Friday, June 30, 2017

Review of "Hollywood Homicide" by Kellye Garrett

Like lots of gals in Hollywood, Dayna Anderson wanted to be famous, and she was.....for a while. The pretty black actress was the face of "Chubby's Chicken"commercials for two years, until they 'went in a different direction.' Since then Dayna has retired from acting, and supports herself with temp positions as best she can. This makes it tough for Dayna to buy gas for her Pepto-Bismol pink car or minutes for her pay-as-you-go phone. To save money, Dayna has even moved into a combination bedroom/shoe closet (bloset) in her friend's apartment.

When Dayna hears that her parents can't pay their mortgage and are about to lose their house, she has to find a way to come up with extra! So Dayna decides she'll try to collect the $15,000 reward for information on the hit-and-run murder of a young woman named Haley Joseph. Dayna realizes that she and her friends were in the vicinity of the incident, and actually got a glimpse of a speeding car. This is the start of Dayna's convoluted - and hilarious - investigation.

Dayna's friends - Sienna, Emme, and Omari - help with her inquiries. Sienna is a fashionista who's adept at hovering near celebrities when paparazzi are around, so she can get into the pictures; Sienna hopes to have a reality show some day. Emme likes to stay home in her roomful of computers, where she shops, plays online games, IMs people, and hacks into accounts; she's an identical twin to Toni Abrams - an Oscar-nominated actress who was People's most beautiful woman. And Omari is a handsome, budding television star that Dayna has crushed on since high school; when the actor makes a mini-pass at Dayna, she (inadvertently) freaks out.....much to her regret. Dayna also partners up with Aubrey S. Adams-Parker, a bicycle-riding ex-cop/private detective who wears a bright orange reflector suit.

While Dayna is trying to track down the hit-and-run driver who struck Haley, the cops are on the trail of a team of robbers nicknamed 'The Rack Pack' - who break into celebrities' homes and steal clothes, jewelry, and cash. Recently The Rack Pack targeted singer/rapper Kandy Wrapper and her basketball player boyfriend. Could their next target be Toni Abrams?

Dayna's quest to find the killer (and maybe romance) takes her all around Hollywood, including a consignment store, 'Clothes Encounters', where Haley worked; an auto mechanic shop; a movie premiere; a luxurious mansion; and the set of a TV show. Dayna also engages in break-ins, stake-outs, car chases, and foot pursuits - often in her Pink Panther stilettos.

To get the $15,000 reward, Dayna has to give her information to the police tip line, and her calls to the gum-snapping woman who monitors the line are very funny - especially since Dayna accuses one person after another of being Haley's killer.

Important secondary characters in the story include Haley's boyfriend - Victory; her co-workers - Betty, Natalie, and Marina; a Hollywood talent manager - Montgomery Rose; and Sienna's black, gay, male counterpart - 'Fab.'

The book has a refreshing angle on the cozy mystery genre because Dayna isn't trying to outsmart and outmaneuver the cops. She just wants the reward money, and maybe to get a killer off the streets. I like this approach, and look forward to more of Dayna's adventures.

To use one of Dayna's favorite words, I smiled a kajillion times while I was reading this book. Highly recommended to fans of cozy mysteries.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Kellye Garrett), and the publisher (Midnight Ink) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review of "The Secret Place" by Tana French

Two classy British boarding schools, St. Kilda's for girls and St. Colm’s for boys are located close enough together that the students mingle on a regular basis. When tragedy strikes and Chris Harper - a handsome boy from St. Colm's - is found murdered on the grounds of St. Kilda's, the case remains unsolved. About a year later a St. Kilda's student named Holly Mackey, the daughter of a detective, finds a photo of Chris on a school bulletin board. The photo has cut-out letters that spell 'I know who killed him.'

Holly takes the card to Detective Stephen Moran of the cold case squad who arranges to investigate with Detective Antoinette Conroy of the murder squad. The main 'suspects' for who placed the card on the bulletin board are two groups of friends. One group contains 'the snobby girls', who think it's their right to date the most desirable boys from St. Colm's. The other group contains 'the nice girls' who make an oath to stick together and forsake boyfriends from St. Colm's - who they consider a bad lot who take advantage of girls and blab about it.

The book is told in alternating scenes: in the present, the detectives repeatedly question the girls to find out what they know; in flashbacks we see the interactions among the teen girls and boys from the private schools: posturing at the local shopping mall; budding romance at the St. Valentine's dance; sneaking out of school to meet up; secret phones for texting; etc. I have to admit I was entertained (and sometimes annoyed) by the lingo the girls use when they speak to each other and to the detectives. Sassy, fun, sometimes mean - and almost always disrespectful to adults.

Of course it's impossible for teen girls to ignore nearby boys - no matter what they promise - and a number of relationships flourish and wane among the students of St. Kilda's and St. Colm's. Jealousies arise, people spy on each other, girls get protective, girls get furious, threats are made, and so on. Is this related to Chris's death?  Well...yes.

I've enjoyed Tana French's previous books but this wasn't a favorite for me. The detective work, which consisted almost entirely of talking to the girls on the school grounds, became tedious. I would have liked more moving around and forensics. Also, I didn't especially like or care about the characters. The snobby girls were unbearable and even the nice girls weren't particularly sympathetic. I also thought these girls - 15 and 16 years old - seemed too young to engage in the level of devilry they got up to.

The resolution of the crime wasn't completely satisfactory either; I felt it didn't flow smoothly from the rest of the book. Nevertheless, I'd mildly recommend the book to fans of Tana French; as usual with her books, familiar characters from past books show up in current ones and it's good to see what's going on with them.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Review of "No Nest for the Wicket" by Donna Andrews

In this 7th book in the cozy series, blacksmith Meg Langslow is participating in an 'extreme croquet' tournament near her home in Caerphilly, Virginia. The contest has attracted a wide array of players, including college students from surrounding states, members of the Caerphilly historical society, real estate agents, and others. Meg is tracking her ball through a rugged field - filled with bumpy ground, water hazards, cows, and sheep - when she literally falls on the body of a dead woman. The victim, whose head has been bashed in (probably with a croquet mallet) has no identification.

When Police Chief Burke questions people in the area, no one admits to knowing the deceased. Later, Meg's fiancé Michael shows up and identifies the woman as Lindsay Tyler, a former history professor at Caerphilly College, where he teaches. Tyler left town under a cloud several years ago - so what's she doing back? (and dead?)

Speaking of history, there's an ongoing dispute among citizens of Caerphilly that involves an outlet mall and the Civil War. Developers in Caerphilly want to build a mall on a field near the Langlslow property, while many residents oppose the idea. In fact, snooty Henrietta Pruitt claims that her ancestor won a Civil War battle on that very field, which should therefore be preserved. Meg speculates that Professor Tyler may have had historical information that impacted one side or the other.

Meg, who's renovating a family home close to the proposed mall, has an obvious horse in this race. The blacksmith is also an amateur sleuth, who's solved homicide cases in the past. So Meg jumps right into the investigation and - with the help of her fiancé and father - uncovers clues that lead to the killer. As in many light mysteries, the amateurs solve the case quicker than the cops.

The characters in this humorous series always get up to amusing hijinks, and in this story their shenanigans include: Morris dancing with bells on their shins; arguments over the rules of extreme croquet (What happens if a player is a murder victim? or a killer?); faking historical evidence; teaching a duck and a dog to herd sheep; etc. I laughed when a character suggested that some refined ladies in the 'extreme croquet' tournament might have thought they were signing up for 'extreme crochet.' LOL

I liked the story and enjoyed visiting with the recurring characters in the series. I have to say, though, that Meg seems overly self-satisfied and snarky this time around, which put me off.

This is an enjoyable cozy mystery, recommended to fans of the genre.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review of "Cinnamon Roll Murder" by Joanne Fluke

In this addition to the series Hannah Swensen (owner of 'The Cookie Jar' bakery/cafe) and her sister are on the icy roads of Lake Eden, Minnesota, planning to deliver an order of scrumptious cinnamon rolls. They come across a serious accident involving a tour bus and several cars. The bus crash killed the driver but spared the passengers, members of the 'Cinnamon Roll Six' band, in town for a jazz festival. Hannah helps transport several band members to the hospital, including the keyboard player Buddy Neiman - whose wrist is injured.

As it turns out the death of the bus driver seems suspicious AND Buddy Neiman is murdered in the hospital. Of course Hannah and her sisters feel compelled to investigate, and soon learn that Buddy is using a false name. The would be detectives have to learn Buddy's real identity and determine his connection to local residents, one of whom apparently murdered him.

While this is going on, Hannah is also dealing with another problem. Her erstwhile (sort of) boyfriend, the dentist Norman Rhodes, is engaged to fellow dentist 'Dr. Bev' - who claims her little girl is his child. Norman seems unhappy about the rapidly approaching nuptials and Hannah and her sisters strongly suspect shenanigans on the part of Dr. Bev. Thus, they set out to discover the truth.

The usual characters make an appearance in the book, including Hannah's fashionable mom, detective Mike, and co-baker Lisa. There's also a cute puppy that needs a home and Hannah and Norman's rambunctious cats. (I have a soft spot for adorable pet characters).

For me this book is just mildly okay. The mystery of who killed Buddy isn't too complicated, the death of the bus driver is ignored completely after the early part of the book, and what seem to be key plot points are very predictable. Moreover, one scene where Hannah confronts Dr. Bev while the dentist is trying on her wedding dress in a clothes boutique is ridiculously unbelievable.

I would have given the book 2 stars except that I did enjoy the warm comraderie among the regular characters and all the coffee drinking and cookie baking (and eating). All this gives the story a nice atmosphere. And there are yummy sounding cookie recipes as well.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, June 26, 2017

Review of "Not My Father's Son: A Memoir" by Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming is a Scottish actor who's probably best known in America for hosting "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS and playing Eli Gold on "The Good Wife." He's also a very successful stage and movie actor, now happily married to his husband Grant.

Alan's life wasn't always so bright though. In this memoir Alan talks about growing up with a father, Alex Cumming, who was physically, psychologically, and emotionally abusive. The book starts off with a bang as Alan describes a childhood scene where his vicious father yanked him out to the barn, threw him down on a table, and roughly shaved his head with sheep shears. Alan and his brother Tom lived in constant fear of their dad, who perpetually criticized and banged them around.

The impetus to write this book came from Alan's planned 2010 appearance on the British TV show "Who Do You Think You Are?". Celebrities who go on the show have aspects of their ancestry/past revealed, things that are often a surprise to them. (In an American version of this show, for example, Ben Affleck was shocked to learn his ancestors owned slaves.)

In Alan's case, he hoped to find out more about his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling. Tommy survived fighting in World War II but didn't come home when hostilities ended. Instead Tommy became a police officer in Malaya, where he was supposedly killed by an accidental gunshot wound. Tommy left behind his wife, Mary Darling, and four children. The Darlings struggled to get by without Tommy's income or pension. Alan wanted to find out more about this mysterious granddad, as well as other aspects of his own past.

While Alan was filming "Who Do You Think You Are?" - which required traveling around the world with the show's production team - Alex Cumming dropped a bombshell. He revealed that he wasn't Alan's father. Alex claimed that he had caught his wife leaving a bedroom with another man nine months before Alan was born, and that this man was Alan's father. According to Alex he wanted to give Alan a heads-up so the actor wouldn't be blindsided when this news came to light on the TV show.

The book jumps back and forth between Alan's youth and adulthood. In the 'then' sections Alan describes childhood incidents where his father yelled at him, threw him around, hit him, degraded him, embarassed him, and so on. Alan also talks about his father's constant public infidelities, which humiliated his wife and sons. In fact Alex sometimes took Alan along when he was meeting other women. These parts of the book are very disturbing.

In the 'now' sections Alan reveals the residual anxiety he feels from his childhood. He also writes about his acting gigs; professional successes; ex-wife; fears about having children (he has no kids); nervous breakdown; therapist; husband; friends; beloved mother, brother, and granny; parties; dinners; wine; etc. - in short, his life as an adult.

Alan also discusses his reaction to Alex Cumming announcing that he isn't the actor's biological father. Could this explain why Alex was always so cruel and hateful? Or did Alex just make this up to cause Alan more pain? Alan makes sure to find out the truth!

The book is well-written, enlightening, entertaining, and uplifting. It's good to learn that children with awful childhoods can go on to live happy, successful lives.

I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy celebrity memoirs. This is a very good one.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review of "A Place of Execution" by Val McDermid

This book is divided into two parts. In the first section, set in the early 1960s, a teenage girl disappears from a small English village and the police investigate. In the second section, set in 1998, a reporter writes a book about the mid-century incident.

In 1963, the tiny hamlet of Scardale in Derbyshire resembles a feudal town. The owner of the manor house, who functions as 'Lord of the Manor', controls the land on which Scardale residents farm and raise livestock. There are only a handful of surnames in Scardale, where everyone is related by blood and marriage.

Following the death of Scardale manor's longtime squire, a distant relative named Peter Hawkin becomes the new owner. Hawkin pursues and marries an attractive local widow, Ruth Carter, who has a pretty teenage daughter named Alison. One day, just before Christmas, 13-year-old Alison comes home from school, takes her sheepdog Shep out for a walk, and disappears.

Newly promoted Detective Inspector George Bennett is put in charge of the search for Alison, which he orchestrates with the help of the local constable, surrounding police forces, and a slew of volunteers. Before long the searchers find Shep tied up in the woods and come across an isolated, disturbed area that shows evidence of a struggle. Bennett surmises that Alison has been abducted - almost certainly by someone familiar with the area. So, with the help of his assistant, Detective Sergeant Tommy Clough, Bennett questions Alison's relatives and neighbors.

Scardale is an insular community that doesn't like cops, and the police have a hard time squeezing information out of the residents. Weeks go by with little progress, and Bennett - whose wife is pregnant with their first child - feels terrible for Alison's mother. As a result Bennett becomes a driven man: he gathers evidence; questions persons of interest; consults with other cops; develops theories; and so on. Bennett can hardly find a moment to go home, relax, and see his wife.

Eventually, a suggestion by the community octogenarian, Ma Lomas - who looks exactly like a fairy tale hag - leads the cops to a forgotten, long-abandoned mine. There, Bennett finds Alison's torn clothes and evidence she was raped. Though Alison's body hasn't been found, Bennett concludes that she's dead.

Bennett makes it his mission to find the killer, and continues to pursue the case. After some months, startling new evidence is found - which leads to an arrest and trial. All this is very hard on Bennett, who gets battered by the suspect's defense attorney (think of the OJ trial).

Afterwards, Bennett gets on with his life, refusing to speak with reporters and writers who want to relate their accounts of the case.

Thirty-five years later, Bennett is retired and living with his wife Anne, who suffers from arthritis. Their grown son, Paul, works in the international realm and is engaged to be married. A journalist named Catherine Heathcote happens to meet Paul, learns his father is DI George Bennett, and decides to write a book about the Alison Carter case. Paul convinces his father to be interviewed, and Heathcote goes to work.

Heathcote conducts a series of extensive interviews with Bennett, who takes her through the case step by step. The journalist also reads old newspaper articles; talks to people who lived in Scardale (the few who agree to speak to her); visits places related to the case; goes to Alison's old home; and looks up DS Tommy Clough, who left the police force long ago.

Over many months, Heathcote finishes her research and writes the book. She's just completed the initial manuscript - and brought it to Bennett to read - when the detective has a change of heart. He insists that Heathcote withdraw the book from publication, but offers no specific reasons. Bennett even offers to repay the entire advance himself.

Heathcote, who's shocked and bewildered, decides she has to know what's going on.....and proceeds to find out. Wow!! And that's all I can say.

The book is absorbing and suspenseful, and Val McDermid does an excellent job evoking the feel of a rural hamlet that's heavily inbred. A basic menu of physical characterstics is scattered among the residents, who have little ambition beyond working their land and taking care of their animals. The villagers shun strangers and drive out 'wrong-uns'.....who better not come back. Moreover, with almost no recreation, Scardale isn't a fun place to live - especially for young people.

Most of the story's characters are well-drawn, though I found it hard to distinquish among the people of the village, whose interrelationships are more complicated than calculus. I sympathized with DI Bennett, whose shifty, 'cover-his-ass' boss made sure to keep his distance from the investigation, in case it went sideways. And I liked DI Clough, whose rough exterior masks a caring soul. I also found Catherine Heathcote to be bright and likable.....and an excellent researcher (I imagine she mimics the author's skills in this area. LOL)

My one quibble: almost all the adult characters in the book seem to smoke incessantly, and there's too much blather about taking out cigarettes, offering them to each other, lighting up, and so on. Smoking in public places was more acceptable in the 1960s, but this still seems overdone.

All in all, an enjoyable mystery. Recommended to fans of the genre.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Review of "A Fatal Thaw" by Dana Stabenow

Private Detective Kate Shugak, a former investigator with the district attorney's office, lives on an isolated homestead in Alaska. One morning, not far from Kate's home, a psychotic killer picks up his rifle, strolls through town, and kills everyone he comes in contact with. Kate, warned that the mass murderer is coming her way, manages to capture him with the help of her loyal (and very smart) wolf/husky mix, Mutt.

Examination of the murder victims shows that one of them - beautiful blonde Lisa Getty - was killed with a different rifle, most likely by a different killer. Kate is asked to investigate. She soon learns that Lisa had a dark side: she seduced almost all the men she met (regardless of age or marital status), grew and sold marijuana, poached animals for their valuable parts, and was generally a bad girl. In short, many of the locals - especially wives and girlfriends of cheating men - wanted Lisa gone.

Kate's detective work apparently alarms the killer, who commits more crimes to avoid capture. Meanwhile, we're treated to a peek at the culture of the Alaskan natives, including meals of moose stew, a potlatch (a sort of pot luck assembly with native dancing), mountain climbing on local icy peaks, driving snow machines rather than cars, etc. One can almost feel what it would be like to live in an environment that's frozen for most of the year.

There are plenty of interesting characters, including legless veteran Bobby - who has bad memories of the Vietnam war and a soft spot for Kate; Trooper Jim - whose helicopter patrols give him a good view of things below; Jack - Kate's sometimes boyfriend; Lottie Getty - the victim's awkward sister; Ekaterina - Kate's manipulative grandmother; Bernie - who runs the local pub; and more. My favorite character is the canine Mutt, who helps herself to hidden treats, understands English, has her own opinions (and lets them be known), and is absolutely loyal to Kate.

Kate's investigation leads to a dramatic climax on a mountain, and a satisfying ending. An enjoyable mystery with a fascinating setting.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of "Bone Box" by Faye Kellerman

After they became empty nesters, Detective Peter Decker and his wife Rina moved from Los Angeles to upstate Greenbury, New York - where Peter now works for the Greenbury Police Department. It's been a quiet summer in Greenbury, crime-wise, until Rina discovers a skeletal hand near the Bogat Hiking Trail.

The unearthed remains are traced to Lawrence/Lorraine Pettigrew, a former student of Morse McKinley College - one of the schools in the local 'Five Colleges of Upstate Consortium.' The transgender woman left school seven years ago to transition, and disappeared some time afterwards. As the police continue to dig around the Bogat Trail they discover the remains of two more college girls that were reported missing. Moreover, a young waitress has also vanished. It seems clear that a serial killer is at work in Greensbury.

To start their investigation, Peter and his partner, Harvard law student Tyler McAdams, make a list of the girls' boyfriends as well as people - teachers, students, bartenders, etc. - who had contact with the victims. These people provide a motley crew of 'persons of interest', ranging from druggies to a professor who actively supports alternative lifestyles. Questioning the possible suspects reveals some suspicious behavior, but nothing definite. Then Rina makes a suggestion, the couple fly off to California, and there's a break in the case.

As the story unfolds, Rina - who's an 'unofficial detective' in the investigation - is harassed by a suspect. This brings a couple of favorite characters into the story: the gangster Chris Donatti (who's indebted to the Deckers) and former L.A. Detective Scott Oliver come to Greensbury to look out for Rina - not that she needs protection. Rina has a gun and she knows how to use it....which she demonstrates quite effectively. Another favorite character that helps out is L.A. Detective Marge Dunn, who lends a hand with the California end of things. The scenes with Donatti, who shows up with an attitude and an arsenal, are quite funny and add a touch of humor to the book.

In addition to assisting with the case, Rina works at Hillel; makes tasty kosher meals; performs the rituals for the Jewish Sabbath; gets ready for the upcoming Jewish holidays; snuggles with her husband; visits her children and grandchildren; and so on. Rina's a trooper!

The police investigation at the heart of the story is interesting, but there are so many two-dimensional characters that it's hard to remember who's who. In addition, the 'solution' to the case is hard to buy and not satisfying.


There are so many people who committed and/or covered up the crimes that it's impossible to believe all members of this cabal could 'cooperate' and keep mum.....especially once the police get involved. Bottom line: the ending is just not credible (IMO). 


The end of the story is so abrupt that I actually thought I missed a section.....but I didn't. I'm not sure what the author's intention is here - but I'm not a fan of incomplete or cliffhanger endings.

Other than the finale, I liked the book and enjoyed the 'personal touches' like the Deckers' Jewish lifestyle; Tyler's being accepted as 'family' by the Decker clan; Marge buying brand new pots and dishes to prepare a kosher meal for the Deckers; Rina and Peter arguing over a TV show (I took Rina's side); etc.

I'd recommend the book to fans of the Peter Decker series.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review of "End of Watch" by Stephen King


This is the third book in Stephen King's "Bill Hodges Trilogy."


This review contains information about the first two books in the trilogy. So if you haven't read them yet you might want to stop reading now.

In the first book, Mr. Mercedes, a sociopath named Brady Hartsfield drives a Mercedes into a crowd, causing numerous deaths and injuries. Retired detective Bill Hodges makes it his mission to nab the culprit and puts together a sort of ragtag team to do the job. This includes Holly Gibney - a thin, gray-haired computer whiz who probably has Asperger's syndrome; and Jerome Robinson - a black, whip-smart teen. The three 'partners' eventually form a tight, affectionate, and lasting bond. At the end of the book Brady Hartsfield is severely injured, with a brain injury that leaves him in a coma.

The second book in the trilogy, Finders Keepers, takes a different direction, focusing on an obsessed literary fan. Hodges and his team show up late in the story, to help a kid who's gotten himself into big trouble. Brady Hartsfield, meanwhile, is rotting away in a hospital - seemingly unaware of his surroundings, with minimal brain function. Retired detective Hodges, however, suspects that Brady might have more going on upstairs than he lets on, and - as things turn out - Hodges is right!

In this third book in the trilogy, End of Watch - which takes place five years after the events in Mr. Mercedes - Brady Hartsfield has come out of his coma, is somewhat aware of what's going on around him, and can even say a few muddled words. Physically Brady is almost completely helpless, but there's A LOT going on in his head.

Brady's unethical doctor has been giving him experimental drugs and the medicine (or maybe something else) has altered Brady's brain....and he now has paranormal abilities. The hospital staff notes that minor odd things happen in Brady's room - like his IV bag swinging back and forth - but no one has an inkling of his true capabilities.

Brady secretly puts this new talent to use using a cache of obsolete hand-held computer game consoles called 'Zappit.' As it turns out, Zappit contains a strangely hypnotic child's fishing game. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say Brady - who has an obsession about suicide - manipulates a few people into killing themselves. Thrilled with his success, Brady embarks on a plan to cause mass suicide among local teenagers. And finally, Brady means to completely destroy Bill Hodges, whom he REALLY hates.

The stakes are very high in this book. Hodges is seriously ill and Holly is on his case - insisting that he go to the hospital to get appropriate treatment. However the detective desperately wants to stop Brady first. Hodges is sure that Brady caused a number of recent deaths, but can't figure out how - since Brady is a decrepit husk sitting in a hospital room. It takes the combined brain power of Hodges, Holly, and Jerome - with some help from a cop and a spot of luck - to reveal exactly what's going on. All this leads to a doozy of a climax in the middle of a winter storm...very exciting!

I enjoyed the book, which is well-written with memorable characters. Brady makes an especially demented and evil villain, while Holly makes an endearing 'good guy', with sweet affection for her partner and friend, Bill Hodges. In fact Holly is probably my favorite character in this story.

This book provides a very satisfying finale to a good trilogy. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review of "Blackberry Winter" by Sarah Jio

When a late spring snowstorm (called a blackberry winter) hits Seattle in May 2010, Claire Aldridge - a feature writer for the Seattle Herald - is asked to write a story comparing the whiteout to a similar event that occurred in May 1933. After researching the historical storm Claire decides to focus her article on Daniel Ray - a three-year-old boy who disppeared during the depression era snowfall.

Daniel's mother, Vera Ray, barely eked out a living as a maid at Seattle's Olympic Hotel. Unable to take Daniel along when she worked the night shift, Vera was forced to leave the sleeping child at home. On the night of May 1st, snow blanketed the city and - with public transportation out of commission - Vera trudged all the way home in the morning ---- to find Daniel gone. Distraught, Vera ran through the streets calling for Daniel - and asking pedestrians if they'd seen him - but all she found was the child's teddy bear.

Vera went to the police, but they were dismissive, suggesting that Daniel had run away. (Can you imagine. A three-year-old child?) Poverty-ridden and powerless, Vera had to look for Daniel herself. Things soon went from bad to worse when Vera was evicted from her apartment for inability to pay the rent and lost her job for taking too many days off (looking for Daniel). A wealthy resident of the Olympic Hotel offered to help Vera, but there were strings attached. (Ick!!)

The book has two alternating story lines: Claire's life in the present and Vera's life in the past.

We learn that Claire and her husband Ethan experienced a tragedy a year ago that put an enormous strain on their relationship. Both spouses are suffering but Claire is completely unable to get past the event, which haunts her. To add to the problem, Claire is annoyed that Ethan - the Seattle Herald's editor-in-chief - goes to restaurants with the newspaper's attractive food critic.....presumably as part of his job.

Claire has also become obsessed with discovering what happened to little Daniel, and her investigation takes her to various parts of the city. All this leads the reporter to spend too much time away from home; become overly friendly with a helpful (and handsome) café owner/barista; neglect an important family event; avoid Ethan's phone calls; and generally behave badly (IMO). It seems like Claire is on track to completely wreck her marriage.

In flashbacks to the past, we find that - before Daniel was born - Vera met a dashing blueblood named Charles, who swept her off her feet. Charles' family didn't approve of Vera, and predictable consequences ensued. The author paints a clear picture of Vera's destitute lifestyle: threadbare clothing; holes in her shoes; insufficient food; rough neighborhood; libidinous smelly landlord; and so on. It made me angry for Vera, who worked hard to make a home for herself and her son.... but was disrespected by 'rich people' and blown off by the police.

As Claire is researching young Daniel's disappearance she visits the Rays' old Seattle apartment and talks to people who remember the events of 1933. This leads to a series of serendipitous discoveries - photos, drawings, papers - that eventually reveal what happened to the child. As you might expect, the Claire and Vera story lines converge as the book approaches it climax.

For me this romantic suspense novel is overly contrived. Sarah Jio writes well, and a story about a missing child is always compelling. However, the book has far too many 'happy coincidences' and the fairy tale ending seems more like a Disney movie than real life. Still, fans of 'happily ever after' would probably love this book.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of "Dick Francis's Damage" by Felix Francis

Someone seems bent on disrupting British horseracing. A couple of trainers have been suspended for doping horses - though they claim innocence - and one has been driven to murder. Soon afterwards mandatory testing after a big race reveals that many horses - from stables across the United Kingdom - have been tainted with an illegal substance. Soon enough the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) receives a message - pay five million pounds or horseracing will be brought to its knees.

Jeff Hinkley, undercover investigator for the BHA, is tasked with investigating the matter and stopping the extortionist. Jeff soon comes to suspect that the suspended trainers were set up, figures out how the drugs were administered, and takes steps to stop the attacks. The horse doper is clever however, and finds another way to disrupt one of the biggest races of the year. The BHA tries paying the extortionist a small amount of appeasement money while Jeff continues to investigate but the attacks continue and escalate. Jeff and some BHA members want to inform the police but others fear the publicity will ruin horseracing, a huge industry in Britain.

While all this is going on Jeff is also contending with personal issues: his sister is being treated for cancer, he's become jaded with his long-time girlfriend, and he's trying to help his step-nephew who's been accused of selling drugs.

Like his father (Dick Francis), Felix Francis sprinkles the story with interesting tidbits about horsetracks, racing, trainers, jockeys, betting, and the people who govern the sport. I enjoyed the story and Jeff Hinkley is an engaging character - clever and a master of disguise. It's a treat to see how he goes undercover to search for information and clues.

The resolution of the story is somewhat predictable and a little unsatisfying but it's still an enjoyable book, recommended for mystery lovers.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review of "I Can't Make This Up: Life Lessons" by Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss

Kevin Hart is an award-winning comedian and actor, and it took him only 16 years to become an 'overnight success.' In this inspirational and entertaining memoir - written with Neil Strauss - Hart talks about his life, career, family, and friends - and it's clear that he's a loving son, loyal friend, devoted father, and exceptionally hard worker. Hart is also an honest man and admits that - in his youth - he was a bad husband to his first wife.....and gambled, drank, and splurged too much.

The book, though funny in places, is not chock full of jokes and hilarious bits - just so you know.

Hart was born and raised in North Philadelphia. His dad, nicknamed Spoon, was a drug addict and a 'player' - with girlfriends all over town. Spoon spent four years in prison, after which he split from Kevin's mother for good. Kevin - who says he was 'born with the gift of the shoulder shrug' - accepted the situation, said okay, and got on with his life. In fact, 'the shoulder shrug' helped Kevin get through many low points in his life.

After the split, Kevin and his older brother Kenneth would occasionally see their dad, which led to some of the 'scariest experiences' in Kevin's life. Among other things, Spoon let 8-year-old Kevin drive a motorboat - which he promptly crashed; and sicced a large dog onto the boys after Kenneth beat him at basketball. Spoon also stole from his family. At one point - when the boys were grown - Spoon robbed all the equipment from a barbershop Kenneth was about to open.....AND took his car. In spite of everything, Kevin chose not to get angry, and to appreciate his father.....who could be a very entertaining guy.

The biggest influence in Hart's life was his mother, Nancy. After Kenneth got into trouble with gangs and criminal activity as a teen, Nancy kept Kevin on a very short leash. If he stepped out of line, Kevin got hit with an open hand, fist, belt, shoe, slipper, or even a section of Hot Wheels track - which Nancy kept scattered around the house for convenience. (LOL)

To keep young Kevin occupied, Nancy enrolled him in extracurricular activities like basketball and swim team - which had hours of practice and weekend meets. When Kevin wasn't at school or doing sports, he had to stay with his 'foster grandmother', Ms. Davis.....or tag along with his mother to work, church, shopping, friends' homes, and Bible study. Though he was frustrated at the time, Kevin says all this activity prepared him for his life, which is very busy.

In school, Kevin wanted to be cool and attract girls - which is hard to do when you're short and don't have any money for flashy clothes. So Kevin decided to be funny....and the gals started hanging out with him. Thus, a comedian was born.

After high school Hart spent a short time in community college, then got a job in the sneaker department of City Sports. Kevin would often entertain his colleagues and customers with funny stories and jokes, and eventually started doing stand-up at 'The Laff House Comedy Club'.....using the stage name 'Lil Kev the Bastard.' This was the start of Hart's professional career. Around this time Kevin also met Torrei, the girl he'd be with for the next 12 years.

By the time he was 20, Hart was a regular performer at comedy clubs in Philadelphia - but itched to break into the big time. Invited to tag along by his friend, comedian Keith Robinson, Kevin began going back and forth to New York - 'the comedy capital of the world.' At New York's clubs, Kevin watched, learned, honed his craft....and eventually started performing. When Hart wasn't in New York, he did shows in Philadelphia. Kevin's frequent trips and gigs led to constant fights with Torrei, who continually accused him of cheating.

By the time he was 22, Hart got some movie and television deals, and moved to Hollywood with his girlfriend. Unfortunately, Hart's early opportunities didn't pan out, and he squandered what money he made on jewelry, furniture, and expensive meals. Then, at the age of 23, when Kevin was flat broke, he and Torrei got married - thinking this would improve their relationship. It didn't.

Hart's failed movies and cancelled TV series made him 'Hollywood poison', and the comic was compelled to reinvigorate his stand-up career. So, for the next seven years Kevin traveled all over the country, performing at EVERY comedy club and college he could book. Kevin's plan: to build a fan base so huge that entertainment moguls would HAVE to give him another chance.

To assist with his career, Hart engaged various agents and promotors, and his memoir contains advice about the right (and wrong) people to employ (hint: stay away from aggressive loudmouths and scam artists). In time, Kevin hired an agent named Dave Becky, who's still with him today. Hart also improved his act by doing away with contrived jokes and using his real life for inspiration - like the time he called the cops after Torrei slapped him across the face.....and the police didn't do a thing. In short, Hart learned to make comedy out of his uniqueness and personality.

Hart also surrounded himself with an entourage of fellow comedians and friends, who communally called themselves 'The Plastic Cup Boyz' - for the red cups they drank from. Everyone involved benefitted from the relationship. The chums helped Hart with his act, and Kevin provided jobs and career promotion.

While all this was happening, Kevin and Torrei started a family. Unfortunately, their relationship got more contentious and their fighting escalated. Kevin admits to numerous infidelities and much bad behavior during this period. To add to his woes, Kevin's mother passed away from ovarian cancer. The comic notes: "In my mind, my heart, and my life, she is still completely present to this day - and as wise, compassionate, and stubborn as ever."

When Hart was 30, he finally split from Torrei for good - so the children wouldn't have to see their folks fighting constantly. Around this time Kevin also starred in a hit movie, 'Think Like a Man' - which was a turning point in his career. From this point on Kevin's life was on an upward trajectory - with movies, comedy tours, TV productions, and more. Kevin, who never gets complacent and doesn't know the word 'enough', has even bigger plans for his future - both personal and professional.

To finish up, I'll mention a few bits of the story I found particularly memorable and/or funny:

- Kevin's mother could put 'the fear of God' into anyone.....except his father.

- Hart honed his 'charm' on his minder, Ms. she wouldn't tell his mother when he did stuff he shouldn't. Kevin later used this cultivated charm - and winning personality - to get jobs and opportunities.

- When Kevin got fed up with his mother's strict rules he went to live with his dad.....for ONE day. Then he hustled right back home. His mom KNEW that would happen (ha ha ha).

- In middle school, Kevin longed to have pubic hair - which he thought would make girls like him. So Kevin tried everything he could to sprout a bush - including hair oil, shaving cream, fertilizer, and prayers. (The fertilizer really cracks me up.)

- Young Kevin also thought a big weiner would attract the ladies. So he wore his brother's large shoes....hoping the girls would think his pecker matched his feet. LOL

- By the time Kevin was a teen, his mom gave up corporal punishment and switched to verbal reprimands. Nancy knew that - short of stabbing, shooting, or mace-ing Kevin, there was nothing she could do to physically hurt him.

And the best bit of all:

- When he was financially strapped early in his career, Kevin maxed out an American Express card.....and couldn't pay the bill. The company never forgot, and - even when Kevin was a huge success - denied him a card. In the book's acknowledgements, Kevin writes: "American Express, if you're reading this, please run my credit again. I wrote this entire book just to send a message to you: I'm now ready to handle the responsibility of a credit card."

I enjoyed the memoir, which is well-written and includes photos of people in Kevin's life. Highly recommended.

Note: Some of Hart's comedy shows are available on Netflix, in case you're interested. They're really funny!

Thanks to Netgalley, the authors (Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss) and the publsher (Atria/37 INK) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Review of "Power of Gods" by Nancy Madore

"Power of Gods" opens soon after the final events of the first book in the series, "The Hidden Ones." After predicting an imminent Armageddon, Asmodeus eludes the Raphaelians (Will, Gordon, and Clive) and disappears. However a mysterious formula on his computer and a one-way ticket to Alaska indicate that Asmodeus had been planning to go there.

Nadia Adeire and her Raphaelian colleagues think there might be a connection between Alaska's military research installations and Asmodeus' prediction. Certainly something is happening in Alaska. Amanda Fioretti, a seductive woman who works for Tactical Defense Mechanisms Research (TDMR) in Fort Greely, claims she's being stalked by an unseen presence.

Meanwhile, Gordon has secretly obtained the ring that captured (and contains) Ornias, a djinn who worked alongside Asmodeus to help construct the ancient Temple of Solomon. As before the story is told from several perspectives: Nadia and her associates want to locate and stop whatever may be about to cause Armageddon; Ornias tells tales about the ancient world, his somewhat disreputable past, and his relationship with Asmodeus; and Amanda is hounded by the djinn Lilith.

Before long Nadia, Will, Gordon, and Clive travel to Alaska to do some on-site investigation. They come to suspect that djinn control a number of people involved with potentially dangerous military research and hope that Ornias' information will help them locate these individuals. Meanwhile Amanda is possessed by Lilith and is forced to behave strangely and do unspeakable things. The description of Amanda's being possessed - especially the manner in which her 'soul' experiences it - was credible and eerie.

Nadia and her crew eventually discover what kind of research is being done in Alaska and the potential hazards of this work, a scenario that's not unrealistic in today's world. There's some lively personal interaction among the characters: Nadia and Will continue their love affair and verbal sparring; Amanda obsessively chases after her sexy co-worker Tommy Gerard; and severe friction develops among the Raphaelians when Gordon refuses to follow rules. The story kept me reading as I tried to figure out who was being controlled by djinn, what terrible event might be planned, and whether Nadia and the Raphaelians would be able to stop it.

On the negative side, the motivation for some of the Raphaelian's illicit and potentially disastrous actions - to help Nadia learn more about Asmodeus - seems implausible and Ornias' story isn't as compelling as that of Asmodeus and Lilith. Moreover, the behavior of the characters strikes some false notes: the dialog among Nadia and her friends, especially when they joke with each other, seems unnatural; and the characters are constantly gazing/staring at one another, their eyes and facial expressions being overused to denote emotions and reactions.

All in all it's a good story and I'm looking forward to following the saga in the third book of the series.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review of "Backlash" by Lynda La Plante

A routine traffic stop of a party supplies truck in London leads to the discovery of a woman's body in the back and the arrest of the truck's driver, skeezy Henry Oates. Upon interrogation at the police station Oates admits to killing the woman and talks abouts having killed a couple of other people in the past. One of Oate's supposed victims is a young girl of 13 who disappeared five years before, a cold case that was never resolved.

Detective Chief Inspector Anna Travis is on the team tasked with looking into Oates's claims. The case takes on a very high profile because Anna's former boss/mentor - Detective Chief Superintendent James Langton - was in charge of the unsolved missing girl case and can't get it out of his mind. Though Langton is currently at home recuperating from an injury he insists on keeping up with the Oates investigation and - during a critical police action - shows up and starts giving orders. This has unfortunate consequences.

Anna and the rest of the team unearth a lot of informaton about Henry Oates, who may well have killed even more women than he's admitted to. Oates, with his smashed nose, dirty clothing, and appalling hygiene, seems stupid (and perhaps insane) at first. However, he turns out to be a very clever criminal who enjoys playing mind games with the police.

In essence the story is a very long police procedural. As the story proceeds the cops discover and follow various clues in an attempt to locate the bodies of Oates's victims and to find the evidence that will convict him. Some of this is too drawn out. For instance, a scene where the police search a quarry is excessively detailed and seems to go on forever. Also, the story has a large number of characters, some of whom tend to blend together.

All in all, an okay book that many suspense fans will probably enjoy.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review of "The Dry" by Jane Harper

The Australian town of Kiewarra is in the midst of a life-sucking drought that's put farmers into dire straits. One landowner, Luke Hadler, is apparently so distraught that he shoots his wife and son, then commits suicide. Luke's boyhood friend, Aaron Falk - who's now a Federal agent in Melbourne - returns to Kiewarra for the funeral. Coming back to town is difficult for Falk because he and his father were driven out 20 years before, following the death of a teenage girl named Ellie Deacon.

Aaron Falk, Luke Hadler, and Ellie Deacon - all 16 years old - had been close friends for years when Ellie was found drowned in the river. A note in Ellie's room placed Falk under suspicion, but the boy seemed to have an airtight alibi: He and Luke claimed they were together, shooting rabbits, at the time of the incident. Nevertheless, Ellie's father (Malcolm Deacon) and uncle (Grant Dow), both very violent men, were convinced of Falk's guilt - and they and other townsfolk forced the boy and his dad to move away.

In the present, Falk knows the residents of Kiewarra are still hostile to him - so he plans to stay only long enough to attend the Hadlers' funeral, then hustle back to Melbourne. However Luke's parents - who were very kind to Falk when he was growing up - ask the Federal cop to look into their son's death. They're sure Luke is innocent and want Falk to find the 'real killer.'

When Falk starts to investigate the Hadler killings, a local policeman - Sergeant Greg Raco - admits that he has doubts about Luke's guilt as well. Raco has found some evidence that's incongruous with a murder-suicide scenario. So the two cops team up to 'unofficially' look into the Hadler family deaths. As it turns out, some people in Kiewarra aren't happy about this - especially Malcolm Deacon and Grant Dow - and the shit hits the fan (quite literally.....ha ha ha).

The book alternates between inquiries into the Hadler killings and flashbacks to the past - up to the time Ellie died. Are the two incidents connected? Read the book to find out. LOL

The author does a great job describing the seared landscape of Kiewarra, and I could feel the heat, picture the ravaged fields, and empathize with Falk - who mourned when he saw the dried up river bed. All this is important for the book's finale.

Harper cleverly directs the readers' suspicions to different characters as the story unfolds, and most readers will have trouble guessing who did what.....and why. Some possible clues include: a dead baby rabbit; a teen love triangle; domestic abuse; a mean practical joke; financial chicanery; cryptic notes; CCTV footage; the wrong bullets; and so on.

The book is well-written and suspenseful, and I enjoyed it. The finale was a surprise, but didn't entirely ring true to me. I find it hard to believe that people can keep their cool and maintain their secrets so superbly. Still a very good book. Highly recommended.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review of "Missing You" by Harlan Coben

When NYPD Detective Kat Donovan learns that Monte Leburne - the hitman convicted of killing her cop father 18 years ago - is dying, she visits him in prison. It's her last chance to get indisputable evidence about who ordered the hit. While in a drug-induced twilight state Leburne denies killing the policeman. He says he admitted to the crime because he was already on the hook for two other murders, so when he was asked to take the rap, he agreed. This startling information sets Kat off on a quest to discover the truth about her beloved dad's death.

Kat has other issues as well. The love of her life, Jeff Raynes, called off their enagagement soon after her father's death and Kat never got over it. In an attempt to kickstart Kat's love life her best friend Stacy signs Kat up for a dating website. When Kat peruses the site she sees the picture/profile of a man she thinks is Jeff, now apparently a widower with a child. But when Kat contacts Jeff she gets a discouraging response, hurting her all over again.

While Kat continues to look into her dad's murder - which antagonizes her superiors and the cops who originally investigated the crime - nineteen-year-old Brandon Phelps asks for her help. He claims his mother is missing after leaving for a romantic getaway with a man from a dating website. The cops are skeptical about Jeff's claims, however, because he's gotten text messages from his mom.

The reader (though not the cops) soon learns that Brandon's mother is indeed missing. She's being held by a group of murderous criminals who abduct wealthy people to force money out of them. Unfortunately for the bad guys one mob member made a serious error, which eventually puts Kat on the criminals' trail.

The book alternates between accounts of Kat's investigations and descriptions of the gang's activities, which are seriously stomach churning. Though mystery/thrillers often have story lines that are a little outlandish I think parts of this book strain credulity too much.

Interesting characters in the story include Kat's bosses - who try to discourage her inquiries into her dad's death; Kat's yoga teacher - who was a brilliant student before his nervous breakdown; Kat's friend Stacy - who's gorgeous and adept at warding off unwanted advances; Kat's mom - an alcoholic with two loyal, but quirky, friends; Titus - the cold-blooded leader of the abduction gang; Bo - a Labrador who likes to chase balls; and others.

Kat is a talented, capable detective who eventually resolves both cases. The book is a suspenseful page turner that has major twists, leads to a dramatic climax, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

One thing that irked me about the story is the adolescent behavior of too many male characters that come on to Kat and Stacy with childish, offensive pickup lines. I could hardly believe Harlen Coben penned these parts because they sound like they were written by a fifteen-year-old boy who thinks he's clever. And there's quite a bit of this stuff! (Some of Coben's best characters in other books, like Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood, would never talk like this.)

Overall, I'd rate this as a pretty good book that would appeal to a lot of mystery fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review of "The Brethren" by John Grisham

Note: The Brethren was published in 2000, so the social issues may seem a little out-of-sync with current times.....or maybe not.


Trumble Federal Prison near Jacksonville, Florida is a minimum security facility that hardly seems like a penitentiary: it has no fences, decent food, recreational facilities, and - as it turns out - opportunities for serious mischief.

Three of Trumble's older inmates are dubbed 'The Brethren': Joe Roy Spicer - a onetime Mississippi justice of the peace; Finn Yarber - a former California Supreme Court justice; and Hatlee Beech - an erstwhile federal judge from Texas. The Brethren handle appeals for other convicts; hold a weekly 'prison court' to iron out disputes among prisoners; and perpetrate a scam to rake in the moola.

The Brethren's scam involves 'catfishing' closeted homosexual men who can't risk being outed. To perpetrate the hoax, the judges - using the name Ricky - place an ad in an alternative lifestyle magazine. Ricky says that he's in a rehab facility, feels very lonely, and would like to correspond with a mature man. In the accompanying photo, Ricky seems to be a handsome young guy with an irresistible crooked smile.

When men answer Ricky's ad, the judges check them out. If the responder has money and a family, Ricky (really Judge Yarber or Judge Beech) writes back. He inveigles the victim into an epistolary love affair, asks for cash for incidentals, and arranges to meet when he gets out of rehab. Eventually, the judges lower the boom. They tell the poor dupe he's been scammed and demand $100,000 (or more).....or they'll send copies of the letters to his wife.

The Brethren need an outside person to assist with their scam, so they hire a shlubby local lawyer named Trevor Carson. Trevor sneaks letters in and out of Trumble, handles the blackmail money, and investigates victims as needed (for example, if they use fake names).

Meanwhile, the United States is in the midst of a presidential campaign and CIA Dirctor Teddy Maynard - who's worried about Russian aggression - plans to get his candidate elected. Teddy has chosen Congressman Aaron Lake, a quiet widower whose one campaign issue (dictated by Teddy) is to double defense spending.

Teddy coerces contributors (mostly weapons manufacturers) to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Lake's campaign and - even worse - permits (or organizes) terrorist activities to frighten the American public. Lake keeps rising in the polls, and it appears that he'll be a shoo-in for President.

As many readers will guess, it turns out that Aaron Lake is a secret homosexual who gets caught up in The Brethren's flimflam. When the CIA Director gets wind of this, he'll do whatever it takes to 'save' his candidate. Moreover, Teddy has the whole CIA at his disposal!

For the rest of the book, the judges and Teddy's operatives try to out-think and outmaneuver each other. The CIA bugs cars, homes, and offices; looks into bank accounts; follows people; and so on. But the judges are wily fellows.....and they make worthy opponents.

There's not a single likable main character in this book and I hoped every single one of them would go down in flames. Of course that doesn't happen (and I really didn't really expect it to). Nevertheless, I was disappointed in the book's finale. In addition, there's a whiff of homophobia about the story (IMO)....though this may have been unintentional.

One thing I do like about the book is the judges garb for 'prison court.' The judges wear lime green choir robes (sometimes with nothing underneath) and the 'bailiff' wears a long wig (like British barristers) and lavender slippers. One of the judges goes barefoot, and makes it his business to crack his toes and clean his toenails while adjudicating. All this is pretty amusing.

This isn't one of Grisham's better efforts, but he's a capable writer and the story held my attention. Still, I can't wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Monday, June 12, 2017

Review of "Death at the Spring Plant Sale" by Ann Ripley

Louise Eldridge - wife, mother, amateur sleuth, and host of a public television gardening show - drives from her Virginia home to Bethesda, Maryland to tape a show at the Bethesda Garden Club's spring sale. The TV episode showcases the club's president, Catherine Freeman, a wealthy, capable leader accustomed to winning first place in all garden club competitions. Naturally, this irks other club members who crave recognition for their own prowess in growing plants and arranging flowers, etc. As it happens Catherine inspires further envy in some of the local ladies because she's married to Walter Freeman, a high-profile government economist who hobnobs with important people in Washington.

While in Bethesda Louise stays with her old friend Emily Holiday, a once independent, vibrant woman who now seems to be under the thumb of her conservative, repressive husband Tom. On the evening after the garden show taping, Louise, Emily, and Tom are walking the Holiday family dog around their Bethesda neighborhood when they hear gunfire. They come to discover that Catherine Freeman was shot and killed in the car as she and her husband Walter were returning from an evening out. The question arises: was the shooter really aiming at Walter? Louise, unable to resist her sleuthing instincts, is compelled to investigate the crime and Emily, in need of some excitement, is an enthusiastic sidekick.

This is one of those books where the amateur sleuths are more capable than the police of figuring out what the important evidence is, who the real suspects should be, etc. Louise repeatedly tries to put the police on the right track, but they reject her interference - which only makes her more adamant to solve the crime. Louise and Emily decide the killer must be one of the women in the garden club (apparently because these are the only suspects they have easy access to) and proceed to investigate the ladies.

I like cozies, but in books set in modern times - with police having access to forensics, phone records, CCTV, and so on - it strains credulity to think amateur detectives are more capable of solving a crime than the cops. Even accepting that amateurs are better, however, this story relies too much on blind luck and an unlikely confession to unveil Catherine's killer.

The characters in the story - with their jealousies and clandestine maneuverings - are mildly interesting but the plot is not credible. The author does, however, weave some interesting gardening tips into the story, and provides a useful essay in the back of the book about gardening in times of drought.

For me, the story was too unrealistic to be totally enjoyable but fervent cozy fans might like the book more than I did.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review of "Brilliance" by Marcus Sakey

Beginning in the 1980s, a small percentage of humans with unusual abilities began to be born. These people - called brilliants or abnorms - cause fear in average people, who are concerned about what the brilliants might do. An abnorm called Erik Epstein, for example, uses his stock market savviness to amass a fortune of 300 billion dollars. This causes stock exchanges to close, creating havoc among investors and businesses. One abnorm is a human lie detector, another moves so surreptitiously that she seems to appear out of thin air. Regular people are afraid that brilliants might band together to take over the country.

To subdue people's anxiety, the United States government develops new programs to deal with abnorms. Gifted children, for example, are separated from their families and sent to special Academies - where they're given new names and brainwashed into distrusting their own kind. And Congress is trying to pass a law that requires all abnorms to have a 'chip' inserted close to the carotid artery - so they can be tracked at all times. (Shades of Nazi Germany!)

Some brilliants - who abhor these policies - become terrorists. The most ruthless terrorist is John Smith, who supervises the slaughter of 73 patrons (including children) in an upscale Washington, DC restaurant and perpetrates deadly bombings.

To combat the abnorm terrorists, the government creates an agency called the Department of Analysis and Response (DAR) - whose mission is to hunt down and kill dangerous brilliants. One of the leading DAR agents is himself an abnorm - named Nick Cooper - whose ability to read body language lets him know exactly what a person is about to do. This gives Nick a big advantage in hostile situations, and he has tracked down and assassinated many abnorm criminals and extremists.

Nick is also a divorced father with two children that he dearly loves. Ironically, Nick just discovered that his four-year-old daughter is a high-level abnorm whose abilities have attracted attention. Thus, the little girl is about to be tested by authorities, and will undoubtedly be sent to an Academy. Nick and his ex-wife - who have an amicable relationship - don't want this to happen.

After another massive bombing - which kills over a thousand people - Nick makes a hush-hush deal with his supervisor, Drew Peters. Peters will announce that Nick is responsible for the bombing, and Nick will go on the run. DAR agents won't be in on the deception, and will attempt to hunt Nick down. As a result, Nick will acquire street cred that helps him infiltrate Smith's inner circle and (hopefully) kill the terrorist. In return for Smith's demise, Nick's young daughter won't be tested and won't go to an Academy.

In his undercover role Nick teams up with a beautiful 'fellow extremist' named Shannon Azzi, which leads to some interesting developments and a few surprising twists. That's about all I can say without giving too much away.

The premise of the story - that authorities want to control (or eliminate) 'exceptional' people - is interesting, but not especially original. The same kind of theme is seen in X-men, Heroes, and numerous superhero tales. Still, the abnorms in 'Brilliance' are unique because their abilities are generally associated with mental superiority rather than the ability to fly, become invisible, shoot lightning out of their fingers, etc.

There's a nice mix of characters in the story, including different kinds of brilliants, various DAR executives, Nick's DAR partner, the principal of an Academy, Nick's ex-wife, and more. Some characters are good guys, some not.....and it's not always obvious who's who. In fact Nick comes off as quite a hypocrite, wanting his daughter to be treated differently than other abnorms.

I enjoyed the book, which held my interest and led to a compelling climax. Recommended for science fiction fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review of "A Time of Torment" by John Connolly

Roger Ormsby is an evil man who delights in making people 'disappear' so their families will endure maximum long-term suffering. Ormsby is about to do away with a little girl he snatched when Private Detective Charlie Parker and his partners, Angel and Louis, show up to save the day. As it happens ANY bad guys on Parker's radar better watch their backs because Charlie and his pals are the best killers around. Moreover, Parker has a complicated relationship with some supernatural beings who lend a hand on occasion. Thus Charlie's a guy you'd always want in your corner (at least I would).

The main story in this 14th book in the series revolves around ex-convict Jerome Burnel. Burnel was once an unhappily married jewelry dealer who saved the lives of several people by killing a couple of sadistic thieves. The thieves' enraged relatives then framed Burnel for child pornography and got him sent to prison for five years, where Burnel was regularly tormented and beaten. Burnel - now a broken man - is out on parole and convinced his enemies are still after him. Thus Burnel tells Parker the whole story and hires the detective to investigate if he disappears.

As things turn out Burnel soon vanishes and Parker's investigation leads him to a secluded enclave called 'The Cut' in Plassey County, West Virginia. The families in The Cut, who've lived there for generations, don't allow outsiders on their land. The Cut grows its own food and - to make money - steals and perpetrates other crimes. The Cut also harbors some vicious killers - and the stunts the residents get up to with kidnapped women are unspeakable! On top of all that, The Cut is led by a strange entity called 'The Dead King.'

Parker becomes convinced that people from The Cut killed Burnel and - learning that the community is evil - makes it his mission to destroy it. Of course Angel and Louis are on hand to help, as are other law enforcement officials and agencies. In one of my favorite scenes killers from The Cut try to ambush Parker in his motel. The action - including some deft work by Angel and Louis - is dramatic and exciting.

There are plenty of interesting characters in the story including: a trio that entices men with a sexy woman, then robs them; Burnel's ex-wife - who's a piece of work; a depraved convict Burnel meets in prison; hillbillies living in The Cut; a mentally-challenged boy living outside The Cut; and a sheriff that - unlike most of his neighbors - stands up to leaders of The Cut. There are also a couple of ghosts and some of Parker's other-worldly acquaintances.

I enjoyed the story, and highly recommend it readers who enjoy thrillers - especially fans of Charlie Parker.

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, June 9, 2017

Review of "Broken Harbour" by Tana French

Patrick and Jenny Spain and their two young children - Emma and Jack - living in an unfinished, decaying housing development in Brianstown (formerly Broken Harbour) Ireland are attacked. Patrick and the children are dead and Jenny is barely alive. Mike ("Scorcher") Kennedy and his rookie partner Richie Curran are assigned the case.

As usual with Tana French's books one of the detectives (in this case Scorcher Kennedy) has an unfortunate history with the murder locale. When Scorcher was a child his family spent summer vacations at Broken Harbour and it was there that his mother committed suicide. Moreover, the tragedy apparently triggered mental illness in Scorcher's sister Dina, who has episodes of paranoia and erratic behavior.

When Scorcher and Richie begin to investigate the Spain calamity Patrick emerges as an early likely suspect. The recession has led to the loss of his high-paying job and the formerly happy family has been experiencing severe money problems. The Spains have had to give up their SUV, their friends, their social life, their recreational activities, and a good part of their self-respect. Maybe Patrick wanted to end all the suffering? However, further investigation reveals that the Spains seem to have attracted a couple of stalkers: one human and one elusive animal that ostensibly crawls through their house at will.

Questioning Jenny, the Spains' relatives, and their rather unsavory neighbors provides a number of clues to the crimes as does information gleaned from the Spains incompletely erased computer files. Scorcher and Richie don't agree about who the prime suspect should be, which leads to some friction between them. However the two detectives seem to work well together and Scorcher thinks about a possibly enduring partnership. And - at least for this case - Scorcher can use the help. His sister Dina, seeing the name "Broken Harbor" in the news has had a break-down and Scorcher is compelled to take care of her.

I don't want to give away spoilers so I'll just say that this well-written story has compelling characters and interesting twists, all of which lead to a satisfying, believable conclusion. A great addition to Tana French's mystery series.

Rating: 5 stars

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Review of "Penny: The Story of a Free-Soul Basset Hound" by Hal Borland

One day a nice-looking, well-mannered basset hound shows up at Hal and Barbara Borland's Connecticut farmhouse and makes herself at home. The Borlands name her Penny but soon learn that the dog lives elsewhere and is named Pokey. Pokey-Penny (as Hal calls her) is brought back to her original family but starts nipping at the local kids and is returned to the Borlands permanently.

Penny is a quirky gal with a mind of her own. She enjoys walks with the Borlands but also likes to take off by herself, returning tired and mud-spattered. The basset hound visits local families to cadge treats and has her own 'charge account' at the butcher shop - where she's given bones. Penny almost wrecks the living room chasing a ball and chews up Hal's hat. She hangs out with Hal when he's writing and shelters with Barbara during thunderstorms. When the basset hound is hungry she stands at the fridge.....and she can put away an ENORMOUS amount of food. The book has lots of stories like this about Penny, many of which will be familiar to dog owners.

In one of my favorite anecdotes Penny refuses her kibble, only deigning to eat canned dog food or cereal and milk. Wanting to use up the kibble they bought, the Borlands crush it and put it in the bird feeder. The birds don't like the kibble either and toss it on the ground....where Penny happily consumes it all (ha ha ha). In another amusing tale, Hal relates that Penny has her own 'bus pass.' During the pooch's lone perambulations she sometimes waits at school bus stops to hitch a ride home. That's one smart dog!!

Unfortunately Penny has some bad habits as well. She chases trucks on the road and harasses the neighbor's cows - a big no no. When Penny can't be broken of these behaviors she's given away to a dog-loving family that lives in a safer environment...and one day Penny disappears.

In addition to stories about Penny Hal writes A LOT about nature: the changing seasons; flowers; trees; birds; rabbits, woodchucks; other animals; weather; temperature; rain; snow; thunder; lightning; etc. I didn't find these parts very interesting.

The last part of the book is composed of two rather long, fanciful stories - one by Hal and one by Barbara - of what may have happened to Penny. These two yarns read like children's tales and might make good bedtime stories....but again, not that interesting to me.

My favorite parts of the book are about Penny and I hope - wherever she went- that Penny had a good life. If you're a dog lover, you'll probably enjoy this book. It will make you smile.

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

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of "Revelation Space" by Alastair Reynolds

"Revelation Space" takes place in the 26th century, when humans have achieved space travel and can journey vast distances in 'lighthugger' ships that fly at almost the speed of light.

The story opens on the planet Resurgam, which was inhabited by the Amarantin civilization until nine hundred thousand years ago. At that time, just when the Amarantin were about to attain space flight, a catastrophe wiped out the entire race. Now, small human settlements populate Resurgam, one of which is led by Dan Sylveste - an archaeologist obsessed with studying the Amarantin and what happened to them.

Dan Sylveste is famous for being one of only a few humans who have visited two mysterious alien worlds: the Pattern Jugglers - an obscure oceanic race that can imprint information on the brains of visitors; and the Shrouders - hidden beings who guard the most dangerous devices in the galaxy. In fact, Dan is the only human who ever returned alive from a trip to the Shrouders.

Dan is also well-known for being the son of the brilliant deceased scientist, Calvin Sylveste. The thing is, though Calvin is dead, Dan can still see him and talk to him. Calvin's neural patterns have been saved and Dan can call up his father's image - which usually shows up reclining in a comfortable chair - when he needs to consult with the great man.

While Dan is going about his business (voluntarily and involuntarily) on Resurgam, a decrepit lighthugger called 'Nostalgia for Infinity' - which has lost almost everyone onboard - is trawling the galaxy looking for the archaeologist. The spaceship is infected with the Melding Plague, a nanotech virus that attacks both organic and inorganic substances.

The Plague - which has badly damaged the ship - also infected the Nostalgia's skipper, Captain Brannigan, while he was in reefersleep (suspended animation). The unfortunate Brannigan is now a grotesque being who's expanding, mutating, and merging with the spaceship. Dan Sylveste once came aboard the Nostalgia to treat the Captain (with dead Calvin's help).....and the crew wants the archaeologist to help Brannigan once again. Meanwhile, the Captain is being kept at a temperature of absolute zero to retard the spread of the virus.

The Nostalgia's leading crew members are a Triumverate consisting of: Volyova - a female munitions expert who controls a ginormous cache of weapons that ranges from guns to star-destroyers; Sajaki - the defacto captain of the ship; and Hegazi - Sajaki's yes-man. Sajaki and Hegazi are extreme 'Ultras' - humans who have been exponentially enhanced with technological implants and bionic devices. The ship also carries a myriad of robotic servitors - including janitor rats - that function as auxiliary help.

The last major character in the story is a woman named Khouri. Khouri is a former soldier who was accidently transported to the planet Yellowstone while she was in reefersleep. On Yellowstone, Khouri became an assassin in a kind of 'Westworld' game. Bored rich people looking for excitement could arrange for an assassin to hunt them down while they tried to evade the killer. But if Khouri is the assigned assassin, the patron is a dead duck because Khouri never fails. Thus, Khouri attracts the attention of a woman called Mademoiseille, who 'hires' (extorts) Khouri to kill Dan. Mademoiselle alleges that the future of humankind depends on Dan's death.

As the story plays out Khouri eventually gets on board the Nostalgia - which is also searching for Dan. And that's all I can say without spoilers.

Other characters in the story include Resurgam residents who want to thwart Dan's research into the Amarantin; a journalist who's compiling Dan's biography; a Nostalgia gunnery officer who goes completely insane; a wily cyber-being with an agenda; Dan's deceased wife; and more.

The book is almost 600 pages long, and there's plenty of techno-speak that describes planets, stars, spaceships, shuttles, weapons, bionic devices, alien races, alien artifacts, space-time, objective time, subjective time, alpha and beta 'copies' of dead people, sophisticated spacesuits, esoteric discoveries, etc. The book also has a number of sub-plots; some exciting shootouts; plenty of twists, turns, and surprises; and an innovative and compelling climax.

The author tends to be a bit verbose and over-descriptive at times, which slows down the story - and I occasionally had to resist skimming. Overall though, I enjoyed the book, which is imaginative and well-written. Highly recommended to science fiction fans.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review of "A Banquet of Consequences" by Elizabeth George

Will Goldacre is a troubled young man who's afflicted with a deformed ear and a condition that seems to resemble Tourette's Syndrome - he sometimes vocalizes curse words and inappropriate phrases. After a break-up and attempted reconciliation with his girlfriend Lily, Will commits suicide by jumping off a cliff. This devastates Will's family, especially his mother Caroline Goldacre.

Caroline copes with her grief (in part) by working as an assistant to well-known feminist author Clare Abbott. When Clare dies suddently during a book tour, the police take an interest. DS Barbara Havers of Scotland Yard, on the outs with the Detective Superintendent because she causes trouble and doesn't follow orders, desperately wants the case. So - hoping Barbara can redeem herself - her mentor,  DI Thomas Lynley arranges for Barbara to work the case with DS Winston Nkata.

Since Caroline Goldacre was in the adjoining hotel room when Clare died she comes under intense scrutiny. It turns out Caroline's quite a character. She's a liar; a manipulator; an interfering mother; a horrible mother-in-law; an indifferent wife, a jealous friend; and so on. Then - when Clare's editor Rory (whom Caroline disliked) - is attacked, things start to look very suspicious indeed.

This is a traditional detective book, with Barbara, Winston, and Lynley questioning witnesses, getting search warrants, collecting evidence, putting together clues, an attempt to uncover the murderer.

There are a large array of addtional characters in the story, including Caroline's cheating husband Alistair and his lover; Caroline's son Charlie and his estranged wife India; Scotland Yard secretary Dorothea Harriman - who's determined to find tomboyish Barbara Havers a boyfriend (this is pretty hilarious); Lynley's lady friend Dairdre, a zoo veterinarian; psychological assistance dog Arlo (who's cute and sweet); and more.

I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the tale, which moved along at a brisk pace. Then the action seemed to slow down and the book became a bit of a slog. Some additonal problems I had with the story: an unnecessarily long and detailed description of women being beaten and raped (and one being murdered); too many uncomfortabLe scenes of Lynley pursuing Dairdre - with whom he seems to have minimal chemistry; excessive information about Caroline's unfaithful husband and his paramour; ditto India and her new boyfriend. Also, certain aspects of Caroline's behavior were over-the-top and not credible (to me) and the book's conclusion wasn't 100 % satisfying.

Still, I did like the detective/investigative parts of the book and got a kick out of the friendship/banter between Barbara and Winston. Barbara even 'cooked' Winnie a meal, which was quite entertaining. All in all, an okay addition to the series.

Rating: 3.5 stars