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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review of "Star Trek Memories" by William Shatner and Chris Kreski

In this book William Shatner, the original 'Captain Kirk' from Star Trek, talks about the birth of the original TV series, the long struggle it took to get it on the air, and the people involved in making it a success.

Star Trek was created by producer and writer Gene Roddenberry, who was fascinated with space since childhood. It took years, though - and a lot of missteps - before a studio picked up the show and a successful pilot was made. Eventually Roddenberry assembled the core cast, including Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), George Takei (Sulu), William Koenig (Chekov), and Majel Barrett (Nurse Chapel).

An interesting tidbit: Majel Barrett was Roddenberry's girlfriend and played the first officer (Number One) in the original pilot, which failed. The public wasn't ready for a woman in the role.

Shatner's writing is light and breezy and contains fun interesting anecdotes. One Star Trek episode, for instance, featured alien women with green skin. As a test before shooting an actress was slathered in green makeup and filmed....but the developed footage came back with flesh-toned skin. A more intense shade of green makeup was used, with the same result. In desperation, the makeup folks tried very thick, very dark green goop - to no avail....the skin still looked beige. Eventually a call to the film developers revealed that they were exhausting themselves, working overtime to 'fix' the skin color problem. (ha ha ha)

Another story details how difficult it was to get Spock's pointy ears right. The studio, being cost conscious, wanted the ears done on the cheap. So one inexpensive fake ear after another was tried, but they all looked terrible....and Nimoy - not wanting to look ridiculous - was becoming seriously perturbed. In the end, 'expensive' ears had to be ordered behind the backs of the bean counters. Moreover, Spock was originally supposed to be half Martian with red skin! In any case it took a long time to get Spock's appearance just right (pointed ears, devilish eyebrows, the iconic hairdo), and required a lot of negotiation with network honchos. They thought the public wouldn't accept an alien-looking crew member. (How wrong they were!)

When Star Trek was in danger of being cancelled after the first season Roddenberry recruited a couple of avid fans to organize a 'keep Star Trek on the air' campaign. One enterprising woman sneaked into the VIP parking lot of a Hollywood studio and slapped a 'Star Trek' bumper sticker on every limousine and luxury car. Johnny Carson probably went home with a Star Trek sticker on his car that night! The fans were convincing and the show was renewed. By season three, however, Star Trek was out of luck. It was stuck in a Friday night time slot (a death knell), the budget was slashed, and the episodes became mundane (or worse). Viewership fell and the show was cancelled. In a way this was a blessing because it led to many spinoff series and Star Trek movies.

Shatner covers every aspect of the original TV series, including the actors, costumes, set design, special effects, stories, scripts, directors, producers, lighting, editing, etc. To get the inside scoop Shatner interviewed many of the people involved with the show and includes their stories verbatim. This adds a lot of personality and interest to the book.

Though the Star Trek franchise eventually became a juggernaut, the original series wasn't a big success (at first) - and producing it wasn't all sweetness and light. Shatner reveals that Nimoy had serious disagreements with Roddenberry about many issues, including the sale of Star Trek merchandise (the actors didn't benefit) and the sale of blooper reels (which Nimoy thought were embarassing). Moreover, when Shatner interviewed his co-stars, many revealed hostile feelings toward him. In their opinion Shatner made it his business to inflate his role and cut theirs. In fact James Doohan refused to speak to Shatner and wasn't interviewed for the book.

From Shatner's point of view he doesn't recall doing this.....but he probably did. I remember Shatner - a married man - had a reputation for being conceited and trying to 'romance' (wink wink) all the female guest stars. (He doesn't talk about this in the book. LOL)

I've always liked Star Trek and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. My one caveat: I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Shatner, and he tends to talk too fast sometimes. This is a minor quibble though.

If you're Star Trek fan you'll like this book. Me....I'm inspired to go back and watch all the original Star Trek episodes looking for things that Shatner mentions.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review of "Ginny Moon" by Benjamin Ludwig

Most people probably don't understand how an autistic person thinks or what goes through her mind. In this fictional story about an autistic girl named Ginny Moon, the author - who adopted an autistic teenager - seems to unravel the mystery a little bit.

The story: When Ginny LeBlanc was 9-years-old the police tore her away from her drug-addicted, abusive birth mother, named Gloria. The autistic girl - who was neglected, bruised, undernourished, and seriously injured - didn't have time to retrieve her baby doll from the suitcase under her bed.....and she's been trying to get it back ever since.

Ginny is now 14-years-old and living with her third 'Forever Family', Maura and Brian Moon, in the 'Blue House.' Maura is pregnant with the couple's first baby, so Ginny is given a plastic electronic doll to prepare her for the birth. When Ginny is unable to make the doll stop crying, she treats it roughly, covers it with blankets, and stashes it in a suitcase under the bed. Of course this alarms the Moons, who fear Ginny might hurt a real infant.

Ginny organizes her life around numbers. She eats nine grapes with breakfast every day; goes to bed at nine o'clock every night; counts off the seconds when something makes her anxious; is always aware exactly what time it is; and will only respond when asked a single question at a time. In addition, Ginny meticulously differentiates between 'exact' situations and 'approximate' situations. If Ginny needs a break from her surroundings - or has to figure something out - she 'goes into her brain.' And when Ginny wants to keep something secret she clamps her lips tightly shut and covers her mouth with her hands.

Ginny likes puzzles, coloring books, movies, and bacon and onion pizzas - but her favorite thing in the world is Michael Jackson. Ginny listens to the singer's music, decorates her bedroom with his posters, wears Michael Jackson T-shirts, and so on.

Ginny is not allowed to use telephones or computers. That's because Ginny is constantly trying to contact her birth mom. The autistic teen is determined to go back to Gloria's apartment so she can retrieve her baby doll and 'take excellent care of it.' The Moons fear that - if Gloria learns of Ginny's whereabouts - she'll come by and make a huge scene (or worse). Thus Ginny is monitored constantly, but - being exceptionally clever and devious - manages to contact Gloria on Facebook. This leads to all kinds of trouble since Ginny will do anything - even engineer her own abduction - to get her baby doll.

Ginny's conduct - which includes fighting, sneaking out, and stealing - greatly disturbs the Moons, and things get even worse when Baby Wendy is born. Ginny becomes so obsessed with the infant that Maura has to hide in the bedroom with the newborn. That leaves Brian to take care of the teenager, and he gives it his absolute best. Ginny's counselor, Patrice, tries to help the autistic girl follow the rules, but can't always fathom what Ginny is thinking.

At school, Ginny attends special education classes, plays basketball on a Special Olympics team, and eats lunch with her special ed classmates. One student, Larry - who has a crush on Ginny - is an accomplice in some of the girl's misbehavior. The author doesn't specify that Larry is autistic, but he expresses himself through music - singing songs to convey his thoughts and feelings. (I think a book about Larry would be very interesting.)

It's fascinating to watch Ginny try to accomplish her goal, which she describes as follows: When Ginny was nine-years-old and had her baby doll she was (Ginny). Now she's (-Ginny).
(Ginny) ≠ (-Ginny)
So Ginny has to go back across the equal sign to make things right.

It's also interesting to see Ginny interact with her Forever Parents, teachers, friends, grandparents, and others. At one point Ginny tries to gouge out someone's eyes, so they can't see her anymore.....and this type of conduct is seriously alarming. It's understandable that Ginny's Forever Parents would be at their wits end.

This well-written, compelling story leads to a dramatic climax, but the finale is somewhat unrealistic (to me). I feel like the actions of the characters don't completely fit with what's gone on previously (though I can understand why the author went in this directon). Of course, other readers may feel differently.

This is a very good book, highly recommended.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Review of "The Fala Factor" by Stuart A. Kaminsky

This ninth book in the 'Toby Peters' private detective series involves the alleged abduction of the 'First Dog of the United State' (FDOTUS). LOL

It's 1942 and private detective Toby Peters is hired by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to retrieve the President's beloved pooch Fala. Mrs. Roosevelt believes Fala was snatched and a substitute left in his place. It seems a crackpot rival political party is trying to take over the government and may have kidnapped the dog to throw the President off his stride.

This quirky plot is aided by the usual offbeat characters including Toby's amusing elderly landlady who calls him Mr. Peelers and thinks he's an exterminator/book editor; Toby's intrepid best friend, Gunther, a little person; Toby's landlord, the incompetent dentist Shelly Minck, who's as likely to land you in the hospital as fix your teeth; Toby's pal Jeremy, an ex-wrestler/would be poet who provides muscle for Toby's team; and so on. The famous actor Buster Keaton even makes a brief appearance.

Not that much mystery to the plot but it's a fun, light read.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Review of "Dad is Fat" by Jim Gaffigan

Jim Gaffigan is a comedian, actor, and author. Jim and his wife Jeannie have five small children, and raising them is a challenge. It's also a rich source of humor, which Jim shares in this book. Jim and his family live in a two-bedroom apartment on the 5th floor of a New York City walk-up (no elevator). So Jim would really like you to buy this book so he can afford to move to a bigger place. LOL

Many of the observations in this book come from Jim's comedy specials, so if you've seen those, you're familiar with his humor - which is clean and family friendly. Jim talks and writes a lot about his children and explains: "My blurbs about my children.....are meant to be funny, silly, and hopefully insightful. I enjoy finding the humor in parenting."

Rather than a traditional review I'll give some examples of Jim's stories. Just picture the comic saying this stuff.....

- Having five children has really made me appreciate the more important things in life: the sublime state of being alone. Of course now I'm never alone.

- I have children like I have male pattern baldness; it's an incurable condition. Symptoms include: constant fatigue, inability to sleep, and of course extreme sleep disruption.

- When I was single I was a loner by choice....the thought of a roommate to a single me was absurd. Now I have many roommates: I have an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old, and I don't think I've even met the other one yet. Ten years ago I could barely get a date and now my apartment is crawling with babies. It's like I left some peanut butter out overnight.

- As a dad you're Vice President. You are part of the executive branch of the family but you are the partner with the weaker authority. In your children's eyes you mostly fulfill a ceremonial role of attending pageants and ordering pizza. Jeannie is Bill Clinton and I am Al Gore.....I'm the dork reminding them to turn off the lights.

- When your baby is born.....the masses of family and friends want to be assured the mother is okay and get information on the baby. For some reason it's really important for the people to know how much the baby weighs. "How much does she weigh?" That seems rude. She's not even a day old and people seem obsessed with my daughter's weight. She was nine pounds but I told my friends she was 8 pounds, 16 ounces, because it sounded thinner.

- Giving a newborn clothes makes no sense at all. Newborns can't dress themselves and they never go out. I've been around five newborns and not one of them has asked "Tonight I'm meeting some friends for sushi. Can you help pick out an outfit?"

- What's really stupid is baby versions of adult shoes. My brother-in-law Patrick bought our then 3-month-old Jack tiny Timberland hiking boots. Our baby couldn't walk, let alone hike. Patrick explained that the boots would be cute. Cute yes, but only because they're ironic. A baby wearing construction worker boots that weigh more than he does is mean. It's like giving a blind person a microscope.

- Toddlerhood is one of my favorite periods of childhood development....not only because you can finally enter them in beauty pageants. All healthy babies eventually walk....[and].....I guess walking IS impressive after ten months of just lying around. Actually they don't immediately walk or even toddle. They cruise or hold themselves up with furniture in search of the hardest and sharpest surface to bang their head on. When they finally let go and take a few steps it's more like a stumble or a stagger, like they are a drunken old man or a zombie extra from the Walking Dead.

- I'm ashamed how often I lie to my children. Maybe they aren't all lies.....some of it's acting. You act excited to read a story for the 500th time. You act impressed someone went to the bathroom on the toilet. The excitement I show to some of my children's scribbles should get me a Golden Globe nomination.

- I'm not a man with many hobbies besides eating, sleeping, watching an occasional football game, and of course eating. I just like spending time with my children, although I'm always amazed at how little I have in common with them. My 6-year-old son Jack actually doesn't like mashed potatoes. Yes, mashed potatoes, one of the greatest things on earth. The ice cream of potatoes. Of course he loves french fries, hash browns, and baked potatoes. But mashed potatoes might as well be sewer sludge. "EWWWWW ....mashed potatoes."

- Little kids simply have bad taste in everything. Little kids taste in clothing is baffling. if you ask a 3-year-old boy to pick something out to wear to the park the outfit will definitely clash and most likely not include pants. "Okay, why don't we wear pants AND a shirt instead of goggles and a hat."

- Walking in NYC alone is great....[lots of interesting sights and sounds]. But when you add a couple of kids and a stroller, walking becomes a vastly different experience. Strolling a kid down a sidewalk seems like it would be easy except that a stroller is the Bermuda Triangle of kids shoes. You can't stroll a kid half a block before they only have one shoe on. You have no idea when or how they got it off or how you missed it being flung away. Then there are the kids that are walking with you.....I try to wrangle my brood off deathtraps like treeguards, stoops, ramps, and poles - and try to prevent them from getting too close to the curb where giant trucks and mindless cyclists are inches away from plowing them over.

- The subway is a fast and economical way to get around. But from the moment the turnstile smacks your kid in the head, til the time your child terrifies you by almost falling in the gap between the platform and the train, to the kid inevitably licking the subway pole that 800 million filthy hands have touched, to almost missing your stop because it's too crowded to get off, to carrying the stroller up three flights of subway stairs.....this form of transportation becomes more of a treacherous pilgrimage than a way of getting from point A to point B.

- Recently on a warm sunny day, I found myself preparing to singlehandedly take all five of my kids to the park. It is probably easier to land a quadruple jump in ice skating than to get my five children to depart our house in a timely manner. When you have little kids you can't just say 'come on, let's go' and walk out the door. You must always add 'find the shoe time' to your calculation of estimated time of departure. If it's winter and there are hats, gloves, scarves, and mittens involved.....just forget it. You might as well just stay in. it will be the spring thaw by the time you get them bundled.

- I'm getting fat. Luckily my gut is intentional. I'm actually preparing for a big role. Sure, it's a cinnamon roll but I want there to be room for it. Okay, fine I could lose some weight but I'm not gonna hide behind some lame excuse. My paunch is no one's fault but my kids. Have you seen what a six year old wants to eat...."For dinner get me a mac and cheese, a handful of pretzels and a half a cupcake." They don't actually ask for half a cupcake but half a cupcake is all they'll actually eat. What are you supposed to do with the other half of the cupcake..... or half a plate of french fries they leave in a restaurant. This is why being a parent is the opposite of the Jenny Craig diet. I can just see the pitch. "I gained 20 pounds just eating small portions of my children's leftovers."

- Last summer I took my family to Disneyworld. What I forgot was that Orlando in August is roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun. What I also didn't realize is that going to Disney as an adult is like standing in line at the DMV. The only real difference is at the DMV you leave with a driver's licence. It's amazing how much money it costs to be uncomfortable all day and listen to your children whine and complain. Disney is not a vacation. To me the term Disney vacation is equivalent to the term Chuck E. Cheese fine dining.

- Last summer I had four chldren and I noticed there were only three Eskimo Pies left in the freezer for dessert. The first thought that came to me was "Well looks like I'm eating three Eskimo Pies. In spite of my lack of parental instincts, in the end i did the right thing. i only ate one. That way the four of them could split the other two evenly. How else are they gonna learn math?

"Dad is Fat" is 288 pages long. So if these excerpts amused you, there's plenty more where they came from. People with children might appreciate the humor a bit more than childless readers....but I think anyone would get a laugh from the book.

Recommended to readers who like funny books.

Rating: 3.5 stars