Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review of "Night Terrors: A Danial Rinaldi Mystery" by Dennis Palumbo

Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, a Pittsburgh psychologist, gets involved in two police cases. The first involves Wesley Currim, an unpleasant, wise-cracking young man who's confessed to the murder and decapitation of rich executive Edward Meacham. Wes's mother Maggie, however, swears she was with her son at the time of the murder and implores Dr. Rinaldi to help the boy.

At the same time Rinaldi is working with the FBI on a case involving serial killer John Jessup, who was convicted of murdering four prostitutes. Jessup, who was killed in a prison riot, had an admirer who wrote him complimentary, supportive letters signed 'Your Biggest Fan.' The admirer is now on a murder spree of his own, killing people responsible for Jessup's imprisonment and death. This seems to includes a prison guard, the judge, the prosecutor, jurors, the defense attorney, and Lyle Barnes, the FBI profiler who fingered Jessup. Barnes now suffers from night terrors and needs the help of a psychologist.

Local police are working with the FBI to protect potential victims and nab Jessup's admirer. They're hampered, however, because the killer seems to have inside information: he knows where the authorities are hiding potential victims, knows when they're about to question a witness, etc. Clearly, the investigation is compromised in some fashion.

While working on the cases Rinaldi can't seem to go a day without getting involved in a life-threatening situation such as chasing down a gunman, being run off the road by truck, putting himself in the path of a murderer, and so on. This seems unwise since Rinaldi apparently doesn't carry a weapon or possess martial arts skills. To me, he's somewhat of an unrealistic character - a sort of psychololgist/superhero - but he seems to be a decent enough guy. There's also a touch of romance in the story since Rinaldi gets together with Detective Eleanor Lowrey, a woman he's been attracted to for some time.

Eventually Rinaldi comes across information that's pivotal to both cases which leads to the book's climax. I thought this was a pretty good story with interesting characters and a nicely-constructed plot.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review of "Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden" by M.C. Beaton

After a vengeful hairdresser washes Agatha Raisin's hair with dipilatory rather than shampoo, the partially bald amateur detective - embarassed to be seen in her Carsely village - goes to Wyckhadden for a vacation. Agatha checks into the Garden Hotel, whose only residents are a coterie of elderly retirees who like to gossip and play Scrabble. Agitating about her unsightly head, Agatha is advised to consult Francie Juddle - a Wyckhadden psychic ('witch') who also sells revitalizing potions. Agatha visits Francie and purchases hair restorer and - just for kicks - a small bottle of love potion.

For fun, Agatha arranges for Francie to conduct a séance for the elderly residents of the Garden Hotel. The session doesn't go well and Francie is soon found battered to death in her cottage. Before you can say abracadabra Francie's daughter Janine takes over the 'clairvoyance' business.....and she's soon found dead as well. The police investigation is led by Inspector Jimmy Jessop, a nice-looking widower. Agatha offers to help with the inquiries, but Jimmy puts her off.

Nevertheless, Jimmy finds Agatha attractive and asks her out. After a short time Agatha and Jimmy become a couple, but anyone familiar with the sleuth knows her romance probably won't go smoothly - especially because Agatha is still in love with her neighbor, James Lacey.

Meanwhile, Agatha obsesses over the murders and becomes convinced one of the retirees at the hotel is the killer. Unfortunately Agatha can't get anyone to talk about the crimes, so there's very little 'detective work' in the story. For the most part Agatha either spends time with Jimmy or socializes with the hotel residents: going to dances and plays; having drinks in the hotel or pub; playing Scrabble; helping the ladies get makeovers; etc. Mostly, this is a 'life in the village' story - where residents socialize; form relationships; get jealous; have arguments; and so forth.

At the story's climax Agatha gets an epiphany that helps her solve the murders, but the solution is more 'deus ex machina' than brilliant detective work.

When I pick up an Agatha Raisin book I know what to expect: Agatha obsesses over her appearance; has embarassing dalliances with men; gets a visit from her friend Charles - a notorious sponger who always forgets his wallet; moons about James; talks with her friend Mrs. Bloxby (the vicar's wife); etc. In that vein, the book doesn't disappoint. It's a pleasant diversion, and Agatha Raisin fans would probably enjoy it.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review of "World Gone By" by Dennis Lehane

As the book opens World War II is raging. Joe Coughlin, a former crime boss in the Tampa area, is now more of a businessman gangster living a (more or less) respectable life with his 9-year-old son Tomas. Joe is an advisor to current Florida crime boss Dino Bartolo and friends with top lieutenant Rico DiGiacomo, whom he's known since childhood. He's also on good terms with other gang bosses because he makes lots of money for everyone and doesn't skim or cheat. So Joe is surprised when a hit-woman needing his help tells Joe that a hit on him is scheduled for Ash Wednesday.

Meanwhile Bartolo's gang is short on personnel because so many men have been drafted. This opens lieutenant spots for some ambitious but less than brilliant criminals, like Rico's brother Freddy DiGiacomo. Freddy wants to push out Montooth Dix who rules 'Brown Town', the neighborhood where African-Americans and Cubans live. Freddy tries to kill Montooth but fails, losing two men in the skirmish. Freddy then insists that Montooth be murdered because he killed two white men - though Freddy started the trouble. Joe, who likes Montooth, is ordered to set him up. Joe's life is further complicated by his torrid affair with the mayor's wife and by the ghost of a young boy who seems to be related to him.

The author does an excellent job creating a dangerous atmosphere as Joe hobnobs with various gangsters who might be about to kill him. It's clear that being a gang boss is a tricky business, as there's always someone ready to bump you off and take your place.

The dramatic climax of the book takes place on a luxury yacht. The book should have ended right after this but the story drags on for a bit to a somewhat surprising ending. All in all this is a good story with vivid, interesting characters - recommended for fans of mystery/thriller or gangster books.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling

This eighth book in the Harry Potter series is the script of a play that originally opened in London's West End in 2016. The play harks back to occurrences in the original series so the reader needs to be familiar with those books to fully appreciate the story.

"Cursed Child" opens 19 years after Lord Voldemort's defeat. By now, Hermione is Minister for Magic; Ron runs Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes; Harry is Head of Magical Law Enforcement; and Ginny is a sports writer for The Daily Prophet.

Harry and Ginny's middle child, Albus Severus Potter, is starting his first year at Hogwarts and - against all odds - is put into Slytherin. Albus becomes best friends with his fellow Slytherin, Scorpius Malfoy - the son of Draco and his wife Astoria.

Ron and Hermione's daughter, Rose Granger-Weasley is also a first year student at Hogwarts, placed into Gryffindor. Rose disapproves of her cousin Albus hanging out with Scorpius because she associates Scorpius with death eaters, and thinks he's a sketchy guy.

Jump ahead three years and Albus, Scorpius, and Rose are about to begin their third year at Hogwarts. Rose fits in very well at the school, where she's popular and a good Quidditch player. Albus and Scorpius, however, are having a rough time: Albus because he feels pressured by being the son of 'famous Harry Potter', with whom he has a very fractious relationship; and Scorpius because rumors abound that he's really the son of Lord Voldemort. In addition, Scorpius is grieving from the recent loss of his mother. Albus and Scorpius are on the edge of rebellion and have a strong desire to prove themselves - and Albus knows just what to do.

While he was home for the previous summer break, Albus overheard some things. First, contrary to the belief that all the Time-Turners were destroyed during the 'Battle of the Department of Mysteries', Harry recently confiscated an illegal one.....and Hermione hid it at the Ministry of Magic. Second, Amos Diggory - having heard a rumor about the Time-Turner - dropped in on the Potters. He implored Harry to go back in time and save his son Cedric, who was killed by Lord Voldemort after he was a co-winner (with Harrry) of the Triwizard Tournament. Harry strongly denied he had a Time-Turner and Amos went away mad, accompanied by his niece/caretaker Delphi.

So.....Albus and Scorpius hatch a plan while they're traveling to school on the Hogwarts Express. They jump off the train, team up with Delphi, and steal the Time-Turner from Hermione's office via clever use of polyjuice potion. The boys then go back in time to make sure Cedric doesn't win the Triwizard Tournament - which presumably will save his life. Of course any diddling with the past reverberates through the future, and the boys' machinations have massive - and unfortunate - results. The boys try to go back and fix things - several times - but end up making everything worse.

Meanwhile, Harry, Ginny, and Draco are informed that their sons aren't at school, and form an uneasy alliance to find the boys - assisted by Ron and Hermione. This is a very 'grown-up' development considering the previous animosity (to put it mildly) between Draco and Harry. The play is realistic in its depiction of difficult family dynamics: Harry (try as he might) can't seem to connect with Albus, who feels like odd man out in his famous/gifted family. And Draco, though he's a loving father, appears to be on a different wavelenth from his boy Scorpius - who's a gentle, unassuming lad. (He should probably be a Hufflepuff.... LOL.) Scorpius even has a crush on Rose, which is a sweet, amusing touch.

And that's about all I can say about the plot without spoilers.

Many characters from the original series make an appearance - including dementors - and it was fun to see them. (Well.....the dementors aren't that much fun .....)

I'm a huge Harry Potter fan and I enjoyed the play. The plot is clever, the characters are smart, and there's a nice surprise twist. That said, the story, which was conceived by J.K. Rowling and written by Jack Thorne, lacks the depth, breadth, an ingenuity of the original books. Partly, this is because a play is less detailed than a novel, but also because it doesn't have Rowling's 'touch' (IMO).

Also, the characters' repeated trips to the past give the play a repetitious vibe. When I compare this work to the screenplay 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them', which Rowling wrote herself, I find that 'Fantastic Beasts' is more artful and entertaining.

Still, I highly recommend 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' to fans of the series. If you're a Potterphile, it's a must read! 💖

(Note: I just love the name 'Scorpius'.....It's inspired!)

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review of "Truly Madly Guilty" by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty is a popular best-selling author and her latest book, Truly Madly Guilty, garnered a lot of hype and many good reviews. That said, the book was just okay for me.

Set in Sydney, Australia, the story is about an unfortunate incident that occurs during a backyard barbeque. The cookout's hosts are Vid and Tiffany - a rich sociable couple that live in a luxurious home with their 10-year-old daughter Dakota. The guests include the hosts' next-door neighbors Erika and Oliver and their friends Clementine and Sam who bring their two little girls Holly (5) and Ruby (2). The story skips back and forth in time, depicting events before the barbeque, on the day of the barbeque, and after the barbeque.

As the story unfolds we learn the backstories of some of the characters. Erika had a difficult shame-filled childhood with her mother Sylvia, a narcissistic and delusional hoarder. Feeling bad for Erika, Clementine's mother Pam took the girl under her wing and pushed Clementine to be friends with her - which Clementine resented. Erika's husband Oliver also had a dysfunctional childhood, with two alcoholic parents. Thus Erika and Oliver - both damaged - understand each other and have a quiet successful marriage.

Clementine, by contrast, had a happy childhood.....aside from being irritated by Erika's constant presence. Clementine had loving parents, a nice home, and musical talent that was nurtured by her family. Clementine is now a professional cellist, happily married to public relations honcho Sam. Though Clementine and Sam's lives are somewhat fraught - with two small kids, two careers, and Clementine's constant fretting about auditions - the couple meanders along quite happily.

Vid is an electrician who resembles 'Tony Soprano' and Tiffany is a successful property developer with an eye-catching sexy figure. Tiffany unashamedly admits she once worked as a pole dancer to make money for school. The couple enjoy throwing parties and Vid loves to cook - so he serves tasty dishes from recipes he finds on the internet. (I got a yen to try some of his dishes....ha ha ha.)

On the day of the barbeque tension arises early because Erika and Oliver make a request of Clementine and Sam that throws the couple off-kilter. So it's not surprising that there's a little too much drinking and hilarity at the cookout, leading to an unfortunate occurrence. A good part of the book drops hints about the incident at the barbeque, details the emotions and actions of the characters, and relates consequences after the cookout. I have to say - after the HUGE build-up - I found the 'barbeque incident' rather predictable and mundane, and the consequences overblown and unrealistic.

That said there are things I like about the story. It has some clever surprises and twists, and some memorable characters and scenes. For example, Sylvia the hoarder (Erika's mom) is sly, phony, funny....and VERY irritating. And social worker Pam (Clementine's mom) is overly self-righteous in her do-gooding, interfering zeal. At one point Pam gives a dinner party speech that made me (and the book's characters) quite uncomfortable. These behaviors - though squirm inducing - add interest to the story. On the other hand, 5-year-old Holly is a hoot when she sprinkles her conversation with "air quotes" on random words.

The first two-thirds of the book held my attention, after which I was slightly bored. And the story's final scenes didn't ring true to me. I would mildly recommend this book to fans of Liane Moriarty but it's not as good as her earlier work (IMO).

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, April 24, 2017

Review of "Stay Close" by Harlan Coben

Seventeen years ago, in Atlantic City, Stewart Green disappeared, an event which profoundly affected the lives of several people: Green's wife was devastated and the lead cop in the investigation, Detective Broom - who befriended Mrs. Green - is still obsessed with the case; Cassie, an entertainer at a club named La Crème who was involved with Green, gave up her old life, changed her name to Megan, and became a suburban wife and mother; and Ray Levine, Cassie's boyfriend at the time, became an alcoholic with a shameful (in his eyes) job as a fake papparazzi.

Now, seventeen years later another man, Carlton Flynn, disappears from Atlantic City in similar circumstances. Unfortunately for Megan she chooses this time to revisit her old haunt, La Crème, where she's recognized by a former friend, the bartender Lorraine. As events unfold this pulls Megan into the police investigation of Carlton's disappearance - and as it turns out - the disappearance of several other men. This upsets Megan life since she's desperate to hide her former identity from her husband.

Meanwhile, Carlton's father, a wealthy developer who distrusts the cops, hires a pair of psychopaths - blonde and beautiful Ken and Barbie - to find out what happened to Carlton. This horrific pair love inflicting pain and go on a torture spree to get information, an endeavor aided by a corrupt cop.

Eventually, using informaton provided by Megan, Ray, and others, the police are able to figure out what's going on, but the solution is not satisfying or believable. Moreover, it was difficult (for me) to reconcile what happened to Green with the very profound changes in the lives of the main characters. Green was an abusive and unpleasant guy and it seemed to me that everyone was better off with him gone.

I'm a Harlen Coben fan but I was disappointed with this book. Ken and Barbie are so over-the-top that they seem like cartoons. Other characters, like Ray and Megan, are so self-involved that they're hard to care about. And the story is overly convoluted and doesn't quite gel. I was actually wondering if Coben had a co-writer since this book seemed so different from his usual style and quality.  

Rating: 2 stars

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of "Bird Box" by Josh Malerman

Many people loved this book and gave it glowing 4 and 5 star reviews. That said, I don't share their enthusiasm.

As the story opens there are alarming news reports that people in Russia are becoming violent - killing themselves and others - for no apparent reason. The phenomenon soon spreads around the world, and it becomes clear that a glimpse of 'it' drives people insane - but no one (who's still alive) knows what 'it' is. People proceed to barricade themselves inside their homes, cover all the windows, and venture outside only with blindfolds on. At one point a character actually drives a car blindfolded, with all the windows blackened for good measure. (This stretches credulity just a tad.)

A few years after the phenomenon begins Malorie is living alone in a house with her two children, Boy and Girl, both 4-years-old. The mother has trained the children to cultivate their sense of hearing, which is now extremely acute. Malorie has had a plan since the kids were born, and one foggy day - when the danger of 'it' seeing them is reduced - she takes action. Malorie blindfolds herself and the 4-year-olds, and they all board a rowboat on a nearby river. Malorie then starts paddling downstream, relying on the children's hearing to detect danger.

The story alternates back and forth between the present - where the little family is traveling down the river, and the past - which details how Malorie got to this point.

In the past, when the craziness began, Malorie - who had just discovered she was pregnant - was living with her sister Shannon. After Shannon died, Malorie, having seen an advertisement in the newspaper about a 'safe house', plucked up her courage and made her way there. The house contained a small cadre of people who had a large supply of food, a nearby well, working electricity, a landline telephone.....and elaborate procedures to keep themselves safe. New people occasionally showed up at the house, which always caused anxiety because the newcomers might have seen 'it' or could be dangerous for other reasons.

In the present, Malorie and the kids are enduring a difficult journey. In addition to rowing in a physically weakened condition (having been stuck inside for years) Malorie has to deal with possible hazards on the river - like collisions, animals, and maybe 'it.'

Back in the past, Tom - who functions as the safe house's leader - undertakes various projects. He organizes an expedition to acquire and train 'seeing-eye' dogs; searches for food and medicine; makes endless phone calls to try to reach survivors (and leaves messages when he can); makes preparations for Malorie's soon-to-be-born baby; and so on.

In the book's sections set in the present, we slowly learn about Malorie's destination, what she must go through to get there (can you say wolf attack?), and what she finds when she arrives. Since Malorie and the children are alone as the story opens it's not a spoiler to say that - for one reason or another - the other house residents are no longer there when Malorie embarks on her trip. How this comes about is suspenseful and compelling.

This book is often described as a horror story - and there's certainly an undercurrent of dread that permeates the tale. However, I never felt very scared. I was more curious to find out what 'it' was, where 'it' came from, why 'it' was here, and possibly 'it's' ultimate fate. I never learned any of that, and was disappointed.

Moreover, this is one of those books that describes the action of the characters in minute detail (I'm paraphrasing here): Tom donned his blindfold; he opened the door; he listened for a moment; he took a step toward the well; he paused to sense whether 'it' was close by; he took another step toward the well; etc. I like the action to move along quickly so (to me) this kind of storytelling is tedious and not enjoyable. In addition, I never quite understood the ultimate goal of the human 'survivors.' I wanted to know what kind of future they hoped for or expected, but the author didn't elaborate on this. (Me.....I'd just throw in the towel if I had to live like these people.)

That said, I admire the author's imagination and his careful development of the stricken world he writes about.

Since so many people have praised this book I'd suggest that readers intrigued by the premise try it out - maybe get it from a traditional or online library (I borrowed it from Hoopla). You might love it too, and if you don' great loss.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review of "My Italian Bulldozer" by Alexander McCall Smith

Paul, a Scotsman who writes popular books about food and wine, is down in the dumps. His long-time girlfriend Becky has left him for her personal trainer, and Paul is brooding about the betrayal - and falling behind on his new manuscript. To get Paul back on track his editor, Gloria, convinces Paul to go to Italy to finish his book. Gloria makes all the arrangements and Paul is soon flying to Pisa, where he'll pick up a rental car and drive to Montalcino - a hill town in Tuscany.

As things turn out Paul's hire car isn't available and he ends up renting a bulldozer. Of course a man meandering along country roads on a bulldozer is quite unique, and Paul is soon having novel experiences and making new acquaintances. Before long Paul is settled into his Tuscan hotel and - between drinking coffee in cafés, dining in fine restaurants, roaming around town, and chatting with Montalcino natives - makes good progress on his book.

As part of his research, Paul visits a winemaker called Tonio, who sadly explains that he can't market his 'Rosso di Montalcino' as famous 'Brunello' wine because he's just outside the production zone. Tonio also tells Paul about his famous ancestors (a claim pooh-poohed by the townsfolk) and serves a country lunch of Tuscan bean soup, pasta laced with garlic, and wild boar.

On his way home from the winery Paul assists a pretty American art historian named Anna, whose car is in a ditch. Paul and Anna have interesting, intellectual conversations and share a lovely meal, and Paul is smitten..... though Anna seems to be spoken for.

Paul is starting to get his ex-girlfriend Becky out of his system when she sends a message saying she's coming to visit. Hearing about this, Paul's editor hurries to Tuscany as well - fearing Becky might distract the writer from his work. So Paul is soon dealing with a bevy of women, to the amusement of the villagers - who didn't think the 'English' were so colorful.

In the course of the story the author describes the beautiful Tuscan countryside as well as Italian wines.....and foods such as fagioli con salciccia (beans with sausage), pecorino nero (cheese made from the milk of black sheep), papa al pomodoro (a garlicky tomato dish served with stale bread), and a picnic of salami and olives.

By the end of the tale Paul has finished his book, made new friends, and helped the vintner Tonio. He's also in love, and picturing a cruise down Venice's Grand Canal on a working barge.....complete with crane.

The book is a pleasant read but seems more like a travelogue than a novel. Still, I enjoyed the story and the quirky characters. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith would probably like the book.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review of "Worth Dying For" by Lee Child

Jack Reacher, perpetual traveler and tough guy seeking justice, stops off in a small Nebraska community as he's hitchhiking south. While having coffee in a motel bar where the local doctor happens to be drinking, a call comes in - Eleanor Duncan has a nosebleed. The doc refuses to respond so Reacher - suspecting domestic abuse - insists on driving the doc to Eleanor's house and finds she has indeed been hit in the face. Reacher proceeds to locate Eleanor's husband Seth at a steakhouse and breaks his nose. After this all hell breaks loose.

Seems the Duncans (Seth, his father and two uncles) have a stranglehold on the local farming community and have completely intimated everybody who lives there. The Duncans aren't about to take any flak from Reacher and tell a couple of 'cornhuskers' - former college football players the Duncans hire to be bodyguards and enforcers - to get rid of Reacher. The two cornhuskers don't succeed.

Moreover the Duncans are involved in illegal trafficking through Canada and are in trouble because a shipment they promised is late. Since they're already furious at Reacher the Duncans tell their customers that the shipment is delayed because Reacher is sniffing around. Before long a slew of people are out to maim/kill Reacher including a bunch of cornhuskers and three sets of hitmen - sent by the Arabs, Italians, and Iranians who are awaiting the shipment.

Reacher is very tough, however, and his encounters with these creeps generally ends badly for the would-be assassins. Lee Child does a good job describing scenes of combat and carnage and one has to admire Reacher's capabilities with his fists and any tools or weapons he happens to get his hands on.

While all this is going on Reacher hears about the disappearance of a local young girl twenty-five years ago and decides to find out what happened to her - not so easy while so many people are out to kill him. Most of the story is about Reacher playing cat and mouse with the people chasing him and there's a lot of violence and unpleasant behavior. However Reacher is very clever and figures everything out in the end. There are some surprises and twists in this exciting thriller. Recommended for fans of the series.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review of "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris

This loosely autobiographical memoir from humorist David Sedaris is divided into essays, many of which are laugh out loud funny. The topics include Sedaris's childhood rebellion against speech therapy, unwanted guitar lessons taught by a midget, drug fueled (and extended) college years, weird presentations as an untalented performance artist, amusing interactions with his family and friends, living in France with his boyfriend Hugh, and more. I listened to the audio version of the book, narrated by the author, and enjoyed it immensely.

Sedaris's stories may stretch the truth on occasion, but they're very entertaining. For example:

As an art major in college, Sedaris took a pottery class: "With their thick clumsy bases my mugs weighed in at close to five pounds each. The color was muddy and the lips rough and uninviting." Sedaris's mother used these 'gifts' as pet bowls until "a cat chipped a tooth and went on a hunger strike."


After Sedaris graduated from The Art Instutute of Chicago in 1987 he was offered a job teaching a writing workshop. Having no idea how to prepare lesson plans, Sedaris divided the twice weekly, two-hour class into a series of discussion periods including: Celebrity Corner - during which pupils presented gossip about rock bands and movie stars; Feed Bag Forum - where students brought in one-pot recipes (Sedaris had a new crock pot); Pillow Talk - during which students could discuss their private sex lives - or failing that - watch the soap opera 'One Life to Live.'

The latter activity was turned into a real writing exercise when the pupils were asked to prepare a 'guessay' about what would happen on the TV show next day. To Sedaris's dismay the attendees came up with things like 'the long lost daughter turns out to be a vampire' or 'Vicky chokes to death on a submarine sandwich.'

Later on, when the students were required to submit their own stories Sedaris would type up evaluations like "punctuation never hurt anyone" or "think verbs" for the most part he and the students got along.

(I can relate to the bad teaching. I had a professor for a class in 'Insect Physiology' that only talked about baseball teams and deparmental gossip. He got canned pretty quickly. LOL)


Sedaris doesn't enjoy eating in New York restaurants, partly because his artsy Soho neighborhood "isn't a macaroni salad kind of place" but rather an area where "the world's brightest young talents come to eat racks of corn fed songbirds." Even simple dishes are dressed up: "The meatloaf has been poached in seawater and there are figs in the tuna salad."

Sedaris notes, "I'd order the skirt steak with a medley of suffocated peaches but I'm put off by the aspirin sauce" and "The sea scallops look good until I'm told they're served in a broth of malt liquor and mummified lichee nuts." Moreover, "The food is always arranged into a senseless vertical tower; it now reaches for the sky, much like the high rise buildings lining our city streets. It's as if the plates were valuable parcels of land and the chef had purchased one small lot, along with unlimited air rights."


Sedaris's friend Alicia from North Carolina came to visit him in New York and brought a friend named Bonnie. Bonnie didn't take to the city because "unfortunately, visiting Americans will find more warmth in Tehran than New York - a city founded on the principles 'us vs. them'." Sedaris observes, "I don't speak Latin but I always assumed the city motto translates into either 'go home' or 'we don't like you either'."


Sedaris was born in 1956 and the computer revolution took him completely by surprise. He notes, "There were no computers in my high school and the first few times I attempted college people were still counting on their fingers and removing their shoes when the numbers got above ten." Sedaris writes, "I became aware of computers in the mid-1980s when my friends starting sending creepy Christmas newsletters designed to look like tabloids.....titled 'The Herald Family Tribune' and 'Whassup with the Wexlers.' To top it off, his acquaintances started to "send letters composed to look like Chinese takeout menus and the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Sedaris writes, "I refuse to have a computer. The harder I'm pressured to use a computer the harder I resist. One by one all my friends have deserted me and fled to the dark side. 'How can I write you if you don't have an email address?' they ask. They talk of their B-trees and disc doctors and then have the nerve to complain when I discuss bowel obstructions at the dinner table."


Sedaris's boyfriend Hugh had lived in France for a while, and the partners spent a few summers in Normandy before moving to Paris for several years. Talking about France, Sedaris observes, "My understanding was that no matter what we tried the French would never like us. And that's confusing for an American raised to believe that the people of other countries should be grateful for all the wonderful things we've done for them....."Things like movies that stereotype the people of Europe as bores and petty snobs.....and remarks like, "We saved your ass in World War II'."


During Sedaris's first visit to Normandy, his French vocabulary was limited to words like 'ashtray', 'bottleneck', and the phrase 'see you again yesterday.' He made an effort to learn new phrases and "Went from talking like a baby to talking like a hillbilly." In a butcher shop Sedaris asked, "Is them the thoughts of cows?" - pointing to cow brains.....and requested "lampchops with handles."


In Paris, Sedaris took a French class with other foreign residents. The class was daunting and the teacher was volatile. Sedaris writes, "My only comfort was knowing I was not alone. Huddled in
hallways my fellow students and I engaged in conversations normally heard in refugee camps. For example, one student lamented, 'Sometime me cry alone at night' and another responded, 'That be common for I also, but be more strong you. Much work and someday you talk pretty.'

In the second month of French classes - during a lesson about holidays - a Muslim student from Morocco asked, 'What is an Easter?' The teacher asked the students to explain. A Polish girl started, 'It is a party for the little boy of God who call hisself Jesus and'......she faltered and her fellow countryman chimed in.....'He call hisself Jesus and he die one day on two morsels of lumber.' According to Sedaris, "The rest of the class jumped in with bits of information that would have given the Pope an aneurysm".....explanations like, "He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father'..... and 'He weared of himself the long hair and after he die the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.'


To help expand his vocabulary, Sedaris's sister Amy sent him the audiobook of 'Pocket Medical French', designed for visiting doctors and nurses. From this gem Sedaris learned "conversational sparklers" like 'remove your dentures and all your jewelry'.....'you now need to deliver the afterbirth'.....and 'could I trouble you for a stool sample' (among others).


Sedaris goes on to say, "I never thought much about how Americans were viewed overseas until I came to France and was expected to look and behave in a certain way. About his appearance, Sedaris says, "If I was thin it was because I'd recently lost the extra fifty pounds cushioning the standard American ass".....and "If I was pushy it was typical.....and if I wasn't it was probably due to Prozac."


Talking about expenses in France, Sedaris says, "Shortly after moving into my Paris apartment, I noticed a leak in the bathroom and phoned the landlord to say, "The toilet, she cry much of the time." Bathroom repairs cost him $1000.00 for a job that would be $300.00 in the United States.

Thus, the author feared a doctor visit would be truly exorbitant. However, an office visit to a French dentist cost only $25.00, so Sedaris felt brave enough to go to an eye doctor. He explained to the optician, "From the time I had five years I have worn of myself some glasses".....and "Then when I had 20 years I said to myself, 'Enough of this. I am tired of something living all the time upon my nose'." Sedaris goes on to say, "I got a new pair of glasses and I'm still adjusting to all the subtle things I've been missing all these years, things like the expressions of disgust that typically cross people's faces when they discover that they're talking to an idiot."


Sedaris also muses about food. He notes, "In a French market, in the section devoted to foreign foods, I came across a large can of peanut butter and it broke my heart. Peanut butter is not something you traditonally find in France and I could sense that someone had gone through a great deal of trouble to make this happen. The problem of course, was the can....the items that come in cans are generally the things that you use in one or two sittings, like cat food or baked beans. The French manufacturer obviously had the impression that homesick Americans just sit around with tablespoons and go through a pound of peanut butter in a single afternoon, shoveling it in until they pass out."

Sedaris also writes, "In France, I often leaf through cookbooks looking for vocabulary words that might come in handy. That's how I learned the verbs 'to simmer, to dice, and to set aside the beak'."


And finally, Sidaris's friend lent him a book called "Imperial Dishes of China." The author observes, "As a working cookbook I felt like it left too many holes. When told to 'arrange the camel paw attractively' my first question was..... how ? Camel paws don't even look attractive on camels. On top of that, where are you supposed to buy these ingredients in the first place? if you can't locate a single camel paw can you use two dozen cat paws instead?"


At the end of the book Sedaris talks about moving back into his parents basement when he was between colleges, using drugs, and unemployed. His father told him to leave, and Sedaris assumed it was for the above reasons. However, Sedaris's mother - breaking into sobs - apologetically explained that his father threw him out because he was gay. This made me feel a little sad.

 I'd recommend the book to Sedaris fans and anyone else who likes hilarious memoirs.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review of "Cop Town" by Karin Slaughter

This stand alone by Karin Slaughter is set in 1974 Atlanta, where a serial cop killer is on the loose. As the search for the killer is going on Kate Murphy, a beautiful young widow from Buckhead (a wealthy Atlanta neighborhood) has completed her police training and starts on the job. She's soon partnered with working class Maggie Lawson, whose uncle Terry Lawson and brother Jimmy Lawson are both cops.

The job isn't easy for women however. The 1970s Atlanta Police Department is dominated by racist, homophobic, white men who have contempt for black cops and female cops. The white males feel free to disrespect and grope their female colleagues, who are generally relegated to traffic duty or undercover work where they pose as hookers. Kate is even more ostracized because of her good looks and posh accent.

Before long Jimmy is wounded by the cop killer and his partner Don is killed. The Atlanta PD goes into high gear to catch the murderer and Maggie - who thinks Jimmy's hiding something - wants to help. Uncle Terry is violently against this but Maggie uses personal sources to get information and she and Kate launch their own inquiry. As the women investigate Kate becomes re-acquainted with an old friend who's now a doctor, able to provide important information about Jimmy's injuries. The doc, though married, is attracted to Kate and proceeds to pursue her.

The book has a wide array of interesting characters including a tough lady officer who's willing to torture witnesses, a transgender pimp, a creepy child rapist, Kate's courtly family, and a whole bunch of cops. The plot is fast-paced and leads to a dramatic, believable, and satisfying climax. I enjoyed this mystery thriller and highly recommend it.

(A note: I'm glad to think the bigoted male cops in this story would be thrown off the job immediately in this day and age.)

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review of "The Whisperers" by John Connolly

Odd things are going on in Maine. Several veterans of the Iraq war, including Damien Patchett, have recently committed suicide. Damien's father, diner owner Bennett Patchett - stricken by his son's death - has other problems as well. He's worried that his waitress is being abused by her boyfriend Joel Tobias, who happens to be Damien's former platoon mate. So Bennett hires PI Charlie Parker to check out Tobias, hoping the investigation also casts light on his son's suicide.

Parker's investigation of Tobias reveals that a cadre of Iraq war veterans are using a semi-truck to smuggle things across the Maine border - from Canada to the United States. The reader (though not Parker) soon learns that the 'things' are treasures looted from Baghdad's Museum of Antiquities. Unfortunately for the looters the stolen riches are far from benign. They harbor evil spirits - 'whisperers' - that drive people who come in contact with them to suicide.

The smuggling operation catches the attention of Maine mobster Jimmy Jewel, who wants a piece of the action. Others are also interested in the stolen goods including Mexican gangsters; a curator of the Baghdad museum; Herod - an obsessed, cancer-ridden man guided by an evil wraith called 'The Captain'; and 'The Collector' - a demon known to Charlie Parker. The latter parties are particularly interested in a mysterious item called 'Pandora's Box' which - if opened - could unleash chaos on the world.

The stolen antiquities cause a spate of mayhem - including torture and murder - as the veterans try to profit from their loot while other parties try to wrest the goodies away from them. There are also eerie occurences where spirits drive people crazy and make them do odd and deadly things. Some of these supernatural scenes are amusing in a bizarre kind of way.

Private detective Charlie Parker - though a little fuzzy about exactly what's going on - wants to stop the deaths of the veterans, save the waitress, and preserve the world. Thus he enlists the help of his old friends, Angel and Louis, two tough birds who like nothing better than killing bad guys.

I thought the story was interesting and shed some light on veterans suffering from PTSD and their need for more government assistance. The underlying theme of the story - soldiers stealing treasures from war torn regions - was also compelling (though I don't know how realistic this is....some of those statues are pretty big).

Overall, though, the the book was just okay for me. Some parts of the story were overly detailed and very slow moving, and I wanted the action to move along faster. Also, the mixed 'private detective' - 'supernatural phenomena' genre isn't my favorite. Still, there are a good variety of characters in the book (some more well rounded than others) and the story held my attention.

I would recommend the book to Charlie Parker fans and to fans of supernatural mysteries.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review of "Caught" by Harlan Coben


Wendy Tynes is a television journalist for the program 'Caught in the Act', a show that lures in and exposes child predators. Dan Mercer, a divorced Princeton graduate who coaches troubled kids, is ensnared by Wendy's machinations and accused of targeting a young girl. However, the evidence is compromised and a judge lets Mercer off.

This infuriates Ed Grayson - whose son was abused - and he shoots and kills Mercer right in front of Wendy. However Grayson is a former U.S. Marshall - and a very clever guy - who gets rid of the body, obfuscates the evidence, and hires top-notch criminal defense attorney Hester Crimstein. Thus, it looks like Grayson can't even be brought to trial. And even if he could be, the jury would more likely congratulate him than convict him.

Meanwhile, a 17-year-old high school girl named Haley McWaid has been missing for three months.....and new evidence points to Mercer (now dead) as the possible abductor.

There's a problem though. Wendy's been re-examining the evidence that Mercer was a pedophile and - in retrospect - it looks inconclusive. Hence, Wendy fears she may have 'outed' an innocent man.....and indirectly got him killed. Moreover, Wendy's not positive Mercer was involved in Haley's disappearance either.

Wendy's guilty conscience leads her to delve into Mercer's life, going all the way back to his years at Princeton. And lo and behold, Wendy discovers that something bad happened at the Ivy League University a couple of decades back.....something that might be connected to what's occurring now.

As Wendy's trying to uncover the truth she interviews Mercer's family and friends, some of whom have lost lucrative jobs because of the economy. One of Mercer's unemployed buddies - who's fashioned himself into a rapper called Tenafly - provides some comic relief from the darker parts of the story.

Wendy's investigation, helped by playboy/tycoon Windsor Horne Lockwood III (Win)- eventually leads her to the truth.....which is quite twisty and surprising.

Two themes in the book are revenge and forgiveness. Terrible wrongs have been done to some characters, and the issue of whether to forgive or not arises several times. To me the forgiveness motif didn't meld smoothly into the story and felt awkward.

All in all I liked the book pretty well, and it was fun to see Hester Crimstein and Win - who are recurring characters in Coben's books. I think most mystery fans would enjoy 'Caught' and recommend the book to them.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review of "Resistant" by Michael Palmer

An organization called the "Society of One Hundred Neighbors", which has exactly 100 members, wants to control the U.S government so they can get rid of policies they don't like - especially entitlement programs. The society has secret members across the country including politicians, cops, judges, doctors, scientists, business people, and so on - all of whom are dedicated to achieving their goal.

As the story opens the society has created and unleashed a 'Doomsday Germ' called Janus - an antibiotic-resistant, flesh-eating bacteria that breaks down a victim's body from the inside out. As the disease spreads through the body, the unfortunate victim has their infected limbs amputated, one at a time, until they succumb to death.

The society is blackmailing the government, saying it will provide a cure for the Janus germ if policies are changed to suit their goals. There's a huge problem however. Janus has mutated and the society's cure no longer works. Desperate to continue to extort the government, the society hatches a plan to kidnap scientists, install them in a secret lab, and force them to find a new antibiotic.

The government, of course, wants to thwart the society. Thus, it has it has its own people working on a cure.

Dr. Lou Welcome, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, is an ER doctor and assistant director of the Physicians Wellness Office. Due to some bad luck Lou's best friend, Cap Duncan, sustains a horrific compound fracture of his leg and - while in the hospital - gets infected with the Janus bacteria. Lou is determined to help his friend and gets pulled into an underground scheme to find a cure.

I had hoped the author would talk more about the actual Janus bacteria but the book is essentially a thriller. The society ruthlessly tortures and kills people to achieve its goal while Lou and an FBI agent try to free the kidnapped scientists and destroy the society.

The story is violent, suspenseful, and fast-moving with an interesting array of repellent bad guys and heroic good guys. I have a reservation that applies to most fictional stories with a 'deadly germ' theme, including this one. The fictional scientists find a cure in a few days that - in real life - would literally take years or decades. I'll accept authors' license however.

I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of thrillers.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review of "Asking for Truffle: A Southern Chocolate Shop Mystery" by Dorothy St. James

Charity Penn - an attractive, thirty-something, marketing executive - is a skeptical kind of gal. Her parents, an itinerant fortune teller who briefly hooked up with the young heir to a fortune, abandoned her right after birth. So Charity (who calls herself Penn) was raised by her paternal grandmother Cristobel, who never had a kind word for her. Still, Penn has a hefty trust fund, and always fears people are after her money.

So when Penn, who lives in Wisconsin, gets a letter saying she won a trip to Camellia Beach, South Carolina - complete with cooking lessons at a chocolate shop - she's sure it's some kind of scam. Penn asks her friend, Skinny McGee, to look into the matter and - since he's going south anyway - Skinny stops by Camellia Beach to see what's what. Shortly afterward Skinny calls Penn and excitedly says she MUST come to Camellia Beach to see something for herself! Not long afterward Skinny is found dead in a vat of chocolate.

Consumed with guilt, Penn accepts her 'prize trip.' She packs up her ill-tempered pooch Stella - who never saw a toe she didn't want to bite - and heads for Camellia Beach. There, Penn stays in a small hotel, meets the local residents, takes cooking lessons at 'The Chocolate Box' confectionary shop, and looks into Skinny's murder.

In less than a week there's another death, things get very complicated, and Penn herself becomes the target of a killer. Not sure who to trust, Penn has to race against time to expose the miscreant before she becomes the next victim.

The book has an intriguing premise and a variety of interesting characters, including: Althea - a woman who runs a crystal shop and has mystical thoughts; Mabel and Bertie - two elderly ladies who run the 'The Chocolate Box' and teach Penn to make heavenly sweets; Harley Dalton - a handsome attorney; Cal Dalton - a surfer who looks like an action hero; Jody - a real estate agent who wants to develop Camellia beach; Troubadour - a hairless cat who looks like a giant rodent; and more.

My biggest problem with the book is Penn, who needs to go to 'detective school' if she's going to be a cozy mystery sleuth. For example, after arriving in Camellia Beach Penn takes cooking lessons for four full days before she looks into Skinny's death. A real detective (even an amateur) would never do this! And when someone hands Penn an important envelope, she ignores it, thinking she already knows what it contains (she's wrong, of course). How long does it take to look into an envelope? Even in cozies, the gumshoe should be clever and resourceful.

I was also a little put off by Penn's personality. She constantly whines about people being after her money..... and about her cold and distant relatives. These are legitimate issues - and I get it - but I don't need to hear it over and over again.

There are also too many cooking scenes in the story. I enjoyed them - but this is a mystery, not a cookbook. (I do like the recipes at the end of the book.....which sound scrumptious.)

All in all, this isn't a bad book, but it could be better (IMO).

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Dorothy St. James), and the publisher (Crooked Lane Books) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review of "Death of a Fool" by Ngaio Marsh

In the English village of South Mardian the winter solstice is marked by a complex ritual dance performed solely by men. This year, not long after WW II, the major participants in the dance are the local smithy and his four sons - who have a long ancestry in the area - a village doctor, a parson's son/lawyer, and a former army officer.

The story acted out in the dance is described as resembling 'King Lear' because it involves children (in this case sons) at odds with their old father. The superstitious ritual includes donning elaborate costumes and dancing, reciting, jingling, chasing girls, and brandishing swords. Toward the latter part of the ritual one of the sons beheads the father, who sinks out of sight behind a boulder. Then, at the dramtic climax, the father is supposed to come back to life and jump up from behind the rock. This time, however, the father doesn't pop up. It turns out he's actually been beheaded.

The entire village is on hand to watch the ritual dance, including an overbearing dowager and her eccentric niece, a sexy barmaid, a pretty young acting student, etc. Also present is a German visitor - a woman who studies and writes about English folklore/folk dances. The lady is regarded with suspicion by some villagers, both because she's German and a woman.

When Detective Roderick Alleyn shows up to investigate the murder he asks each dance participant and a number of observers to describe - in excruciating detail - all aspects of the dance. Every witness claims that no one went near the boulder shielding the old man between the time he was 'beheaded' in the dance and the time he was supposed to rise up again.

The questioning of witnesses takes up a large part of the book and is exceedingly repetitive and tedious. Moreover, since I didn't actually see the dance and am not familiar with British folk dancing, the descriptions were difficult to follow. And finally, when the murderer and modus operandi were exposed I couldn't picture it and it didn't make sense.

In the time covered by the story various other things are going on in South Mardian. There's a 'Romeo and Juliet' type romance (the relatives don't approve); the German woman acts peculiar and fears the police; there's pressure on a couple to marry (against their wishes) because they were seen canoodling in the forest (a product of those conservative times); the smithy and his sons have real life arguments; etc. The characters, however, are not well fleshed out and not terribly interesting.

This is not one of Ngaio Marsh's best books. It seems more like a book about British folk dancing than a mystery. I wouldn't recommend it.

Rating: 2 stars

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of "Hag-Seed" by Margaret Atwood

'The Hogarth Shakespeare Project' commissions renowned writers to retell and modernize Shakepeare's works. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is a contemporary version of 'The Tempest.'

In a nutshell: The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, a duke that's been deposed and exiled by his treacherous brother Antonio, who's in cahoots with the King. The banished Prospero is stranded on an island with his young daughter Miranda, the monster(ish) Caliban, and the mystical spirit Ariel. After many years Prospero, who's mastered the art of magic, manages to lure his enemies to the island with a bogus tempest. Once the usurpers are in his power, Prospero proceeds to get his revenge.

I'm going to be upfront here and admit that - soon after starting this book - I watched the 2010 film 'The Tempest' (starring Helen Mirren as a female version of Prospero), so I'd know what was going on.

On to the review:

Felix Phillips is the cutting-edge artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theater Festival in Ontario - about to produce The Tempest - when he's ousted by his cunning, manipulative assistant Tony. Felix is already reeling from the death of his three-year-old daughter Miranda, so - completely downtrodden - he goes off to live in a lonely shack and nurture plans of revenge.

Though Felix lives alone he imagines Miranda is still with him.....growing up as the years pass. In Felix's mind he and Miranda share meals, have conversations, walk in the yard, play chess, and so on. After a decade or so Felix gets tired of his lonely isolation and - calling himself Mr. Duke - takes a job with the "Literacy Through Literature” program at the local Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Felix is a gifted and inventive thespian, and - working with
medium-security male inmates - he stages innovative versions of Shakespeare plays.

Finally, 12 years after he was deposed by Tony, Felix gets an opportunity to exact retribution. By now the dirty-dealing Judas and his cohorts are politicians, looking to climb the governmental ladder. To further their ambitions, the politicos plan to see a Shakespeare production at Fletcher prison and (of course) stage a photo op.

So Felix decides to put on a prisoner version of The Tempest, complete with the story's "play within a play" scenario. During the traitors' visit to Fletcher, Tony and his pals think they've been nabbed by convicts during a prison riot, that one of their party has been killed, and so on. The visitors' experiences parallels that of the characters in the real Shakespeare play - and eventually they're confronted with their treachery towards Felix all those years ago.

While reading the book I learned a lot about updating a classic work; how plays are cast and staged; creating costumes; the nuts and bolts of putting on a production; stage names in the clink (LOL); and so on....all of which is very interesting. I loved that the prisoners were only permitted to use 'curse words' in the original play, and their cuss-filled conversations are hilarious. For example: scurvy awesome; what the pied ninny is this; you're a poxy communist; shove it, freckled whelp; and from one well-spoken convict.....poisonous poxy, what's it scurvy about. I also like the inventive rap songs the prisoners write for the production.

In an excellent addendum, the prisoners make up possible futures for the major characters in The Tempest....that is, what happens after the story ends. I often wonder about this kind of thing myself, so I was intrigued by the prisoners' speculations.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it to Shakespeare fans, lovers of literature, and anyone else who wants to try something a little different.

If you're interested in knowing more about the Hogarth project, the website is here:

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Review of "Betrayed" by Lisa Scottoline


Judy Carrier, an attorney with Philadelphia's Rosato & Associates law firm, is having a rough time. Her beloved Aunt Barb, diagnosed with breast cancer, is preparing for a double mastectomy. Judy's experiencing friction with her mom, who's in town to help Barb. Judy's boyfriend Frank is behaving like a clueless lout. And Judy's boss, Bennie Rosato, has saddled her with a stack of work on behalf of asbestos firms that she's morally opposed to. To top it off, Aunt Barb's companion and gardening assistant, Iris - an undocumented worker from Mexico who also works for a mushroom grower - dies in suspicious circumstances,

Aunt Barb wants to find out what really happened to Iris before her surgery, so she and Judy traipse all over town asking questions of Iris's priest, friends, and co-workers, but they can't get satisfactory answers. Then Judy discovers a secret stash of money that Iris apparently hid at Barb's house and things go from bad to worse. More deaths occur, Judy is attacked, Iris's friends disappear or clam up, and so on. It seems clear that Iris was involved in some nefarious goings on.

My problem with the book is that the investigation concerning Iris seems to take a back seat to what's going on in Judy's personal life. The story is more like Judy's personal drama than a mystery/thriller. Judy is constantly fretting about Aunt Barb, which - though understandable - isn't as compelling as the criminal investigation. Moreover Judy repeatedly hassles with Frank, who's depicted as an almost cartoonish character. Frank is so dismissive, self-absorbed, and childish that it seems unbelievable that Judy could ever have fallen for him in the first place, much less lived with him for years. It seems like Scottoline - wanting to move forward with Judy's personal story - doesn't want the reader to like Frank.

There are a lot of characters in the book, some better developed than others. Thus it's a little hard to follow who did what. Judy eventually figures out what's going on and the book has an exciting, dramatic climax. For me, Scottoline's earlier books - which concentrate more on Rosato's law firm - were more enjoyable. Still, fans who want to know more about Judy's personal life will probably like this book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review of "The Last Star" by Rick Yancey

This is the third book in a science fiction trilogy aimed at YA readers. The first book is in the series is "The Fifth Wave" and the second is "The Infinite Sea."

The general premise of the series is that an alien craft dubbed 'the mother ship' harboring 'the others' is hovering over Earth. Its purpose is to destroy the human population. Thus the aliens unleash one catastrophe after another, killing over 7 billion people. The final strategy of 'the others' is to insert their consciousness (sort of download themselves) into remaining humans so that - not knowing who's human and who's not - people will kill each other.

A brave group of youngsters led by teenagers Cassie and Ben (aka Zombie) are desperately fighting 'the others.' Cassie's main goal seems to be keeping her five-year-old brother Sam (aka Nugget) alive. As it turns out a human - Colonel Vosch - has been co-opted by the aliens and is leading the charge to destroy the human race. Conversely, an alien-human hybrid, Evan Walker, has turned on his own kind and is assisting Cassie and her friends.

In books one and two it's not too clear why the aliens want to wipe out humanity and exactly what they plan to do with planet Earth. In book three, after a lot of action - shooting, knifing, gouging, fighting, killing, double-dealing, burying, bombing, hiding among dead bodies, helicopter hijacking, high-tech shenanigans, and so on - the 'truth' is revealed.

For me the big reveal was a big disappointment. The aliens' goal doesn't fit with things that happened throughout the series and felt anti-climactic and not credible. After spending a good deal of time reading three books I was expecting a denouement that was much more dramatic and interesting.

                                                               SPOILER ALERT

Moreover, the premise that the mother ship was ultimately destroyed because the aliens don't understand 'love' is cliche and not believable to me.

                                                            END SPOILER ALERT

Still, the books are action-packed and have brave likable good guys. There's even a drop of romance. I think a lot of YA readers would enjoy the series.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review of "Harry's Justice" by Andy Wiseman

Harry Windsor, former strongman for dapper criminal kingpin Henry Solomon, has been going straight since his stint in prison. Having inherited a large house from his beloved foster mother, Lillian, Harry is converting it into rental rental flats.....and keeping a low profile.

That changes, though, when three young thugs start to harass an elderly couple in a pub. Harry - a combination of Bruce Lee, Superman, and Don Quixote - dispatches the hooligans pretty quickly. Assigned to write a story for the North London Gazette, Isobelle Harker (Izzy) tracks Harry down and - to his dismay - publishes an article about the 'heroic' incident.

Irish property developer Patrick Dolan, seeing the newspaper story, offers Harry five thousand dollars to find his missing daughter Mollie. The search draws Harry into the orbit of Russian mobsters whose 'gentlemen's club' employs pretty young 'hostesses' who've been forced into prostitution.

Harry's foray into the criminal underworld also puts him back into contact with Mr. Solomon, who wants Harry to resume his old job as an enforcer. Mr. Solomon's current debt collector, Cutter, is a violent wild card that needs replacing.

Izzy, who's become intrigued with Harry (and has a bit of a crush) inserts herself into the search for Mollie Dolan. During her quest for information Izzy barges in on Detective Constable Steve Marshall, and asks him to make 'unofficial inquiries' for her. Before long Izzy and Steve are informally working with Harry to find and rescue the missing girl.

Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Carson, who put Harry in prison originally, is determined to get the (former) gangster off the streets again. Carson is a bullying, sketchy cop who'd do anything to get his Harry is squeezed between criminals and cops.

As the story unfolds people get beat up, stabbed, tortured, and killed in vivid scenes that are very graphic (in case you need to know.)

The writer has a deft hand with description, and I found it easy to picture the book's people and places - especially the kitchens. One character - Detective Steve Marshall - prepares some delicious sounding recipes, and I suspect the author has an interest in cooking. (LOL)

This is a hard-hitting, action packed thriller with well-rounded, interesting characters. Harry is an especially engaging protagonist, with a dark history that still haunts him.....and a good heart.

I have a couple of quibbles with the book: though well-written, it could use another pass by a copy editor; and I was a little put off by Mr. Solomon's nickname 'The Jew' (though I suspect this is a realistic 'mob' sobriquet).

Though I cringed at some of the violent scenes, I enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to fans of thrillers.

Thank you to Andy Wiseman for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Review of "Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things" by Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson - born and raised in Texas - is a journalist, blogger, author, and humorist who suffers from mental illness. Lawson describes herself as having clinical depression, severe anxiety disorder, impulse control disorder, avoidance personality disorder, and depersonalization disorder (which makes her feel detached from reality). She also has rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune problems, self-harm issues, trichotillomania (she pulls out her hair), mild obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic attacks. This makes Lawson's life challenging but - in spite of it all - she's a very funny lady!

This is Lawson's second book and, like the first, it provides encouragement to people with mental health issues.....and to everyone else whose life isn't perfect. Lawson's motivational observations are scattered among many amusing anecdotes that make gentle fun of everything and everyone, including herself.

Lawson describes one of her troubling behaviors as follows: She was in the bathroom, blood flowing from the scratches on her head that she'd made with her nails. Lawson describes how this made her feel: "The pressure in my head was gone. The pain in me was floating away. Panic was fading slowly." In short, the physical pain distracted from the mental pain. For Lawson, these kinds of self-destructive actions led to behavioral therapy, various medications, learning to redirect her thoughts, snapping rubber bands on her wrist, and squeezing ice until her hands burned. Lawson's basic philosophy - reiterated in different ways throughout the book - is: "Without the dark there isn't light, without pain there isn't relief."

In spite of these low periods Lawson has the gift of seeing (and creating) the funny all around her. For instance:

Lawson is picking up her meds at a Texas pharmacy and sees a box of Milk Bone dog biscuits beside the cash register. She thinks maybe someone returned them until - while ringing her up - the pharmacist casually reaches into the box and scarfs down some broken biscuits. Lawson is aghast, wondering if she's high....or if Milk Bones are actually delicious and the pharmacist is a genius who discovered really cheap cookies.

Lawson loves her stuffed raccoon, Rory. Rory is posed standing up on his hind legs with his arms stretched wide and a huge smile on his face (see book cover). Late one night Lawson decides Rory should ride, rodeo style, on her cats - Ferris Mewler, Hunter S. Tomcat, and Rolly - for a photo montage. So Lawson tries to mount Rory on the kitties, who flop over before she can get the shot, "like a bunch of ingrates that don't understand art." At one point, Lawson's husband Victor, woken by the racket at 2 A.M., peeks out of the bedroom just as Ferris Mewler is streaking across the room with Rory on board. "What the hell is that?" cries Victor. (Can you imagine? LOL)

Speaking of cats, Lawson thinks an awesome name for a cat would be "The President" because you'd find yourself saying things like: The President will not stop sitting on my keyboard; The President just threw up on the new rug; I love sleeping with The President. When Lawson mentioned this to Victor, he yelled "You can't have any more cats. I have to clean up after them. And I'll be damned if I have to scoop The President's shit too." (ha ha ha).

For Lawson, one of the difficulties of being a successful author is the inevitable promotional tour and attendant parties. Lawson gets so anxious at events like these that she sometimes hides behind the podium, cowers under a table, or takes shelter in the bathroom.....and occasionally she can't leave her hotel room at all. At one stop, in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, the crowded streets forced Lawson to stay in her room and - lacking room service - eat peanut butter crackers (that she'd brought along) for days.

For her last book tour Lawson had to fly constantly. According to the author, "it really fucked wtih my anxiety disorder to the point where I had a mild nervous breakdown." Lawson's shrink advised her to get a service animal, which provides support to people with these difficulties. Lawson thought of training Ferris Mewler, but his explosive diarrhea during trips put him out of the running. So Lawson looked into other animals, including a pony. She notes, "Pony Danza would make a great support animal on a plane.....but Victor got all shitty about having an indoor pony pet." (Lawson's a genius at naming animals! )

Lawson counsels the reader that, "Even when everything's going your way you can still be sad, or anxious, or numb.....because you can't always control your brain or your emotions. It's terrifying but you learn that it's okay to prefer your idea of heaven - like live tweeting zombie movies from under a blanket of kittens - rather than someone else's idea, like fame, fortune, or parties." She advises, "Appreciate the unique moments that recharge you. I want banana popsicles dipped in Malibu rum." (Sounds good to me!)

In one entry, Lawson lists things she may have accidently blurted out during uncomfortable silences at her psychiatrist's office:
"I need to find a skilled arsonist, not necessarily to burn anything down. I just want to have the option. I need an arsonist on retainer. I'm pretty sure that's legal as long as I don't use it."
"My primary thoughts during holidays are stab stab stab, run away."
"I hate it when it's too hot for a blanket because I have this phobia that I'll float up to the ceiling without it and then I'll get chopped up by the celing fan."
"On the way here I saw a cloud that looked like a skull and my first thought, Death Eaters."
Of course the psychiatrist just responds, " How does that make you feel? Tell me more."

In one funny anecdote Lawson talks about a visit to her beauty salon. The beautician suggests, "We should get you a Brazilian blowout. It's not bad. You just have to be extra careful for the first day or two. You can't put your hair in a ponytail or anything, or it could compromise the treatment." To which Lawson reponds, "What the shit. Who puts their pubic hair in a ponytail?" And the beautician explains that this is a blow drying treatment for the hair on your head - that straightens it out and makes it less frizzy. "Ohhhh...Yeahhhhh" responds a sheepish Lawson. :)

In another wry entry Lawson talks about moving into a new house, chosen in part, because of the safe area. "The house seemed perfect..... the gated community seemed perfect." However, in short order: Lawson got attacked by swans at the local pond; a man in the neighborhood had a full on shoot out with the police in his driveway (and got arrested); and a flyer was circulated saying that a cougar had come down from the mountain nearby and eaten a lady's dog WHILE SHE WAS WALKING IT! Lawson notes, "I just assume the sewers are filled with panthers because this seems to be the direction things are taking."

Lawson also describes a trip to Japan with Victor, where a small gang broke into their hotel room (a misunderstanding); and a journey to Australia with a friend - where she wanted to hug a koala dressed as a koala, and tried to see a kangaroo's three vaginas (these is a real thing, but not visible on the outside).

The writer also describes more of her mental health battles, in an effort to give hope to people who struggle along with her. Lawson's message comes across loud and clear: 'you can go on; you can make it; medication helps; twitter (where lots of 'nuts' hang out) helps; the bad times will pass'..... and so on. 'Just hang in there and appreciate the good times.' The author expresses deep appreciation to her fans, and is profoundly touched by messages from troubled souls who have been brought back from the brink by her writing.

On the downside, the book's humor is a little uneven, and some stories fall flat or feel forced, as if Lawson engaged in an activity just to have something to write about (and it didn't turn out to be that hilarious).

I'd recommend the book to anyone who wants a laugh or needs a boost on occasion (which, I suspect, is everyone). I listened to the audio version, narrated by the author, and was treated to a 'bonus chapter.' So consider getting that version if you can.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, April 7, 2017

Review of "In the Unlikely Event" by Judy Blume

Though this book is publicized as a Judy Blume book for adults it feels more like a YA book to me. The story is set in 1950s Elizabeth, New Jersey, and follows a number of people who are profoundly affected by three local plane crashes that occur within three months, killing passengers as well as people on the ground.

The book is told from the rotating points of view of several characters but centers around 15-year-old Miri Ammerman, a Jewish girl who lives in a loving, nurturing home with her mom Rusty, grandmother Irene, and uncle Henry. Miri knows nothing about her father, whom Rusty refuses to discuss. Uncle Henry is a journalist whose career is kicked into high gear by the articles he writes about the plane crashes – a sad reminder that some people’s bad luck is other people’s good luck.

Miri spends a lot of time at the home of best friend Natalie Osner. Natalie, who aspires to be a dancer, comes from a wealthy home with a dentist dad and a southern belle mom. Miri is envious that Natalie has two parents and daydreams about ways she and Natalie could be ‘sisters’. After the first plane crash Natalie becomes obsessed with Ruby, a young dancer who was killed, and acts out in disturbing ways.

The crashes deeply affect other Elizabeth residents as well: a middle-age-man becomes a widower and looks to grandma Irene for comfort; Natalie Osner’s brother loses the girl he’s just fallen for, and his life plans go awry; the Osner’s housekeeper loses her son and is devastated; and so on. Trying to make sense of the plane crashes, people come up with wild speculations about what caused them, including sabotage, space aliens, and communists.

In the midst of the unrest Miri’s dad enters the picture, which upsets the Ammerman family. Miri also starts dating Mason McKittrick, a sensitive teen who lives in an orphan home. Mason has a disturbing family history and a secret that he hopes to hide. There’s an obstacle to Miri’s romance though – Mason isn’t Jewish, which is a problem for her family. Another young couple has a similar difficulty. Christina, a high school senior who works in the dental office of Dr. Osner, is in love with Mason’s brother Jack McKittrick – though her parents expect her to marry a Greek boy.

As the story unfolds the adolescents and adults in the story seem to realize that life can be fleeting and their subsequent thoughts and actions lead to hook-ups, break-ups, friendships formed, friendships broken, changes within families, and so on. The characters in the story are compelling and believable and - for the most part - sympathetic and likable.

The book is well-written and held my interest and I’d recommend it.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of "As the World Churns" by Tamar Myers

Magdalena Yoder is a wealthy Mennonite woman who owns the PennDutch Inn in Hernia, Pennsylvania and solves mysteries in her spare time. In this addition to the humorous series Magdalena is newly married to handsome, Jewish heart surgeon Gabriel Rosen. This grates on Gabe's mother, Ida, who would like nothing better than to take her precious 'Gabeleh' back to Brooklyn. Mama Ida keeps up a running litany of Yiddish-tinged complaints and insults about Magdalena, who's quick to return the favor. These interactions are hilarious.

In fact Magdalena is a hoot in general. She struggles to meld her Mennonite teachings with the reality of the world and thus is conflicted about lying (which she does constantly), television (not permitted, but who can resist 'Green Acres'), dancing (moving while embracing your husband isn't dancing), evolution (which peskily seems to happen despite Mennonite beliefs), etc. In addition, almost every other word out of Magdalena's mouth is a quip of some kind, and most of her family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances consider her an uproarious nut case.

In this book Magdalena has organized a Hernia Holstein Competition and cow owners from all over flock to town with their livestock. Each entrant hopes their milk-giver will win the title of best cow along with the cash prize. Four sets of contestants stay at Magdalena's PennDutch Inn, which has rooms for people and a barn for cows. These oddball guests add fun to the story.

The mystery part of the book involves Magdalena's eighty-something friend and neighbor, randy Doc Shafor, who has roaming lips and hands. Doc Shafor is a retired veterinarian scheduled to judge the Holstein competiton. Unfortunately, when Doc notices something odd about a cow in Magdalena's barn he gets clonked on the head.

Doc is taken to the hospital but his comatose state keeps him from saying what happened. Magdalena's not going to let anyone get away with clocking Doc, though, and she sets out to catch the miscreant. This leads to plenty of mayhem, including getting Mama Ida to ride backwards on a fast-moving cow.

Several returning characters add zest to the story including Magdalena's teenage pseudo-stepdaughter Alison - a nice girl with a Brooklyn accent and a mind of her own; Magdalena's Amish cook Freni - a shy lady with no neck who has a way with buns; Magdalena's bigamous, pop-eyed, ex-husband Melvin - a murderer who's recently escaped from prison; Magdalena's sister Susannah, who carries a torch for creepy Melvin; a greasy spoon owner named Wanda - who has hated Magdalena for decades; Magdalena's best friend Agnes - a Methodist woman who's looking for love; and more.

Every page of this book provides at least a smile, and I laughed out loud plenty of times. Moreover, real ice cream recipes - which have nothing to do with the story - are sprinkled through the book. I'd strongly recommend this book to fans of funny cozies.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review of "Concealed in Death" by J.D. Robb

Lt. Eve Dallas is a capable New York detective married to Irish billionaire Roarke - a handsome devil with wild blue eyes (which are mentioned a few too many times in the book). Roarke recently purchased a dilapidated old Manhattan building that he's renovating. When workers tear into an old wall they're shocked to find two dead bodies. Before long a total of 12 bodies are found behind false walls, all of them teenage girls. Forensic examination and detective work reveal that the bodies were entombed about 15 years before, around the time the building was being used as a shelter for homeless/abused children.

Dr. Morris, the medical examiner, and Garnet DeWinter, a stylish forensic anthropologist, study the victims' bodies and reconstruct their faces. This reveals the girls' identities and cause of death.

Meanwhile Lt. Dallas and her partner (the always entertaining) Detective Delia Peabody interview Philadelphia and Nashville Jones, a brother and sister who ran the children's shelter, which was named "Sanctuary." Turns out the Jones' abandoned the old building about 15 years ago, when a generous donor gave them a new facility. The Jones' recognize photos of some of the dead girls and admit a few went 'missing' but - since homeless kids came and went all the time - they weren't especially worried at the time.

A lot of the book is taken up with Dallas and Peabody interviewing the parents/families/acquaintances of the newly identified missing girls. Some of the kids were rebellious runaways who'd argued with their parents and would have returned home. Other youngsters were escapees from horrible abusive families. The mistreated girls tended to become thieves and grifters, and one 12-year-old girl regularly traded blow jobs for beer and other perks.

The detectives also repeatedly interview the Jones', learning about their conservative religious upbringing, siblings (all of whom are named for cities), and desire to do good. Dallas and Peabody also investigate how the Jones' ran their shelters, and the regimen followed by the youngsters, who were NOT supposed to sneak out at night....but oh well.

Eventually a suspect emerges from the various interviews and clues, and Dallas pushes on to discover the truth.

The book has a LOT of philosophizing about brutish homes and troubled children, especially since both Dallas and Roarke had terrible childhoods. Though this is an important social issue there was too much of it and it slowed down the tale. There's also a lot of talk about Christmas and holiday parties and decorations. A great deal of this chit-chat seems like filler, meant to extend what's essentially a novella into a longer book. Moreover, there's a lot of romance between Dallas and Roarke...who seem to be the most 'in love' couple in the world. I didn't particularly enjoy these parts but I'm not a fan of romance novels.

All in all this was a mediocre mystery, enhanced by appearances from the usual array of the series' colorful (and oddly attired) characters. Fans of J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas series would probably enjoy this book but other readers maybe not so much.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of "Behind Her Eyes" by Sarah Pinborough

Louise Barnsley, a thirtyish, divorced single mother, has a part-time job as a secretary in a North London psychiatric clinic. When Louise's new boss, Dr. David Martin - and his wife Adele - show up on Monday morning to be shown around, Louise is shocked. David is the handsome man she snuggled and kissed in a bar last Saturday night!

During an uncomfortable tete-a-tete, Louise and David agree that the kiss was a mistake and their relationship has to be strictly professional. Things don't work out that way, though, and Louise and David are soon involved in a passionate affair.

To complicate matters, Louise and Adele (David's wife), bump into each other outside the office and become friends. The women sometimes meet for coffee or lunch, and Adele even pays for Louise's guest membership at her upscale gym. Adele asks Louise not to mention their friendship to David, and Louise agrees.

Louise is in a tough spot, sleeping with David and secretly hanging out with his wife. Louise knows this is a bad idea but she's falling for David and likes Adele - so she continues seeing them both. After a while Louise notices that Adele seems to be under David's thumb: she has to be available for his daily phone calls; she takes powerful medication that he prescribes; she isn't allowed to have friends; and she shows up with a bruised face. Clearly, something is wrong in the Martins' marriage.

The story alternates between Louise's and Adele's perspectives and - though Louise seems straightforward and truthful - Adele appears sketchy and devious. In flashbacks, we discover that Adele had sleep problems as a teen and was briefly institutionalized. We also learn that David and Adele moved to North London for a 'fresh start', and that Adele is trying to re-ignite their youthful love.

For her part, Louise is devoted to her young son and a bit depressed because her ex-husband is having a baby with his new girlfiriend. In an odd coincidence, Louise also has sleep problems, which Adele is helping her overcome.

As things play out it's clear that the 'love triangle' is only part of the story. There's a lot going on beneath the surface....but that's spoiler territory. I'll just say there are some big surprises.

None of the main characters in the story is very sympathetic: David is an adulterer; Louise is having sex with a married man; and Adele is manipulative. This makes it hard to root for anybody. or to care very much about what happens to them.

'Behind Her Eyes' received many laudatory reviews, but for me it's just okay. The story moves extremely slowly, with Louise and Adele's every thought and action described in great detail. I became impatient and wanted things to move along more quickly. In my opinion, this is a story that would work better as a movie than a book. (I'm already picking out the cast in my mind. LOL)

Nevertheless, the book is a unique psychological thriller, and many fans of the genre would probably enjoy it.

Rating: 3 stars