Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review of "99 Red Balloons" by Elisabeth Carpenter

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, July 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

A disappointing book.

Rating: 2 stars

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review of "Magpie Murders" by Anthony Horowitz

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

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

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


Alan Conway's 'Magpie Murders' Manuscript

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 stars

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, July 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, July 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Recommended to fans of cozy myteries.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, July 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a good book, worth reading.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of amusing misunderstandings in this plotline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, July 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, July 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 stars

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review of "The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld" by Jamie Bartlett

If you want to read a book that reveals all the hidden, mysterious secrets of the 'Dark Net', this isn't it. Jamie Bartlett does talk about the 'underground network' - and provides details about the the 'Silk Road' website that sells illegal drugs - but most of the sites discussed aren't especially cryptic. Neverthless, the author provides an interesting overview of non-mainstream goings on in the cyberworld. In Bartlett's view, the dark net is a place where "users say and do what they like, often uncensored, unregulated, and outside of society's norms."

Bartlett begins by decribing the evolution of the internet, starting with the Arpanet in the 1960s, a system of linked computers that helped academics communicate with each other. This led to Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in the late 1970s, which added computer enthusiasts to the mix. Finally, in the 1990s, the World Wide Web made the internet easily accessible to the general public....and there was no stopping it after that.

From the beginning, some Usenet and BBS subscribers used the internet for trolling, which can be described as bizarre, creative, offensive, and illegal behavior (or - as the urban dictionary defines it - 'being a prick on the internet.') Trolling spans a wide gamut of activity, including: bullying, hacking, pornography, threats, and so on. It started when large numbers of computers were linked, and has increased exponentially since then.

Bartlett provides a disturbing example of recent trolling: a naive young teen posted sexually explicit photos on a 'random board' designated /b/ on the image-sharing website 4chan. Goaded by subscribers, the girl posed with a bottle of prescription medication. Some viewers used the information they gleaned to trace the teen's identity and 'dox' her: they found the victim's Facebook and Twitter accounts, and sent the nude photos to all her friends and relatives - essentially devastating her young life. The entire procedure took under an hour.....and then the trolls carelessly moved on.

Some people use the internet to spread progaganda and hate. White power groups use their websites to bash minorities, terrorist organizations use it to attack infidels, and so on. All these ideologues use their forums to attract like-minded supporters.....and perhaps plan nefarious activities.

At the heart of dark net activity is the desire for privacy and security: users want to be able to operate without regulations or interference, especially from the government. Thus technically adept individuals called 'cypherpunks' developed powerful cryptography and other technologies that make internet activity essentially untraceable.

Web secrecy requires software called 'Tor' - which is available for free - that helps users navigate the Dark Net. 'Tor' hides a user's identity and activity by 'onion routing' - a technique that incorporates messages in many layers of encryption: essentially, the message is routed from one relay to another to another (and so on) until it reaches its which time the original sender can't be identified. Bartlett describes onion-routing in some detail, if you're interested. Or you can look it up on Wikipedia.

Online secrecy is also assisted by the use of internet money, called bitcoins, which were developed in 2009. Bitcoin transactions are secure, fast, free, and unidentifiable - making this currency convenient for online drug buys and porn purchases. The book describes bitcoins in detail, if you want to know more. Or again, you can look it up on Wikipedia.

Cypherpunks believe that internet confidentiality guards civil liberties. To these libertarians, the fact that criminals and terrorists also use these 'anonymising' techniques is unfortunate, but 'a cost worth paying for the freedom it provides.' Many law enforcement organizations (naturally) disagree.

One of the more unsavory aspects of the underground net is child pornography, which is widely available with a few clicks of the mouse. Most people who look at child porn purposely seek it out, but others get drawn in - step by step - from legal porn sites. Bartlett relates the story of Michael, who claims: "I moved from viewing photographs and videos of teenagers, to images that...were clearly of tiny increments. I made excuses in my head as to why it was okay. For a while I told myself [that it] wasn't even illegal." Law enforcement officials have shut down many child porn sites, but new ones spring up immediately.....making the child porn industry impossible to annihilate.

As I mentioned before, Bartlett talks about buying drugs on the internet, and - in an informative chapter - explains exactly how he went about obtaining marijuana from an online drug supermarket (it was easy as pie).

In another section, the author addresses 'do-it-yourself' porn stars, who often garner big tips (in bitcoins). The range of performers include young women; middle age couples; threesomes; and more. Bartlett was a guest at one of the 'shows' and became quite friendly with the participants.

Some extroverts use a board called /soc/ on the 4chan website, which is "ground zero for exhibitionism." It's a space for cam-models (people who 'perform' on the internet); special interest meet-up groups; and 'rate-me threads' such as "Rate my dick, please" (which strikes me as hilarious). One fellow's pecker garnered comments like: thick, long - 8/10; very slightly weird color - 5/10; fucking huge - 10/10; and "I'm not even gay and I'd suck it." (Ha ha ha)

One positive aspect of the internet is the plethora of support groups for people who are troubled or having difficulties. Sites dedicated to subjects like anorexia, bulimia, self-cutting, suicide, etc. can illustrate the dangers of these behaviors, help people recover, or advise them to seek help. Unfortunately, some forums - called 'alternative' (alt) sites are 'pro self-harm.' There are websites, for instance, that tout anorexia and bulimia as lifestyle choices, and others that actually encourage cutting and suicide. These forums can do a great deal of harm.

The last thing Bartlett discusses are transhumanists - people who want to live forever. These individuals, who would push technology to the limit, want to upload their brains to a computer server or chip. Then - at some future time - their brain could be inserted into an android or robot, and they would essentially become immortal. At the other end of the spectrum are anarcho-primitivists (like the unabomber, Ted Kaczynski), who want to do away with all technology. These folks dream of returning to a primiitive way of life, similar to that of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. To me, neither of these scenarios seems very likely - or particularly desirable.

During Bartlett's research for this book he interviewed many people who run or use (what many would consider) dubious websites. In almost every case, the individual's real life persona was much more congenial than his/her online presence, including white supremacists and political extremists. It appears that the dark net's anonymity gives these people license to be contentious or outrageous online. Bartlett himself maintains a neutral attitude about controversial websites. As a journalist, he 'just presents the facts'- which (I suppose) is appropriate for his profession.

All in all the book provides a wide, but shallow, overview of non-traditional internet activity. I was hoping to learn about some really weird, underground websites - maybe involving outerspace aliens - but either they don't exist or Bartlett didn't find them. LOL

This is an interesting book that I'd recommend to non-experts who want to know more about the dark net.

Rating:  3 stars

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review of "The Reckoning" by Rennie Airth

Retiree Oswald Gibson is shot and killed in Sussex, England while he's out fishing. The killing is similar to the recent murder of an elderly doctor in Scotland. Investigation reveals that shortly before his death Oswald wrote - but didn't send - a letter inquring about John Madden, a former Scotland Yard detective. As more elderly men are killed Detective Inspector Billy Styles of Scotland Yard asks his retired supervisor John Madden to help with the investigation.

It's soon discovered that thirty years before, during WWI, all the dead men were in the military and served in the same region of France as did John Madden - though Madden has no memory of the victims. Further investigation reveals that while in France all the men were involved in the same unfortunate army incident. Wanting to prevent further killings Styles and his team, including female detective Lily Poole, try to learn more about the occurrence, but the records are tightly sealed and unattainable.

In an attempt to discover the identify of the serial killer the detectives question neighbors, friends, relatives, and household help of the victims and slowly amass clues that help explain the killing rampage and reveal who might be involved. The murderer, though, is adept at concealing identity and hiding out, and is very difficult to catch. This leads to an engaging game of cat and mouse between Scotland Yard and the murderer, and detectives get knocked around and shot during the pursuit. During all this John Madden has quiet family moments with his physician wife Helen, sees to his farm, and helps a nonagenarian aunt with much needed house repairs - all of which provides a nice little break in the action.

Eventually all is revealed and the killer is cornered. The story brings home the horror of war and the suffering caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, which was completely unrecognized during WWI. The characters in the story are well-rounded, interesting, and believable and the story held my attention. Plus, it was good to see one of the early (fictional) female detectives hold her own at Scotland Yard. A good addition to the John Madden series.

Rating:  3.5 stars

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review of "Slaughter-House Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut based this book at least partly on his own experiences during WWII. In the story, Billy Pilgrim, an optometry student, is drafted into the army. He's not a good soldier and is eventually captured by the Germans. Billy and other American POWs are housed in a former pig slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse Five) in Dresden, German, where they are used as laborers. Billy is present in February, 1945 when the allies bomb Dresden, destroying the city and killing over 130,000 people - an incident which affects Billy deeply.

After the war Billy goes home to Illium, New York, marries his sweetheart Valencia, and has two children. Years later, in 1968, Billy survives a plane crash and Valenica dies from carbon monoxide poisoning as she's rushing to his side in a damaged car.  In 1976 Billy is killed by a kook with a gun because of incidents that occurred during the war.

Sounds like a normal enough life. However, there's something very unusual about Billy. He's  unstuck in time. He moves back and forth, here and there, visiting and re-visiting past and future incidents in his life. Moreover, at one point, Billy is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. He's taken to Tralfamadore, put on display in a zoo, and given an Earthling movie star as a mate.

The Tralfamadorans teach Billy that all times exist simultaneously and death isn't important because people are still alive in other times of their lives. In his older age Billy is determined to share these insights with the world via letters to newspapers, TV, and radio but is viewed as a nut; he also greatly frustrates his daughter who's trying to take care of him.

It's an unusual but easily readable book that (I guess) serves as a sounding board for some of Vonnegut's views about war and death. It certainly gives you something to think about. I recommend it.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review of "The Bone Yard" by Jefferson Bass

Dr. Bill Brockton runs 'The Body Farm', a Tennessee research facility that studies decaying corpses. Thus, he's an experienced forensic pathologist.

At the behest of Angie St. Clair, a forensic analyst from Florida, Brockton gets involved in two cases. Angie's sister died from a shotgun blast that the authorities have ruled suicide, but Angie insists her brother-in-law pulled the trigger; and bones of adolescents who attended a long-defunct Florida reform school turn up, leading to the discovery of a secret burial ground. A hidden journal is also discovered that describes the abuse and torture of the reform school inmates by the guards and authorities.

As Brockton's investigation proceeds it's clear that someone is getting antsy and threats and deaths ensue. Both cases, Angie's sister and the reform school bodies, are eventually solved rather fortuitously without much real investigation. In fact, a great deal of the book is devoted to descriptions of forensic work: finding and digging up buried corpses and how the characteristics of the bones are used to determine gender, age, and cause of death. This is interesting but it doesn't add up to the usual elements in a mystery book.

In an afterward, Jefferson Bass notes that he wrote the book to focus attention on the real issue of horrendous conditions in some Florida reform schools, and the story does this quite effectively. As a mystery, though, the book falls flat.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review of "Ghost Gone Wild" by Carolyn Hart

The fact that Bailey Ruth Raeburn is dead doesn't slow her down one bit. Bailey Ruth works for 'Heaven's Department of Good Intentions' which sends emissaries to Earth to help people in trouble. Bailey Ruth always means well, but she can't help breaking the 'Precepts for Earthly Visitations', which includes rules like: avoid public notice; work behind the scenes; don't show yourself to people; don't frighten people; and more. Because Bailey always breaks the rules, her heavenly
boss - Wiggins - is reluctant to give her new cases.

Thus Bailey Ruth is a little surprised when a woman on a black horse gallops up, tells the emissary she has a new assignment, and sends her to Earth on the 'Heaven-Sent Rescue Express.' Bailey Ruth thinks the woman is Wiggins' new assistant, and rides the train to her destination - a house in Adelaide, Oklahoma.

In the house, an invisible Bailey Ruth sees a young man named Nick Magruder playing the drums. She also sees a rifle barrel slipping into the window - and shoves Nick out of way just as a shot is fired. Nick is completely bewildered, so Bailey Ruth - ignoring the Precepts (as usual) - swirls into visibility to explain about his near death experience.

When Bailey Ruth can't become invisible again she realizes something is wrong. It turns out that this isn't an official assignment after all. The horsewoman who sent Bailey Ruth down to Earth is Nick's deceased Aunt Dee, who wants the emissary to help her endangered nephew. Since Wiggins knows nothing about this visit, Bailey Ruth lacks her usual abilities: she can't switch between visibility and invisibility; she can't conjure up new clothes; and she can't 'teleport' to new locations. Still, Bailey Ruth is determined to fulfill her mission, which is to ensure Nick's safety. To accomplish this, Bailey Ruth plans to 'warn off' anyone who might have a grudge against Nick.

Bailey Ruth learns that Nick recently returned to Adelaide after being paid nine million dollars for a videogame, starring spiders, that he created. Moreover, Nick came back to settle some scores. In high school, some bully boys made fun of Nick's interest in arachnids and nicknamed him Phidippus - for a spider he liked. (Phidippus' are actually cute jumping not such a bad nickname IMO. Ha ha ha). The worst high school offender was Cole Clanton, and Nick plans to get him back.

Cole now heads a project to re-create parts of historical Adelaide, which will attract visitors and raise funds. Cole wants to re-build a general store on the field where it once stood, but his plans are thwarted when Nick swoops in and offers to buy the offer the owner can't refuse. Bottom line: Cole won't be permitted to build his structure.

This leads to a huge fracas between Nick and Cole, and agitation among some other townsfolk - who want the project to proceed. Pretty soon someone is dead and Nick is accused of murder.

Bailey Ruth and Aunt Dee now have to work together to clear Nick's name. By this time Wiggins knows what's going on, so both 'ghost detectives' have all their powers. This leads to lots of fun as the gals frequently 'think up' new outfits (don't you wish you could do this); appear and disappear; play private eye and cop; gather evidence; try to put the police on the right track; and generally cause a bit of mayhem.

Interesting secondary characters in the story include Nick's girlfriend Jan; her 'cougar' mom Arlene; a newspaper man; a diner owner; a local merchant; a cheating wife; a jealous husband; and more. One fun aspect of the earthly ghosts is that they eat and sleep.....just like regular people. (Sounds like a good gig to me!)

This humorous cozy has a slow start, but once it picks up steam it's a very enjoyable light mystery. "Ghost Gone Wild" is the fourth book in the series, but I had no trouble reading it as a standalone.

Recommended to cozy fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, July 10, 2017

Review of "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

On the same night that Toronto-based movie/stage actor Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack while playing King Lear the 'Georgia flu' begins a deadly rampage that soon kills 99.99% of the human population. Societies collapse and the few remaining individuals eventually congregate in small communities and try to get on with their lives.

Most of this book follows the story of a few people connected to Arthur Leander - family, friends, acquaintances - that survived the flu. This includes ex-wives, his son, his best friend, fellow actors, and a paramedic in the audience who tried to save his life. There are threads that vaguely connect this group of people. For example, Arthur's first wife, Miranda was a writer/artist who wrote comic books about a group of people who escaped an alien invasion of Earth to live on a space station. This group is led by a character named Dr. Eleven. Some of these comics end up in the hands of Kirsten Raymonde, who was a child actor in the fateful production of King Lear. Fifteen years after the disastrous flu Kirsten is part of a traveling symphony/acting troupe that makes a circuit of upper Michigan, entertaining people in small settlements.

Arthur's second wife was Elizabeth, an actress with whom he had a son. When the flu hit, Elizabeth and her son happened to be on the same plane as Arthur's best friend Clark. The plane was forced to land at an airport short of their destination and the surviving passengers took up residence there, inhabiting the various concourses and now useless planes. After a time Clark starts a museum in the airport, displaying relics - such as phones, credit cards, passports - of the 'old times'.

The story jumps around in time from the years before Arthur's death, to the night of his heart attack, to the days following, to twenty years later, and to various times in between. It was interesting to read the author's take on what would happen in the aftermath of a disaster that wiped out almost all of humanity: practial considerations like getting food, clothing, and shelter; people in denial; people trying to make sense of the calamity; violence and looting; cults forming; and so on.

As the story proceeds the members of the traveling symphony come into contact with other survivors, and - in the various conversations and inner thoughts among the characters - there's plenty of introspection and philosophical thinking.

What bothers me a little about dystopian stories like this is the unrealistic (to me) notion that people would continue to live in primitive conditions for years and years. These aren't, after all, cave people who never heard of technology, electricity, industry, computers, and so on. It seems likely that some smart, capable people would make it their business to improve living conditions very quickly.

The characters in the book are interesting and there's some danger/suspense as 'good guys' encounter 'bad guys'. There's also a little bit of a mystery with clues for the reader to ponder. All in all, an okay book.  

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review of "The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir" by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

WARNING: This review contains information that's mentioned in many discussions of the book, but some readers might consider the revelations spoilers. So - If minor spoilers bother you - stop reading now.
"The Fact of a Body" melds the true crime story of child molester/murderer Ricky Langley with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich's tale of being sexually abused as a child.

In 1992, Louisiana resident Ricky Langley killed his six-year-old neighbor, Jeremy Guillory, and - after being convicted by a jury - was sentenced to death. During his retrial a decade later Langley was defended by Clive Stafford Smith, a staunch opponent of capital punishment whose law firm specializes in death penalty cases. This time Langley got life in prison. (Note: Ricky had yet a third trial, years later, and was once again sentenced to life.)

After Langley's second trial, in 2003, Harvard law student Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich - who opposes the death penalty - became a summer intern at Clive Stafford Smith's law firm in New Orleans. During her orientation, the intern was shown Langley's taped confession from 1992, in which the murderer - a diminutive man with coke bottle glasses and jug ears - graphically described the crime.....and talked about molesting children: "Sometimes I, you know, rub my penis on them."

Marzano-Lesnevich's mind immediately snapped back to her childhood. She recalled how, from the time she was 3-years-old, her grandfather - when babysitting - would steal into her bedroom. He'd tug up her nightgown, pull down her panties, undo his fly.....and then her mind would go someplace else as she stared at her yellow lampshade.

While Marzano-Lesnevich was watching Langley's tape, she wanted the child molester to die.

After completing law school Marzano-Lesnevich decided not to practice law. Instead, she became a writer, and elected to tell Ricky Langley's story.....and her own.

To make sense of Ricky's life and behavior the author thoroughly researched his history - going all the way back to the courtship and marriage of his parents, Bessie and Alcide. The writer learned that Ricky was conceived while Bessie was in a full body cast after a horrific car crash - an accident that killed two of the Langleys small children. Bessie was drinking heavily and taking a cornucopia of drugs while expecting Ricky - and was advised to terminate the pregnancy. Bessie refused, and gave birth to a boy who had problems all his life.

Marzano-Lesnevich narrates the story of Ricky's life. As a child he lived with a semi-invalid mother (her leg was amputated), a hard-drinking father, and four siblings. The Langsley's could never make ends meet and had to move in with Bessie's sister and brother-in-law, devout Pentecostals with a strict spartan lifestyle: no music, no television, no booze (theoretically), and lots of talk about God.

Ricky was an odd friendless child who admits that he started molesting younger kids when he was nine-years-old. Ricky claims that he always knew something was wrong with him, and - as a young adult - tried to get help on several occasions, to no avail. Unable to control his compulsions, Ricky even attempted suicide. Finally, at the age of 26, the misfit became a murderer.

The summary above is the 'nutshell' version. In the book, Marzano-Lesnevich provides (what feels like) a week by week account of Ricky's life, with admittedly fictionalized components, including: descriptions of what people were wearing; what they were doing; what they might be thinking; what they were looking at; conversations they had; what they were drinking; whether sweat was rolling down their faces; and so on. The author also includes a detailed description of young Jeremy's murder, the extensive search for the missing boy, the police finding his body, and - finally - Ricky's arrest and trials.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich's personal story is interwoven with Ricky's tale. The author talks about growing up in New Jersey with two lawyer parents and two siblings - one a twin brother. The family was upwardly mobile, had a nice home, and went on yearly vacations to Nantucket or more exotic destinations. Young Alexandria's parents had an active social life and - when they went out - would ask the children's maternal grandparents to watch the kids. And that's when grandpa would molest Alexandria or her sister Nicola.

Grandpa would take out his false teeth, make a scary face, and tell Alexandria he was a witch who would 'get her' if she told on him - which terrified the child into silence. Even so - when Alexandria was about 8-years-old - her parents found out about the abuse when Nicola talked about 'sitting on Grandpa's lap.'

The parents learned the truth, BUT NOTHING HAPPENED. The heads of the family didn't call the police, didn't confront the predator, and didn't discuss the situation with the children. Instead, Alexandria's folks pretended nothing had happened. The grandparents still visited frequently, though grandpa was never again left alone with the children.

The molestation - and subsequent silence - scarred Marzano-Lesnevich for life and had a devastating effect on her relationship with her entire family - especially her parents and grandparents. When Marzano-Lesnevich got older, the memories of abuse also made it difficult for her to sustain romantic relationships or to be intimate with her partners.

Again this is the 'nutshell version.' In the book the author describes her childhood, and much of her young adulthood, in great detail, including the emotional (and physical) damage she suffered - and still endures. It's clear (to me) that Marzano-Lesnevich's mother and father mishandled the situation and compounded the damage caused by the sexual abuse. It's hard to fathom exactly what her parents were thinking, but this kind of 'secret keeping' is probably common within families. After all, to reveal the truth would destroy the grandparents lives. What would your parents have done in this situation? What would you do? (This would make a great topic for book club discussions.)

"The Fact of a Body" has garnered many stellar reviews and has been heralded as the 'must read' of the summer. That said, I'm not as big a fan as many other people.

First, I didn't see a real connection between Ricky's story and Marzano-Lesnevich's story. It's true that Ricky abused children and Alexandria was molested, but the situations aren't analogous.....and the author's attempt to segue between the separate crimes doesn't work (for me). It feels like two separate books have been stuck together, somewhat like an old Reader's Digest anthology. Moreover, the fictionalized details of the narratives - especially Ricky's - seem to serve little purpose, and detract from their versimilitude.

That said, I admire Marzano-Lesnevich's extensive research into Ricky's life and crimes. The author spent years preparing to write this book: she read thousands of pages of documents; listened to numerous taped recordings; interviewed people who knew Ricky; traveled to the killer's homes, jobs, and haunts; and even visited the convict in prison.

My final thoughts: the book tells two compelling true crime stories and I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy that genre.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, July 7, 2017

Review of "Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat" by Gwen Cooper

At 24-years-old Gwen Cooper was already "mommy" to two cats, Vashti and Scarlett. So when a veterinarian friend asked Gwen to consider adopting a blind black two-week old kitten, Gwen was hesitant....this seemed like a lot to take on. But the sweet loving kittie immediately won Gwen's heart and "Homer" joined the family in the South Beach neighbohood of Miami.

Despite his inability to see, Homer was anything but a 'fraidy cat.' The intrepid kitten was everywhere, investigating everything. He climbed bookcases, drapes, furniture, and people; he got into kitchen cabinets and unerringly found unopened cans of tuna ('feed me this'); he constantly tried to sneak up on Scarlett - from directly in front - not understanding how she always knew he was there; he loved to play fetch with his favorite stuffed toy - a worm with a bell; he made friends with almost everyone he met; Homer even viciously attacked a burglar and chased him out of Gwen's apartment. In fact Homer immeasurably enhanced Gwen's life.

This memoir is Gwen's story as much as Homer's. Inspired by Homer's joie de vivre and indomitable spirit, Gwen - broke and needing a better paying job - moved back in with her parents (not easy). She took a series of intern and volunteer positions and finally came out on the other side with highly marketable skills - and the means to get her own place again. Over time Gwen and the cats moved four times, which is daunting for a human, never mind a blind cat. But Homer always adapted quickly, making his way from his food and litter box (the first things Gwen 'showed him') to investigate every millimeter of his new dwelling.

Homer met Gwen's friends and a few guys she dated (one who hissed at /frightened Homer was thrown out immediately) and almost everyone loved the little black cat. In one amusing anecdote, Gwen's ex-boyfriend George was babysitting Homer for a few days when Gwen popped by for a visit. To Gwen's horror George's friend - with baby Homer lying on the palm of his outstretched hand - was spinning around, making helicopter noises, and affectionately calling Homer 'El Mocho' (something like stumpy). When Gwen made a fuss, Homer was put down. But the kitten immediately ran over to his playmate and pawed him....'more more more'.

In time Gwen moved to New York for work and got an apartment near the World Trade Center. When the twin towers came down on 9/11, Homer and his sister cats were stranded in their apartment when the district was blocked off for safety. Gwen's tale of trying to get back to her cats with food and water - which took days - was as harrowing a story as I've read in some thrillers.

After some years Gwen met her future husband Laurence (not a spoiler). Laurence's big booming voice intimidated Homer, who avoided this barrel-chested intruder. Nevertheless, Homer's super-hearing alerted him when Laurence opened the refrigerator to make a turkey sandwich - and the cat immediately rushed over to get (more than his share) of the meat. Laurence had to resort to loudly running the faucet so he could sneak out the sandwich fixings, then hide in the bathroom to make his snack (ha ha ha).

The book doesn't focus solely on Homer and there are plenty of fun stories about the other cats. Scarlett for instance divided the world into mom (Gwen) - who she loved; and everyone/everything else - who she had little use for. And Vashti, a beautiful shy cat, seduced dog-lover Laurence with her adoring gazes and affectionate behavior.

I always like books with endearing pets (in real life or in fiction) and this is a very good one. Highly recommended for animal lovers.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review of "Leaving Time" by Jodi Picoult

Thirteen-year-old Jenna is consumed with the loss of her mother, Alice. Jenna's family lived on an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire, where both her scientist parents worked. A tragic occurrence on the compound ten years ago, when Jenna was three, resulted in the death of a woman and serious injury to Alice. Alice was taken to the hospital, from which she disappeared. At the same time Jenna's dad was confined to a mental institution and Jenna went to live with her grandmother. Jenna obsessively reads her mother's journals and scans missing persons sites on the computer - hoping to find clues to her mother's whereabouts.

Jenna has now decided to take action. She contacts Serenity, a once renowned but now disgraced psychic, and Virgil, a former police detective who originally investigated the tragic incident at the elephant sanctuary. Both agree to help Jenna look for her mom. The book is told from rotating points of view, including Jenna, Alice, Serenity, and Virgil.

Also interspersed with the story are extensive passages about elephants, who are highly intelligent animals with close family ties. An elephant mother would never desert her family, unlike what Alice apparently did to Jenna. The book contains a lot of information about elephants: how they live, what they eat, how they behave, how they play, how they grieve for deceased loved ones, and so on. Also, sadly, how elephants are mistreated in captivity, especially circuses. This was all interesting but did slow the story down (and might bore readers uninterested in the subject).

As the story unfolds the reader learns about events at the elephant sanctuary that led to the tragedy all those years ago as well as the current search for information about Alice. The book has an unexpected denouement which I found bewildering, and this reduced my overall enjoyment of the story. Still, this is a good book with engaging characters, worth reading. It's also a compelling treatise about elephants and an advocate for their humane treatment.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Review of "Garden of Lamentations" by Deborah Crombie

In this 17th book in the series Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Detective Inspector Gemma James are married and raising their blended family - three children, two kittens, and a dog - in a house in the suburbs. The detectives no longer work in the same police department and become involved in separate cases.

Gemma investigates the death of a pretty young nanny, Reagan Keating, whose body is found in a private garden shared by a group of houses. At first the nanny's death appears to be an accidental overdose, but the police soon discover she was murdered. The nanny worked in one of the neighborhood homes, looking after an 11-year-old boy and modeling for a tasteful clothing catalogue put out by his parents. The crime isn't in Gemma's jurisdiction, but DI Kerry Boatman 'borrows' her for the inquiry because Gemma knows some of the local residents.

Kerry and Gemma question Reagan's boyfriend, friends, neighbors, employers, and so on - and everyone seems to like the amiable young woman. Thus the detectives are hard-pressed to find a motive for the killing. Then the sleuths hear some scuttlebutt about Reagan seeing 'another man' and learn that the parents of a local boy who died from an asthma attack blame Reagan. These discoveries lead to new areas of investigation, and - after a few twists and surprises - the crime is solved.

Duncan's case is much more complex. His former boss, Chief Superintendent Denis Childs, returns from a long leave of absence and arranges a secret meeting with Duncan. Childs alludes to a criminal conspiracy among bigwigs in the Metropolitan Police Service and warns Duncan to keep his distance.....for his own safety. Right after the meeting Childs is viciously attacked and falls into a coma.

Duncan already knows something is rotten in Scotland Yard. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Angus Craig was recently exposed as a rapist and murderer, after which he allegedly killed his wife and himself. And - after a bombing at London's St. Pancras Station - another detective supposedly committed suicide. Duncan believes all these deaths were murders, and proceeds to investigate. Fearing for the safety of his wife and children, Duncan doesn't confide in Gemma - and the Superintendent's absences from home and secretiveness put a strain on the marriage.

Duncan's current inquiries alternate with flashbacks to the past, when a group of Scotland Yard detectives were recruited to do undercover work for Britain's Special Branch (intelligence service). The 'cop spies' were tasked with infiltrating protest groups that might become troublemakers. However, this wasn't all on the up and up. One undercover cop was pressured to sabotage a group that was protesing the death-by-police of an innocent black man. And the killing of a female undercover agent - probably by the hand of a colleague - was swept under the rug. Clearly, something was rotten in the police service. (All this reminds me a bit of the 2017 American TV series "Shots Fired.")

The author cleverly melds Duncan's present day inquiries with the Special Branch storyline, and corrupt individuals are exposed. Some shocking revelations here!

Regular characters in the series make an appearance, including Gemma's co-worker Melody Talbot - who's now dating a rock star; and Detective Doug Cullen - who helps Duncan with his investigation. The Kincaid children are also on hand: teenage Kit (who cooks and helps keep the family organized); seven-year-old Toby (who's taking ballet lessons); and three-year-old Charlotte (who's sweet and clingy). And the pets are very cute.

One problem I had with the book is the surfeit of secondary characters. Gemma's case involves all the people who live in homes around the garden; some of their business acquaintances; Reagan's friends and acquaintances; children in the neighborhood; etc. And Duncan's inquiries include a large array of cops and supervisors, and some of their wives. With two storylines containing separate sets of characters, it's sometimes hard to remember who's who.

Still, this is a good addition to the series, recommended to mystery fans. Readers familar with the series will get maximum enjoyment, but the book can be read as a standalone.

Rating: 3 stars