Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review of "The Hidden Ones: Legacy of the Watchers, Vol. 1" by Nancy Madore

In The Hidden Ones Nancy Madore deftly crafts a tale that encompasses present day terrorism, myths about the ancient world, and mystical scrolls found in Qumran in the late 1940s. As the story opens Nadia Adeire, CEO of a charitable foundation, is kidnapped by a cryptic group of men who believe she has knowledge of roaming djinn (spirits of the dead) who mean to unleash terror on the world. The men who abduct Nadia are anxious to learn about her grandmother Helene.

In 1948, at the age of 16, Helene traveled to Qumran with her father to witness a ritual meant to raise Lilith, an ancient warrior, from the dead. Lilith - tall, beautiful, headstrong, cunning, and cruel - was the first of the female Nephilim, the offspring of unions between male angels and human women. After the Qumran ritual Helene was orphaned and forced to marry an Arab man, a distressing event that completely changed her life. Helene eventually became ill and died but she left her descendants a legacy of stories about Lilith. These tales - which stir debate among the characters about truth vs. myth - fascinate Nadia's kidnappers. They fear the djinn left behind by Lilith and other Nephilim are currently planning murderous attacks on humans.

The story is told from three points of view: Nadia in the present, Helene in the mid-1900s, and Lilith in ancient times.... but the reader can easily follow the threads. I found the stories about the ancient world engaging, with massive Nephilim battling for control of cities and forests, and benevolent angels at first helping mankind and then becoming harsh masters trying to evade the wrath of God. Helene's life in a strict Muslim household was also absorbing and instructive. Nadia's storyline was the least developed, largely being a vehicle to talk about Helene and Lillith.

The book is described as partly science fiction but I didn't find much evidence of this genre in the story other than speculation that the 'angels' may have been aliens. Some of the characters, such as Lilith, ancient warrior/king Asmodeus, and immortality-seeking Gilgamesh are captivating and memorable. Others, like Helene's father and his traveling companions, are more two-dimensional and functional.

There's a bit of romance in the book, some of it not quite credible in the context of the story. I also felt that Nadia and her abductors got unrealistically chummy and that the ancients incongruously spoke in very modern lingo. Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the sequel. I'm curious to see what happens to the remaining characters and to learn how the conflict between humans and djinn plays out. I recommend the book to all readers, especially fans of adventure, legends, and myths.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review of "House of the Rising Sun" by James Lee Burke


Hackberry Holland, former Texas Ranger and lawman, seems to find trouble wherever he goes. He runs his mouth, gets blackout drunk, and is quick to use his guns and fists.

As the story opens, it's 1916 and Hackberry (Hack) is in Mexico searching for his estranged son Ishmael - a captain in the U.S Army. The Mexican Revolution is ongoing, and there have been sporadic hostilities between the U.S. and Mexico. Hack comes upon a brothel called 'The House of the Rising Sun', where thuggish Mexican troops are guarding a hearse. The Mexicans are furious about Texas Rangers shooting up a train full of civilians, so they grab Hack, torture him, lock him up, and plan to kill him.

Hack is freed by the brothel's owner, Beatrice DeMolay - a madam and shrewd businesswoman - who gives him a couple of guns. Hack kills four Mexican soldiers and searches the hearse, which contains a large cache of weapons, money, and a bejewelled double chalice. Hack takes the money and chalice, blows up the weapons in the hearse, and heads for his home in Texas.

Unfortunately for Hack, the hearse - and its contents - belonged to an Austrian arms dealer named Arnold Beckman, a sadistic sociopath who claims the chalice is the Holy Grail - and who'll do anything to get it back.

In flashbacks to the past, Hack meets Ruby Dansen, a beautiful Danish woman who's down on her luck. Hack and Ruby have a son - Ishmael - but can't marry because Hack never bothered to divorce his previous wife, Maggie Bassett. All this leads to a world of trouble.

Hack's drinking and trouble-making drive Ruby and Ishmael away, and Maggie - who was a schoolteacher turned prostitute - swoops back into Hack's life. At one point Hack tries to make up with Ruby, but things go wrong and Ruby and young Ishmael are left poor, on their own, and very resentful of Hack. For her part, Maggie eventually divorces Hack, taking half of everything he owns.

Back in the present, a grown up Ishmael is sent to Europe during WWI, and is badly injured at the Battle of the Marne in 1918. Ishmael ends up in a San Antonio hospital, on the long road to recovery. Hack, who claims that he always loved the boy, writes Ishmael letters.....but the lad won't even open them. By now Ruby is a socialist firebrand and union organizer. She wants to take care of Ishmael, but runs into tough interference.

During all this, Beckman has been trailing Hack and scheming to get his hands on the chalice. The Austrian - being rich, powerful, and evil - has spies everywhere, co-opts law enforcement, hires murderous punks, and even makes an arrangement with Maggie - who's almost unbelievably devious and amoral.

Sadly for Ishmael, he becomes a pawn in the duel between Hack and Beckman - with terrible consequences all around. As events play out, Maggie, Ruby, and Beatrice all play important parts in the story.....but I don't want to give too much away.

The book has deep, compelling characters and rich, evocative scenes that draw the reader in. Like many of Burke's books, the story involves a struggle between 'good' and 'evil' and - while Beckman is a wonderfully despicable villain - Hack is something of a 'flawed hero.' He administers frontier justice and treats women in a less than noble fashion. Furthermore - in one scene - Hack gets behind the wheel of a friend's car (which he doesn't know how to drive), purposely wrecks it, and leaves the black chauffeur to deal with racist authorities. I can't fathom this behavior.

The book has elements of magical realism: Ishmael and Hack have a channel of communication through visions and dreams and Beatrice's chauffeur, André - a former voodoo priest - also has spiritual abilities. All this adds an intriguing element to the story. My biggest criticism of the book is probably that the climax is unnecessarily long and drawn out. This is a minor quibble though.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it - especially to fans of James Lee Burke.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of "Due Justice" by Diane Capri

In this first book in the 'Judge Willa Carson series', we learn that Willa lives on Plant Key - near Tampa, Florida - with her restaurateur husband George. The couple are wealthy and have a lovely apartment above George's upscale eatery, where the local glitterati are frequent guests. In between judging cases, Willa visits with friends and relatives, meets people for coffee and drinks, goes to parties, smokes cigars, jogs, plays with her two dogs, and shares quiet time with her loving husband.

The biggest fly in Willa's ointment is her boss, the Chief Judge (CJ), who holds a grudge because Willa once accidently took his parking space. The low-key 'feud' between Willa and the CJ injects humorous elements into the story.

The plot: Federal Judge Willa Carson knows something is up as soon as her foster sister, Carly Austin - whom she hasn't seen in a year - ambushes her at home. Carly confides that an unidentified body pulled out of Tampa Bay might be Dr. Michael Morgan, a plastic surgeon who's been missing for a month. Morgan was on the team that developed silicone breast implants, which he's surgically embedded into the chests of thousands of women.....for a very handsome income.

After dropping this bombshell, Carly - an attorney for the breast implant manufacturer MedPro - hurries off and becomes unreachable. Willa knows she should tell Police Chief Ben Hathaway that the body might be Morgan, but - fearing her foster sister might be in trouble - keeps schtum. When the news emerges that the body was Morgan and that he was murdered, Willa becomes even more antsy and launches her own investigation. Willa spends a good deal of time trying to track down Carly, but the lawyer is elusive, tells a lot of lies, and keeps running away. (I kept thinking, Willa has to cut this unreliable fruitcake loose and go to the cops. Seriously!)

As it happens, many lawsuits have been filed about breast implants, claiming silicone leakage has made women sick. These lawsuits are a cottage industry in Tampa, with attorneys for the plaintiffs (the injured women) as well as the defendants (the implant manufacturers) all hoping to reap millions of dollars in fees. Apparently, Dr. Morgan thought he could PROVE the implants were safe, which might derail all the lawsuits. Could this be a motive for murder?

The book has a lot of chatter about lawyers, doctors, and other interested parties on both sides of the implant debate: their rivalries, love lives, infidelities, money troubles, and so on - and it becomes difficult to keep track of all the characters. In addition, the plot contains multiple blackmailers and victims, which adds to the confusion. In her quest to gather clues, Willa interacts with many of these folks, sometimes on the golf course - where she hears a lot of snide remarks about her game. (Ha ha ha) Nevertheless, Willa perseveres, and eventually discovers who killed Morgan.

I have some quibbles with the story:

At one point, Willa threatens to file a restraining order so the cops can't investigate Carly. This is SO's impossible to believe.

The characters in the story, including Willa, drink a lot (okay, that's normal social interaction.) However, they DRINK AND DRIVE. In one scene, George polishes off a few cocktails before driving Willa to a party, and in another scene, Willa consumes half a bottle of wine before taking to the road. The book is set in 1999, but Mother's Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was established in 1980. So it's hard to believe the characters are so nonchalant about this.

After all the hemming and hawing about breast implants and women becoming ill, the reason for Morgan's murder is anti-climactic and not altogether satisfying.

Though it has flaws, the book held my attention and I learned quite a bit about breast implants - which are especially important to women who've had mastectomies. Also, Willa is an interesting character and south Florida is a nice setting. So, it you're a fan of cozies, you might want to try this series.

I received this book as a prize from the the "Women of Mystery" reading group on "Goodreads." Thank you!

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn

On a tragic evening 25 years ago farm-owner Patty Day and two of her young daughters, Debby and Michelle, were slaughtered. Seven-year-old Libby Day survived and her brother, fifteen-year-old Ben Day was convicted of the crimes and imprisoned. Libby testified against Ben, is convinced of his guilt, and has had nothing to do with him for a quarter century.

As an adult Libby lived off a fund donated by a sympathetic public, but now, at she age of thirty-one, her money is depleted. Libby - a traumatized, maladjusted, petty thief who is barely able to get out of bed, much less keep a job - happens across a new way to make money. Members of an organization called 'The Kill Club', who study crime, believe Ben Day is innocent and are trying to get him freed. They're willing to fund Libby if she'll talk to people they view as suspects/persons of interest. Libby agrees and, after talking to Ben, begins to waver in her belief that he's guilty.

The story alternates between events that occurred 25 years ago and what is happening today. Between Libby's current investigation and flashbacks to events leading to the murders, we learn about various characters: Ben was a troubled, angst-ridden teen, ashamed of his family's poverty, who fell in with a bad crowd. His story makes up a good part of the book. Patty's husband Runner Day, instrumental in bankrupting the farm, was an absentee dad who came home only to ask for money; Patty, exhausted physically and mentally by the age of thirty-two, couldn't cope with her four children and was barely able to scrape together money to feed them. Various other characters, including Patty's sister, a banker, Ben's friends, members of The Kill Club, etc., round out the story.

The book made me uncomfortable at times because most of the characters are unlikable people who behave badly. It would be a spoiler to tell more so I'll just say the book has many threads which are skillfully woven together to lead to the twisty, satisfying conclusion. This is a well-written mystery, highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review of "The Dark Forest" by Cixin Liu

This is the second book in a trilogy that starts with The Three-Body Problem.

As The Dark Forest opens a large fleet of hostile Trisolaran aliens is headed for Earth, destined to arrive in 400 years. Presumably this is when the 'Doomsday Battle' will occur between the human race and Trisolarans.

Humans are aware of the danger but are hampered in making preparations because the aliens have sent 'sophons' to spy on Earth. Sophons are souped up protons that (due to quantum physics) can INSTANTANEOUSLY transmit every single thing humans say and do to the Trisolarans. Thus, the aliens can 'hear' all discussions about how to combat them and 'see' all weapons being developed. To make matters even worse, the sophons have blocked technological advancements, curtailing Earth's ability to develop the most effective/advanced weapons systems.

The Trisolarans one weakness is their inability to read human minds. Thus, the United Nations institutes the 'Wallfacer Project' in which four individuals - called Wallfacers - are instructed to develop a strategy to fight the Trisolarans. Each Wallfacer is to work alone, write nothing down, and use evasive measures to flummox the Trisolarans. The Wallfacers have almost unlimited resources with very little accountability, so they can do pretty much whatever they want. And one Wallfacer seems more concerned with having a comfortable life than with fighting the Trisolarans.

The Trisolarans, in turn, designate four humans sympathetic to their cause to be "Wallbreakers" - whose mission is to sabotage the Wallfacers' plans. The Wallfacers are very clever and inventive, but the Wallbreakers are pretty smart too. (The author has clearly done a lot of research for these books.)

Around the time this is going on some humans - including people with serious illnesses, a couple of Wallfacers, and various professionals - are put into hibernation. The plan is to awaken them at a later time when they can be cured and/or be useful to humanity.

Skip ahead two hundred years. Some hibernators have been revived and Earth looks very different. There are well-designed underground cities as well as large fleets in space, which are now considered to be separate 'countries.' The Trisolaran fleet is due in two centuries, but the aliens have launched a fast 'probe' which will arrive any day. Oddly enough, people seem to be relatively optimistic. Some think humanity will win the Doomsday Battle while others believe the Trisolarans might turn out to be friendly. Surprises abound after the probe enters the Solar System, and things take a rather dramatic turn...all very exciting.

There's a good deal of philosophical underpinning to some of the plot developments. For example, 'escapism' - the plan to launch some people into space to preserve the human race (just in case) - is outlawed, presumably because there's no fair way to decide who will go. Is this right?
And when there are limited resources and too many individuals, what should be done? And IF the Trisolarans are defeated, should alien survivors be treated in a 'humane' fashion? (This debate reminded me of American Indian history as well as the movie 'District 9.') All things to think about.

I found the story a bit dense and slow-moving but overall I enjoyed the book, which is full of inventive ideas and interesting characters. I don't think it's giving away too much to say that - at the end of book 2 - there are still humans and Trisolarans. I'm interested to see what happens in the final volume of the trilogy.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this series to science fiction fans.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review of "Faithful" by Alice Hoffman

Shelby Richmond is a high school senior preparing to attend NYU with her best friend, Helene Boyd, when an automobile accident intervenes. The car Shelby is driving skids on a patch of ice, leaving Helene in a perpetual coma and Shelby with only minor injuries.

Unable to get past the guilt, Shelby has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized for several months. Afterwards, Shelby holes up in her parents basement, eats little, cuts herself, smokes pot, shaves her head, and sleeps as much as she can. Shelby's parents gamely pay for her first year's college tuition, but lose the money when Shelby doesn't go. One of Shelby's few human interactions is with Ben Mink, a pot dealer she's known since they were children. Though they don't talk much, Shelby feels comfortable with Ben, who also seems a bit lost.

The one thing Shelby values are occasional anonymous postcards delivered to her house, with original drawings and messages like 'Be Something' and 'Feel Something.' Shelby feels like someone cares about her - and even wonders if that person is somehow Helene. In fact, some people think brain-dead Helene has special powers, and visit her to be healed - which Shelby finds abhorrent.

After Shelby has been hanging around with Ben for a couple of years, he - almost embarassedly - confides that he's been taking an independent study course at college, has graduated, and is going to pharmacy school in New York. Ben persuades Shelby to move to the city with him and they get a tiny apartment on Manhattan's west side, where they share a bed and eat lots of take-out Chinese food.

Eventually Shelby gets a job stacking shelves at a pet store, which requires little interaction with other people, including her co-workers. In time, though, Shelby becomes friends with her colleague Maravelle, a single mother with a teen daughter and twin sons in grade school. When Maravelle's called away, she even trusts Shelby to kidsit for a few days, and this is a critical event in Shelby's recovery.

Damaged as she is, Shelby has a soft spot for animals, and launches two rescue operations. First, Shelby kidnaps two hungry, dirty, bedraggled dogs...a little mutt and a bulldog... who are being rented out to homeless people - to help them beg for money. Shelby calls the small, semi-blind mutt 'Blinkie' and the bulldog 'General Tso.' Later, Shelby cuts through a fence to free a chained-up, mistreated Great Pyrenees, and names him 'Pablo.' The canines join Shelby and Ben in their little apartment, and Shelby - who's now the manager of the pet shop - gives herself discounts for animal supplies.

After making a quirky deal with a bilingal (Russian-English) hospital orderly who does her a favor, Shelby even stops shaving her head. Around this time Shelby also meets a handsome veterinarian, Harper Levy, which leads to major changes in her life.

In the course of the story, Shelby interacts with a variety of characters, including: a nasty homeless girl; an adulterer; a Chinese restaurant delivery boy; her supportive mother; her distant father; a bully who won't take no for an answer; a pregnant woman; Helene's grieving parents; a tatoo artist; and others.....all of whom have some role in her inch-by-inch healing.

This is a moving story of a young woman's emotional journey, but Shelby's not always a likable girl. I admired Shelby's tenderness toward her dogs, but was put off by her callousness towards some humans, including those who cared for her most. I'm not sure PTSD can excuse this.

On the other hand, Ben Mink is a 'prince.' He looks after Shelby; lets her bring three dogs into their little apartment; overlooks her worst behavior; and more. Every girl should have a guy like this....if just for a little while. LOL

All in all, this is an uplifting tale that show's there can be recovery - and happiness - after a life-altering tragedy.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review of "Memory Man" by David Baldacci

Burlington police detective Amos Decker spiraled into despair when his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law were brutally murdered 15 months ago. He quit the police force and became homeless before moving into a cheap motel and becoming a private detective. Once a football player, the 6' 5", 350 pound Decker is seriously out of shape. He has a unique ability, however, acquired after a massive hit ended his football career. Decker sustained a brain injury that gave him hyperthymesia - a complete, detailed memory of everything he's ever seen or experienced.

As the story opens Detective Mary Lancester, Decker's old partner, tells him a homeless man named Sebastian Leopold has confessed to murdering Decker's family. Decker, posing as an attorney, manipulates his way into the jail to talk to Leopold. The homeless man, who appears to have mental problems, claims he killed Decker's family because the detective dissed him at a 7-Eleven. Just when Decker is sneaking into the jail to speak to Leopold a mass shooting occurs at local Mansfield High School, killing a number of staff and students.

Because he was an excellent detective Decker is asked to consult with authorities on the Mansfield High School murders. He uses his extraordinary memory to help the cops and FBI search for the high school shooter and to look into Leopold's bogus-sounding confession. Decker uncovers one clue after another in the mass shooting case, which turns out to be an intricate plot that has a connection to the murder of Decker's family. Along the way Decker, a socially inept loner, has some hostile interactions with an FBI agent and a newspaper reporter who want his cooperation. Eventually, though, Decker manages to work with others on the investigations.

This is a well-written, engaging, fast-paced mystery that kept my attention as the actions and motives of the perpetrator were exposed. My biggest problem with the plot is that both Decker - and especially the FBI - seem too slow on the uptake in unraveling some of the clues. Without giving away any spoilers I'll just say that, in real life, the FBI would probably have exposed/understood some clues well before Decker had his 'aha moments'. This may be necessary for the story's plot but it doesn't ring true. Moreover, given the motive, I would have expected the perpetrator to do some things quite differently.

Still, the book kept my interest from beginning to end and I would read more books about detective Decker's exploits. I'd recommend Memory Man to mystery fans.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review of "Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd" by Alan Bradley

In this eighth book in the series, 12-year-old Flavia de Luce, budding chemist and amateur detective, is sent home to England from Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Toronto. Flavia's father, Colonel Haviland de Luce, is in the hospital with pneumonia and Flavia's sisters (Ophelia and Daphne) and cousin (Undine) are at Buckshaw - the house Flavia's mother left her. The girls are being looked after by Dogger (the caretaker/guardian), and Mrs Mullet (the culinarily challenged cook).

When Flavia is asked to do an errand for the vicar's wife, she discovers the dead body of ecclesiastical wood-carver, Roger Sambridge, hanging upside-down on his bedroom door. Most people would be put off by such a discovery, but Flavia is thrilled. She adores solving murders, and hopes to get the jump on Inspector Hewitt - whom she considers her competitor in the crime-solving arena.

Flavia examines the body and the contents of the room, being careful not to leave fingerprints. Her investigation reveals a lottery ticket and a set of children's books by deceased author Oliver Inchbold. Moreover, one of the books is inscribed to Carla Sherrinford-Cameron, a girl Flavia knows. When Flavia leaves the house she sees a curtain twitch across the street, and knows she's been seen. So Flavia hustles back to the vicarage, and - pretending to be distraught - announces Sambridge's death.

The wood-carver's demise is considered suspicious and Flavia uses all her 'abilities' - sneakiness, lying, impersonation, chemistry knowledge, etc. - to try to identify the perpetrator. Some of Flavia's escapades stretch credibility - like when she passes herself off as a biographer to a London publisher (a 12-year-old kid.....really??) - but this is a humorous cozy after all.

During her inquiries Flavia asks Carla about the inscribed book at the crime scene, and learns that Carla's late aunt, Louisa Congreve, was close to the author - Inchbold. Flavia also learns that Inchbold - whose stories were supposedly about his adorable young son - was actually abusive to the boy.

Further investigation discloses that the house with the twitching curtain belongs to Lillian Trench, who's reputed to be a witch. Flavia is warned to stay away from her - but of course she does no such thing - and finds an eccentric middle-aged man staying at Lillian's house.....along with a cat! Could this be a diabolical witch's familiar?

It's not clear how all this is connected to the unfortunate victim, Roger Sambridge, but Flavia carries on to discover the truth.

Between investigative exploits Flavia tries to visit her hospitalized father, but Dogger reports that the Colonel is too ill for visitors. So Flavia makes do with Gladys, her bicycle, which she rides everywhere and regards as a friend. According to Flavia, Gladys likes to pretend she's being abducted and takes in the ambiance when she's waiting outside for her owner.

We don't see Flavia do many chemical experiments in this book, though she does fix bacon and eggs in her laboratory, using beakers and such. LOL

I admire Flavia's genius, but she's a bit too conceited to be totally likable (for me). Flavia is just SO gleeful when she's manipulating and fooling people - it puts me off. Still, it's fun to read about Flavia's investigations; her sisters and their beaus; Mrs. Mullet's not-so-tasty meals; and Dogger's devotion to his charge. I'll be interested to see what Flavia does in the next book.

Though the story could be read as a standalone, it would be better to have read at least a few of the previous books - to fully appreciate the characters. I'd recommend the book to fans of Flavia de Luce.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Review of "Mrs. Queen Takes the Train" by William Kuhn

Queen Elizabeth is feeling a bit low when she walks over to her London stables to visit her horses on a blustery day. Young Rebecca, who tends the horses, lends the sovereign her hoody jacket and soon afterwards the unrecognizable Queen takes off for Scotland to visit her beloved Britannia - the former royal yacht that's now a tourist attraction.

The royal staff makes frantic plans to catch up with the Queen and return her to Buckingham Palace. This includes William the butler, Luke the equerry, Shirley the dresser, Anne the lady-in-waiting, Rebecca the horse caretaker, and Rajiv - a cheese seller who sold the queen some cheddar. MI-6 even gets in on the act.

Though this is a work of fiction the feelings attributed to the Queen ring true. She is still reeling from the 'annus horribilus' of a few years before when all of her children's marriages fell apart, the most scandalous being the divorce of Charles and Diana. Her majesty is also bewildered by the public's hostility to her following Diana's death when all Queen Elizabeth did was 'keep a stiff upper lip' - as she was trained to do. Computers, twitter, and facebook also puzzle the Queen. In short, the world is changing and the Queen is having a hard time keeping up.

The book contains both drama and humor. We learn about the background of each of the characters: Luke's tragic war experience, William's homosexuality, Anne's estrangement from her son, Shirley's financial worries, Rebecca's eco-terrorist boyfriend, and Rajiv's harassment by bigots. But the Queen's 'escape' has fun aspects as well: the sovereign befriends many people she meets on her way to Scotland, and some think she seems familiar but they just can't place her. At different times the Queen is mistaken for a cleaning lady, a drinker, and a homeless person.

The author apparently did his research and the scenes in the palace - as well as the thoughts and feelings attributed to the Queen - seem authentic. From the Queen's point of view her life isn't that much fun; her royal duties require her to constantly attend functions she doesn't enjoy and make small talk with people who aren't interesting. One thing that struck me was how sheltered Queen Ellizabeth's life probably is and how out of touch she is with the lives of 'common people' - who shop for groceries, buy cars, rent apartments, make doctor appointments, drive their kids to school, go to soccer games, eat fast food, and so on - things the Queen has probably never done. In that respect, William and Kate are likely to be much more savvy.

I thought the story was interesting but it moved too slowly. Several times I felt bored and thought about abandoning the book but I kept going - and I'm glad I did. I think I have a little more insight into the Queen's life now.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, May 19, 2017

Review of "The Whole Town's Talking" by Fannie Flagg

"The Whole Town's Talking" is the story of a Missouri farm town and its quirky, loving, loyal, sometimes shiftless - or even greedy and amoral - inhabitants. The book spans the years from 1889 to 2021, during which the world changes dramatically.

I'll provide some vignettes, to give you a feel for the story:

In 1889, Lordor Nordstrom leaves Sweden for the United States. During his travels, Lordor finds a large tract of good, rich land in Missouri, and starts a dairy farm. An ad in Swedish-American newspapers attracts other young farming families, and Swede Town is established.

Single women are scarce in Swede Town, and Lordor advertises for a mail-order bride. Katrina - a pretty Swedish girl living in Chicago - answers the ad, and eventually comes to visit. At a box social to welcome Katrina, shoebox dinners are auctioned off, and each box's winner gets to eat with the woman who prepared it. The boxes usually go for a dime, but - as a joke - all the men bid on Katrina's dinner, and Lordor ends up paying $10.65 to dine with the woman he hopes to marry. And Lordor and Katrina DO wed, settle down, and have a family.

The people in the farming community depend on each other. The women share advice about cooking and child-rearing; the men barter crops and help each other construct buildings; there are communal feasts; etc. So when a mooching, do-nothing couple has been around for a couple of years, the townsfolk enact a plan. The idlers are invited to dinner and - while they're eating - the rest of the community dismantles their house and packs their wagon. The lazy couple takes off, never to be seen again. LOL

In the early 1900s the growing town is renamed Elmwood Springs. By now it sports a general store, blacksmith, and grocery - as well as a one-room schoolhouse where Miss Lucille Beemer - barely past 18 years of age - instructs the students. Gustav, a young man who's in love with Miss Beemer, repeats the 8th grade three times to be near her.....and I won't say more because of spoilers.

When the citizens of Elmwood Springs die, they're buried in Still Meadows Cemetery, located on a hill near town. However, the residents of Still Meadows aren't as gone as you might think. Their 'spirits' can still converse with each other, and see and hear people who visit the cemetery. Thus, the dead folk keep up with what's happening in town - and in the world. As the book unfolds, many citizens of Elmwood Springs pass away, but they continue to converse and gossip from the grave.

Katrina and Lordor's daughter Ingrid - a first generation American girl - means to have a career. In 1922, she applies to Iowa State College of Veterinary Medicine as 'I. Nordstrom' and is accepted. When the school's director realizes I. Nordstrom is a woman, he plans to get rid of her - but the director's wife has other ideas, enforced with a stalk of celery. Ingrid is admitted. (Yay!)

As time passes, the population of Elmwood Springs increases, and more businesses and restaurants open. Couples court and marry, and - as in real life - some unions work better than others. Miss Elner Knott marries little Will Shimfissle - and is very happy - singing to her chickens, making fig preserves, and being a friend to everyone. Elner even prepares breakfast for Bonnie and Clyde - whom she thinks are newlyweds - when they get lost near her farm. On the other hand, poor Tot Whooten is saddled with an alcoholic husband and two shiftless children who sponge off her all their lives. To make things worse, Tot makes a living as a hairdresser - though she's terrible at the job. Elner's and Tot's stories are touching and humorous.

There isn't much crime in Elmwood Springs, but when a Peeping Tom raises his sneaky head in 1937, the Town Council lays a trap. A shiny new quarter, with a tiny spot of red nail polish, is placed near a favorite peeping spot. When 15-year-old Lester Shingle plunks down the quarter for a dozen donuts.....well, lets's just say he reforms his ways.

The narrative periodically shifts to Still Meadows Cemetery, where the dead residents discuss current events - such as WWII, the moon landing, cheating spouses, etc. - gleaned from newly arrived dead as well as visitors to the cemetery. Every now and then, a spirit disappears from Still Meadows forever, but no one knows how or why.

A troubling occurrence in Elmwood Springs involves Miss Hannah Marie Swenson, a beautiful dairy farm heiress who's been deaf from birth. When Hannah goes to college she meets handsome Michael Vincent, and brings him home for a visit. Hannah's dad is wary of Michael, but Hannah is smitten, and the couple have the biggest wedding Elmwood Springs has ever seen. Unfortunately, Michael isn't what he seems.....(and you'll have to read the book to know more).

In 1986, the Elmwood Springs High School band has an adventure. The band wins a competiton and is invited to march in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The band families put on a slew of events - including bake sales, chicken dinners, garage sales, book sales, and car washes - to raise money for new uniforms, new majorette outfits, and new instruments. Finally, the band bus - carrying the kids, their chaperones, and beautician Tot Whooten (to do the girls' hair) - is off to New York. The band checks into a motel on Thanksgiving Eve.....and the next morning, the bus is gone - lock, stock, uniforms, instruments, and hairdressing equipment!

By custom, obituaries printed in the Elmwood Springs newspaper mention cause of death. But Verbena's passing is a delicate subject, because her toilet exploded and launched itself - and Verbena - through the ceiling. The death notice uses terms like 'fluke' and 'tragic household accident', but everyone soon learns the real story. (Ha ha ha)

Towards the end of the century, the town of Elmwood Springs begins to decline as a Walmart is built outside town, a mall opens, residents pass away, etc. - and the book winds down. However, the epilogue - dated 2021 - updates us about the spirits from Still Meadows Cemetery, and it's a memorable tale.

There are many more anecdotes in the book, about people who are charming, sweet, grouchy, horrible, and so on. Some of their exploits are compelling and some aren't - and I got bored at times. Moreover, the sheer number of characters, as one generation follows another and new residents move to town, is confusing and difficult to follow. That said, fans of Fannie Flagg - who know the characters from other books - might love this story.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review of "The Hanging Girl" by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Detective Carl Mørck heads Department Q of the Copenhagen Police Department. Department Q, a sort of orphan division that investigates cold cases, is confined to a cramped basement and staffed with police oddballs, including Carl's invaluable assistants Assad and Rose.

Carl, who was gravely injured in an incident that killed one colleague and paralyzed another, prefers to laze around, drink coffee, nap, and avoid work. Thus, when Detective Christian Habersaat asks for assistance with a 17-year-old cold case involving the death of a beautiful girl named Alberte, Carl refuses. Habersaat, whose life was ruined by his obsession with the case, commits suicide the next day. Rose is horrified and bullies Carl into investigating Alberte's death.

Carl and his colleagues gather Habersaat's massive collection of 'Alberte files' and painstakingly go through them. They eventually find a poor, grainy photo of a man beside a van and expend great effort to discover who the man is and how he was connected to Alberte. During their inquiry the detectives speak to Habersaat's family and colleagues, and to Alberte's relatives, friends, and teachers. Many of these people are oddly hostile and uncooperative.

A parallel story line involves a nature-worship cult headed by a charismatic leader called Atu Abanshamash Dumuzi - a man who's oddly irresistible to women. This has unfortunate consequences because Atu's assistant Pirjo carries a huge, unrequited torch for him and will do anything to get rid of the competition.

For me, this book isn't as successful as previous books in the series. The plot is disjointed and Department Q's inquiries are too drawn out and tedious. I also feel that the characters aren't as engaging as usual. Assad - with his warm heart, confusion with idioms, crazy driving, and intuitive detective work - is still a fun, memorable character. Rose, however, doesn't exhibit her usual kooky, multiple personality traits and Carl's interactions with his friends, colleagues, ex-wife, and ex-stepson aren't as compelling as usual. Moreover, many of the ancillary characters are too self-centered or psychopathic to be sympathetic.

The book can be read as a standalone but readers unfamiliar with the previous books may be confused about some characters and situations. All in all this is a pretty good mystery with lots of unexpected twists. The story ends with a dramatic climax that leads to a satisfactory conclusion. I'd recommend the book to people who like mystery books, especially fans of Jussi Adler-Olsen.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review of "The Optimist's Daughter" by Eudora Welty

Laurel Hand travels from her home in Chicago to a hospital in New Orleans when her father, Judge McKelva has an an eye operation. The judge's second (and much younger) wife, Fay also accompanies her husband from their home in Mississippi. The judge languishes after the surgery, becomes withdrawn and silent, and eventually dies. Through all this Laurel tries to support her father but Fay carries on and makes scene after scene - insisting that the judge recover - and probably hastening his demise.

After the judge's death the women return to Mt. Salus, Mississippi with his body. Friends and neighbors who've known the McKelva family for ages come around to express their condolences, help out, and so on. Most people in the community dislike and resent Fay, who continues her histrionics until she goes off to visit relatives for a couple of days.
Meanwhile Laurel remains in her childhood home for a weekend, visiting with friends and trying to come to terms with the deaths of several loved ones: her mother Becky some years ago, her husband Phil in the war, and her father.

I thought the story was a realistic portrayal of a close-knit community and the manner in which people react to the death of a beloved family member/respected person in the community/friend, etc. No tremendous insights here but a number of interesting characters - Laurel, Fay, Becky, some of Laurel's friends and neighbors - made the book worth reading.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review of "The Secrets of My Life" by Caitlyn Jenner

Note: In my review of this memoir I'm going to follow the author's lead, using male pronouns for Bruce 'pre-transition,' and female pronouns for Caitlyn 'post-transition.' I also want to note that - though I've seen the odd episode - I don't watch 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians', haven't read the Vanity Fair article about Jenner, and don't follow the innumerable stories about Jenner in the media.

In 1976 Bruce Jenner won an Olympic gold medal for the decathlon, earning the title 'World's Greatest Athlete.' In photos, it's clear the champion was well-built and movie-star handsome. No one would have guessed that Bruce hated his body, feeling he was stuck with the wrong (male) physique. Almost forty years later, in 2015, Bruce publicly transitioned to his true female gender, becoming Caitlyn Jenner. In this book Caitlyn tells her story.

From the time he was in elementary school, Bruce felt like something was wrong with him. He was dyslexic, with "massive reading difficulties", and dreaded going to school. He was also drawn to female attire and - when alone in the house - would put on his mother's dress, slip on his sister's shoes, apply a dab of lipstick, and gaze into the mirror.....feeling "something was right about this." At that time, in the 1950's - the word 'transgender' was far in the future - and Bruce had no vocabulary to describe his compulsions. Thus he was bewildered, uncomfortable, and intensely secretive.

Bruce soon discovered he was a gifted athlete and threw himself into sports, in part to distract himself from his gender concerns. As a youth Bruce took up water-skiing, basketball, football, and track and field - becoming a high school star. It was at Graceland College, though, where Bruce set his sights on the decathlon. With the strong encouragement of college Coach L.D. Weldon, Bruce started to train for the ten decathlon events: the 100 meters, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump, the 400 meters, the 110-meter hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin, and the 1,500 meters. According to the author, "You can lose yourself in that [practice]. Whatever thoughts you have inside don't go away, but they do go numb."

At Graceland College Bruce met his first wife, Chrystie, who supported him emotionally and financially as he trained to be a world class competitor. In secret, Bruce would don his wife's clothes, and when Chrystie discovered this in 1973, Bruce told her about his gender issues. Chrystie was shocked, but Bruce (disingenuously) told her it was 'a phase', and matters were left like that as Bruce continued training.

Once Bruce won the gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, he had many financial opportunites: he became the 'face' of Wheaties; appeared on talk shows; did a special with Bob Hope; dipped a toe into movies and TV series; became a broadcaster for a number of network sports shows; and traveled around the country giving motivational speeches. For various reasons - including his gender dysphoria - Bruce and Chrystie grew apart and separated. Attempts at reconciliation failed, and the couple divorced in 1981, leaving their son and daughter - Burt and Casey - essentially fatherless.

Meanwhile, Bruce met Linda Thompson, an actress and songwriter who happened to be Elvis Presley's former girlfriend. Bruce and Linda dated for several years, married in 1981, and had two sons - Brandon and Brody. While married to Linda, in the early 1980s, Bruce was "struggling with the issue of [his] identity more than ever." The author writes about those years, "I seek every opportunity I can to cross-dress" and "[I] get my hands on a couple of wigs." Fearing Linda would catch him, Bruce told her that he identified as a woman. She didn't understand, was shocked to see him in female mode, and their marriage ended shortly afterward. Once again, Bruce essentially abandoned his children.

Bruce was very unhappy by the mid-1980s, so he isolated himself in a small house in Malibu and lowered his public profile. Bruce started seeing a therapist named Trudy Hill and got electrolysis - a long term, painful procedure - to permanently remove his facial and chest hair. Bruce's trusted friend, Wendy Roth, helped him purchase women's clothing and wigs. Bruce also started hormone therapy, which gave him womanly breasts. Jenner writes, "Obviously.....when you have your beard removed and the effects of hormones kick in, people are going to notice." In addition, Bruce sometimes ventured out and drove around dressed as a woman. The writer states about that era, "I am now almost forty. I feel good....[having] allowed the woman inside me to live and breathe." BUT, Bruce greatly feared discovery - afraid of what his kids would think and doubtful of obtaining employment if he was exposed.

Feeling he needed to bring 'Bruce Jenner - Olympic champion' back into the public eye, Bruce discontinued hormone therapy in 1990 and started dating Kris Kardashian, who was in the middle of a divorce. Bruce and Kris married in 1991, and - according to the author - had a loving, sexual relationship (at first). Jenner notes that Kris knew about his cross-dressing and permitted it.....but not at home. Thus, Bruce packed wigs, make-up, and womens' outfits when he went out of town for promotional talks, and dressed up in his hotel at night. He would then walk through the lobby and go for a drive wearing ladies' garments.....a terribly risky venture.

According to the author, Kris got him back in the gym and 'helped restore his image and credibility.' She also reveled in being married to a high profile celebrity. For his part, Bruce was a caring stepfather to the Kardashian kids - (Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, and Rob) and a devoted dad to his two daughters with Kris (Kendall and Kylie). In recent years, Jenner - who openly admits to being a terrible father to the first four Jenner children - reached out and established affectionate bonds with them as well.

Bruce, Kris, and their brood rubbed along pretty happily until 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians' - which debuted in 2007 - became a runaway hit. Jenner observes that he was depicted on the show as, "....the well-meaning but confused and helpless father and husband. I get love but little respect." Jenner also observes, "I believe that the more successful [the show] becomes, the less [Kris] needs me and "[it's] more obvious.....that Kris wants me out of the house as much as possible." Moreover, the scads of people in the house during the show's filming afforded Bruce little privacy - and he was desperately lonely amidst the crowd.

By 2013 Bruce had separated from Kris and moved into a house in Malibu. He had a tracheal shave, to reduce the size of his Adam's apple and - despite elaborate efforts at secrecy - was exposed on his great embarassment. Bruce contemplated suicide at this time, but spoke to his pastor and rallied. By 2015, Bruce decided to make the transition to female. At the time, the author contemplated, "How am I going to do this without being subjected to even more worldwide ridicule than I already have been? The idea of a man becoming a woman is still shocking and weird to people, ghoulishly funny."

Thus, Bruce contacted his former publicist, Alan Nierob, who arranged for an interview with Diane Sawyer and an article in Vanity Fair magazine - both respected forums in which Bruce would tell the world he was becoming Caitlyn. Prior to the publicity, Bruce confided his plans to his family - sister, mother, children, and step-children - and to his management team.....all of whom expressed support (though Bruce suspected not everyone was completely sincere).

The author thought, "I want to look as physically a woman as I possibly can" and went on to have facial feminization surgery, a breast augmentation, and "The Final Surgery" - a vaginoplasty (conversion of penile tissue into a vagina).

Towards the end of the book, Caitlyn writes, "I have written this book to help us see that there is no right way to be, no wrong way to be, or any way to be except who you are." Caitlyn talks a great deal about her support of the LGBTQ community, especially transgender individuals - who experience frequent discrimination....and even violence. Caitlyn knows that her position as a high profile transgender person gives her a platform to try and effect change.

For people interested in the 'dishier' parts of the book, here are a few tidbits:
- During his motivational speeches, Bruce dressed in a suit and tie.....but had a bra and panties on underneath.
- Jenner says about O.J. Simpson, "[Knowing him] a litle bit goes a very long way because of his endless braggadocio" and "[O.J.] is the most narcissistic, egocentric, neediest, asshole in the world of sports I had every seen." Jenner believes O.J. murdered Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and asserts that Kris's ex-husband, Robert Kardashian - one of O.J.'s lawyers - wouldn't have minded if O.J. was convicted.
-Kris controlled all the money during their marriage (though she generously bought Bruce a Porsche) and scrutinized his credit card purchases with a fine tooth comb.
- Of the Kardashian clan, Kim is the most accepting of Caitlyn's transition, while Khloe is having the most difficulty with it, and barely speaks to her stepfather. (Caitlyn notes that she told her kids it's fine to call her 'dad.')
-Caitlyn is not particularly interested in sex with either women or men.
-Caitlyn is a lifelong Republican, though that party is not renonwed for its open-mindedness towards LGTBQ issues. (On her Instagram, Caitlyn takes Donald Trump to task, telling him to 'call her.')
-Rumors that Caitlyn regrets making the transition are a complete lie.

I read this book out of curiosity. I had seen Caitlyn promoting the book on morning TV and read an excerpt in People when I saw the book on the 'new arrivals' shelf at the library, I snagged it. In my opinion, this is a sincere depiction of Caitlyn's experiences as she remembers them. Caitlyn's story is compelling, and helped me better understand people who have gender dysphoria. I felt great empathy when Caitlyn talked about her shame, fear, loneliness, and isolation - which reverberated through the years and affected every relationship she had. I hope Caitlyn's story provides help and comfort to people who have issues similar to hers.

That said, the book's writing (I assume by co-author Buzz Bissinger) is on the lower end of adequate and the story includes a lot of fluff and padding. Still, if you have an interest in (or are curious about) the subject, you'll find something here.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty

A little laughter and champagne lead three mothers to bond on kindergarten orientation day at Pirriwee Public School, located in a picturesque beach hamlet in Australia. The three moms central to the story are: Madeleine, a 40-year-old twice married fashonista who's mother to kindergartner Chloe and teenager Abigail; Jane, an unadorned 24-year-old troubled single mother of kindergartner Ziggy; and Celeste, a gorgeous thirtyish married woman with twin kindergartners, Josh and Max.

The drama begins when the moms arrive to pick up their kindergartners from orientation and little Amabella - daughter of uptight mom Renata - says Ziggy hurt her during class. Ziggy denies this and refuses to apologize. Eventually this and other incidents lead to the point where a mean-spirited petition is passed around among the parents, requesting Ziggy's suspension. Feisty Madeleine is incensed for her friend, Celeste is sympathetic, and Jane is worried - could her sweet little Ziggy really be a bully?.

As this is going on we learn more about the characters. We discover that Ziggy was conceived as the result of a disastrous one night stand; that Celeste is in an abusive marriage; and that Madeleine is furious with her ex-husband and having problems with her teen daughter. Moreover, we find out there's a speck of adultery in the school ranks and some dissension between parents and administrators. All this leads up to a tragic occurrence at 'Elvis Presley - Audrey Hepburn Trivia Night', a sort of costume party school fundraiser.

The story jumps back and forth between trivia night and the events leading up to it using narrative storytelling as well as snippets of conversation and inteviews that involve school parents, teachers, and administrators. Liane Moriarity masterfully builds the suspense as we get closer and closer to trivia night, where all the seemingly disparate elements of the story come together to cause the tragedy.

The book has plenty of interesting characters, including Madeleine's caring husband Ed and resented ex-husband Nathan (plus his new family), Jane's loving parents, Celeste's handsome, wealthy husband, school personnel, other parents, and Tom, the owner of the local coffee shop, Blue Blues - where a lot of relevant conversations occur. The story grabs and holds your attention, has the right amounts of drama and humor, and has a believable and satisfying climax.

Good book, highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Review of "Clawback" by J.A. Jance

In this addition to the series, Ali Reynolds' father, Bob Larson, hears an alarming story on the morning news. Ocotillo Fund Management, in which Bob and his wife Edie have invested every penny of their retirement funds, has gone under. Bob can hardly believe his ears. The Larsons' good friend Dan Frazier was a co-owner of the firm, and he wouldn't have steered them wrong.....would he?

Upset and wanting to talk to Dan, Bob drives over to the Fraziers' house in Sedona, Arizona. He finds Dan in the garage and his wife in the house, both dying from stab wounds. Bob calls 911 and does CPR, but it's too late. Afterwards, the cops find the murder weapon in Bob's truck, and he's arrested for murder.

The real killers, who had tossed the knife into Bob's truck, are a couple of ex-cons hired to retrieve a memory card from the Fraziers and then kill them. The jailbirds searched the house but didn't find the card, and the couple who sent them - Dan's larcenous partner and his girlfriend/assistant - are on the verge of panic. The card has information about the millions stolen from Ocotillo as well as other damaging data.

Ali is appalled at her father's arrest and makes it her mission to exonerate him and try to retrieve Ocotillo's money. Ali and her husband B. are partners in High Noon Enterprises, a high-tech computer security firm whose hacker employees - especially Stuart Raney - are wizards at retrieving information. Stuart is strictly a digital guy, though, so Ali's mother and father (out on bail) are hired to go through the voluminous paperwork associated with the case. And High Noon's bright young operative, Cami Lee, goes out in the field....where she runs into drama and danger.

A variety of characters add interest to the story, including: a thick-headed, bullying sheriff who thinks nailing Bob for murder will get him a promotion; a beautiful scoundrel, adept at surveillance, who plans to find the memory card and get Ocotillo's money for herself; a snooty bankruptcy lawyer, too full of himself, who underestimates Ali; an insurance company manager who has vital information; and more.

I enjoyed the book - which has adventure, humor, and a bit of martial arts. There's one plot point that did make me shake my head: Stuart Raney and Ali's parents discover the thieves' passwords and the key to decrypt their files in what seems like five minutes. Would perps who can pull off a sophisticated theft leave clues about their passwords all over the place? I don't think so. LOL

Though the book is part of a series, I read it as a standalone without a problem. I'd recommend the book to thriller fans in the mood for a fast-moving, entertaining story.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review of "Perfect" by Rachel Joyce

Eleven-year-old Byron Hemmings becomes anxious when his friend James tells him that two seconds are going to be added to the clock to compensate for the 1972 leap year. Fretting about this when his mother Diana is driving him to upscale Winston House school one morning, Byron is sure his watch has moved backward. He insists on showing Diana the watch, which causes her to swerve her Jaguar and hit a young girl on Digby Street - a neighborhood of working class people. Unaware of what's happened Diana continues on her way.

Byron, obsessed with the accident, hounds Diana until he convinces her of the incident and she goes back to Digby Street to "confess". This starts a series of events that have dire consequences. Diana develops a friendship with Beverley, mother of the injured child Jeanie. Jeanie sustained very minor injuries but - as Beverley becomes more and more envious of Diana's lovely home and lifestyle - Jeanie's "disability" suspiciously become worse and worse. This, in turn, makes Diana more and more frantic to make amends.

Byron, wanting to help Diana and encouraged by his friend James, studies what's going on and keeps a journal where he writes and sketches everything - starting with the accident and continuing with Beverley's visits to his home, Jeanie's escalating problems, and so on. He shares this observations with James, who seems to be over-interested in the entire affair.

All this exacerbates the tension in the Hemmings home, which is already high. Byron's father Seymour, who works in the city and comes home only on weekends, is wildly jealous, suspicious of Diana, obsessed with appearances, and distant toward Byron and his sister Lucy. Thus Diana - who seems to have an "unrespectable" history and takes some kind of medication - is determined to keep the accident and new friendship a secret from her husband.

This story alternates with anecdotes about a man named Jim that take place forty years in the future. Jim - who has spent most of his life in mental institutions - is now out. He has a bad stammer and is severely handicapped by obsessive compulsive disorder. However, Jim is able to live in his camper and maintain a job cleaning tables at a supermarket cafe. Jim is almost incapable of interacting with other people but seems to want to befriend his co-worker Eileen.

The author does a good job conveying the ambiance of the Hemmings home as well as the mental/emotional states of the main characters. I don't want to give away spoilers so I won't say more except that the story provides an interesting treatise about obvious and not-so-obvious mental breakdowns.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review of "Last Breath" by Robert Bryndza

In this fourth book in the series, Detective Chief Inspector Erika Foster's big mouth and abrasive attitude have got her booted off Lewisham's Murder Investigation Team (MIT) and stuck with a boring desk job. When the horribly battered body of a half-naked young woman is found in a London dumpster, Erika - on her own initiative - connects the killing to another murder a few months before. Desperate to get back on the MIT and investigate the appalling crimes, Erika is willing to do almost anything - even apologize to her nemesis, Superintendent Sparks.

Before long Erika is the Senior Investigative Officer in the cases of the murdered girls, working with her usual team, including Peterson, Moss, and Crane. Erika thinks a serial killer is at work, and she's proven right when a third body turns up in a dumpster. The top brass at Scotland Yard, fearing bad publicity and public backlash, put pressure on Erika to catch the perp - but budget constraints limit the resources assigned to her.

We learn that the killer is a short, pudgy office worker who resents the fact that attractive women won't look at him twice. Wanting revenge against women, the killer repeatedly creates fake profiles on social media to 'catfish' a pretty brunette and lure her into meeting him. He then kidnaps, cages, tortures, and murders the victim. When a not-so-attractive woman - the perp's awkward co-worker - invites him to a movie, he can barely stand to be with her.....which is pretty ironic.

The story alternates between the police investigation and the killer's activities. The description of the perp's step-by-step method of tracking, luring, and torturing his victims ratchets up the tension, and I had to take periodic breaks from the book. I hate the killer, despise his parents (a dismissive father and weak mother), and I'm not crazy about his dog, Grendel (though she doesn't know any better).

On the other hand, I admire the hard-working, dedicated detectives, who work day and night to stop the murderer and hopefully rescue a fourth victim. Erika is still experiencing angst about her cop husband who was killed in the line of duty, but a burgeoning relationship between Erika and Peterson may signal better times ahead.

The story held my attention and I was anxious to see how things played out. It was also interesting to see how the detectives discover clues, make deductions, and track down the killer. My one quibble: books that feature cops vs. a sociopathic serial killer are pretty common, and the story has a familiar ring.

Still, I'd recommend the book to people who like thrillers, especially fans of Erika Foster.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Robert Bryndza) and the publisher (Bookouture) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review of "Sycamore Row" by John Grisham

Elderly Seth Hubbard of Clanton, Mississippi - suffering from cancer - commits suicide. Just before he takes his life, however, Seth writes a handwritten will that specifically cuts out his family and leaves almost all of his considerable estate to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang. In a letter mailed just before he died, Seth asks attorney Jake Brigance to fight to the death to preserve this new will - which he expects will be vigorously contested by his his son Herschel and daughter Ramona.

This starts a legal circus with a multitude of lawyers. While Jake argues on behalf of the estate, other attorneys represent Lettie (and her shiftless husband Simeon), Herschel, Herschel's kids, Ramona, and Ramona's kids. The legal fight over the will makes up the crux of the story. Every kind of attorney, from a black rights firebrand to a corporate hotshot to a disbarred alcoholic to earnest Jake Brigance makes an appearance, all of which inflames the community and creates a deep divide between local whites and blacks.

All sides decide to have a jury trial to determine if the handwritten will is legal and binding - that is, if Seth was of sound mind when he prepared the will and not unduly influenced by Lettie. If not, a previous will - which benefitted the family - would be enforced. While preparing for the trial one of the Hubbard family lawyers unearths information about Lettie's past and about Seth that he thinks will derail Lettie's claim. He cleverly (and unethically) maneuvers to hide the information from Jake until the trial is well under way. There's plenty of pleasurable suspense leading up to the revelation of this information.

The courtroom scenes are interesting (if a bit slow) with plenty of direct examination and cross-examination and intricate legal wrangling. The characters are well-written, compelling, and realistic - behaving true to their depicted personalities.

Before and during the trial a big question in everyone's mind (both the characters and the reader) is 'why did Seth do this'? Eventually, this question does seem to be answered. Still, I kept thinking 'Seth could just have given Lettie the money before he committed suicide and saved everyone a lot of bother.' Why he didn't do this is never satisfactorally answered (for me, anyway).

Overall, this is an enjoyable and informative legal thriller, recommended for fans of the genre.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Review of "Death of a Chimney Sweep" by M.C. Beaton

Captain Henry Davenport and his wife Milly recently retired to a village in northern Scotland. The couple largely keep to themselves and have little to do with the townspeople. A mysterious phone call spooks the Captain and it seems clear that he's avoiding someone.

When the Davenports' chimney needs cleaning, chimney sweep Pete Ray is hired to do the job. Afterwards, the Captain's body is found stuffed up the chimney and Pete is found dead in the hills, with items stolen from the Davenports' house. To oafish Detective Chief Inspector Blair, it seems like case closed: Pete robbed and killed the Captain....then died from an accident.

However, Lochdubh's Constable Hamish MacBeth - always a thorn in Blair's side - doesn't buy it. He's sure Pete was set up, and sets out to find the real killer. The constable discovers that the Captain was a con man who cheated people, and thinks one of the victims probably killed him. Hamish soon has a list of suspects who were taken in by the swindler, including some residents of Lochdubh.

Hoping the perp is an outsider, Hamish goes to great lengths to investigate the Captain's old army buddies, who are now business moguls. To infiltrate their businessman's club, for example, Hamish dyes his hair black, borrows a toff's suit, dons his friend's Rolex - and pretends to be a Canadian looking to invest.

Meanwhile, other people also learn the Captain was a swindler and - for reasons of their own - try to track down his targets. But the killer is absolutely ruthless, and quickly gets rid of anyone who poses a threat. (For a cozy, this book has quite a high body count.)

In addition to the murders, most of the series' usual characters make an appearance, and there are a variety of subplots:

Angela Brody, the wife of Lochdubh's doctor, pens an erotic novel. In her book, the doctor's wife has a steamy affair with the village policeman. Of course everyone jumps to the obvious (wrong) conclusion. LOL

Hamish' former girlfirend, Elspeth Grant - now a TV journalist - fears her pretty underling want to usurp her job. And she's right.

Superintendent Daviot, trying to get rid of Hamish as usual, sends an Assistant Constable to spy on him.

A suspect's wife runs off to Brazil and hooks up with a hot Latin lothario.

Hamish trains for a hill-racing competition.

.....and more.

All this extraneous activity makes the plot seem random and padded, but that's business as usual with this series. Fans of Hamish MacBeth probably know what to expect.

I thought the book was okay, a mildy entertaining cozy.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, May 8, 2017

Review of "The Sleepwalker" by Chris Bohjalian

Annalee Ahlberg is an architect who lives in Vermont with her husband, Warren, and two daughters, Lianna and Paige. Annalee is also a sleepwalker. While slumbering Annalee has done things like spray- painting hydrangeas with silver paint - almost killing them; and climbing onto the bridge over the Gale River, stark naked. After Annalee was rescued from the bridge by her daughter Lianna, the somnambulist attended a sleep clinic for an extended time and got appropriate medication.

Annalee's sleepwalking episodes always seemed to occur when her husband was away, so Warren hasn't gone out of town on business for years. Now that Annalee's sleepwalking appears to be under control, Warren - an English professor - decides to attend a poetry conference out of state....and on the first night he's gone, Annalee disappears.

An extensive search uncovers a scrap of fabric from Annalee's nightshirt near the Gale River, and the police speculate that she drowned. Annalee's body isn't recovered, however, and the family holds out hope that she'll return. Meanwhile, Warren continues teaching, but drinks himself to sleep in front of the TV every night. And Lianna takes a leave from her senior year at Amherst College to assist her dad and help her sister Paige - an athletic middle-schooler who swims and skis competitively.

Soon after her mother vanishes, Lianna starts dating Gavin Rikert, a handsome 32-year-old detective assigned to Annalee's case. Gavin tells Lianna that he's also a sleepwalker, and had met Annalee at the sleep clinic. He also confides that he and Annalee formed a two-person 'support group' and sometimes met for coffee and conversation. Lianna suspects that Gavin slept with Annalee - who was a beautiful, statuesque blonde - but he denies it.

Nevertheless, Lianna remains suspicious of Gavin and Annalee, and becomes even more concerned when she learns that both of them are 'sexsomniacs' - people who crave sex while asleep. Lianna comes to learn that sexsomniacs sometimes leave their homes - while fast asleep - to find sex partners.....and even speculates that Annalee might have sex-slept with her friends' husbands. Because of certain revelations, Annalee wonders if Warren is Paige's father....and comes to conjecture about foul play in Annalee's disappearance.

Lianna is the story's narrator, and we follow her as she smokes pot, buys Mexican wraps for dinner, guides her tipsy dad from the couch to his bed at night, drives Paige to her swimming and ski practices, calls her friends at Amherst, does magic shows for children's birthday parties, gets blind drunk on a date with Gavin - and does 'detective work' (blatantly invading people's privacy) to investigate Gavin's relationship with Annalee. Lianna also keeps an eye on Paige, who compulsively looks for her mother - even to the point of searching the river. Lianna's narration is interspersed with (what seems like) the diary entries of an unidentified somnambulist, detailing episodes of sleep-sex.

We eventually learn what happened to Annalee, and the book's climax and epilogue are quite a revelation.

I found Lianna's account to be a bit meandering and repetitive, but the story held my attention and I learned a lot about sleepwalking. Some of Lianna's behavior put me off, but I did like the scenes where she practiced and performed magic tricks, which was a nice respite from the darker parts of the story.

I'd categorize the book as a family saga/offbeat mystery and would recommend it to fans of these genres.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review of "Lexicon" by Max Barry

Emily Ruff, a 16-year-old con artist, is happily working her card tricks on the streets of San Francisco when she meets 'T.S. Elliot.' The 'poet' soon carts her off to a special school in Virginia where she'll learn to use words to "persuade" (i.e. control) people. All graduates of the school take the names of well-known poets before they're let loose to fulfill the school's agenda - which seems to be to control the world.

Unfortunately for Emily she breaks some rules before graduation and is banished to Broken Hill, Australia. There Emily falls in love - a big no no for poets - and comes across one of the most dangerous words in the world, a 'bareword.' Using the bareword Emily causes the death of every single person in Broken Hill except for herself and one other survivor, a blue collar worker named Wil Parke.

Wil soon becomes the target of an evil cadre of poets who are determined to dig through his brain to discover how he lived through the carnage. Emily is a wily, clever girl who can lie/steal/cheat her way out of almost any situation and her journey through the book is fascinating. Unfortunately Emily is hard to root for since no sane person would really like to become acquainted with this conscienceless con artist in real life.

In fact this is a problem with almost all the characters in the story, who seem too self-interested and ruthless to be likable people. Wil is an exception as he appears to be a helpless victim of circumstance caught in a situation he doesn't comprehend.

The book kept my interest and I was intrigued with the explanations/demonstrations of how people are controlled with words. All in all a pretty good book. I'd recommend it, especially to science fiction fans.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Review of "The Crossing Places" by Elly Griffiths

When a child's bones are discovered in the saltmarsh at Norfolk, along the coast of England, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson asks Dr. Ruth Galloway - an archaeologist at a local university - to help excavate the remains. Ruth discovers that the skeleton, which was interred with two Iron Age torques (metal necklaces), is 2,000 years old. Ruth is thrilled with the find but Nelson is disappointed. He thought the bones might belong to Lucy Downey, a five-year-old child who disappeared a decade ago - a case that's haunted Nelson ever since.

Soon afterwards a four-year-old girl named Scarlet Henderson vanishes, and Nelson suspects she was taken by the same person who abducted Lucy. It turns out the police received a series of taunting letters after Lucy vanished, and similar letters have now arrived about Scarlet. The letters contain quotes from literature and the Bible, as well as references to local archaeological sites and obscure poetic hints about where the girls are buried.

Nelson asks Ruth to help analyze the letters, and she's soon assisting the police with their inquiries. Against all odds, Nelson and Ruth seem drawn to each other. Ruth is a frumpy, overweight, fortyish academic who lives in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh with her two cats, Sparky and Flint. And Nelson is a burly, lifelong cop who resides in King's Lynn with his beautiful, stylish wife and two teenage daughters. Nevertheless, the sparks between Nelson and Ruth threaten to burst into flame.

Nelson realizes that Lucy's abduction 10 years ago occurred shortly after a major archaeological dig in Norfolk. People who worked on the dig include: Ruth; Erik - a renowned archaeologist who was Ruth's mentor in college; Cathbad - a 'druid' who objected to the digging up of an ancient henge; Shona - a gorgeous professor who's Ruth's best friend; and Peter - who was Ruth's boyfriend at the time. Other residents of the saltmarsh are David - who manages the local bird preserve; and Sammy and Ed - a couple with a vacation cottage in the area. Some of these folks are persons of interest to the cops.

As the police investigate the suspects and search for evidence they're assisted by Ruth, who has (almost supernatural) intuitions about the case. The book has some twists, and ends in an exciting, dramatic climax.

I like the story, and Ruth and Nelson are refreshing characters. Nelson is a traditional, hard-working detective (unlike the many fictional sleuths who are troubled alcoholics....LOL). I also enjoyed the bits of the book about archaeological digs, henge circles, causeways, cursuses, Iron Age rituals, and so on....which are quite interesting.

The Norfolk location - with its marshes, flats, dunes, beach, sea, and tides - is practically a character in the story, and I could almost sense the salt spray on my face. The geography is integral to the plot since characters are often endangered by swiftly approaching tides and dangerous mud holes. (You wouldn't catch me out on those marshes in the dark!)

I have some problems with parts of the plot that don't ring true (that is .....are completely unbelievable), but overall this is a good start to the 'Ruth Galloway - Harry Nelson' series. I'll probably read additional books about this dynamic duo.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review of "The Three-Body Problem" by Cixin Liu

This is the first book of a trilogy.

The story begins during the early years of China's 'Cultural Revolution.' Ye Wenjie, a young astrophysicist, sees her father - a physics professor - tortured and murdered by a group of young Red Guards. Like many educated citizens Ye Wenjie is labeled a 'counter-revolutionary' and sent to cut trees for the Construction Corps before being recruited to work at a secret facility called Red Coast Base.

At first Ye Wenjie has limited access to the base's surreptitious activities but in time her abilities and intelligence give her wide access to the installation. Over time time Ye Wenjie makes some startling discoveries and engages in some questionable behavior. (To say more would lead to spoiler territory.) Some years later, when the Cultural Revolution wanes, Ye Wenjie is allowed to return home and become a university professor.

In current times an applied physicist named Wang Miao - who's developed a very strong nanomaterial - is recruited by a committee composed of military officers/police. They ask Wang to help investigate a rash of physicist suicides. Wang reluctantly agrees and is assisted by a suspended cop called Da Shi - a disheveled, abrasive, pushy, off-putting guy. As things turn out though, Da Shi's ability to think outside the box is useful and his common sense is I developed quite a liking for the fellow.

While Wang Miao is looking into the physicist suicides he develops peculiar/frightening 'vision problems' and starts to play an immersive computer game called "Three Body." The game is set on Trisolaris, a distant planet inhabited by extraterrestrials. Trisolaris has a very unstable environment. During 'chaotic periods' (extremely hot or cold) most Trisolarans are dehydrated, rolled up, and stored in dehydratories. During 'stable periods' (mild weather) the Trisolarans are rehydrated and go about their business. Still, there are frequent 'crashes' when the entire Trisolaran civilzation is destroyed and has to start over.

The shifts between chaotic and stable periods on Trisolaris are completely random and abrupt. Thus the player's goal is to discover why they happen and to predict long-term stable periods. Wang determines that the chaos occurs because the planet has three suns....thus the 'three-body problem.' [Note: On the internet the three-body problem is defined as follows: "the problem of taking an initial set of data that specifies the positions, masses and velocities of three bodies for some particular point in time and then determining the motions of the three bodies, in accordance with Newton's laws of motion and universal gravitation."] In essence it's almost impossible to accurately predict the motion of Trisolaris' three suns.....but Wang Miao thinks he can do it.

As the story continues to unfold it turns out that Ye Wenjie's experiences at Red Coast Base, the physicist suicides, Wang Miao's nanomaterial research, and the three-body game are all connected. And they have something to do with the fact that humans have managed to contact an alien civilization. (Again, more information would be a spoiler.)

The story addresses an interesting topic: how would people react if they knew there were other intelligent beings in the universe? And what would happen if the other beings were on their way here? (I've always thought extraterrestrials - if they found out about Earth - might come here, wipe us out, and move in. But maybe that's just me....LOL)

There's a lot of physics jargon in the book and some fancy shenanigans with protons that stretch suspension of disbelief to the max...even for sci-fi. In the end, though, I enjoyed the book very much. China provides a great (and unusual) background for a science fiction book and the story is riveting, with interesting characters. Highly recommended to fans of science fiction.

I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Review of "A Separation" by Katie Kitamura

The unnamed narrator of 'A Separation' is a literary translator in London who's been separated from her husband Christopher for six months. By mutual consent the couple haven't yet announced their estrangement, probably to keep the news from Christopher's interfering mother. This makes it awkward when Christopher's mother, Isabella, calls the narrator, anxious because she can't reach her son.

Christopher's been in Greece for several weeks, researching a book about mourning practices, and Isabella insists the narrator go there to find him. She even arranges for the narrator's plane ticket and hotel reservation. Feeling obligated, the narrator agrees to go, determined to tell Christopher she wants a divorce.

On the way to Greece's seaside village of Mani - where Christopher's staying in a luxurious hotel - the narrator learns that the area has recently been decimated by fire, and has few visitors. The narrator checks in to the oceanfront resort, which stands out in the bleak village, and is told her husband took a short trip and will be back any day. The narrator senses that the young desk clerk, Maria, is hostile to her - and suspects the girl has a crush on Christopher, who's handsome and charming.

The narrator settles in to wait for Christopher's return, but the days pass and he doesn't show up. Meanwhile, the narrator walks around, reads, swims, sleeps, dines, and hires a local driver - Stefano - to show her the meager sights. On impulse, the narrator lies and says SHE's studying funeral rites, and Stefano takes her to meet a professional mourner - which leads the narrator to meditate about death and dying.

The narrator also mulls over her history with Christopher, remembering how he romanced her, and imagining that he used the same seduction techniques on Maria. After the narrator sees Maria have a dramatic confrontation with Stefano - and apparently reject his affections - she suspects the girl dreams of being with Christopher. To discover if Maria had an affair with her husband, the narrrator invites the girl to dinner and asks if they slept together. Maria happily answers. She also, perhaps spitefully, orders the most expensive dishes on the menu - a lobster appetizer and a steak entrée. (LOL)

When information arrives that Christopher's been staying in a different village with another woman, Maria is very upset. The narrator, however, isn't surprised since Christopher has always been a serial philanderer.

Later, Christopher is found dead, and the police investigate. The narrator, however, keeps mum about possible culprits. She's also aware that she might be a suspect herself.

When Christopher's parents come to Greece the narrator has the opportunity to cogitate on the fact that Isabella (her mother-in-law) also had affairs throughout her marriage. Isabella even knows about her son's proclivities, lamenting, 'he could never keep his dick in his pants.' Still - in a rather awkward scene - Isabella insists that the narrator affirm her love for Christopher.

The entire book is told from the point of view of the narrator, and - to be honest - I'm not quite sure what points she's making. Clearly the story is about marriage, honesty/dishonesty, infidelity, women wanting what's not good for them, and the need to move on. Other reviewers have different analyses, so maybe every reader sees something different.

Kitamura is a fine writer and the book is beautifully written, but I don't think it will appeal to everyone. The story meanders along, has a cerebral vibe, and lacks the drama/action seen in most popular fiction. Still, it's a compelling depiction of a woman dealing with a marriage gone bad (and an unexpected visit to Greece).

Rating: 3 stars