar values and ambitions - married five days after they met and seemed to be happy. But Edgar (apparently suffering from depression) committed suicide when Melissa was a teen. Joan, who was never politically correct and considered absolutely everything fodder for a joke, soon worked the event into her comedy routine. Joan did the same thing shortly after 9/11...giving people permission to laugh after tragedy.

Joan also loved to shop at airports, especially in duty-free shops and on international duty-free flights. Melissa (kiddingly I hope) says her mom once spent thousands of dollars on a trip just to get a 6-dollar-break on Toblerone chocolate. Melissa also joshes about her mom's numerous plastic surgeries; love of clothes, jewelry, accessories, and tchotchkes; line of clothing and jewelry for QVC; and insistence that people use proper grammar. Joan once quipped that a certain studio receptionist spoke worse English than her latino gardener who'd arrived in the U.S. last Tuesday.

Melissa recalls the innovative (at the time) "Red Carpet Show" she hosted with her mother, where they interviewed celebrities arriving at award shows like the Emmys and the Oscars. The Joan and Melissa program introduced the expression 'Who are you wearing?' and spawned a million copycat red carpet shows. Melissa amusingly talks about actors/actresses who were hard to talk to because they were either self-conscious, snooty, or resentful of being B-list celebs. Apparently the most reluctant red carpet walker was Tommy Lee Jones, who gave interviewers PTSD....ha ha ha.

Joan was a wonderful loving mother to Melissa and a devoted grandmother to Melissa's son Cooper. When Joan worked in/visited California she generally stayed at Melissa's Beverly Hills home - once hitchhiking there when she misplaced her driver. In any case, Joan took advantage of the opportunity to hang out with Cooper, keep him up too late, and ply him with candy, toys, and cash....bribes to keep his mouth shut about this and that :)

In the book Melissa has some harsh words for people she feels mistreated her mother. Jay Leno, for instance, wouldn't allow Joan to be on "The Tonight Show," saying he was honoring the wishes of the previous host Johnny Carson (with whom Joan had a falling out). Then, after Joan's death, Jay avoided Melissa when they were at the same awards event...not saying hello or expressing condolences. Melissa also mentions Katie Couric, who - during an interview - harped on Joan's 'insult comedy' instead of promoting Joan and Melissa's Red Carpet Show like she was supposed to. These sections bring down the tone of the book...which is supposed to be funny.

The book isn't screamingly hilarious but it's entertaining and moving...and Melissa's deep love and regard for her mother come through loud and clear. I'd recommend the book to fans of Joan Rivers and readers who enjoy celebrity memoirs.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of "The Marsh King's Daughter" by Karen Dionne



When Helena Pelletier hears that Jacob Holbrook has escaped from prison after killing two guards, she freaks out. Jacob, also known as "The Marsh King", is Helena's father.

Jacob kidnapped Helena's mother when she was 14-years-old and held the girl captive in the marshes of Michigan's Upper Peninsula for many years. During that time, Helena was born - and raised in isolation for 12 years.....until she ran away. Afterwards, Jacob was captured, convicted, and sent to prison.

As a child, Helena adored her father, an Ojibwa Indian who taught her to identify the local flora, gather edible plants, trap rabbits, catch fish, hunt deer, track animals, chop wood, and so on - everything one needs to know to live off the land. Although Jacob was cruel at times, Helena was content and - as far as she knew - had a good life.

Then, at the age of eleven, Helena happened to glimpse a happy family with two playful children - and a seed of dissatisfaction was planted in her mind. Helena 'named' the children she'd seen 'Cousteau' and 'Calypso' and they became her imaginary friends/muses. A year later a terrible incident led Helena to escape.

Since then Helena has (more or less) acclimated to a 'normal' life. She learned to socialize with other people, got married, had two little girls, and established a business making homemade jellies and preserves.

Now that Jacob's on the loose, Helena fears for herself and her family. Though the cops are searching for the escaped convict, Helena believes she's the only person who can track Jacob down and capture him - and she sets out to do exactly that.

Helena's hunt for Jacob is interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood. From scenes in the past we learn that: Helena's family lived in a primitive cabin with no electricity or modern conveniences; winters were horribly cold and summers brought hordes of mosquitoes and biting flies; the family rarely bathed or washed their clothes; Helena had a stash of old 'National Geographic' magazines that provided a peek at the outside world; Jacob was a sadist who exerted total control over his 'wife' and daughter - inflicting severe punishment for any disobedience; and Helena's mom was a downtrodden 'housewife' who cooked, sewed, slept with Jacob, and tried to provide little treats for her daughter.....though she didn't show much outward affection toward the girl.

In the present, Helena searches for her father, but running him down is a tough call. Jacob knows the local geography inside and out, and plays a skillful 'cat and mouse' game with his daughter. For her part, Helena has formidable tracking skills - and knows how to use a knife and gun. So it's a pretty fair contest between father and daughter.

As Helena traipses through the marshes and reflects on her life, she seems to retain a spark of love for her dad. However, any affection is hard to maintain in the face of his behavior. And Jacob's feelings for Helena seem to be ambivalent as well.

To add another element to the book, excerpts from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, 'The Marsh's King Daughter', are interwoven with Helena's story. The fable - about a princess who's a wild, selfish girl by day and a quiet frog by night - didn't add much to the book for me.

Many readers gave this book glowing reviews, and some consider it one of the best books of the year. It's true that the book is well-written, and the story is compelling. Nevertheless, for me the book is just okay. The problem is, I don't like any of the characters.....and Helena doesn't (completely) ring true to me.

Jacob is a criminal and sociopath, so he's an unsympathetic character (which is okay).
Helena's mother is a victim - and garners sympathy - but has no traits that make her likeable. I felt like I should have cared about her more.
As for Helena.....what I have to say requires a spoiler alert.

SPOILER ALERT

As a child, Helena's attitude toward her mother is unnatural. For example: When Helena's mother asks for help with some chores, Helena disdainfully walks away.....figuring her mom can't do anything about it. Helena pulls a knife and threatens her mother. Helena finds her mother's treasured hidden magazine and refuses to return it. When Helena's mother makes a doll for her fifth birthday, Helena uses it for target practice. Helena seems to care nothing for her mother's suffering. Moreover, in spite of Helena's disrespect for her mother, she obtains animal skins and expects her mom to make them into mittens and hats - very labor intensive endeavors.

Of course Helena is following Jacob's lead, but a child has a biological imperative to attach to (love?) her mother.....so this nasty behavior made me dislike Helena.

As an adult, Helena doesn't tell her husband about her past. This doesn't ring true to me. Helena periodically goes off alone - for weeks at a time - to hunt bears, go fishing, shoot deer, camp out in the woods, etc. And one time, Helena does this right after having a child. I can't fathom how her husband would think this was normal without a really good explanation. (I mean hunting for bears? Really??)


END SPOILER ALERT

Though I have criticisms, I think the book is well worth reading and would recommend it to fans of thrillers and literary fiction.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review of "The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes" by Lyndsay Faye




If you're a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories penned by Arthur Conan Doyle you'll enjoy this book. This collection of Sherlock Holmes tales written by Lyndsay Faye captures Conan Doyle's style, characterizations, old-timey language, flowery descriptions, quirky mysteries, sly humor.....everything that defines the original chronicles.

In these narratives Holmes artfully deals with a variety of intriguing cases such as: the haunting of Colonel Warburton, a former soldier in the Texas Army who has terrifying nightly visions of murderous Tejanos; an injured beggar dressed to the nines and a toff dressed in rags; the inexplicable poisoning of an entire family; a heinous country clinic for disturbed patients; a mysteriously missing twin brother; a corpse in the bath - with no wounds - drained of blood; a spiritualist with newfangled photochemical methods; an opera singer who's repeatedly kidnapped and released; and more.

In one very amusing story Lord Templeton, an effete dandy, invites Holmes and his 'doctor friend' (Weston? Wilson?) to a secret meeting of the Diadem Club. It seems the wealthy club members - ministers, baronets, and so on - are tasked with finding 'clever and famous people to bring into the fold'. (This strongly reminds of the Steve Carell movie "Dinner for Schmucks." LOL). Holmes, of course, is appalled by the idea, but goes at the urging of his brother Mycroft.

As in the original stories Holmes often disdains food and sleep, razzes on Scotland Yard detectives, makes lightning quick assessments of strangers, exchanges humorous banter with Watson, meets colorful ruthless miscreants, and collaborates with Inspector Lestrade. For his part, Watson sadly grieves after the death of his wife and happily rejoices when Holmes (whose 'death' devastated him) returns. On this note, a scene where Lestrade upbraids Holmes about the heartache caused by his phony demise at the Reichenbach Falls is very fitting.

Lyndsay Faye does a wonderful job continuing the Sherlock Holmes saga with these excellent stories. I'd highly recommend this book to mystery readers, particularly Sherlock Holmes fans. Keep on writing Ms. Faye!

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


Rating: 5 stars