Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review of "Dry Bones" by Craig Johnson




A huge Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton - perhaps the largest yet discovered - is found on the Wyoming ranch of elderly Cheyenne Danny Lone Elk. The dinosaur is dubbed 'Jen' after it's discoverer, Jennifer Watt. Jennifer and local paleontologist Dave Baumann prepare to dig out the skeleton for the local High Plains Dinosaur Museum. While the dinosaur is being excavated the corpse of Danny Lone Elk is found in the local snapping turtle pond, partially eaten by the aggressive shelled reptiles.

Because the 'Jen' skeleton is estimated to be worth more than eight million dollars it's ownership is soon disputed. The Cheyennes claim it's theirs, the Acting Deputy U.S. Attorney says it belongs to the state, and Jen and Dave insist they bought it from Danny for the Dinosaur Museum.

While the wrangling over the skeleton goes on, Sheriff Walt Longmire investigates the death of Danny Lone Elk and welcomes a visit from his daughter Cady and grandbaby Lola, who live in Philadelphia. Though there's speculation that a drunken Danny died when he fell into the turtle pond, further inquiries point to mercury poisoning as the cause of death. Who would want to murder Danny? Walt goes to the Lone Elk Ranch to talk to the old Indian's family - his brother, son, daughter, and grandson, each of whom has their own quirky issues.

As the story proceeds there's a tragic death connected to Walt's family, which may have been engineered by a psychopath with a grudge against Walt and his undersheriff Victoria Moretti. This story thread isn't pursued much, and may be fodder for a future book.

As Walt looks into Danny's death some of the possible suspects pull a vanishing act. Walt's pursuit of these individuals leads to plenty of action involving a recalcitrant Appaloosa, a ferocious thunderstorm, a helicopter, a hidden cave, a sinkhole whirlpool, etc. In the course of the story various characters are poisoned, almost killed in a flash flood, coldcocked with a rifle butt, shot, bruised, taken to the hospital, and so forth. Through it all Walt and his best friend Henry Standing Bear (AKA The Cheyenne Nation) show their mettle, two tough old soldiers who know how to get the job done. Walt's loyal pooch, 'Dog' also demonstrates some doggy smarts.

As I read the book I learned a little about Wyoming, Indian artifacts, snapping turtles, helicopters and dream visions. I was also impressed with Walt's common sense, affection for his family and friends, and just plain grit.

By the end of the book Danny's death is solved and the T. rex is getting a home. This is a good mystery in an engaging setting, recommended for fans of the genre.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Review of "Ink and Bone" by Lisa Unger




Ten months after her daughter Abbey was abducted during a vacation in 'The Hollows,' Merri Gleason returns to the upstate New York town. Desperate to find out what happened to her daughter, Merri hires cop turned private investigator Jones Cooper - who usually works with psychic Eloise Montgomery. This time, however, Eloise's gifted granddaughter Finley is getting paranormal 'messages' about the case.

Finley recently moved to The Hollows to be close to her supportive grandmother and to get away from her difficult mom and unfaithful beau. However Finley's cheating boyfriend Rainer followed her to town, hoping to redeem himself. Nevertheless Finley concentrates on her college classes and keeps Rainer at a distance - aside from going to his tattoo parlor to get inked.

As the story unfolds there are flashbacks to the Gleason family before and after the kidnapping. We learn that Merri's husband Wolf was having an affair that affected his judgment and behavior. The flashbacks alternate with what's going on in the present, including Cooper's investigation; Finley's psychic experiences; and accounts of a girl called Penny, who's being held prisoner by a hillbilly family.

During his inquiries Cooper discovers that, over the years, several girls have disappeared from The Hollows. WE learn that all these girls had some psychic abilities. And that's about all I can say without spoilers.

For me this isn't one of Lisa Unger's best books. The Penny parts are disturbing and slow down the story too much; the police investigations (prior to Cooper being hired) are inept; Merri and Finley are too 'understanding' of their cheating men - who should be cut loose immediately and forever; and the hillbilly people are more like caricatures than real humans. Moreover, the story's ending isn't quite satisfying.

Though I'm not a big fan of this book I'd probably read other stories by Unger.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review of "Sorrow Bound" by David Mark




Several recent gruesome murders in Hull are linked to serial rapist Sebastien Hoyer-Wood, who has been grievously disabled and institutionalized for many years. Detective Aector McAvoy, a large, capable, well-respected detective, takes the case. During his investigation McAvoy interviews a series of witnesses and uncovers what may have been scandalous medical and legal malpractice as well as an incident long ago when several people - not knowing who he was - helped save the rapist's life. It seems all this has somehow driven someone to murder.

Meanwhile, McAvoy's colleague Helen Tremberg - who is helping investigate drug gangs in Hull - inadvertently gets involved with a gang member, jeopardizing the drug investigation. And McAvoy's wife Roisin foils drug gang member Adam Downey when he attempts to retrieve his hidden cocaine from her friend's business, which seriously pisses off Downey and sets him on Roisin's trail.

The serial murderer and drug gang story lines are skillfully written and mesh together well; both are compelling and the revelation of the murderer is a believable twist. The author, David Mark, also does an excellent job with character development, and all the people - detectives, doctors, nurses, gang members, and so on - are well-drawn and believable. Mark also masterfully describes the almost unbearable hot, muggy weather during the police investigations; the reader can almost feel the fog and heat coming off the page.

My one quibble with the story is McAvoy's almost cloying adoration of his wife Roisin. I'm all in favor of affection between spouses but McAvoy's "obsession" with his wife made me uncomfortable.

All in all this is an excellent mystery book, very highly recommended.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review of "Mercies in Disguise" by Gina Kolata




One by one, members of the Baxley family of Hartsville, South Carolina - respected members of the devoutly Christian community - were struck by a devastating neurodegenerative illness. The first victim was family patriarch Bill Baxley. Bill's symptoms began with a shuffling walk, which escalated to stumbling, weaving, and lurching. As Bill's illness progressed his memory faded, he lost control of his hands, speech became difficult, and he was unable to eat without choking. Eventually Bill could no longer walk or talk. The senior Baxley was confined to a wheelchair, his face a frozen mask, only able to communicate by grunting, nodding, and clumsily pointing to an alphabet board. For sustenance, Bill was fed liquified meals prepared by his devoted wife, Merle. Bill's children - Billy, Mike, Buddy, Tim, and Andrea - looked on with sadness and dismay.

The medical community was mystified by Bill's illness. Starting in 1988, Bill's sons took him to doctor after doctor, all of whom diagnosed the sick man with 'a combination of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.' In desperation, sons Buddy and Tim - who were physicians - performed their own medical tests and devised their own treatments, but nothing helped and Papa Bill died in 1998.

Serendipitously, a woman at Bill's funeral - after some words of condolence to son Tim - mentioned, "I remember [Bill's] daddy walking through the plant. He had to hang on to the machines." This was the first hint that Bill's disease might be hereditary - passed from one generation to the next. Sadly, the inheritable nature of Bill's illness was confirmed when son Mike researched the family tree and found ancestors with the condition.

In time researchers learned that Bill's illness was related to two other neurodegenerative diseases, Kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). Kuru is a sickness seen in members of the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. In the 1950s and 60s, American doctor Daniel Carleton Gajdusek - who worked with the Fore - discovered that brains of Kuru victims are filled with tiny holes and contain amyloid plagues - similar to the brains of people with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

Gajdusek's research also showed that both Kuru and CJD are caused by infectious agents - thought to be 'slow viruses' - that could be transferred from one animal to another. Gajdusek won the 1976 Nobel Prize for his Kuru work, but was never able to isolate the 'slow virus.'

Following Gajdusek's studies, an Amerian scientist named Dr.Stanley Prusiner became determined to isolate the agents that cause Kuru and CJD. He discovered they aren't viruses at all. In fact, the culprits are defective proteins called 'prions' which can be passed from diseased to healthy individuals. Furthermore, mutated genes code for the nasty prions. In 1997, Prusiner also won a Nobel Prize for his work.

In 1999, still unaware of the identify of their disease, additional members of the Baxley family began to succumb. Oldest son Billy fell ill first, followed by his sibling Buddy, and then Aunt Faye (Papa Bill's sister). Enlightenment was on the horizon though. Tim Baxley - studying for his medical boards - came across an article about Gerrstmann-Sträussler–Scheinker Syndrome (GSS).....and came to realize this was his family's ailment Patients with GSS - like victims of other neurodegenerative diseases - have brains filled with tiny holes, plaques, and damaged neurons.

By the early 2000's a blood test could detect the presence of the gene that causes GSS. This created a dilemma for the Baxleys. Would at-risk family members want to know if they were destined to fall ill.....or would they prefer to remain in the dark? Brothers Mike and Tim were tested early and learned they were free of the deadly mutation. Other Baxleys were more ambivalent, especially sick Buddy's children.

Buddy's daughter Amanda was a rebellious teen who grew up to become a nurse practitioner. For years Amanda wrestled with the problem of being tested for GSS - did she want to know if she had the gene or not? In time, hoping to get married, Amanda HAD to know! A good portion of the book tells her story.

Gina Kolata covers a lot of territory in this book. She gives a brief overview of neurodegenerative diseases and prions - and describes the work of Gujdusek and Prusiner in some detail. All of this is very interesting and informative. Kolata also provides a sympathetic picture of the extended Baxley family, all of whom show remarkable strength and faith in the midst of their ongoing ordeal.

On the downside, parts of the book read like fiction. Kolata dramatizes scenes - providing conversations and inner thoughts - that seem made up. To me, this was distracting.

Still, this is a very good book about an engaging topic. Highly recommened.

[FYI: If I was in the Baxley's situation, I'd get tested in a second. Better to know than live in dread (IMO)]

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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Review of "Day Four" by Sarah Lotz




If you're planning to take a vacation cruise any time soon you might want to skip this book.

As the story opens the almost 3000 passengers and crew on board the (so called) luxury liner 'Beautiful Dreamer' have experienced smooth sailing for three days. It's now day four....and things take a downturn. An engine room fire badly injures the head engineer, cuts off the ship's electricity, and interferes with the ship's communication systems. Thus, there's no phone service, no wi-fi, no emergency radio - in short no way to contact anyone outside the ship. Emergency generators are of limited assistance. On top of that the contagious norovirus begins spreading among the passengers and crew.

Pretty soon food supplies dwindle, the ship is sweltering hot, toilets stop working, dirty towels and sheets pile up, cabins reek from vomit and diarrhea, passengers become belligerent, the pool is polluted, people start camping out on decks and recreation areas, etc. Moreover, the body of a dead girl is found in her cabin - and murder is suspected. In short, the situation becomes hellish.

To add to the confusion, frequent public announcements thank the passengers for their 'patience' but provide no real information about what's happening. And help doesn't seem to be coming! People become frightened and start to offer wild speculations about what's going on. Zombies? Bad weather? War? Bermuda Triangle? Ship drifted off course? .....no one knows.

The story follows a number of passengers and crew members as the situation unfolds. These include: Paul - a rapist/accidental murderer; Celine Del Rey - a fake medium who supposedly conveys messages from loved ones on 'the other side; Celine's assistant Maddie - who helps her boss rook her marks; Xavier - a blogger who means to expose Celine as a fraud; Helen and Elise - widowed friends who plan to commit suicide; Althea - a conscientious steward on the luxury deck; Jesse - the ship's doctor, who has a whiff of malpractice and a drug addiction in his past; and Devi - a security guard who's ashamed about a rapist he allowed to go free.

The mayhem is escalated by several supernatural creatures ('ghosts') that are seen or heard by passengers and crew members. Some crew men even claim the dead girl is moving around. As the situation aboard ship gets more and more intolerable many people resort to drastic measures, apparently following the dictate 'every man for himself.'

The story held my attention and I was anxious to learn what was going on and what the final outcome would be. At the end of the book it's not crystal clear what had happened...but the speculation is intriguing. All in all, an enjoyable horror story - not too deep, but an entertaining read.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review of "The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection" by Alexander McCall Smith




To the joy of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutski, Clovis Anderson - the revered author of their venerated guidebook "The Principles of Private Detection" - wanders into the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency when he's visiting Gabarone.

Meanwhile the detective agency is involved with a couple of crises: Mr. JLB Matekoni's apprentice Fanwell is arrested for inadvertently doing mechanical work on stolen cars; and Mma Potokwane - the director of the Orphan Farm - has her job threatened by a rich businessman Ditso Ditso. Ditso, a director of the orphanage, wants to build a large central kitchen/eating area for the children while Mma Potokwane favors "family" meals in the orphans' individual cabins. To add to the problems Mma Makutsi and her husband Phuti Radiphuti are unhappy with the rude overweaning contractor they've hired to build their dream home.

As always Mma Ramotswe is gentle, wise, and humorous as she goes about her business and Mma Makutski, who has talking shoes, is hilariously outspoken about her odd opinions. Clovis Anderson's sage advice helps the detectives with their cases which turn out to involve the usual motives - dishonesty, greed, corruption, and cheating spouses. Even the usually lackadaisical Charlie, Fanwell's fellow apprentice, helps by cooking up a novel plan to assist his friend.

 
This book is an excellent addition to the series with scenes that are laugh out loud funny. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review of "Judgment Call" by J.A. Jance




In this 15th book in the series High School principal Debra Highsmith is gruesomely murdered and her body is discovered by Jenny Brady, daughter of Cochise County Sheriff Joanna Brady. Jenny does a big no-no - she takes a photo of the corpse and sends it to a friend - and before you can blink the picture's all over the internet, along with nasty comments. Seems Ms. Highsmith was not popular among the high school crowd and some students seem to be likely suspects for her murder.

However, while looking for next of kin Sheriff Brady discovers that Ms. Highsmith was a mysterious person with an unknown past, and the investigation widens. As usual, nosy, interfering reporter Marliss Shackleford is making trouble; this time she's illicitly using social media to get news tips she shouldn't have.

Meanwhile, Joanna's critical, difficult mother, Eleanor Lathrop Winfield, is involved with an art auction where another murder occurs. Are the murders connected? Joanna and detective colleagues investigate the crimes and find the culprit, whose motive seems a little far- fetched but believable enough. (After all, there are a lot of nuts out there.)

In a side story, Sheriff Joanna Brady re-examines the death of her father, also a sheriff, many years before. What was thought to be an accident caused by a drunk driver may have been murder. To me, this tangential story seemed unnecessary and could have been left out. All in all an okay mystery book.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Review of "The Heist" by Daniel Silva




Gabriel Allon - 5'8", slim and attractive.....with striking green eyes - is a man of many talents. He's one of the best art restorers (and forgers) in the world; a top-notch Israeli intelligence agent; a capable assassin; and a first class strategist/technician for covert operations.

As the book opens Allon and his second wife Chiara - who's expecting twins - are living in Venice, Italy where Allon is restoring artwork in a church. Allon's quiet life is disrupted when he' s approached by General Ferrari - head of the art recovery squad - who's determined to retrieve a Caravaggio painting stolen decades ago. Ferrari believes Jack Bradshaw - a murdered British expat living in Lake Como - may have known the whereabouts of the Caravaggio. Thus, Ferrari coerces Allon to investigate Bradshaw's death - and hopefully find the masterpiece.

In the course of his inquiries Allon learns that unscrupulous bigwigs, including mafia dons and dictators, collect stolen art to use as a kind of currency. Moreover, one of the Middle East's most ruthless tyrants - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - is amassing a large collection of stolen art. Al-Assad views this as a kind of insurance, in case he's ousted and can't access his hidden billions.

Allon hatches an elaborate scheme to part al-Assad with his fortune and to find the Caravaggio. The plan involves selling a forgery of Van Gogh's painting 'Sunflowers' (painted by Allon) to al-Assad's buyer and to hack al-Assad's secret accounts and steal the cash. For the hacking scheme Allon's team co-opts a woman named Jawal Nawaz - a Syrian-born, German citizen who works in a bank that al-Assad uses.

Allon's plan requires lots of travel plus assistance from various 'series regulars' including Ari Shamron - former head of 'The Office' (the Israeli spy agency ); Eli Lavon - an ex-spy who's now an archaeologist; Uzi Navot - the current director of The Office; Navot's wife Bella - an expert on Syria and terrorists; and Christopher Keller - an assassin turned good guy (sort of). Several features of Allon's plan are completely unbelievable (for example, a banker keeps the only records of al-Assad's secret bank accounts in a notebook in his pocket).....but this is a novel after all. LOL

In the midst of all the action Allon visits his first wife Leah in a psychiatric hospital. Leah lost her sanity after being injured by a bomb that killed her (and Allon's) son Daniel. Leah's mind replays the bombing constantly, but she has occasional moments of clarity - and these scenes are disturbing and sad.

I won't say any more about the plot, except that Allon shows he's an honorable, stand-up guy.

Many reviewers remark that Daniel Silva's 'Gabriel Allon' stories are formulaic, and they are. But the books are well-written - with good plots and interesting characters. I'd highly recommend "The Heist" to fans of espionage thrillers.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review of "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner



This book - narrated in a stream of consciousness style by several characters - is difficult to read and requires close concentration to understand what's going on. Basically it's about the Compson family of Jefferson, Mississippi.

The Compsons were a prominent and important family of the Old South but by the early 1900s had lost most of their wealth and status. The family is made up of a needy, neurotic mother; a distant, hard-drinking father (who dies fairly early in the story); three brothers; and a sister.

The book's narrators are the three brothers: Benjy, a mentally handicapped child-man; Quentin, a troubled, unstable Harvard student; and Jason, a disappointed, hard-hearted, would-be patriarch. The heart of the story is their sister Cady, a caring but promiscuous young woman who shames the family by getting pregnant. Cady enters into a hasty marriage but her husband quickly divorces her when he discovers the child is not his.

The Compson family takes in Cady's daughter "Miss Quentin" and cuts off Cady completely. This drives the story since brother Benjy adores and misses Cady, brother Quentin is devastated by her behavior, and brother Jason is angry at Cady for embarrassing the family and depriving him of the bank job offered by her ex-husband. Jason also resents Miss Quentin and steals the money Cady sends for her.

Other important characters in the tale are Dilsey and her sons, black servants that function almost as extended family. The dissonance among the Compsons leads to much acting out and tragedy, which is witnessed by Dilsey - who cares for all of them. I thought the book's characters were memorable and the story (such as it is) was compelling. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Review of "The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman



Australian Tom Sherbourne, a World War I veteran, meets young Isabel in the town of Point Partaguese. Tom and Isabel soon marry and move to the isolated island of Janus Rock where Tom is the lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse keeper and his family live alone on Janus Island, having sporadic contact with the mainland via supply boats and occasional shore leaves.

A few years later, while Isabel is in deep mourning after suffering three miscarriages, a small boat lights upon the shore of Janus Island. It contains a dead adult male and a tiny baby. Tom wants to report the incident, as required, but Isabel - having immediately fallen in love with the baby - convinces him to keep mum. So Tom buries the man's body and the couple proceed to raise the baby, who they call Lucy, as their own child.

A couple of years later Tom, Isabel, and Lucy vist Point Partaguese. Isabel's parents, who lost two sons in WWI, are thrilled with their new grandchild and make a great fuss of her, and Isabel is very happy. During their visit to Point Partaguese, however, Tom and Isabel learn about the baby's parents. Hannah - a local resident - lost her husband Frank and infant Grace two years before when Frank, an Austrian persecuted by the locals, took Grace out on a boat and never returned. Hannah is almost insane from grief and is constantly searching for news about her missing family.

Tom, already uneasy about the subterfuge, tells Isabel that they must make a clean breast of everything. But Isabel, insisting that she's only concerned about Lucy's happiness and well-being, refuses. So the family returns to Janus Island, though there is now a small rift between Tom and his wife.

Events take their course and the lie is eventually exposed with difficult consequences for all concerned.

Stedman does a wonderful job with descriptions - and Point Partaguese, Janus Island, the ocean, the sky, the crashing waves, thundering lightning storms, rolling boat rides, people's homes and yards, are all brought vividly to life. The characters are also well-rounded, realistic, and compelling.

The story made me uncomfortable as stealing someone's beloved child is an awful thing and I couldn't sympathize with Isabel's bogus rationalizations. The book is probably a good choice for book clubs, with many issues to dissect and discuss. For me the book was just okay: well written but too slow-moving, with a troubling story line.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review of "The Wrong Side of Goodbye" by Michael Connelly




In this addition to the Harry Bosch series the detective has left the LAPD in difficult circumstances. He's now a private investigator and also works for the tiny San Fernando Police Department as a reservist (unpaid volutneer).

As the book opens Harry is hired by octogenarian billionaire Whitney Vance, who's frail and ill. Vance never married but thinks he may have fathered a child during a youthful affair with a Mexican girl. Vance wants Harry to search for this offspring, who would be heir to the mogul's fortune. Vance warns Harry that the investigation has to be hush hush because the directors of Vance's company - who are looking forward to taking power themselves - would resent a legatee (to put it mildly).....and the heir's life might be in danger.

Harry uses his considerable resources and contacts, and soon makes progress with the case. Harry is sure Vance's people are monitoring him, so he's careful to take evasive measures.....but are they enough? At one point a holographic will shows up and Harry brings in his half-brother, attorney Mickey Haller, to provide legal assistance. The half-siblings pull off some sneaky moves, and it's fun to see them working together again.

Meanwhile, Harry is also working on a case for the San Fernando PD. Harry and his partner, Detective Bella Lourdes, are trying to nab the 'Screen Cutter' - a serial rapist who wears masks, doesn't use condoms, and targets Latina women. Harry has connected previous unsolved rapes with more recent Screen Cutter assaults, and discovers there's a pattern to the timing of the crimes. Harry, always careful, keeps his Screen Cutter files in a locked drawer. When his papers are rearranged Harry is sure someone - maybe even the Captain of the SFPD - is secretly monitoring his investigation. But why?

While Harry works on the two inquiries a murder occurs in one case and a kidnapping in the other - which leads to a frantic police search. In between all the detective work Harry visits his daughter at college, takes her out to eat, and so on.....which provides a nice domestic touch to the story.

I enjoyed the book, though a couple of revelations at the climax seem rather unlikely. Still this is an engaging, well-written mystery, recommened to fans of the genre.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review of "The Ludwig Conspiracy" by Oliver Pötzsch



Just before he's brutally tortured and murdered an elderly gent hides a secret diary in an antiquarian used bookstore in Munich. The bookstore is owned by Steven Lukas, a young man who just wants to lead a quiet life among his tomes. Before long the old gent's niece, Sara Lengfeld, shows up. She and Steven soon discover that the diary - which is written in code and has some undecipherable passages in an even more mysterious cipher - was written by Theodor Marot, mad King Ludwig II’s medical assistant.

King Ludwig was a well-known 'eccentric' who spent all of Bavaria's money building elaborate castles for himself before he died rather suddenly in 1886 - broke, bloated, toothless, and friendless. Was old King Ludwig murdered? Was he gay? Does the diary explain his sudden death? It seems a lot of people want to know. Thus when Sara and Steve race out of Munich and rush hither and thither looking for clues to decipher the diary they're chased by a variety of cut-throats and gangs who want to grab the book for themselves.

As Steven and Sara decode the diary we learn a bit about King Ludwig's life as well as political machinations in 19th century Bavaria.

Though there are a couple of surprising twists, all the clue hunting and deciphering eventually lead to a reveal that's less spectacular than I'd hoped for. Still it's a pretty good thriller/mystery with a little bit of romance, some interesting characters, and some intriguing blather about secret codes.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Review of "Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened" by Allie Brosh




"Hyperbole and a Half" is culled (in part) from Allie Brosh's very popular blog. I hadn't heard of the author until I read laudatory comments about this book on Goodreads, and I'm glad I decided to read it. The entries about Allie's life - rendered as cartoon drawings with captions and anecdotes - are funny, relatable, and touching.

The book opens with a letter Allie wrote to her future self when whe was ten. The letter - which is actually a series of questions to her older self (Do you still like dogs? What is your favorite dog?...) - shows that Allie's childhood priorities were: dogs, dogs, dogs, Murphy the dog, favorite foods, and her parents' longevity.

Some of my favorite sections are about Allie's 'simple dog' (mentally challenged) - who can't learn to walk up or down steps; is unable to escape from a small blanket loosely thrown over her; can't find a treat she sees being placed under a plastic cup; won't stop eating stinging bees; is paralyzed by fear of snow; and so on. At one point Allie decides to adopt a 'helper dog' to assist the simple one....and the new pooch constantly scream-barks at other dogs and misbehaves 24/7. Examples of what these two dogs get up to are hilarious.

Another very entertaining chapter is about little Allie - aged 4 - obsessively stalking her grandfather's birthday cake. Allie's mom does her best to keep the cake safe....to no avail. The child eats the whole cake and suffers the alimentary consequences. Young Allie's digestive system undergoes more assaults after she (accidently) eats food slathered in hot sauce. Allie's parents view the youngster's ability to eat hot food as a talent.....to be trotted out for friends and relatives. Oh....the suffering...

As a child, Allie got up to all sorts of mischief. When given a toy parrot that repeats spoken phrases, Allie (and her sister) used it to torture their parents. They taught the bird to make irritating noises and say "poop poop poop poop poop poop....." Of course the bird disappeared one day. Allie also relates a story about wanting to go to a friend's birthday party despite being disoriented/unable to talk after dental anesthesia. Allie's attempts to convince her mom she's 'okay to go' are very funny.

The more serious chapters of the book deal with Allie's depression, her difficulties motivating herself to do things, and her secret 'mean' thoughts. I think most people can relate.

Some chapters are better than others, but the book is a quick read - with fun illustrations - and well worth the effort. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Review of "Very Good, Jeeves" by P.G. Wodehouse



Very Good, Jeeves is a collection of eleven humorous stories featuring Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves. Bertie is a fun-loving - but rather dim - British toff who always getting involved in hare-brained schemes that go sideways. And Jeeves is his very clever 'gentleman's gentleman' who invariably makes things right.

Some of Bertie's escapades stem from his attempts to get back at his friend Tuppy Glossup. Tuppy bet Bertie he couldn't swing across a swimming pool on a set of rings.....then disabled the last ring. Of course our hapless hero had to drop into the pool in his elegant evening togs. Thus, Bertie is forever trying to get revenge on Tuppy - with disastrous results. This and Bertie's other adventures are timeless and hilarious.

In this book Bertie gets treed by a swan; inadvertently drops a pail of flour on himself; punctures the wrong person's hot water bottle; loses his Aunt Agatha's beloved dog; gets caught on the grounds of a girls' school; becomes the unwilling face of 'Slingsby's Superb Soups' - and much more. One thing I love about these stories: if there's a tug-of-war between Bertie and Jeeves - over loud trousers, an inappropriate hat, a tasteless vase, a missed trip to Monte Carlo, etc. - things always go Jeeves' way in the end. Ha ha ha.

If you need cheering up - or just want to laugh - you can't go wrong with these light, fun tales. Highly recommended.

Review of "The Son" by Jo Nesbø


 

Norwegian Sonny Lofthus, a thirty-year-old heroin addict convicted of two murders, has been in Staten Prison for twelve years. Sonny was a promising athlete as as teen but lost his way after his police officer father, Ab Lofthus, committed suicide amid a corruption scandal involving a police mole. Sonny, in despair and needing heroin, has been an 'official scapegoat' for years, taking the blame for crimes committed by other people. Just recently Sonny was allowed out on day release just when a woman was murdered - and he's being coerced to take the blame. All this is engineered by a gang of ruthless criminals in cahoots with corrupt law enforcement officials.

Then one day a fellow criminal in Staten Prison - dying of cancer and seeking absolution - admits to Sonny that his dad did not commit suicide but was murdered and framed. This galvanizes Sonny, who goes cold turkey and engineers a prison break. Sonny then goes on a murderous rampage to get revenge against people who did wrong to his father and himself.

Sonny's crimes come to be investigated by Simon Kefas, an Oslo homicide cop who was close to Ab Lofthus. Simon, now partnered with an ambititous young female homicide detective, is reputed to be an honest cop who detests police corruption. Simon has problems though; he's a recovering gambling addict with a vision-impaired wife who needs expensive surgery in the U.S. - a situation that makes criminals think Simon might be open to bribes.

There are plenty of interesting characters in the story, including Markus - a nosy little boy (with a powerful set of binoculars) who lives across from Sonny's childhood home; Marta - a young woman who runs an addict hostel that takes Sonny in; Arild Franck, the creepy deputy governor of Staten prison; 'the twin' - a criminal mastermind; and many others on both sides of the law.

For me the biggest problem with the book was my skepticism that Sonny - an impaired addict who barely knew what a cell phone was upon his escape from prison - was able to engineer the extremely clever and complex (I'd say genius-level) acts of revenge described in the story. Nevertheless, the well-written, fast-moving book grabs and holds your attention from the first page to the last. I'd highly recommend it to fans of mystery thrillers.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Review of "A Killer Collection " by Ellery Adams




The amateur sleuth in this story is Molly Appleby, a thirtyish, former elementary school teacher who now writes for a specialty publication called 'Collector's Weekly.' As the story opens, Molly - who's writing a series on North Carolina potters - is attending a kiln opening (exclusive pottery sale) with her mother Clara, a partner in an auction gallery.

The sale is about to begin when avid collector George-Bradley Staunton arrives, loudly drawing attention to himself as he pushes to the front of the line. Once the event starts George-Bradley is relentless - shoving and grabbing - to get the pieces he wants. Afterwards, when buyers are collecting their wrapped purchases, George-Bradley collapses....and later dies. It turns out George-Bradley was murdered and Molly intends to find the killer.

George-Bradley isn't a popular guy and there are plenty of suspects, including his wife; his mistress; potters who disliked him; collectors he's cheated; and so on. As Molly investigates George-Bradley's death another murder occurs, which complicates her inquiries.

Meanwhile, back at the offices of 'Collector's Weekly', Molly has a crush on her co-worker Matt.... but has hardly said more than 'hello' to him. Things get friendlier when Matt assists Molly with her investigation, and the amateur sleuth hopes for a real date. But Molly - who's self-conscious about her zaftig physique - soon spots a slim beautiful blonde flirting with Matt.....uh oh!

As Molly interviews various potters the tale is interspersed with details about pottery such as: processing the clay; throwing pots; kinds of glazes; building kilns; burning pots; everyday pottery vs. collector pieces; and so on. All this is interesting and adds a nice informative element to the book without distracting from the story.

Molly eventually solves the murder cases, exposing a few surprises and a valuable pottery bunny along the way. Molly's a bright, likable heroine, and this is an engaging cozy mystery. Recommended to fans of the genre.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Review of "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life" by Hesketh Pearson




I'm a big Sherlock Holmes fan so I was interested to learn a little about his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. This short colorful biography of Doyle by Hesketh Pearson seemed to be just the ticket.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Scotland in 1859 and went to school in England for most of his primary education. Doyle was a burly fellow who liked to box, and often defended kids who were being bullied. He also enjoyed reading, particularly adventure stories and detective tales.

Doyle attended medical school at the University of Edinburgh and - while a student - apprenticed as a 'doctor' on a Greenland whaler. This was a pretty easy job except for the distressing seal hunts. After receiving a Bachelor of Medicine in 1881, Doyle did a short stint as ship's surgeon on a vessel that traveled down the coast of Africa, but was miserable for the entire trip. By now, at 21 years of age, Doyle was an imposing fellow - 6 feet tall and 225 pounds, with brown hair and gray eyes.

Doyle next joined the medical practice of his former classmate, George Budd, in Plymouth. Budd was a 'half-genius, half maniac' who was interested in everything and had a variety of schemes for making money. The personality and energy of Sherlock Holmes is based, in part, on Budd.

Doyle soon fell out with his partner and in 1882 - with 6 pounds in his pocket - moved to Portsmouth to open his own medical office. Doyle had few patients, was perpetually broke, and had to pawn his watch three times. In a way this was a blessing in disguise because Doyle started selling stories for extra cash. After a while Doyle's practice improved and he was fairly busy between 1884 and 1886. During this time he married Louisa Hawkins, with whom he had two children.

Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story, 'A Study in Scarlet' came out in 1886, followed by a couple of historical novels. The success of these publications led Doyle to devote more time to writing. Still, Doyle continued to strive for a successful medical career and went to Vienna to study ophthamology. The classes didn't go well because of the language barrier and - when Doyle opened a new 'oculist' practice in London - he didn't get a single patient. Thus Doyle eventually became a dedicated writer and gave up doctoring.

Doyle wrote much more than Sherlock Holmes stories, but the detective yarns were his most successful publications. The fictional sleuth's phenomenal powers of observation were based on Doyle's medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell....who made shrewd deductions about his patients. For instance, Bell identified a man as a cobbler because 'the inside of the knee of his trousers is worn down where he rests his laptsone'; and Bell pegged another patient as a recently discharged army man who served in Barbados because 'he kept his hat on (as was customary in the army) and had elephantiasis.... which was prevalent in the West Indies.'

In time Doyle got tired of Sherlock Holmes and, in 1893, tried to kill him off at the Reichenbach Falls. The subsequent backlash from readers, editors, and publishers forced Doyle to resurrect the consulting detective.....who went on to live for many more years. People seemed to think Holmes was a real person and Doyle received hundreds of letters from all over the world - some addressed to Holmes, some to Watson, some to Doyle....asking for help solving mysteries. (Ha ha ha)

Amongst his other activities Doyle tried to enter politics and stood for Parliament in central Edinburgh in 1900. Doyle was unsuccesful because he wasn't schooled in 'political doubletalk.' Doyle openly supported a Catholic University in Dublin - which aliented Protestant northerners, and was against Home Rule - which put off Catholic southerners. Having a sense of humor, Doyle declared ''this united Ireland north and south for the first time in history."

Doyle's first wife died from tuberculosis in 1906 and he wed Jean Leckie In 1907. Jean has been called the 'great love of Doyle's life' and they had three children together.

Doyle was a sort of 'Renaissance man', with a wide array of interests. He played football, cricket, and golf. He joined a 'volunteer force' (for older men) during WWI, and happily participated in the drilling, marching, camping, rifle practice; and so on. He suggested improvements in miliary equipment (like body armor and shields) and advised new medical practices for soldiers.....and many of his ideas were accepted.

Doyle's religious beliefs changed over the course of his life. He was brought up Catholic, then became an agnostic, and finally accepted spiritualism. Doyle wanted to believe in a 'future life' and would attend seances to commune with the dead. He also studied phenomena like haunted houses, sepulchral voices, moving tables, automatic writing, materialization of limbs, levitation of bodies, mysterious sounds, fairies, etc. Many people disdain Doyle for these beliefs.

I'll always be grateful to Doyle for creating one of my favorite people (fictional or real). Kudos sir, for a job well done.

There are many biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, most of them more detailed than this one. Nevertheless I'd recommend this book to fans interested in a quick overview of Doyle's life, told with heart and humor. (FYI: I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by Tim Pigott-Smith.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review of "The Devil Colony" by James Rollins


 

This is my first Sigma Force book and I didn't like it much. The premise of the story is that in the very distant past Native Americans buried some kind of nanotechnology-fueled doomsday devices around the Earth in an attempt to save mankind from their destructive power. In the present day a couple of anthropologists innocently unearth one of these devices setting off a chain reaction which could destroy the Earth.

Sigma Force (a group of government scientist/tough guys) sets out to contain the threat while The Guild (ancient society of bad guys) sets out to obtain the devices for their own benefit. The good guys and the bad guys rush from place to place as the threat spreads and there's a lot of kidnapping and shooting and killing.

The story is replete with conspiracies within conspiracies, Mormon beliefs about ancient Israeli tribes coming to the New World, pseudo-science, old maps made of nearly indestructible unknown metals, the Founding Fathers involvement, secret codes, and much much more. For me, the story just seemed to boil down to a bunch of people (whose identities tended to bleed together a bit) running from one place to another trying to outwit and kill each other amid a hodge-podge of hard-to-understand conspiracies. Just not my kind of story.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review of "The Cinderella Murder" by Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke




New York based Laurie Moran produces a television show called 'Under Suspicion', a reality show that highlights cold cases. The program brings together people who were involved with the victim, questions them, and perhaps sheds new light on (or even solves) the case. Laurie's new project involves the murder of Susan Dempsey, a beautiful young coed/aspiring actress whose body was found in Los Angeles twenty years ago - a crime dubbed 'The Cinderella Murder'. Laurie has great empathy for crime victims and their families because her own husband was murdered a few years previously.

With the encouragement of Susan's mother, Rosemary, Laurie makes her way to L.A. with her production team, her young son Timmy, her ex-cop father (Timmy's babysitter), and attorney Alex Buckley - who's excellent at questioning the would-be suspects. At the time of the crime the police questioned Susan's boyfriend, a movie director, a couple of roommates, a lab partner, and so on. Laurie lines up these people to be on the show.

It seems that almost everyone who was in Susan's orbit has something to hide, however, and the shenanigans of some of these people lead to further murders and assaults. Thus, it seems like everyone who knew Susan or is involved with making the TV program is in danger. All this leads to a not-quite-satisfying but rather dramatic climax.

For me a big problem with the book involves the behavior of some characters. One character hides a secret for twenty years that most people would reveal in twenty seconds, another uses a super-elaborate surveillance system when just participating in the TV show would be much easier. This kind of thing makes the plot feel manipulative and unrealistic. That said, the book contains a nice array of interesting characters, has a tiny drop of romance (for readers who like that kind of thing), and is a quick easy read.

I'd mildly recommend the book to mystery fans.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Review of "I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life" by Ed Yong



Though we might lather our skin with antibacterial soap, clean our hands with alcohol sanitizers, gargle with mouthwash, scrub our kitchen surfaces, disinfect our bathrooms, spray Lysol all over the house, take antibiotics, etc., there are - and always will be - microbes everywhere. This is especially true of our warm moist bodies - which are covered inside and out with microorganisms....and this is a good thing.

In fact our bodies are really an indivisible aggregate of 'our' tissues and organs....and the microbial world that makes its home there. Moreover this is true for every multicellular organism on Earth. The totality of microorganisms (and their parts) in/on our bodies is called our 'microbiome', and it's composed of myriad kinds of bacteria, viruses, archaea, snippets of microbial DNA, and other miniscule microbial fragments. This microbiome helps digest our food, produces vitamins and minerals, breaks down toxins and dangerous chemicals, guides our embryonic development, assists our immune system, probably influences our behavior, and so on.

In this entertaining and illuminating book, Yong touches on the evolution of microbes; the history of microbiology; symbiotic relationships among microbes; symbiosis between microbes and higher organisms; dysbiosis (unbalanced microbiomes that harm their hosts); how scientists study and identify microbiomes; research studies aimed at seeding hospitals and buildings with 'good microbes'; and much more.

Most people probably associate microbes with disease, and Yong provides some examples of pathogenic organisms. The vast majority of microbes are beneficial though, and I was fascinated to read about their varied roles in the world of living things. I've had a rather varied career and in a galaxy far away and long ago I got a degree in microbiology.....but this book has a lot of new and exciting information.

I'll give examples of a few intriguing factoids gleaned from the book:

1. We can improve our health by nurturing 'helpful' bacteria in our digestive system. Since fiber-loving bacteria are supposed to boost the immune system I added a LOT of fiber to my diet.....and I think I feel healthier already!!

2. Newborns are bathed in good microbes during vaginal delivery. Thus, infants born by caesarean section - lacking this initial 'seeding' - develop different microbiomes than vaginal babies. Breast-feeding also provides babies with an initial dose of beneficial microbes.

3. It's good for kids to have a dog because the pooch brings outdoor microbes into the home. Being exposed to a larger variety of microorganisms reduces the likelihood of getting allergies.

4. The author, Ed Yong, really likes the Hawaiian bobtail squid, which contains large colonies of luminous bacteria. Whenever Yong mentions this critter he calls it 'adorable.' (ha ha ha)

This tome covers a fascinating array of topics in an understandable - and sometimes humorous - fashion. I love this book and would recommend it to everyone. Seriously!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review of "Eva's Eye" by Karin Fossum




This is the first book in the popular Norwegian mystery series featuring Inspector Konrad Sejer.

As the story opens Eva Magnus and her seven-year-old daughter Emma spot a body floating in an Oslo river. Young Emma is fascinated, but Eva is horrified. To humor her daughter Eva agrees to phone the police from a nearby call box. Eva pretends to call the authorities but really phones her father and has a brief conversation about this and that. She then hustles Emma away.

Of course the police soon pull the man's body out of the water and identify it as Egil Einarsson, a local brewery worker who's been stabbed to death. Further inquiries reveal that Einarsson disappeared about six months ago, at about the same time a high-class prostitute named Maja Durban was murdered. Because the deaths occurred in the same general area Inspector Sejer thinks they're probably related.

Sejer interviews Einarsson's wife, who reports that her husband was a very ordinary fellow who - when not at the brewery - went to the Kings Arms pub with his friends or worked on his car in the garage. Sejer also speaks to Einarsson's six-year-old son, who was often an 'assistant mechanic' to his dad. I like that Sejer befriends the Einarsson boy, taking him for a ride in a police car and buying him a little child-size boiler suit.

Sejer also interviews Einarsson's friends and colleagues, and learns that - when he disappeared - the dead man was going to sell his treasured car. However, no one knows who the buyer was.

As it turns out Sejer has also interviewed Eva Magnus....months before. Eva and Maja (the dead prostitute) had been childhood friends who became reacquainted just before Maja was killed. Eva reported having dinner with her friend and briefly visiting her apartment - but said she knew nothing about Maja's death. Sejer is a little suspicious because Eva - a struggling artist who was always broke - has been a little flush lately. She even took Emma to McDonald's! (Wow! Ha ha ha.)

The story is told from two alternating points of views: Inspector Sejer and Eva Magnus. In the first half of the book we follow Sejer's investigations and learn about Eva's day to day activities. Sejer is an astute, determined detective who interviews witnesses again and again to eke out every little bit of information....and maybe trip them up. Eva is a divorcee who's oddly friendly with the ex-husband who ran out on her. She's also a painter with a unique vision and style - supported by government grants. We learn that Eva has struggled to pay bills, buy food, and slip her elderly dad a few extra kroner. She also worries about her daughter, a rather plain, chubby child who's scheduled to start school. This first part of the story is compelling and suspenseful.

The second half of the book details the events leading up the murders of Maja and Einarsson. This section of the story is very detailed and a little slow, but does elucidate how and why everything happened.....some of which is quite startling.

Overall, a good introduction to the Inspector Sejer mysteries.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Review of "Proof of Guilt" by Charles Todd




There are no shortage of potential crimes in this Inspector Rutledge mystery. An unidentified body washes ashore in Sussex; another unidentified body is found on a Chelsea street; Lewis French - a London wine merchant with the company French, French, and Traynor- is missing; and his partner Matthew Traynor - based on the Portuguese island of Madeira - can't be located.

Inspector Rutledge, tasked with looking into these incidents, interviews the wine company's chief clerk, Lewis's sister, Lewis's ex-fiance, Lewis's current fiance, a Portuguese national who hates the French family and was recently released from an asylum, and other witnesses as necessary.

One problem with this book is too many suspects who are hard to keep track of. Another problem is Inspector Rutledge driving back and forth, here and there - it seems like a thousand times - to interview the same people over and over again. This results in a very slow moving story.

And it bothered me that Acting Chief Superintendent Markham insists that Rutledge arrest a couple of suspects though there is no actual proof they are guilty (I think this is a common occurrence in books set in a certain era). And most unfortunately all this rigmarole does not lead to a believable and satisfying conclusion. I usually like Charles Todd's books but this one is a miss.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review of "Until Proven Guilty" by J.A. Jance




This is the first book in J.A. Jance's long-running "J.P. Beaumont" mystery series.

Detective J.P. Beaumont (Beau) is a Seattle homicide cop who's recently acquired a new partner, Detective Peters. As the story opens Beaumont and Peters are assigned the case of a strangled five-year-old girl named Angela Barstogi. The detectives learn that Angela and her mother belong to a secretive cult headed by Pastor Michael Brody - a fire-and-brimstone preacher who rules his flock with a whip (literally; he beats and whips his flock for perceived infractions).

As part of their inquiry the homicide detectives attend Angela's funeral - to see who shows up and how they behave. Beau closely watches the cult members until his eye is caught by a stunningly beautiful blonde woman who breezes over to the grave and throws in a red rose. It turns out the woman, named Anne Corley, is a wealthy widow who travels across the country to attend children's funerals because her sister died as a child. Beau is absolutely mesmerized by Anne and makes it his business to get better acquainted with her.

Beau thinks little Angela's murderer might be a cult member but he's frustrated by the apparent lack of evidence. Then Angela's father, drunk and belligerent, flies in from Chicago - loudly threatening Pastor Brody. The father is arrested and accused of killing his daughter....a charge that seems unlikely to stick. .

The mystery part of the book stalls at this point - about halfway into the book - and Beau's romance with Anne takes over. In my opinion the story becomes discordant here - it turns from a mystery into a romance. Within a week of meeting, Beau and Anne become intimate, get engaged, shop for household accoutrements, buy wedding rings, and purchase wedding clothes. They then get married in a ceremony that occurs before 6 A.M.- with Anne's lawyer as witness. Afterwards Beau acquires new evidence that helps him solve the case - amid some whopping big surprises.

While investigating the crime Beau has to deal with Maxwell Cole, a columnist who's hated Beau since college and always disparages the detective in print. Cole tries to lurk around for scoops....but Anne has his number.

In my opinion this is a weak beginning to the J.P. Beaumont series, which improves in later books. Still, this first installment might be worth reading just to meet Anne Coulter, who's a kind of presence throughout the series.

Review of "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro




This book has gotten good reviews so I had high expectations. The book is narrated by a young woman named Kathy. Kathy has a job as a "carer" (a sort of nurse) for special people called "donors."

Kathy is telling the story of her life beginning when she was a student at an exclusive British boarding school called the Hailsham School. Kathy and her friends - Ruth, Tommy, Grace and others - seem to exhibit the usual kid behaviors. They form cliques, join clubs, tease each other, have fights, and so on. The kids also go to classes taught by teachers called "guardians" and have their best artwork and poems collected by a periodic visitor called "Madame." In a lot of ways Hailsham seems more or less like a normal boarding school. It isn't however. The kids never seem to leave the school at all and we soon learn that they have no parents and are being groomed to be "donors" - which is just what you think it is. When the kids are grown they are expected to give away their body organs.

Though the premise of the book is intriguing the story moves along excruciatingly slowly. Moreover, it's hard to identify with the characters who are, for the most part, not particularly likable. I really hated Ruth, who was a bitch, a liar, a manipulator, and a thief. Even the "nicer" characters though, like Kathy and Tommy, don't inspire me to care about them very much.

As Kathy's story continues we see that the students finish their studies at the Hailsham School as teenagers and then move to "cottages" for a couple of years or so. By now the students are less sheltered and go out and about. They also engage in typical young adult behavior with a lot of hooking up and sex. After a couple of years or so in the cottages the students generally start their jobs as "carers," after being carers for a while they become "donors."

I kept expecting the author to explain more about what was going on in the story: These kids seem to be clones but where did they come from? Who got the organs (or were they for some kind of research)? Why did the kids go along with this program? Why were the students so casual about death and sex? I never got the answers though.

Though the author explores an interesting concept, the story just doesn't come together for me.