Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review of "Wishful Drinking" by Carrie Fisher




This book is (more or less) the written version of Carrie Fisher's stage production "Wishful Drinking."

Carrie is probably best known for her role as the beautiful, intrepid "Princess Leia" in the Star Wars movies. Carrie was 19 when the first movie filmed and - perhaps coincidentally - this was when the actress transitioned from habitually smoking pot to using hallucinogens and opiates. In time Carrie became a drug-addicted alcoholic with manic-depressive disorder (bipolar disorder 2). In this humorous mini-biography - written when Carrie was 52 - the actress relates her story.

Carrie was born a celebrity, being the child of actress/singer Debbie Reynolds and crooner Eddie Fisher. Debbie starred in iconic films like 'Singin' in the Rain' and Eddie has a long list of oldies, but is 'better known for his scandals than his singing.' In a bombshell incident reminiscent of Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie, Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for the gorgeous widow, Elizabeth Taylor.

As it happens Eddie also largely abandoned Carrie and her younger brother Todd. According to Carrie, Debbie raised the kids in Los Angeles and Eddie 'checked in from time to time' while flitting from one woman to another. Eventually, Eddie married a Chinese woman - Betty Lin - and after she died 'he started to date all of Chinatown.' Carrie notes that 'this was fitting because Eddie had gotten so many facelifts that he looked Asian himself.' LOL

Carrie sang in her mother's nightclub act from the ages of 13 to 17 and - as it happens - also started doing drugs at 13. Carrie got hold of a bag of pot and 'experimented her brains out' with a friend. Carrie started seeing shrinks at the age of 15.....but was not diagnosed as manic-depressive until years later. By that time Carrie was in her mid-20s, and heavily into alcohol and drugs. She used these 'to turn down the sound [in her head] and smooth her sharp corners.'

Carrie's second shrink diagnosed her with bipolar disorder 1 and gave her prescription medication - but Carrie didn't want to take it. Instead, the actress jumped on a plane, went to New York and married her boyfriend, singer/songwriter Paul Simon. Carrie notes that her first marriage mirrored her mother's first union - both Paul Simon and Eddie Fisher were 'short, Jewish singers.'

Carrie was in her late 20s when she overdosed and had her stomach pumped. Realizing that her life had become unmanageable, Carrie started attending 12-step programs....thinking alcohol was her big problem. Over the years Carrie had four relapses or 'explosions.' During these she would become sexually promiscuous, spend excessively, and abuse substances.

Finally, Carrie's third and best psychiatrist correctly diagnosed her with bipolar disorder 2, and medicated her. Unfortunately, two of the pharmaceuticals interacted badly and Carrie was taken off her meds. She ended up psychotic. This eventually led to eletroconvulsive therapy which helped Carrie get better - but robbed her of many memories. Luckily, Carrie had enough remembrances left to write this book.

Carrie notes: 'After all the rehabs and all the mental hospitals, I thought to myself, if what doesn't kill you makes you stronger I should be able to lift Cedars Sinai Hospital and glow in the dark.'

Interspersed with the tale of Carrie's addiction and mental illness are interesting snippets about her life. Here are a few examples:

Carrie's stepfather Harry Karl (Debbie's second husband) was not a handsome man, but was wealthy and well-groomed, said to be distinguished looking. Carrie notes, 'That's ugly with money.' To Carrie's amusement, the very handsome Alec Baldwin played Harry in a movie. LOL

Harry had a 'barber' (pimp) who showed up every day with a 'manicurist' (wink wink). When Debbie caught on to Harry's shenanigans she high-tailed it to New York with the children - to do a musical. The couple soon divorced.....but not before Harry squandered all of Debbie's money.

When Todd (Carrie's brother) accidently shot himself in the leg with a gun, Debbie called Carrie from the hospital with the following instructions: 'Rush home and hide all the guns and bullets and flush Todd's marijuana down the toilet. Carrie notes, 'More like a mafia family than a show business one.'

Carrie adored her mother. She describes Debbie as 'the prettiest, funniest, kindest mother; quick and witty; a consummate performer; and an insanely strong life force.....but a little bit eccentric.' Debbie thought Carrie should have a baby with her (Debbie's) third husband, Richard Hamlett, because he had 'nice eyes.' Carrie declined.

Carrie had a beautiful daughter, Billie, with her second husband Brian Lourd. When Billie was one, Brian left Carrie for a man named Scott. This devastated the actress.....and perhaps exacerbated her mental illness.

After Star Wars became a megahit, Carrie was 'merchandised' into a little doll, a shampoo bottle, a soap, a watch, a Mrs. Potato Head, a Lego figure, a stamp, and a Pez dispenser. Much to Carrie's dismay, she's even a sex doll. Carrie notes, 'If someone tells me to go fuck myself, I can give it a whirl.' Ha ha ha.

Towards the end of the book Carrie acknowledges, 'The place I've arrived at in my life isn't everyone's idea of heavenly....but I'm in a good place.' Both Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died in December, 2016 and they're missed. Fortunately, we'll always have their stories and films.

The book is entertaining and amusing - and provides an instructive and uplifting story about coping with addiction and mental illness. If you're interested in the subject, it's well worth reading.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review of "Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon" by Steve Sheinkin



This is the story of the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Once scientists learned that uranium atoms could be split, leading to a chain reaction that would cause an enormous explosion, the race was on. The U.S. assembled a team of physicists, chemists, and other specialists which secretly worked night and day to build a bomb from radioactive uranium and plutonium. At the same time Germany was producing and shipping large quantities of heavy water out of Norway, to facilitate their own bomb development. And the Soviet Union, lacking the know-how to make an atom bomb, planted spies to steal the plans from the U.S.

Steve Sheinkin's book presents a fascinating picture of how the first atomic bombs were built. Needing a large number of top physicists to accomplish the task, the U.S recruited people from universities across the country. Overrnight, scientists would 'disappear' from their jobs, secretly making their way to Los Alamos, New Mexico where a bomb-making research facility was assembled.

The book mentions many scientists/support staff at Los Alamos, especially Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the facility. Oppenheimer oversaw every aspect of the work, working himself to the bone to accomplish the goal. At the same time a few scientists sympathetic to the Soviet cause stole plans to send to Russia.

As they built their own bomb the Allies were desperate to prevent Germany from doing the same. Thus they trained a skilled team to parachute into Norway, sneak into the heavy water plant, and sabotage the facility - which would greatly slow down Germany's research. This is a fascinating section of the book, suspenseful and exciting.

Though the outcome of the bomb research is not a mystery, the reader inevitably gets caught up in the excitement of the tale. The story covers building, testing, and eventually using atomic bombs - and the ambivalence of the scientists who created this devastating weapon. A well-written interesting book.



Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review of "The Pact" by Jodi Picoult




Melanie and Michael Gold and Gus and James Harte have been neighbors and friends from the time Melanie and Gus were pregnant with their first children. The kids, Emily Gold and Chris Harte, grew up together, became a couple, and are now high school seniors preparing for college. As the story opens Emily and Chris are on a date at a local carousel when a shot is fired. Cut to the hospital: Emily, shot in the head, is dead; Chris is disoriented with 70 stitches for a scalp laceration. When the police arrive Chris says that he and Emily had a suicide pact but that he fainted and fell before he could shoot himself. Before long Chris is arrested for murdering Emily. 

The book moves back and forth between the past and present, going all the way back to the time the Golds and Hartes first met as two young married couples. They soon became close friends, dining out together, vacationing together, confiding in each other, and so on. The two sets of parents were prosperous, happy, and well-adjusted and - before the tragedy - thrilled that Chris and Emily were sweethearts. We also come to know a great deal about both Emily and Chris, and see how their bond developed.

In the present, the Golds are devastated by Emily's death, bewildered by the notion that she was suicidal and they had no inkling. Their daughter was a talented artist with applications on her desk to the finest art schools, including the Sorbonne. What would make her want to kill herself? When Chris is arrested the Golds at least have someone to blame. 

During the course of the story we see how each person in the Gold and Harte family deals with the tragedy, separately and together. We observe Chris as he waits in jail for his trial, a difficult and harrowing experience. The last part of the book is a well-wrought courtroom drama, including a fierce rivalry between the zealous prosecutor and Chris's capable defense attorney. 

I know many readers gave this book rave reviews but for me it was just okay. For one thing I didn't buy the book's basic premise.

                                                                SPOILER ALERT!


Though Emily had legitimate concerns I couldn't believe they would make her suicidal. Moreover, I couldn't accept that - once Chris knew Emily wanted to kill herself - he didn't get help. After all, he had plenty of time.
                                                             END SPOILER ALERT!


Thus, though the book addresses an important issue - teen angst that's invisible to the parents - it didn't ring true to me. I also thought the book was about twice as long as it needed to be. It seemed to go on and on and I got impatient reading it.



Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Review of "Mission to Paris" by Alan Furst




It's the late 1930s and Warner Brothers sends Austrian-born Hollywood actor Frederic Stahl to Paris to star in a movie. During this time Hitler is waging a propaganda and intimidation campaign across Europe, meant to expand Germany's power without war.

To this end Hitler's minions plan to rope in the popular, well-known Stahl - have him hobnob and be photographed with Nazis and so on - to make it seem that Stahl agrees with Hitler's philosophy. Stahl resists these tactics and wants to just make his movie, eat some good meals, and have some romances. It's not to be, however, and Stahl soon finds that he's spied on, followed, pressured, and threatened.

Meanwhile, an American diplomat suggests that Stahl play along with the Nazis so that he can help with a spot of espionage. It's all quietly exciting and makes for a good story.


Rating: 4 stars

Friday, August 25, 2017

Review of "The Well" by Catherine Chanter




I'm not sure this book should be categorized as a mystery, but there is a death to be solved - so it more or less fits into the genre.

The story: Ruth and Mark Ardingly are looking to get out of London for two major reasons. Mark, a lawyer, has a damaged reputation because he was accused - though exonerated - of looking at child pornography; and Mark always dreamed of farming. So the Ardinglys purchase a property called The Well on a hilltop in the English countryside.

Oddly (to say the least) The Well has plenty of water and rain when the rest of England is suffering from a ruinous drought. The drought has made food scarce and put people out of work. Thus, desperate people resent the Ardinglys' green oasis and accuse the couple of all manner of nefarious deeds, including stealing water and using witchcraft.

To stop a mass invasion of their property, the Ardinglys close it off with fences and gates and get police protection. The couple do, however, let their semi-estranged daughter Angie camp on the land with her five-year-old son Lucien and a group of 'travelers' (hippies). Before long the nuns of a religious cult called 'The Sisters of the Rose' also insinuate themselves onto The Well property. The group's leader, Sister Amelia, convinces Ruth she's the 'chosen one' who's responsible for The Well's water.

The presence of the nuns causes big problems. Ruth starts spending a lot of time with them, praying and spreading their gospel. Moreover, Sister Amelia wants The Well to be inhabited solely by women. She has no use for men and influences Ruth to become estranged from Mark. Sister Amelia even resents Ruth's grandson Lucien - whom Ruth adores - because he'll eventually inherit The Well.

Living conditions at The Well becomes fraught: the government takes an interest in the property; the Ardinglys become isolated because the townsfolk hate them; Mark and Ruth fight with each other and with their daughter Angie; Ruth becomes overly enamored with the The Sisters of the Rose; and so on. And then one day Lucien is found dead and Ruth is accused of killing him - perhaps while sleepwalking.

The story is told from the point of view of Ruth who's now under house imprisonment at The Well. In the present, Ruth - besides being devastated by Lucien's death - is alone and lonely. She has no communication with her family and the nuns are long gone. The only people Ruth speaks to are her guards and occasionally a priest. Ruth spends most of her time either sleeping or thinking about the events that led to her current dire situation - attempting to figure out what really happened to little Lucien.

The author writes beautifully, with lush descriptions of the landscape and engaging characterizations of Ruth, Mark, Angie, Sister Amelia, the other nuns, the priest, the guards, etc. That said, I didn't enjoy the book. it was too long and there was too much praying and proselytising by The Sisters of the Rose - which became tedious. I also thought the solution of 'the mystery' of Lucien's death was predictable. A proper police investigation would have exposed the culprit in a jiffy.

What I really hoped was that the author would address the mystery associated with The Well's abundant water supply but she didn't. Just not the book for me.



Rating: 2 stars

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of "Leonard: My Fifty Year Friendship With A Remarkable Man" by William Shatner and David Fisher




This book, written shortly after Leonard Nimoy's death, is a tribute to the actor by his long-time friend William Shatner. The two men had similar backgrounds, both being born in 1931 and raised in Orthodox Jewish immigrant families. Shatner grew up in Montreal and Nimoy in Boston, and they shared a similar upbringing and work ethic - knowing they needed 'the next job, the next paycheck' to keep a roof overhead and food on the table. Even as a kid Leonard took every job he could find: selling newspapers, working in his cousin's card shop, shining shoes, setting up chairs for the Boston Pops....anything to make a few bucks.

Both Shatner and Nimoy started acting as eight-year-olds: Shatner in the Dorothy Davis School for actors and Nimoy in a small theater in the Boston settlement house where he lived. In 1949 Nimoy chose to forego college and travel to Hollywood to become an actor, a decision that left his parents bereft - "An actor? It's not a profession for a nice Jewish boy." Shatner went to McGill University for a few years, but quit and headed for New York to further his ambitions.

Both Shatner and Nimoy took numerous parts - small and large - to learn their craft, and the book contains details about their various roles in theater, television, and movies. As a young man Nimoy even acted in Yiddish Theater. I understand Yiddish and would have loved to see this. LOL

Early in his career Leonard was often cast as the bad guy, a crook or a gangster. He also played a boxer, a football player, and a Martian zombie - which was good preparation for Star Trek. In 1953 Leonard joined the Army Reserve, where he worked as a military entertainment specialist during his two year enlistment.

By the 1950's both Shatner and Nimoy had married and started families, which made it even more imperative to hustle up as many jobs as possible - since temporary acting gigs didn't pay much. Leonard improved his craft with acting lessons while working continuously, and in time became an acting coach himself. Shatner didn't take acting classes, but instead "learned by doing."

Of course Star Trek was a big break for both thespians. When Gene Roddenberry was developing Star Trek in the 1960s, he pictured Spock - who was originally supposed to be half-human, half-Martian - as a 'tall, lean, Lincoln-ish character who was highly intellectual, conveyed a sense of serenity, and had an internal struggle.' Later, Spock was changed to half-human, half-Vulcan.

In contrast to Leonard's dark, brooding Spock, Shatner's Captain Kirk was a blonde, hazel-eyed firecracker who was always running, jumping, fighting the villains, and getting the girls. Roddenberry filmed two Star Trek pilots, and the second one - starring Kirk, Spock, and the iconic crew - was picked up. The rest is history!

The character of Spock became an immediate sensation and Shatner admits he was jealous (at first) when Nimoy received the most fan mail and media attention. Still, there wasn't too much room for complaint because the entire show benefitted from Spock's popularity. Spock's two famous trademark moves - the Vulcan neck pinch and the the Vulcan salute - were created by Nimoy himself. The neck pinch was first used in lieu of bonking someome in the head (which would not be Spock-like behavior); and the Vulcan salute was adapted from a gesture used in Orthodox Jewish religious ceremonies. Of course the salute, known all around the world, is accompanied by the phrase: "Live Long and Prosper" (LLAP).

While filming Star Trek - which first aired from 1966 til 1969 - Nimoy became a functioning alcoholic. He started drinking heavily during the second or third season, perhaps in part because of tension between himself and the studio - which was controlling and cheap; and because the work left little time for his family - which resulted in estrangement from his wife and children. In any case, Nimoy's drinking continued for decades. It wasn't until Leonard's second wife convinced him to talk to someone from Alcoholics Anonymous in 1989 that he finally stopped drinking.

When the original series ended, Nimoy - wanting to demonstrate that he was more than just Spock - went on to do many other jobs. He starred in the television series Mission: Impossible; toured in plays like Fiddler on the Roof and The Man in the Glass Booth; appeared in musicals such as Oliver, Camelot, and My Fair Lady; made the film 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'; and more. Nimoy also wrote and starred in the play Vincent - based on the story of Vincent Van Gogh - and this was one of his proudest achievements. Besides all that Nimoy became a director, a professional photographer, a poet, an author, a singer, and a public speaker.

Shatner also continued his very successful career, but I'll skip that here.

In addition to his professional achievements, Leonard became an activist. He participated in Dr. Martin Luther King's Poor People Campaign; emceed local telethons for charities like United Cerebral Palsy and the March of Dimes; and got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Shatner and Nimoy sometimes appeared at events together, to support each other's favorite causes.

Though Shatner and Nimoy did many other things, Star Trek was far from finished. Conventions popped up around the country, and were important money-makers for the cast and crew. Because Shatner and Nimoy got top billing at these gatherings they were able to make demands: Shatner insisted on hot tea and Leonard demanded a pint of Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream in his dressing room (yum). The conventions led to spin-off series and movies.....and a lifetime of involvement for Shatner and Nimoy. (If you're interested, Shatner's books, Star Trek Memories and Star Trek Movie Memories provide comprehensive overviews.)

Over the years Shatner and Nimoy became more than professional colleagues.....they became close friends. The two actors enjoyed talking and joking together, and were notorious for playing practical jokes on each other. They also helped each other through difficult times, including their divorces; career concerns; the accidental drowning of Shatner's third wife - who was an alcoholic; and family difficulties. For many years Leonard was estranged from his son Adam, who drank and took drugs. Father and son reconciled - and worked together - before Leonard's death.

Nimoy was a heavy smoker for decades, and this caught up with him in later life. In 2014 Leonard was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). His voice became raspy, he developed breathing problems, and he eventually relied on an oxygen tank to aerate his lungs. When Leonard died from COPD in 2015, millions of people mourned him.

Shatner and Nimoy had a falling out a few years before Leonard died, for reasons that are unclear. However, Shatner notes: "I think about Leonard. I miss him. I can close my eyes and see him, young and handsome, tall and taciturn. I hear his voice in all its richness, infused with endless curiosity; and the sounds of his unhappiness as well as his laughter. LLAP my friend, my dear dear friend."

I echo that sentiment. Wherever you are, Leonard Nimoy, LLAP.

This book provides a quick summary of the lives of both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. I'm a big Star Trek fan and I enjoyed learning a bit about the lives of these two fine actors - who helped make the phenomenon such a huge success.


Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of "Blue Moonlight" by Vincent Zandri


 

Private Investigator Dick Moonlight - who has a bullet fragment in his head - is snatched up by the FBI, roughed up a bit, and accused of being a domestic terrorist. Turns out this is a ploy to force Dick to go to Florence, Italy to retrieve a flash drive containing nuclear secrets. The flash drive is in the hands of a trio composed of a rogue cop, a dirty FBI agent, and Dick's former girlfriend Lola - whom he still loves. The sinister threesome plan to sell the flash drive to the highest bidder, most likely dastardly Russians or Iranians.

Courtesy of the FBI, Dick gets some powerful guns and a fashionable wardrobe (to fit in with the snappy dressers in Florence) - and off he goes. From here, the story is a fast-paced thriller with Dick being threatened and chased by people who want to kill him. Dick performs some brave feats of derring-do while he attempts to retrieve the flash drive and make his way back to the U.S.

There is an array of engaging characters in the book starting with Dick (and his somewhat bullet-addled brain); a huge, intimidating FBI agent who calls Dick 'sweetie'; a couple of big, leather-clad Russian bad guys; a female FBI agent who takes a shine to Dick; and more.

There's no complicated plot in this book. It's basically just an action-packed story with lots of hitting, fighting, shooting, hiding, running, climbing, and so on. A quick, entertaining read.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, August 21, 2017

Review of "Darkness My Old Friend" by Lisa Unger



The Hollows has a lot of troubled people. Jones Cooper, a retired police officer is in therapy, bored, and looking for an outlet for his energy. Michael Holt, a disturbed young man whose father recently died - and whose gorgeous mother, Marla, disappeared long ago - asks a private eye to re-open his mother's case. The private investigator asks Cooper (the original investigator) to help look into Marla's disappearance, and Eloise Montgomery - a local psychic who sees ghosts - is also drawn into the hunt.

Fifteen-year-old Willow Graves is a chronic liar and runaway whose mother recently moved the two of them from NYC to The Hollows. Willow hates it there, makes some dubious friends, and continues to behave badly.

Then there are Kevin and Paula Carr. Kevin is a sociopath who controls and frightens his wife. She needs to get away from him, but how?

Though the central mystery of the story is 'what happened to Marla?' the other residents' dramas make up a good part of the book and provide some mild suspense.

I thought the characters were well-developed and the Marla story was moderately interesting. Most readers will probably guess Marla's whereabouts and who was involved with her disappearance. For me the book was just okay.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review of "Robert B. Parker's Kickback: A Spenser Novel" by Ace Atkins




Ace Atkins does a good job capturing the feel of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, with a straightforward plot and characters that feel authentic.

As the story opens a distraught mother from Blackburn, Massachusetts, armed with one of Spenser's favorite sandwiches as inducement, asks the private investigator to help her son Dillon Yates. The teen has been sentenced to 9 months in a privately run juvenile lockup for the 'crime' of 'twitter-pranking' his vice principal. Spenser soon learns that Judge Joe Scalli, who presides over youth hearings in Blackburn, is notorious for sending kids to privately run jails - almost always without benefit of counsel.

Further investigation reveals that Judge Scalli and others - including another Blackburn judge, a network of mobsters, and a crooked attorney - are part of a complex crime network that has connections to the juvie jails. And the lockups, whose main purpose is making money, hire inept administrators and sadistic guards. Scenes of Dillon and his fellow inmates in juvie prison are interspersed through the story, and they're quite disturbing.

Spenser wants to get Dillon out of jail, expose the judges, and close down the corrupt prisons. Since the PI has all kinds of useful acquaintances he soon rounds up people to assist him. As part of Spenser's inquiries he travels to Florida with his friend Hawk - one of the toughest characters in literature. Of course Spenser and Hawk exchange clever quips with tough guys, get in fights, shoot people...the usual. I especially like the scene where Spenser and Hawk make a surprise visit to Dillon's prison. I don't think it's a spoiler to say this doesn't bode well for some bad guys.

Spenser also spends time with his longtime love Susan, hangs out with his dog Pearl, and waxes eloquent about soup dumplings and lobster rolls (which made me very hungry). Spenser is clearly getting on in years and - in this story - recovering from a knee injury. I'll admit the idea of Spenser's mortality makes me sad. :(

The story, though fictional, makes a good point about private prisons - which seem ripe for corruption, bribery, kickbacks, etc.


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Review of "Depraved Heart" by Patricia Cornwell




This is the 23rd book in the 'Kay Scarpetta' series and - though you don't need to be familiar with all the previous books to understand what's going on - you should read at least a few. To give you some background, I'll provide a brief synopsis of the main characters:

Dr. Kay Scarpetta is a medical examiner who's so notorious that she's in the sights of many criminals, especially the satanic Carrie Grethen - a psychopath who seems impossible to kill. Kay also appears to be on the outs with the FBI, but the reason isn't totally clear (to me).

Kay's niece, Lucy Farinelli, is a genius and former FBI agent who was dismissed from the agency some time ago. While Lucy was with the FBI, evil Carrie Grethen was her mentor - and their ongoing 'relationship' has caused no end of trouble. Lucy now runs a high tech security company and is VERY savvy about weapons, computers, and every kind of technology. Lucy used her smarts to become immensely wealthy and she and her girlfriend Janet now live in a mansion/fortress filled with expensive art and furnishings. Lucy also owns and flies planes and helicopters, and has an arsenal of weapons that would be the envy of a small country.

Kay's husband, Benton Wesley, is a top profiler for the FBI. Kay and Benton have a complex history that's detailed in previous books. Benton is tall, silver-haired (by now), and handsome - and he has to tiptoe around Kay's fractious relationship with the FBI. How these two stay married is a wonder to me. LOL

Pete Marino is a cop whom Kay has known - and worked with - for many years. Pete is a big coarse, loudmouth who's at least half in love with Kay - which has caused BIG problems in the past. I've often wished Pete would fall off the face of the earth, but he's toned down in this book, so I'm giving him another chance. (Ha ha ha)

**********

As the story opens Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the Chief Medical Examiner in Cambridge, Massachusetts - and cop Pete Marino - are at the scene of a suspicious death. While Kay is doing her job she receives an enigmatic video clip on her phone. In the video, made 20 years ago, Carrie Grethen is saying that Lucy Farinelli possessed an illegal weapon while she was a student at the FBI Academy. Kay jumps to the conclusion that Carrie - who 'died' in a helicopter crash some time ago - is still alive.....and about to cause trouble for Lucy.

Kay is unnerved by the video clip. So, without completing her analysis of the crime scene, she orders the body of the deceased girl - Chanel Gilbert - to be taken to the medical examiner's office. Kay then leaves the site and rushes over to Lucy's house with Pete Marino.

When Kay and Pete arrive at Lucy's house, the FBI is there - armed with warrants. The FBI agents, one of whom 'has it in' for Lucy, are grabbing ALL of Lucy's weapons and going through her estate with a fine tooth comb.....clearly looking for something.

Kay thinks the FBI is looking for a video taken two months ago. At that time Kay was scuba diving to observe a dead body when she was wounded in the leg with a harpoon. Kay claims that Carrie Grethen shot her, but the dive camera has disappeared, so she can't prove it. The FBI thinks Carrie is dead, and suspects Kay is deluded or lying.

In Kay's mind, the FBI is trying to make it look like Lucy harpooned her. This seems nuts on the face of it, since Kay raised Lucy from childhood and the two women are as close as as two sardines in a tin. However, Kay is convinced the FBI will do ANYTHING to take Lucy down.

At one point Kay finds out that her husband, Benton, knew in advance that the FBI would raid Lucy's compound, but - of course - kept mum because of his job with the agency. Kay isn't too thrilled with her husband's 'perifidy' - but Benton hints that he's got everything under control. Thus we're led to believe he has an end game in mind.

In any case, Kay goes back to the Chanel Gilbert death scene, and it's clear someone has tampered with the house: clocks have been wound, scented candles have been put out, the victim's car is gone, and a noise like a slamming door sounds periodically - though no one can identify the source. In addtion, an arrow contaminated with human tissue mysteriously appears in the locked medical examiner van. Kay is sure Carrie Grethen is responsible for all this - and that it's been done to somehow harm herself and Lucy.

All the action in the story takes place in a single day, during which Kay learns how Chanel Gilbert died; what Gilbert's secret occupation was; and secrets about Gilbert's house. Kay also discovers more about the harpooning incident - things that she apparently misremembered. In addition, Kay receives more enigmatic video clips on her phone. To Kay's dismay, a lot of this looks bad for Lucy, who might be arrested before long.

There's a lot of additional blather in the book about Carrie Grethen: her serious blood disorder; her fear of aging; medicines and salves she uses; and her severe mental illness - which no one quite understands. There's also talk about Carrie's sky-high IQ, which is in the super-genius realm (over 200). Apparently this makes Carrie almost superhuman, since - in this story - she kidnaps and kills trained cops and FBI agents right under the noses of their armed colleagues. There's also a graphic depiction of Carrie's sadism, which is quite disturbing.

By the end of the book some things are resolved - like who killed Chanel Gilbert.....but loose ends remain. I suppose these will be addressed in the next book.

My favorite Kay Scarpetta books have the medical examiner doing a forensic examination of a body (or bodies), then trying to identify and capture the perp - who's usually a weird and fascinating freak. Marino, Lucy, and Benton generally assist with the investigation, and frequently have side stories of their own. The 'Kay crew' generally find themselves in serious danger from criminals with nefarious plans, and it's all exciting and compelling.

"Depraved Heart" is a completely different book, and I didn't like it much. Kay just frets and worries through the entire story, and her paranoia and suspicion are over the top. Kay is certain the FBI is her mortal enemy, trying to destroy Lucy and herself. Kay figures the FBI's 'Plan A' is to set Lucy up for assassination by confiscating her weapons. Their 'Plan B' is to frame Lucy for a crime and send her to prison.

To me, it's UNBELIEVABLE the FBI would waste time and resources messing with Kay and Lucy. And for a woman as brilliant as Kay to succumb to this notion is ludicrous. Of course Lucy believes this too, but she's always been narcissistic and egocentric - thinking everyone revolves around her - so that doesn't count. Maybe I've watched too many seasons of 'Criminal Minds' but I don't think of the FBI as chock full of people with nasty personal agendas.

In my opinion, Patricia Cornwell has gone completely off the rails with this addition to the series. If Kay Scarpetta doesn't get back on track - solving crimes and catching murderers - I'm done with these books.

I can't recommend this book but - in all fairness - I have to note that the reviews are all over the place, and many people LOVE 'Depraved Heart.' Thus, if you're a fan of the series you should probably read the book and decide for yourself.


Rating: 2 stars

Friday, August 18, 2017

Review of "The Infinite Sea" by Rick Yancey


 

This is the second book in a trilogy that started with "The Fifth Wave."

As the book opens most humans have been wiped off the Earth by an alien race and a small group of young survivors (ranging from kindergartners to teens) are struggling to survive. For the moment they're holed up in a run-down motel infested with rats. The book basically follows several storylines. First, teen Ringer, an excellent shot, takes off to scout out a better home for the winter. She soon runs into big trouble and her story picks up again towards the latter part of the book.

Meanwhile, a small cadre of survivors, including Ben (the group leader), Cassie, her little brother Sam, and a few other survivors remain in the hotel. Cassie is awaiting the return of Evan, an unusual boy who promised he'd find her after the catastrophic finale of book one. Evan was badly injured and has been nursed back to health by Stella, who's his female counterpart. Evan and Stella have different goals, however, which leads to some of the more dramatic scenes in the story.

For the most part, there's not a lot of action in this book. The characters speculate a lot about the aliens' reasons for coming to Earth, why they didn't just annilihate the entire human race with a meteorite, why some aliens have 'downloaded' themselves into human bodies, and so on. As a reader, I hoped some of this would be explained in book two - but it wasn't.

This book is clearly just a bridge in the trilogy. By the end Ringer has had some experiences which (presumably) will be important in book three and the other surviving members of the crew are also poised to forge ahead. Overall the book is disappointing but I'll read book three in hopes of getting the scoop about what's going on with the aliens.



Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of "In This Grave Hour" by Jacqueline Winspear



On the day Britain enters World War II, private detective Maisie Dobbs gets a visit from her old colleague, Dr. Francesca Thomas. Francesca, a Belgian national, asks Maisie to investigate the death of Frederick Addens - a Belgian refugee who came to Britain as a teenager during World War I.....and never went home. Instead, Addens made a life in England and became a railway engineer.

Addens was shot in the head while kneeling, which seems like deliberate murder to Francesca. However, Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell of Scotland Yard contends that the railway man was killed during a robbery. Moreover, Scotland Yard is especially taxed during the gear up for war, and isn't making much progress catching Addens' killer. So Maisie takes Francesca's case and starts looking into Addens' death with the assistance of her employees, Billy and Sandra.

Shortly afterward another Belgian refugee from World War I - a banker named Albert Durant - is killed. Scotland Yard again connects the homicide with a robbery. However, Maisie learns that both Addens and Durant were shot with the same kind of gun, and concludes that the killings are linked.

Maisie interviews people who assist Belgian war refugees.....and some of them also turn up dead. The detective decides that the key to all these murders lies in Belgium, and makes her way there - a VERY diffcult undertaking during wartime. While on the continent, Maisie gleans information that helps her solve the crimes.

Though the murder mystery is at the heart of the story, the book provides fascinating glimpses into London during the early days of World War II. Everyone carries gas masks at all times, barrage balloons hover above the city, and blackouts are mandatory at night - when even a tiny chink of light will garner a visit from the 'light police.' In addtion, many children are evacuated to the country, and schools are re-purposed for wartime activities.

A secondary plotline involves the evacuation of a small girl named Anna, about five years old, to Chelstone Manor - the estate of Maisie's patron. At the manor, Maisie's father and stepmother help look after the child, whose family is unknown. Furthermore, Anna refuses to speak and clings tenaciously to a little suitcase she brought along. When Maisie visits Chelstone Manor she's very taken with the girl, and becomes determined to help her. Maisie's dad warns his daughter not to get too involved with Anna - who will have to leave at some point - but Maisie can't help herself. This part of the story is sweet and moving.

The war causes all kinds of concerns. Maisie's office assistant Sandra - who's pregnant - is worried about bringing a child into a conflicted world. Everyone thinks about the inevitable rationing of food and fuel. People are frightened of German bombs. And so on.

There are a great many ancillary characters in the story, and I had some trouble remembering who's who. All in all, however, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of historical mysteries.

This is the 13th book in the Maisie Dobbs series, but can be read as a standalone without missing much.


Rating: 3 stars

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review of "Anatomy of a Scandal" by Sarah Vaughan



James Whitehouse seems to have it all. He grew up privileged, went to school at Eton and Oxford, and is now a junior government minister with a promising future. James has a beautiful wife, Sophie, and two sweet children, Emily and Toby - whom he dotes on. For her part, Sophie adores her husband - a tall, handsome, charismatic man who still makes her heart flutter after twelve years of marriage.

Unfortunately, a costly mistake is about to shatter James' world.

James was a 'player' in his youth, and Oxford University was a particularly rich playground. James and Sophie became a couple at college, but James still hooked up with other co-eds all the time - thinking it was his natural right. James and Sophie broke up for other reasons, but met again seven years later - and got married. Once he wed, James made up his mind to be a faithful husband and good father - and he stuck to his pledge for a long time.....until five months ago.

At that time James started an affair with his parliamentary researcher, Olivia Lytton - a lithe, blonde, beautiful 28-year-old. The affair began almost accidentally, but escalated to the point where James and Olivia shared a hotel room at a Tory party conference. James broke off the liaison soon afterward, leaving Olivia bereft and heartbroken. Nevertheless, a week or so later James and Olivia had one last romp in an elevator in Parliament - an equivocal incident that Olivia now views as rape. The authorities agree with her, and James is put on trial.

The story is told from the rotating points of view of several of the main characters, including James, his wife Sophie, and QC Kate Woodcroft, who's prosecuting the case. The story also has flashbacks to the early 1990s, when James and other characters were students at Oxford.

In the present, Sophie is crushed by her husband's perfidy. But she's a political wife, and feels pressured to put the best face on things. Sophie talks about her raw emotions, her concerns about her children, her belief in James' innocence, and the terrible impact the trial has on her. She also remembers back when she was a co-ed in college, where she was a rower with high hopes for her future.

QC Kate is thrilled to have such a high profile case to prosecute. The lawyer is divorced with no children, and devotes most of her time to work. Socially, Kate likes to visit with her best friend Ali, and has the occasional tryst with Richard, her married former pupil-master.

Kate believes that Olivia was raped, and badly wants James to be found guilty. She's aware, though, that a jury will be reluctant to convict a respected government official - especially one as good-looking and charming as James. Thus, Kate's quite anxious about the trial.

For his part, James feels guilty about the affair with Olivia, and wants to make things right with his wife. Assuming he gets exonerated of the rape charge, James thinks he can survive the scandal and rehabilitate his career. That's because James is best friends with the current Prime Minister, Tom Southern.

James and Tom met at Eton, and attended Oxford together. There they belonged to an elite dining club called The Libertines, who were renowned for their bad behavior.....generally smoothed over with large handfuls of cash. In 1993, an unfortunate incident at Oxford left Tom in James' debt. In fact, Tom owes James big time!

The book is largely a character study, showing how people are molded by their life experiences - and how they react to a humiliating public scandal. James' trial and its aftermath are compelling, and I was curious to see the ramifications for everyone involved. I'm not a proponent of 'stand by your man no matter what', so I especially wanted to find out what Sophie does. I won't say any more because of spoilers.

The storyline seems quite realistic, since sexual peccadillos among prominent men are a dime a dozen. Just off the top of my head: Bill Clinton, David Petraeus, Eliot Spitzer, Gary Condit, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner.....and fictional Peter Florrick (The Good Wife) and Fitzgerald Grant (Scandal). On that note - except for the addition of the alleged rape - the story in 'Anatomy of a Scandal' isn't that original.

It might be an intriguing change to see a book about an unfaithful woman Prime Minister (or whatever) whose husband has to 'stand by his gal.' (LOL) Still, this type of gossipy tale is always engaging and - for the most part - I enjoyed the book.

On the downside the characters inner musings are excessive, and there's too much minutiae in each of their narratives....too much description of every little thing they say and do. This slowed down the story and made me impatient to get on with the action.

All in all, this is a good suspense novel, and I'd recommend it to fans of that genre.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Sarah Vaughan), and the publisher (Atria/Emily Bestler Books) for a copy of the book.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review of "Curse of the Spellmans" by Lisa Lutz




Thirty-year-old Isabel (Izzy) Spellman - as well as her mom, dad, and teenage sister Rae - all work for the family private detective business. Spying seems to be ingrained in the Spellman DNA because, besides taking on cases, they constantly snoop on each other and anyone else who comes into their orbit.

Izzy is always on the alert for a new boyfriend (or as she puts it, a new future ex-boyfriend), so an attractive fellow who moves in next door to the Spellmans quickly catches her eye. Izzy immediately becomes suspicious, though, because the guy's name is John Brown (sounds phony) and he's a landscaper (seems fishy). John Brown soon becomes "The Subject" of Izzy's inquiries and she engages in various ruses to try to discover his place and date of birth and his SS number - so she can pry into his life. The subject is pretty cagey though and Izzy is stymied. Then, when nosey Izzy discovers that the subject keeps a door in his apartment locked, she becomes obsessed with getting into the closed room. Izzy's increasingly desperate (and funny) attempts to break in eventually lead to a restraining order and four arrests....a serious matter, because she could lose her P.I. licence.

All this is quite entertaining and leads Izzy to other humorous situations including: meetings with a wise octogenarian lawyer who can't get the temperature of his coffee quite right; staying with a staid police inspector who has a lot of house rules; watching a bunch of episodes of "Dr. Who"; paying her teen sister Rae (a very tough negotiator) for services rendered; and more.

Meanwhile, Izzy is trying to find out who's committing vandalism on a retired teacher's yard displays....a crime that eerily resembles some of Izzy's youthful misbehavior. To top it off, EVERY member of the Spellman family seems to have a secret. Dad is working out on the sly and eating healthy; mom is creeping out at night; Rae has mysterious new friends; and attorney brother David is (uncharacteristically) dirty and drunk. Of course Izzy feels compelled to find out what's going on with everyone.

The book is entertaining but I found Izzy to be irritating. She has no boundaries, is intrusive, never asks permission, and seems oblivious of other people's feelings. In real life a person who met Izzy would probably want to move to the other side of the country.....or world. Still, the story is fun and would probably appeal to fans of comical cozy mysteries.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review of "Remains of Innocence" by J.A. Jance




Massachusetts resident Selma Matchett, a cantakerous, mean-sprited hoarder, is estranged from both her children, Liza and Guy. When Selma enters hospice care, Liza cleans out her mom's house and finds nearly $150,000 hidden in books and magazines. Liza proceeds to spend some of the cash to renovate her mother's decrepit house for sale. Then, at Selma's funeral, an old man approaches Liza and tells her that be once knew her long-absent father and that Liza needs to be careful because some people 'don't forget'. Murder and mayhem soon begin and Liza takes off across the country on the 'underground railroad' operated by long-haul truckers, which is meant for abused women. Liza's plan is to get to her older brother Matthew in Bisbee, Arizona to see if he can explain what's going on.

Meanshile, across the country in Bisbee, Sheriff Joanna Brady has a lot to deal with. Junior, a handicapped man beloved by his adoptive parents and the community, is found murdered - his body lying in a cave with the remains of several abused animals and a live but tortured kitten. Joanna fears a budding serial killer might be responsible. The medical examiner, Dr. Guy Matchett (Liza's brother), is scheduled to do Junior's autopsy but he is soon found brutally murdered himself, his body showing evidence of torture. Joanna thinks the Junior and Guy deaths are unrelated and - when she's contacted by authorities in Massachusetts looking for Liza - concludes there's a connection between the crimes in Massachusetts and what happened to Guy Matchett.

The story skips back and forth between Liza's trek across the U.S. and Joanna's investigations in Arizona. Liza is handed off from one long haul rig to another and meets a series of interesting personalities along the way. In the Arizona sections, Joanna has a competent team of deputies and crime scene analysts and their work is well-described and informative. Joanna's family also plays a part in the story, including her supportive husband Butch, rodeo-loving daughter Jenny, and the family dogs and horses. This adds a homey touch to the book.

Joanna solves Junior's murder with the help of forensic evidence and the Matchett case with the help of federal authorities. The Machett solution, however, didn't quite ring true for me. This book is a fine addition to the Joanna Brady series and recommended for mystery fans.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of "Bad Blood" by Arne Dahl




Stockholm's Intercrime Unit A squad deals with serious crimes that extend beyond Sweden's borders. As this second book in the Nordic crime series opens, the team hasn't had a case in quite some time and is concerned about being split up.

Before that happens though, the FBI calls Unit A leader, Detective Superintendent Jan-Olov Hultin, to report that a Swedish literary critic named Lars-Erik Hassel has been murdered at Newark International Airport.....and the killer is on a plane headed for Stockholm.

The FBI tells DS Hultin that - before he was killed - critic Hassel was rendered mute by a diabolical device inserted into his neck.....and mercilessly tortured. This is the modus operandi of a serial murderer called the Kentucky Killer, who first used this torture method during the Vietnam War - to squeeze information out of the enemy. Afterwards, the Kentucky Killer employed this technique for his own deadly purposes. However, the Kentucky Killer died in a fiery car crash many years ago. So it looks like a copycat killer is on his way to Sweden.

Detectives from Unit A are deployed to Stockholm Airport to try to apprehend the copycat when he deplanes. However, there are too many passengers and too much confusion, and the murderer gets away. As the intercrime unit waits for the killer to make his next move they investigate Lars-Erik Hassel, to see who might have wanted the literary critic dead. Turns out Hassel was a self-important snob who mistreated his former wives and skewered many writers, ruining their careers. Almost everyone disliked Hassel, including his son. Was Hassel's murder random? A hit? Something else?

Meanwhile, the copycat killer gets busy in Sweden, and dead bodies turn up here and there. The police try to see connections among the victims, but make slow progress. Thus two members of Unit A, Detective Paul Hjelm and Detective Kerstin Holm, fly to the U.S. to consult FBI Special Agent Ray Larner - who spent years pursuing the Kentucky Killer. Hjelm and Holm makes important discoveries in America.....and their colleagues back home also obtain new evidence. This leads to some startling discoveries and a dramatic denouement.

The detectives in Unit A are an interesting bunch who navigate diverse private and professional lives. Paul Hjelm and Kirstin Holm deal with the aftermath of their illicit affair; Gunnar Nyberg - a former Mr. Sweden - is torn with guilt about his previous bad behavior; computer whiz Jorge Chavez adds a light, exotic touch to the team; and so on. The ongoing characters add engaging elements to the novel.

Although this is the second book in the series, it can be read as a standalone. I enjoyed the story and recommend it to fans of Scandinavian thrillers.


Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review of "The Handsome Man's Deluxe Café" by Alexander McCall Smith




As the story opens Mma Precious Ramotswe has made her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi - now happily married with a new baby - a partner in the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." This makes little difference to Grace's job duties, however, since business is sparse. Economic problems also make it necessary for Mma Ramotswe's husband, Mr. J.L.B. Mateconi - who owns a garage - to fire his lackadaisical apprentice Charlie. Feeling bad for Charlie, Mma Ramotswe offers him a position in her detective agency - a chancy proposition since Charlie would rather put on flashy outfits and chase ladies than do his work.

Meanwhile Mma Ramotswe is looking into the case of an Indian woman, called "Mrs." who apparently has lost her memory. Mrs. has been taken in by a kindly Indian brother and sister who hire Mma Ratowswe to find out who Mrs. is before the authorities deport her to South Africa.

Also on Mma Ramotswe's mind is a new project of Mma Makutski, who has decided to open a café and call it "The Handsome Man's Deluxe Café." Unfortunately Mma Makutski has little knowledge of the restaurant industry and makes some unfortunate hiring and menu decisions.

As always in this series the story meanders along, with many cups of tea and homey chit-chat among the characters. Mma Makutski, a strong-minded lady with definite opinions, is her usual abrasive - though amusing - self and Mma Ramotswe does her best to smooth things over as always.

As a heads up to mystery lovers I'll say there's little mystery or detective work in this book. It's more of an update about what the familiar, well-liked characters are up to. The author's relaxed method of story-telling is what makes these books charming and enjoyable and fans of the series will probably like this book.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of "Deal Breaker" by Harlan Coben




Myron Bolitar was a basketball phenomenon in high school and college and an early draft pick for the NBA. Unfortunately he was severely injured in his first exhibition game and had to quit basketball. Instead Myron got a law degree and became a sports representative. Now in his early thirties Myron represents a small stable of players, including football player Christian Steele - a star college quarterback who's just been drafted by the Titans.

Myron is a master of wisecracks and sarcastic remarks and is endlessly amusing to himself (and probably many readers). He reminds me of Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' and Rex Stout's 'Archie' in the Nero Wolfe books.

In any case, Myron is having trouble negotiating Christian's contract because the thuggish owner of the Titans, wanting to knock down the pay package, says Christian has a public relations problem. His beautiful girlfriend Kathy Culver disappeared 18 months ago and Christian was suspected of being involved. And Kathy (or her body) has never been found.

Just before training camp begins Christian, in a highly agitated state, calls Myron. Someone has sent him the latest edition of 'Nips' Magazine, a soft-porn rag that contains ads for phone sex. Shockingly, one of the ads features a nude picture of Kathy. Moreover Christian received a phone call from someone who sounds like his missing girlfriend.

At about the same time Myron's drop-dead gorgeous ex-girlfriend Jessica Culver (Kathy's older sister) shows up. Dr. Culver, her pathologist father, was just killed by a mugger and Jessica thinks this might be connected to Kathy's vanishing. Since Myron has known investigative skills, Jessica asks him to look into it.

So Myron investigates, with the help of his old college roommate Windsor Horne Lockwood III. Win is a rich, blonde, handsome, American aristocrat - but his dapper, dandyish appearance is misleading. Win is a sixth degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do, handy with guns, and perfectly happy to maim and kill his (or Myron's) enemies if necessary. In fact, Win is a sociopath (but a lovable one if he's on your side).

As Myron does the dual jobs of working out Christian's contract and looking into the 'Nips' and Kathy situation he comes across various thugs and shady characters as well as a college dean, a seductive married woman, a detective, Dr. Culver's best friend, a porn magazine publisher, a porn photographer, Kathy's mother, former college football players, and more. Most of the male characters are flat and blur together, so I had a problem remembering who was who. We do get to meet a regular in the series, Myron's assistant Esperanza - a Latin fireball who used to wrestle under the moniker 'Little Pocahontas'. Esperanza is always an entertaining senorita.

The first two-thirds or so of the book moves along pretty smoothly. Then, when Myron starts to figure out the truth about Kathy's disapperance, the story gets convoluted, confusing, and (frankly) not believable. Another irritant in the book is Myron's constant gushing about how beautiful his ex-girlfriend Jessica is. He mentions this on about every third or fourth page. At one point Jessica walks past an elegant society party and the jaws of ALL the men in the room drop as they turn to stare at her. (Come on!!! Really???)

It feels like, in this first book, Harlen Coben hasn't found his 'Myron Bolitar' legs yet. The book reminds me of the pilot episode of a TV series that starts out shaky but gets better later on. Overall I'd mildly recommend this book to mystery fans - not for the story but for a first meeting with characters that might just become favorites over time.


Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review of "The Little Book of Hygge" by Meik Wiking



Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) - the Danish art of living well - has become quite trendy these days. To find out what it's all about I read 'The Little Book of Hygge' by Meik Wiking (pronounced Mike Viking). Wiking is the CEO of 'The Happiness Research Institute' - a Danish think tank that studies satisfaction, happiness, and the quality of life.

In a nutshell, hygge is a feeling of well-being that can be engendered by pleasant surroundings, tasty food, and good company.....or whatever else makes you feel safe and content. As Wiking describes it, hygge is 'an atmosphere, an experience' - what we feel when we're with people we love in a warm and comfortable place.

Things that promote hygge are called 'hyggelig.' For instance, the following would be hyggelig: a small group of friends sitting around a fireplace in a cabin, wearing big jumpers (sweaters) and wooly socks, drinking malt wine. It would be even more hyggelig if a storm was raging outside. LOL

Danish people strive to have all their life experiences be as hyggelig as possible. They try to have hyggelig homes; go to hyggeling restaurants; entertain hyggelig visitors; play hyggelig games; work at hyggelig jobs; go on hyggelig trips; etc.

**********

A lot of creating hygge is common sense, but - if you want some pointers - Wiking provides a guide:

- Use lots of candles. The Danes place candles everywhere - in bedrooms living rooms, bathrooms, classrooms, boardrooms, etc.

- Place dim lighting in strategic locations. Wiking recommends light fixtures designed by Poul Henningsen, whose lamps provide soft, diffuse light.

- Create a feeling of togetherness with friends and relatives; togetherness is 'like a hug without touching.'

- Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Spend a lot of time with your family.

- Socilaize with friends and colleagues.

- Good food. Danish people like meat and potatoes.....and they love sweets - especially cake. A traditional feature of Danish children's birthday parties is 'Cakeman' - a pastry in the shape of a large gingerbread man, decorated with flags, sweets, and candles.

In the book, Wiking includes recipes for a few of his favorite Danish dishes. One is called Skipperlabskovs (Skipper Stew), which is brisket sitting in potato mash - served wtih pickled beets and rye bread.

- Hot beverages. Danes love coffee. If you watch Danish TV series, the characters are always making coffee, drinking coffee, and offering each other coffee.....(like tea in British TV series....LOL)

- Comfortable clothing. For professional wear, Danish men like a T-shirt or sweater under a blazer, usually in black or gray. Danes don't favor three-piece-suits. For casual wear, Danes like a comfortable jumper.....with leggings for girls or skinny jeans for boys. And Danes LOVE scarves.

- Casual hairdos. Danish hairstyles are 'wake up and go'.....or maybe a loose bun for women.

- Comfortable furnishings. Danes enjoy interior decorating, and their decor often includes wood furniture, vintage items, and an open fireplace and/or a wood-burning stove.

- Blankets and cushions. Necessary for snuggling up and getting cozy.

**********

After providing this overview of hygge, Wiking goes on to talk about how to be hyggelig outside the home; during every month of the year - from January to December; and during every season of the year. Wiking also describes various hyggelig experiences he's had with his friends, and writes about his happiness research.

Wiking's suggestions for hyggelig pastimes include things like: spend a weekend in a cabin; have a cooking party with your friends; go out on a rowboat and bring a picnic basket; put couches in your office; have a movie night - with popcorn; go to a hyggelig restaurant and order pickled herring and schnapps; buy confections at a bakery; enjoy exhibitions of Christmas lights; have smorrebrod (an open sandwich on rye bread) with beer or schnapps; read a good book; and so on.

You can probably think up hundreds of 'hyggelig' activities yourself. For example, here's one: invite a couple of friends over; watch Netlfix; bring in Mexican food; drink sangria....and later on - have chocolate eclairs for dessert. If you have some hygge suggestions, feel free to comment below.

Wiking sums up his treatise on hygge by noting that a complete hygge experience includes 'taste, sound, smell, and texture.'
- Hyggelig tastes are familiar and sweet.
= Hyggelig sounds might be: the crackling of burning wood; the pitter patter of raindrops; and trees waving in the breeze.
- Hyggelig smells could be aromas that trigger fond memories.
- Hyggeling textures might be wooden surfaces; smooth ceramic cups; and reindeer fur.

I feel like I gained a pretty good understanding of hygge from Wiking's book. However, Wiking's numerous suggestions for 'hyggelig experiences' got very repetitive.....and after awhile, it seemed like a lot of padding to have enough words for an entire book.

Still, if you're curious about hygge, this is a good crash course.


Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Review of "After the Storm" by Linda Castillo




A ferocious tornado rips through Painters Mill, Ohio causing damage and fatalities. Two consequences of the tornado are especially relevant to Chief of Police Kate Burkholder. First, Kate rescues a baby from a crumpled trailer. The baby later dies and the parents blame Kate. Second, the bones of a man who disappeared decades ago are found among the ruins of an old barn on an Amish farm. Kate - who was raised Amish but left the fold long ago - investigates with her detectives.

Though it takes the police some time to identify the dead man the reader can guess who it is pretty quickly from the book's prolog where a man is pushed into a pen of hogs and eaten.

Meanwhile, Kate is now living with her boyfriend, investigator John Tomasetti, from whom she's hiding a secret. To add to Kate's problems, someone is trying to kill her - and Kate suspects it's the baby's meth-head father. He's elusive, though, and the police can't track him down.

The investigation into the dead man requires Kate to question several Amish families, who are less than cooperative. Nevertheless, Kate is able to put together a number of clues, connect the dots, and get on track to solve the crime. This isn't all smooth sailing because Kate tends to be reckless and keeps putting herself in dangerous situations - a bad idea when someone is trying to kill you.

The plot is well-crafted and the book's characters - including the various suspects, Kate's detectives, the police dispatchers, Kate's family, the baby's parents, and more - add interest to the story. I also liked the peeks into the Amish community, including aspects of their lifestyle and beliefs. I enjoyed the book and recommend it highly to mystery fans.


Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review of "How the Light Gets In" by Louise Penny



In the 9th book in the series Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a troubled guy: his best homicide detectives have been transferred out of his squad and he's been saddled with a bunch of lazy losers; his former mentee Lt. Jean-Guy Beavoir is not speaking to him and is once again abusing prescription drugs; he's still trying to ferret out corrupt individuals in the Sûreté du Québec (police department) and in return the powers that be want him gone; and he's landed a homicide investigation involving elderly Constance Oullet, the last member of the once famous Oullet quintuplets.

Turns out Constance Oullet recently visited the village of Three Pines, where Gamache has good friends and where he adopted his beloved German Shepherd Henri. Gamache simultaneously investigates the Oullet murder and assembles a secret squad that retreats to Three Pines in an effort to foil an evil plot hatched by the above-mentioned corrupt individuals.

The story is well-crafted and engrossing though there are some slow spots about the lives of the quints and the 'voyeur-industry' that sprang up around them. The characters are well-drawn and the residents of Three Pines are the kind of loyal friends we'd all like to have.

Every book needs a light side and there's an endearing scene where Henri (the dog) falls in love with Rose (the duck). All of Gamache's determined activity leads to an excellent, exciting conclusion. A good mystery.


Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review of "Every Last Lie" by Mary Kubica




Nick and Clara Solberg seem to be a happily married, successful young couple living on the outskirts of Chicago.....until something terrible happens.

Nick is driving his little girl home from ballet class when a terrible accident takes his life.....and miraculously spares his four-year-old daughter Maisie. Nick's wife Clara - who's home nursing their 4-day-old infant Felix when the tragedy occurs - is shocked and disoriented by the loss. One minute she's married to a successful dentist, and the next she's a 28-year-old widow with two small children.

Clara has other problems as well. Her mother is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and her father - who cares for his wife with the help of an aide - can barely cope.

The police investigate the crash and conclude that Nick's reckless driving caused the accident. Clara refuses to accept this; she doesn't think Nick would put his child at risk. Clara's beliefs are reinforced when Maisie says 'a bad man' was following the car.....and freaks out at the sight of a black automobile. Clara concludes that someone in a black car forced Nick off the road - in other words, murdered him!

Clara does some investigating of her own, and talks to people who live near the accident site. She brings her 'evidence' to the police, who say they'll look into 'the black car' murder theory. However, the cops are clearly skeptical.

Meanwhile, Clara - a photographer with little income at the moment - knows she has to pull things together. She needs to collect Nick's life insurance to pay for hefty funeral expenses and household bills; and she has to sell Nick's dental practice. When Clara looks into doing these things, however, she discovers that Nick was keeping BIG secrets from her!

The story is told in the alternating voices of Nick and Clara. Nick relates his experiences before the accident; and Clara talks about what happens right before and then after the crash.

In Nick's narrative we learn that he had a big fight with his bullying neighbor across the street; he pulled the tooth of a patient from hell, with dire consequences; he fell out with his 'partner' in the dental practice; he gambled with the family's funds; he became reacquainted with his (now married) former girlfriend, whose son might be his; and so on. Nick was becoming undone by these problems - but felt he couldn't tell Clara because she was pregnant.

In Clara's chapters, we see her find out about Nick's secrets.....one by one. Clara discovers that the dental practice is in disarray and that Nick's life insurance policy was cancelled. Clara also sees a receipt for a pricey necklace among Nick's things and learns that a woman had a restraining order against him. These discoveries - and other 'clues' - lead Clara to speculate that Nick was having an affair; that he was a drug dealer; that he was planning to leave her; etc.

Clara adds to her own troubles by refusing to tell Maisie that her father is dead. Maisie's continual request 'to see daddy' is met with lies and misdirection.

On top of all that, Clara's parents are in crisis. Her mother no longer recognizes her; acts out when Clara's visits; and - when no one is looking - swipes the car keys and goes for rides. For his part, Clara's father seems to be having problems with his memory and is apparently mishandling the family's finances.

As Clara tries to identify Nick's killer; take care of her money woes; figure out who Nick really is; and take care of a toddler and an infant - she starts to break down. She can't sleep, can't eat, and edges toward becoming delusional - unable to separate speculation from fact. Moreover, Clara's paranoia is exacerbated by a real life 'stalker.'

The story is engaging and kept my attention, but at some point - around the middle of the book - the characters' woes started to strain credulity.

For instance, Nick's problems became so immense that I no longer believed he could keep them from his wife. A man with so much on his mind couldn't act act completely normal at home. Surely Clara would suss something out!

As for Clara, she seemed to lose all her common sense and - at one point - behaved like a psychopath.....with her children right there. I found this behavior to be unbelievable.

Even with these problems, though, the story is a compelling thriller with surprises I never saw coming. The book doesn't require much deep thinking and would be a good choice for vacation entertainment (IMO).


Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review of "Merchants in the Temple" by Gianluigi Nuzzi




"Merchants in the Temple" by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi is an exposé of the entrenched, morally suspect and financially unscrupulous culture of the Vatican. It's well known that power corrupts, that human nature can be self-serving, and that Church bigwigs are no angels....for many years they protected pedophile priests (as seen in the movie "Spotlight"). Still, I was shocked by the revelations in this story.

If Nuzzi is right, Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 because he couldn't deal with the engrained, powerful, self-indulgent, sometimes criminal (money laundering) Cardinals that run the Vatican. Benedict's resignation led to the election of Pope Francis, who apparently has a stronger stomach than Benedict. Pope Francis is determined to clean house - which has proven to be extremely difficult.

The book gives a detailed picture of financial shenanigans perpetrated by Cardinals and Vatican employees. I got a feel for what was going on but - there are so many people involved (with very long titles and names) and so much economic hocus pocus - it's very hard to understand the exact details and how it all works.

As far as I can tell the financial schemes and malfeasance in the Vatican involves: using donation money meant for poor parishes to bail out Vatican overspending; hiding money from auditors; laundering Mafia money; underwriting lavish apartments and lifestyles for Cardinals and other employees (food, wine, clothing, interior decorating, prostitutes/lovers, etc.); paying blackmail to keep Cardinals' sexual peccadillos out of the public eye (sexual liasions are supposedly very common among the Catholic clergy); patronage and nepotism - hiring WAY too many employees and paying excessively high salaries; using overpriced outside printshops for Vatican publications, rather than the fully capable Vatican printers; hiring contractors without getting estimates, and allowing them to overspend....with no oversight; permitting pension funds to become nearly bankrupt; being financially ignorant and inept (Cardinals aren't usually economists or businessmen); and more.

According to Nuzzi, Pope Francis has brought in financial experts and auditors- both religious and lay people - to fix some of this mess. However, the Cardinals have no intention of giving up their power. They resist reform; refuse to cooperate; pretend to cooperate; wage secret - and not so secret - campaigns to discredit the reformers; perhaps commit murder (Pope John Paul I died 33 days after he was elected, allegedly just before he was going to remove some Cardinals from power); and more.

Thus, Pope Francis might have to wait until the ensconced Cardinals reach mandatory retirement age (80) or die, and replace them with people he trusts. However, the 'power corrupts' problem might begin a new cycle of bad behavior (just my opinion)......

When I finished the book I admired Pope Francis but had very little respect for the Vatican. The self-serving Cardinals mentioned in the book apparently forgot what priests are supposed to do - minister to the Catholic people. In fact, the Catholic flock seems to be the last thing on their minds.

Overall, this is an interesting book, a real eye-opener - though perhaps a bit too detailed and confusing (though I admire the enormous amount of research Nuzzi must have done). In any case, I hope Pople Francis succeeds in his mission to 'fix' the Vatican and wish him luck.


Rating: 3.5 stars