Friday, March 31, 2017

Review of "The Jury Master" by Robert Dugoni

San Francisco attorney David Sloane - a former foster child who has no memory of his early years - has a knack for getting juries to vote his way. The talented lawyer, plagued by bad dreams and headaches, finds himself in a dangerous situation when Joe Branick - a friend and colleague of the
U.S. President - apparently commits suicide in Black Bear National Park in West Virginia. Before his death Branick, a stranger to Sloane, left the attorney a phone message and sent him a package. Unfortunately for Sloane, someone is desperate to get the package and seems willing to do anything to achieve this goal.

Meanwhile Detective Joe Molina, a local cop who's investigating Branick's death in the national park, suspects it wasn't suicide. He's stymied though when the Justice Department takes possession of Branick's body and moves to close the case over the objections of Branick's sister. It seems clear that people high in the administration have something to hide. Concurrently, retired ClA operative Charles Jenkins - who many years before participated in an operation with both Branick and the future President - is pulled into the situation when an attempt is made on his life.

As the story proceeds it becomes clear that a massacre occurred in a Mexican village 30 years ago, an incident which somehow affected Sloane, who was a young child at the time. As it turns out all three men - Sloane, Molina, and Jenkins - become involved in figuring out what happened to Branick, why the package is important, and what government officials are covering up. There's plenty of murder and violence along the way and at one point I became annoyed with some characters who seemed like cliches found in many thriller novels. The climax of the book, however, turned out to be quite original if not totally believable.

There are a lot of interesting characters and a lot going on in the story, which is an enjoyable thriller. I'll probably read more books by this author.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review of "NOS4A2" by Joe Hill

Victoria McQueen has a special ability. She can ride her bike across the 'Shorter Way Bridge' and arrive wherever she wants to be. As a kid, Vic uses this skill to retrieve lost objects. When Vic's mom misplaces a bracelet, for instance, the bridge takes Vic to a diner 40 miles away to retrieve it. And when Vic misplaces a photo, the bridge takes her to the school lockers where she left it.

Creepy Charles Manx also has a special ability. He has a vintage Rolls Royce Wraith that takes him to a place called 'Christmasland' - a supernatural amusement park he's constructed out of his imagination. Manx uses the car, which has the license plate "NOS4A2" (Nosferatu) to abduct children and take them to Christmasland. As the child is being driven to the park his/her life force is drained to sustain Manx and restore his youth. Thus, Christmasland is populated with decomposing ghoul children who delight in biting, tearing apart, and killing people - especially adults.

Abducting children is a tricky business so Manx enlists an assistant named Bing, a somewhat dim-witted sociopath who once took a nail gun to his father's head. Bing's job is to help subdue the kids and get rid of the parents. Because Bing uses a psychotropic gas for these tasks he's called the gas mask man.

By the time Vic becomes a teen she's all kinds of disturbed, with parents that don't get along and a talent she doesn't understand. So one day Vic goes out looking for trouble and finds it. Vic crosses the Shorter Way Bridge and happens upon Charles Manx - who's on his way to Christmasland with a child. Vic tries to rescue the kid and fails, but she manages to escape from Manx...and is instrumental in putting him in prison. A decade later Manx dies in prison....BUT NOT REALLY! And his autopsied body disappears from the morgue.

While Manx was locked up a lot went on in Vic's life. She became estranged from her parents; became an alcoholic; went to a mental hospital; had a son; etc. In any case, when Manx 'dies' and gets back on the street he kidnap's Vic's 10-year-old son Wayne. Law enforcement officers don't believe Vic's story that Manx took the boy (Who would? Manx is dead after all.) So Vic herself becomes a suspect in Wayne's abduction and has to elude the FBI while trying to rescue her son. And the epic battle between good an evil is on.

There are interesting secondary characters in the story including a librarian who gets supernatural messages using scrabble tiles; Wayne's father Lou - an amiable motorcycle-riding mechanic who'd do anything for his boy; and an FBI agent who has an inkling that's something odd is happening. The story has lots of creepy scenes including Bing torturing and killing his victims; Manx taking an increasingly delusional/deteriorating Wayne on the long drive to Christmasland; mysterious phone calls from dead children; and more. There's also plenty of action, with stabbings, hammerings, shootings, narrow escapes, etc. The book's finale is fittingly dramatic and bloody.

I enjoyed this well-written horror/thriller and recommend it to fans of the genre.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review of "Born With Teeth" by Kate Mulgrew

Inspired to become an actress in grade school, Kate Mulgrew strove to fulfill that goal and - by dint of ambition, talent, hard work, and good luck - succeeded. Kate grew up in a large Irish family with somewhat eccentric parents - an artistic mom and a free-spirited dad - who drank hard, partied hard, and had child after child. Though there was apparently much love in the family, there was never enough food or attention to the children. The tragic illness of a young sister made the situation even more difficult. 

Yearning to get professional training as an actress, Kate left home at a young age to go to school and study her craft, and soon landed roles that kick-started her career. These early parts of the book are compelling and touching.

While pursuing her career Kate had a series of romantic entanglements. It seems that Kate was prone to falling in love, and when a man attracted her she made it her business to snag him - even if he was involved with another woman. In one case this led to an unexpected pregnancy and a daughter given up for adoption, an event which haunted Kate for decades. 

Kate also married and had two sons whom she apparently loved, but neglected for her career. The marriage soured and came to a difficult end and Kate was soon after another man. Kate’s inevitable breakups were as dramatic as the beginnings of her relationships, and led to much heartache. Kate describes all her romances in some detail and I felt they took up too much of the book. 

Intermingled with the romances, however, were touching/amusing scenes in which Kate interacted with friends and family or hobnobbed with fellow actors. She talks about getting the role of Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager and narrates a compelling tale about a trip she took with her mother prior to her mom's serious illness. These sections were interesting and it would have been great to read more of them.

All in all the book is just okay for me. I felt like some of the scenes didn’t ring true (perhaps too much author’s license) and that the story was too much about Kate’s love life and too little about her professional life. Still, the book is worth reading and gives some insight into the life of a talented and successful woman.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review of "The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters

Formerly well-off Frances Wray and her mother are having a hard time in post-WWI London. Frances' brothers were lost in the war and her father died leaving a load of debt. To conserve money the Wrays had to let the help go. So 26-year-old Frances has to do all the household chores while her mother - apparently unable or unwilling to do any cooking or cleaning - goes about her personal business. Thus Frances is generally roughly dressed, tired, and sporting the rough, red hands of a charwoman. Not the life she had pictured for herself.

To help pay the bills the Wrays decide to rent part of their house to paying guests, Leonard and Lillian Barber. The Barbers are an upwardly mobile twenty-something couple that have little in common with the Wrays. Leonard works for an insurance company while Lillian stays home lounging and decorating her rooms to resemble an exotic bazaar. Though Frances is put off by brash, intrusive Leonard she starts to becomes friendly with the Barbers. On a night when there's been too much drinking this leads to an uncomfortable game of 'Snakes and Ladders' where a drunk Leonard enforces his own made-up rules. Frances is embarassed and starts to sense some trouble in the Barber marriage.

Living in the same house, Frances and Lillian become friendly, with chats and walks and picnics. Eventually Lllian cuts and waves Frances' hair, updates her party gown, and takes her to a relative's birthday party - where there's drinking, dancing, and flirting. Leonard also seems to like Frances, and hangs around to talk to her whenever he gets the chance. Proximity and attraction lead to a relationship that ultimately results in a terrible accident, a police investigation, and a trial.

The author is adept at depicting emotions and the characters feelings of love, desire, worry, anger, despair, and so on seem authentic and true to life. That said, I didn't especially like many of the characters. Frances seems pushy and a little selfish, Lillian appears a bit manipulative and obtuse, and Leonard comes across as a bully and a lech. I felt some sympathy for Mrs. Wray, who lost her sons and husband and is bewildered by her daughter. And I was entertained by Lillian's large, boisterous family, who inject a needed touch of humor into the book.

To me the story was disturbing but this is a good book that's well-written and worth reading. Plus it contains subject matter that's good fodder for book clubs.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, March 27, 2017

Review of "Are You Sleeping" by Kathleen Barber

Josie Buhrman's father was shot and killed 13 years ago, and Warren Cave - the goth teenage boy next door - was convicted of the crime. Afterwards, Josie's already troubled mother fell apart, and ran off to join a cult. To top things off, Josie's rebellious twin sister, Lanie, betrayed her in a very hurtful way. So at 18, Josie left a goodbye note for her beloved Aunt Amelia - with whom she'd been living - and left Elm Park, Illinois.

Josie backpacked and hitchhiked around the world, supported herself with low-paying food service jobs, and invented a fake history to tell new acquaintances. After years of roaming Josie met Caleb, a handsome international aid worker from New Zealand. They fell in love and eventually settled in New York, where Josie got a good job in a bookstore. Josie never told Caleb the truth about her past, which is about to come back and bite her in the butt.

A reporter named Poppy Parnell is making a podcast about the murder of Josie's dad, Chuck Buhrman. Furthermore, Parnell is questioning Warren Cave's guilt and looking at possible alternative suspects. The re-opening of the case generates a lot of interest among the general public, who proceed to talk and post comments about the case and everyone connected with it.

Josie is terribly anxious about Parnell's podcast, which reminds her of painful events. Additonally, the idea that Warren Cave might be innocent is anathema to her. After all, Josie's sister Lanie said she SAW Warren shoot her father. Who else could have committed the crime? Podcast groupies are ready with lots of suggestions, including Josie's mother, Warren's mother, Lanie, and others.

The podcast and the renewed publicity is apparently too much for Josie's mother, who commits suicide. As a result, Josie has to return to Elm Park, where she'll attend her mother's funeral, comfort her Aunt Amelia, and see her estranged sister Lanie. Caleb thinks Josie's mother is long dead, so she tells him it's her aunt's funeral, and convinces him to stay behind in New York.

Being back in Elm Park is very stressful for Josie. She's still furious with her sister; her cousin Ellen, a fashionista, is critical of her appearance; the viewing and funeral are difficult; and Caleb shows up and learns that Josie is big liar. Moreover, Poppy Parnell keeps trying to corner Josie, to get an interview for the podcast.

The story is told as a narrative interspersed with excerpts from the podcast, plus Tweets, Reddit threads, and comments from the public. This style works well for the book, and some of the 'messages' are very entertaining. (Sadly, it's a realistic portrayal of how insensitive people can be on social media.)

The basic plot - is Warren guilty? If not, who is? - is compelling. The main characters, though, are somewhat unsympathetic and/or unrealistic.

Josie, for one, is an irritating protagonist. She's whiny, overly emotional, and even after 10 years can't get past Lanie's 'betrayal' which - after all - wasn't that earth shattering. And Josie does some business with her hair - she has her luxuriant black tresses chopped into a bad pixie cut and dyed platinum.....then gets it fixed - which seems pointless. Also, in real life, men aren't as understanding or forgiving as Caleb.

As for Lanie, some of her obnoxious behavior as a teen - hanging with a bad crowd; using drugs; not showering; wearing dirty clothes; and so on - is understandable in the circumstances. However, one of Lanie's actions is a serious crime, and there are no appropriate consequences. I wondered what her family was thinking!

In a way Poppy Parnell is the most authentic character in the book. She's irritating but behaves like a real journalist - chasing people for comments; saying outrageous things for publicity; not caring about the harm she's doing to the families; and so on.

By the end of the book the truth about Chuck Buhrman's death emerges, which some readers may suss out long before the characters do.

Overall, this is an okay book that shows how 'true crime' stories can devastate the families involved.

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

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review of "Blame" by Cam Carson

Tatya Zaslavskaya - lanky, blonde. and attractive - is a sports massage therapist and one of the top players on her women's beach volleyball team in Miami, Florida. She's also secretly smitten with her new teammate - tall, pretty, red-haired Kris Jayson, a former college rower who recently joined the volleyball squad.

Still, when Coach Lake asks Tatya who should be her partner at the upcoming volleyball tournament in San Diego, Tatya wants to be fair. Should she suggest Lucy - a long-time teammate and solid player, or Kris - a talented novice who's hungry for success. In the end Tatya cedes the choice to Coach Lake, who picks Kris.

When Kris injures her hamstring a couple of weeks before the tournament, Tatya is determined to help her heal. To aide Kris's recovery Tatya offers homemade meals and massage therapy. These somewhat sensual interactions are thrilling for Tatya, though Kris - who's only dated boys in the past - seems to regard them solely as friendly overtures.

Tatya and Kris make it to San Diego, where they meet other attractive volleyball players - and nature takes it course. Meanwhile, all the women's teams are preparing for the tournament. The descriptions of the practices and games are exciting: serve, dip, bump, spike, occasionally fumble ....lose a point, score a point, etc. I was eager to see who would eventually win the championship.

In her zeal to win an important game Tatya does something she fears might alienate Kris. After overcoming this rough spot in their friendship Tatya confesses her attraction to her friend, which eventually brings the women closer. In time, personal conversations lead to an exchange of confidences during which Kris discloses deep feelings of insecurity about her talent, abilities, and worth, and Tatya reveals profound grief over a former girlfriend. Can Tatya and Kris help each other heal and go forward?

An array of additional characters add interest to the story including several members of the Miami volleyball team,Tatya's roommate Brett, Kris's cat Itchy, and Las Vegas volleyballer Dre - who engages in smoking sex with Tatya. In fact there's plenty of red-hot sex in the story, which will appeal to fans of romance and erotica.

I enjoyed the scenes where Tatya prepared delicious dishes like ajiaco and yucca fries; couscous with vegetables; jambalaya; crab cakes; chocolate mousse; ice cream topped with cinnamon and figs, and more. They made me wish I had a generous friend who was a good chef. :)

This is an engaging story about two women searching for happiness and fulfillment. I look forward to the second book in the series.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Review of "Hide and Seek" by Ian Rankin

A young junkie named Ronnie McGrath is found dead in an Edinburgh squat - positioned like Christ on the cross - with candles beside him and what looks like satanic symbols on the wall. Ronnie's girlfriend, Tracy, tells Detective Inspector John Rebus that Ronnie was distraught before he died, and repeatedly cried "hide, hide." At first it looks like Ronnie overdosed, but Rebus learns that Ronnie's dope was tainted with rat poison.

Because Rebus is involved in a drug case his boss, Superintendent Watson, invites the detective to lunch with a few Edinburgh bigwigs who are involved with an anti-drug campaign. Rebus seems to be of interest to these rich, successful men, who invite him to a classy party and give him an 'honorary membership' in a gambling club.

Meanwhile, Tracy reports that she's being followed, and Rebus notices that he's being followed as well. It's clear that someone is interested in Rebus's investigation, and he has to find out why. To assist with his inquiries, Rebus reaches out to Sergeant Brian Holmes - the cop least likely to complain about Rebus's numerous demands.

It turns out that Ronnie was a threat to some people; Tracy knows more than she's telling; and Edinburgh's upper crust citizens have dark secrets. Some side plots in the story involve illegal dog fights, a gay character, and Rebus's ex-lover - Gillian Templer - who has a new radio DJ boyfriend. Rebus pines for Gillian and wants her back.

The book gets over-convoluted and some plot points don't make sense. Still, Rebus has good intuition and identifies the criminals in the end.

This is an early book in the Rebus series and he's kind of 'Rebus light.' That is - though he's demanding - Rebus isn't the difficult, pushy, irascible, alcoholic, boss-hating man he becomes in later books.

This is a pretty good story, recommended to mystery readers - especially Rebus fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review of "The Killing in the Cafe" by Simon Brett

Carole and Jude are the resident amateur sleuths of the English town of Fethering. Carole, a former government employee, is rather straight-laced while Jude - a self-styled healer/psychologist- is an easy going hippy-dippy type.

In this 17th addition to the series, Polly's Cake Shop - a favorite Fethering café - is being sold. Some of the townsfolk, not wanting the site to become another Starbucks, form a "Save Polly's Cake Shop" action committee (SPCS). Jude gets co-opted to be on the committee and the meetings are quite funny....and probably true to life.

There's a power struggle to chair the committee, arguments about where to hold the meetings, disagreements about what to do with Polly's (one free spirit wants it to be multi-use, with facilities for meditation), and discussions about how to run the café. Quintus Braithwaite - a full of himself retired military man who bullies his way into the chairmanship - usually manages to get his way. The committee wastes a lot of donated money and tries to run the coffee shop as an all volunteer enterprise under the (not quite competent) auspices of Mrs. Braithwaite. This is all pretty entertaining.

While all this is going on Carole and Jude discover the decomposed body of a dead man - with a bullet in his head - on the Fethering beach. It so happens that someone saw this body weeks before, in the storeroom of Polly's Cake Shop, but never bothered reporting it to the police. Jude was informed about this body at the time but also didn't tell the police. (Really?? Is this believable??) The body then disappears until it's washed up on the shore. Eventually, the dead man - a stranger to town - is identified, and Carole and Jude make it their business to find his connection to Fethering and try to reveal the murderer.

Carole and Jude question people, investigate, and eventually solve the crime. Most of the book, though, is devoted to the women's everyday lives. Carole is set to become a grandmother for the second time and spends a lot of time visiting/worrying about her son and pregnant daughter-in-law. Jude sees clients of her healing business. The gals go to the coffee shop and pub. Carole's dog Gulliver gets walkies. And so on.

There are interesting secondary characters in the book, including the SPCS committee members, the waitresses at Polly's Cake Shop, a local real estate developer who wants to build 'affordable housing' behind Polly's cafe, and various possible suspects.

Fans of the series would probably enjoy this quiet cozy mystery with familiar likable characters.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of "The Steel Kiss" by Jeffery Deaver

This is the 12th book in the 'Lincoln Rhyme' series, but can be read as a standalone without missing much.

As the story opens, quadriplegic, forensic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme has given up being a police consultant and is teaching forensics. One of Rhyme's students - thirtyish, wheelchair-bound Juliette Archer - asks to be his intern, and Rhyme agrees.

Meanwhile, Rhyme's professional partner/girlfriend, NYPD Detective Amelia Sachs, is on the trail of a murderer called Unsub 40. Sachs spots Unsub 40 on the street and follows him into a mall, where the perp orders lunch in a coffee shop. Amelia is watching the Unsub and waiting for backup when loud screams erupt from the escalator - which has popped open and swallowed a man named Greg Frommer. When Amelia rushes over to help doomed Frommer - who's practically bisected by the escalator machinery - Unsub 40 disappears.

After learning that Frommer's widow and young son are almost destitute, Amelia convinces Lincoln to help an attorney file a civil suit against the escalator company and anyone else who might be liable. Intern Juliette helps Lincoln research grounds for the lawsuit.

Every book in this series features a clever perp who has some bizarre modus operandi. In this book it's Unsub 40, who's learned to sabotage devices that use 'smart' computer technology, like escalators, elevators, cars, industrial machines, household appliances, etc. (Imagine your electric carving knife suddenly attacking you!)

The Unsub is determined to get revenge against 'Shoppers', and takes credit for each of his kills, calling himself 'The People's Guardian.' Parts of the book are told from Unsub 40's point of view, which provides insight into his thinking and history.

As things play out Lincoln's inquiries for the civil suit dovetail with Amelia's hunt for Unsub 40, and the duo (plus Juliette) collaborate on the forensic analysis of evidence such as dust and debris at crime scenes; glass fragments; wood splinters; furniture glaze; food wrappers and napkins (the Unsub loves White Castle hamburgers); and so on.

There's plenty of excitement as Unsub 40 tries to elude the cops, who are close on his trail. An added element of suspense is the killer's girlfriend, an apparent survivor of domestic abuse, who seems to be in danger from the Unsub.

There are a couple of subplots to add to the excitement. Amelia's former boyfriend, ex-cop Nick Carelli, has been in prison for robbery and assault. Released after five years, Nick claims he was coerced into confessing, and implores Amelia to help him clear his name. And Officer Ron Pulaski - who sustained a serious head injury in the line of duty - is secretly trying to buy a powerful new street drug from gangbangers.

In Deaver's thrillers things are not always as they appear, and I wondered about what was really going on. I also thought there might be a rearrangement of romantic partners: Lincoln and Juliette? Amelia and Nick? Lots to speculate about as I sped through the book.

I enjoyed this fast moving suspense thriller but was a little disappointed with the denoument, which was rather abrupt (....all of a sudden the perp is in custody!). Still, a good addition to the series. Highly recommended to mystery fans.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review of "There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say" by Paula Poundstone


Paula Poundstone - comedian, author, actress, interviewer and commentator - is a compassionate woman who's fostered many children over the years, and adopted three. Poundstone has had her share of troubles, however, and her alcoholism (driving her kids to Baskin-Robbins while drunk) led to her arrest for child endangerment in 2001. The upshot was 180 days of rehab, 5 years of random drug/alcohol testing, 12 months of foster care for her children, and financial woes. Some of the humor in this book, published in 2006, stems from these events but Poundstone - a gifted comic - can find the funny in any topic.

In this memoir Poundstone bounces her (often self-deprecating) humor off of brief biographies of Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Charles Dickens, the Wright brothers, Beethoven, and Sitting Bull.*

I'll give some examples:

Joan of Arc
Charles VII set Joan up with a small staff: a confessor, a couple of servants, a couple of heralds, and a page.

Paula: "I had a dozen therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists who evaluated me for the court. The district attorney concluded I had every malady any of these guys suggested: bipolar; mildly depressed; severely depressed; borderline personality disorder; drug and alcohol dependent; alcoholic; obsessive compulsive; manic depressive; compliant; non-compliant; defensive; paranoid; prompt; late; city mouse; and country mouse."

Abraham Lincoln
From ages 16 to 22 Lincoln worked at a variety of jobs.

Paula: "At 16, I worked at Bickford's Pancake House. At 18, I worked at the International House of Pancakes. And even now my kids occasionally ask for frozen waffles or mini-pancakes, so I've kept my hand in it."

Helen Keller
After she became blind and deaf Helen Keller obsessively clung to her mother's dress. Her hands felt every object, observed every motion. In this way she learned many things.

Paula: ''My mother went back to bed after she got my older siblings off to school. I spent my mornings watching Jack Lalanne, Virginia Graham's talk show, Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, and the Three Stooges. In this way I got to learn almost nothing."

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens published many books, but did he even once help his kid with integers?

Paula: "I did a whole page of integers with my 11-year-old once. I still don't know what they are or when they're used. I'm in my 40s and I've never knowingly used integers."

The Wright Brothers
When a flight didn't go well they didn't know if it was the design of the plane or if their piloting was off.

Paula: "I have the same problem with driving. My new van kept making a beeping noise before I backed into stuff. The thing I said before every crash was 'what the hell is that noise'? I called the manufacturer to complain, and it turns out it's supposed to be a warning signal. Whose bright idea was that? I don't need that kind of distraction while I'm trying to back up. Its hard enough rewinding the cassette tape, keeping my soda from spilling, and talking on the phone."

Beethoven is one of the greatest composers of all time.

Paula: "They played really loud Nancy Sinatra to the Branch Davidians to get them to come out in Waco. Who comes up with these ideas? It seems so cruel to the artist. They should have asked me. People have walked out of my shows before."

When he was on his deathbed Beethoven's nephew Karl cared for him, giving him enemas and entertaining him.

Paula: "Let all who read this know that when I am on my deathbed I only want to be entertained."

Sitting Bull
The construction of the railroads had been cutting the Great Plains Indians' grass for quite a while. But the country's financial woes stopped it in its tracks for a time.

Paula: "I'm a million dollars in debt right now and its not that bad. I actually felt lighter when I hit seven-digit debt. If I was 100,000 dollars in debt I'd be working my ass off right now because I'd have a shot at paying it off. But once you get to a million you relax into it a bit."

Some of Paula's funniest stories revolve around being mistaken for a man, which she claims has happened all her life. For instance:

Paula's dry cleaner - who wasn't fluent in English - always carefully copied her name from one dry cleaning slip to the next. And he always called her 'sir.' One day Paula got up courage and said "I'm a woman." She pointed to her name on the dry cleaning slip and said "See, my name is Paula....with an A."
"No" he countered, "that's an initial."

When playing basketball with fellow comics, Paula noticed a group of kids on the sidelines staring at her, arguing among themselves, gazing at her some more, having further discussions, etc. Finally, one boy came right up to her, took a close look, and announced: "He a girl!"

I thought this book was hilarious and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a laugh.

* The amount of research Poundstone must have put into these mini-biographies is impressive.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review of "The Astronauts Wives Club" by Lily Koppel

When the U.S. space program went into high gear in 1959 the original Mercury 7 astronauts were a sensation. People wanted to know about them and their families - and their lives were avidly followed by the public. Life Magazine paid for exclusive access to the 'astrofamilies' and articles and photos were published to accompany each space flight. In time, the wives formed the 'Astronauts Wives Club' - for friendship, advice, help, and support during stressful times. Eventually the club also came to include the astrowives of the Gemini and Apollo projects - a total of 30 women.

The women needed each other because being an astrowife could be stressful indeed. Separated from their husbands for long periods while the men trained at Cape Canaveral, the wives had to take care of their homes and children by themselves. No matter what, the ladies had to keep up the appearance of a blissful home so their husbands would get plum flight assignments; the public wanted to see happy families. This facade became especially difficult to maintain because the celebrity astronauts attracted women like magnets and infidelity was rampant (a fact which NASA apparently was aware of).

In addition, the space program was inherently dangerous, and a number of astronauts lost their lives. Each space flight had a real threat of death hanging over it, and - to cope - some of the wives were driven to chain-smoking and drinking. Through it all the astrowives formed lasting friendships with each other, and were immediately there if tragedy struck - bringing food, comfort, and company.

Of course there was an upside to being an astrofamily as well. They were able to build lovely homes at cost and they could travel and stay in expensive hotels for practically nothing. The families got fancy cars and gifts of every description from corporations and department stores. They also met presidents, foreign dignitaries, movie stars, and so on. And some of the astrowives got to hobnob with first ladies, get tours of the white house, and borrow designer evening gowns. Those were heady times for sure.

There are so many astrowives mentioned in the book that it's almost impossible to remember who's who. Still, we get the impression these were mostly well-educated, talented, capable women - though many went unfulfilled (in my opinion) by being coerced by circumstances to accept 'housewife' status. (These were the days before women's lib.)

Eventually, the stress of their lives became too much and most of the astrocouples divorced. The author reports that of the original 30 astrocouples, 7 remained together. Some of the wives then suffered from depression while others went on to establish careers and blossom in other ways.

The story is well-written and provides a fascinating view of the space program from the perspective of the astronauts families. Good book.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review of "Towards Thin Air: From Cardiac Bypass to Everest Bypasses" by Vijay Malur

Before a tragic accident changed his life in 1998, when he was 54 years old, Dr. Vijay Malur was doing extremely well. He had a successful Sports Medicine practice in Boston, a fine family, a penthouse apartment, a boat, a Rolls Royce, and money in the bank. Then, while walking down the stairs with his laundry on the evening of October 6, Malur stumbled and fell down a flight of steps....and everything changed.

Malur's broken bones and injured body were the least of his problems. A severe concussion resulted in loss of vision in his right eye and extensive memory loss that made it impossible for him to continue his work as a doctor. To make mattters worse, physicians found four blockages in Malur's coronary arteries, necessitating quadruple heart bypass surgery.

Malur slowly healed from the fall, regained his vision, and recovered from the surgery, but - unable to work - he went bankrupt. The bank foreclosed on his practice and confiscated his equipment, and he lost most of the accouterments of wealth. Malur's religious and spiritual beliefs carried him through these difficult times and helped him accept his fate. Moreover, after two years of recovery Malur was determined to give back to others.

In 2000 Malur started to volunteer for 'Meals on Wheels' and became a 'Big Brother' to less fortunate children. He also traveled with friends, and was captivated by the beauty of the Alps and the Rocky Mountains. Finally, hearing that the Himalayas dwarfed the great Rockies, Malur decided to visit Mt. Everest.

Hoping to reach Mount Everest Base Camp (MEBC) Malur booked a trip with 'Parikrama Trekking & Expeditions' in Nepal. To pay for the trip, Malur refinanced a house he still owned. To prepare himself physically, Malur walked 10 miles a day, climbed steps on his Stairmaster, took cold showers, and meditated. Lastly, just before his trek Malur visited family and friends in America and of whom asked him to meet the Abominable Snowman and get a lock of hair. (I wouldn't mind a lock of that hair myself. LOL)

When he was almost 60 years old Malur was ready for his great adventure, and he left for Kathmandu, Nepal on May 7, 2003. Malur describes Kathmandu as a busy, crowded, polluted city where people, cows, sheep, and chickens stroll down the middle of the streets....and intrepid drivers navigate with barely a ding!

Malur kept a diary of his travels, and describes what he saw and did in detail. It's interesting to read about Kathmandu's religious sites, historical areas, and large nature preserve housing exotic well as the people, restaurants, food, and shops. After a couple of days touring Kathmandu, Malur flew to Lukla, Nepal where - with his guide and sherpa - he started the 21 day hike to MEBC (elevation 17,598 feet) and back.

About half the book is devoted to the momentous hike, and Malur faithfully describes the scenery, weather conditions, mountain villages, overnight accommodations, people met along the way, and so on. Malur carefully monitored his physical condition, which was especially important because of his age and quadruple bypass surgery. As expected Malur experienced fatigue and breathing problems as altitude increased and oxygen decreased but - with frequent rest and meditation - he was able to complete the spiritually fulfilling journey.

Photographs taken in Nepal accompany and enhance the narrative.

This is an inspirational book about a man who suffered a great loss and fought his way back to a rewarding life. People who have experienced a disabling trauma might gain hope from reading Malur's story.....and everyone can enjoy it as an uplifting adventure tale.

Note: The website of this book's publisher, LifeRich Publishing, notes that Malur celebrated his 70th birthday on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. So good going Vijay Malur!

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review of "NYPD RED 2" by James Patterson

In New York City a vigilante serial killer is murdering people who have apparently evaded justice. The killer dresses the victims in Hazmat suits and leavies them in public places, seemingly as a warning to other criminals. The 'Hazmat Killer's' first few victims are known lowlifes who don't attract much attention. But when wealthy political aide Evelyn Parker-Steele is tortured and killed - and a video is posted of her confessing to the murder of her lesbian lover - the authorities, the public, and the media take notice.

NYPD RED, a police unit dedicated to investigating crimes that involve high profile people (celebrities, political operatives, wealthy people, etc.) is called in to apprehend the Hazmat Killer. Detectives Zach Gordon and Kylie MacDonald are given the case after the previously assigned detectives make almost no progress solving the crimes.

The case is particularly important politically because a mayoral election is scheduled for the next week. The current mayor will lose the election if the case isn't solved before then; on the other hand, his opponent will benefit by delaying the capture of the killer. The various shenanigans that follow put the detectives in a difficult situation. To add to the pressure, another potential victim is kidnapped and will undoubtedly be killed if the Hazmat Killer isn't apprehended very soon.

The book is well-written, with an entertaining police-procedural plot and a variety of characters who add interest to the story including a mafia family, detectives, politicians, a priest, a drug addict, and so on. There's also a bit of romance: Zach is conflicted because - though he has a girlfirend - he's still not completely over his love affair with Kylie (his partner) a decade before.

This is an engaging book and a fast read that I'd recommend to fans of detective fiction.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review of "Mr. Mercedes" by Stephen King

I was surprised by this book because unlike Stephen King's usual horror stories it's a detective thriller.

Retired Detective Bill Hodges isn't having fun. He sits at home watching television, drinking beer, eating too much, and mulling over his failures. Hodges is especially irked because he didn't catch the psychotic killer dubbed 'Mr. Mercedes' - so called because he used a stolen Mercedes car to plow through a crowd of people. Even more than killing people directly, however, Mr. Mercedes gets his kicks from psychologically manipulating them. First he convinces the Mercedes owner to kill herself because she left her key in the car; then he tries to get a depressed Detective Hodges to commit suicide by writing him sly letters. Mr. Mercedes carries out these untraceable schemes using a sophisticated high-tech computer lab he maintains in his basement.

The detective, however - rather than killing himself - becomes inspired to renew his search for the deranged killer. Along the way he falls in love, recruits the assistance of a whip-smart teen headed for Harvard, and gets help from a neurotic middle-aged woman who can barely take care of herself but is a whiz with computers.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mercedes - infuriated because Detective Hodges isn't doing what he wants - plans more horrific mass murders. Mr. Mercedes is a clever guy who has two jobs that help him plan/carry out his crimes: he's a computer repairer, which gives him access to people's computers and information; and he drives an ice cream truck, which makes him almost invisible as he spies on people around town. He also lives at home with an alcoholic manipulative mother, with whom he shares a dark secret.

The book, told from alternating points of view of Mr. Mercedes and Detective Hodges, is an exciting page-turner: we can't wait to see what Mr. Mercedes will do next, and how Hodges and friends will try to stop him. It's a good book with interesting characters, highly recommended for folks who enjoy thrillers.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, March 17, 2017

Review of "What She Knew" by Gilly Macmillan

Rachel Jenner, her 8-year-old son Ben, and their dog Skittles are in a Bristol, England park when Ben asks if he can run ahead to the rope swing. Rachel, wanting Ben to feel confident and independent, says okay. So Ben and Skittles dart off.....and disappear. A massive search by police and civilians finds an injured Skittles and Ben's clothes, but not the boy - and the cops conclude that Ben's been snatched. And Rachel's (and her ex-husband John's) nightmare begins.

Detective Inspector Jim Clemo is assigned to lead the investigation, which pleases him. He hopes that finding Ben and catching the perpetrator will give him a boost in the police department. Jim's even confident enough to suggest that his (secret) girlfriend, Detective Constable Emma Zhang be assigned as Family Liasion Officer (FLO).

Told in retrospect, the story is narrated by Rachel and Jim, in alternating sections. There are also excerpts from e-mails, books, a blog, and newspapers as well as reports from Jim's police-appointed psychologist.

In child abduction cases the parents are always suspects, and Rachel and John are questioned. Moreover, Rachel continues to be (surrepticiously) scrutinized by the FLO. Other possible persons of interest include other family members, neighbors, people in the park that day, employees at Ben's school, shop owners who knew the boy, and so on. Or a stranger may have nabbed the child. So the police have their work cut out for them.

As often happens in kidnapping cases Rachel and John are asked to participate in a press conference, to appeal for the child's return. Detective Clemo provides Rachel with a carefully worded script, meant to help the abductor give Ben back. Things go seriously wrong, however, and Rachel - disheveled and wild-looking - ends up pointing at the camera and threatening the abductor.

Apparently this is a huge mistake. Clemo is upbraided by his superior for not prepping Rachel properly, and Rachel becomes the prime suspect in the eyes of the public. Thus she's hounded by the press, a nasty blogger, vandals, and the general public. Even worse, the blogger has inside information about the investigation. Uh-oh....there's a leak.....

As the investigation proceeds a family secret is revealed, a local pervert is pursued, a 'medieval re-enactor' who was in the park won't cooperate, people lie, alibis turn out to be false...and the investigation drags on and on.

By the time the case is resolved Rachel's life has changed dramatically and Detective Clemo - who feels he should have done better - suffers from anxiety and insomnia.

I liked the book. It's a suspenseful page-turner and I was eager to see how things played out. On the down side, the plot has too many kidnap/mystery story clichés and one of the 'big reveals' is not believable. I also don't accept that Rachel's behavior at the press conference would make her seem guilty (she's a scared, hysterical mother after all). I feel like the author tried too hard to include sensational elements in the story, and they ring a false note.

Overall, an enjoyable mystery book, recommended to fans of the genre.  

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review of "Killer Cuts" by Elaine Viets

Helen Hawthorne has to keep a low profile so her grasping ex-husband can't catch up with her and demand half her wages. So Helen changed her name and works at a series of low-key jobs. As the story opens Helen is in Fort Lauderdale, Florida working as a 'gofer' at a beauty salon. The salon owner is Cuban immigrant Miguel Angel - who styles the local glitterati as well as wealthy women who can afford his fees (which start at $300 for a haircut).

One of Miguel Angel's clients is Honey, who's set to marry Kingman (King) Oden. King is an odious - but rich - slob and womanizer who drinks too much and makes a living by running a strip club and publishing gossip and secrets of high-profile people. Honey purposely got pregnant to get King to marry her without a prenup.

Cut to the wedding day: Helen and Miguel Angel are at King's mansion to do Honey's hair and makeup for the wedding. King wanders in, drunk and nude, and has a kerfuffle with Miguel Angel. The wedding proceeds, and during the reception King is found drowned in the mansion's pool. Miguel Angel becomes a person of interest to the police.

Helen, who is in the midst of planning her own wedding to her fiance Phil, is determined to prove that Miguel Angel is innocent. So Helen gets pictures and videos from the wedding photographers, questions people, looks for clues, and so on. There are plenty of suspects because King never met a person he couldn't insult or anger in some fashion.

The book has a slew of fun/eccentric characters including Helen's landlady Margery - a 76-year-old woman who constantly smokes and drinks and is partial to purple caftans and gladiator sandals; some of Margery's oddball friends. one of whom keeps a parrot on her shoulder; co-workers at Miguel Angel's salon; Helen's family; and others.

This is an entertaining cozy mystery that mixes Helen's murder investigation with her fun preparations for her wedding. Recommended for fans of cozies.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay" by J.K. Rowling

This screenplay for the film "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" (a prequel to the Harry Potter books) is humorous and entertaining.

The story: It's 1926 and Newt Scamander, a magizoologist, arrives in New York City with a case full of magical creatures. Inadvertently, Newt steps into a sea of trouble.

The notorious dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald has been causing havoc all over the world, raising fears that 'no-mags' (muggles) will learn there are witches and wizards in their midst. Thus New York based MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America)* is working day and night to keep magical occurrences below the radar. To this end, Tina Goldstein (a demoted Auror) is scouring the city for sorcerous miscreants.

Several creatures escape from Newt's case and his 'Niffler' goes on a spree, stealing shiny objects and gold coins all over the place. While trying to catch the Niffler, Newt accidentally exchanges cases with Jacob Kowalski - a no-mag, would-be bakery shop owner - who's drawn into Newt's hijinks.

Newt and Jacob attract the attention of Tina, who promptly arrests the duo and brings them to MACUSA headquarters. However, Newt has a deft hand with a wand - and needs to capture his escaped beasties - so the wizard soon engineers a 'prison break.'

Meanwhile, no-mag 'preacher' Mary Lou Barebone is sure there are witches and wizards around, and wants to expose and exterminate them. To this end she founds an organization called the 'New Salem Philanthropic Society' and proceeds to makes speeches and hold demonstrations around the city.

Add a mysterious black whirlwind that's destroying parts of New York and killing people.....and all the elements are in place for an exciting magical adventure.

Other interesting characters in the story include: Newt's array of supernatural creatures; Tina Goldstein's sister Queenie - who's a legilimens (mind reader); Mary Lou Barebone's three adopted children, Credence, Chastity, and Modesty - who (supposedly) help with her witch-eradication campaign; Langdon Shaw, who's seen supernatural things and wants to tell the world; Langdon's brother, Senator Henry Shaw - a politically ambitious man who wants Langdon to go away and shut up; and more.

I'm a big fan of Harry Potter and I completely enjoyed this screenplay. Highly recommended to fans of the boy wizard.

*The term MACUSA (which I assume is a take-off on Yakusa) really cracked me up.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review of "Gray Mountain" by John Grisham

Samantha Kofer is a third-year-associate at the Scully & Pershing law firm in New York when she's 'furloughed' because of the economy. Advised that she might be rehired after a stint as an unpaid intern Samantha takes a position with Mountain Aid Legal Clinic in Brady, Virginia, an all-women firm. Brady is in coal country, where coal mining provides numerous jobs as well as plenty of work for the free legal clinic. Within days Samantha - a real estate attorney who never litigated a case - is dealing with spousal abuse, check garnishment, and black lung disease - a horrible affliction associated with coal mining.

Samantha becomes friendly with a local attorney, Donovan Gray, whose family owns 'Gray Mountain', a site that's been destroyed by strip mining. As Samantha learns, strip mining - besides devastating the environment - produces cancer-causing sludge and leads to additional deaths from careless practices and reckless driving of coal trucks. One of Donovan's current cases concerns the death of two children when a boulder, pushed off the mountain by miners, rolled down and destroyed their trailer home.

It's almost impossible to win lawsuits against the mining companies because they employ powerful law firms that fight dirty. They also have politicians and judges in their pockets. Donovan does manage to win sometimes, though, because he's willing to fight as dirty as the coal companies. As the story proceeds Donovan plans to file a couple of huge lawsuits against mining companies that would embarass them and potentially net millions of dollars in damages - and he wants Samantha to help him. The coal companies fight back hard, even pulling in the FBI to assist them. But, as it turns out, Samantha has some useful contacts of her own.

The book has a large array of interesting and entertaining characters, including Samantha's parents (both lawyers), her co-workers, and her clients. There's even a spot of romance.

The book makes it clear that the author is appalled by coal company practices. I enjoyed the story and learned a lot about corporate dirty tricks. My biggest criticism is that the book leaves a couple of story lines unresolved and seems unfinished. Still, it's a good story as far as it goes. Grisham fans would probably enjoy the book.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review of "Wayfaring Stranger" by James Lee Burke

This standalone novel is a fine additon to James Lee Burke's impressive ouevre.

At the age of 16 Weldon Holland meets the infamous bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow when their gang hides out on the outskirts of his grandfather's Texas ranch. Weldon and his grandfather - former Texas Ranger Hackberry Holland - are lucky to come out of the encounter alive, and Weldon shoots a bullet into the bandits' 1932 Chevy as the thieves drive off.

Jump ahead to 1944 and Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland's army unit is massacred by the German army during the Battle of the Bulge. Weldon survives and manages to dig his Sergeant, Hershel Pine, out of a crushed foxhole. The two men, on the run from the enemy, come across an abandoned Nazi death camp where they rescue a young woman, Rosita Lowenstein, from a pile of corpses. After additional harrowing experiences Weldon, Hershel, and Rosita are rescued by American troops.

In time Weldon marries Rosita, a Spanish Jew whose family were communists. Weldon also goes into business wtih Hershel, who's developed a revolutionary way to weld pipes for the oil industry. Weldon and Hershel form the Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, which becomes enormously successful and lucrative..... and attracts the attention of oil barons who want its technology. To this end Roy Wiseheart, the son of a billionaire Texas oil tycoon, proposes a joint venture with Dixie Belle.....but is roundly rejected. Wiseheart - a war hero who won a flying ace under questionable circumstances - tries to convince Weldon to change his mind, to no avail.

Roy Wiseheart is a complicated character: he's handsome, charming, avaricious, and repeatedly unfaithful to his (admittedly horrible) wife.....but harbors wisps of conscience and heart. Roy's father though, is a take-no-prisoners businessman who's a vicious anti-communist and anti-semite. Thus the senior Wiseheart makes it his business to destroy the two couples associated with Dixe Belle: Weldon and Rosita; and Hershel and his wife Linda Gail.

To achieve this goal the elder Wiseheart hires a corrupt Houston detective who employs every trick in the book to harass the Hollands and Pines: he engineers a traffic stop for Rosita that results in an arrest - and ultimately escalates to an intolerable situation; he sends Weldon painful films of Rosita in a Nazi concentration camp; he distributes compromising photos of Linda Gail after she becomes a Hollywood starlet; he steals into the bedroom of Weldon's grandfather and tries to humiliate him....but the tough old coot pulls a gun and scares the crap out of the rotten cop (ha ha ha).

Weldon and Hershel's families seem helpless in the face of Wiseheart's power and influence, but Weldon is a rugged, crafty fellow. Moreover, he's assisted by 'visions' of the old Chevy that once belonged to Bonnie and Clyde.

This book has elements common to many of Burke's novels: men on the side of law and justice (Weldon and his grandfather); a devoted married couple (Weldon and Rosita); an evil wealthy family (some of the Wisehearts); a grasping female (Linda Gail); and supernatural elements (the Chevy). As always, Burke's writing is excellent, with evocative descriptions of scenery (ranging from Texas, to the Ardennes, to Louisiana, to the Rocky Mountains) and people. In truth, however, some of the book's characters are well-rounded and complex while others are two-dimentional 'types' (a white supremacist woman; a Hollywood lothario, a grasping insurance company executive; a crooked cop, etc.).

I'd love to see James Lee Burke write a book that goes in a different direction but - whether he does or not - I'll keep reading his excellent stories. This book would appeal to a wide variety of readers and I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review of "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho

The book tells the story of Santiago, a Spanish shepherd who has a recurring dream about finding a treasure near the Pyramids of Egypt. Advised by a gypsy woman to seek the treasure, Santiago sells his sheep and takes off. Along the way he meets several people who have a profound effect on his life. The first, who calls himself 'the King of Salem', advises the boy to pursue his 'personal legend' (deepest desire). The King tells Santiago that when a person undertakes such a quest the universe conspires to assist him/her. This notion reminded me of the 2006 book 'The Secret' by Rhonda Byrne, which suggests that when a person really wants something the universe gives it to them - an idea that's hard to believe in either book.

In any case, Santiago pursues his dream, but it's not easy or straightforward. He travels to Africa to start his journey across the desert to Egypt and is promptly robbed of all his money. Santiago finds work with a crystal merchant, where he does a superb job, but he realizes the merchant didn't fulfill his own personal legend - and the shepherd sets off for Egypt once more. Santiago joins a caravan to cross the desert, where he eventually meets an alchemist who imbues the boy with his own philosophy of life and encourages Santiago to continue his journey.

During all this Santiago falls in love with a girl, has several run-ins with tribal chiefs, and gets robbed a couple more times. In some ways the story brought to mind a fairy tale with supernatural elements since Santiago has conversations with the wind and sun - who assist him in a time of trouble. There are some spiritual elements in the story and a lot of talk about love being the most important thing in the world - a theme which also occurs in other Coelho books.

Santiago is never diverted from his quest and eventually discovers his treasure and presumably lives happily ever after. This book didn't really resonate with me as I don't seem to share Coelho's philosophy but I thought it was an okay story.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Review of "The Breakdown" by B.A. Paris

On the evening before the summer holidays, schoolteacher Cass Anderson says goodbye to her colleagues, gets into her car, and heads for home. A sudden thunderstorm makes road conditions hazardous so Cass takes a shortcut through dark, woodsy, isolated Blackwater Lane.....though she promised her husband she wouldn't.

On Blackwater Lane Cass spots a car pulled off in a lay-by, with a woman inside. Thinking the woman might need assistance Cass stops in front of her and waits. The woman doesn't get out, or flash her lights, or tap her horn, so Cass - thinking of stories about thieves setting traps for do-gooders - goes on her way.

The next day the BBC reports that a woman was found murdered in Blackwater Lane. Realizing it was the person in the lay-by Cass feels terrible, thinking she might have been able to help the victim. It also occurs to Cass that the killer may have been lurking about.....and seen her!

Cass is so shocked, confused, and guilt-ridden that she can't make herself call the police, or even tell her husband Matthew what happened. Worse yet, when Cass learns the name of the victim, Jane Walters, she realizes she knew her. Cass's best friend Rachel had invited her to a leaving party for a co-worker a couple of weeks back, and Jane was there. Cass and Jane had hit it off and met for lunch a couple of days later.

On top of being distraught about Jane, other worrisome things are happening to Cass:
She forgets to purchase the group gift for her friend Susie's birthday, and can't even remember getting the money.....or what she was supposed to buy.
After receiving an estimate from a security company Cass apparently agrees to have her house alarmed - but doesn't recall making the arrangements or signing the contract.
When a friend calls to ask what time his family should come over for a barbecue, Cass doesn't remember inviting them, and is completely unprepared.
While purchasing a baby outfit for a friend Cass seemingly orders a pram to be delivered to her house, but has no memory of doing this.
Cass is sure she parked her car on Level Four of the shopping center's car park, but it isn't there when she returns.
And so on.

Cass thinks she's getting early onset dementia, a condition that contributed to her mother's premature death. Cass can't decide what to do. Matthew doesn't know about her mother's illness, and Cass is afraid to tell him now - thinking he'll be sorry he married her.

To add to her troubles Cass starts getting frightening phone calls. Every morning, after Matthew leaves for work, the phone rings.....but no one speaks. Cass convinces herself that this is Jane's killer, who plans to murder her. Cass becomes increasingly anxious and fearful - jumps at every sound - and begins to behave irrationally.

Matthew realizes that something is off, but he's a very solitcitous spouse.....constantly hugging and caressing Cass, and planting kisses on her face and head. (This overdose of affection made me squirm.) Matthew even arranges for Cass to see a doctor, where she gets pills to ease her stress.

Cass tries to lessen her unease by looking in on Jane's husband and children, and confiding in her former boyfriend John. Eventually an important discovery leads to a satisfactory denoument, and that's all I can say.

For me this book is just okay. The entire narrative is told from Cass's perspective, so we follow what Cass is seeing, hearing, thinking, saying, and doing - day after day - for many weeks. This makes the book feel a bit slow and claustrophobic (to me). Moreover, Cass behaves in a naive and foolish fashion, which got on my nerves. I prefer female protagonists to be bright and and capable. And finally, many readers are likely to figure out what's going on early in the book, which lessens the pleasurable suspense.

In parting I'll say this: if you enjoyed B.A. Paris's book Behind Closed Doors you'll probably like this story - and vice versa.

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

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review of "The Crush" by Sandra Brown

Dr. Rennie Newton, a skilled surgeon, is the foreman of the jury that acquits psychotic professional assassin Ricky Lozada of murder because of reasonable doubt. Unfortunately for Rennie, Lozada becomes infatuated with the pretty doctor during the trial and convinces himself that she returns his affections. So after his acquital Lozada decides to pursue a relationship with Rennie. He sends her flowers, stalks her, and goes so far as "to do her the favor" of murdering a rival doctor.

Rennie becomes a suspect in the murder and Detective Oren Wesley - instead of doing any investigation whatsoever - starts a campaign of surveillance and harassment to convict Rennie. For assistance Oren calls in his suspended former partner, Detective Wick Threadgill. Here the book becomes a cliche romance novel. Wick (of course) is overwhelmingly attracted to Rennie who (of course) is a cold fish because of a difficult past. The assassin Lozada becomes enraged with Wick's attentions to Rennie and decides to take action.

Though Brown is a skilled writer this is a completely predictable book with no surprises. In addition, the characters are not particularly likable. Wick is an an arrogant dude whose major goal is to have sex with Rennie; Oren is a lazy police officer who makes no attempt to find the real killer; and Rennie - though a little more sympathetic than the guys - is two-dimensional and hard to care about.

If you're a hard core romance fan you might like this book. Otherwise, skip it.

Rating: 2 stars

Review of "Alena" by Rachel Pastan

This book, an homage to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, follows an arc that's very similar to the original story.

At the beginning of "Alena" the unnamed narrator, a young woman working as a curatorial assistant at the Midwestern Museum of Art, is attending the Venice Biennale (contemporary art show) with her demanding employer. The narrator catches the eye of a refined, fiftyish, gay gentleman named Bernard Augustin, who runs a private museum called Nauquasset (The Nauk) on the Cape Cod coast.

Bernard is impressed with the narrator's 'artistic eye' and - just as the young woman is about to be spirited home by her ailing boss - offers her the position of curator of The Nauk. Bernard then takes the narrator on a whirlwind tour of art capitals in western Europe before whisking her back to Massachusetts, where she's installed in a damp little house on Cape Cod.

The next day the young woman reports to her elegant office in The Nauk where she's introduced to her museum colleagues, all of whom act disdainful (or worse). In fact Agnes - the formidable, garish, black-clad general manager of the museum - is outright hostile. We learn that Agnes was very close to the museum's previous curator Alena - a striking, raven-haired Russian woman - who disappeared two years ago. It's presumed that Alena, whose body was never found, drowned during a night swim in the ocean.

Though Alena is long gone, her assertive, colorful, larger than life aura still seems to permeate The Nauk. The narrator, by contrast, is self-conscious and retiring - almost afraid to ask Agnes a question, request desk supplies, personalize her office, etc. Moreover Bernard, instead of helping the curator settle in, leaves town for museum business.

The Nauk, which has been shut since Alena vanished, is set to re-open. For her first big job the new curator is tasked with organizing a show for The Nauk's inauguration on Labor Day weekend, which is only a couple of months away. The Nauk employees assert that Alena promised the next show to Morgan McManus, a Gulf War vet who lost an arm and a leg. Morgan's 'body art' consists of raw images of bombed and mutilated corpses, casts of dismembered limbs, pictures of splattered brains, and so on.

The narrator is disturbed by Morgan's images and - despite pressure from Agnes and others - offers the opening show to a local African-American artist named Celia Cowry, who makes delicate ceramic shell sculptures. Unfortunately, the curator fails to consult Bernard before booking Celia, which causes a mild kerfuffle. In addition Celia turns out to be a difficult, demanding woman....and The Nauk staff are a bit obstructive. Still, with a lot of hard work the show goes on.

During all this the narrator starts a low key affair with the local Police Chief, Chris Passoa, who investigated Alena's disappearance. And.....(dramatic drum roll).....a new clue shows up that suggests Alena was murdered! Chief Passoa's renewed investigation leads to the book's climax, where we learn more about Alena's personality, art obsessions, and death. For me, Alena's story is too convoluted, and her demise too contrived.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I did enjoy the narrator's observations about art history, art appreciation, different kinds of art, the relationship of art to politics and race, and so on. For me this was interesting and educational.

On the downside, the book lacks the air of menace and danger that pervades "Rebecca", where the heroine's life seems to be in danger. Instead, The Nauk's curator has to deal with employees who snicker behind her back, give her snide looks, and (maybe) perpetrate some minor vandalism. Moreover, the narrator brings some of the grief down on herself. She wears a wrinkled travel outfit on her first day of work and has only one dress (a little black number) for all formal occasions. It doesn't seem to occur to the young woman to have her clothing, books, and other possessions sent from the midwest.....nor does she do much shopping. In consequence the narrator presents a dowdyish picture in comparison to glamorous Alena.

The young woman is also unrealistically timid. Unlike the main character in Rebecca, the curator is an independent gal with some experience of the world - having attended graduate school in New York City and worked in a museum. I kept thinking she should be able stand up for herself.

Overall, the story is okay, though I'm not sure why an author would want to rewrite a classic. Nevertheless, people who haven't read "Rebecca" can enjoy this book as a compelling original story. And readers familiar with "Rebecca" might get a kick out of making comparisons.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review of "Dog On It" by Spencer Quinn

Bernie Little, graduate of West Point and former cop, runs the 'Little Detective Agency,' which consists of Bernie and his dog Chet. The agency is located somewhere in the New Mexico/Nevada area.

The book is narrated by Chet from his doggy point of view, which makes it fun since he doesn't quite get idioms, is confused by conversations, sees the world through his schnoz, and is always on the lookout for a tasty snack. Chet has heard Bernie talking about the agency's 'cash flow problem' and thinks Bernie needs to take a job soon.

So it's all good when Bernie is hired by an attractive divorcée, Cynthia Chambliss, who's worried because her teen daughter Madison didn't come home from school. Madison soon reappears with a bogus story about where she was, but Bernie figures all is well and goes about his business. Before long Madison disappears again, and this time she doesn't return. So Bernie and Chet get back on the case.

Madison's father, Damon Keefer, is a big-time real estate tycoon in the midst of constructing a high-end housing development. He seems a little blasé about Madison, suggesting she ran off to Las Vegas to let off some steam and will soon return. He also seems to want Bernie off the case - and he's not the only one. As soon as Bernie signs on to look for Madison a strange car starts lurking around his neighborhood and odd things start to happen.

The worst thing is Chet's dognapping. When the pooch sneaks out to visit a girl dog with a seductive bark he's snatched up, thrown into the skulking car's trunk, and driven very far away. Chet soon falls into the hands of a Russian mobster who calls him 'Stalin' and plans to enter him into Mexican dog fights. Before Chet makes his escape he glimpes Madison in a window...but unfortunately Chet can't communicate this to Bernie when he gets home after additional harrowing adventures.

In the course of their inquiries Bernie and Chet talk to Madison's family and friends, visit Keefer's pricey housing project, come across Russian mobsters, find themselves in dangerous situations, and so on. As it happens Bernie also becomes interested in a pretty journalist named Suzie, though Chet isn't exactly sure what's going on between them. Suzie has tasty dog biscuits in her car, though, so it's all good...ha ha ha.

The story's plot is pretty straightforward and the culprits - and their motivation - are not too hard to work out. The pleasure of the book lies more in the entertaining characters and the mountainous setting of the story. I especially liked Chet and his quirky brand of narration.

This is an enjoyable light mystery, the first in the 'Bernie and Chet' series. I'd recommend the book to fans of humorous suspense stories.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Review of "I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend" by Martin Short

Note: I listened to the audio version of this book which is fun because Short performs some of his famous comic characters, sings, and does impersonations.

Though he may not have realized it at the time, Martin Short was meant to be a performer from childhood. As a youngster he made tape recordings of his family's entertaining quarrels and well as his own solitary sketches. This was all fodder for Short's eventual emergence as a comedy machine with a stable of humorous characters.

Short grew up in Toronto, in a large loving Catholic family, but - having many Jewish friends and neighbors - was a little confused about his religion. In a droll anecdote Short relates turning to the priest after his confirmation and asking "Am I Jewish now?" By the time Short was twenty he had lost an older brother and both parents, and these events deeply affected his life. Knowing he had to make a living Short gave himself a year to get a job in show business...or look for a different career. Needless to say the alternate job wasn't necessary.

During Short's early working life he was on Canada's Second City Television (SCTV) and New York's Saturday Night Live (SNL). He later starred in many movies including Three Amigos, Mars Attacks!, and Father of the Bride. In the latter film Short plays a kooky wedding planner with an odd accent that - though understandable to the ladies - is incomprehensible to the bride's dad (played by Steve Martin). Short demonstrates some of the planner's funniest pronunciations, where wedding is 'vodding' and cake is 'kak.' Short also starred in Broadway productions, had his own TV variety show, and was a regular on the late night talk show circuit. (Since the book was published Short landed a new show with Maya Rudolph, called 'Maya and Marty').

Short describes and demonstrates some of his most iconic characters including my favorite, Jiminy Glick, an overweight and (gloriously) insensitive celebrity interviewer who occasionally jumps and humps his female guests. Short is also a gifted impersonater, and does a mean Katherine Hepburn amongst others. As added entertainment, Short sings some ditties he (and others) penned...all of which made me smile.

In the course of his career Short met/became friends with lots of show biz people and he mentions a good many of them in the book, including Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Paul Shaffer, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Diane Keeton, Lorne Michaels, Gilda Radnor (his girlfriend for a time), Eugene Levy, Jan Hooks, Catherine O'Hara, Tony Curtis....and LOTS more. Short also describes his yearly Christmas parties, where most of the famous guests performed. The 'shows' started off as impromptu fun but - over the years - evolved into carefully crafted and rehearsed presentations. Some readers/reviewers consider Short mentioning his celebrity friends 'name dropping', but (as I see it) you know who you know. Moreover Short relates entertaining anecdotes along with the names.

Short talks a great deal about his beloved wife Nancy Dolman, their kids, their homes, their activiities, their vacations... and Nancy's tragic death in 2010 from ovarian cancer. Short devotes the last part of the book to Nancy's illness and death, and his grief is deeply felt and touching.

All in all I enjoyed the book, which gave me some insight into a talented artist and made me laugh.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of "Inspector of the Dead" by David Morrell

This second book in the series takes place in 1850s London, just when England's government is collapsing because of the Crimean War. Bizarre, horrific murders are occurring among London's elite and a message is left at each crime scene that seems to threaten the life of Queen Victoria. It soon becomes clear that the perpetrator of the crimes is seeking revenge for something that happened to his mother, father, and two sisters many years before.

In an effort to catch the perpetrator and protect the Queen the crimes are investigated by two amateur detectives, Thomas De Quincey (the famous 'English opium eater') and his daughter Emily; and two Scotland Yard detectives, Becker and Ryan. Though the team is unconventional the members work well together, with knowledge and skills that are complementary.

David Morrell skillfully depicts the ambiance of London at the time, both the filth and squalor of the slums and the wealth and elegance of the ritzy neighborhoods. He also includes a good chunk of authentic London history (according to his own essay at the end of the book). The rich, aristocratic people of the time apparently believed that 'their class' never committed violent crimes and consistently blamed the poor, especially the unwelcome Irish immigrants.

During the course of their inquiries De Quincey and Emily - who have known lifelong hunger and poverty - get to purchase some new duds (albeit funereal wear) and have dinner with the Queen and Prince Albert. This is an amusing scene during which Emily, fearing she and her laudanum-addicted father would be thrown out sooner rather than later - tries to eat as quickly and as much as possible. For the most part, though, the story is gritty and violent, with the murderer pursuing his agenda and British nobleman (literally) fighting between themselves over a woman.

The book alternates points of view between the murderer and the third person narrator, and contains excerpts from Emily's journal. The reader, therefore, has a good idea of what's going on in everyone's mind. For the first two-thirds or so the book is suspenseful and compelling with plenty of action. The story then reaches a climax after which it takes too many chapters to wrap up. Moreover several of the story points that emerge in the final chapters are not believable, culminating in an unsatisfying ending. All in all I'd say this book works better for its history than its mystery.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review of "Precious and Grace" by Alexander McCall Smith

The newest client of the "The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" is Susan Peters, a Canadian woman who was born and raised in Botswana. Susan is nostalgic for her early life in the beautiful African country and - producing an old photo - asks Mma Ramotswe to find her childhood home and former nanny, called Rosie.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi put a piece in the newspaper asking Rosie to come forward and (of course) several candidates quickly show up. Mma Makutsi - acerbic and skeptical as always - thinks they're all phonies but Mma Ramotswe believes one woman might be the real deal. Inquiries, a house visit, and many cups of tea eventually help resolve the situation - which is a little different than it first appears.

Meanwhile Mr. Polopetsi, a chemistry teacher and part-time detective, has inadvertently involved himself in a ponzi scheme. The naive, good-hearted man has convinced several acquaintances to invest in a shady plan to buy and sell cattle, with the promise of 25% profit. When Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane (director of the orphan farm) confront Mr. Polopetsi with the truth, he's crushed. But Mma Ramotswe tries to make things right - and keep Mr. Polopetsi out of prison.

Mma Ramotswe has one additional concern. Fanwell, who works as a mechanic for Mr. JLB Matekoni, has been adopted by a stray dog. The pooch, named 'Zebra' by Mma Ramotswe's foster children, needs a permanent home.....but where? Mma Ramotswe attempts to work it out.

As usual with this series, Mma Ramotswe uses her intelligence, insight, and compassion to solve problems and Mma Makutsi acts as kind of a Greek chorus - voicing her own quirky views. Some occurrences in the story lead Mma Ramotswe to ponder forgiveness.....a worthy act. However, when Mma Ramotswe avers she'd let criminals off with a warning, I'm taken aback. Perhaps Mma Ramotswe doesn't believe Botswana harbors murderers, rapists, or the like.

This story isn't as humorous as some other entries in the series but one 'problem' did make me laugh. Over time, Mma Makutsi has promoted herself from secretary, to assistant detective, to associate detective, to partner, and finally to 'Co-Director" of the agency (LOL). This leaves Mma Ramotswe with a dilemma. Can she still ask Mma Makutsi to take dictation, make phone calls, type letters, and so on? Mma Ramotswe frets about this continually, but the issue remains unresolved. I'm curious to see how it plays out.

The stories in Alexander McCall Smith's series' are always enjoyable. This book is recommended to people who like cozies, especially fans of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Rating: 3 stars