Snap Judgment by Marcia Clark

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Cover Clark Snap Judgment

Last fall, I reviewed Moral Defense, by Marcia Clark (yes, THAT Marcia Clark, of OJ Simpson trial fame), which was the second in the series featuring criminal defense attorney Samantha Brinkman, based in Marcia’s turf, Los Angeles. Sam first showed up in Blood Defense, the first title in this series, in which she defended a decorated homicide detective accused in a double murder. That defendant is a recurring character in the series, as are Sam’s two associates (one of these is a genius ex-con, and the other is Sam’s closest friend since childhood).

In Moral Defense, I realized Sam is a REALLY great character, with opinions that I suspect reflect how Marcia may have felt during her legal career: “I’d been trashed on cable for dressing like a bargain-basement rag doll. Someday, women won’t have to put up with it. Someday, people are going to care more about what we say and do than what we look like. But that day didn’t seem to be coming any time soon…”

So we meet Sam again in Snap Judgment, #3 in this series. In this one, the seemingly perfect daughter of prominent civil attorney Graham Hutchins is found with her throat slashed. Her spurned ex-boyfriend seems the likely suspect, but he is found dead soon after in an apparent suicide. The person of interest in the boyfriend’s death is Hutchins, who hires Sam & Associates.

We learn that the boyfriend was uber-controlling and a creep who posted revenge porn online. The investigation quickly focuses on the daughter’s friends and classmates as well as perhaps some of her off-campus neighbors at USC (or, as many of us refer to it, “University of Spoiled Children.”): “For all that USC is a richy-rich kid school, the campus is in a shitty ‘hood where anything can happen.

Graham is a tough client. As a specialist in civil litigation, his perspective differs from Sam’s since “…in criminal court, the worst people are on their best behavior, and in civil court, the best people are on their worst behavior.” The investigation into the parallel mysteries takes the reader around Southern CA, areas Marcia Clark knows well. Good location detail, lots of interesting characters (and we feel like we are getting to know Dale, Greg and Michy VERY well), and a super twisty plot with great suspense make this a really good book.

In my prior review, I confessed my fascination with Marcia Clark, going back to the early 90s when she was a media star as well as a legal star as she battled to convict OJ . In her other series of novels there is also a female protagonist, Rachel Knight, but Rachel is on the other side, prosecuting cases (something Marcia knows inside and out). Placing Sam in the role of criminal defense attorney has allowed Ms. Clark to explore the “anything goes as long as you don’t get caught” side of the courtroom battles.

I am totally hooked on the Samantha Brinkman series, and this one reinforced my opinion that Sam is a much more interesting character than Rachel Knight, just IMHO. Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and Net Galley for an advance copy of this title in exchange for my honest review. Five stars! Can’t wait for the next one!

 

Close To Home by Robert Dugoni (Tracy Crosswhite Series, #5)

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Cover Dugoni Close to Home

I first “met” Detective Tracy Crosswhite of the Seattle Police Department In My Sister’s Grave, back in 2014. Since then, I’ve enjoyed following both her adventures fighting crime and her personal story. Close To Home is #5 in Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite Series, and I was happy to receive a copy of it from Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This one is structured like a braid, with three concurrent strands the death of a young African-American student, the legal wrangling over the suspect, who is on active duty at the local naval base, and the epidemic of heroin deaths in the area.

The novel opens with the first strand, a hit and run death of a young African-American on the streets of Seattle. The mystery surrounding his death goes on throughout the book, as Tracy investigates the suspect, who is stationed at the local naval base. The second strand follows his case as it begins to move through the legal systems (both naval and civilian), and he is apparently in the clear when a key piece of evidence goes missing. In the third strand, the suspect in the hit and run death turns out to be linked to a rash of recent deaths from a particularly potent batch of heroin, which is of special interest to Tracy’s fellow Detective, Delmo Castigliano (“Del”) , whose teenage niece has recently died of an overdose.

I was a bit turned off by an early line that states that Del’s niece “…started on marijuana at fifteen, progressed to prescription drugs, and, eventually became hooked on heroin.” Really? I thought, not the old “gateway drug” line??

In the afterword, Dugoni relates that he had “…always believed heroin addicts were people living in rodent-infested apartments.” In his research, he learned that many of them are “good kids from good families.” I appreciated the evolution of Del’s thinking about the war on drugs. Del’s thoughts match Dugoni’s: “People in these homes weren’t supposed to have sons and daughters hooked on heroin. The junkies were supposed to be downtown, living in dark alleys and abandoned buildings, sleeping on soiled mattresses amid garbage and rodents.” The book clarifies the explosion in heroin usage as tied to the legalization of marijuana in the U.S., because the Mexican cartels have seen a seriously diminished income from selling weed, and have turned to growing poppies instead, adding to the supply of cheap heroin in the States.

The story follows the various strands, tying everything together in a satisfying conclusion (with a tiny bit of what felt a bit like a contrived development in Tracy’s life revealed at the end). Along the way, we meet familiar characters (Tracy’s husband Dan, her co-workers Del and Faz, and JAG attorney Leah Battles, who I hope will appear in future installments in the series).

Excellent character development (particularly Del), plenty of twists and turns and Pacific Northwest atmosphere thrown in for good measure. Fans of the Tracy Crosswhite series will enjoy it (although it stands alone very well, so no need to feel you need to start earlier in the series to get what is going on…although I totally recommend this series!) Five stars.

 

 

The California Garden Tour by Donald Olson

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Olson CA Garden tour
“Garden Tourists” are a real thing. These are folks who plan their outings around locations such as Filoli, Sunnylands, and botanical gardens such as Southern California’s Huntington Gardens.

In The California Garden Tour, Donald Olson gives all the information a garden tourist needs to know about 50 outstanding public gardens in California, and thanks to Timber Press and NetGalley, I received an advance copy in exchange for my review.

This guidebook is amazing. It is arranged geographically, and includes maps and gorgeous photos, along with useful information such as hours, fees, parking, etc.

The geographic regions within Northern California include the East Bay, San Francisco/Peninsula, Sonoma, and Central & North Coasts. In Southern California, we have Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, the South Coast, and San Diego.

In addition to being a lovely coffee table book, fun to browse, this would be a great gift for both garden tourists and anyone who appreciates plants! Great job! Five stars.

 

 

The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius

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I remember a year or so ago when Justin Trudeau was asked a snarky question about quantum computing, and proceeded to explain it in language we could understand…and the whole concept of things being two things at once kind of blew my mind. “Things can be in two places at once. The coin is both heads and tails. The cat is alive and dead. A bit is zero and one. It’s only the act of observing these phenomena that collapses their ambiguous state. ” In The Quantum Spy, the race is on between the U.S. and China to build the first quantum computer.

It’s a great setup for David Ignatius of the Washington Post to entertain us with a 21st century spy thriller…and, thanks to W.W. Norton and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for this honest review.

Early on, we meet John Vandel, long-time CIA operative, who is wise to what it takes to survive in the Agency: “He wrote an eyes-only memo later that morning for the national security adviser to cover himself. The rest, he didn’t want to know. The Director was a former member of Congress. Letting the staff do the dirty work was a way of life.”

Some years ago, an Army Ranger named Harris Chang saved Vandel’s life in Iraq. When Vandel thanked him, Chang said “You would have done it for me,” to which Vandel replied “No fucking way.” This tells us quite a bit about both men, and as the story alternates locations including China, Singapore, Washington, D.C., Iraq and Seattle, we follow their efforts to beat China in the race for quantum computing superiority.

Chang goes to a quantum research lab that has been compromised by a suspected Chinese informant. There is a hunt for the mole who may have penetrated the highest levels of the Agency, and things hop around, with a bit of uncertainty that parallels the quantum state: there are leaks, but do the leaks expose real secrets, or are they false trails meant to deceive the Chinese? Chang finds that there is a thin line between loyalty and betrayal, as he follows the path of the investigation wherever it leads.

Sometimes techno-thrillers can be daunting, with details that are beyond the casual reader of spy novels. In this one, Ignatius has done a great job of combining a twisting plot with self-revelation that parallels the paradox of quantum computing. Chang is the model of a conflicted spy who has dealt with racism and bigotry his entire life, and who faces his own duality as he works to solve the puzzle surrounding the mole.

Spy novel fans, computer buffs, mystery lovers, and anyone who likes a plot with lots of twists and well-developed characters will love this one. Five stars.

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

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COVER Jewell I found you

It’s been awhile since I read a book that I COULD NOT PUT DOWN.  Well, thanks to Lisa Jewell (and to Atria Books and NetGalley, for providing a copy of I Found You in exchange for my honest review), I had that lovely experience during the past 24 hours.

The weird thing is, I had read the blurb on this one and kind of set it aside for awhile, thinking it was just another woman-in-danger-England-Gone Girl-wannabe, and I have read quite enough of those in the past 6 months to last me awhile.

But once I dove in, I was hooked — and FAST. There are three things going on in this book: 20+ years ago, in a resort town on the coast, three teenagers had a vacation encounter. Back to today, we learn that the newlywed husband of a young woman named Lily (recently arrived from Ukraine) doesn’t come home one night – and seems to have disappeared. And then, the police tell Lily that her husband never existed. At the same time, in a small town, a single woman named Alice encounters a man on the beach who seems to have amnesia. Of course, the first guess is he must be Lily’s missing husband, right? Nope.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with twists and turns as the three stories veer toward and away from each other, leading up to a great conclusion.

Jewell does a great job keeping the reader guessing (or at least she kept ME guessing) until very near the end. Well-developed characters, a nifty plotline and good suspense. Five stars just because I had such a good time reading it!

 

COVER Jewell I found you

The Big Heist by Anthony DeStefano

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COVER Destefano The Big Heist

Early on in The Big Heist, it refers to “a crime that he and the rest of America would never forget.” Well, I had forgotten. But that’s the thing: this book assumes a lot of prior knowledge. It IS extremely comprehensive, and provides a rich history of this crime, the Mafia (particularly New York-based), and the bizarre role of the law enforcement community in the investigation. But I think those with more prior knowledge of the subject than I have might appreciate it a bit more (another star!)

For anyone who doesn’t remember the crime itself, suffice it to say that this crime was the basis of the movie Goodfellas and, using recent evidence from the 2015 trial of eighty-year-old Mafia don Vincent Asaro, tells the true story of his long-rumored role in the Lufthansa heist.

The book is divided into three sections. In the firs six chapters, the world of the New York Mafia is explored in depth, including the reach of the Five Families at the height of their power. The second section, chapters 7-12, looks at how this heist happened, and how the mastermind of the crime relied on accomplices who were not too bright, which resulted in a boatload of murders. The final section covers the famous betrayal of Asaro by Valenti at the trial (which resulted in a shocking acquittal).

It’s quite an accomplishment, and would be appreciated by true crime fans in general, organized crime story buffs, and anyone who is curious about the extent of the power held by the mob a few short decades ago. Four stars!

 

A Stranger In the House by Shari Lapena

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The new novel by Shari Lapena, author of The Couple Next Door, has gotten a lot of buzz, and I’m a big fan of psychological suspense, so I was happy to get an advance copy of A Stranger In the House (thanks to Penguin Group/Viking and NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.

In the prologue, a woman named Karen is rushing to escape something, driving wildly across town, and runs headlong into a light pole. Her husband, Tom, comes home and finds the door unlocked, Karen’s car gone, but her purse and cell phone in the house. It doesn’t make sense to him, but he soon finds out Karen is in the hospital, suffering from amnesia.

They love in a comfy neighborhood: “People who live here are successful and settled; everyone’s a little bit smug.” There is a nosy neighbor who seems way too interested in everyone else’s business, and she is only too happy to talk to the two detectives who come around looking into a murder that happened right where Karen’s accident happened – in a part of town where people like her just don’t go.

There are lots of twists and turns to keep the reader glued to the story until the unexpected ending – but it might not be unexpected for everyone; I am notoriously bad at seeing these “unexpected” endings coming.

I wasn’t wild about Karen or Tom, but the plot kept me happy. It’s a clever, suspenseful thriller of the woman in peril genre, and will be appreciated by fans of Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, etc. I think I may not remember much about it in a few weeks, other than the “oh yeah, I liked that one” memory. I will recommend it to people, though, so it’s a solid four stars.

 

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

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COVER Whittall Best Kind of People

I keep thinking about this book. Great story, memorable characters, kept me guessing (although most do – I’m horrible at figuring out the mystery in a mystery!) So, why do I have such mixed feelings about it?

I hadn’t read anything by Zoe Whittall, although she has written award-winning “literary fiction”…but I liked the description of The Best Kind of People, and appreciate the chance to receive an advance copy from Random House and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Here’s the outline: the Woodbury family live a privileged life in an affluent suburb (named Avalon Hills, Connecticut…but think Greenwich). The patriarch, George, teaches science at the local prep school, and is regarded as a hero because he once stopped a gunman from shooting up the school. His wife, Joan, is a hardworking ER nurse, described as “…under five foot two with the practical haircut of every nurse on the trauma ward…blended into the faceless mass of small-town life.” They have two children: Sadie, a student at the school where George teaches, and Andrew, who is an attorney living with his partner in Manhattan (where he escaped the homophobic environment in Avalon Hills). Sadie has spent “…years she’d wished she could just get over the awkward, in-between feeling of being a teenaged girl, the feeling of being ugly in the body that is probably the most beautiful you will eve have.” The parents are described as “…the academic sort, floating brains in denial of the body.”

One night the quiet at their expansive home is broken when a police car pulls up and George is charged with sexual misconduct with girls from the prep school when he was a chaperone on a ski trip. —with students from his daughter’s school. Sadie, who has enjoyed status as a smart and popular high school senior, becomes a social outcast. Andrew returns home to support the family, and finds he has to confront unhappy memories. A men’s rights activist group gets involved and attempts to recruit Sadie for their cause. So there’s a lot going on!

I like the way the story demonstrates the way that “perfect” families in “perfect” towns aren’t always what they seem, and how fragile relationships can be, especially when unpleasant truths about relationships are revealed. There is a lot to ponder as Whittall explores issues of trust, love, and rape culture.

So, why the mixed feelings? I ABSOLUTELY HATED THE ENDING. And I mean the very ending…the final paragraph. But I still give it five stars because maybe it’s just me, and it was a good read and it made me think.

Justice Burning by Scott Pratt

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COVER Pratt Justice Burning

A few years back, I read An Innocent Client by Scott Pratt, the first in the Joe Dillard series of legal thriller/mysteries. I haven’t read all eight titles in that series, but all the ones I have read were crisp, entertaining, and fun reads. So I was happy to get an advance copy of Justice Burning, a new title by Scott Pratt featuring new attorney Darren Street, from Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

So (spoiler alert) I REALLY liked this book! The characters were vivid, the legal/criminal stuff was interesting, and I just kept reading til it was gone. BUT it turns out this is #2 in the Darren Street series (I must have been asleep or whatever, but I missed the first one, Justice Redeemed.

So Darren Street, like Scott Pratt in a previous lifetime, is an attorney in Tennessee. I’m not sure how much else they have in common, but Darren has recently had his law license reinstated after escaping from a maximum security prison where he spent two years for a crime he didn’t commit. In Justice Burning, he seems to be the target for unknown bad guys, who may or may not have something to do with things that went down in prison. Along the way, he suffers from PTSD, tries to deal with his ex-wife and son, loses a family member, and resolves to see justice (as he defines it) done.

As is my habit, I don’t do spoilers, so there’s not much I can say about the plot except that it was terrific fun. While reading it, there were several instances of me nearly shouting “NO!” and “OH!” and “AARRGGHH” to the point where my husband, ensconced in his recliner located right next to mine, grew a bit tired of asking “what’s wrong?” In the end, he decided he HAS to read this book!

I told him he really should read Justice Redeemed first…while Justice Burning stands alone just fine, there were some situations that had backstory in the first novel that I think might have been even more impactful if I had read the prior book first.

Either way, this one is highly recommended for those who like legal mystery/thrillers, smart down-to-earth protagonists who might sometimes bend the rules but still maintain their own moral compass, and a fast-moving plot with violence but not gore. Five stars.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

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COVER Zevin Young Jane Young

Being in a book club offers lots of positive experiences…for me, it frequently means I will read something I NEVER would have selected on my own! That was the case with Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Why wouldn’t I have picked it? For starters, there is that weird title. Then the blurb, letting me know it was about a loner who owns a struggling bookstore…well, those weren’t exactly grabbers for me. But I loved the book, and after pondering why, it came down to the fact that it was just FUN to read. It entertained me and it made me THINK.  So I was happy to receive a copy of Zevin’s new book Young Jane Young, from Algonquin Books and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Young Jane Young is the story of Aviva Grossman, a Congressional intern in Florida who has an affair with her boss and telling the story in her (supposed to be) anonymous blog. As is often the case, the guy is temporarily damaged by the scandal, but Aviva becomes notorious. Like Lewinsky, she is slut-shamed and her name becomes synonymous with the ick factor in politics in general.

Aviva changes her name to the generic Jane Young, moves to Maine, and starts over, with her daughter in tow. She becomes a successful small-town business owner, raising her daughter to be a strong, confident young woman. Everything goes well until Jane runs for public office and finds that Google provides an indelible scarlet A. It seems that in social media, the past is never gone. Ruby finds out her mother isn’t the person she had always thought she was, and as she confronts the reality of the world, she needs to decide how much this matters.
The novel follows three generations (Aviva’s mother, Aviva and Ruby) and uses rotating points of view to tell their stories, along with that of the Congressman’s wife. The characters are terrific: Aviva’s mother Rachel is the first one we meet, and she tells us (as she is talking about how her best friend Roz and her new husband spend time together) “I don’t particularly want a husband. They’re a lot of work, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone either, and it would be nice to have someone to go to classes with is what I’m saying.” Jane works hard on raising Ruby mindful of the lessons she absorbed from her own childhood: “I believed a mother must act like the woman she wanted here daughter to become.” And Ruby is just…amazing.

I loved how it entertained me with tons of humor, and made me think about how the world still wants to define women’s roles and possibilities. I’m kind of a political junkie, so that aspect of it appealed to me as well.

Sadly, double standards are still with us, and misogyny is rampant in politics and business. This is a fairly quick read, but anyone who cares about the issues will find the characters and their experiences rolling around in their brain long after the final chapter. Five stars. Hugely enjoyable, as was Fikry.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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COVER Ng Little Fires Everywhere

First off, I LOVED Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, which told the story of a teenage girl from a Chinese-American family who commits suicide (not a spoiler; the first line of the book is “Lydia is dead.”). So I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Ms. Ng’s new book, Little Fires Everywhere, from Penguin Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This book was SUCH a good read. At the start, we learn that “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow…”. So we’re introduced right away to the gossipy planned community of Shaker Heights, the Richardson family, and a little girl with some confusion about her name.

A lifelong resident of Shaker Heights, Elena Richardson embodies the spirit of Shaker Heights: following the rules, behaving in acceptable ways, and guiding her family and (as much as possible) the community down the proper path. Her four children include Trip, the high-school golden boy athlete, Lexie, the star student bound for Yale who has a touch of the rebel in her relationship with her African-American boyfriend, Moody, the nerdy but lovable boy, and Izzy, the alleged firestarter. Into the mix come Mia and her daughter Pearl, a couple of vagabonds who who come to town and rent Elena’s inherited duplex. Mia is an artist who marches to her own drummer, and Pearl is a sensitive girl who instantly bonds with Moody (but has a mega crush on Trip).

Elena is so rigidly living her life that she can’t handle Mia and what she represents. “She had…done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completly different, life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies.” The families become intertwined and involved with a co-worker of Mia’s, who left her infant at a fire station but has turned her life around and now wants her back, although Elena’s close friend and her husband are on the cusp of adopting little Mirabelle (or May Ling). The legal wrangling of the custody battle involves Elena’s husband, an attorney who represents the upper-middle-class couple who want to keep Mirabelle, and Elena makes it her mission in life to get into everyone’s business while she isn’t quite seeing what is going on with her own family. In the legal fight, Mia and Elena are on opposite sides, and there are strong feelings on the part of the adults and the children.

I loved this book. Highly recommended. Great characters, excellent look at cultural appropriation and the issues around mixed-race adoption, as well as a good plot that starts with the Richardson house burning down then goes back and tells the story of what led to that event. I was glued to the book from start to finish. Good for sharp YAs and book clubs. Five stars.

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

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COVER Brown Watch Me Disappear

The three main characters in this terrific puzzle are Jonathan, his wife Billie, and their teenage daughter Billie. In the Prologue, we get a hint about Billie’s adventurous nature as she comments to Jonathan as they are watching Olive at the beach: “She’s going to need to grow a thicker skin or she’s going to spend her whole life being too afraid to try anything.”

In the novel, Billie has gone off hiking solo and has disappeared. As months go by, Jonathan is trying to cope with the mysterious loss when Olive begins having vivid dreams that have her convinced her mom is still alive. While Jonathan doesn’t actually wish her dead, he has an interest in having her declared legally dead in order to collect insurance money. It really isn’t possible to tell much about the story without spoiling it, but it is well crafted and kept me guessing until the end (although, admittedly, I am the worst at figuring things out in terms of mystery plotting). So I’ll just try to convey why the experience of reading this was so enjoyable, with some examples of Ms. Brown’s narrative skill.

Olive is revealed to be quite a sensitive teenager. She attends a pricey prep school in the Bay Area, and as she observes some girls who are a couple of years behind her in school, she “wishes she could tell these girls that things get easier, but in her experience they don’t…you just discover that there are even bigger, more complicated problems that you have to solve.”

I love the way Ms. Brown describes teenaged girls, saying they “…are like skittish forest creatures that dance away at your approach, snarl if you dare to confront them head-on. You need to wait, patiently, for them to come to you.”

Brown also captures the upper-middle-class soccer moms whose daughters attend Claremont Prep with Olive. As Jonathan takes on the after-school pickup duties following Billie’s exit, and is suddenly an available male, the”…Claremont Moms are circling. They flutter around Jonathan, a flock of predatory birds in lululemon and boyfriend jeans.”

Not a fast-paced action thriller by any means, but an unraveling story that was a pleasure to read. I appreciate having a copy made available by Random House/Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Four enthusiastic stars.

 

The Child by Fiona Barton

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COVER Barton The Child

Fiona Barton’s prior book The Widow was a mystery told from the point of view of three characters, including crack reporter Kate Waters. I enjoyed it, and was pleased to receive an advance copy of Ms. Barton’s latest, The Child, from Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Similar in structure to The Widow,, The Child is told from the points of view of three main characters, this time all women:

  • Kate Waters is back as the intrepid journalist, looking for her next big story as she watches the newspaper business changing around her. “The tsunami of online news had washed her and those like her to a distant shore.”
  • Emma Simmonds is a young editor whose extreme anxiety about whether he past might catch up to her seems to be threatening the stability she has found in the married life she has created for herself. “He doesn’t know me really. I’ve made sure.”
  • Angela Irving has a mother’s intuition and her identity as a mother is shaded by the devastating loss she suffered 20+ years ago when her infant was stolen from the hospital right after its birth. “People say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…it doesn’t. It breaks your bones, leaving everything splintered and held together with grubby bandages and yellowing sticky tape…Fragile and exhausting to hold together. Sometimes you wish it had killed you.”

The plot centers around the grisly discovery of the skeleton of an infant, unearthed at a construction site. Each of the primary characters has a connection to the unfolding story of the “Building Site Baby,” and this propels the narrative.

The structure of the novel works well and the characters are well drawn. We learn so much about them as their individual searches for the meaning of this event occur. Emma, for example, has a husband who works at a University. Her view of his work environment? “University departments are like prides of lions, really. Lots of males preening and screwing around and hanging on to their superiority by their dewclaws.” (Having worked at a college, I LOVED this line!). Barton’s excellent descriptive skills are clear as Emma reminisces about a house where she lived as a child: “I can still smell that house; years of patchouli oil overlaid by grime, suffocating and musky like a hippie’s old afghan coat.”

 I’m one of those people who NEVER solves the mystery in advance, but even I could see this one coming, so it lost a star there. But that didn’t detract from the enjoyment I experienced as I read this book. I look forward to more from Ms. Barton. Four stars.

A Clockwork Murder by Steve Jackson

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COVER Jackson Clockwork Murder

Another dive into true crime…and having read and reviewed Steve Jackson’s Rough Trade, I anticipated a well-written exploration of something creepy In fact, I recall being surprised by the quality of Rough Trade (reviewed at https://littorallibrarian.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/rough-trade-by-steve-jackson/). So I was happy to receive an advance copy of Mr. Jackson’s “A Clockwork Murder” from Wild Blue Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Jackson’s approach differs from that of many TC authors, as he explained in the foreword to Rough Trade: “It’s not the blood and gore, or sexual titillation, I’m looking for…I’m interested in the psychology and “ripple effect” of violent crime, and the back stories of the human beings involved: killers, victims, law enforcement, those involved in the justice system, and the community.”

And wow, does he have a lot of material to work with in this exploration of two of the creepiest murderers ever, George Woldt and Lucas Salmon. These two friends shared a fascination with the movie A Clockwork Orange (hence the title), a movie from the 19070s that explores the theme of violence and ‘ultra-violence’, as it follows the actions of some guys who take joy in terrorizing others. Seen as an extreme example to those who are outcasts and do not feel self-empowered, it often reinforces the idea that people can do whatever they please, without regard to the repercussions. 

These two weirdos met as teenagers. In high school, Woldt didn’t really stand out, being just another somewhat troubled teenager in a rough high school. He possessed the skill to be a charmer, especially face-to-face with females, although behind their backs he was known for saying they were all bitches good for only one thing: sex. Known for the screaming matches he would get into with his Korean mother, he was widely regarded by friends and associates as someone obsessed with very strange ideas fantasies, including the desire to commit rape and assault…which most saw who knew him saw as bluster. At one point he was married to Becky, who “tried to get him to go to counseling to deal with his anger, but he wouldn’t. Instead, she learned to do what he said or suffer the consequences. He was a master manipulator…”

Lucas Salmon was also an odd guy, although from a more traditional family. Lucas was seen by many to be the victim of George’s control, and he “…envied George Woldt and wanted to be like him—have sex with women and not care what other people thought of him. And he especially wanted George to quit teasing him about being a virgin.”

The book goes into gruesome detail about the night these two finally made their long-discussed fantasy come true, as they randomly chose a woman (a beautiful young athlete named Jacine), abducted her (in view of numerous witnesses), raped and tortured her, and murdered her, leaving her corpse under a van in a school parking lot. Being complete lunatics, they kept the bloody knife and the victim’s bloody sweatshirt in the car they used for the crime, parking it in front of their apartment (which they shared with George’s wife Bonnie) until the police showed up shortly after the witnesses had called in the license plate number of the car.

I kept shaking my head at the crazy that leapt off every page. These two were bad enough, but Bonnie was also wacko: “Bonnie said she couldn’t understand why her husband didn’t come to her if he wanted to rape someone. She would have been more than willing to act out the fantasy…Bonnie had pouted that she thought she was prettier than Jacine and complained, “Why her and not me?”” Holy hell.

There is a boatload of detail about the trials and the effect of the crime on the victim’s families, particularly Jacine’s mother and stepfather. There was so much that completely reinforced my already negative view of our system of “justice,” in this case emphasizing the way the system focuses on the plight of those on trial and ignores the victim(s). The reliance on “expert witnesses” was another source for my disgust, as various psychologists and psychiatrists trotted out theories and justifications, including “dependent personality disorder” for Lucas and the truly mind-boggling idea that as he was raping Jacine, George actually had the mindset that HE was the victim of sexual assault! (yeah, I told you – crazy).

It is possibly the most horrific crime book I’ve read, partly due to the fact that the two perpetrators were totally matter-of-fact about the way they picked their victim completely at random (so perhaps it COULD happen to anyone), and how they confessed in great detail, down to the fact of their high-fiving one another after Jacine was finally dead. Ugh.

Lots to ponder here, about the judicial system, death penalty, whether it is right for defense attorneys to do ANYTHING to avoid conviction, the rights of victims, etc.

 

As I said about Rough Trade, this isn’t literature, nor is it meant to be. What it IS is quality True Crime, well written and researched. It’s definitely five star true crime, but be warned — it is HORRIFIC.

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

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cover Steiner Persons Unknown

Last year, I read and reviewed Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, her previous detective story featuring Manon Bradshaw (four stars). In that review I expressed my fondness for novels by Tana French and Kate Atkinson, and noted “I have to say that Steiner’s protagonist, Manon Bradshaw, reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George’s Barbara Havers of the Lynley series. Like Barbara, she is a no-longer young woman who has an interesting and successful career – but she is dissatisfied with her situation, and she REALLY wants to be in a relationship. She is 39, and trying to get her life in order, “ Well, here we are again!

As Persons Unknown opens, Detective Manon Bradshaw has sort of given up on that whole finding a relationship thing, and has transferred back to Cambridgeshire where she is living with her sister Ellie, Ellie’s toddler son Solly, and Fly Dent, the twelve-year-old boy Manon has adopted. She hopes that moving away from London will provide Fly with a fresh start, where he won’t be routinely stopped and frisked by police who see only his skin color. Fly is a “…tall black youth with his hood up? He might as well wear a sign saying “Arrest me now,”” Oh, and she is five months pregnant (spoiler alert) via donor and has abandoned the search for a life partner!

What she really wants is the elusive dream of work-life balance, so she transfers to the routine, stable (and boring?) cold case group, and is determined to be a good mom to Fly and the new baby. Manon feared that the move would beneficial for Fly and she tells herself this is just what they all need.

A stabbing victim is found, and he turns out to be someone well known to Manon’s sister Ellie: he is Solly’s birth father who is a banker from London, who just happens to be worth millions. Manon finds herself trying to work on the case, although she is prohibited from doing so officially when it begins to move ever closer to her home and family.

The writing is terrific. As was the case with Missing, Presumed, I love some of the minor characters, and their wry humor. This trait is revealed in Birdie, who becomes important to the investigation: “When you’re young you think happiness might be some kind of perpetual state of orgasm, but later, once the joints go, you realize it can be simulated with some cheese and a cracker.”

But I especially love Manon. As she looks at her middle-aged self, she realizes she “…is becoming invisible, pushing her trolley up and down the aisles of Waitrose toward oblivion, picking up some grapefruit-scented all-purpose spray on her way there.”

And especially this: “What would she think of herself, what would the world think, if she were to hurl her haggard self at Mark Talbot…or pinch the bottom of a younger man next to the photocopier in the office; to deny, as men do, the aging of her flesh? Why can’t she, as men do, say” Yes, I am potbellied, wrinkly-bottomed, shortsighted, but I will make a play for that twenty-eight-year-old nevertheless? Why should she hide her desires inside the acceptable consumption of table lamps and Boden cardigans and heritage tomatoes as if this is compensation, when what she wants is callous and vivid?”

Wow!  THIS is a character we know, with real emotions and life situations. Steiner does a great job with the people and the plot, although it did fall apart a tiny bit for me at the end. It was five stars right up until the last part, although when thinking how it might have otherwise ended that would have been preferable, I can’t come up with anything. But, four stars and thanks to Random House and NetGalley!

 

Every Last Lie by Mary Kubica

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Cover Kubica Every Last Lie

Mary, Mary, Mary. Were you cruising toward summer? Basking in the glory of the good reviews of The Good Girl or Pretty Baby?? Whatever the reason, I could hardly WAIT to settle in with the advance copy of your latest, Every Last Lie (which I was happy to receive from Harlequin/Park Row Books & NetGalley in exchange for my honest review), and I emerged disappointed..

This is a standalone suspense/mystery thriller, and like many recent domestic psychological thrillers, it is told from alternating perspectives of main characters: in this case a young married couple, Nick and Clara Solberg. Their tragedy is flat out smack in our faces (actually jarring) right at the beginning to the novel.

A few days after Clara has given birth to their son, Nick takes their precocious 4-year-old daughter Maisie to her ballet lessons, phoning Clara on the way to ask what kind of takeout food she’d like him to pick up. Nick never makes it home as he and Maisie are in a terrible car crash that leaves him dead while Maisie escapes with just a scratch.

As if the overwhelming grief of losing her husband isn’t enough, Clara begins to believe that it wasn’t an accident as the police have determined, but that he was murdered. Clara goes through various suspects trying to determine who it was that ran them off the road causing Nick’s death. She basically covers all the bases including friends, family, co-workers – you name it, Clara is at one time or another sure that several people must be the criminal.

So, the story is a fast read and as usual Kubica does a great job developing the characters into people we KNOW and care about, and moving the action along with events as well as dialogue. The problem for me was there were several red herrings, and the story was building and building toward the big reveal, than it just didn’t work for me.

The way the story is told, with Clara’s post-crash chapters alternating with Nick’s pre-crash chapters works well, and the reader cycles through pity, sympathy, etc. along with the characters.

I think Kubica’s fans will love this, and I would recommend it selectively to a certain type of reader. I can only give it three stars, and I have thought for hours about whether it was just that my expectations were too high. I concluded that wasn’t the case, and while I am still a Kubica fan, I hope that in her next book she returns to the terrific level of thriller writing her fans expect.

Three stars.

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

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CoverDeMille Cuban Affair

Seventeen years ago, someone whose opinions on books NEVER matched mine recommended Lion’s Game by Nelson DeMille, and I LOVED it. Since then, I’ve grabbed every new DeMille book and been puzzled by the inconsistency: for example, Night Fall was terrific. The Panther? Not so much. And don’t even get me started on Radiant Angel. I kept thinking, “what happened?”

But I can’t quite give up on any author who has provided me with so many hours of entertainment, so I had a positive attitude when I received an advance copy of DeMille’s latest, The Cuban Affair, in return for my honest review (thanks, Simon & Schuster and NetGalley!)

Having thought quite a bit about why I had been so disappointed reading some of his recent books (was it him? Was it me?), I had concluded that the John Corey character was the problem. In the earlier books, he was witty and could be charming. In the more recent books, his wisecracking had become constant, and was more annoying than entertaining, and it seemed to have become his dominant characteristic, to the point where it came across as somewhat cartoonish. So, I was pleased to read that the latest book was introducing a new protagonist, Daniel Graham MacCormick (aka “Mac”). A native of Maine, Mac has seen two tours of Afghanistan and left a career on Wall Street out of boredom and moved to Key West, Florida where he owns a boat that is chartered for fishing, romantic cruises, parties, etc. Mac doesn’t accept every charter request of his boat, so when he is approached by a smooth attorney from Miami who wants to charter his boat for a ten-day fishing derby to Cuba, he initially turns it down.

Once the offer is explained further by the attorney and the plan includes a beautiful Cuban-American woman, AND the fee becomes multiple millions, Mac decides to accept and the adventure begins. Along the way, there are shady characters, guns, booze, sex, crooked police, jealous boyfriends, a chase through swamp and jungle, and a tour group comprised mainly of academics and pseudo-academics (sort of a classic “educational” travel group). Without giving anything away, I suspect we will encounter Mac again for more adventures.

The story is pure entertainment, and DeMille has clearly done his research into Cuban-American relations and politics in the South Florida area. This allows him to explore the passionate feelings of Cuban-Americans and the conditions in contemporary Cuba just as relations between the US and Cuba were being re-established.

The pace is good, and the writing is crisp and entertaining, re-establishing DeMille as one of my favorite thriller writers. A friend who is unable to participate in his usual level of physical activity due to recent open-heart surgery BEGGED me for a book he could get lost in – one that would totally hold his interest. This one met the criteria, so I give The Cuban Affair a solid four stars.

The Party by Robyn Harding

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COVER Harding The Party

Hannah Sanders is turning sixteen. She’s a good student, she gets good grades and has nice friends, and so her parents trust her. Rather than a big flashy party, they decide to have a sweet sixteen party at their multimillion-dollar home in a wealthy Bay Area suburb (I’m picturing Lafayette or Orinda). She invites four girlfriends over for a slumber party with pizza, cake, and movies. What could possibly go wrong?

Hannah’s parents, Jeff and Kim, have a tension-filled marriage, revealed by Kim’s regular use of Ambien to get to sleep: “…there was far too much tension in her marriage to handle without a good night’s sleep.” Jeff seems to wonder how their marriage got to where it is: “Once, they’d gone to Mexico and Kim had downed tequila shots and danced on the bar in her bra. And then Kim became a mother and it was like flicking a switch. Overnight, Kim became responsible, earnest, doting…boring.”

Kim sets the ground rules for the night, giving a little speech that clearly spells them out: no boys, no booze, and no drugs. Then they pretty much leave the girls to have fun in the rec room. But Jeff wants to be the “cool Dad” so he picks up a bottle of champagne and sneaks it to them, figuring one bottle will give each girl a small glass – again, what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, things DO go wrong, with a tragic accident in the middle of the night that starts the unraveling of the façade of their picture-perfect life. Much like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, my guess is that for many readers there is a bit of schadenfreude as they watch things fall apart. Life in the perfect suburbs – it really can’t be THAT perfect, can it? Doesn’t this family have some of the same issues, flaws and problems as the rest of us? As things spiral downward in the story, we learn of the deception, lies, and betrayal that lie under that façade, for the girls as well as the adults. When the victim’s mother reminds her “You’re the victim here,” her daughter asks her “Don’t you remember high school at all?…No one likes a fucking victim!”

After the party, “Hannah had experienced a perspective shift. Despite the values her mother had tried to instill in her, getting straight A’s wasn’t actually the most important thing in the world. Survival, that’s what mattered. Getting through the gauntlet of tenth grade with your self-esteem intact was what counted.” When she is encouraged by her counselor to do the right thing socially following the party, she’s torn: “Hannah didn’t want to be the girl with strength of character. She wanted to be the cool girl, the popular girl, the girl with the hot boyfriend.” At the same time, Kim (Hannah’s mom) finds her self dealing with both the teenagers and the adults and realizes “There is only one thing as mean as teenagers: soccer moms.”

Told from the alternating perspectives of Hannah, each of her parents, and the victim’s mother, the pacing of the story is just right. We lean of the horrific accident early on, and we know exactly what caused it. And details about both current and past behaviors of individual adults are revealed subtly, and only later do we learn how these will impact the unfolding drama.

I was in the mood for some escapist fiction, something that was not overly challenging but was completely entertaining. This fit the bill on all counts, and I appreciate having an opportunity to read an advance copy of The Party, thanks to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley. Five stars for the combination of domestic suburban drama, moral dilemma, suburban skewering, and all-around good story.

Astrophysics for People In a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Neil, you don’t know me at ALL, do you? I love you – except for that thing where you did a TV remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which ended up being disappointingly cartoonish…but after reading this new book, maybe that really IS my level! I had such high hopes going in.…

The marketing is superb: “So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day. While you wait for your morning coffee to brew, for the bus, the train, or a plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.” (BTW, thanks to W.W. Norton and NetGalley for the copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.)

As I began, the preface sounded like it was meant for me: “…every one of us has looked up at the night shy and wondered: What does it all mean?…And, what is my place in the universe?” And I was thinking, OMG! Neil! Thank you! Then, you continue: “If you’re too busy to absorb the cosmos via classes, textbooks, or documentaries …seek a brief but meaningful introduction to the field…” and I was HOOKED! This sounded perfect!!!

Then I began reading. In just a couple of pages, I was looking at “The ordinary photon is a member of the boson family. The leptons most familiar to the physicist are the electron and perhaps the neutrinos; and the most famous quarks are…well, there are no familiar quarks.” HUH? You lost me at photon (and boson and lepton).

I DID appreciate the places where he brought the abstract down to touching on real life (for some of us): “In America, local school boards vote on subjects to be taught in the classroom. In some cases, votes are cast according to the whims of curtural, political tides.” And this: “When I pore over the data that establish the mysterious presence of dark matter and dark energy throughout the universe, sometimes I forget that every day—every twenty-four-hour rotation of Earth—people kill and get killed in the name of someone else’s conception of God, and that some people who do not kill in the name of God, kill in the name of needs or wants of political dogma.”

So, what happened for me reading this was I was reminded that I am totally ignorant when it comes to science!!! Maybe Dr. Tyson will write some version of Astrophysics for Dummies. I would try it! And I really am glad I read this, because I love when he talks about our place in the universe and how the diminishing of science education can be a real disaster. It’s just that the beginning, when he got into the actual scientific lingo, it seemed there was a presumption of a certain level of scientific literacy – which I CLEARLY DO NOT HAVE.

So, I am giving this three stars. Five for the man and his approach to making science accessible to everyone – but a loss of two for the headache I got trying to follow the science.

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

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I had read so much hype about The Marsh King’s Daughter, I was eager to read the advance copy I received from Penguin Group/Putnam & NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I was expecting a riveting psychological thriller, filled with suspense. What I got was a bit different…

I suppose I have to give it more than three stars, because it was REALLY unsettling. The protagonist, Helena, is a young wife and mother living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with her husband and two daughters. She earns money selling homemade jam and jelly, and is making deliveries of her products when she hears on the radio that a prisoner has escaped from the local prison…a man who abducted a girl and and kept her prisoner for years (in “the marsh,” where they were apparently able to live for years without electricity, running water, heat, medical care, etc.). The prisoner, called “The Marsh King,” fathered a child with the girl, and the three of them lived in the marsh for years.

We learn early on that Helena was the baby, that her father is using all his Native American skills to elude the authorities, and that Helena is the only one who can track him and bring him to justice. We know this because it is beaten into our heads relentlessly. And we know that Helena’s childhood was an ugly one, when she tells us “…my childhood came to and end the day my father tried to drown my mother.” She “…was the daughter of a kidnapped girl and her captor. For twelve years, I lived without seeing or speaking another human being other than my parents.”

So yes, I was totally creeped out by the plot…by even more by the character whose horrific deeds form the frame for the plot. I know it was effective because I kept making noises when things happened in the story – noises that made my husband keep asking things like “Are you all right?”

So, we kind of know how the plot is going to unfold, although there are some twists and turns along the way. It is more a tracking story than a mystery, and it is somewhat might mare-inducing…but again, this sort of tells me that Dionne accomplished what she set out to do: write a memorable thriller. Did I LIKE it? No. Creeped me out a bit too much for comfort. Do I recommend it? Yes. It isn’t my kind of thing, but I know many people who will love it. Four stars.

 

Lockdown by Laurie R. King

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I live on the Central Coast of California, where it’s borderline heresy to be anything less than a huge fan of beloved local author Laurie King. True confession time: I admit it, I tried a couple of her books and they just didn’t grab me. But seeing that her latest book, Lockdown, was subtitled “A Novel of Suspense,” and that it was set in a middle school in a small rural town on the central coast (that sounded eerily like the one where my husband worked for many years) made me LEAP at the opportunity to read an advance copy! (Thanks to NetGalley and Random House – Ballantine.)

The setting is Guadalupe Middle School, where Principal Linda McDonald (who has been in charge for the past year) has been working tirelessly to change the culture from that of a gang-ridden, crime infested school to…something else. The story takes place on a single day, with flashback chapters interspersed to present the backstories for some of the characters (including Linda and her husband Gordon, who routinely helps out and supports his wife in her professional endeavor). Another main character is local cop Olivia, who intuits that Gordon has a mystery that might be revealed if she were to use her law enforcement resources to do some sleuthing.

As Linda gets to school, it is the morning of her long-awaited undertaking: Career Day, when she hopes to present students with ideas and options that might inspire them to escape their environment. “They gym would be packed to the rafters with seven hundred-plus adolescents, on the brink of boiling over, into impatience, mockery, even the violence that was never far away.”   The students are “ages eleven to fourteen. Half child, half adult, all hormones and passion…” One of the invited speakers, Thomas Atcheson, who plans to speak about the tech industry, has a different perspective: “”Career Day.” What an exercise in futility! Urging ill-trained children to become entrepreneurs was like telling finger-painters to aim for the Sistine Chapel: those with drive required no encouragement.”

Other important characters include the Coach and several students: the basketball star, the cousin of the gang member on trial for murdering a beautiful young girl, and the victim’s sister. Then there is the janitor, an immigrant who has a secret and takes a huge interest in the community.

Told from alternating perspectives, the story of Guadalupe’s Career Day its effect on several people’s lives, is filled with tension, mystery and outstanding character development. I love the way Ms. King presented the school in a way that anyone who has worked with students in middle or high school will recognize: ”…even the oldest, most sneering of these adolescents harbored secret pockets of hope, a hidden belief that the world might still hold out an outstretched hand in place of a fist.”

Impossible to say more without spoiling, which I NEVER do! It’s well written, and a relatively quick read with memorable characters. Five stars.

 

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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COVERGrann Killers Flower Moon

Just over a century ago, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. In this amazing book, David Grann presents the results of his exhaustive research into one of the most horrific and shameful eras in U.S. history: the “Reign of Terror” as the Osage began to be killed off for their land (and the incredible wealth they achieved due to the oil underneath their land). It’s a chilling, riveting piece of nonfiction – and it reads like fiction.

As the U.S. government was inclined to do, they shoved the Osage onto a godforsaken piece of land in the corner of Oklahoma, unaware that whoever had the rights to the land would be rich beyond imagining. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage seemed to have it made: they bought cars and rode in them with their chauffeurs, they built mansions, and they sent their children off to study in Europe.

Beginning with an isolated death here and there, it became apparent that one by one, they were being killed off. Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose story is central to the book, saw her entire family murdered: her sister was shot, her mother slowly poisoned, and then there was the firebombing. The Osage began to die in significant numbers under mysterious circumstances.

This part of Oklahoma was really one of the last bits of the Wild West, evidenced by the fact that anyone who tried to investigate the killings would themselves be murdered. J. Edgar Hoover (a truly weird little man) and his newly created F.B.I. took up the case as their first major homicide investigation and at first blundered terribly due to the rampant corruption in the early days of the Bureau. But Hoover brought in Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, who put together an undercover team who bravely worked with the Osage to reveal a deeply ingrained conspiracy.

Killers of the Flower Moon not only reveals the cold blooded murders of dozens of Osage, and lays out the horrible treatment of Native Americans that allowed the crimes to be ignored, covered up, and/or forgotten.

I found myself highlighting tons of paragraphs as I was reading…but I can’t bear to go back and retrieve them to share in my review. Seriously, this book is haunting and devastating. I admit I was relieved when my Kindle showed I was 75% of the way through but the book was done – yes, a full 25% of the book is notes, and I was ready to stop reading about the relentless horror.

It’s an incredible piece of research into a part of U.S. history that we might wish to forget – but which we should NEVER forget. Five stars, and thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Shadow Man by Alan Drew

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Talk about a grabber: the description for Alan Drew’s book Shadow Man starts out “What Dennis Lehane does for Boston, Alan Drew does for Southern California in this gritty thriller…” I thought “what a trifecta!” I’ve been a Dennis Lehane fan for many years, I grew up in Orange County, CA (I am a huge fan of the earlier books by T. Jefferson Parker that were also set in the OC), and thrillers are among my favorite genres. So I couldn’t WAIT to dive into this book! Unfortunately, my husband snagged my Kindle and was instantly hooked, so I had to wait a few days for my chance. Wow, was it worth the wait!

The protagonist is Ben Wade, a police detective who left the LAPD and moved back to the fictional town of Rancho Santa Elena, partly in a failed attempt to save his marriage to Rachel. (Note the town is fictional, but it PERFECTLY captures the Orange County I escaped some years ago.) Ben is a good guy and a loving father, but he clearly has some baggage: as Natasha, the medical examiner and potential romantic interest, points out: “she could see why Rachel left him. He was a room with a locked door, and a wife wanted access.” Ben works on two separate cases throughout the book, one involving a serial killer and the other a mysterious gun death of a teenage boy, whose body was found near the residential labor camp that provides labor for the remaining crops that haven’t yet been replaced by the suburban sprawl that is gobbling up Orange County. No spoilers ahead, but great plot development in both areas.

The setting is incredibly important to the story. As the book opens, the Santa Anna winds are blowing: “The morning had been heavy with gritty smog, the taste of leaded gas on the tongue… winds had burst into the coastal basin midmorning, dry gusts billowing off the desert in the east that electrified the air…” And anyone who has lived in Southern California will nod in agreement with Ben’s thought that there “…wasn’t any scientific evidence for this, but every cop knew something went haywire in people when the winds hit.”

Drew clearly knows the area, and I love the way he reveals what makes Rancho Santa Elena distinctly different from his previous life in LA: the town “… survived on being the opposite of L.A.—clean, organized, boring.” The essence of much of Orange County is due to the people who have moved there: They “…were afraid of the world; that’s why they moved here, to escape it. They believed master-planned order—straight streets, identical houses, brightly lit shopping centers—would keep them safe from the outside world.”

Along with the setting, the characters come alive with Drew’s outstanding descriptive skill: he notes a woman who is “Blonde of course, radiating the forced sexual brightness of plastic surgery and makeup.” (yes, I KNOW these people!) Not everyone is in the same class, including “…beach bums who lived in rotting wooden apartments and worked stocking grocery shelves so that they could ride the waves every day.” Sounds like my adopted hometown of Santa Cruz, which frequently reminds people of Orange County in the 60s.

Even further down the social ladder are the farmworkers who are an integral part of the story. Drew captures their situation and interweaves the immigration issue without being pedantic, always keeping the story moving while at the same time making the reader aware of the class distinctions that are such a strong characteristic of the area. Talking about the farmworkers, we learn that ICE “…harassed the camp every few months, sending a few people back over the border. A cynical game, really, since the owners of the fields didn’t want their people deported, but local immigration needed to look as if the were doing their job. So, a compromise: Haul a few away, get it in the newspapers to appease a certain type of vote, and then let more come in the replace the ones sent home.” Wow.

Ben’s investigations lead him toward two social issues:  the plight of the farmworkers and the effects of child abuse. As he ponders why the latter is often so well hidden, he reflects, “ “There were a few rumors among the teachers.” Jesus. What was the law worth if it was used to keep people quiet about what they all knew?”

I loved this book! It more than met my high expectations, with its compelling plot and relatable characters. But even more, it is the best kind of novel: one that truly entertains the reader while making us THINK. Ben Wade is a great character, and I hope Shadow Man is the first in a series.

For any refugees from behind the Orange Curtain, you will totally relate to Rancho Santa Elena, with lines like “Sigalert for an accident on the 22…everything backed up to the Crystal Cathedral” and the description of what seems to clearly be the Melrose Abbey Mortuary, which is “…crammed between a strip mall dotted with taquerias and a cement wall that separated the cemetery from the rush of the Santa Ana Freeway.” AWESOME!

After finishing the book, I read a few comments from people who were complaining that this is not actually a thriller. My response is “not only is it a thriller, it is a good one, and so much more!” Can’t wait for more from Alan Drew! (Neither can my husband.) Five enthusiastic stars!

NOTE: I appreciate that I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and Random House in exchange for my honest review.

Testimony by Scott Turow

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Cover Turow Testimony

How much do I love Scott Turow? I read tons of mysteries/thrillers, and am particularly fond of legal intrigue in that category. But I will drop EVERYTHING on my TBR list when a new book by Scott Turow is released! So when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Testimony (release date May 16, 2017) from Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley, I basically shut off the world for a few days! (Turow’s books are definitely not in my “one night stand” category!)

I read his first novel, Presumed Innocent, when it first came out back in 1986, meeting characters in the fictional Kindle County (cough Chicago/Cook County cough) – several of whom reappear in later books in the Kindle County series. Testimony is the latest in this line, this time featuring fifty-year-old former U.S. Attorney Bill Ten Boom,  who finds himself in early 2015 at a crossroads: he has left his second career as a successful attorney at a major firm (so successful that he doesn’t need to work), is fairly recently amicably divorced from his wife of many years (they were both bored), and is unencumbered by people or things.

Bill (or Boom, as he is often called) happens to run into Roger, his friend since law school, who has spent the past thirty years in the Foreign Service. Roger tells him of an opportunity he might consider, working as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (a permanent war crimes tribunal) in The Hague. Bill accepts the opportunity and very quickly, he is at work in The Hague, in the middle of what appears to be a massive war crime involving the massacre of hundreds of Roma (aka “Gypsies”) at a refugee camp in Bosnia ten years earlier. The story takes place between March and July 2015, as Bill works with locals in The Hague, the U.S. military, and Bosnia to investigate this alleged war crime.

Bill/Boom is a terrific character, and Turow reveals his character both by his actions and his words/thoughts. Boom muses  “These remains, just the first sight of them, affected me more strongly than I had been prepared for. Lawyers—all lawyers—live in a land of concepts and words, with precious little physical reality intruding.” And “Someday, when I finished bringing international justice to the globe, I was going to figure out the connection between self-image and love.” There are some fascinating relationships (including romantic ones) that develop during Boom’s  first months in The Hague, and they enhance the development of his character while never distracting the reader from the story. And what a story! In addition to being a terrific mystery, it turned out to provide clarification for my (mis)understanding of the events that occurred in Bosnia in the 1990s. I love it when I am simultaneously entertained and educated!!!

The plotting in Testimony is complex, as we are introduced to a variety of suspects, including the Serb paramilitary, organized crime, and the U.S. military. Along the way, Boom is enmeshed in a variety of shifting alliances and some treachery, and it’s all done in Scott Turow style: it draws the reader in and won’t let go!

We often hear advice to authors to “write what you know,” and Turow clearly knows all aspects of this story. He worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago for 18 years. He then began writing, but continued practicing law: in 1995, he won a reversal in the murder conviction of a man who had spent 11 years in prison, many of them on death row, for a crime another man confessed to – and it was a pro bono effort! Since I can’t give this SIX stars, I’ll go with five. Thank you, Scott Turow!

 

 

Golden Prey by John Sandford

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I’m a sucker for pretty much any Sandford books, whether it features Lucas Davenport or Virgil Flowers or (occasionally) both. The plotting is sharp, the characters are well developed (and more so with each title, as we come to know more about their lives with each new case). So, I was happy to receive an advance copy of the latest Lucas Davenport “Prey” book, Golden Prey, from Penguin Group/Putnam and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

In this latest entry in the series, Lucas has moved out of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and is now working for the U.S. Marshals Service, able to pick his own cases and follow them wherever they lead (which doesn’t endear him to the nominal head of Marshals’ office in Minnesota).

The crime spree opens with the robbery of a Honduran drug cartel’s money counting house in Biloxi, MS. During the crime, five people are killed, including a six-year-old girl – and millions of dollars in cash is taken. Lucas heads up a team including what I consider potentially recurring memorable characters to search for the “Dixie Hicks” who took out the counting house. At the same time as his team’s search is going on, The cartel sends their own people — including a crazy bitch torturer known as the “Queen of Home Improvement tools” and a couple of lesbians, all of whom are on the hunt.

Even though we pretty much know going in that Lucas will solve the case and there will be lots of action, some witty dialogue, and more information about what makes Lucas tick, it is a fun ride.

I always love the scenes where Lucas has to fly, and is sure every takeoff and/or landing will result in a fiery crash. I also love the way he dives into the local cultural quirks – this time, in the South. “He went to sleep thinking about gRita and especially okra. Who in God’s name was the first guy to stick an okra in his mouth? Must have been a brave man, or starving to death…”

Then there are the vivid descriptions, as when he goes to interview a good old boy who lives with his cockatoo in a small house: “The place smelled heavily of Campbell’s Chunky Hearty Bean with Ham soup, a touch of the consequent flatulence, with a subtle overtone of newspaper-and-bird-shit.”

Like I said, it’s a fun ride. Sandford’s books are reliable entertainment, and this one is no exception. It’s more than four stars for sure, but not quite five stars, as the complex chase required a few too many turns that bordered on deus ex machina. I’ve been told I am a “way too easy”  grader, so it’s gotta be four stars!

The IBS Elimination Diet and Cookbook by Patsy Catsos

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It isn’t a topic that is often discussed with strangers (if at all), but anyone who suffers with IBS knows there is SOMETHING going on in their digestive system that isn’t quite right. And that person has probably spent years searching for the answer. Thanks to Crown Publishing / Harmony and NetGalley, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of The IBS Elimination Diet and Cookbook in exchange for my honest review.

This book explores the relationship of FODMAPs to IBS. While IBS is a well-known term, we are only recently hearing much about FODMAPs. The idea of a low-FODMAP diet as part of the treatment for IBS has been gaining traction in the past year. Go ahead, Google it – a quick search for “fodmap” returns 31 million hits!

So what’s a FODMAP anyway? The word is an acronym for “fermentable oigo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols,” which are a group of hard-to-digest carbs found mostly in wheat, milk, beans and soy (along with some fruits and veggies). Not everyone with IBS is sensitive to the same things, so it’s important to find out just what your senstitivites are. This book, originally self-published as IBS—Free At Last, has been expanded to include recipes and is designed to walk you through eliminating all the FODMAPs from your diet, then adding them back one at a time to uncover your individual sensitivities.

It is estimated that there are over 60 million IBS sufferers in the U.S, along with many others who suffer from Crohn’s, celiac disease and ulcerative colitis. Monash University in Australia has led the way in learning about FODMAPs and providing hope for millions who are all too familiar with the problem (whether they choose to talk about it or not!), but easy-to-understand specific information has been somewhat scarce.

Written by Patsy Catsos, MS, RDN, LD, who is a medical nutrition therapist and FODMAP expert, as well as an author, this guide would seem to be a good starting point for those unfamiar with FODMAPs as well as a source for some recipes to help cope with the day-to-day reality of IBS. Four stars.

Rough Trade by Steve Jackson

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Hmmm. Where to start with this one? I’ve often thought that, contrary to traditional theories, you frequently CAN tell a book by its cover – not so for Rough Trade by Steve Jackson.  A close-up of the face of the creepy perv – I mean bad guy – shown above dominates the cover along with the lurid subtitle: “ A shocking true story of prostitution, murder and redemption.” Frankly, its appearance is that of a trashy story that was rushed into print for maximum shock value. And that was totally not the case with the copy of this title that I received from Wild Blue Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Jackson includes an extensive foreword that provides insight into what makes him a different true-crime author. He tells us “It’s not the blood and gore, or sexual titillation, I’m looking for…I’m interested in the psychology and “ripple effect” of violent crime, and the back stories of the human beings involved: killers, victims, law enforcement, those involved in the justice system, and the community.” He establishes that the story of the murder of Anita Jones by itself was not enough to build a story around: “her short sad life could not carry a book.” But a fellow prostitute named Joanne Cordova, who had known Anita briefly, was “the flawed heroine seeking redemption.” Joanne Cordova was a former police officer whose life went to hell as she became a crack addict in Denver, during which time she encountered Robert Riggan, the murderer, and subsequently made the difficult choice to do the right thing and work with the police in search of justice for Anita. She did this even though it meant she would be labeled a snitch, thereby putting her own life in danger. (After all, she knew from personal experience as a police officer that “snitches end up in ditches.”)

Then there is the creepy perv – I mean murderer. Robert Riggan “was no Ted Bundy, whose good looks, charming ways and evil cunning has enthralled true crime readers through multiple books.” He was just a “scared, psychologically stunted” man whose horrific crime seemed all too common. It wasn’t until the story of his childhood emerged that the reader learns the reason for him becoming the person he was. As Jackson notes, “sometimes the monsters in our real-life nightmares are created in the homes and by the people who are supposed to represent safety to a child.” Riggan endured rape, incest and horrific abuse growing up. As a former foster parent who has seen and heard the horrors that are all too common for many children, this was heartbreaking. Jackson presents the details in a straightforward way, never sensationalizing them, yet painting a complete picture of the abuse that contributed to Riggan becoming a monster.

The discovery of  Anita’s body was serendipitous. It was only because a young couple driving to work in the mountains of Colorado just happened to catch a glimpse of what looked like a man dragging a body up a secluded trail as they drove past. They had a hard time believing what they were seeing, which turned out to be  Riggan, who was leaving behind a bloody, dying Anita Jones. He fled the scene as  they stopped, but their information and Joanne Cordova’s subsequent efforts resulted in his arrest and conviction.

The story of the crime and its aftermath includes the details of how Joanne Cordova’s choices took her from her life as an outstanding police officer to become a crack-addicted streetwalker.  As part of her life on the streets of Denver, she had herself submitted to violent sex with Riggan in exchange for drugs. When she became aware that her friend Anita had been murdered by that same guy, she had a terrible choice to make. Rather than opt to look the other way, keeping herself safe (which would result in Anita’s killer being free to continue his violent attacks on women), she realized that despite all her mistakes in life, “it is never too late to do the right thing.”  As she endured the humiliating, detailed exploration of her life during Riggan’s trial, she coped as she had learned to do, by putting on a virtual mask. Rather than crack, her mask was now held in place partly by “the pot and alcohol,” and despite the grueling odeal she went on to find her own personal redemption.

This isn’t great literature, nor is it intended to be. But it is well-written and researched, and includes an important  message about the possible results of childhood abuse and bad choices. In addition, it reminds us of  the redemption that can occur when someone does the right thing. Five stars (again, it isn’t 5-star “literature,” but it is definitely 5-star true crime).

Actual Malice by Breton Peace and Gary Condit

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Admittedly, the true crime genre is a guilty pleasure of mine. I also follow politics, so the whole sad, sordid Chandra Levy saga looked to be right up my alley, and eagerly anticipated reading Actual Malice by Breton Peace, published in fall, 2016. I appreciate receiving a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review – thanks to Ghost Mountain Press and NetGalley.

It’s difficult to describe my level of disappointment in this book. It was described asa true crime thriller that will take you through the backrooms of political gamesmanship, deception, and cover-up.” For me, not so much! Where to begin??

This book presents the reader with the story (or at least one view of the story) of 24-year-old Chandra Levy, a  constituent of Congressman Gary Condit of California’s Central Valley, and her disappearance in 2001 just as her internship with the federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. came to an end. As the investigation into her disappearance unfolded, it was on the news 24/7 after Condit was revealed to be “involved” with Chandra. Good grief, it was on the news 24/7 and Condit came off looking suspiciously like a lecherous creep. I was hoping the book might reveal some backstory that would make the whole thing at least a tiny bit less creepy.

Alas, even though this book was co-authored by Condit himself and therefore clearly meant to present him in at least a slightly favorable light, he still comes off as a lecherous creep!

I did enjoy the parts of the book describing Condit’s role as a “blue dog Democrat” in the sort-of-sleazy world of California politics, as he worked closely with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in a rapid rise to power. Condit was photogenic, charming, and ostensibly able to “work across the aisle.” Anyone with an interest in politics would find this interesting, and I did, although I kept being distracted by the gigantic need for an editor (example: when Condit’s chief of staff was described as “pouring over newspapers.” Ugh. Lots of errors like this that, to some of us, are visual fingernails on a blackboard!)

When he left California to take on the role of Representative in Washington, Condit was part of a coalition that delivered bipartisan victories during Clinton’s second term and sat on the House Intelligence Committee. It seemed like he had accomplished something that seems impossible in today’s political climate—genuine political independence from both sides of the aisle. Should have been golden, right? Well, no.

Despite all this promise, Condit seemed to have several red flags, including his relationship with his driver/bodyguard Vince Flammini, who comes across like a character from Goodfellas – or at least a wannabe in that vein. And as the Levy story is devoured by the media, stories of Condit’s womanizing emerge, contributing to the less-than-flattering picture of him.

So, overall, my four big takeaways from this book are:

  • Chandra Levy’s disappearance (and murder) is a sad tale, made even more so when you consider that the case was never solved.
  • Police often seem to find a suspect and then tailor their investigation to fit that storyline.
  • The media is an insatiable beast, especially when sex and politics are involved.
  • Men (including high-profile politicians) who can’t keep it in their pants say and do really stupid things.

Actual Malice is presented as a book that chronicles in vivid detail the heartache and intrigue behind the salacious, if fanciful, headlines that too often drive public debate and derail the serious business of our nation and its system of justice.” Really? To me, it comes across as almost a puff piece, sort of gliding over the facts that demonstrate that yes, Condit was a lecherous creep who betrayed his family as well as his constituents. I am actually surprised and a bit disappointed in myself as I admit that I expected more – even though Condit was co-author. Duh. What was I thinking?

I couldn’t resist — I knew that Condit has lost his bid for re-election and faded away, but I just had to look and see what became of him: according to the Washington Post, “Condit has written a book but allegedly can’t find a publisher. Soon after leaving politics, he invested in Baskin-Robbins ice cream franchises. The stores failed and prompted a breach-of-contract suit in which Condit was ordered to pay about $98,000. A source close to the Condit family says Gary has long since left the ice cream business.”

Like I said, sad. Two stars. I rarely give anything fewer than three, but this one was just awful in so many ways. Despite the effort of the two authors to present Condit in a positive light, I still felt like I need a shower.

 

 

No Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan

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As a teacher, I was always kind of a softie – an easy grader. And I suspect that is true of my reviews as well. And I REALLY liked the sound of this one: “emotional roller coaster filled with heart-stopping secrets and hairpin turns.” Sounds like my kind of escapist fiction! So, when I received an advance copy of Tracy Buchanan’s No Turning Back courtesy of Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley, I was ready for a good time!

The premise is interesting, and the beginning is strong. In fact, reading the prologue, I was sure it would be awesome: “My heart pounds, a bird trying to flutter its way out of a cage. I’m breathing fast and heavy, my bare shoulders scraping the brick with each movement. But I keep looking up, not care about the pain. He hunches down, his pale fingers curling around the wooden slats above. I hear his breath, deep and low.” THAT creeped me out, and I was sure that an author who could set a scene of danger so vividly would meet my standards for a good mystery/thriller. I read on…

In this novel, Anna Graves is a new mother who has recently gone back to her work as a radio personality following the breakup of her marriage. She is walking on the beach with her daughter one evening when she sees a group of teenagers who are not people she knows. Alert to any risk to her daughter, she is stunned to see another teenager (not part of the group) coming at her with a knife.

Adrenalin kicks in along with terror, and Anna reacts instinctively to protect her baby. The result is a tragedy but Anna and her daughter are both safe. Then her life starts to fall apart, and we watch Anna falling apart following this event and the re-emergence of the “Ophelia Killer,” a serial killer who hasn’t been heard from for twenty years. The killings stopped right when Anna’s father committed suicide (red flag alert). That event sent her mother over the edge, and Anna has bonded with her grandmother, who has always been her source of comfort.

So far, so good. And I appreciate the way the author let the reader know about Anna’s journalistic instincts. “She just had what her dad used to call the “crowd’s gut”: a natural instinct to know what the zeitgeist was at any given time.” Nice!

But things fell apart for me as the clues mounted, and the revelations about both the current mystery and the events from twenty years earlier began to mount up. At the end, I just wanted it to be over.

I looked at the author’s other titles and think that if I had looked at any of her previous work I would not have been interested in this one. But damn did the marketing people put on a good case! I was convinced, and again, it started strong. I might consider looking at her work again, because she does have strengths in the genre. But it wasn’t put on my favorite new author list. Easy grader that I am, three stars.

 

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

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For some reason, I think of Anita Shreve’s books as “beach reads,” and her newest “The Stars Are Fire” will most likely be a summer favorite in 2017. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley, I received an advance copy in exchange for this honest review.

The story is set in Maine in 1947, and begins with a very wet rainy season. As summer comes, the initial relief felt by the townspeople of the coastal town where Grace Holland lives with her husband Gene and their two children is short-lived as they enter a period of serious drought. Both these seasons are described with words that make the reader feel first the bleak and gray dampness and then the oppressive airless dry heat.

Grace is living with a taciturn man and apparently thinks he is a good husband…even though there is no joy or warmth between them. “When Grace walks into her mother’s home, she has a sensation of great warmth and safety. This doesn’t occur in her own house despite the fact that at night and on Sundays, there’s a man to protect  her.” Her life “…before she met Gene, before life became uncertain and even a little frightening,” was strictly confined and she grasps at small moments of freedom when she can do nothing more than sit and stare at the ocean.

When fires break out along the coast in October, Gene volunteers to go off to fight the fires leaving five-months-pregnant Grace with two kids both younger than two to fend for themselves. The entire town pretty much burns to the ground, and Grace is left homeless and penniless. Out of this tragedy comes the opportunity for Grace to discover herself as an individual, rather than just in relation to a (crappy) husband. She blossoms, her spirit soars, and then…well, things change. To reveal more would spoil what is quite an interesting story.

I enjoyed reading this…it’s an easy read, and the people are written so that we come to care about what happens to them. I give it four stars.

After reading it, I did some research on the terrible fires which devastated Maine in 1947. That made the story even more real for me, and I appreciate the author’s skill in bringing this bit of history alive.

 

 

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda

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I first became aware of Megan Miranda’s storytelling skill when I read her previous novel All the Missing Girls, which was told BACKWARDS. Not an easy thing to pull off, but she did it in a 5-star fashion, so I was ready with high expectations when I received an advance copy of her latest book The Perfect Stranger in exchange for my honest review (thanks, Simon & Schuster and NetGalley!!)

In this one, the protagonist is an apparently troubled journalist named Leah Stevens, who has moved to a small town in western Pennsylvania to escape and start over. She picks up and takes off with her friend Emmy, becoming a high school teacher while Emmy works odd jobs under the table…or does she??? In fact, did Emmy really exist at all? When Leah reports her missing and the police come to investigate, there is no record of her existence anywhere, either currently or in the past when Leah and Emmy were college roommates. The reader is taken on a twisted ride while Leah tries to find Emmy while hiding her own past (the details of which are rolled out slowly, revealing the reason for Leah’s rush out of Boston and into Pennsylvania.

As the details of her past are revealed, we learn there was a restraining order against Leah and a threatened lawsuit for her actions in a story she wrote in Boston. Leah is just settling in to her new life when someone beats the crap out of a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Leah, and then Emmy disappears.  Leah desperately wants to find Emmy, and becomes deeply entangled with the lead detective working on Emmy’s disappearance. She tries to cooperate, but the is no trace of Emmy, not even a digital footprint. At this point the reader may wonder if Emmy ever existed, or whether Leah might have dissociative identity disorder.

The possibility of a split personality is revealed as Leah tells the reader “I was an adolescent when I first started to see myself as two people…I was both walking down the hall and watching myself walk down the hall.” Speaking of a female student, she said she ”…held herself as if she knew it. She must’ve thought there were certain rules that still applied. “

Leah’s struggles become more clear as she continues ”…then you learn. Your backbone was all false bravado. An act that was highly cultivated, taught and expected of girls now. The spunk that was appreciated and rewarded. Talk back to the professor to show your grit.” Leah has learned that for her young student “…danger had not yet made itself apparent, but it was everywhere, whether she wanted to believe it or not.” 

That is part of what makes this so GOOD: this is not just a mystery/thriller (although it definitely is a good example of that genre) – it is also a critique of how women fit in (or not) and learn to make their way in the world, whether it is essential to follow the rules, and the importance of learning about trust.

Leah’s struggle to reclaim her good name, find Emmy and figure out who, if anyone, she can trust makes this an interesting and exciting book. Five stars. And I look forward to Megan Miranda’s future work!

 

Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

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As a big podcast fan (admittedly sparked by Serial), I found the premise of this thriller intriguing: a hugely popular podcast has begun exploring the murder of a young woman’s father. The young woman is Josie Buhrman – who has changed her name and removed herself from the midwestern town where it happened, cutting herself off completely from her estranged twin sister Laine and the aunt who raised the two girls when their mother ran away to join a cult following the murder of her husband. Got it so far? I admit I was sort of hooked just reading the blurb about this, so was happy to receive an advance copy from Gallery Books and NetGalley in return for my honest review.

When the book begins, we meet Josie Buhrman, who has spent the last ten years away from her hometown. Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, a man she met while traveling the world in search of – what? Seems like she mostly wanted to just be AWAY and NOT the murder victim’s daughter. But she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past, including her name and she isn’t quite sure how to tell him the truth: “There was a minefield of lies between us, and the only safe thing to do was to say nothing at all.” When she receives word that her mother has died, she heads back to her hometown, where she is confronted by the Sarah Koenig wannabe Poppy Parnell, whose podcast has stirred up a s&%storm questioning the conviction of the neighbor, who was identified by Laine who claimed to have witnessed the killing.

I enjoyed reading the story, and felt some aspects of the characters were well drawn, although the ending was not a surprise. The author cleverly identified a hook that might entice readers, and she has a knack for creating a tense scene, as when Josie goes in search of her sister: “I could hear the feathery tops of weeds brushing against the car’s undercarriage as I slowly inched forward in the darkness, squinting to make out the confines of the overgrown road.” That kind of descriptive writing is enough for me!

I willingly suspended my disbelief about the outcome and the relationships in Josie’s life (both familial and otherwise), and just went along for the ride. Four stars.

 

 

 

Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

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This sounded like just the thing for an escape from reality: a story about a couple who “met cute,” got married and had a child, went on their first vacation as a family, and then…the husband and pre-school-age boy disappear completely! I  thought it had “beach read” written all over it – not a bad thing! Also, the fact that Lisa Scottoline and Chris Bohjalian (a couple of authors I enjoy) had glowing things to say about it increased my interest, so I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Almost Missed You from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

We first encounter Violet and Finn, the married couple who are referred to by their friends as “meant to be,” meeting on a beach in the Carolinas. Although they had an instant connection, they didn’t actually meet F2F for some time. In the interim, Finn had a fiancée and Violet was restlessly single. Finn apparently still thinks about Violet and their brief encounter, and of course they end up together. Violet is happy as can be when they head out on their first vacation as a family…and then she finds herself in her worst nightmare. (The revelation of Violet’s dawning realization of the disappearance of her husband and child is particularly well done).

Other characters impact the story, particularly Caitlin, who has been friends with Finn forever, and who comes to be Violet’s BFF. She plays a critical role in the events that happen both before and after Finn and Violet get together.

The full story is told through alternating viewpoints of Finn, Violet and Caitlin, and has strong themes of marital betrayal, the role of fate in a relationship, secrets (both those kept and those revealed), and the relationship between a mother and her child.

Given that Ms. Strawser’s day job is Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine, expectations are high for this, her first novel. For a beach read, it’s a five star (not literary fiction, but extremely entertaining, and well written).

 

Everybody Had An Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s LA by Wm McKeen

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I grew up on the beach in Southern California in the 60s (San Clemente High, Class of ’65!!) so I LEAPT at the chance to have an advance copy of Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles by William McKeen (thanks to Chicago Review Press and NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.

For starters, I wanted to LOVE this book. Music was one of my best friends in my teenage years, and I retain vivid memories of artists, radio stations, TV shows, and all just hanging on the beach with transistor radios blaring music (unless the Dodgers were playing, in which case it was like a battle of the bands between the music and Vin Scully). Spoiler alert: I DID love it!

Just glancing at the cover made me happy: there were the 1960s images of some of my favorites: the Mamas and the Papas, Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Jan & Dean, Charles Manson – wait, WHAT???  Yep, it’s true: while this book is a detailed history of the 1950s and 19060s and the migration of the music industry to Los Angeles, it also is a fascinating look at the dark side of the time, including Manson, the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., the murder of Bobby Fuller, and more. As McKeen notes “Los Angeles was fecund with corruption. As it became the American capital of crazy, it also became a reliable source of ghastly crimes…Los Angeles was the promised land and a pathetic and brutal place.” And there is acknowledgement that the stories about Manson’s rejection by the music industry may have led directly to the Manson Family murder spree are in fact true. In addition to Manson, the book includes juicy stories about personalities including Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and that very weird Phil Spector.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story of the development of rock music is its relationship to race. “Black America met White America through music…once we were all dancing to the same beat, Jim Crow didn’t have a chance and walls came tumbling down.” Some claim that “rock ‘m roll is just black folks’ music played by white boys,” but the bottom line is that “the musical revolution…led to a social revolution.”

Segregation and bigotry are vividly described, especially in the way “the music industry’s official term for black music was “race” (as in “race records” on the radio)”” ...and for white country music it was “hillbilly”.” The term “rhythm and Blues” gave way to rock ‘n roll. It was Alan Freed who changed things: “Freed liked the way it sounded. “Rhythm and Blues,” the new industry term for black music, still bore the stigma of “race records” and Freed saw it as his sad duty to push his particular boulder uphill, trying to introduce the masses (mostly white kids) to this music he loved.” Once he coined the term “rock ‘n roll” for this new music, it stuck.

This book is absolutely packed with stories about the music and people surrounding the music industry. To be honest, I learned way more about Brian Wilson and Jan & Dean than I needed (or wanted) to know, but nothing in the book feels like it is over the top – the stories about the icons of “surf music” are often wild, but are an essential part of the story McKeen tells. Yes, I did love this book, and I’m pretty sure I won’t listen to Sirius Channel 060 the same way again! Four stars…if the final version has pictures, it would likely be 5.

Don’t Tell a Soul by M. William Phelps

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For some unknown reason, my guilty pleasure reading is True Crime. I’ve read a fair amount of crappy books in this genre, and also the “higher quality” titles from authors such as M. William Phelps, which are generally fairly well written. So I was happy to read an advance copy a Don’t Tell a Soul (provided by Kensington Books/Pinnacle and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I had never heard of this case, so I wasn’t aware of killer’s identity when I began the book, although of course as soon as I read that a woman named Cherry Walker was missing, I knew who the victim was!  Cherry was a devoted and trusting young woman who happily took over the regular role of babysitter when a friend (who had previously been the babysitter) asked her if she wanted to babysit to earn some money. As the story unfolds, we learn that the little boy’s mother often left him at Cherry’s apartment for days on end, and he was generally hungry and dressed in ragged clothes. Cherry, at age 39,  spent hours (days, actually) with the little boy, playing with him like she was his playmate rather than a responsible adult.  We learn that she had only recently moved out of her parents’ house to live on her own, because she was “mentally retarded” (their term, not mine) and functioned at the level of a 6- to 9-year old.

Red flags!!! Seriously, what kind of mother would leave her young child in the care of someone with such limitations? It turns out that boy’s mother, Kim Cargill, was the WORST kind of mother. She had four children (with 4 different fathers) and she was abusive and cruel to all of them. Her ex-husbands tried to get custody to save their kids, but somehow Kim generally managed to avoid losing custody. Finally, as the court date nears for the custody hearing for the child Cherry babysits, Kim is horrified that Cherry has been asked testify in court against the child’s abusive mother. Sadly, Cherry never got the chance. On the Saturday before the scheduled Wednesday hearing, Cherry’s body was found on the side of a road, after being doused with lighter fluid and set on fire.

The book has the expected narrative style of a book by M. William Phelps, and pulls the reader along on a path of increasing horror as Kim’s behavior toward her children and their fathers is revealed. If you don’t know the story (as was the case for me), it may be difficult to read, although there is a straight retelling of the facts of the case, rather than a gratuitously violent recitation of  the horrible events. If you DO know the story, I expect there will be quite a bit of “aha” moments, that somewhat explain how this woman came to be the monster who killed Cherry Walker. I truly hated Kim by the end of the book.

I did appreciate the fact that I didn’t know that Kim was white and Cherry was African-American until I saw the photos at the end of the book, because race was not relevant – Kim was equally cruel and vicious regardless of race. I also appreciated that Phelps went to some lengths to elaborate on the opportunities he had given Kim or her family to present her version of the story.

Fans of the true crime genre in general and Phelps in particular will want to read this. Four stars.

 

 

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

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I had read one of Ian Rankin’s books a couple of years ago, but somehow I had overlooked the fact that there were TWENTY of his books featuring John Rebus, a detective in Scotland (Rather Be the Devil is #21). Thanks to Little, Brown and Co. and NetGalley, I had the opportunity to review the latest in this series, and  I LOVED it.

Without giving too much away, John Rebus is retired as this one opens. He seems sort of settled down, with a dog and a relationship and an attempt to give up smoking. The one thing he can’t seem to give up is his attachment to detective work and he begins looking at a cold case that happens to put him in contact with a couple of recurring characters from the series: Detective Inspectors Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, who has been assigned to the Scottish Crime Division.

As the story develops, various plotlines are swirling around Rebus’s new life and two other characters from the Rebus series  (Big Ger Cafferty and Daryl Christie) and money laundering/fraud. In some ways, this seems like it might be a retread – which some authors have done enough to drive me crazy, as they drag out the protagonist and tell the same story over and over with minor variations. But there is real character development as Rebus faces his changing status as both a retiree from being a detective and moving toward being a senior citizen.

As the story wraps up, there are a couple of lingering questions, which bodes well for fans hoping for #22 in the series. I plan to find several of the titles in the series and read them, as there is nothing quite as satisfying as discovering an author you like and finding out they have a boatload of titles – like hitting the bibliographic jackpot! Four stars.

Lying Blind by Dianne Emley

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I’m kind of partial to procedurals with “plucky” heroines (think Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, French’s Antoinette Conway or Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. So, when I read that Dianne Emley had a new book, Lying Blind, featuring the recurring character Detective Nan Vining (a character I had never encountered) and that the new book was described as a “hard-edged thriller for fans of Patricia Cornwell, Tana French, and Lisa Gardner,” I was ready to meet Nan!

How have I missed this series? Emley’s previous Nan Vining books include The First Cut, Cut to the Quick, The Deepest Cut, Love Kills, and Killing Secrets. In this latest in the series, Pasadena, CA’s Homicide detective Nan Vining gets involved in a murder case and arrives at a mansion where a beautiful young woman is floating face down in the infinity pool. Nan is curious as to why her boyfriend, Sergeant Jim Kissick has arrived on the scene first. Why did the homeowner contact Jim first (via text), before placing the 911 call that brought Nan to the scene?

Jim’s explanation is that he is old friends with the homeowners, Teddy and Rebecca Sexton. Nan begins to investigate, and becomes certain that the three of them are all hiding something. Meanwhile, in Lake Nacimiento (near Paso Robles, CA) a body is discovered, and that investigation brings detectives from that jurisdiction south. Soon the two crimes are intertwined and Nan feels like her relationship with Jim is falling apart.

Nan is a great character, the story is well plotted, and I enjoyed it a great deal. While there are some references to past experiences for Nan and Jim, I didn’t feel like I should have read the previous books in order to follow this one (although I plan to read earlier books in this series and hope I won’t get the “oh crap, I should have read this one first! Now I know what happens to these people!” feeling). There was a slight convenience to the resolution, meaning a tiny bit less of a rating, but overall I really enjoyed this!

Other fans of plucky heroines will enjoy this, as will people who enjoyed T. Jefferson Parker’s earlier books set in Southern California. (Everyone who has lived in Orange County seems to enjoy Parker’s early novels). Both Parker and Emley do a great job capturing the feel of SoCal, and I look forward to reading more by this author. Four enthusiastic stars, and thanks to Random House/Alibi and NetGalley for providing an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Failure of Justice: A Brutal Murder, An Obsessed Cop, Six Wrongful Convictions by John Ferak

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Failure of Justice by John Ferak is a true crime book that will make fans of “Making a Murderer” absolutely freak out. (Note: a forthcoming book, Avery, by the prosecutor in the Steven Avery case, is reviewed here).  In Failure of Justice, John Ferak covers the murder, subsequent investigation, the trial, conviction and eventual exoneration of the Beatrice 6.

The crime occurred in 1985 in a small town in Beatrice, a small town located in Gage County, Nebraska (about 50 miles south of Lincoln, the state capitol). Beatrice (pronounced “bee-AT-rues”), not a hotbed of crime, was mostly white, with a population lower than average in education and income. So when Helen Wilson, a 68-year old widow, was brutally raped and murdered, beaten to death in her downtown apartment, the place went crazy with fear, anger, and lots of people clamoring for justice.

The crime scene was “eerily ritualistic,” and despite the efforts of law enforcement, the trail went cold for four years. Then, the case was apparently miraculously solved with the arrests of six social misfits who, at the time of their arrests, were living in various places including Alabama, North Carolina and Colorado. WTF? Why had they as a group been involved in murdering a kindly, quiet widow?

All six (Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden) were eventually convicted of the crime and sent to prison, with all of them but White admitting guilt. The folks in Beatrice, particularly Helen Wilson’s family, were convinced that justice had finally been done. They were especially grateful to Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, Deputy Burdette Searcey and Reserve Deputy/psychiatrist Wayne Price, who had been instrumental in obtaining confessions/plea deals and bringing closure.

Nearly twenty years later, White’s protestations of innocence were proven correct when DNA testing of crime scene evidence showed that another man, Bruce Allen Smith, had actually been the murderer. The six, now known as “the Beatrice 6,” were exonerated and later sued Gage County, The case, which went to trial in U.S. District Court in 2014, ended in a mistrial. A new trial, ordered by the 8th Circuit Court, took place in 2016, and ended with the jury awarding the six a combined $28.1 million, plus attorneys’ fees and other costs.

I have long been fascinated with wrongful convictions, particularly those that turn out to be the result of coerced testimony and confessions. As the Beatrice 6 sat in jail, they had all been constantly reminded of their possible fate in Nebraska’s barbaric electric chair. The lengths to which the “authorities” went to get a conviction are stunning, and remind us that our criminal justice system is a mess, particularly when overzealous (sometimes called wacko) policing and prosecution efforts are involved.

What is also fascinating is that Gage County, with a population of just over 20,000, is on the hook for the settlement, awarded to the 6 late last year. (Note: the county declared its intention to appeal in October, and after several extensions, its attorneys submitted a 107-page brief in January 2017. These developments occurred too late to be included in the book, and are interesting postscripts to a story that really explores how people who are misfits, sometimes with limited capacity to understand the situation, can be railroaded in the frenzied, not always well-intentioned, search for “justice.”

With thanks to WildBlue Press and NetGalley, I appreciate the opportunity to receive an advance copy of this book in return for my honest review. It isn’t literature, it’s true crime. And I have read a LOT of true crime, certainly enough to recognize a quality effort in the genre. With that said, this is true crime that is worthy of 5 stars.

 

A Colony in A Nation by Chris Hayes

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Having both watched him for a few years on MSNBC and having read his work in The Nation, I love Chris Hayes, His earlier book Twilight of the Elites (called “a stunning polemic by Ta-Nehisi Coates), emphasized how out of touch America’s political leaders were with those they were elected to govern (and this was in 2012!). In his new book, he takes the experiences he has had reporting from places like Ferguson and West Baltimore and combines it with his outstanding knowledge of U.S. history and concludes that our country has broken into two distinct factions: the Colony and the Nation.

As he examines the issues and events in Ferguson, West Baltimore and other places where racially-motivated crime and violence have been in the news in recent years, he contends that the conditions in these cities and towns mirror those that sparked the American Revolution. Along the way, he examines the political, economic and social conditions in both eras.

He explains that despite our wish to live in a “post-racial” world, the situation that exists in “the Colony” looks very much like a police state, where aggressive policing makes the police look like an occupying force and fear is paramount.

He points out that our country imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other county, except the archipelago of Seychelles, with “nearly one out of four prisoners in the world …an American,” although we have only 5% of the world’s population. And “American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.” Ouch!!

He examines the end of Jim Crow and the change that happened in the 1960s is a time when some believe “it was reconceived and reborn through mass incarcerations” – for me, this was unsettling to read. In Ferguson, Hayes believes “…the police had taken on the role of enforcing an unannounced but very real form of segregation in the St. Louis suburb.” Further, he says our “post-civil-rights social order …gave up on desegregation as a guiding mission and accepted a country of de facto segregation between “nice neighborhoods” and “rough neighborhoods,” “good schools” and “bad schools,” “inner cities” and “bedroom communities.””

To his credit, he in unflinching as he presents his self-analysis of his own privilege as he lives the “the Nation,” and explains “None of this came about by accident. It was the result of accumulation of policy, from federal housing guidelines and realtor practices to the decisions of tens of thousands of school boards and town councils and homeowners’ associations essential drawing boundaries: the Nation on one side, the Colony on the other,” And, as in the case of Sandra Bland, “In the Colony, violence looms, and failure to comply can be fatal.” And he points out that this is not so in The Nation.

Many of us are currently pondering how the hell our country got to the point where it is today. This book doesn’t have all the answers, but it is eye-opening, well researched, easy to read and comprehend, and reveals Hayes’s intelligence as well as his compassion and desire for change. It comes at a good time for anyone wanting to have some awareness of how we got to where we are, and I highly recommend it. Five stars.

Avery: The Case Against Steven Avery and What “Making a Murderer” Gets Wrong by Ken Kratz

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OK, True Crime IS my guilty pleasure genre. And I am particularly fascinated by stories of “justice gone wrong,” and am a strong advocate for fairness in the justice system and a believer in the need for judicial reform. So, the whole phenomenon around Steven Avery and the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” would seem to be right up my alley. After all, I was obsessed worth Serial, so a story about a wrongful conviction should be my thing, right?

But here is the thing: it’s easy to advocate for justice for an intelligent, articulate young man (Serial’s Adnan Syed). It’s a lot harder when the accused murderer is a man like Steven Avery: a crude, uneducated man whose family business is an auto salvage yard where he lives in a trailer among rusted out wrecked cars and indulges himself fathering children, harassing people, and torturing animals. Truly.

Some years ago, Avery was accused and convicted of raping a woman, and sent to prison where he stayed until the case was overturned, as his innocence was proven. Just when his case against the County was moving toward what looked like a huge cash award for wrongful imprisonment, he was accused of murdering a young female photographer who came to the salvage yard to take photos for Auto Trader.

Making a Murderer presented a compelling argument for what looked like at best inept police work and at worst a totally corrupt judicial system that went after him because his case for the prior improper conviction was about to bankrupt the County. He settled for $400,000, which he used for his defense in the murder trial.

I admit, I couldn’t watch all of Making a Murderer. They actually lost me fairly early on with the animal torture, and while I thought there had likely been some significant errors in the prosecution of the case (especially the way Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey was used), I wasn’t convinced he was innocent.

This book, written by the prosecutor, reinforced my opinion that Avery is a disgusting creep. It also gave me a TON of facts that were not part of Making a Murderer. It’s well written, and Kratz is open with his own story and the mistakes he made along the way (unrelated to Avery’s case). Anyone who watched the series and thinks Avery is innocent should really read this book, and it would be a good choice for true crime fans, especially if they can handle reading about a disgusting man.

Really, if I hadn’t committed to review it, I might not have finished it. I knew the status of the legal case, and I felt like I didn’t care if he had been wrongly convicted. Saying that goes against my personal beliefs, and I do think there are huge problems with our system of “justice” – but this man should be locked away forever, IMHO.

Four stars. I still hate Avery, and am not a big fan of Kratz, but the book is well done.

Richie by Thomas Thompson

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Richie: A Father, His Son, and the Ultimate America Tragedy, originally published in 1973, tells the story of an event that occurred in Nassau County (Long Island, NY) in1972. I was not familiar with the case, and True Crime is my “guilty pleasure” genre, so I was please to read an advance copy in exchange for my honest review (thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley!)

If you are familiar with this story, either from news accounts, the earlier edition of this book, or the TV Movie (spoiler alert!) The Death of Richie, your experience reading this will be different from mine. I was not familiar with the events, so for me it was both a true crime narrative and a thriller, because I had no idea what would happen in the end.

The story involves George Diener, who was a “salt of the earth” kind of guy: World War II veteran and traveling salesman, he is the epitome of the stereotypical member of the “older generation” who found themselves puzzled and appalled by the youth movement of the late 60s and early 70s (drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll). He and his wife, Carol, had old-fashioned values and found pleasure in the simple things, including watching their two sons growing up in a middle-class Long Island suburb.

If you have had a family member or close friend whose life has spiraled out of control due to drugs, the story will be familiar, and you may find yourself mentally shouting at the parents to take some action as their son Richie’s life goes downhill. Richie was a golden child, shy by most standards but close to his parents as a child. But at the age of fifteen, everything changes as he “got in with a bad crowd” and began having incidents related to a deep dive into drug addiction. He turned violent and repeatedly was in trouble for both drug-related and violent crimes, and his parents were increasingly at a loss as to how they could help him.

Sadly, in 1972, their dreams for their son were extinguished by a tragic event in their home.

Thomas Thompson, who also wrote another true crime classic, Blood & Money, is a master at writing true crime and this story captures the incredible gulf between the young and old was at its peak. A good read on several levels, and a must for true crime fans. Five stars.

 

Tell Me No Lies by Lynn Chandler Willis

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Tell Me No Lies: An Ava Logan Mystery by Lynn Chandler Willis is described as “Mystery Thriller General Fiction (Adult)” Knowing that, I settled in for what I hoped would be enough to take my mind off politics :). And, to just get it out of the way, I really really enjoyed this book. The author’s background includes ownership of a small-town newspaper (like her protagonist Ava Logan), and work in television, both of which may have contributed to the way the writing flows nicely while providing a rich visual portrait of both characters and environment.

Another thing to get out of the way is to clarify that it isn’t really possible to say much about the book without spoiling it. Now, about that: I am an avid mystery reader who generally doesn’t figure things out ahead of time, which is fine by me. I prefer being surprised (but only in reading, never in real life!) But there was a mention early on of something about the character that turned out to be the villain that made me say “hmmmm.” So, perhaps other readers may find the ending was telegraphed early on – but I was actually still somewhat surprised AND it didn’t lessen my enjoyment.

So, here is what I CAN say: the protagonist, Ava Logan, is a single mother to amazing children who live deep in Appalachia (and the setting turns out to be a significant aspect of the book’s appeal, as Willis uses both the natural beauty of the region and the appalling poverty to move her story along. Ava’s past is referenced (she tells us “…I had always been the girl with the mom in prison”).

Ava has made a good life for herself and is the publisher of the local newspaper. In her role as publisher/writer, she encounters some stories related to the upcoming local election about a rash of ginseng thieves (really? Who knew? Well, not me). Then on a day when Ava is watching a toddler belonging to her friend (another single mom), the friend is murdered and Ava finds herself in the middle of that case, the thievery, and a side plot about her multiple male friends, who are both prominent in the town.

When I write it down it sounds so cliché and like it might not be that much fun to read, but seriously, you just need to trust me. If you enjoy a clever mystery, mostly likeable characters (including a “plucky heroine”), you will like this.

With thanks to Henery Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy in exchange for my honest review, I give it four stars. Only negative for me was the fact that the clue to the mystery may have been too obvious which I know turns off some mystery readers. Again, for me, that was not an issue and I will definitely recommend this one.

Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry by Marcus Thompson

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Marcus Thompson II covered the Warriors for ten years, so he has seen the franchise emerge from the bottom of the heap to an incredibly popular, highly marketable and incredibly fun to watch team – and the centerpiece of their success is Wardell Stephen Curry, also known as Steph.

In Golden, Thompson tells the story of Curry’s rise to superstardom, and goes into a significant amount of detail about his years at Davidson, a college not known as a basketball powerhouse. As the son of an NBA player (Dell Curry), Steph was familiar with the trappings of fame and the lifestyle made possible by playing at a high level in the NBA. In fact, Thompson points out in the chapter “Curry Hate” that being the son of an NBA player is one of the marks against him – a reason he is the target of hate. (The two other reasons for the animus toward Curry are his light skin and his wholesome image.

The whole light skinned thing is covered in depth, and Thompson doesn’t shy away from discussing racism and the issue of varying shades of color among NBA players (which I confess I found fascinating). Equally interesting was the detail about what has driven Steph to become the most popular NBA player (with his jersey ranked #1 in sales in multiple years).

As a Bay Area resident, I appreciated Thompson’s in-depth look at how “In a span of a few years, the Warriors went from a cute start-up, the trendy watch for those in the know, to champion, to despised favorite.”

Along the way, Steph’s journey has taken him from the “unathletic” kid who loved the game to be known as the Baby Faced Assassin. “The alter ego that would turn the kindest cutest kid around into a vindictive, explosive predator on the court.”

Despite the “Curry Hate” mentioned above (which I admit I really don’t get), Steph continues to be beloved by parents who want their kids to look up to someone with such a wholesome image. And he treats people well: “He has an uncanny ability to make people walk away from a Curry interaction feeling like they have a new friend who is really good at basketball.”

There is something for everyone in this book: human interest stories about his family, historical perspective on both Steph and the Warriors, and lots and lots of detail about specific games as well as specific details that a true hoops fan will appreciate. In discussing the debate as to whether Steph is a point guard or a shooting guard, we are told that “He is a point guard who can light up the scoreboard with the best of shooting guards. He is a shooting guard with all the skills of a top point guard.”

As both a basketball fan and a Curry fan, I enjoyed the book. Thompson’s long tenure covering the team made him an ideal candidate to write this story, which will be appreciated by the many Warriors fans in general and Steph Curry fans in particular.

The book presumes some knowledge about the league, the team, and Steph himself. Because the book needs some editing to tighten up the organization and make it flow more smoothly from one chapter to the next as well as providing some context for a curious reader who is less knowledgeable, I gave it 3.5 stars (which will show up as only 3, but it’s better than that). And frankly, I’m not sure how to find the balance: if you make it more clear for those unfamiliar with the game/player, the basketball geeks might be bored. In any case, I appreciate the chance to read an advance copy in exchange for my honest review. Thanks, Touchstone and NetGalley!

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

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I have loved reading Lisa See’s books, particularly Shanghai Girls, Dragon Bones and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of her latest, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, thanks to Scribner and NetGalley.

We meet Li-Yan when she is a girl living in a remote village in the mountains of Yunnan province. Life is hard for the families in the ethnic Akha minority as they harvest tea and follow routines and rituals that have been ingrained in their lives for generations. Li-Yan is the only daughter, living in a family compound with her parents and her three brothers and their wives, and she has an aptitude for learning that is fostered by her teacher.

Li-Yan falls in love with San-Pa, who leaves her to make a life for them outside the village. She learns she is pregnant while he is gone and gives birth to a baby girl (which tradition deems a “human reject”). Because she cannot bring herself to kill the baby, she wraps the baby in a blanket (tucking a tea cake alongside her) and walks for miles to a village where she abandons her beloved baby, hoping someone will care for her.

There is an incredible amount of history and detail as the story follows Li-yan’s effort as she grows up to enter the world beyond the gates of her village. It is an amazing journey with memorable characters and more than you will probably ever want to know about tea!

Meanwhile, her daughter is adopted by a loving family in the U.S. and is raised in a life that contrasts sharply with Li-Yan’s. An impressive amount of research was done by See, who grew up in a large Chinese-American family in Los Angeles. Themes of international adoptions, ethnic minorities in China (specifically the Akha people), and the history and cultural significance surrounding tea (farming, production and consumption) all contribute to the story.

As one might expect in a book by Lisa See, the main female characters are strong, clever women whose familial bonds overlay their experiences as individuals. It won’t be a surprise that Li-Yan’s desire to search for the daughter she gave up is recounted in chapters alternating with the story of Haley, the girl adopted by Americans who longs to learn about her roots and birth family.

As noted, there is more than I really wanted to know about tea, but it was an integral part of the story. I appreciate learning about Chinese history and culture in such an entertaining way, and my only critique is that the circumstances which make the resolution of the story feel so positive are (for me) bordering on “too good to be true,” as both Li-Yan and Haley are living ideal lives surrounded by perfect people and circumstances.

It’s a powerful story, well-researched and affecting on many levels. I loved the experience of reading it, but the ending reminded me that it was complete fiction – so four stars.

BTW, Lisa See will be at a Bookshop Santa Cruz event March 23, 2017.

Evidence of Love by John Bloom

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The True Crime genre has been a guilty pleasure of mine since I worked in a public library back in the 1980s and discovered the treasures that awaited me in Dewey # 364.1523. I was happy to have the opportunity to receive an advance copy of Evidence of Love by John Bloom in exchange for an honest review (thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media).

Subtitled “A true story of passion and death in the suburbs,” this fascinating story was made into a movie titled “A Killing in a Small Town” starring Barbara Hershey and Brian Dennehy in 1990. Yes, over 25 years ago! TBH, it wasn’t until I was nearly finished with the book that I checked and realized this crime happened in 1980, and the original copyright date is 1983. It isn’t totally clear to me if the book has been updated for the 2016 edition or is just being republished, but it’s a testament to how good it is that it doesn’t seem dated and the story holds up as well as it does.

The story is set in the suburban area in Texas known as the “Silicone Prairie,” and focuses on two families, both headed by men who work in high tech. Pat Montgomery is a successful engineer who is married to Candy. They are friends with the Gores, Allan and Betty. The story opens with Candy telling stories to children at a gathering at the church they all attend. Later that same day, Betty Gore is found murdered, the victim of the classic “axe murderer” that is somewhat a cliché (although apparently not that many murders are committed using an axe).

So, here’s where it gets tricky to review this without spoiling it. Although this was apparently a well-known crime, I was clueless about it when I began to read, and I think if I had known what was coming it might have been a totally different reading experience. (I admit I was creeped out while reading it, and since I always like to look at the photos first when reading true crime and my digital edition  didn’t include photos, I Googled the names and was stunned to read the headlines since I had about 40 pages left to read – it might have made a difference.) I don’t know if the print edition will include photos, but these characters are classic suburban couples with lives that revolve around their family, church, and (for the Dads) their work.

If you enjoy true crime, this is GREAT. If you like suburban drama, same thing. It isn’t a mystery in the sense that we know early on who died and who was responsible, but there is a mystery surrounding the nature of the killer’s defense, and whether it will prove successful. I didn’t find any of the characters to be particularly likable, but that didn’t detract from the fact that this is true crime at its best. FIVE stars.

The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken And How to Fix It by W. Chris Winter, M.D.

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I’ve always been interested in how to improve sleep…with a lifelong sleep problem, multiple overnight stays in the sleep clinic with electrodes EVERYWHERE, and a million suggestions including everything from improved sleep hygiene to serious drugs, I’m someone who knows quite a bit about sleep but yearns to learn more.

It seems like it’s a topic that is getting more coverage – for example, some major league baseball teams began using sleep rhythms to improve player performance (something that the Multiple-World Series winning SF Giants advocate) over the past few years, and even Arianna Huffington got into it last year with her book The Sleep Revolution (subtitle: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time)!! And she seemed to get it, so when I had the opportunity to receive an advance copy of the new book on sleep written by the man Arianna calls “The Sleep Whisperer,” (in exchange for my honest review), I leapt at the offer from NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group / NAL to review The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken And How to Fix It.

Dr. W. Chris Winter in an M.D. specializing in sleep disorders. A neurologist, one of the areas he has focused on is using sleep techniques as a way of improving athletes’ performance. In this new book, he presents both the background information to help people understand the problems that what I call “bad sleep” can bring as well as steps to take to address them. (NOTE: I don’t like to use the term “solve them” when discussing sleep problems, because I think that gives false hope – at least it did for me, for years, as I scoured popular books and articles as well as medical journals, looking for the answer)

The Sleep Solution is designed to help the reader design a specific program to address their individual issues and lifestyle. Among the topics:

* the ways in which food, light, and other activities might help or hurt our sleep
* why you may achieve your best sleep WITHOUT using sleeping pills
* how to Incorporate both “regular” sleep and napping into your life
*how to better a variety of sleep issues and conditions, including insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg (aka Willis-Ekbom) syndrome and circadian sleep disorders

IMHO, this book is a good combination of fundamental information and current methods. I especially like the way he doesn’t advocate a “one-size-fits-all” approach and believes in giving people information to help them address their specific challenges. Because it is up-to-date, extremely readable, informative without being preachy, and provides hope for the sleep challenged among us, I give it 5 stars (although my sleep specialist advocates the use of the more current term Willis-Ekbom Disease, that than RLS — a minor point, and in truth RLS is probably more “user-friendly”).

 

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

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I’ve been curious about Jonestown since the 1970s, finding myself fascinated in general about cults and repelled by the horror of Jonestown. I lived in Humboldt County, not all that far from Jones’s settlement in Ukiah, and we heard bits and pieces about the group (sort of like when we moved to Santa Cruz, hearing about the “red people”) – then the astonishing news when it all turned to hell in Guyana. So I was happy to receive an advance copy of The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn from Simon & Schuster and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The book went WAY more in depth into the early years of “Jimmy” Jones, and TBH he creeped me out all the way back in Chapter 4 (of 52) when little Jimmy, not yet ten years old, was holding animal funeral services and exhibiting a serious fascination with the Nazis: “…he was fascinated with the Nazis, enamored of their pageantry, mesmerized by obedient hordes of fighting men goose-stepping in unison.” He “Studied Adolf Hitler intently, how he stood in front of adoring crowds for hours…” 

In Jimmy’s hometown of Lynn, Indiana, a new Apostolic church opened up, featuring people speaking in tongues and “rolling around, babbling gibberish. It was wonderful entertainment.” Jimmy was always drawn to religions, and became a pastor at Community Unity church, a storefront operation that he worked hard to link with an established church. As years went by, Jim Jones became more and more a showman in his services, enlisting help from accomplices to demonstrate the miracles he could perform: as he “cured” a cancer of an audience member, his assistant would be in the audience “brandishing a bloody, foul-smelling lump clutched in a white cloth or napkin. Jones would declare that her was the cancer,” and encourage people to examine it (but not too closely, as it was extremely infectious. “Jones often engaged in the laying on of hands, commanding aches or tremors or chills to be gone—and usually, but not always, sufferers experienced instant relief.”

The name Peoples Temple came about after Community Unity bought property left when a Jewish congregation vacated it. “…the word “Temple” was carved in stone outside the building, and so Jones decided that the name of his curacy would reflect both its philosophy and the carving: Peoples Temple, not People’s, because the apostrophe symbolized ownership.” And Jones totally discouraged ownership of material possessions by his parishioners, urging them to give everything to the church.

One scam—rather, moneymaking operation, which Jones incorporated into building his empire, was that they “took over management of several nursing homes. These provided jobs for Peoples Temple congregants, and the money needed not only to pay for outreach programs, but also to promote them. Jones was able to purchase daily time on a local radio station,” and began expanding his outreach using media.

He paid close attention to Father Divine, and he “intended not only to emulate Divine’s ministry, but also to inherit his followers after the old man died.” Hoping to unite his Peoples Temple with Divine’s Peace Mission, he worked long and hard on the plan, but it never happened.

Throughout his rise from poor preacher to powerful leader of a huge congregation, we learn way more than we probably ever wanted to know about Jones’s peccadilloes and we see him at first veer off the path in his personal life, then flagrantly violate various Commandments as his life spiraled into a corrupt, vile mess filled with sex, drugs and real estate when he bought the property in Guyana. The Church incorporated physical punishment to keep followers in line, and he circumvented rules with situational ethics, as he “preached, and his followers believed, that the U.S. criminal justice system was corrupt, as well as rife with racism.”

He tried to establish his ultimate church in Los Angeles, but city politics and the geography of sprawling Southern California kept him from realizing his dream. Focusing his efforts on the San Francisco Bay Area, he offered grim sermons to his devoted followers, habitually using obscenities. “Temple members loved it – Father was talking like a real person, not acting prissy like so many pastors.” (at this point, I was reminded of the current political situation, and how a tyrant can easily dupe people into becoming blind followers – but that’s another story).

His paranoia, fueled by drug addiction, grew and spiraled further and further into madness. As events led up to the final confrontation with Congressman Ryan’s group in Guyana, it felt like there was no hope (of course, knowing how things would turn out, this was no surprise). “On that afternoon in Jonestown, when he told his followers that there was no other way, he believed it. As far as Jones was concerned, if he had come to some place that hope ran out, then so had they.” It was chilling to read about the times Jones told his followers they were drinking poison, and they DID IT, only to be told it was just an exercise. I imagine many of them thought it was just another exercise when they drank that poison on the final day.

Seriously, this book was upsetting. If I had not been committed to read and review it, I might have given up because the detail and relentless presentation of his horrific behavior began to feel overwhelming.

It is very extensively researched, and includes notes documenting sources. For anyone who really wants to know IN EXTREME DETAIL what happened to little Jimmy Jones to make him turn into the monster responsible for the deaths of so many who worshipped him, this is the book. It’s unsettling, no question, and I was relieved when I finished it – but I have to give it 4 stars just for the enormous work that went into it.

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

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I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian for many years, so when I had the opportunity to receive an advance copy of his latest novel, The Sleepwalker, from NetGalley and Doubleday Books in exchange for my honest review, I jumped on it!

The story is told looking back at the year 2000, and revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Annalee Ahlberg late one night. Her two daughters (21-year-old college student Lianna, who is home for her break, and 12-year-old Paige) both sleep through the night with no awareness of why their mother is gone when they wake up. Their father, an English professor at a nearby college, is away at a poetry conference the night Annalee goes missing, so although the police always look first at the spouse, he seems to have a rock solid alibi.

He works to keep his wife’s status in front of the public to help in the search for her, as he is well aware that people move on: “People survive by being callous, not kind, he sometimes taught his students, not trying to be dismissive of the species, but realistic. How, he lectured, could we ever face the morning if we did not grow inured to the monstrosities that marked the world daily: tsunamis and plane crashes and terrorism and war?”

As the story unfolds, we learn that all was not always smooth sailing in the marriage, although things usually LOOKED calm. Lianna sees beyond the surface: “Usually when they fought, they fought rather quietly, their barbs sharpened on whetstones of condescension and sarcasm.”

We learn that Annalee had a history of sleepwalking, although she never had an “event” if her husband was home. We also learn that they had been through multiple miscarriages between Lianna’s birth and Paige’s, and there was town gossip about Paige’s paternity. Lianna finds herself attracted to Gavin Rikert, the police detective who takes the lead on the investigation – and keeps their growing relationship secret from her father and sister. Things get complicated when she learns that Gavin is also a sleepwalker, had met her mother at the sleep clinic, and that they had an ongoing friendship (which no one in the Ahlberg family knew ANYTHING  about).

This is way too challenging to discuss without spoiling the mystery. As I read on my Kindle and realized I was 95% through the book, I was wondering how the BLEEP the story would be resolved in the few remaining pages. And once I finished it, I found myself wanting to go back and re-read it, armed with my new knowledge!

I learned a ton about sleep disorders, which I appreciated, having been a sleepwalker as a child and, as an adult, having spent a few nights covered with electrodes at the sleep clinic (although my disorder was not and is not at all similar to Anna lee’s).

It’s well written, the mystery was not revealed until the very end (although I am one of those mystery readers who rarely figures things out before the big reveal), the characters were very well drawn, and I learned some things! I give it five stars.

Infamy by Robert Tannenbaum

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I’ve read most of Robert Tanenbaum’s books featuring Manhattan District Attorney Butch Karp and his wife, Marlene Ciampi, so I was happy to receive an advance copy of Infamy from NetGalley and Gallery Books in exchange for my honest review. The story is basically this: a former Army veteran murders a colonel in New York, then claims that he was being manipulated as part of mind control experiments. A hotshot criminal defense lawyer (with ties to the White House), decides to defend the killer, and uses the veteran’s apparent post-traumatic stress from his tours in Afghanistan as his defense.

DA “Butch” Karp works with an old friend (frenemy?), investigative reporter Ariadne Stupenagel. She suspects that one of her victims in the shooting was a source she was using for a story on high-level government corruption, and argues that the shooting event was a hired killing, contracted by people at the highest levels of government, rather than some random violent event.

It’s a fast-paced thriller, and Karp feels that not only he, but also his family and friends are in danger if he goes ahead with the prosecution.

At times, it seems the story was created with a movie in mind, and for me it wasn’t up to the level of some earlier books in the series. Or perhaps my expectations were too high? Or perhaps disillusionment with government ethics following the election of 2016 affected my enjoyment of this thriller that was political as well as legal. I found Butch to be a bit too right of center for me to really love his actions. (“Really, Mr. Tanenbaum, it’s not you – it’s me!!”)

In any case, fans of Tannenbaum’s will enjoy it for sure. Four stars.

The Cutaway by Christina Kovac

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The Cutaway by Christina Kovac is described as being “perfect for fans of Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn,” so as a fan of those two books, I was happy to receive an advance copy from Atria Books and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I tend to enjoy books about the inner workings of media when they are written by someone with actual real world experience – and Ms. Kovac has seventeen years of experience in broadcast news, so I figured this was drawn for stories and people with whom she had worked in the past, and for me it rang true.

The story is set in Washington, D.C., and includes elements from news, politics and crime as it follows Virginia Knightly, a TV news producer, who receives an unsettling notice about a young attorney who is missing. The woman was last seen leaving a fancy restaurant after a domestic dispute, and Virginia finds herself investigating the disappearance on her own as her skeptical colleagues aren’t on board with her suspicions.

The pace is fast, the characters well-drawn, and the corruption among the police, the politicians and the press are pervasive…and creepy as we enter into an era marked with unsettling links between business and government following the recent election.

Described as a “psychological thriller,” it will appeal to fans of stories such as Big Little Lies, Gone Girl, Girl on a Train and Missing, Presumed.

My husband found a few details that, for him, disturbed the flow of the narrative – things along the lines of  “wait, if she had lost her wallet, how did she…” so I felt I couldn’t give it five stars, but those didn’t really bother me, and I hope this is the first in a series of stories involving Virginia Knightly!

Four stars.

The Forgotten Girls by Owen Laukkanen

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Several years ago, I stumbled upon Owen Laukkanen’s book The Professionals, featuring the crime-fighting team of Kirk Stevens (with the Minnesota BCA) and Carla Windermere (FBI). It was great! Since then I have enjoyed the exploits of these partners (in Criminal Enterprise, Kill Fee, The Stolen Ones, and The Watcher in the Wall), so I was happy to get an advance copy of The Missing Girls (to be published in March 2017), thanks to Penguin Group Putnam / G.P. Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley.

I wasn’t more than a paragraph or two into the Prologue before a scary premise was revealed: young women are hopping freight trains and meeting creepy guys. Given the title, I knew this wasn’t going to end well for more than one of them. And the line from the Prologue, repeated early on in the book, sent a chilling message: You don’t ever surf trains on the High Line.(seriously, it creeps me out just to write the words.)

Seems there is a serial killer targeting women, all of whom tend to fall into the categories that are unlikely to be missed: runaways, freight hoppers, barmaids, prostitutes, etc., many of them Native Americans – and many who disappear into a snowbank, not to be found until the spring thaw. He chose women the mountains wouldn’t miss, women who died easy. Women who nobody saw, anyway.

It takes awhile for the identity of the killer to be revealed, and Laukkanen is extremely skilled at building tension and describing the atmosphere. So good, in fact, that I kept having to get under a heated blanket as I followed Stevens and Windermere while they worked the case in horrific winter conditions in the North (Montana and into Canada).

Both the atmosphere and the killer are incredibly COLD: “…put that girl’s death down to natural causes, whether it was cold that killed her or a man. It’s all the same thing on this side of the mountain.”

Earlier titles in this series seemed to focus a bit more on the relationship between Stevens and Windermere, which is clearly now only a professional partnership. But they work well together and share a commitment to following through on the search for the killer, because they both clearly care about the women, regardless of their social class, history or current living situation.

Not so much a who-done-it mystery as a character study for the reader but there is a puzzle for them to solve in order to identify the killer, and there is some nifty Internet/Cloud technology as they follow the trail. And OMG, the scenes as the victims and the authorities plow through near-blizzard conditions! These chapters are incredibly tense and build to the ending (not perfect for all the characters by any means).

A great weekend of escapist fiction reading, and another winner from Owen Laukkanen. Five stars.

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

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I’m not sure why I haven’t read Val McDermid before, or why I wanted to read this one, but I am so glad it happened, and I thank Atlantic Monthly Press and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of Out of Bounds in exchange for my honest review!

McDermid fans may already be familiar with Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of Police Scotland, as Out of Bounds is #4 in a series with this feisty female protagonist. I plan to read the first three in the series (The Distant Echo, A Darker Domain, and The Skeleton Road), but this story doesn’t require any prior knowledge, and functions as a standalone novel (although I am fairly sure that some of the facts of Karen’s life and relationships as told in Out of Bounds involved people who were featured in earlier novels but are “no longer around” — no spoilers!!)

The story opens with what seems like three disjointed chapters telling separate stories involving a teenager and his buddies stealing a car and getting involved in a fatal crash, a young man drinking in a pub who wanders off into a very bad situation, and an insomniac who walks for hours in a nightly effort to quell her demons. Being somewhat linear, my initial reaction was along the lines of “huh?” but somehow I knew these things would come together…and the definitely did.

The insomniac is the protagonist, policewoman Karen Pirie. She is called in to investigate following the car crash, and her rule-bending investigation of an apparent terrorist bombing twenty years ago leads her to the pub patron. I can’t give much detail without spoiling the incredibly well-crafted story (or stories), but everything works! The stories come together, Karen becomes someone the reader just KNOWS, and there are some intriguing subplots and asides (including mentions of Nicola Stugeon, comments about Trump, and a thought-provoking look at some Syrian refugees).

I love Karen Pirie. “She was good at making people relax into revelation. She thought it was something to do with her apparent lack of sophistication. A few extra pounds (less than there used to be, but still…); a wardrobe that always looked slightly rumpled; a haircut that never qite delivered what it had promised in the salon. Women never felt threatened by her and men treated her like a wee sister or a favourite auntie.” Fans of Elizabeth George’s Lynley series may find her reminiscent of Barbara Havers – another fictional female detective I happen to love.

In addition to being educational about Scottish culture and justice (e.g., when adoptees in Scotland reach adulthood, they can learn the facts of their birth parents), the book uses language that transports the non-Scottish reader to another country: “He’d been sitting at the bar in his usual seat, blethering to another one of the locals about some political stooshie in South East Asia.”

Maybe all of McDermid’s books are this well crafted. I hope so, as I plan to begin to work my way through them, starting with the earlier titles in the Pirie series, then exploring either the Kate Brannigan or the Lindsay ordon books (there are six in each series), or the nine books in the Tony Hill-Carol Jordan stories. The publication dates of the Lindsay Gordon books go from 1987 to 2003, te Brannigan from 1992 to 1998, and the Hill-Jordan books from 1995 to 2015. Val McDermid has been a busy woman, and I love finding an new (to me) author!

Five stars.

A Daughter’s Deadly Deception by Jeremy Grimaldi

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Guilty Pleasure? Most of us have them. Mine is reading in the True Crime genre. Over the years, I have read dozens of books in the genre, and I appreciate a well-researched story of a family gone wrong…but this one was just so, so sad.

This sad story takes place in Toronto, so it was interesting to see the differences in the way the criminal justice and court systems work there in comparison to here…and there was a lot of detail around using cell phone records (more detail than you want, believe me). This began as something I was really into, having spent a lot of time on the details of the Adnan Syed fiasco and the (mis)use of cell phone records during a trial…but to be honest, it just bogged down for me. (Possibly an editing issue that might have been summarized for readers who want the point without the extreme detail?)

In any case, this book tells the story of two hardworking Vietnamese immigrants and their daughter, Jennifer. They raised her with very high standards: winning and being the best at everything was essential. Over the years, their daughter began to realize that she could not meet their high standards, so she started forging report cards. Then, she developed elaborate lies as she claimed to have not only attended college, but graduated – none of which was true!

Finally, she had enough of the lies and the fear that her parents would find out who and what she really was, so she arranged to have people break into their home at night and kill her parents. After listening to her mother being tortured and killed, she heard her father moaning in agony and realized he wasn’t dead yet – so she called out to tell him she was calling 911. She pretended to have been a victim of the invaders herself, and…oh, it is just too awful to go through it again.

There is a lot of interpretation by mental health experts (one in particular, who had not treated Jennifer) claiming she and her parents were “mismatched” (whatever THAT means), and possibly that this was the logical result of the decades of “Tiger Mother” parenting and pressure to perform and succeed. To me, it was a cold, spoiled child who was unwilling to expend effort to achieve things she wanted and who just went down what was seemingly the easiest path. I hated her. The book was well done, but I really hated her and in the end, I do NOT understand her actions. But fans of true crime will likely appreciate this one. I want to only give it three stars because I hated her so much, but I realized the author was very effective if his words had that impact on me, so four stars and thanks to Dundum and NetGalley.

 

The Grain Brain Whole Life Plan by David Perlmutter, M.D.

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My husband was heavily influenced to modify his eating after reading Dr. David Perlmutter’s book Grain Brain a couple of years ago. The follow-up title, The Grain Brain Whole Life Plan, is a practical book—much less theoretical than his previous books. As he states: “The main purpose of this book is to help you put my ideas into practice in the real world and to show you that living your best life is about much more than what you put in your mouth.”

For those unfamiliar with the basic premise of his work, Dr. Perlmutter advocates eating more fat and fiber, lessening the emphasis on carbs and protein, and getting rid of gluten completely.

In Part I, of the book reviews, Perlmutter explains the “what, why, and how of the program. I’ll detail the ground rules, present new data, and offer a 3-step framework that will help you execute my recommendations.” Part II gets into the details on how to use his program, and spells out which foods to eat. Part III includes “final tips and reminders,” plus snack suggestions, shopping lists, and a 14-day meal plan with recipes.

I liked the fact that in Part I, when  he explores the sad state of American health, he includes mental health: “The United States is among the ten wealthiest Western nations where death from brain disease, most commonly dementia, has skyrocketed over the past twenty years . . . 5.4 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is predicted to double by the year 2030!”

I hate to call it a “diet,” so let’s go with “food plan.” This one provides 80 to 90 percent of calories from fat, and the rest from fibrous carbohydrates and high-quality protein. Instead of the traditional “old fashioned” meals with a big protein-packed entree and small side dishes, the Grain Brain plan swaps things around: the main entrée is mostly “fibrous, colorful, nutrient-dense whole fruits and vegetables that grow above ground, with protein as a side dish.”

There is quite a bit of information the role of nutrition in relation to Alzheimer’s, including the role of exercise. He cites studies showing a huge reduction in Alzheimer’s for those at high levels of exercise: “Those at the highest level of exercise activity experienced an incredible reduction of risk for Alzheimer’s of 50 percent when compared to those who were more sedentary.” We’ve heard it before, but he reminds us that the best thing to do is pick a routine you can sustain over time.

Personally, I have a problem with eating recreational sugar, but it’s a big deal for many people to include sweets in their food plan. They will be happy to see that the recipe section includes desserts and healthy snack ideas. But don’t get too excited: when it comes to snacks, he suggests things like “a handful of raw nuts, olives, and/ or seeds (no peanuts), a few squares of dark chocolate (anything above 70 percent cacao), chopped raw vegetables, or hard-boiled eggs.”

All in all, this is an excellent book that MIGHT influence some people to change their eating habits. At the very least, it should inspire hope that positive results will come to those who are willing to change. I appreciate the opportunity to receive an advance copy of this title in exchange for my honest review. With thanks to Little, Brown & Company and NetGalley, I give this five stars.

Why Won’t You Apologize? by Harriet Lerner, PhD.

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Over the years, I have read several of Dr. Harriet Lerner’s “Dance” books (The Dance of Anger, Dance of Connection, Dance of Fear) and always appreciated her straightforward style and use of real-life examples to demonstrate the concepts she wanted to convey. When I read that she had a new book, Why Won’t You Apologize?, I was happy to write this honest review in exchange for an advance copy from Touchstone and NetGalley.

Dr. Lerner has been studying apologies—and why some people won’t give them—for more than twenty years, and has written a terrific book describing how much power a simple apology has, and there may be hope for healing even when the hurt that has been either inflicted or received is far from simple.

Sometimes, a botched apology can even deepen the original pain, and Dr. Lerner explains clearly the needs of a person who is hurting and may be dealing with someone who won’t apologize, or tell the truth, or feel remorse.

Along the way, she addresses both the non-apologizers and the over-apologizers, and looks at why it sometimes seems like the people who do the most harmful things are the ones who are least able to own up. She works to help people who have been hurt resist pressure to forgive too easily and she “challenges the popular notion that forgiveness is the only path to peace of mind.”

Early into my reading of this book, I was reminded how much I appreciate her clear and straightforward approach, as she states her belief that “A good apology includes the words “I’m sorry” without “ifs,” “buts,” or any manner of undoings, obfuscations, and the like.”

There are twelve chapters in the book, each packed with clear and specific examples to facilitate understanding of her message. Some of the chapter headings include:

  • Five Ways to Ruin an Apology (this one includes the pesky if, the “non-apology,” and others)
  • Apologizing Under Fire: How to Handle Big-Time Criticism
  • How—And Whether—to Accept the Olive Branch

Dr. Lerner’s website lists Brené Brown, Anne Lamott, and Gloria Steinem among her advocates. Suddenly, the fact that her books always resonate with me makes perfect sense!

As I sat down to write this, I was listening to a news program about the likelihood that a politician might be offered a cabinet post if he would just issue a public apology for the things he said during the Presidential campaign. It made me shake my head and consider what might happen if the parties involved would read this book! Five stars, for a self-help book with popular appeal that will help many people.

Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

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I really liked this book, for a variety of reasons. It sounded like something that was likely to catch and hold my interest (and take my mind off the election), it had characters that sounded relatable, and I realized early on that the author has a great vocabulary (“nubilous moon”).

The basic premise is that a gruesome murder has been committed: the bodies of the wife and children of a beloved college professor, Thomas Huston, are found in their home. Huston has disappeared and is suspect #1, and Sergeant Ryan DeMarco is on the case. It turns out that DeMarco and Huston are friends, and DeMarco greatly admired the Professor. As DeMarco’s investigation begins, he is sure that Huston couldn’t have killed his wife and family, and he uses the notes for Huston’s half-finished novel to help him in his search for the truth. Along the way, he uncovers Huston’s secret life and wrestles with the difference between the man he knew and admired and the one he seems to be tracking as he works to solve the crime.

DeMarco is an interesting protagonist, with demons of his own: “He thought it remarkable all the thins he could feel when he sat motionless in the darkness without a drink in his hand…” I also liked the way his thought process worked: “…he also knew enough of human behavior to know that logic seldom applied when an ample supply of testosterone was stirred into the mix.”

Difficult to make more comments without spoiling something. Overall, this is a well-crafted, tightly plotted thriller with mounting suspense, interesting characters, and a mystery that isn’t easily solved (well, at least not by me, but then I am not the best at solving mysteries along the way, generally being surprised J). With thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley, I give this one 5 stars. I hadn’t previously read anything by Randall Silvis, but I definitely hope we see more of Ryan DeMarco!

 

 

Stopping the Noise in Your Head by Reid Wilson

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Reid Wilson, PhD, author of titles including Don’t Panic! and Playing With Anxiety, has written a book with a title that will resonate with many people.

Frequently, we are told to turn to happy thoughts (“go to your happy place”) when the mental machinations seem overwhelming. Dr. Wilson’s approach is different: he encourages us to move TOWARD discomfort, distress and anxiety. This seemingly paradoxical approach may cause some readers to reject it out of hand, as it can be frightening to consider moving toward whatever is causing our anxiety. But his arguments make a lot os sense, and his work is packed with scientific evidence, entertaining examples, and common sense exercises that seem likely to help many.

Thank you to HCI Books and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for my honest review. Five stars. This one is a keeper!

Murder in Missoula by Laurence Giliotti

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I admit, I wasn’t sure about this one…sounds fine, a retired DEA agent moves to Missoula, MT where he has been offered a faculty position — wait, what? Sorry, but faculty positions don’t just fall from trees like that…but I overlooked that. Then there is the really creepy serial killer part…harder for me to overlook.

This book is nearly impossible to discuss without giving away too much. It is a fairly quick read, and would be enjoyed by people who like a good police procedural, some Rocky Mountain atmosphere, some budding romantic tension, a “good guy” protagonist, and some good writing.

Personally, the creepy serial killer part was a tiny bit TOO creepy but overall, I enjoyed it and will definitely look forward to Mr. Giliotti’s next book! Thanks to Chateau Noir Publishing and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review. Four stars!

Tell Me No Lies by Lisa Hall

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After the national election, I was in desperate need of some real escapist fiction. I wanted something that would drag me in to the story, keep me guessing, hold me MESMERIZED for at least a couple of days — you know the kind of book I mean! So, thanks to Carina UK and NetGalley, I had a copy of this new title from Lisa Hall (provided in exchange for my honest review).

The premise is that Stephanie and Mark have moved to a new home for  “fresh start” (at first we aren’t sure why they need one). They have an adorable little boy named Henry and Steph is pregnant with their second child. The new neighbors include Laurence, the man next door (for whom Steph feels instant attraction), and Lila, the pretty woman across the way who wants to befriend Steph (and possibly replace Tessa, Steph’s long-time BFF who has moved to New York. I was drawn into the story immediately, especially as the reader is quickly provided references to why a new start is needed, as well as what the “thing” was that happened to Steph when she was a teenager, which has left deep psychological scars. Also, what’s up with Mark being gone so much? Is it really work? And who is the mystery man seen over and over in Lila’s house? And who is leaving creepy “gifts” on Steph’s front porch?

Steph is being encouraged to keep seeing her shrink — in fact, it feels almost like Mark is bullying her. Is there some reason he is so controlling? So, there are lots of components to the “keep me guessing” part! And yes I was pretty mesmerized for a day and a half, while I kept reading (and, thank you very much, during that time I hardly thought about the election at all). But — and here is the hard part: how to say what I really think without spoiling anything for someone else. I think I just have to say it, I HATED the ending. Maybe that was the goal of this author….or maybe the idea of a sequel is so strong, it had to end as it did? Whatever the motivation, bottom line is I enjoyed the experience of reading it….and I HATED the ending. So, four stars.

 

The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni

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Over the years, there have been a few authors that have been in my reliable column: back in the 80s, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series was among the first. Then, Elizabeth George’s Lynley series (although there were some bumps along the road). More recently, Robert Crais and his Elvis Cole-Joe Pike books. And I just realized after reading two books by Robert Dugoni recently that he is firmly in that camp.

I first read My Sister’s Grave (#1 in the Tracy Crosswhite series, followed by Her Final Breath, and In the Clearing, which I recently read and reviewed), and loved the protagonist and the way the story gripped me from start to finish. Now I have found a new Dugoni protagonist in Peter Donley, the young attorney in The 7th Canon.

While Tracy Crosswhite spends her time in Seattle, working as a detective, Donley is an attorney in San Francisco. This story opens in a crappy part of the City known as the Tenderloin, where a young street hustler is found murdered in a homeless shelter for young males run by a dedicated priest, Father Thomas Martin. I confess at first I had some trepidation about whether this was going to go in the pedophile priest direction…but I kept reading. Along the way, there is evidence that Father Martin is guilty of the murder, as well as other creepy things, but Peter Donley believes in his innocence and the legal wrangling begins.

Donley is an interesting character who has worked for the first three years of his legal career in a low-rent law firm where his uncle has carved out a living putting people over profit for decades. While Peter admires the intent, and also admires Father Martin’s dedication, he is just about to leap at a position at a cushy firm where he can stop worrying about money when the murder case involving the priest and the homeless boy lands in his lap. The story includes a ruthless DA and a brutal homicide detective, both of whom make Peter’s challenge even greater. Oh, and to add to it all, his uncle lands in the hospital so Peter is on his own handling his first murder case.

It was a fun read, and I’m glad I stuck with it. I confess I set it aside in favor of others in my TBR pile before I finally got into it…but am now firmly in the pro-Dugoni camp. And I realize I have some new titles to add to that TBR pile, as I have only read one of Dugoni’s David Sloane series, including The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction).

I appreciate Thomas & Mercer (publishers) and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for my review…and I promise to jump QUICKLY on the next Dugoni book that crosses my path! Four and a half stars…

 

 

 

Casino: Love & Honor in Las Vegas by Nicholas Pileggi

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Seriously, if you think you know Vegas, because you have visited there anytime since about 1990, trust me – you don’t have any idea! People who grew up in Southern California in the 60s viewed Las Vegas as a sort of decadent place where people went to gamble, drink in the streets or wherever, stay up all night, and do whatever they couldn’t do at home. It was basically Tijuana with the addition of gambling and without donkeys.

After the 60s, we saw it as more of a place to go see a big show – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, the whole “rat pack” scene. Still gambling. It began to have an edginess that came from the rumors of mob activity – all confirmed for us as movies such as

The backstory about the Vegas casinos and how they came to be mob goldmines is the focus of Nicholas Pileggi’s Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, originally published in 1995, reissued in 2016. It takes the reader deep into the world of Chicago bookie Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and his partner, Anthony Spilotro, and follows them from their early days as streetwise thieves on to their heyday as they worked together overseeing the operations of various Las Vegas casino for the mob. Along the way, the rumored use of Teamster pension funds to take control of the Tropicana and Stardust casinos is confirmed, and the reader is privy to an incredible presentation of grisly violence, as the pair oversaw the activities of jewel thieves who were known as the “Hole in the Wall Gang.”

As the years went by, they skimmed millions of dollars in cash for their mob bosses. (I actually was fascinated about details such as how much a million dollars in quarters weighs) But Lefty’s ambitions combined with Spilotro’s affair with Lefty’s wife Geri (a former showgirl – of course!) the downfall was complete when an FBI investigation led to betrayal, convictions, and the end of the mob’s stranglehold on the Vegas casinos.

Casino is for anyone who wants to take a trip into the past, looking at the reality of Las Vegas in the 70s. Pileggi (author of Wiseguy) is a strong writer, and clearly knows the subject. For me, the violence and amorality was numbing, but I recommended it to a friend who loves that stuff and he was enthralled.

It’s a fascinating history and, thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Media, I was able to enjoy a copy in exchange for my honest review. Four stars (three for me, and one for my friend!)

 

The Trapped Girl by Robert Dugoni

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The Trapped Girl is the fourth novel in Robert Dugoni’s series featuring Seattle Detective Tracy Crosswhite. This one could easily be read on its own (not as part of the series), but I would recommend the entire series…events happen in the lives of the characters (especially Tracy) that affect subsequent storylines, and these are characters we come to know and care about, so trust me and start with My Sister’s Grave if you haven’t yet begun this series.

In this latest installment, a young man discovers a woman’s body submerged in a crab pot in the cold waters of Puget Sound. Tracy and her colleagues on the Seattle PD’s Violent Crimes Section have to first figure out who the victim is, then figure out who put her into the crab pot, and why. When the autopsy shows the victim has gone to great lengths (including extensive plastic surgery) to conceal her identity, Tracy knows she was running from someone or something.

Subsequently,evidence indicates the corpse may actually be the body of a woman who mysteriously disappeared some months earlier, and Tracy is once again haunted by the memory of her sister’s murder (featured in an earlier book in the series).

Clues start to appear that suggest a complex story involving “ brutal betrayal and desperate greed,” and Tracy once again becomes emotionally involved with the case of a murdered young woman.

I am a huge fan of Robert Dugoni’s series featuring Tracy Crosswhite. Each book in this series is a terrific thriller that will keep many readers guessing until the end. (I am not the best at figuring out the mystery before its reveal in contemporary mysteries and thrillers, so this may not be true for everyone, but it’s a great plot with outstanding character development. I give it five stars, with thanks to Thomas & Meercer and NetGalley for providing an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Escape Clause by John Sandford

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Virgil Flowers is to Lucas Davenport as Joe Pike is to Elvis Cole, or as Clete Purcell is to Dave Robicheaux, or as Hawk is to Spenser. If that makes sense, you have likely read novels by Robert Crais (Pike/Cole) or James Lee Burke (Purcell/Robicheaux) as well as by John Sandford, for whom Lucas Davenport has been a solid character, as he works away in Minnesota, solving crimes in the “Prey” series – sometimes with the help of his buddy Virgil Flowers, and sometimes without. And then sometimes Virgil gets his own novel (just as Joe Pike has, in the Crais series).

Escape Clause is the latest from John Sandford, and is the ninth featuring Virgil Flowers (aka “that fuckin’ Flowers”) as the protagonist. In this one, the story opens with a story about two rare, beautiful and extremely valuable tigers who have gone missing from the zoo, and Virgil is called in on the case. As is usual in Sandford’s books, this isn’t really a whodunit, as the facts of the crime are laid out from the get-go. It is more about the chase, and this one is doubly interesting – in addition to the “chasing the bad guys” story, there is the tension of whether the tigers will still be alive when they are located.

Along with trying to find and save the tigers, this book includes detail about Virgil’s relationship with his girlfriend Frankie and her sister Sparkle, who have moved in for the summer as she does research into migrant workers, which doesn’t go over well with some locals. As if that weren’t complicating enough, she thinks Virgil is quite a guy:
“You mess around with Sparkle,” Frankie told Virgil, “you could get yourself stabbed.”
     “She carries a knife?”
     “No, but I do.”

There are some repeat characters in this story and some mention of other people and events that have happened in earliet Sandford books, but this one easily stands on its own, and people new to Sandford should feel comfortable jumping in!

The side story about the migrant workers doesn’t really add to the main story, but perhaps we will see more of Sparkle or this issue in future Sandford books. This is straightforward entertainment that doesn’t demand too much of the reader, but offers a lot in the way of entertainment. I give it five stars just because I enjoy Sandford’s books, and this one is a good example of bringing in new people without diminishing the role of favorites such as Virgil.

Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Moral Defense by Marcia Clark

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Moral Defense, by Marcia Clark (yes, THAT Marcia Clark, of OJ fame) is the second in the series featuring a criminal defense attorney named Samantha Brinkman, based in Los Angeles. I first met Sam in Blood Defense, the first title in the series, in which Sam defended a decorated homicide detective accused in a double murder. Turns out there was a significant connection between Sam and the defendant, which was a complete blindside to her when she found out, and which pretty much rocked her world. That defendant reappears in this second book, and it appears he will be a recurring character in the series.

Sam and her two associates (one is a genius ex-con, the other her closest childhood friend) sort of fly by the seat of their collective pants, bending some rules and possibly breaking others, as they work to get their clients off at all costs. In this second book, Sam is hired as a legal advocate for a teenager named Cassie who has been accused of murdering her father and brother and leaving her mother clinging to life. It’s the perfect case for an attorney longing to make it to the bigtime, media-frenzy cases that will guarantee success. As the case unfolds, Sam discovers she identifies with Cassie (which might be clouding her judgment, but which motivates her to work even more ferociously to solve the mystery and keep Cassie from going to jail).

I admit to a fascination with Marcia Clark, going back to the early 90s when she was a media star as well as a legal star as she battled to convict OJ (double murders seem to recur in her books. She has another series with a female protagonist who is on the other side, prosecuting cases, which is clearly where Marcia’s expertise would seem to lie. But I think perhaps writing this series, about defending accused criminals, has allowed Ms. Clark to explore how she might have acted if she were truly on the (“anything goes as long as you don’t get caught”) defense side of the aisle.

Sam is a great characted, and her opinions suggest how Marcia may have felt during her legal career: “I’d been trashed on cable for dressing like a bargain-basement rag doll. Someday, women won’t have to put up with it. Someday, people are going to care more about what we say and do than what we look like. But that day didn’t seem to be coming any time soon…”

Her “anything goes” approach is reflected as she speaks to key figures in the investigation. In one instance, her words and her thoughts are somewhat at odds: ““Everything you say to me will be confidential. I promise you.” Unless you give me something I can use, in which case I’ll tie you to my bumper and drag you all the way to the courthouse.” In another conversation, she asks “”…You okay with that?” It didn’t really matter, The lawyer controls the case and sets the strategy. The only decisions the clients really get to make are whether to plead guilty and whether to take the stand. But it’s good to let them feel like they have a say in things. Make them ore cooperative.”

I had a few issues with minor details in the story, but they didn’t affect the plot. For example, at one point, she says “Mission Viejo is further south, not far from San Diego.” Which is totally not correct, and has no impact on the story, as it didn’t affect anything as the narrative moved the location of Mission Viejo further from LA. It just seemed slightly sloppy, but I let it go because the story and character development were really pulling me along. I REALLY wanted to know what happened with Cassie, and why Sam was so connected to her.

I look forward to the next books in the Samantha Brinkman series. (Personally, I don’t care if I read any more in the Rachel Knight series, because Sam is a much more interesting character than Rachel, again just IMHO)

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and Net Galley for an advance copy of this title in exchange for my honest review. Four stars, and REALLY close to five.

 

 

 

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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I admit, I started reading this about three times and just couldn’t get into it…the couple, Anne and Marcos, just didn’t interest me, with their perfect neighborhood and darling baby girl. And then, last week, I was in the mountains, miles from anywhere, with nothing to do but read and hike and look at/listen to the river. So, after a couple of days of hiking and listening to/looking at the river, I picked it up and started reading, and I was hooked pretty quickly.

Oh, and BTW, I am a big fan of what I guess you might call domestic psychological thrillers (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc.) so I was happy to receive an advance copy of this title from?? And NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The story is that Anne and Marco have been invited to a dinner party by their next-door neighbors, Cynthia and Graham Stilwell, to celebrate Graham’s birthday. Cynthia has made it clear it is to be an adults-only evening, so when the babysitter who was scheduled to sit with baby Cora cancels on Anne and Marco, they decide to leave Cora alone with a baby monitor, and agree to check on her every half hour, and off they go (you can see where this is going, right??). The residences are in a townhouse complex, they will be right on the other side of the wall – what could possibly go wrong?

Everything goes according along fine until the parents, who are by now tired and semi-drunk return home around 1:30a.m. to find the front door ajar and Baby Cora missing. Cora is only 6 months old, so obviously she didn’t leave on her own.

Anne falls apart, Marco is paralyzed, but finally Anne recovers and the police are called. Detective Rasbach then has to try to determine what actually happened: is the baby dead or alive? Is one of the supposedly distraught parents responsible? Or covering up somehow? Was there a kidnapping? Perhaps an opportunistic crime or something that was carefully planned? Most of the suspects are inconsistent as they tell their stories (that unreliable narrator again, common in this genre, and sometimes kind of clunky, but in this book, very well done, IMHO).
There are lots of twists and turns, lies, all leading up to the final twist.

Lapena’s writing is brisk, the plot moves quickly, and the character development is quite good. Overall, this was a fast, fun puzzle. I’m not usually good at figuring out mysteries, but I did figure out at least one of them fairly early on. Even so, I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy the genre, or anyone looking for entertainment and something to take your mind off the election for awhile.

Four plus stars.

 

The Things We Wish Were True by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

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The Things We Wish Were True, by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen, is a classic beach read. It tells the story of Sycamore Glen, North Carolina, where it is summertime, and everyone spends time at the neighborhood pool, talking to and about each other. Along the way, some old secrets come to light, some new mysteries are solved, and lots of people get to know other people even better than they already do/did.

Sycamore Glen seems to be the whitest community on the planet. Not sure about this, but everyone seemed shiny white and presentable, except for the obvious creepy guy, or guys.

There are LOTS of chapters, and at first I was struggling keeping everyone and their kids straight, but soon I could recall that Jencey’s kids were Pilar and Zara, and Cailey’s brother is Cutter, and Zell is the neighbor everyone wants to have, or at least to talk to.

It’s fluff, but entertaining fluff. Not my genre, but I give it four stars because it held my interest, there was some suspense (although I figured out one of the main mysteries VERY early on, and I am TERRIBLE at that), the many characters were well-developed, and it took my mind off the election (although I was thinking, Sycamore Glen is sort of the Mayberry-esque America that some people want to return to – whiter than white)

In any case, much gratitude to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing an advance copy of this fun read, four stars.

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World sounded like a good candidate for escapist reading…a story about sisters, seduction, family, secrets. What’s not to like, right? I am pretty sure I haven’t read anything by Leavitt before, so my expectation level was at zero, and I admit this one stayed in my TBR pile for a couple of months. But, since the official publication date isn’t til October, I guess I kept thinking I had plenty of time. Once I got into it, the story had me hooked, and I pretty much read nonstop til I was finished. Some might call this one Chick lit, or Soap Opera…but it is borderline thriller with family saga thrown in for good measure, and I admit I liked it way more than I expected I was going to.

There are three central characters, including Iris, who learned at an early age about the profound impact sadness could have on a family when her father abandoned the family to run off with a waitress. They never quite recovered, and Leavitt describes the emotions beautifully: “Iris saw how her mother suffered, how her sadness seeped through the walls, held there like a stain.” Iris yearned to be happily married, and had dreams of travel and adventure…but soon after she married, the marriage turned out not to be at all what she dreamed of, and she and her husband ended up living as friends for years. Just when it looked like Iris would be able to start enjoying her own life, she is asked to take in two young orphaned sisters, who are coming into the whole teenage experience in the 1960s and early 70s (which Leavitt incorporates into the story beautifully).

The crux of the story involves the impact of a somewhat impulsive decision made by 16-year-old Lucy, who runs away to another state to live off the land with an older guy. This decision makes sense to her at the time, but is devastating to both her older sister Charlotte and Iris, especially when Lucy’s guy refuses to allow her to have any contact with them. There is just the right amount of creepiness in the relationship between Lucy and her guy to make the reader suspect things aren’t going to turn out well…and the story is spooled out deftly, with mounting suspense and surprises along the way.

There are tons of things going on, with lots of secrets revealed, some suspense, and plenty of characters to meet along the way The ending was a tiny bit contrived, but made sense given the overall tone and Leavitt’s style. It’s not heavy literature, but it’s an engrossing story with lots of topics for discussion, so would be a good pick for a book club that isn’t into heavy lifting. With thanks to NetGalley and Algonquin for an advance reading copy in exchange for my honest review, I give this one four enthusiastic stars (it would be five if this were one of my favorite genres, and for many readers, it will definitely be a five-star read!).

The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke

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This book is part of the Holland family saga. Back in 1835, Sam Holland escaped from prison, fighting in the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. Sam’s grandson, Hackberry Holland, was a Texas Ranger. Hackberry’s grandson, Aaron Holland Broussard, is the star of this latest tale, set in Texas in 1952.

The Jealous Kind is told from 17-year old Aaron’s perspective. He sees the beautiful (of course!) Valerie Epstein fighting with her boyfriend, Grady Harrelson, at a Galveston drive-in, and steps in. He doesn’t realize that by doing this, he is challenging the power of one of the richest families in Texas, as well as the Mob. And things take off from there, down a very winding road!

Along the way, Aaron gets involved with lots of people who all seem to have a ton of baggage and many also have nasty motivations. Some of the characters seems to bounce between good and evil, and there are lots of confrontations (there is a lot of testosterone flowing, for sure). Aaron has a strong moral compass, and is clearly the glue that holds this whole story together. He may remind some readers familiar with Burke’s work of a young Dave Robicheaux.

Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of JLB but my husband is – he LOVES this author. So, the rating comes from him more than from me. I (we) give it five stars, with thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

The Twenty-three by Linwood Barclay

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I really enjoyed the first two novels in the Promise Falls Trilogy by Linwood Barclay, Broken Promise (2015) and Far From True (2016). There were some things left hanging at the end of the most recent one, so I was happy to have the opportunity to receive an advance copy in exchange with my honest review (thank you, NetGalley and Berkley Publishing!!)

As this story opens, it hasn’t been too long since the disastrous events of Far From True (including the fatal collapse of the drive-in theater screen). It’s now Memorial Day weekend, and on Saturday hundreds of people start showing up at the local hospital with what first looks like flu…then dozens die. It looks to many like the water supply is tainted, but the motive isn’t clear.

Familiar characters (to those who have read the prior novels in the series) crop up: Private investigator Cal Weaver, police Detective Barry Duckworth, former reporter David Harwood, and the somewhat sleazy former mayor, whose ownership of the local spring water bottling company puts him in line to profit from the disaster). There is also the return of “23,” which is seen in several places: bloody mannequins are found in car #23 of the ferris wheel at an abandoned amusement park, 23 squirrels are killed, a buse is set on fire and sent down the road with #23 painted on it…and it’s May 23rd.

In addition to the plague-like outbreak, a college student is found dead, and the death is reminiscent of the deaths of other women in town. Things start to add up, but there seem to be many possibilities for murderer and motive. Can’t say too much more without spoiling something for someone, but for fans of mystery, psychological suspense, and Linwood Barclay, this one is a good choice.

I appreciated the varied points of view, and while I am usually not a big fan of many short chapters, it seems to work well in this case. I expected complete resolution to EVERYTHING, being the third in a trilogy, but there may be room to tell more stories about the people and events in Promise Falls.

While it is a trilogy, each of the books works as a standalone, so don’t be hesitant to read this because you haven’t read the first two in the series. I don’t know how to give this one 4.5 stars, and it isn’t quite a 5-star for me (as a teacher I was sort of known as a tough grader!), so this one ends up at four stars…even though it’s really better than that.

The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti

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I admit, the thing that initially compelled me to dive into this book in a frenzy of “oh-please-let-this-be-a-story-that-makes-me-unable-to-stop-reading-til-I-have-finished-it” were the strong quotes from Mary Kubica and Heather Gudenkauf praising it. I have enjoyed some of their psychological thrillers, so I figured, “YES! I HAVE ONE!!!!”

The protagonist, Zoe Whittaker, lives a life that, to all outward appearances, is perfect. She moved to New York, found a job in a florist shop where she met a handsome, wealthy Wall Street bigwig, and then was swept off her feet and quickly married (very Henry Higgins) They live at a prestigious address in a penthouse, have a country house on a lake, and spend time traveling, enjoying fine dining and wine. Zoe is a bit bored, and spends time at a child-focused philanthropic organization in addition to pondering her mysterious past and wanting to locate her birth mother.

The story unspools gradually (perhaps a bit TOO slowly for those readers who like their thrillers to grab them at the get-go and never let up), and we learn that Zoe is a liar…just a bit at first, as she is bristling at her husband’s controlling behavior, but she seems good at it: “The lie feels good, fits like a well-made winter coat.”

The outline of the story is familiar: young beautiful woman who isn’t who or what she appears to be, damsel in distress, ominous mysterious past, blah blah blah. What I really liked about it, despite this oft-used device, was the way Moretti portrays Zoe’s unhealthy relationship: she rationalizes and defends her husband and the subtle hints at just how unhealthy this relationship really is hook the reader and keep the story moving along. About halfway through, there is a sort of “WTF?” moment, then things start getting really strange. There is a bit of a requirement for willing suspension of disbelief, but overall the plot is nicely twisty, the characters are well developed, and I would definitely look for other titles by this author.

Can’t say much more without giving out spoilers, which I hate! Four stars, and thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

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I’m a long-time fan of both Ephrons, Nora and Delia…and I had heard (read, actually) good things about this book: good summer read, revelatory about marriage, secrets, deceit, etc. So I had pretty high expectations as I dove in o his one.

And it really is a great story, told from alternative POVs by four adults who travel together to Italy (including the place where all hell breaks loose, Siracusa) one summer. You know right from the beginning that something has gone horribly wrong on the trip, but it takes awhile to get there, and I kept wondering what the disaster was, and who was involved. The two couples, both married, are Michael and Lizzie from New York and Finn and Taylor from Portland, Maine. Two other characters who figure in to the events in Siracusa are Finn and Taylor’s 10-year-old daughter Snow, and Michael’s mistress Kath who shows up unexpectedly. Ephron does a great job presenting the alternating chapters following the same events from the varying perspectives, and her wit and insightful observations are great fun.

Michael (the man with the mistress) is a writer whose play won a Pulitzer 15 years ago, and who seems to have been trying to recapture some success ever since (he is now 37). He’s kind of a pig, and truly a liar, and apparently a real charmer because both Lizzie and Taylor think he is amazing…and then Snow falls under his spell as well (OK, a bit creepy for sure). Lizzie is also a writer who has not had much success, but the two of them are firmly entrenched in the Manhattan literary scene (which Ephron delights in skewering here and there). Michael has told Kath that he will be leaving Lizzie to be with her, and Kath believes him, so she breaks into his computer, steals his passwords and uses his miles to fly to Italy to surprise him. She is a hostess at a restaurant Michael and Lizzie frequent and, like very other female in the book, has fallen under his spell, believing every word.

Finn owns a restaurant and has a thing for a lobsterwoman back in Maine, although his real desire is for Lizzie, ever since they had a fling some years back. Taylor is basically an icy bitch whose world revolves around Snow, her beautiful daughter who suffers from “extreme shyness syndrome.” Taylor is a pretentious snob and – well, I just couldn’t find anything to like about her.

The two couples interact during various meals and outings and it gets clearer each day that Taylor and Lizzie can’t stand each other, and Finn isn’t fond of Michael, calling him out on his lies (including, finally, his affair). Tension builds as the seemingly inevitable volcanic eruption that will occur when Lizzie realizes who Kath is and why she is there…but then one afternoon, Kath and Snow disappear. The resolution to what happens after that is one of those things I can’t even hint at without ruining something, so just leave it at this: it’s a breezy read, but has a lot of thought-provoking commentary on marriage, honesty, parenting, and secrecy. I am not sure “like” is the right word to use for how I feel about it, but I do recommend it.

Thanks to NetGalley and Blue Rider Press for offering a free copy in exchange for my honest review. Unfortunately, the digital file was unreadable and, while I got a polite response to an email requesting a new file, I never got it…disappointing, but I don’t mind buying a book that entertains me as much as this one did. Four stars.

 

The Trespasser by Tana French

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(#6, Dublin Murder Squad series)

Antoinette Conway, the (outwardly) tough detective fans of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books met in The Secret Place (2014) is back, still on the Murder squad, but just barely. And she isn’t too happy: “I want to go home, go for a run stick something in the microwave and fry my brain with shite telly, and then get some sleep before I have to do it all over again.”

She’s now partnered with Stephen Moran, which seems to be working: “At first I didn’t like him—everyone else did, and I don’t trust people who everyone likes, plus he smiled too much.” She not only doesn’t get along with the rest of the squad, there is a (harassment filled) campaign among the other detectives to get rid of her. The story opens as a case that looks like a classic lovers’ quarrel gone wrong is handed to Conway and Moran and (as Tana French does so well) events begin to unfold that reveal there is LOTS more going on than meets the eye. Conway and Moran need to figure out whether this is possibly related to the campaign to oust her.

I love the way French captures the atmosphere: when they investigate a scene, “…somewhere across the river there could be shoeprints waiting for us, or cigarette butts with DNA on them – but it’s freezing and damp, a fine haze haloing the lamps, the kind of damp that soaks in and settles till you feel like your bones are colder than the air around you.”

The case involves the murder of Aislinn (“Ash-lynn”) Murray, who was until recently a very sheltered young woman. She came out of her shell in a big way, transformed into a woman who made men obsessed – and it ended with her murder. Along the way, Conway’s view of Aislinn evolves: “Anyone who turns herself into Barbie because that’s the only way she feels worthwhile needs a kick up the hole, but someone who does it for a revenge mission deserves a few points for determination.” And Moran calls Conway out on her attitude and relationship with the Squad: “…you’re so set on going down in flames, you’d make it happen even if the entire force loved you to bits. You’ll light your own bloody self on fire if you have to. And then you can pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you knew it all along. Congratulations.”

The interrogation scenes are amazing, and I can’t help liking Conway despite her prickly exterior. I’ve been thinking about this book for a couple of weeks now, trying to figure out why I liked it less than French’s previous books. Another reviewer said, “the magic of previous installments is missing,” and while I have no idea what that means, it sounds right!

I still love Tana French, and will eagerly grab her next book, but this one gets four stars from me, along with thanks to NetGalley and Viking for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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When I told a friend and former library co-worker that I liked Jodi Picoult’s books, she basically sniffed her disapproval – and our friendship was changed forever. I worked for several years  in public libraries and tried not to be judgmental of people’s reading preferences, or to let the fact that someone thought Danielle Steel wrote great literature to negatively impact my opinion of them. But really, I don’t get it. I know JP is writing for a mass market – and sometimes her resolutions might be just a bit too neat for snooty readers. But I’ll admit right up front, I am a sucker for a well-plotted story that makes me think about a social issue or two along the way.

Having said that, you might guess (correctly) that I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of JP’s latest work Small Great Things in exchange for my honest review (thanks, NetGalley and Ballantine!). I deliberately didn’t read anything about it before diving in, and it’s hard to describe the impact this had on me. I really want to review it, but don’t want to spoil the story…and it is a GRIPPING story, for sure. What I really should do is just say “TRUST ME! YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!” but that’s not exactly how this works, so I will provide a synopsis that won’t spoil anything, then remind you again YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.

The protagonist of this, and the individual around whom the story swirls is Ruth Jefferson, an experienced (20+ years) labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital. The story is told from multiple perspectives, and when it begins, Ruth is just beginning a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The baby’s parents, who acted a bit squirmy when Ruth came on shift and relieved another nurse, are white supremacists and make it clear they refuse to allow Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, and (you can kind of see that something is coming) the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Here is the dilemma: does she assist the baby, going against her supervisor’s direct orders, following her instinctual desire (and training)?

Ruth ends up being charged with a crime, and is represented by a public defender, Kennedy McQuarrie, who insists that even mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. The story is incredibly timely, with the increasingly ugly rhetoric inspired by events and politicians in 2016, and Jodi Picoult uses her storytelling skills to make the reader consider issues surrounding race, prejudice, privilege and justice.

Trust me, YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. You will thank me!  It may be unsettling, but you will enjoy the story, and it will make you think (always a good thing!) Five stars.

 

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

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In her mid-20s, Arden Arrowood has inherited the family home on the banks of the Mississippi River in Keokuk, Iowa, where she lived as a child. When she was just eight years old, she was in the front yard of the elegant home, watching her twin sisters, Violet and Tabitha, who were almost two years old. She turned her back for just a moment, and the girls disappeared They were presumed to have been kidnapped based on Arden’s recollection of something she saw.

Described as a “gothic mystery,” the story is captivating from the start, and the characters are vividly drawn. Arden’s mother, who remarried a religious guy, “played the part of a pastor’s wife with the convincing zeal of a prescandal of Tammy Faye Bakker.” The setting is important as well, and I loved McHugh’s description: “…the dismal towns where we’d drifted after Keokuk. I’d look out my window at scrub brush or empty fields or a parking lot and find nothing large enough or strong enough to anchor me. Nothing outside but miles between me and the river and home.” And “It appeared to be a trend in Keokuk, and maybe in all the other small, dying towns across the heartland: churches taking over abandoned retail space. Jobs trickled out and God seeped in to fill the void.”
At the time she inherits the house, Arden’s life has fallen apart: She can’t finish her master’s thesis, and she is miserable after a breakup. She has held on to the hope that her sisters are still alive, and she can’t she can’t seem to move forward until she finds them. When she arrives in town, she is welcomed back by her old neighbor and first love, Ben Ferris, whose family seems to know more about the Arrowoods’ secrets than she realized. With the help of a young amateur investigator, Arden tracks down the man who was the prime suspect in the kidnapping. She eventually finds out the devastating truth in a mysterious story that examines the ways in which memories impact our lives.
Although I wasn’t wild about the resolution or the ending, I enjoyed the experience of reading this, and will look for future work from Ms. McHugh. Recommended for anyone who likes mysteries or psychological thrillers. Four stars, and thanks to Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Good Sugar Bad Sugar by Allen Carr

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Cover Carr Good Sugar Bad Sugar

OK, to start with, I am a hardcore sugar addict, and have been reading about my drug of choice for years, going back to Sugar Blues in the 80s, then on through Sugar Crush, Sugar Nation, Grain Brain, blah blah blah right up through Pure, White and Deadly. And yes, I admit I wanted someone to tell me how I could be like normal people who enjoy their sweet treats and then live life. Nope, that’s never been me: if I start dancing with sugar, I find myself obsessed, craving sweets, looking for excuses to go to the store for my next fix…in other words, this sounded like something I HAD to read.

Allen Carr is reputed to be a genius at helping people deal with addictions. His Easyway program (oooh, I loved the sound of THAT!) has helped tons of people in the U.K. quit smoking, quit drugs, lose weight, stop gambling, overcome fear of flying, etc. and he claims to have THE answer, a 90% success rate, and requires no willpower.

Sounded way too good to be true, but I felt open to listening to his answers. Seriously, almost every book I have read on the topic has given me SOME valuable insight. Well, no, I take that back…I remember reading Geneen Roth’s books back in the 80s and I loved the idea that my sugar thing was really a problem of me feeling that I would be deprived of sugar, so I did it. I ate everything sweet I wanted, all day long, and made sure my house had plenty of treats so there was no question of scarcity…and I did it for WEEKS. At the end, I had been sick as a dog but the craving never went away. I gained weight (big surprise), felt like crap, and never went to the place where I felt like I was secure in my ability to always find more. But that is how much I wanted to be different in my relationship with sweets. It never happened.

But maybe this Allen Carr guy had a new answer! His website seemed to promise something new: “Our approach focuses on why people continue to smoke, drink, take drugs, struggle with their weight or other addictions and fears, despite the obvious disadvantages. We aim to change how you feel about your issue so that getting free becomes easy, enjoyable and you do not miss anything.” I settled in to read.

I agree with him that “with BAD SUGAR there is no healthy level other than zero,” and that we are brainwashed from a young age to equate sugar and sweet treats with love and “see sugary foods as a treat.” To my dismay, I found that (according to his website) his “method works by unraveling the misconceptions that make people believe that they get some benefit from the very thing that’s harming them.” What, I wondered, did that even MEAN?

His answer to the issue of addiction is to “achieve a frame of mind whereby whenever you think about BAD SUGAR of a BAD SUGAR product you have a sense of freedom and relief that you don’t consume it anymore.” Carr’s own experience was as a smoker who had repeatedly tried to quit. But, as he explains it, “one day, a chance remark opened my eyes to the truth. I had gone to see a hypnotherapist…to find a cure and…a word the hypnotherapist used gave me the key. The word was “addiction.” It was like a lightbulb going off in my brain: I didn’t smoke because I wanted to I smoked because I was hooked. I knew there and then that I was cured.”

And that, my friends, was the point at which I wanted to throw my Kindle through the window. My thought was “Wow, this guy REALLY doesn’t get it!!” My opinion seems reinforced by his claim that the craving is 1 percent physical and 99 percent mental…and that the “actual physical withdrawal pangs from most drugs are actually extremely mild—almost imperceptible.” Seriously???

I dutifully read on, although IMHO, there are people who “get it” and those who don’t, and when it comes to sugar, he doesn’t. I am happy he found a way to quit smoking, and I am happy that so many people have benefitted from his workshops, courses, etc. as they have struggled with their addictions.

So, how many stars to give this book (provided to me by NetGalley and Arcturus in exchange for my honest review)? Good question! It does have wonderful information about the devastating effects of overconsumption of sugar, and it does have a positive tone and upbeat message (sort of “you can do it!!!”) so I figure those alone are worth three stars. But the actual worth of his “answer” to me, as a hardcore sugar addict, was minimal. (BTW, I am fully open to the idea that my own personal experiences are not the same as those of other sugar addicts, and I will be curious to read others’ opinions of the book and program. And I hope it provides five star answers for other people!)

Three reluctant stars.

 

Opening Up by Writing It Down by James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth

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Cover Pennebaker Opening Up by Writing down

I was somewhat familiar with Dr. Pennebaker’s work through his 2014 title Expressive Writing: Words That Heal, and as a lifelong journal keeper, his ideas have always resonated with me. So I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain from NetGalley and Guilford Publications in exchange for my honest review.

As I read it, I kept thinking I should check with my therapist to be sure she has this book – as it is packed with what might be considered technical/academic data. It actually wan’t until I go to the final chapter that I found what was, for me, the most helpful information. This chapter includes an overall summary and specific instructions for therapeutic writing exercises. Although some of the earlier chapters do include various exercises, my own preference is for writing exercises to be included at the end of corresponding so I can easily go back and find the exercises related to a particular topic. But, that’s just a personal preference.

Writing comes easily to me, so it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that making it a habit would be easily accomplished. As noted above, this concept isn’t new to me, so I was somewhat predisposed to like this! I plan to recommend it to people I KNOW are not writers, but who I think might benefit from reading this book. Overall, I gave Opening Up by Writing It Down a rating of 4 stars.
 

This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick

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Cover Warnick This is Wehre You belong

Melody Warnick’s This Is Where You Belong came to my attention at a great time! It was at the start of another gorgeous summer on the Central California coast, at the beginning of the tourist invasion — and we started thinking about how nice it would be to not get stuck in traffic or feel we needed to plan our errands, appointments, etc. around rush hour (as in, telling my doc I couldn’t take a 4:00 appointment on an August Wednesday because driving the 5 miles from her office to my house would take an HOUR, so please give me the 9 am 2 weeks later). I had been looking at coastal towns for places with access to quality medical care, at least one good bookstore, good water, and at least a semblance of social tolerance…maybe we should move!! (Been here 30+ years)

As I began reading, I loved the author’s style: entertaining, open, filled with relatable thoughts about the feelings of insecurity when plunked down in a new environment (including new town, new job, new school, etc.) and appreciate how she is totally supportive of the reader’s qualms about relocating. I never really GOT why she and her family moved from Austin, TX to Blacksburg, VA, but I loved that after moving frequently she decided that rather than wait to see how it felt to live in a new place yet again, she would actively do things to make herself fall in love with Blacksburg. (Thinking “good luck with that, I have BEEN to Blacksburg”…)

Recent studies have found that PLACE is often more important than money – especially for millenials. In the 20th century, huge population shifts took place in the U.S. as people followed jobs and hope. It sounds like such a first-world problem, considering that most people in the world are struggling just to have a safe place to sleep, food to eat, and clean water, but that is our reality: for the most part, we have the luxury to pick up and go if we aren’t happy where we are. And considering that most people in the US move between 11 and 12 times in their lifetime, we are pretty much guaranteed to go through this change.

This book is filled with ideas on how to make yourself love where you live, focusing on getting out and meeting people and becoming actively involved. I think for someone who is struggling to feel happy in their chosen town or city, these would be useful. I kept imaging that I had just moved to a place I wasn’t crazy about, and trying some of her ideas. My fundamental conclusion for years has been that some people just are not that affected by their physical environment, but for those of us who are, no amount of involvement would make us truly happy in certain circumstances. OK, I admit, I am highly affected by the WHERE that I live, but I just don’t think I could ever be happy in a place that has weather extremes, giant bugs, or no bookstores (or lots of Republicans, but that’s another story).

After reading this book, I haven’t changed my mind, but I realize lots of people are way more adaptable than I, and could really benefit by her upbeat suggestions. I appreciate NetGalley’s exchange of a review copy of this book, for my honest review. I’d recommend this for someone who is about to move or has just moved and is less than 100% ecstatic about it (for example, my friend is about to relocate from a small town in Vermont to a coastal community in Oregon and she cannot wait to escape summer heat and humidity along with “real winter”). For those of us lucky enough to truly love where we live (even with all the tourists in summer—just be grateful for the money they spend that helps our town year-round), it’s a fun read and does include ideas that would be helpful to anyone who wants to feel a bit more connected to their community.Four stars.

All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford

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All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford grabbed me for two reasons: first there was the teaser I read: “This is about three deaths. Actually more, if you go back far enough. I say deaths, but perhaps all of them were murders. It’s a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s just call them deaths and say I was involved. This story could be told a hundred different ways.” And second, the author’s name (one which in my ignorance I had never ever heard or see before, and I had no clue how to pronounce it, and I just HAD to know…sort of like T. Coraghessan Boyle, you know?)

This is one of what seems like a dozen books I have read recently that involve a young woman, a mysterious death/disappearance, a slowly revealed history of said character/town/whatever (in this case, University), and a possibly unreliable narrator. In this one, we have Penelope (Pen) Sheppard, who goes away to University, where she hopes to begin a new life. Within six months, three of her new friends are dead. She goes back home, and we learn she is the victim of a violent trauma and is once again a pariah in her hometown (as she felt she was before she left for school). She goes to her shrink to get his signature or whatever it takes to approve funds (I think; I am a bit unclear on why she was unburdening herself in this way, but was too caught up in the story to go back and try to understand motivations – I wanted to know what was going to HAPPEN!) She has to tell her story to her shrink and to the police, and it is revealed in both narrative and diary form.

We learn both about her backstory (why was she such a pariah in her hometown? What happened back there, anyway?) and about a prowler on campus attacking students and rival drug-dealing students. And there are the requisite (in a story set largely at a University) naive young people determined to do whatever it takes to fit in (I had just re-read Donna Tartt’s Secret History, and saw some similarities). Yikes! Parentheses gone wild!

The plotting is complex, and there are some fascinating characters. But Pen was the best: although she may or may not be unreliable as a narrator, she was honest in her diary…I think. Possibly not so much with those to whom she was telling her story. Mystery!

Like the aforementioned Secret History, this book dives into questions of morality and justice, with foggy lines between right and wrong. I didn’t see the end coming, and I don’t really know how I feel about it. As noted by others, the story feels a bit unfinished. If Clifford is planning a sequel, I think many readers would be happy to read it. Oh, and BTW, her name is pronounced “eee-fuh”! Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of All These Perfect Strangers, four stars!

 

Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger

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Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger was high on my TBR list, but for some reason I kept not really getting into it. It had a couple of things that I don’t really “get” – namely, visions and tattoos. Both of these are fine for others, but just don’t do it for me…in my fiction reading or in my personal life.

So, here we have a 20-year old young woman, Finley Montgomery, who goes to live with her grandmother, Eloise Montgomery, who is a famous psychic living in a town in New York known as The Hollows. Finley has all the trendy trappings to attract a demographic of which I am not a member: the aforementioned tattoos, a motorcycle, a bad boy boyfriend…and the visions. They are freaking her out so she turns to Eloise for help.

Jones Cooper is a detective in The Hollows who has been hired by Merri Gleason, a woman who has spent the past ten months searching for her missing daughter, Abbey.  Cooper has worked with Eloise in the past, and while Merri isn’t a believer in Eloise’s “gifts,” she is desperate.

Finley and Eloise are drawn into the investigation, which proves much more complicated than a simple mission persons case about a local girl.   Finley digs deeper into the secrets in The Hollows…and that’s about all I can say without spoiling some of the twists and turns in the plot.

I am a fan of Lisa Unger, and I think this may be the start of a series featuring Finley and Eloise…and, of course, The Hollows, which is in some ways a character itself. I appreciate having an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my review. I think fans of horror will love it, and thriller readers (more my genre) will enjoy it. It gets four stars from me!

 

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica

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I’ve been a fan of Mary Kubica’s densely plotted novels, including Pretty Baby and The Good Girl (a big hit with  a book club I belong to) – so was looking forward to her latest effort, Don’t You Cry.

The story unfolds along two tracks: the first involves the mysterious disappearance of Quinn Collins’s roommate Esther. Quinn awakens one morning to the sound of Esther’s alarm, and then finds Esther’s window onto the fire escape open and no Esther. She later is startled to hear Esther’s phone ringing…clearly wherever Esther has gone, she has left her phone behind. Quinn begins to seek answers, but at first only questions emerge, as she finds out that Esther has a new name, has advertised for a new roommate, and has asked their super to change the locks on their shared apartment. The second track involves Alex Gallo, a smart kid who has been left behind in a town on Lake Michigan when everyone else left for college. He has a sucky job in a restaurant and a worse home life. He sees a woman come into the restaurant, and later he watches as she takes off most of her clothes and walks into the icy lake.At which point, I suspect most readers had thoughts similar to mine: “WTF?”

I love the way Kubica reveals her plot points, making her readers ponder the actions of her characters, with their motivations generally only revealed near the conclusion…in her books, things are NOT what they seem, and it is a fun ride to see how everything will come together, with disparate stories and people converging.

While this one is entertaining, for me it didn’t come up to the level of her prior books. Likely my expectations were a bit high, and I think her fans will enjoy it, and she will likely gain some new fans. I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my review…and I wish I could say more about the story itself, but I HATE it when a review spoils the story, so I won’t go there! Four stars.

Watching Edie by Camilla Way

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COVER Watching Edie Camilla Way

This is another one of those CREEPY psychological thrillers involving young women who were friends as teenagers, then they lose contact, and years later they reconnect with more or less unpleasant results.

In this one, Heather and Edie are the two main characters. The novel is definitely creepy and it all leads to a horrifying conclusion. I have to say, I admire the skill of the author, but I just didn’t care about either of the two main characters while I was reading…and yet, I found myself thinking about the way we all have baggage from earlier selves, and either from our own or others’ actions. The way our younger selves and experiences of our earlier years inform our situations and choices as adults is usually interesting and worthy of a closer look.

I will read this author’s future books, because she is skilled at plot development and I love a good psychological thriller…I just hope I care more about at least one of the characters in her next book. Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of this in exchange for my honest three-star review.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley mystery series, often described as “literary mysteries.” So when a new (to me) author’s book is described as a literary mystery, I’m in! I was eager to read Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, knowing nothing about her work or ability to deliver the kind of story I was craving: something with enough of a mystery to hold my interest, so I could settle in and lose myself in something written with skill and creativity.

For starters, I have to say that Steiner’s protagonist, Manon Bradshaw, reminded me a bit of George’s Barbara Havers of the Lynley series. Like Barbara, she is a no-longer young woman who has an interesting and successful career – but she is dissatisfied with her situation, and she REALLY wants to be in a relationship. She is 39, and trying to get her life in order, “Manon would determinedly fill the fridge, resolve to paint the cupboards…while the washing machine churned, resolve too to eat beetroot more and take up Zumba, only to have it all disappear in the suck and tow of the next tide.” I loved Manon’s keen observations: for example, on journalist Keeley Davis, she notes the woman “will no doubt be off to the Mail any day now, with her tight suit and that retro Nissan she drives, the automotive equivalent of a Prada handbag.” Manon’s luck at Internet dating hasn’t been great. She meets Alan Prenderghast, with whom she finds conversation comes easily…perhaps too much so, as when Manon blurts out to Alan “I sometimes think I don’t actually like anyone that much. That all I ever want is to be on my own. And then I can’t cope with it – with myself, just myself all the time, and it’s like I become the worst company of all – and there’s this awful realization that I need people, and it’s almost humiliating.” That’s some serious self-awareness!

The point is, Steiner is GREAT at developing her characters. Manon finds herself on a case that is bound to be high profile: Edith, the beautiful young daughter of a physician whose clients include nobility and royalty, has gone missing. The girl’s parents, Ian and Miriam, and her brother Rollo are desperate for a resolution to the mysterious disappearance.

Like Manon, Miriam is a strong woman whose unhappiness is revealed in a variety of ways, nearly always in relation to others. “Any confidence Miriam ever had in herself as a mother has been eroded, and what is that confidence built on anyway, she thinks now – the luck of one’s children? The DNA lottery? If they’re bright and successful, you congratulate yourself. If they fall by the wayside, the world judges you.”

The relationship with Ian is revealed gradually. Thinking of her husband, Miriam muses that he “has that curious inability that the upper classes have to wear casual clothes convincingly. She wonders if he emerged from his mother’s vagina in a sports jacket. “

She notes that the two of them “both prone to … thinking their way out of their predicaments, as if sheer force of intellect could control the random world.” Reflecting on their marriage, Miriam says, “It is a slog, marriage. How could she tell her daughter that without making it sound worse than it is? Built on hard work and tolerance, not some idea of perfection as Edith might have it.” Edith has a boyfriend, Will Carter, and “Miriam has had the thought in the past that Will Carters handsomeness is an emblem of Edith’s belief in perfection – or at least her belief in appearance. She hasn’t realized yet that looks count for nothing, that how things appear is nothing next to how they feel.”

As Manon investigates Edith’s disappearance, the story is revealed from multiple points of view, particularly those of Manon and Miriam. While it is somewhat a police procedural, the real strength of this book is in its writing style and character development. While it’s not up there with Elizabeth George’s better efforts, it is certainly well worth reading, especially for those who appreciate well developed female characters and an interesting plot without excessive violence and gore. I will definitely read whatever Susie Steiner comes up with next. Gratitude to NetGalley for an advance copy of Missing, Presumed in exchange for my honest review. Four stars!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Clearing by Robert Dugoni

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My Sister’s Grave, the first book in Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series, came out in late 2014. I loved it. I thought Tracy was a smart, strong woman with fierce determination (evidenced by her dogged pursuit of her sister’s murderer). In fall of 2015, the second book in the series, Her Final Breath, made me realize that Robert Dugoni has a real talent for crime fiction and – not to be sexist—for getting the somewhat rare male mystery author who really and truly gets his female characters RIGHT. So I was extremely happy to have the opportunity to review the third title in this series, In the Clearing (thanks, NetGalley!)

Once again, Tracy Crosswhite, a Seattle police detective, gets involved in a case outside her own jurisdiction when a former police academy classmate asks for a favor. Following their time in the academy, Jenny Almond’s law enforcement career took her back to Klickitat County, Washington, where she followed in the footsteps of her late father, who had retired as sheriff in that county. Forty years ago, he was a new deputy investigating the death of Native American female high school student, Kimi Kanasket. Kimi was a star student and a hard worker whose body was found in the Salmon River after one night when she never made it home from the diner where she worked evenings. The case was ruled a suicide, but Jenny’s father never really believed the story. He had investigated the death as a new investigating deputy but was told by a higher-up in the Sheriff’s office to leave it alone. He kept records which led Jenny to think this cold case is worth looking into, and she asks Tracy for help.

Along the way, Tracy uncovers some deeply buried secrets involving both the ruling elite of the small town and members of the local Native American community, including Kimi’s parents. It’s impossible to say much more without giving away secrets that would spoil the terrific plot, but suffice it to say that Dugoni has proven again that he can develop multiple characters well enough that the reader feels they KNOW them, both male and female, young and old. Additionally, he manages complex plotting seamlessly – not an easy task but one where he continues to shine.

While it isn’t necessary to read the prior books in the series, as this one can stand alone, but I highly recommend the entire series (and there are some things about Tracy that are revealed in the earlier books that are more fully developed in this latest one).

I give it five stars: it held my interest, kept me guessing, was well written, and offered some unique perspectives on tribal life and culture. Looking forward to the next in the series!

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

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I was slightly hesitant about this novel when I read it was a story told…backwards? I still recall the vivid impression the movie Memento had on me back in 2000, and I wondered how a novelist might pull off this kind of storytelling. But I wanted to give it a fair try, and OMG I am SO glad I did! First off, five stars for this gem!! Second, I REALLY don’t want to give things away, as this one is FULL of twists and turns and surprises that, if revealed, would lessen the impact on the reader…so no spoiler alert, but tiptoeing around many of the superb details…just trust me!

Nicolette Farrell’s best friend Corinne disappeared ten years before the story opens. At that time, there was an investigation centered on Nicolette, her brother Daniel, Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson, and Nicolette’s boyfriend Tyler. They all lived in Cooley Ridge, described as “an unassuming town tucked into the edge of the Smoky Mountains, the very definition of Small Town America, but without the charm.

After Corinne’s disappearance, Nicolette spent ten years in the Philadelphia area, She moved on with her life, finishing her education and becoming a school counselor. Less than confident, she says she is “a terrible counselor in terms of actual counseling. Said the wrong things, never had the right advice to give. But I excelled at listening…they spilled their collective adolescent guts in my office. On paper, I was an excellent counselor.“ Nic comes back to Cooley Ridge to help her brother Daniel (who has stayed in town, and is now married to a very pregnant Laura). Their father ‘s home needs to be readied for sale, as their father has had to move into Granite Pines, which anyone who has had a family member in such a place will recognize perfectly from Nic’s description: “There’s a Sunday brunch at Grand Pines that makes it family day. Go to church, then visit the family you’ve sent away. A day of penance. Eat your weight in sins. Guilt by omelet.“

Nic and Daniel have had a strange relationship, ever since their mother died when they were young: “This was how we always communicated. In the things we didn’t say. We had developed a habit after our mother got sick, fighting in the space between words about anything other than what we meant.” And “that was one of Daniels’ more impressive accomplishments: he had perfected the art of the passive-aggressive text message.”

Another central character is Nic’s old boyfriend Tyler, with whom she recognizes clearly there continues to be a strong bond, despite her recent engagement: “People were like Russian nesting dolls – versions stacked inside the latest edition. But they all still lived inside, unchanged, just out of sight.  “

Shortly after Nic arrives back in Cooley Ridge, a young woman named Annaliese (who lived next door to Nic’s family back when Corinne disappeared and may have had a connection to the incidents of that night) vanishes. Annaliese appears to have secrets she can’t wait to reveal…until she disappears, reminiscent of Corinne’s disappearance. It gets creepy when Nic goes out one night searching for Annaliese, and realizes “I was out here alone, in that empty gap of time when only the nocturnal and people craving the darkness roamed.

I have to say, I LOVE Nic’s voice throughout the book, especially in moments like this: “It wasn’t in church but in moments like this when I maybe believed in God or something like that. Some order o the chaos, some meaning. That we collide with the people we need, that we meet the ones who will love us, that there’s some underlying reason to everything.”

As Nic works to solve the mystery of Annaliese’s disappearance, we learn what REALLY happened the night Corinne disappeared, and tons of long-buried and current secrets (family and otherwise) emerge. The story begins on Day 15 and moves backward to Day 1, the day Annaliese went missing. There are complex relationships, amazing plotting, and outstanding character development. Despite my trepidation about the story being told backward and whether that might interfere with the mystery itself, I was totally impressed. Thanks to S & S / NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review. Again, five stars!

 

 

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

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Because for me McKenzie is a local author, there was considerable publicity about this title earlier in 2016, and the cover caught my eye (Brilliant, BTW)! So  I was eager to dive in to it, because it sounded like it had it all: quirky female protagonist, commentary on the whole Palo Alto-Silicon Valley-nouveau-riche scene, dysfunctional families on both sides (hers AND his), commentary on war, and humor.

I confess it took me a while to get into it…I started it and kept putting it down to go off and read something else (book club deadlines, etc., kept calling). And now, looking back, I realize that I was subconsciously saving it for a time when I needed a lift. Because I LOVE quirky female protagonists, and I love commentary on the social mores of the folks who have essentially taken over the South Bay and now are oozing into the Santa Cruz scene…and it makes my day when someone puts the fun in dysfunctional families! This book was just hugely entertaining, different, and just a fun read.

The heroine, Veblen, is a joy in so many ways. A friend disagreed, saying she found her to be a bit of a pain in the ass, but there was so much about her that resonated with me, maybe particularly as she works to try to make the disparate characters in different families and circumstances mesh. Aarrgghh!

Don’t want to ruin the fun, but I highly recommend this one. I am glad I kept it for a time when I needed something to drag me away from what felt like a looming slide into the black hole of depression…for that alone, I would give it four stars, and when you add in the outstanding writing and humor and amazing character development, FIVE stars! Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Saving Jason by Michael Sears

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The first book in this series, Black Fridays, was released in 2012, and I have been recommending the author and the series ever since. The author and the protagonist, Jason Stafford, share the life experience of being Wall Street types, and the information about that whole complex way of life is interspersed throughout the series…but in a totally fitting way, not pedantic or overly technical…in other words, it just fits!

The other interesting aspect of the series is that Jason’s son is autistic. When I picked up the first one and read the cover blurbs I thought possibly that “Black Fridays” referred to Wall Street or financial events…but no, it refers to the fact that on certain days, the son (aka “”The Kid”) only wears certain colors. Lots of interesting stuff about autism, parenting a special needs child, etc. but again, just totally fits into the story.

So, right off, I love that there is learning going on, about finance and autism, while Sears totally entertains with his tight plotting, excellent pacing, and amazing character development. So, here we are, four years later, and he gives us the fourth in the series. Jason and The Kid are both here, and it is impossible to discuss plot much without spoiling things! If  you are like me, even when a reviewer announces “spoiler alert” there is that nearly impossible-to-resist urge to read ahead…I have no shame, I always sneaked a peek at gifts under the tree. So, sorry, no real plot reveal here…

In any case, this is a series, and there have been  some seriously significant events happen to main characters, so it may be best (or at least preferable) to begin with Black Fridays and read through the first three. But this one can definitely stand alone.

Michael Sears has real talent, and I am definitely a fan. I only gave this one four stars because I didn’t feel like I learned as much as from the prior ones, and there were some WTF? moments where I questioned the actions of a character, but if you like mysteries/thrillers with excellent character development, you will definitely want to add this one to your TBR list. Four stars, and thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in return for my honest review.

Buzz Books 2016

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Love this !!! Not only does it feature titles that I would have been salivating over based on the author alone, it also includes some authors who are totally unknown to me. This will be extremely useful to anyone involved in library collection development, as well as anyone just looking for “the good stuff.”

Good work, Publishers Lunch! And thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review. Five stars. Love it!

 

Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham

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OMG. OMG. OMG.

I just finished an AMAZING book! Now that I have that out of the way, let’s talk about Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham (wish I knew how to pronounce his last name), which is the 8th in the Joe O’Loughlin series…but truly, if you haven’t read any in the series, you should still read this. It will all make sense, and you will love it, and you will be entertained for hours on end…and at the end, you might be going “WHAT?!?!?!?! NOOOOOOOO!” But it’s OK because Michael Robotham is going to be one of your new favorite authors.

First off, you will SEE his characters. For example, the man whose “tight curls are starting to gray, clinging to his scalp like iron filings on a magnet.” And put the characters in relationships: “…the best of marriages can become like a {Pinter play, with long pauses, or characters finishing each other’s sentences or having no dialogue at all.”

See what I mean? And although his stories are fictional, they sometimes feel like they are absolutely about today’s news and newsmakers: a media personality who “likes to pick on particular groups…immigrants, Muslims…proves that his prejudices run wide and deep, even if his listeners come from the shallowest of gene pools.” And he can describe setting vividly, as when he takes us to the “nursing home. It is the smell I can never get used to—a combination of a male urinal and an RSPCA shelter.” Or see “…the edge of the horizon, a container ship barely seems to be moving, as though pinned between the sea and the sky like a drop of moisture trapped between two panes of glass.”

OK, so we have established that he writes REALLY well and that I love his writing. And I mentioned this is a series…which, if you haven’t read any (and you SHOULD HAVE, but might not have, since he is Australian and for some reason possible related to that geographical quirk, hasn’t become wildly popular in the US). The protagonist, Joe, is a forensic psychologist who has Parkinson’s. Which is just a tangential fragment of what makes him who he is and what he does, especially in relationship to his estranged wife and daughters. In this story, Joe is brought in to advise on a murder…that becomes a series of attacks/murders. And he uses his skills to ferret out the personality of the evil person or persons (don’t want to give anything away – I am not a spoiler alert! Kind of person, I prefer to just tell you that you should trust me, if you like mysteries, or psychological themes, or thrillers, or best of all a mystery that is a psychological thriller, you HAVE TO read this. Then go get Robotham’s other books. He is that good. If you need more encouragement, if you enjoyed Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, I Let You Go, or The Lies We Tell, you will like this…but even more, because it is SO well done.

Many thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Cold Barrel Zero by Matthew Quirk

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Cold Barrel Zero by Matthew Quirk.

TBH, I am not sure why I wanted to read a military thriller. But apparently I did, and I thank NetGalley for an advance copy in return for my honest review.

Now, TBTH (TOTALLY!), this review is based on my husband’s reaction to the book, because I didn’t actually read it…but he did, and he enjoyed it. The author clearly knows his stuff, and writes a tightly paced thriller full of things that only Special Ops type people know. Personally, it would have given me nightmares, but fans of military action will love it!

The book is described as one that “brings together the blistering pace of Lee Child, the nonstop action of Brad Thor, and the richly drawn characters and moral stakes of Daniel Silva. “ Well, there you have it. I don’t love any of the three, although have read at least one title from each of them, and know they are hugely popular.

My husband says four stars (he is a pretty tough grader!)

 

The God’s Eye View by Barry Eisler

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The God’s Eye View by Barry Eisler

OK, just to get it out of the way, this book seriously creeped me out…but mostly in a good way, I THINK. There were several aspects of it that affected me, including the plot, the technology, and at least one of the three main characters. Make that two of them, now that I think about it.

The story takes place primarily in Washington, D.C. where the NSA Director (a semi-creepy guy named Anders) is obsessed with being able to monitor EVERYTHING. To accomplish that, one of his highly skilled technical wizards, Evelyn Gallagher, has worked on developing a secret camera network and facial recognition program known as God’s Eye. Evelyn is a well-drawn character (although somewhat stereotypical as the hyper-vigilant single mom) who lives with her son and has no family or much of a support system. The third main character is a very creepy guy named Manus who, like Evelyn’s young son, is deaf. Anders recruited Manus, saving him from serious trauma, and Manus would do ANYTHING for Anders. And does (creepy).

At the same time that Anders begins to get more and more obsessed with his ability to see everything, Evelyn is working away one day and sees something she maybe shouldn’t have, and asks a few questions. Anders directs Manus to do some special tasks, one of which involves Evelyn (and, by extension, her son).

Can’t say much more without giving things away. As I began reading, I thought “OK, this will likely require some willing suspension of disbelief, but I am willing to go along with whatever happens.” But Eisler, a former CIA guy, really knows his stuff, and the story is frighteningly believable. As a result of Snowden’s revelations and the exposure of various other nefarious activities coming to the public’s attention, it takes more than the idea of a program such as God’s Eye to go beyond believability.

Well paced, seriously taut action scenes, and people who generally seemed real, although the stereotypes (single mother afraid to lose her job, seriously damaged violent guy, bureaucrat who goes off the deep end) resulted in it being four stars rather than five. A good editor would likely have prodded Eisler to smooth out the hyper-sharp edges of the characters, to make their actions more believable. But, great effort, this guy has knowledge that will allow him to explore lots of scary government overreach!

People curious about NSA, spying on citizens, etc. will appreciate (not necessarily enjoy – like I said, the plot and technology kind of creeped me out!)

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review. Four stars.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

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I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

For starters, I loved this book, which I was surprised to learn is Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel (can’t wait for the next one!) Secondly, I need to word this carefully, so as not to give anything away…

There is a horrible hit-and-run accident, and a young boy is killed. The protagonist, Jenna Gray, devastated by the accident, moves to a remote cottage on the windswept Welsh coast, but she is seriously traumatized and can’t seem to escape her fears, her grief and her memories of the accident.

While Jenna is working through her fear and grief (among lots of great scenery, with vivid, well-developed characters all around), a parallel story develops as police Investigator Ray Stevens try to solve the mystery of the hit-and-run.

This really is an outstanding psychological thriller…like others who have commented on it, I was mesmerized. The plot is well done, and is hugely emotional

I really appreciated that this is a compelling story that doesn’t have to preach to emphasize for us the reality that lives can change in an instant.

Five stars, and thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Far From True by Linwood Barclay

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Linwood Barclay books are fun reads! He has now written seven books set in the fictional upstate New York town of Promise Falls. (The first five, in order of publication, are Too Close to Home, Fear the Worst, Never Look Away, Trust Your Eyes, and A Tap on the Window. Broken Promise and this latest title (Far From True) are the first two books of what is his “Promise Falls Trilogy.” BTW, if you have not read Barclay before, start with one of his standalone novels, and read the trilogy when the 3rd book comes out (likely in about a year) – otherwise, if you are like me, you will have forgotten some of the backstory and key players.

This latest title begins with a freak accident at the local drive-in theater, which is slated to close soon. Before the closing, there is an explosion during a movie, the screen collapses, and several cars close to the screen are destroyed (along with the people inside). Fears of terrorism arise quickly, and everyone in town seems to be going crazy, except for Detective Barry Duckworth. Weirdly, there are several apparent pranks happening, that involved the number 23, and some are downright lethal. Lots of stuff goes on, none of which I can relate without spoiling something for someone…

Barclay is great at developing likable characters, and Far From True starts right in where the cliffhanger ending of the prior novel, Broken Promise, left off. The six titles Barclay has written that are set in or around Promise Falls don’t necessarily always involve the same characters, but some do repeat! While this is part of a trilogy, Barclay has also written standalone novels set in Promise Falls, and some of the characters from other titles show up here: Barry Duckworth, as noted above; the slimy ex-mayor, Randall Finley; Cal Weaver from A Tap on the Window; and David Harwood from Never Look Away and Broken Promise; and Derek Cutter from Too Close to Home. 

Because we know this is the second in a trilogy, don’t expect everything to be neatly resolved!! As was true in Broken Promise, the first title in the series, one major case gets solved in this book, but another one carries over. So, as noted above, best to read the Promise Falls books in order, and I highly recommend waiting to read them when the trilogy is complete. (Although I am perfectly happy to admit my memory is worse than most people, so you may do well reading this one and then happily going on about your life until a year from now, when book #3 comes out, and you will totally remember the people, their relationships, history, etc. That just isn’t me!)

I was very happy to get an advance copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I have been a huge Barclay fan, and blocked out uninterrupted time for this one, expecting one of those “please-don’t-bother-me-I-cannot-put-this-book-down” reading experiences…but I found this one less irresistible than others he has written. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the story, the characters, and the twists that I didn’t see coming (but then, I usually don’t J).

So, if you are a Barclay fan, enjoy your return to Promise Falls. If you are new to this author, I recommend him with the caveat above about the time lapse between pieces of the trilogy. I will be happy when #3 comes out, but will likely need a refresher to fully appreciate it. (Disclosure: I re-read Broken Promise to get up to speed on the people and places in PF for this one. I found when I started it that it was apparent that there were things I was sort of expected to know, but I was clueless: that was all taken care of by re-reading book #1 in the trilogy.

Four stars. If I could give ½ stars, it would be 4.5!

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

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In so many ways, I loved this book…as I hoped and somewhat expected, being a Quindlen fan. It is filled with people who are so well-developed, they were incredibly real to me as I read, thanks to Quindlen’s  familiar skill at developing characters in her “family fiction.”

The protagonist, known as Mimi (real name Mary Margaret), is a 65-year old woman with a boatload of memories and secrets…as is the case in many families. She grew up in a river valley, on a farm that has been in her family for a century or more. The story unfolds in a way that builds suspense, and makes us wonder about the upcoming “big reveal” – clearly, there is a huge secret buried deeply. How else to explain the family dynamics: Mimi’s parents live in a house on the farm, subsisting on a meager income (selling corn at a roadside stand, plus Ruth’s mother’s salary from her nursing job). Mimi’s maternal aunt Ruth lives in a separate house behind the house where Mimi’s family lives – and the sisters never speak to each other. Plus, Ruth NEVER leaves her house. Mimi’s family handles everything for Ruth, including meals, shopping, etc. And as time goes on, Mimi’s father spends more and more time with Ruth…

Mimi had two brothers, Tom (favored by her mother) who was much older and Eddie. The family basically supports Ruth both financially and in every other way, cooking for her, shopping, etc. Tom went into the military, and Mimi missed him terribly: “Since he’d left the house had seemed like a baby’s rattle with all the jingly things inside gone.”

We learn early on a bit about Mimi’s character and the fact that there is something that will be revealed in this story, as she says “It’s so easy to be wrong about the things you’re close to. I know that now. I learned that then. “ Mimi describes people in vivid terms, as when speaking about her friends LA Rhonda and Donald: “Donald’s personality was like vanilla ice cream, and LA Rhonda was like that weird Neapolitan kind, with the layers of strawberry and vanilla and chocolate, that turned a tan color when it melted in your bowl…” Both LaRhonda and Donald figure in Mimi’s life throughout the story, and Mimi is clearly less than impressed with the adult LaRhonda, as she describes the way that “Even at Little League she had on expensive sunglasses and a purse that looked like it was made out of unborn calves.” I swear, I KNOW many of these people! And I love Quindlen’s ability to bring out the common weirdness of townspeople and the unique weirdness in a family. I once had a friend who said “if you think you know a family that is the perfect sort of Donna Reed family, you just don’t know them well enough.” Perhaps. Certainly the Millers have more than their share of hidden relationships, events, secrets, etc.

Their valley is a prime target for development, and “the government” aims to dam the river and flood their valley. The view of the development prospect is clear as Mimi describes new housing that has gone in, possibly a portent of what is to come for their land: “Thirty-five acres had been clear-cut. They’d done what developers always did, turned it into a tree desert.”

With all the weirdness and family drama that surrounds her, Mimi might have become one of those lost souls who are trapped in ongoing misery. Fortunately for her, she has a teacher who encourages her to aim for something beyond a life in the Valley. There is way too much potential to spoil the story, but suffice it to say Mimi makes astonishing discoveries and unravels secrets about her family. In the end, she concludes, “No one ever leaves the town where they grew up, not really, even if they go.”

Lots of questions arise: what is the nature of truth, especially when family members each have their own version? Should some secrets remain buried? Is it the responsibility of a capable family member to remain and care for family members who seemingly cannot care for themselves? Or is it right for them to go off and make their own life?

Would be a good book club pick, I think. It’s not heavy literature, but it is very enjoyable, and thought-provoking. Highly recommended. Five stars, and thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in return for my honest review.

 

Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon

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I actually read Holly Seddon’s book Try Not to Breathe on Groundhog Day…highly appropriate, since there was so much about it, both in plot and tone as other things I have read recently (esp. Girl on the Train).

There are several interesting characters in the book, especially the two women Alex and Amy, who are connected in the present day by a horrific event that happened fifteen years ago and left Amy is a vegetative state. Alex, a journalist who seems to be trying to resurrect either her career or her sense of self-worth (or both?), is working on a story about Amy and comes across Jake, who was Amy’s boyfriend back in the day and who has continued to visit her pathetically sad space nearly every day since. Of course, there is a mystery surrounding the events that led to Amy’s current situation, and there is sort of a mystery about Alex’s messy life and whether or not she can get it together, and what the hell is Jake hanging around for? (a question his pregnant wife is also asking).

It was a quick read, and the characters were compelling, but I cannot say I LIKED the book. It was more the train wreck, I just couldn’t look away! I am not bothered by alternating points of view or shifts in time, and I think the author did a great job portraying the pain caused by Alex’s addiction. So, if you want a book that will grab you in terms of mystery and wanting to know why characters do what they do, grab this one! I give it four stars for interesting plot and well-drawn characters, but there was a boatload of willing suspension of disbelief that had to happen (esp in terms of Alex still being alive after her self-destructive history and how Jake can chase people down while on crutches etc. – but overall, a thought-provoking read. Thank you, Net Galley, for an advance copy in return for my review.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I admit, I was not familiar with The Austen Project, which includes Joanna Trollope’s retelling of Sense & Sensibility, Emma  retold by Alexander McCall Smith, and Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. Curtis Sittenfeld is the latest author hired by the Austen Project to bring Austen’s stories from the early 19th into the early 21st century, with her specific assignment being the “retelling” of Pride and Prejudice.

Sittenfeld is faithful to the basic structure of Austen’s book, retaining most of the names and personalities, but switching the locale to Cincinnati. In this version, Mrs. Bennett is a chatty, foolish, woman focused on making sure her five daughters are married off. Jane, the eldest, is a sweetheart. Mary, the middle daughter is a classic middle child, somewhat lost in the middle. The two youngest, Kitty and Lydia, remain self-absorbed and rude. Liz, the main female character, is very bright and quite sarcastic. The girls’ father, Mr. Bennet, has recently had bypass surgery, and is a bit detached. The two love interest candidates for the girls are Mr. Bingley, who is sweet and charming, and Mr. Darcy who displays pride and arrogance. In Sittenfeld’s telling, they are doctors who have recently moved to town. Sittenfeld’s Bingley has recently been a reality TV star, in a medical version of “The Bachelor,” where he wasn’t able to choose a bride.

Other updates include modes of communication (texts and phone calls replace long letters) and travel (flights replacing carriage rides). The avocations of the girls are brilliant, including teaching yoga part time while trying to get pregnant with artificial insemination, taking courses online, etc. Mr. Bennett has inherited his money and has never worked, and is a terrible financial manager. They have no health insurance, so the longstanding financial concerns are coming to a serious boiling point. Updating the plot from Austen’s entail that would leave the family home to a male cousin (very Downton Abbey-ish) to the 21st-century Bennetts being faced with having to sell the house to keep the family from becoming penniless and homeless.

Austen’s novel is highly regarded as being witty, while Sittenfeld’s telling veers toward being laugh-out-loud funny. The Bennett girls face twenty-first century situations including same sex couples living happily together, sex/hooking up on the first date, unwed pregnancy with no male partner, and a transgender male choosing one of the Bennet girls as his wife. Mrs. Bennett in this version is still a racist, homophobic moron whose outspoken comments are wildly inappropriate and yet appear somehow funny.

If I were an Austen zealot or literature purist, I might have found the changes difficult to handle, but I confess I read Eligible as a fresh story rather than a retelling of Pride & Prejudice, and enjoyed it on its own merits. I admit I am less a fan of this than of Sittelfeld’s earlier work (especially Prep), but appreciate the opportunity to review this in exchange for a copy from NetGalley. Four stars.

 

 

The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

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I consider myself a fan of Rosamund Lupton, having read and enjoyed Sister and Afterwards. And there are things about her writing that I really enjoy: she can evoke strong emotions about the power of love like few authors I can think of, and (as she shows in her latest, The Quality of Silence) she can describe harshness of nature and the dangers of sticking your neck out like nobody’s business!

Her latest book, The Quality of Silence, tells the story of former astrophysicist (hence no intellectual slouch) and current stay-at-home mom Yasmin, who takes her daughter Ruby and heads for Alaska to spend Christmas with Yasmin’s father, nature photographer (think Frans Lanting) Matt. Two complicating factors are that Ruby is deaf and the Yasmin-Matt marriage has been a bit shaky of late.

When they arrive in Alaska, they are told that Matt has been killed in a fire in a remote area, and it seems to Yasmin like the police are not doing their jobs. She is so sure that Matt is alive that she hijacks a big rig to drive them through the rough country to the location to make sure that she saves her marriage and that Ruby doesn’t lose her father.

Along the way, the two of them deal with challenges separately and together, and it feels like Ruby will definitely “be heard” in her life (which is what Yasmin wants most for her), and that Yasmin has recovered some of what she used to be: determined, brave and courageous.

Woven throughout the story are details about the indigenous people of the region and information about fracking, and there is tension that mounts as they near their goal.

This is another of the many recent novels with multiple points of view, which I don’t mind. Lupton seems to be steering herself into the Jodi Picoult mode, combining family challenges with one or more social issues, which I also don’t mind. My biggest problem with the book was that I personally hate being cold, and I found the effectively written description of the harsh environment unsettling. If you don’t mind that, and you like a family-saga-mystery/thriller-with-a-touch-of-social-commentary, you will enjoy The Quality of Silence.

I appreciate receiving a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review. Four stars (might have been three except I DO like Lupton, and might have been five except I hate being cold).

 

 

 

 

Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf

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Sarah and Jack Quinlan have been married for two decades, and they live in Montana with their twin daughters, age 18. So Sarah would think she knows Jack VERY well. But, when they get a phone call that Jack’s aunt in the Midwest has taken a bad fall and may be near death, they fly back – the first time Jack has been home in over 20 years!

Sarah had heard the version of Jack’s younger years that had his parent dying in a car crash and Jack and his sister Amy being raised by their aunt (now dying). When the Quinlans leave their home in idyllic Larkspur Lake, Montana and go to the rural hamlet of Penny Gate where Jack grew up, secrets begin to emerge from the shadows. They arrive to see his aunt die while his sister Amy (who has fallen on hard times) stands vigil at the hospital.

We learn that Jack’s mother didn’t actually die in a car crash, but suffered a similar fate to her sister (Jack’s beloved aunt) with fatal repercussions, followed shortly by the disappearance of Jack’s father – of course, everyone assumes he murdered his wife then hit the road. Dad’s whereabouts and the question of his guilt have yet to be answered.

Amy becomes the prime suspect in their aunt’s death, but Jack is also a suspect due to his adolescent rebellion and his well-known family quarrels over his girlfriend Celia who later married his cousin Dean. Dean is also a suspect, as is his father Hal.

Sarah is reeling as she learns about the number and seriousness of Jack’s secrets and she decides to solve the mystery, both to clear Jack who is a prime suspect and to find out just what really happened when his mother died. in a freak incident in 1985. Somebody is sending her threatening emails. Whoever is sending the emails plainly knows Sarah is an anonymous advice columnist for her small town paper in Montana. Very few people know her undercover identity, so whoever is targeting people in Jack’s family may be targeting her.

The list of suspects is loooooong, and Sarah feels alone as she tries to figure things out, with the help of Margaret Dooley, who works in the sheriff’s office and becomes the one person Sarah feels she can trust. Soon, Sarah is targeted by someone, but it’s not at all clear who that person (or persons) might be…

This book definitely lived up to the description of page turner! Admittedly, I am not the best at figuring out mysteries, but it really did kept me guessing until near the end.

I haven’t been a huge Heather Gudenkauf fan before this, but I enjoyed this and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read. Despite the somewhat familiar plot technique of returning to a hometown and having family secrets erupt, which I thought might make it somewhat derivative/boring, I think it was well done, and appreciate receiving an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my review. Four stars.

The Outsider by Fredric Forsyth

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In the early 1970s, I read The Day of the Jackal, and it changed my reading habits forever (in a good wayJ). It probably remains my favorite novel by Fredric Forsyth, although The Dogs of War and The Odessa File rank right up there…

I had no idea that Forsyth’s tales of espionage and intrigue were based on real-life exploits, nor did I expect to ever be able to read his story and have it be as entertaining as his novels. But, trust me, his memoir The Outsider is an amazing and entertaining tale of his life and exploits that contributed to his ability to write the BEST espionage stories.

In The Outsider, Forsyth takes us back to his childhood, into the war years, leading to the way he became the RAF’s youngest ever pilot (age 19). Subsequent stories recount being strafed by a MiG during the Nigerian civil war, smuggling packages between Germanys (back when there were two), and experiencing “situations” with the Stasi (they arrested him), the IRA, and various political eruptions in third world countries.

Through it all, Forsyth must have kept a journal, or else he has an amazing memory…and he is a consummate storyteller, making  The Outsider a memoir that is worthy of “the grand master of international suspense.”

I requested an advance copy of this book to review, and I appreciate NetGalley for providing it (in exchange for my review), although the file was corrupted and I ended up getting the hardback – well worth it, it was a fun read!!! (Also glad to have gotten the hardback as it has GREAT photos from the early years of WWII to the present day. Four enthusiastic stars!

The Travelers by Chris Pavone

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The first thing I read from Christopher Pavone was The Accident, which knocked me out (thrillers are probably my favorite genre, when they are done well). The follow-up, The Expats, convinced me that he was not a one-hit wonder, so I was happy to receive an advance copy of The Travelers (in exchange for my honest review), and I settled in last weekend to savor what I thought would be a fast-paced glove-trotting story full of deception, lies and deceit, with clearly drawn characters and detailed, intriguing setting…

The bottom line is that this was NOT exactly what I expected…AND I loved it. For the first half of the book, I was reading interesting exploits centered around journalist Will Rhodes, a writer for Travelers magazine, and his wife, Chloe, who worked at Travelers prior to Will being hired there, and who has recently left – or has she? But it wasn’t at all clear what was going on. Two other people at The Travelers are Malcolm Somers, the boss (following the mysterious disappearance of the previous guy) and Gabriella (aka “Gabs”), who has taken on a New-York based management position, giving up her own globe-trotting following the death of her husband. Malcolm is a classic middle-aged success story, complete with multiple homes, gorgeous wife, etc. A long-time employee of Travelers, he thinks “This is probably what it means to be middle-aged: to be horrified by the irresponsibility of your own youth.” Gabs is just a mystery for the longest time!

Throughout this first half of the book, there are cryptic little clues, and several things that strongly evoked what I call the “WTF ? Factor. ” Several times I found myself using my Kindle search feature as I had thoughts along the lines of “wait a minute, who the hell is Taylor Lindquist again?”

I love the way Pavone’s descriptive skills reveal so much about his characters: early on, he gives clues to his characters’ real natures: describing a minor character Alonso, he writes “For some people violence is woven into their fabric, like the bright blood-red thread that his grandmother would weave into the turquoise and indigo serapes on her loom.” Then, when Will returns home from a trip, speaking of Chloe, he writes “She hates it when Will comes home in the middle of the night, wearing inebriated sexual arousal like a game-day athletic uniform…”

I can’t actually talk about the story without spoiling it… I can only relate that it was a long, slow buildup to the big reveal about the Travelers, and that the ride was incredibly well done. The really memorable thing for me is just the reading, finding out things along the way, as Pavone shows his  skills at describing both people and settings, which made for an enjoyable read.

For example, he talks about how, in a somewhat clandestine meeting, Will “Walks past the sneeze-guarded steam tables, suffused with the ineffable sadness of dinners plucked from a cheap deli’s salad bar.”

And relating the atmosphere in the city: “…the subway rumbles through one slum after another, graffiti on the station walls, the stench of urine when the doors open, busted overhead lights, the ever present possibility of malevolence amid all this malignant neglect, where the real-estate stick is unredeemed and unredeemable – housing projects and six-story apartment buildings with trash-strewn concrete courtyards, abandoned buildings alongside empty lots filled with junk and junkies, police-cruiser lights flashing and engines revving as the sedans race between disaster and tragedy, cops getting out warily, hands on holsters.” Seriously, this gave me the creeps and was so vivid I could both see and feel the scene.

It’s not just his skill with setting:  the description of people (both individually and in crowds)  is spot-on, as the following scene (which will resonate with anyone who has visited popular tourist destinations) shows: “This crowd is heavy on professional-looking tourists in their task-specific lightweight water-wicking manmade-fiber gear, with profuse zippers and pockets and mesh vents for breathability. There are hobbled undefeated old people, and panic-stricken Chinese, and towering magenta-haired German women and skinny smoky Frenchmen, everyone all pressed together, waiting to take the glossy brochure and hang the audio player around their necks, like digital cowbells.” Wow, I felt like I was back at the Smithsonian or the Louvre!

And then there are the moments when he leaves zero doubt about the people as he describes a scene, as when he visits the old man Katz, who has collected decades of magazines: “…a living room that’s an explosion of clutter, magazines and papers and books everywhere…the lingering aroma of pipe tobacco layered atop the fresh scent of takeout-Chines garlic with undertones of litter box. This is the type of room Will has nightmares about.” AWESOME!

As I said, for more than half the book, I was wondering where it was all going, although there were lots of clues, both subtle and not, along the way. But I KNEW it was going to all come together and it did! Thanks, NetGalley – FIVE STARS.

 

Lie In Plain Sight by Maggie Barbieri

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Lie In Plain Sight Barbieri cover

How did I miss this series? Maggie Barbieri has written two novels featuring Maeve Conlon: Once Upon a Lie and Lies That Bind. All I can figure is there was an unfortunate subconscious reminder of OJ’s girlfriend that blinded me to Ms. Barbieri’s work 🙂 But now she is back with further adventures for Maeve in Lie in Plain Sight.

Maeve is a single mother in upstate New York (Maggie herself lives in the Hudson Valley), and she works her ass off with her bakery, a business that supports her and her two daughters. Apparently, the older daughter was more present in the first two novels; in this third installment, she is away at college and makes occasional appearances…plus she is a constant reminder to Maeve and the younger daughter that getting into college is important, you need to be out there getting credit for activities that will look good on your resume, etc. But to Maeve, it appears that her younger daughter is somewhat less than sensational. Maeve’s own mother died when Maeve was very young, so the whole mother-daughter thing is fraught with tension in ways both subtle and overt. And to add to the complex family dynamic, there is Maeve’s ex husband as well as her newly-discovered half sister, and her cop boyfriend.

As if things aren’t complicated enough, Maeve hires a fellow single mother, Trish Dvorak,  after running into her at college night at the high school (where both their daughters are at the picking-a-college stage) and being impressed by Trish’s honesty about having a daughter who is not exceptional (refreshing honesty, Maeve thinks!) Shortly after Trish begins work at the bakery, she is out on a delivery when the high school phones with the message that the woman’s daughter Taylor is sick and asking to go home. To her surprise, Maeve finds out that Trish has listed her as an emergency contact, and the school nurse encourages Maeve to give the necessary permission (Taylor is, after all, almost 18 and has her own car). Maeve is hesitant, but harried, and agrees…then word comes that Taylor has disappeared, and the mystery begins.

Of course Maeve feels responsible, and guilty: “Guilt for some things – but not others – took hold of her sometimes and wouldn’t let go, shaking her to the core. This was one of those things.” She is compelled to try to unravel the mysterious disappearance. Along the way, there is a creepy soccer coach, some earnest (maybe TOO earnest?) high school boys raising money for a mission to help needy people, and the asshat rich guy who just happens to be the sperm donor for Taylor, but who has never apparently been responsible for any of her needs.

Maeve discovers, among these intertwined relationships, that the small town of Farringville has a lot more to hide than most small towns. And that people aren’t always what they seem: …”someone Maeve now knew was completely out of his mind, someone who pretended by day that he was nice, helpful, but who by night and any other time he felt like it was capable of horrible, evil things. Someone who hid his true identity in plain sight.”

The story more than held my interest, I loved Maeve’s honesty and wit, and I plan to go back and read the first two in this series, even though I will know in advance some of Maeve’s life events  that will unfold in those two books. Five stars for this one!

 

 

Noonday by Pat Barker

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Noonday Cover

Years ago, I read Regeneration, the first in Barker’s trilogy about World War I — and it totally blew me away. At that time, I knew nothing about Pat Barker. In fact, I was stunned when I learned that the author was female, as I assumed only a man who had experienced battle could write such a searing indictment of war. Since then, I have been in awe of Barker, and was ecstatic to have the opportunity to receive a preview of her forthcoming novel, Noonday, from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

I dived in, and read late into the night, stopping only out of exhaustion…and kept at it, although I admittedly took a few breaks when the story overwhelmed me – Barker’s skill in capturing the horror of war is unreal.

It was only after I finished the book and found myself feeling slightly unsettled by the story that I went looking for information about the writing of the book and then SMH!!!!! (Smack My Head!) I learned that this is the THIRD book in Barker’s trilogy set in World War II England. (more on this later)

The story in Noonday revolves around Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant – all of whom appeared in the first two novels in the series, Life Class and Toby’s Room. In Noonday, Elinor is married to Paul, and she and Kit both work as ambulance drivers in London during the Blitz, while Paul is an air-raid warden. Toby, Elinor’s brother, died in the Great War, but Elinor’s memories of him are strong enough that he remains a significant character. In fact, the impact of Toby in her life is revealed early in the book: “When he was alive, Toby’s presence had been the only thing that made weekends with the rest of her family bearable.”

Another character who impacts events in the book is Kenny, a child who has been relocated to the country to escape the horror of London during the Blitz. Elinor isn’t overly fond of Kenny, and she realizes “he was the sort of child who attracts bullying, she thought, guiltily conscious of her own failure to like him.” She does feel something for him, though: “…he’d arrived in the village with no name, no history. Something about that appealed to Elinor.” But it is Paul to whom Kenny gravitates, and it is Paul who will help Kenny return to London and wander the streets with him as he tries to reunite with his family.

Elinor is childless, a status that is snidely commented on by a live-in helper at her sister Rachel’s house, Mrs. Murchison: “…she’d heard Mrs. Murchison whisper to the woman beside her: “She’s a Miss, you know.” Elinor knew exactly what she meant. Miss-take. Missed out. Even perhaps, miss-carriage?” Elinor tries to take it in stride: “Of course there’d always be people like her, people who regarded childless women as hardly women at all.”

Elinor’s mother is dying as the book begins, and the description of her room is chilling, perhaps particularly for anyone who has gone through this ordeal: “A fug of illness rose to meet her: aging flesh in hot sheets, camphor poultices that did no good at all, a smell of feces and disinfectant from the commode in the far corner.” Elinor’s relationship with Rachel is strained by the stronger relationship Elinor had with their brother Toby, and despite Elinor’s talent as an artist, Rachel’s house is “…beautifully furnished. Oriental rigs, antique furniture—good paintings, too. Nothing of hers, though. She had three in the Tate; none here.

Elinor is at midlife as she waits with Rachel for their mother to die. “After each dragging pause, the skeletal chest expanded again. Let go, just let go. Elinor almost said it aloud, only she was too ashamed, knowing it was her own deliverance she was pleading for.” After her mother’s death “Elinor went to her own room, also grieving, not for what she’d lost, but for what she’d never had, and never could have now.” These passages give the reader an anguished look at the family dynamic, magnified by the revelation of the nature of Elinor’s relationship with Toby (which I suspect was known to readers of the earlier books in the series, but which came as a shock to me).

Another character is the “witch of Endor,” who conducts an séance that is attended by Paul, distraught after events during a bombing and its impact on Kenny. There is a wrenching scene in which desperate relatives pay to attend this event, which is revealed as a sham conducted by a fraud who claims she is calling the dead back to life to “speak to” their loved ones.

The book captures the horror of the Blitz and the effect it begins to have on the citizens, both in the city and at Rachel’s house in the country: “how easily they’d all come to accept it: searchlights over the church at night, blacked-out houses, the never-ending pop-pop of guns on the marshes.”

There is a spiraling tension as the war worsens and the characters search for comfort, finding it in ways that will both bind them and tear them apart.

I am still in awe of Pat Barker’s skillful writing, about war and relationships, family and fear. After thinking about it, I decided that any disappointment or lack of satisfaction I might have initially felt upon completion of the book likely stemmed from my lack of familiarity with the characters. This was reinforced by the following online review I found: “ I wonder if anyone reading this as a ‘free-standing’ book will successfully appreciate the complex back story of the relationships between the three principle characters. I also found myself re-reading some passages to understand which of the three points of view I was now following.

Having said that, this is without question the best researched and most compelling fictional account of the Blitz I’ve ever read. Pat Barker cleverly lulls you into a false sense of security, as the ambulance crews and wardens seem to dodge bombs and incendiaries with amazing impunity. Then, of course, we experience the cruelly indiscriminate nature of the bombing.

That eloquently sums it up! In order to do it justice, I plan to re-read Noonday after reading the first two books in the series, but it is seriously worth FIVE STARS. Pat Barker is incredible.

 

 

 

And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

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Engel book cover

Even though I find the subject of the Middle East depressing these days, I LOVE Richard Engel’s reporting, so I was excited to get an advance copy of his book And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East from NetGalley in return for my honest review. Overall, I will just say I am so happy to have read this book, because I learned so much! Engel lived in the Middle East for decades, is a fluent Arab speaker, and has the gift of being both an entertaining storyteller and a patient teacher. My own bias leans left, and I found my negative opinion of the Bush administration’s actions reinforced…but I really looked forward to the opportunity to evaluate my uncertainty about the actions of the Obama administration by learning more about the history and current situation in the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Libya and, of course, Syria.

This book reminds us that if our view of today’s Middle East consists of looking at “those people” and their rebellion in the streets in recent years and thousands of refugees streaming to escape recent battles, we may have forgotten (or perhaps never knew?)  that “In the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, the Islamic world was a main center of culture and civilization…leader in astronomy, algebra and poetry, experiencing a golden era as Europe sank into the Dark Ages.“

The Middle East of today is a mess, no doubt about it, and the book does a great job explaining the origins of today’s conflicts, detailing how during World War I, the “Ottomans sided with Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm. Russian Empire had collapsed…leaving England and France to feast on the ottoman carcass.”

After the end of that war, the …”lines that separate Jordan, Syria and Iraq were mostly drawn by England and France” the “Middle East was reorganized, redefined, and the seeds were planted for a century of bloodshed.”

There was a lot of jockeying for position for the land being carved up. “Lebanon, a Christian enclave…was of special interest to France…Sunni Muslim Wahhabi fanatics aligned with Ibn Saud, a warrior chief from a desert outpost in central Arabia…Iraq was a jigsaw puzzle, a forced combination of three Ottoman provinces, each dominated by a different ethnic or religious group: the Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shiites in the south.” No surprise that Iraq seems like it is broken – it was never a cohesive state to begin with. (Very Alice in Wonderland-ish, IMO)

Engel’s view of the reason for the mess that is the Middle East today? The “flawed and cavalier treaties of World War I explain to a large degree why the Middle east remains unstable and angry today…even carefully drawn borders…would have been problematic in a region that had no concept of nation states or parliaments. But the European victors made a total hash of it. Ethnic minorities were divided and put in different states. The Kurdish people were scattered among five nations. Syria was reduced to a tiny fraction of the powerful Ottoman province it once was…Iraq was cobbled together with different Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds and given almost no access to the sea…the house of Islam was in pieces and humiliated…the afterthought of victorious European powers.”

He sees the decades after World War I and right up until the George W. Bush administration as being the years when “big men” ruled the region. When he moved to the Middle East, Mubarak was in complete control in Egypt, Hussein in Iraq, Gadhafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and both Jordan and Saudi Arabia were kingdoms ruled by their own “big men.”

In the mid-90s, Engel optimistically moved to Egypt with no job, and set out to report on the region.   Egypt is a large country with large problems. Discussing events up to and including the Arab Spring, he notes, “Rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait could buy their way out of trouble pumping money into the pockets of their people, but a big, poor country such as Egypt faced a severe reckoning. Economic resentments, not religious or ethnic division, had sent Egyptians into the streets. “

In Egypt, what had “kept it all together was Islam. Islam was the solution, or at least that’s what the Muslim Brotherhood was selling…a political and religious organization that was officially illegal. ” As Engel looks back on the people he encountered on a daily basis, he notes that the “fundamentalism that I saw in my neighborhood… wasn’t violent”… (it was) “about helping the poor”…(it) “wasn’t the kind of urban meanness you find in many American cities.” As things heated up, he sees “the fundamentalist mentality—the rage, the anger, the hate, the feeling of being left behind by history, the sense that Islam was under attack and needed to defend itself.”

After several years in Egypt, Engel moved to Jerusalem, where he was “expecting to report on the birth of a new state, Palestine, instead I saw peace talks collapse.” After 9/11, everything changed, including the degree to which people cared about what was happening in Palestine. There was a “bloody conflict…the outside world, especially the United States, paid little attention to the Palestinians’ second uprising. It was a sideshow after 9/11. “

After the Bush Administration decided (for, as Engel reminds us, “no reason”) to invade Iraq following 9/11,  all the action for a foreign correspondent seemed to be in Baghdad, so of course that is where he relocated. As he notes, in retrospect, he “had no idea at the time how bad Washington would bungle it, how inept the Iraqis would be at managing their own affairs, and the horrible forces—the rot deep within the Middle East—that the war would ultimately unleash.” As time passed, Engel finds he “grew increasingly skeptical that the US had a plan to manage Iraq. The Americans arrived with decisiveness and purpose but then seemed to improvise everything else.” There was “no plan to deal with Iraq after invading it.

As a foreign correspondent, over the years he had to deal with the business of the media, and there were many interesting oddities about covering the war in Iraq: “ I’ve never quite grasped…why the networks didn’t weigh the risks beforehand. Instead they spent millions preparing to cover the war from Baghdad only to pull out at the last minute.”

Saddam was clearly a bad guy, but Engel spells out the way in which the attempt by the Bush administration to link him with 9/11 is preposterous: he “imprisoned anyone who exhibited the slightest hint of religious radicalism,” which made the accusations by the Bush administration ”that he was in league with Osama bin Laden …so preposterous. Saddam was a murderous tyrant, but Islamic al-Qaeda style radicals only came to Iraq because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and not, as the Bush administration repeatedly claimed, the other way around. “

I found it fascinating to read’s Engel’s analysis of the growth of ISIS. He flatly states, “ISIS wouldn’t have existed without the US invasion of Iraq. It was born out of the Sunnis’ feeling of alienation, their belief that they’d been pushed aside—which, of course, they had been. Sunnis suffered a thirteen-century old injustice with power stripped from them by Washington and given to Iraqi Shiites and their coreligionists in Iran. This grievance is at the core of ISIS ideology. “

Looking at the situation in Syria, Engel draws parallels with Libya, as he spells out why Assad was unlikely to trust Washington: “Gadhafi had …made peace with Washington…his reward was Washington…used …force to back rebels who would tear him to pieces and put his body in a meat locker for public ridicule. The message certainly wasn’t lost on Syria’s Assad. What incentive did he have…to trust Washington?”

And, indicating the consequence of the US not helping in Syria, he notes, “Clearly, Syria would not be Libya. The cavalry from the West wasn’t coming. Instead, al-Qaeda was offering a helping hand. “

When Engel first went to live in Cairo, as noted before, things were held steady by the “big men” who, as he relates, “were part of the system the United States depended on for decades to keep a volatile and religious region of rich governments and poor people in line, and to keep the oil flowing. In the end, however, the big men were all undone by a fatal combination of their own poor management and the actions and inactions of two two-term US Administrations: Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.” (This is where my uncertainty about the efforts – or lack thereof—by the Obama administration to deal with the Middle East began to move toward a sense that things just got worse in the last 7+ years. Sad, after so many of us voted for Obama in large part because we were sick of what the Bush administration had done in Iraq, and believed Obama’s pledge to end that war.

What is his view of the “big men” in retrospect? “I like to think of the Middle East of the Arab big men like a row of old rotten houses. They looked stable and imposing from the outside but were in fact full of mold and termites, which they both contained and created the way old houses do if no one opens the windows or cleans them out. President Bush knocked down the first rotten house by toppling Saddam Hussein, unleashing the anger, ignorance, and Sunni-Shia rivalry inside. President Obama, by turning on old friends, was now helping to knock down another house. Worse still, Obama would later fail to follow through on this new promise when the wave of protest reached Bahrain and then culminated in Syria. The Bush Doctrine was attack foreign nations before they attack you, even if you attack the wrong country for the wrong reason, or for no reason, at all. The Obama Doctrine would turn out to be: help those seeking democracy when they are oppressed, except when you don’t want to and prefer to promise help while not delivering it. The combined impact of these two radical policies—radical departures from decades of trying to find Middle East stability—would be devastating. “ (a long quote, but so interesting to me!!)

I didn’t come away from reading this with an optimistic view of the situation. Engel notes: “These days, I no longer believe there ever are truly good guys or bad guys in a war, at least in the Middle East.” On a trip back to the States, he visited the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in DC. I was saddened as I read his thought that “after months of traveling and reporting I came to believe that Washington was trying to put out the fires of terrorism with gasoline. “

While unsettling, this book is totally worth five stars. It is a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about how this mess all came about, or who wants to try to understand the current situation in which the US finds itself. I don’t feel any better about the situation after reading it, I definitely don’t have a positive feeling about the actions of the Obama administration after reading it, but I definitely think I understand it much more than before. And I still LOVE Richard Engel, perhaps even more than I did before. FIVE STARS.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

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beforethefallcover

Whenever I see a blurb that says something like “…THE thriller to read in 2016!!” my reaction is something along the lines of “hmmm, I’ll be the judge of that.” So I was a bit of a skeptic going in to this one. Also, a bit of curiosity about whether this might come across as one of those novels that you just KNOW was written with a film or TV adaptation in mind, as the author has a successful history as a screenwriter and is currently show runner for the TV series Fargo. You know how some novels just fall apart at the end, with the obvious geared for the screen ending? Clearly, this one had challenges from me going in.

The basic plot is that on a Sunday evening at the end of August, a bunch of rich people plus a less-than-successful painter (for a total of 11 individuals) hop on a fancy private jet for a quick flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. A famous TV producer/media mogul, who weekends on the island in summer while his wife and their son and daughter have spent the entire month of August there, chartered the jet. It was during that month that the wife became friendly with the painter, Scott Burroughs, whose work she admired, so she offered to let him hop a ride on their flight rather than endure the ferry ride into the city on a Sunday night. Other passengers include their bodyguard and a Wall Street bigwig and his wife (friends/investors who are well-known to the producer and his wife), who we will learn are on the cusp of a financial meltdown. The crew includes a career pilot, a female flight attendant, and a copilot who steps in at the last minute as a replacement for the originally scheduled copilot, who is reported as having taken sick.

Sixteen minutes into the flight, the plane and its contents disappear into the Atlantic Ocean, and the only survivors are Scott and the media mogul’s 4-year old son, who clings to Scott’s back as they endure an unbelievably challenging swim to safety.

As it turns out, the boy stands to inherit an enormous fortune, and the mysterious crash suddenly looks like a conspiracy. Why else would so many influential people have died? As the mystery around the financial shenanigans of the Wall Street bigwig begin to be revealed, a huge media frenzy unfolds, spurred on by Fox-ish personalities whose outrage and accusations threaten to swallow Scott whole.

Questions of fate, chance and destiny run rampant through the book, and I enjoyed the thought-provoking way the events of the story were presented: “Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless.” Scott has lots of time to ponder the events that led him to this, and he tries to make sense of it all, as he consider “it is the job of the human brain to assemble all the input of our world—sights, sounds, smells—into a coherent narrative. This is what memory is, a carefully calibrated story that w make up about our past.”

The relationship between Scott and the boy whose life he saved is a key piece of the story, and as Scott turns the boy over to his aunt and uncle, he things it is “one of those critical junctures in life when you’re supposed to say something or do something, but you don’t know what. Only later does it hit you : later, the thing you should have said will be as clear as day, but right now it’s just a nagging feeling, a clenched jaw and low nausea.”

Two other themes are the role of journalism/entertainment in the media and the nature of art itself. Scott ponders the media circus that surrounds and considers how it might have been covered in the days of Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Woodward and Bernstein. The question becomes one of information versus entertainment. In looking at the nature of art, Scott considers that “to be an artist is to live at once in the world and apart from it. Where an engineer sees form and function, an artist sees meaning. A toaster, to the engineer, is an array of mechanical and electrical components that work together to apply heat to bread, creating toast.To the artist, a toaster is everything else. It is a comfort creation machine, one of many mechanical boxes in a dwelling that create the illusion of home.”

There is plenty of suspense, and I was eager to discover the reason for the crash, how Scott fit in to the picture, and how his relationship with the boy he had rescued would resolve. Too many spoiler possibilities, so I will just say I give it 5 stars: it held my interest, it made me think, and it made me care. I appreciate getting an advance copy of this in exchange for my honest review.

 

Angels Burning by Tawni O’Dell

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Angels Burning Cover
I admit it. I apparently am a name bigot. Otherwise, why was I so hesitant to dive in to Tawni O’Dell’s new book Angels Burning? I am pretty sure I read her Back Roads (2001), but I had no strong feeling about her other than that her named evoked a memory of a real-life woman named Tawny whose presence in my life was always like fingernails on a blackboard, and around whom I always felt incredibly inferior…so possibly Ms. O’Dell inherited my prejudice. Wow, was I wrong!! I loved this book!!!

The short version is that the protagonist, Dove Carnahan, is a small-city police chief in Buchanan, a small city in the rust belt of Pennsylvania. She is coming up on her 50th birthday, outwardly successful following a rough adolescence that included her mother’s murder and secrets that add to her dark and self-destructive nature. Dove is called to a crime scene, where a young female has been beaten to death, set on fire, and thrown down an abandoned coal mine (which is still on fire, like much of the ruined landscape). She turns out to be Camio, a teenage daughter of the local extended redneck/criminal family named Truly.

A parallel story is that during Dove’s investigation into Camio’s murder is the release from prison of the man who was convicted of murdering Dove’s mother. He shows up, threatening Dove and her sister Neely, and evokes unsettling parallels between the Carnahans and the Trulys.

I love psychological thrillers when they are well done, and the plot of Angels Burning is tightly woven and revealed with excellent pacing. The story deals with both the present (Camio’s murder investigation and the pathetically poor and dysfunctional Truly family) and the past (Dove’s mother’s murder and the dysfunctional Carnahans). On top of all this, Dove’s brother Champ, from whom she has been estranged since he left home decades ago, shows up with an 8-year old son (whom Dove has never heard of, let alone met) and dumps the kid with Dove and leaves town.

O’Dell is masterful in evoking a sense of place…and in this part of the world, it isn’t pretty. Describing the local landscape when she goes to the crime scene when Camio’s body is being recovered, she says “The sweetish smoky reek of charred flesh mixed with the acrid odor of sulfur always present in this poisoned ghost town.” Her response to her surroundings is summed up: “The lush green waves of rolling hills on the blue horizon, and I feel the familiar ache that always comes over me whenever I’m faced with ruined beauty.” As she goes to the Truly family compound as part of her investigation, she finds the “curtains are drawn against the bright sunshine. An overhead lamp has been turned on, but little light can shine through the powdery layer of dead insects accumulated at the bottom of the fixture. The room has a fried food, dirty diapers, damp dishrag odor to it. ”  I swear, when I read that, it just creeped me out, it captured the scene so perfectly.

Her descriptive skills also apply to the people of the town of Buchanan. You can easily visualize them from her words: Rudy Mayfield, someone she has known since childhood, “ swallows and stares hard at his impressive beer gut straining against an old undershirt spattered with various colored stains like countries depicted on a great white globe.”

Shawna Truly, mother of Camio, is a beaten-down mess of a woman whose whole life is a mess: “her bulk takes up half the couch but her presence takes up the entire room.” When Shawna is brought to the station for an interview, the extent to which she has totally checked out emotionally is described as “…like a she elephant grandly walking through a group of deadly big cats to get to the water hole, she has a regal disinterest in her surroundings because she knows nothing can touch her.”

Shawna’s mother Miranda is a cruel old bat, and has little humanity remaining, which O’Dell clearly describes: “ Joy, pleasure, optimism left her long ago. Not all at once, like air from a punctured bicycle tire with the nail still embedded in the tread, her compassion atrophy was probably a slow leak.

A huge amount of plot and characterization centers on Dove and her family, in particular her murdered mother. Dove says she “knew she was bad at mothering, but I was never sure if this was the same thing as being a bad mother.” And, talking about the Truly children, who seem to be treated badly by Shawna and Miranda, Dove says, “I also know what it’s like to have a mother who doesn’t care about you. This isn’t always the same thing as having one who doesn’t love you. Love is a highly subjective concept; everyone has different standards for what qualifies.” Dove’s pain around her parents is summed up by her when she says “By the age of fifteen I had the best kind of parents: ones who were dead and couldn’t hurt me anymore.”

As Dove works on the Camio Truly murder case, we see how she has learned to work on grisly crimes while trying to retain some humanity. She leaves a meeting, acknowledging she is “ left teetering on a precipice of unwelcome memories and the equally unwelcome discovery that time does not heal all wounds. It may have taken the edge and shine off but the blade has remained permanently plunged in the flesh of my soul, a dull, rusty, eternal reminder… I leave the interview room with the intention of stripping off my clothes, kicking off my shoes, getting in my car, and driving naked until I reach the nearest ocean, then jumping in and swimming until I find a deserted island where I can live alone far away from all people and the things they do to each other.”

As Chief of Police, Dove has learned to maintain a shell around herself, stating “My philosophy regarding a problem is fix it, and if you can’t fix it, find a way to live with it that is least destructive to yourself and others. Whatever you do, don’t talk endlessly about it while you do nothing. “

Her interview of Camio’s sister Jessyca reflects her brusque style, as Dove asks the teenage Jessyca about her baby girl, Goldie. Jessyca tells Dove “Goldie was an accident, ” to which Dove asks “You mean you were using birth control but still got pregnant?” Jessyca replies “ I mean I got pregnant ‘cause I wasn’t using birth control,” and Dove’s response is “Then Goldie’s not an accident. She’s a consequence.”

I loved both Dove and her dog-training sister Neely, who has responded to the trauma they endured as teenagers by developing a lifestyle that means her main communication is with canines rather than humans. As it turns out, there is a HUGE revelation about their childhood, and O’Dell deftly handles a combination of emotional scenes and plot twists.

Don’t be a name bigot. Tawni O’Dell is great, and this book is fun, entertaining, and skillfully written. I am grateful to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of Angels Burning  in return for my review. Five enthusiastic stars!

 

The Girl with No Past by Kathryn Croft

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After reading the premise of this book, and skimming a couple of reviews, I was so prepared to settle in for a nice binge read – I am a sucker for psychological thrillers (a la Gone Girl) and I went into it with an open mind and heart…and OK, maybe it was just me, maybe I was in a pre-holiday funk, or possibly my expectations were too high (I am itching for a book to CONSUME me, which happened just last week with Robert Crais’ new book – but, I digress). In any case, I suffered a bit of a letdown.

The protagonist, Leah Mills, had a really bad day about fourteen years ago, and she has lived basically as a fugitive since then. She lives a solitary life, isolated and keeping totally to herself except for a bit of an online existence, where she meets Julian…But, then she receives a letter from someone who apparently knows what happened. And, to make things worse, it looks like the person who wrote her wants to destroy the life she has created.

I admit I went back and forth between feeling like “yeah! This is great!” and “bleah.” Croft is a good writer, the pacing is good, the story flowed along, and the varied points of view didn’t distract as they can do when a story is told with multiple POVs. (Ps of V?)

I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers and am the first to admit I am not adept at figuring out the mystery early on – in fact, I am more often surprised to find “who done it” in a whodunit. But in this case, I figured it out early, so I suspect the plot may have been the problem for me. In addition to that expectations thing, pre-holiday funk, etc. Also, this was very similar to last summer’s The Lies We Tell, by Meg Carter, so possibly that made it feel like old terrain? Unclear…but the effect is that it was a bit of a disappointment for me.

Despite what may sound negative, I enjoyed the EXPERIENCE of reading this, and will definitely read other things by this author, who clearly has strong skills. I am grateful to NetGalley for providing me an advance copy of this book in exchange for my review. Three and a half stars (marked as four, as I think three is too low J).

 

 

 

 

Forty Thieves by Thomas Perry

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This fast-paced novel from Thomas Perry focuses on two couples: Sid and Ronnie (Veronica) Abel are married detectives, retired from LAPD and now working together in their own agency. Ed and Nicole Hoyt are married assassins who live in the San Fernando Valley and sell their services to anyone who will pay them. A year ago, a middle-aged research scientist from a private corporation was murdered, his body (with two bullet holes in the skull) only discovered when it clogged a storm drain on its way to the ocean. His employers hire the Abels to delve into the case after the LAPD has come up with nothing but dead ends.

There are some interesting questions floating around: the victim was African-American: was this racially motivated? Were industrial secrets involved (the corporation has some mysterious military contracts)? Was the victim’s divorce a factor? Why do people start shooting at the Abels as soon as they begin to dig in to the case? And who hired the Hoyts, anyway?And why?

Perry does a great job revealing important pieces of the puzzle as the story unfolds, and we learn more about the Abels, the Hoyts, diamond thieves and the LA storm drain system.

The end may require a slight bit of the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief, and at one point I thought “hmm, is this written with the big screen in mind?” – and I have some ideas for casting the movie. The rapid growth of suburbia around LA and the varied locales throughout the Valley will make great locations for shooting the film J

The characters are well developed, and the Abels are prime candidates for another adventure. The writing is strong, the plot is tight (with some unexpected twists and turns), and the pace is fast. I really enjoyed this book (I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Perry’s work!) and look forward to the next in what I hope will be a series. Five stars. I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield

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This book left me feeling surprised and totally schizo. Surprised because I started reading it without knowing anything about it other than that it was a thriller and the protagonist was a thirty-something female prosecutor named Claire Talbot in Florida. Beyond that, I had no expectations. The surprise came halfway through when a tectonic shift in the story happened, and a little schizo because my reaction to the story (and my experience reading it) was so positive for the first half and so “meh” for the second!

I loved the first half of it, as it has strong characters, interesting legal maneuverings (I am a sucker for well-drawn courtroom scenes, especially if the characters are strong and believable). The mystery about Claire’s new friend Marcus and why he knows seemingly everything about her, including things from many years ago, unfolds gradually and had me wondering WTH? As a retired policeman with way more information than he seemingly should have had about a string of disappearances in the area back in the 1970s, Marcus is portrayed as both a suspect and a love interest for Claire, despite the difference in their ages. Great chemistry between the two!!!

It’s not possible to describe how the big shift in the story happens without spoiling it, but it does become a bit fantastic, and veers close to a genre that is not my style. So, that may account for the fact that the second half of the book sort of lost me. I think that people who find the style up their alley would be mesmerized, and would easily award this five stars. I give it four because it was well-written, the suspense was good, the characters were well developed, the action was reasonable, and I had such a good time reading the first half. Good for thriller readers, and anyone for whom a big dose of willing suspension of disbelief is not an issue. (I TRIED to just go with it, but it got away from me a bit. I look forward to discussing it with other readers).

I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Four stars!

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

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Lisa Lutz, author of the Spellman Series, has a new novel to be released in spring 2016, a thriller about a woman who goes on the run and makes a habit of changing identities as she goes. As the story opens, right away I learned a bit about the protagonist, Tanya Dubois, that made her intriguing: she finds her husband Frank dead, and ponders calling the police…but “then they’d start looking at me real carefully and I didn’t like people looking at me all that much.”

As things unfold, she goes on the run, and a pattern of changing identities emerges. I loved the way she described the process of moving into a new identity:”…now it felt like every time I wanted to try on an identity coat, it began to unravel the moment I slipped my arm into the sleeve.”

She has an interesting perspective, and while I liked lots about her, some things in her attitude were unsettling: “I would never forget what I had done, the mistakes I had made, the innocent and guilty people I’d left in my wake. But when I weighed my crime against the world, I still believed that I was owed a decent existence.”

Along the way, she meets a woman named Blue, who is pivotal in her life, especially when the two of them swap identities and Tanya goes to Wyoming and becomes a teacher (something in Blue’s past). We learn gradually that when Tanya was a teenager (original name Nora Glass), she was involved in a car crash that left a friend dead, and she was blamed for it, as other people identified her as the driver at fault.

Without giving too much away, Nora returns to confront the demons from her past (in particular the Oliver family) and find resolution to her questions about events (including the car crash) and people (including her mother).

I loved lots of things the characters said. For example, when asked what a dying person was like at the end, one of the main characters responds: “The way most people are at the end. Scared and full of regret. The way you are all the time.”

The author kept the action moving and the mystery unfolding – the book kept my interest and made me want to read more of her work. I have just downloaded her 2015 book, How to Start a Fire, and see it includes UC Santa Cruz in the storyline, which is one of the schools Lutz attended, and which is where I live.

I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Four stars (if possible, would give four and a half!)

The Lies We Tell by Meg Carter

The Lies We Tell by MEg Carter

In The Lies We Tell, two adult women (Jude and Katy) are shown in both present day and as their teenage selves in flashback. The story unspools to reveal the horrible thing that happened 24 years ago.

This psychological thriller alternates chapters between present day & 24 years ago, and this alternating is perhaps why it has been compared to Gone Girl (?). In any case, the story follows the VERY bizarre teenage friendship of Kate & Jude. Jude comes back, after 24 years seemingly determined to torment Kate and get revenge. The problem for Kate? She is clueless about what Jude is seeking revenge for!

Like Gone Girl, this is a psychological thriller, but The Lies We Tell seemed to have more of a single AHA! moment, where Gone Girl seemed to have several. I tend to get distracted by the linear events and am not great at solving mysteries as I read, but I had a solid theory about this one that proved partly correct.

This is one of those stories that is impossible to review without spoiling the story, so just suffice it to say that it is an entertaining read! I appreciate getting an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Four Stars!

Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

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I loved Ethan Canin’s book America, America so was predisposed to love this book…and while there is much to like, part of it left me feeling stupid (not something anyone particularly enjoys).

The book is about a family and focuses on Milo Andret, a tyrannical genius, his son Hans, and various others who live in their orbit (the wife/mother, the lover from years gone by, etc.).

The first half is all about Milo, and I struggled to either understand or care much about him. As author Pat Conroy describes Milo, he “…is a mathematical genius and one of the most maddening, compelling, appalling, and unforgettable characters I’ve encountered in American fiction.” Conroy goes on to summarize the book’s arc: “This is the story of a family that falls to pieces under the pressure of living with an abundantly gifted tyrant.”

Milo is just different from childhood, reminding me of high functioning children (and possibly adults) on the spectrum: “It wasn’t that he didn’t like other people…just couldn’t figure out what to say to anyone.” A significant life event is a schoolyard fight, and how he internalized his father’s advice: “…he’d learned something. As he’d felt himself giving in to the blows, he’d understood that he was entirely alone in the world.”

A true mathematical genius. Milo lives for a time while a student at Berkeley in a below-street-level basement apartment, which he sees as “a filthy fishless aquarium. Yet at the same time there was an aspect to the outlook that was akin to the maple and beech forest of his childhood. The sense of a constrained world that nonetheless suggested a borderless one.”

Milo’s field of study is topology (something with which I am NOT familiar) and “…he understood at the same time the radical difficulty of what he was attempting. The weight of discipline required to unlearn the world and refabricate it from principles.” Okay, start of feeling stupid here…

Admittedly, lots of the description was way over my head, for example “…he’d been…asked to produce a fully rotated rendering of a Steiner surface, which was formed by the smoothed union of 3 hyperbolic paraboloids.” And “…he didn’t see the object he was drawing but the entire array of space instead – all things that were the object and all things that were not the object – with equal emphasis. It was symptomatic of something he’d noticed in himself since childhood – an inability to take normal heed of his senses, the way other people did as they instinctually navigated a course of being. In this was, it was like mathematics itself: the supremacy of axiom of experience. He wondered why others didn’t see this.” So I get that he is an isolated freakish genius, but his behavior toward others is appalling, so I didn’t really care that much what he was doing or saying.

After a couple of hundred pages of Milo’s studies, career rise and fall, and descent into a dark place, I really didn’t care what happened to him – I was just tired of the way his total narcissism affected his family. But then, the story switched to his son, Hans, and his experiences. Well, guess what? Hans is another genius and while not as wacky as his father, just as puzzling.

This book is filled with great language, and the stories of the main characters are affecting and unsettling (as well-drawn characters are: we CARE about them). And I have no doubt that for someone who understands what the hell Milo is blathering about, this book would be gold. I am glad I read it, and while I know several people to whom I will recommend it, it definitely isn’t the thing for either of my book clubs.

Four stars just for being Ethan Canin and for making me think. I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy of this in exchange for my review.

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

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The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

Let’s get it out of the way: I loved this book. It is somewhat a thriller, and somewhat about family/relationships combined with social issues. I’m a sucker for that stuff (e.g. Jodi Picoult when she is on her game)

So, the premise is that this successful hedge fund guy (Richard) lives in a nice big house in the suburbs with his wife Kristin and daughter Melissa. Richard has a brother (Phillip) who is about to be married, and Richard offers to hold the bachelor party at his house while Kristin and Melissa visit Kristin’s mother in the city. Phillip is one of those guys who skate on the ethical edge, and has a history of less-than-above-board dealings, but Richard is hoping that he is about to settle down into the kind of postcard-perfect life that Richard and his family enjoy. The party happens, and goes horribly wrong, ending up with two dead guys in the house (the watchdogs for the “female entertainment” hired by Phillip’s friend Spencer). The ensuing drama involves blackmail, more murder, sex slavery…quite a change for the Norman Rockwell family!

I loved the description of the phone call that brought the news of the mess at the party to Kristin: she “knew the odds are far higher that a call to a landline – to any line – at 3 in the morning is the ringtone of calamity. That call is the raven.” As Kristin hears the phone ring in her mother’s bedroom, she thinks about her mother’s reaction to bad news that may involve her family: “She would hear the verbal balancing act: urgency mixed like gin amid the tonic of consideration.”

Another important character is Alexandra, a young woman from Armenia by way of Moscow who was part of the evening’s “entertainment,” and has only been in the US for three weeks at the time of the party. She lived a life in Moscow full of movies and TV (The Bachelor was a favorite), and is “managed” by a series of men: the “truth is I usually felt safer with the men who paid for me than I did with…the guys who “protected us.”” Alexandra’s story unfolds in chapters alternating with the story of Richard and his family, and we learn gradually about her life following a horrific Armenian earthquake and her being recruited to Moscow to fulfill her dreams of being a ballerina.

Bohjalian includes some subtle humor, for example as Richard deals with job loss, blackmail, dealing with his sleazy brother and his wife’s (understandable) horrified reaction to the party, he muses about his parents, who had “retired to Fort Lauderdale…everyone was between the age of sixty and embalmed.” He spirals down, and “he wanted everything to be the way it had been seven days ago.”

The ending is something I totally did not see coming!!!! Any comments about the story will be spoilers, so I will just leave it at this: if you like a fast-paced, well-written story that will make you think and feel, both during the reading and afterward, grab this book! I plan to suggest it for one of my book clubs…I think there is lots of potential for interesting discussion.

I appreciate receiving an advance copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review. Five stars!

The Brain Fog Fix by Dr. Mike Dow

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The title of Mike Dow’s book The Brain Fog Fix leapt out at me, and I was eager to read it for two reasons: I am always interested in general in the topic of behavior being influenced by nutrition (which I suspected was the core of the “fix”) and I happen to have a grandson who complains of suffering from “brain fog,” and I hoped we might be able to provide some (admittedly unsolicited) suggestions that might help him.

If you search for Mike Dow online, you will instantly notice the many pop culture links (Dr. Oz, TLC’s Freaky eaters, others) that might make you suspect this is just another media doc out for a quick buck…and admittedly, he is a doctor the same way Dr. Laura is a doctor: a therapist. But his advice is sound, and there is quite a bit of science to back up the opinions. And, let’s face it, I am a sucker for books that state the case for cleaning up your diet to heal your brain before you flood it with chemicals.

In addition to the nutrition, he advocates cognitive behavioral therapy, and seems to be interested in helping people as well as making a buck! It may often be a case of him preaching to the choir, as I am not sure how receptive people are to what can be a drastic change in lifestyle, and I suspect some people have to be REALLY desperate to try his suggestions…but it made sense to me.

It isn’t a scientific text, and it is pop culture, but there isn’t anything in the advice that could hurt and, as they say, it might help! I appreciate having the opportunity to read and review this book in exchange for my unbiased review. Five stars!

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin

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In 1996 I remember reading A Civil Action, about a town in Massachusetts where people fought back against environment pollution. That book freaked me out, and made me conscious of the cavalier way our water supply can so easily be placed at risk by greedy corporations. When I heard about Dan Fagin’s book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation winning the Pulitzer prize with a story about a New Jersey town that was ravaged by astronomical rates of childhood cancer, I was immediately predisposed to LOVE the book, and I was not disappointed.

The book is filled with heart-wrenching personal stories of people whose lives were affected (and often destroyed as a result of the actions of giant chemical companies just dumping unbelievable amounts of toxic waste right into to water supply.

I loved the way Fagin told the history of the companies involved, going back to the origins of dye-making. The companies had basically trashed the environment in Basel, and then moved to Cincinnati, where they got into some trouble for their environmental practices (or lack of them). When these giant companies came to town looking to start up operations, all people could see (or cared to see) were the jobs that would come along. This was one of the biggest dye manufacturing plants in the entire world, and they went on into plastics and other chemical products.

What really knocked me out was the QUANTITY of waste the factories produced…in fact, they produced more waste than product! So they had to put it somewhere, and the story of illegal dumping is a big part of the Toms River saga. People would dump thousands of barrels of waste wherever they could, including a chicken farm.

Speaking on Democracy Now, Dan Fagin said that even though he worked as an environment reporter for more than 25 years, the brazenness of the behavior of the companies involved in this story surprised him. In addition, he marveled at the way people were able to band together to pursue action against the companies involved.

The book is fascinating on several levels: documenting corporate malfeasance, providing a look at the history of chemical production, peeking into the pain suffered by the innocent victims of the illegal dumping, glimpsing the political shenanigans that led to the locating of the plant in the first place, and finally inspiring readers who want to believe that it IS possible to “fight the man” and make corporations at least a tiny bit accountable for the actions.

I am grateful for the opportunity to review this book in return for an unbiased review. Totally five stars!

The Blue Hour by Douglas Kennedy

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The Blue Hour by Douglas Kennedy grabbed me and didn’t let me go until it was finished! In retrospect, I probably need to re-read it, because I was so wrapped up in finding out WTF was going to HAPPEN that I admit I raced through parts that should probably have been read at a more thoughtful pace…

Published elsewhere under the title Heat of Betrayal, the novel is set in Morocco, and revolves around Robin, a professional young woman (an accountant by day) and her artist husband Paul, who is a bit of a flake – but hey, he is an artist, right? So she has typically cut him quite a bit of slack as he is the less responsible (by far) in terms of finances and organization…not necessarily a bad thing, but the story quickly unrolls as a thrilling mystery where Robin needs to search for truth. The question becomes, do we ever really want the WHOLE truth?

Robin’s nature is revealed early, as she notes while trying to bribe a maid in their Moroccan hotel “what we are being is very American, I thought. Thinking that money can buy our way out of anything. “ And “I was having that kneejerk Western reaction to things North African; a belief that, with few exceptions, no one here was to be trusted.”

Without revealing too much, the basic plot is that this couple has gone to Morocco for a month…while there, she learns of a huge betrayal on his part, and furiously plans to leave, writing a note to him that basically says he should die. Then she goes for a walk and, when she returns, the room is bloody and he has disappeared, and guess who is the prime suspect? As Robin struggles to find out the truth about Paul, his disappearance, and his other family (WHAT?!?!), Kennedy does a great job spelling out her mental state” “That’s the problem with the worst sort of trauma. You can will it elsewhere. You can tell yourself you will somehow “manage” it. But you also begin to realize very quickly that you will be living with it for the rest of your life. Even if, somewhere down the line, you might come to terms with it, reach some sort of accommodation with its abhorrence, it will be with you forever. Your world has been inexorably changed.”

The whole elusive nature of truth is a main theme, as one of the characters tells Robin “I saw what I saw. But what any one of us sees…is that ever the truth? Or is it just what we want to see?”

The setting is critical to the story, and the author conveys the heat, the blinding sun, and the crowds in a way that made me FEEL like I was in North Africa (and desperately wanted to get the hell out). The characters were vivid, and none seemed like caricatures, as is often the case for mystery/thrillers set in remote locales.

Overall, I just loved this book. I am on the hunt for other books by Douglas Kennedy, and am very grateful to have had the opportunity to write a review of The Blue Hour in return for an advance copy (although I really think the other title (Heat of Betrayal) is better…just MHO).

FIVE BIG Stars!

Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville

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As soon as I read Dennis Lehane’s praise for Stuart Neville’s books, I wanted to read this one. I figured, if Dennis Lehane can’t wait for Neville’s next book to come out, that sounds like something I’d like.

Holy crap, this is dark, powerful stuff. It reminded me of the video store that used to be in our town: the guy who worked there would recommend the MOST depressing films…my husband called them “all those Irish films” because they all seemed to be set in some gritty, grey part of Belfast during one or another period of “the troubles.”

And maybe it is partly because I am a former foster mother who really really feels sadness for both the people who work in and for the system as well as for the kids. The joy of someone making it out of the cycle of poverty, abuse, etc. is awesome, but all too rare, I’m afraid.

Here is the story told in this incredibly well-done thriller: In 2007, a pair of brothers, Thomas and Ciaran Devine, aged fourteen and twelve respectively, are found with the battered and bloody corpse of their foster father. Serena Flanagan is the young cop on the case, and she struggles to try to discern which of the boys killed their “father,” and why. The younger, Ciaran, confesses, but Serena has her doubts.

Seven years go by, and when Serena returns to duty after having treatment for breast cancer, she learns she has the Devine brothers’ case again, when the son of the foster father is killed following the release of the younger brother.

The victim, Daniel Rolston, has been obsessed with making Thomas and Ciaran pay for their senseless crime against his biological father, which he believed destroyed his and his mother’s lives.

The two siblings are completely incapable of empathy, and both are so thoroughly damaged that they are “doomed to exist on the fringes of society.”

Serena is now a forty-five year old Detective Chief Inspector, and she works with Paula Cunningham, Ciaran’s parole officer and a clinical psychologist, to try to help Ciaran. However, it seems it may not only be impossible, but also dangerous for both of them.

In the book, Neville goes back and forth from 2007 to the present day, and it got a bit confusing for me when the tense would switch when events were related from Ciaran’s perspective. Both Serena and Paula fight their own demons in their personal lives, and adding in their emotional entanglements as they try to help Ciaran just seems increasingly ominous as the story develops.
Daniel (the son of the original murder victim), Serena, and Paula all seem to want to do the right thing, but all of them let their emotions rule their actions. As events unfold, no one in the story appears to be able to accept the hand that he or she is dealt.

There isn’t any comic relief in this book, there is no friendly camaraderie among fellow officers, and really there was no hope that I could find in this tale.

I personally found this to be a bit darker I like (actually a whole lot darker), but the writing is terrific, and the atmosphere permeates everything. It is bleak, gritty, realistic, and sadly reflective of a segment of society that is often ignored – the “throwaways” among the foster kids.

I appreciate the opportunity to review this (thanks to NetGalley) and despite it not being my own personal favorite, for the storytelling and skillful way the plot develops, I give it 5 stars. (We all know people who love to read this kind of stuff – I predict my husband will not only read it, but then will look for other titles by Neville).

I still don’t know how to pronounce Ciaran…

Fear of Dying by Erica Jong

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Forty years ago, Fear of Flying made Erica Jong (and her protagonist Isadora Wing) household names, along with the infamous concept of the Zipless Fuck. In this not-exactly-a-sequel, Isadora is back as the sidekick to the protagonist Vanessa Wonderman, a past-her-prime actress who is coping with her husband’s illness, her parents’ aging, and her own confrontation with mortality. Vanessa suggests, “we all secretly believe in our own mortality” and ask “Do we hold on to our parents, or are we holding on to our status as children who are immune from death?” She recognizes that “it doesn’t matter how old they are. You are never prepared to lose your parents.”

As Vanessa copes with the specifics of the issues surrounding her parents and somewhat older husband, she reflects on many issues, including what aging means for women: “A man can look like he’s a hundred, be impotent and night blind, and still find a younger woman who never got over her daddy. But a woman is lucky to be able to go to the movies or bingo with another old bag.” So, she goes onto the Internet site “zipless” to meet someone with whom she can have a no-strings hookup (with some amusing results as she meets the various men who respond to her online quest).

Along the way, there are some great lines as Vanessa/Erica muses about life’s journey:

  • “Death is always here in life yet willed invisible because we cannot bear it any more than we can bear news that our sun will someday go out.”
  • Once you have entered the hospital’s mythic maw, your life is no longer your own…everyone knows something but you—and if you protest you will know even less”
  • “When babies spend their days waking and sleeping, we’re not sad because we know their lives are going forward. Bout an old person’s slipping in and out of sleep is only a warm-up for extinction. We know it. Do they know it? And if they know, do they care?”
  • “You don’t really become aware of the body until its beautiful balance breaks down.”
  • “What was wrong with my generation of women? We thought we would get better and better forever…believed we had charmed lives somehow and that there was nothing Botox couldn’t fix”

Those are pretty reflective of Erica — I mean Vanessa’s state of mind. 

It’s a story about a particular fictional woman, but I believe it’s also all about Erica and her thoughts on aging, relationships, fidelity (or lack thereof), and women’s roles in relation to men, each other, work, sex, etc.

I didn’t love it, like I did Fear of Flying – but it’s definitely entertaining and thought-provoking (perhaps particularly for fans of both Jed earlier fiction and her poetry. I appreciate the opportunity to review this for NetGalley. Four stars!

 

 

Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain

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This book shares some things with another of Chamberlain’s books, in terms of a very similar protagonist ( a female who leaves the South, relocates to San Diego, etc. ) Although I had read the earlier book, I was quite eager to read this, although part of me now wishes that I had also read the short story “The Dance Begins,” which is a prequel to this book. In the book, Molly Arnette’s father is a man with serious physical limitations brought on by his MS, and we meet him in that state. He is such a warm and loving character, and such a wonderful father to Molly, I was thinking that in some ways it might have been nice to get a glimpse of him prior to him being nearly completely helpless physically. Although, not having read the story, I have no idea whether he was dancing in it or not, but clearly the characterization was adequately developed that I cared about him dancing or not!

In any case, there are two stories going on in this book: in the one, Moly lives in San Diego with her husband Aidan, and the two of them are going through the process of trying to adopt a baby, as they cannot have their own. In the other story, we see Molly as a teen, growing up on the family compound (“Morrison’s Ridge”) in North Carolina with her father, Graham, her mother Nora (who she has claimed for the twenty years since she left North Carolina following Graham’s death is dead) and assorted other family, both by blood and by choice. The family includes the fascinating character Amalia, who teaches Molly to dance, and we come to learn Amalia is actually Molly’s birth mother.

There is a mystery surrounding Graham’s death and the reasons why Molly has abandoned her roots…as the stories are woven together, various topics are addressed, including family relationships (father/daughter, mother/daughter, birth vs. adoptive parents, dying “with dignity,” and the idea of secrets among families and between spouses. We see Molly and her various family members (both blood and not) dancing together, singing together, and keeping secrets from one another.

Chamberlain has done a good job developing the characters into people we care about, and meshing the threads of the two stories together. I admit, I cared much more about the story of Molly’s childhood and Graham’s death than about Molly and Aidan’s quest for parenthood, but I appreciated both sides. I loved the way the young Molly was shown growing into a slightly more mature girl as she began to discover boys and to test the boundaries of her family rules, as she sneaks off to a rendezvous with a boy named Chris:

“He put his hand on my breast through my T-shirt. I was on my back and knew my breast was almost completely flat in that position. When I imagined being with Johnny Depp, I was always on my side exactly for that reason, but Chris didn’t seem to care.”

 As the story moved along, it reminded me in some ways of a Jodi Picoult novel, in terms of having interesting, well-developed characters whose situation revolved around and moved toward a climactic episode involving a social issue with a moral dilemma.

My expectations may have been a bit high, following my book group’s recent discussion of Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies. The result was that I was a bit disappointed after I finished this one, but as I said, that is likely due to overly high expectations on my part.

I won’t put DC into my list of favorite authors, but I did enjoy the book, and have recommended it to several people. I appreciate the opportunity to review it in exchange for my NetGalley review.

Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song by Ronnie Gilbert (foreword by Holly Near)

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Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song

This is a wonderful memoir of the woman best known as a member of the folk group The Weavers, who died a few months ago at the age of 88.

I admit I knew her only as a singer, someone who had originally performed with the Weavers starting in the 1940s. She was one of the founding members (along with Pete Seeger) and went on to perform with Holly Near (who wrote the forward) in the 80s and 90s. Frankly, I was not aware of the amazing life she led, with other careers including actor, playwright, and therapist. In this book, Ronnie shares her memories, bringing the incredible social issues she was involved in alive using song lyrics and personal stories. Along the way, she reveals the various things that defined her life: folk music in the 50s and 60s (featuring Pete Seeger), the Cold War blacklist that cost so many artists their ability to work, primal therapy, the women’s movement and lift-wing political activism.

The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine and Poland, Ronnie came by her activism naturally: at around age 10, her mother (a garment worker, union activist and member of the Communist Party) took her to a union rally where Ronnie hear Paul Robeson sing (she later called this event “transformative”).

The Weavers broke up in the mid-60s, and Ronnie focused energy on the theater, followed by becoming involved as a therapist after receiving her degree in Psychology in the 1970s. In 1980, a reunion performance of the Weavers took place, and later Ronnie and Holly Near traveled and performed with Pet Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.

One of the primary themes is the importance of women and the link to music. As Ronnie says: “That’s what the women’s movement was about for me: poetry, music, and passion. The message? The best message, the only message: Love yourself, your friend, and your lover. If possible, love your enemy. If not, walk away and love something else.”

Enjoyable solely as a memoir, this is also an amazing history of the women’s movement and women’s music that blossomed in the late 1970s and 80s. Ronnie’s passion is clear as she remembers people, events, and songs, and uses all to tell the story of her trailblazing life. I know several people who would love reading this: one is a lifelong activist, with no musical talent (or interest, actually); one is a musician who will devour the stories of singers and songwriters and the challenges they faced, often due to their activism; and a couple are women with a deep interest in women’s history. I am grateful to NetGalley for providing me with this copy in advance, in order to write a review. I can’t wait to see the final product, which will include tons of photos!

Older & Bolder: Life After 60 by Renata Singer

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This book, focused on women past the ago of 60, is a combination of stories told by the women themselves, interspersed with the latest research.When I was young, women in their 60s were…OLD. Not many of the ones I ever saw were vibrant – they were mostly sedentary and seemed resigned to being…old. Ms. Singer’s message is that “change is not just for the young, you can do something new at any age.”

For the stories, the author interviewed women (in-depth interviews, with follow-ups), and her subjects included women of various education levels, marital statuses, etc.

Considerable research is discussed and cited. One of the awesome findings discussed is brain plasticity, meaning that the anatomical composition of the brain actually responds to learning, thought and action. Researchers such as Dr. Michael Merzenich of UCSF believe that brain “fitness programs” can “help prevent, arrest or even reverse the effects of cognitive decline.” WOW!

While I enjoyed the stories and the research, I found myself bothered by the emphasis on the idea that retirement is a bad thing. The author suggests that women should stay ten years past when they thing about retirement. WTF? She suggests that “retirement can damage your health, and the longer you’re retired the greater the health disadvantages.” She also discusses the increasing numbers of women past the age of 60 who are returning to work as if it is totally because they WANT to be there. I am opposed to a mandatory retirement age, and if someone wants to work til they drop, fine. But I totally believe that the vast majority of older women who are working (paid employment) are there because they HAVE to, and not because they want to. To be honest, I don’t recall reading anything in the book that made me think otherwise.

Chapter 4 (“Money Matters”) was full of cautionary tales that tended to reinforce my feeling about women needing to work as they get older. The book is focused on Australian women, and there is discussion of the various pensions, etc. that women might get – but not much about the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US, which is financial ruin due to health costs. Likely that is due to the fact that Australian women live in a country that is enlightened enough to provide health care, and that’s a very minor quibble about the book.

I enjoyed Chapter 5, focusing on appearance, and the way women get past a certain age and suddenly they are invisible/ignored. I liked the way she advises women not be ashamed or feel guilty about caring how they look, and her advice that “if people aren’t seeing you or listening to you, drop them. Find a more appreciative crowd to hang out with.”

So many negative stereotypes are attached to aging! I appreciated the way both the stories and the research address them, and REALLY like they was the book highlights the place of friendship in the lives of women and the value of participation in the community.

It’s a valuable (and enjoyable) book, and is full of practical suggestions, inspirational stories and wise words. I give it four stars (would likely be five if it had more US focus and if the thing about retirement being unhealthy for you was more fully explained. In any case, I appreciate the opportunity to provide a review in exchange for my NetGalley review.

Shades of Blue by Amy Ferris

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Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue

By Amy Ferris

For starters, this book is amazing. Amy Ferris has gathered writings about a subject that is close to my heart, and the result is a powerful, gut-wrenching, piercing look into a topic that is too often stigmatized, hidden, shame-based, you name it, there just aren’t many positive terms that come to mind around this topic. And yet, people in the grip of this affliction (or living with someone who battles the “black dog” of depression) can really benefit from the realization that they are not alone. So why was I so negative about this book when I read it?

OK, so I guess it really IS all about me!! 🙂

And why do I think this book is amazing? A psychiatric nurse who wrote about this book put it this way: “The crushing isolation of depression gets a few shades lighter each time someone realizes…”I’m not alone. I’m connected to a bigger picture.”’ Thank you for this beautiful and necessary book.”

I couldn’t agree more. And yet, when I wrote in my journal about this book, after spending two full days with it while on vacation, I said:

Only 3 types of people would read this:

  1. Someone in prison who goes to the prison library and finds every other book is checked out
  2. People who are really into the topic of depression, falling into two categories:
    1. Therapists/caregivers
    2. Depressives

It is SO honest, and I found I became seriously depressed reading this book. Early on, I recognized myself in quotes such as “Among the many things that make me who I am is the fact that I am a person with a clinical disorder. I’ve been on five different antidepressants since I was a teenager…” And “I hate taking the medication. The idea that I cannot fully function without it breaks my heart on a regular basis, but I can’t stop taking it. I’ve tried.”

These are things that resonate with me, and I am sure with many people who have felt the slide toward the black hole. (NOTE: I am not identifying the authors of any of the quotes in this review—and confess I am somewhat afraid to go back and read it right now…having just recovered what feels like equilibrium following the deep despair I felt after reading it. Seriously, on the bright side (often an unfamiliar landscape for me), in retrospect I realize that it was equal parts despair (reading about the reality of this affliction) and hope (as I realized people CAN — and I often DO– recognize the “warning signs” and avoid the big slide toward the black hole).

Several of the writings captured the reality of the affliction:

  • “I now accept, without doubt, that depression is purely a result of the chemicals swimming in our brains, and we can choose those chemicals.”
  • “The stigma and shame of depression linger. No one brings you casseroles or calls you a heroine when you’re depressed.”
  • “Terrible things happen—they go on happening all your life, but here’s what I discovered: anguish, unhappiness, sadness, fear, loneliness, and grief are not the same as depression. It can all hurt as much as depression, but you are not paralyzed. You keep breathing. And the lovely surprise of growing older is that most of us get happier. If you’re lucky and have decent health, friends, a roof over your head, food on the table, and something you love to get up and do every day – you calm down. You no longer want to throw yourself off a balcony.”
  • “Sleep, when it comes, is full of nightmares. You awaken in the middle of the night, terrified, and filled with disgust at your terror. Morning arrives and you do not feel rested.”

 Despite being dragged down by the writing (admittedly, reading it ALL in two days may not have been the best idea), I also now realize after pondering it for a week or more, that I got hope from several statements:

  • one writer “found my ability to travel alone to the kinds of gorgeous places I had once only romanticized about: beaches and vacation and…”
  • I have had other bouts of depression, but I have learned to catch myself at the top of the spiral before I begin that terrifying descent. I heed those first warning signs—self-deprecating thoughts and debilitation anxiety—and, with the help of medication, I know I can stop the fall.”

Fundamentally, the book reiterated what I have come to admit: I am complicit in perpetuating the negative stigma that is all too real, even today. Several years ago, I decided that I would help break down some of the barriers, and talk about my experiences. I soon realized that my boss was emphatically NOT sympathetic, and that my workplace environment would be much less pleasant if I admitted to “having problems.” And that, as my aunt told me, some members of my family would not react well…my penchant for being “too straightforward” was not likely to be met with hugs and warm supportive responses. I decided it was all I could do to just maintain my hold on the life I had created as I learned to “deal with it,” and I crept back into silence. I have also learned from conversations with my niece that there really are people (even family members!) who understand and who can both benefit from my experience and provide support when I need it.

To sum it up: “To look at most of us, you’d never know. We compensate so well, we look so normal. We’ve kept the silence. We’ve perpetuated the stigma. “

<sigh> But I like to think that everyone does the best they can to get through each day!

I so appreciate this book…although it may not be easy reading, especially for those who see themselves in these pages, it really can help people realize they are NOT alone! Much gratitude to NetGalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my review. Again, powerful stuff, and not for everyone, or maybe just not necessarily at any time (for me, it’s a trigger, apparently, to delve so deeply into someone else’s anguish) but just for the honesty alone, it is worth five stars.

House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke

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My husband LOVES James Lee Burke’s books (particularly the Dave Robichauex series)…and, I admit that over the years I have tried (without success) to develop an appreciation for them. The House of the Rising Sun, while not a Robichauex, stars another of Burke’s well-known protagonists: Texas Ranger Hackberry Holland. I gamely jumped in, with an open mind, ready to discover (if nothing else) what it was about this author’s books that kept me from appreciating his work.

The book opens in revolutionary Mexico in the early 20th century. Following a violent encounter leaving several Mexican soldiers dead, Hackberry escapes and takes along an artifact (possibly the Holy Grail), which totally annoys an Austrian arms dealer. This complicates things, as Hackberry is in search of his son Ishmael, a captain in the U.S. Army, and the arms merchant involves Ishmael in his plot to recapture the coveted artifact.

Along the way, scenes unfold in brothels and bars in San Antonio (during the time of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang).

I admit, I skimmed quite a bit of the book, finding the action nearly comic book in its presentation, and I didn’t really care for Hackberry (or really any of the characters). I figured the only way to review this one was to sit and talk to my husband, who really enjoyed it. Apparently, Hackberry has much in common with other Burke protagonists:

  • he is a driven man, haunted by deaths for which he was responsible.
  • he is a raging alcoholic, alternating between sobriety and major binge episodes
  • he is verbally a wise-ass, and gets away with insulting and publically humiliating powerful people
  • he literally sees red when overtaken by his anger, and the result is an out-of-control violent outburst

(What’s not to like, right?)

Hackberry’s behavior reflects the above characteristics, and we see him interact with significant female characters that aid him in his quest for reconciliation with Ishmael:

  • Ruby Dansen, Ishmael’s mother and apparently Hackberry’s one true love
  • Beatrice DeMolay, a madam in a bordello
  • Maggie Bassett, former lover of the Sundance Kid

Perhaps if I had tried harder to understand the character of Hackberry rather than just reacting to his behavior with my own personal biases, I might have liked it more. I APPRECIATE it, and am grateful that I had the opportunity to read an advance copy, thanks to NetGalley. I will always buy Burke’s books and recommend them to people I know will appreciate them – they just aren’t my thing.

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

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I have recommended Michael Robotham’s books to many people…so I was happy to have a new Robotham book to read/review. In his latest, the protagonist is London-based Detective Alisha Barba (who appeared as a minor character in Lost, published in 2005). As the story begins, Alisha is recovering from a terrible injury sustained at work. She is such an interesting character: A Sikh with low self-esteem, she has lost contact with her BFF Cate, who asks her in an urgent note to please attend their upcoming school reunion.

Despite feeling low and having an overall less than lofty self-image, Alisha decides to attend the reunion, a concept she isn’t totally wild about: “That’s the thing about school reunions – people only come to measure their life against others and to see the failures. They want to know which of the beauty queens has put on seventy pounds and seen her husband run off with his secretary; and which teacher got caught taking photographs in the changing rooms.” (I LOVED this, as I was reading the book while on a trip to Southern California for a high school class reunion!)

We quickly realize that Alisha’s background and family have a huge impact on her career and relationships: at work, “Everything else paled into insignificance alongside my skin colour and Sikh heritage.” She knows “all families have baggage but mine belongs in one of those battered suitcases, held together with string, that you see circling endlessly on a luggage carousel. “

 Alisha is tiptoeing around her relationship, but hesitant to dive in full bore for fear she will ruin a good thing” I have no experience of love. Ever since adolescence I have avoided it, renounced it, longed for it. (Such a dichotomy is one of they symptoms.) I have been an agony aunt for all my girlfriends, listening to their sob stories about arranged marriages, unfaithful husbands, men who won’t call or commit, missed periods, sexual neuroses, wedding plans, post-natal depression and failed diets. I know all about other people’s love affairs but I am a complete novice wen it comes to my own. That’s why I’m scared, I’m sure to mess it up.”

 Robotham does a great job getting into the head of female characters, as in this scene between Alisha and her boyfriend: “Propped on one elbow, I study him. His hair is soft and rumpled like a tabby cat, with tiny flecks of blond amid the ginger. He has a big head. Does that mean he would father big babies, with big heads. Unconsciously I squeeze my thighs together.”  Later, her ambivalence about motherhood is evidenced by her comment “I’m not good at describing newborn babies. They all look like Winston Churchill. “

 While Alisha continues to dance around the relationship with her boyfriend, her mother is somewhat determined to push her toward a traditional arranged Sikh marriage: “My mother says the truth is unimportant when it comes to love. An arranged marriage is all about the fictions that one family tells another. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps falling in love is about inventing a story and accepting the truth of it.”

 As she arrives at the reunion, Alisha finds Cate but, before they can have an in-depth conversation, what seems initially to be a tragic accident leaves an apparently pregnant Cate dead – but it turns out she is faking her pregnancy, and her comments to Alisha right after the accident suggest foul play. The plot weaves its way through London, the U.K. and Amsterdam, and involves human trafficking, babies for sale, and desperate migrants (which resonates with the current refugee problems in Europe).

The character of Cate is a bit puzzling, but her personality leaps off the page as Robotham reveals that Alisha thinks Cate “treated love and friendship like a small creature trapped in a blizzard, fighting for survival. “ Alisha and a sort-of-retired detective named Ruiz (protagonist in Robotham’s Lost, where we were first introduced to Alisha) go to Amsterdam in search of answers, and Robotham’s skill at setting a scene is on full display: …” red-light district is different at night. I can almost smell the testosterone and used condoms. “ Ruiz is skilled at working with people (particularly Alisha), not always in alignment with the Metro Police’s official rules, as seen when he talks another cop into skirting some of those rules, telling the other cop: “You’re a credit to the Met. You’re not frightened to have an opinion or act on a hunch.” Alisha marvels at his skill, noting, “It’s like watching a fisherman casting a fly.”

The revelation about Alisha’s insecurity and possible overcompensation due to feeling devalued as a detective (perhaps due to her Sikh heritage) is skillfully done, and aligns with her overall self-image. For example, she notes she has “…faced off suspects, pursued cars, charged through doorways and walked into abandoned building but have never thought that I might die. Maybe that’s one of the advantages of having little self-value.”

Along the way, we learn more about Alisha, and there are some terrific revelations about her character: “Regret is such an odd emotion because it invariable comes a moment too late, when only imagination can rewrite what has happened. My regrets are like pressed flowers in the pages of a diary. Brittle reminders of summers past; like the last summer before graduation, the one that wasn’t big enough to hold its own history.”

What really set this book apart for me, in addition to Alisha’s unique character, are the geopolitical messages that are integral to the story. For example, Alisha notes that “We in the West like to think it can be different; that we can change these countries and these people because it makes us feel better when we tuck our own children into their warm beds with full stomachs and then pour ourselves a glass of wine and watch someone else’s tragedy unfold on CNN.”

 One of the refugees they encounter, a young woman named Zala, is described: “The smudges beneath her eyes are signs of the premature or the beaten-down.” Another young female refugee, telling of the life in Afghanistan that had prompted them to flee, notes ” … Americans dropped leaflets from the sky saying they were coming to liberate us but there was nothing left to free us from. Still we cheered because the Talibs were gone, running like frightened dogs. But the Northern Alliance was not so different. We had learned not to expect too much. In Afghanistan we sleep with the thorns and not the flowers.”

 A man named Hokke is part of the action in the Amsterdam. When talking to Alisha and Ruiz about issues related to the hidden refugee population they are desperately working to help as they search for the link to Cate’s situation, he tells them the scope of their challenge: “There are half a million illegal workers in the Netherlands – Iranians, Sudanese, Afghans, Bosnians, Kosovars, Iraqis. They work in restaurants, hotels, laundries and factories. Newspapers wouldn’t be delivered without them, hotel sheets wouldn’t be laundered, houses wouldn’t be cleaned. People complain, but we cannot do without them.”

Robotham is skilled at writing complex plots with characters that become real. Although it is difficult to write about this particular story without spoiling the mystery, suffice it to say that it is a terrific read, with messages that are relevant to current world events. Michael Robotham is one of my new favorite authors…and I am grateful to have been provided a copy of The Night Ferry by NetGalley in exchange for my review (apparently a re-release as it was published originally in 2007, according to Amazon).

The Lake House by Kate Morton

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I admit it: I’m a sucker for a good book cover. And the image of the cover of Kate Morton’s The Lake House leapt off the page so, ignoring any memory of having read other titles by this author or (more importantly perhaps) what genre this title belonged to, I dove in.

First off, I love reading mysteries, and this book opens in 2003 with the protagonist, Detective Sadie Sparrow, on forced leave from the job she loves in London, due to a huge mistake she made working a case involving a mother who disappeared, leaving her young daughter alone. Sadie zips off to Cornwall to stay with her beloved grandfather Bertie, who has relocated there following his wife’s death. As Sadie is exploring the neighborhood, she stumbles upon both an abandoned estate (Loeanneth, or “Lake House”) and another mystery involving a child – in this case, Theo, who is an 11-month old boy, the 4th child and 1st son of the Edevane family. Following Theo’s disappearance in the early 1930s during a large party at Loeanneth, the family moves to London, never to return. So, voila! More than one mystery! Looks promising.

The story shifts to 2003 London and the author Alice Edevane, who is the middle daughter who was 16 at the time her baby brother Theo disappeared from the family home at Loeanneth. Sadie contacts Alice, wanting permission to investigate the cold case (and the house itself, which is a significant presence in the story). As things unfold, we learn the backstory of the family and follow a number of what seem like loose ends, but somehow we know it will all be pulled together at the end (part of which I guessed at about 40% of the way through the book, and I am TERRIBLE at solving mysteries).

The Lake House has much in common with The Secret Keeper, Morton’s earlier book, which I read awhile ago: both include a country house, a teenage girl, family secrets and a narrative split between past and present. There are some cliffhangers, tons of description and artfully drawn settings. There are also strong female characters, particularly Alice and Sadie, both of whom are haunted by secrets.

Alice is amazing: in her 80s, she is sharp and feisty. “She had found that there were few genuinely dull people; the trick was to ask them the right questions.” And I loved the line: “To age was contemptible, but the single silver lining was the cloak of invisibility gifted by the years. Nobody noticed the little old lady…”

Sadie is struggling in more than one area and I was never clear on her self-perception, as she states”…would never have guessed in a million years that a person could gain this sort of satisfaction from a visit to the library, certainly not a person like her” (emphasis mine). What does that mean? She is, like Alice, inquisitive and determined. As someone who has for years felt answers would be found in books, what better place to hang out than a library? (OK, my librarian background and bias are showing) I did love her comment that …it was a berry brave thing to do, to write one’s feelings down on paper and give them to another person.”

So, as I look at the complex plotting, setting, etc. I see it was well done…so why, then, did I have such trouble with it? Two reasons, I think. One is that things were just way too neatly wrapped up. The other is that my own bias regarding genre must be stronger than I realized (or I am just older and crankier than I realized). Morton “has degrees in dramatic art and English literature specializing in 19th century tragedy and contemporary gothic novels (again, emphasis mine). This kept feeling like it was about to slide into a sloppy romance wrapped in a tinge of mystery. Seriously, when I read this line I nearly threw my Kindle across the room” He kissed her, and she sand into his embrace.”

To be fair, this is decidedly NOT my genre, and I know that people who enjoy the family-secret-romantic-mystery thing are going to ADORE this book. If I were still working in a public library, I would love to have this to recommend to the large number of people who fit that category. I will definitely recommend this title to some women I know, and while I doubt I will leap at the next book by Kate Morton, I do appreciate the opportunity to provide an honest review of this title in return for a copy from NetGalley.

The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan

gratI have a dilemma about this book: first off, I WANTED to love it. I wanted it to teach me how to be constantly grateful and not to be a whiny, self-involved depressive who suffers bouts of envy and sadness (despite having an awesome life living in Paradise with few actual problems). On the other hand, I wanted to be dismissive – to finish it and say (as one reviewer did) it was just fluff, written on a fourth-grade level, and it certainly had no substance or meaning to offer the reader. Being able to blow it off would confirm that my ongoing lack of a gratitude habit was not diminishing my odds of happiness.

The author certainly seems to be someone for whom gratitude would be natural: she is a Yale graduate, has homes in New York and Connecticut, has been a successful author and editor, and has an apparently amazing husband/family. So of COURSE she would be grateful, right? Yet she found herself making a commitment to spend a year of her life consciously being grateful along with researching the topic of gratitude. As she put it “I’m going to try to be more grateful from now on. It’s my plan for the year. I think it will make me happier.”

As Kaplan begins her year, she quickly realized that “gratitude wasn’t the same as happiness; it requires an active emotional involvement – you can’t be passively grateful.” Which is where her journaling comes in (a consistent finding is the value of a gratitude journal), something she does throughout her year, as she begins to actively practice being grateful.

In addition to her practice, she did a significant amount of research into the topic, including working with comedians (Jerry Seinfeld), philanthropists (including Matt Damon) and researchers such as Dr. Robert Emmons of U.C. Davis. Emmons’ research findings include what seemed to me to be a profound revelation that “you don’t need good events in your life in order to feel gratitude. Instead, grateful people reframe whatever happens to them.” Logical? Yes. Intuitive? Not to me.

Many people think if they only had more, they would be happy. More money or more things or more success at achieving a goal, such as weight loss. She covers all three of these things, each quite significant to me as I read:

She decided her mantra could be “enough,” that she would be grateful to just have enough!

MONEY:

  • I loved reading that studies showed that given a choice between earning $100,00 a year if most people were earning $75,000 a year and getting a raise to $110,00 a year if most people were earning $200,000, most people would be happier with the $100,000.
  • Kaplan said she felt she didn’t need a lot of money to be happy, just “enough money so I didn’t have to think about money.” (keep in mind, this is a woman who from outward appearances is quite successful, with multiple homes and a prestigious career, so it might be easy for her to say this).
  • She found that money gave people an undue sense of entitlement, with little attention on compassion or ethics.
  • In the US, the “magic number” seems to be $75,000: that is the annual income level beyond which more money doesn’t really matter. Whether you earn $100,000 or $300,000 it is about equal in terms of happiness.

THINGS:

  • When people were asked how grateful they were for a variety of things, “your current job” finished dead last, always.
  • Material possessions are never quite as satisfying as people expect they will be. Turns out that experiences provide much more lasting happiness.

ATTAINING GOALS:

  • She has had an ongoing battle with weight, and she practiced being grateful for her food, appreciating the food. I am not sure how successful she was, but she did learn that mood affects what we eat (not surprisingly).

Kaplan learned that it is all about perception. As she learned from Tony Robbins, “if you trade your expectations for appreciation, the world instantly changes.”

The biggest lessons were to be grateful for what you can do, especially when you can’t do everything. Also, if something is done, gone, or irretrievable, get over it! Be grateful for whatever life has brought you, and if you CAN change something that makes you unhappy, do so, but otherwise, get on with your (grateful) life.

Kaplan claims that her year was extremely successful, but she hasn’t come to believe tat everything happens for the best. Bad things do occur, and our lives are not any better for them – but they can feel better, depending on how we choose to respond to those things.

The resolution of my dilemma is that I have resolved to be more CONSCIOUSLY grateful. In complete honesty, my life is unbelievably good, but I have a history of depression. It has been under control in recent years, but still emerges and threatens to drag me toward the black hole from time to time. Since I have had more free time, I have been working to live more in the moment, appreciating the things, people, experiences and situations that make my life great. Avoiding the things that might tend to drag me down (such as intolerance, cruelty, violence and greed) takes a bit more effort, because it seems so pervasive in the media…and I recognize that my inherent tendency to be Debbie Downer means I need to be more vigilant or at least active in my pursuit of happiness. Couldn’t hurt, right?

An enjoyable read, with lots of entertaining anecdotes and experiences combined with the facts and research. Extremely grateful to have received a copy of this title from NetGalley in return for my honest review.

 

 

 

 

What You See by Hank Phillippi Ryan

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I received an advance copy of Ms. Ryan’s latest book…and my initial reaction was something like “YAY! Another author to add to my “writers-whose-latest-book-I-immediately-snap-up” list! Not sure why I have missed her previous Jane Ryland novels, but I plan to go back and enjoy them as well.

Ms. Ryan’s “day job” as an investigative reported in Boston has been incredibly successful (30+ Emmys and a dozen or so Murrow awards), so she knows her way around crime stories. In addition, she way a way with plot and characters that is smooth yet thrilling. This is the fourth book in the Jane Ryland series set in Boston, and while it will please established fans of the series, it will also bring in first-time readers without leaving them feeling like they should not have read this one unless they read the previous three novels.

In What You See, Jane is “between jobs,” having quit her job at the newspaper due to their ethical lapses. Considering a return to TV news journalism, she is in the middle of an interview with a local station Channel 2 when a story breaks in front of City Hall. There is (conveniently) no one else available at the station, so the news director who is interviewing her sends Jane. Also conveniently, her boyfriend Detective Jake Brogan is also involved in the same case.

The scene at City Hall is chaotic and Jake and his partner Paul DeLuca are already on the scene giving out assignments and trying to keep control when Jane arrives. A young man who wants to make a name for himself as a photographer latches onto Jane and steers her toward an alley where Jake and DeLuca (again conveniently) are involved investigating the case with one suspect claiming to have captured the killer and the other suspect unconscious from being beaten.

Conveniently, Jane and Jake meet up in the alley, and their apparently long-standing issue about old maintaining their romantic relationship while dealing with conflicting interests re-emerges. As if this isn’t enough, Jane’s sister calls her during the chaos, telling her that her fiancée’s daughter is missing, and it is just a few days before Jane and Jake are scheduled to travel to the Midwest of Jane’s sister’s wedding.

Neither the murder victim nor the injured man in the alley has any ID on them, making things very complicated for Jane AND Jake! Jane is trying to get a new job, and her family situation turns into a possible kidnapping. Without spoiling the plot, there is a fast-moving story with well-defined characters, interesting plotlines, and ongoing development of the Jane-Jake relationship. Again, this is the fourth in a series but it stands alone quite well.
It’s another success for this author I have happily discovered thanks to NetGalley!

The Good Goodbye by Carla Buckley

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Four Stars! Thanks to NetGalley, I received a copy of Carla Buckley’s The Good Goodbye, which might actually be a YA novel. If it isn’t, my vote is that it should be…doesn’t mean it won’t be read/enjoyed by adults, but I think YA readers would REALLY like it.

Part of that is due to the main characters around whom the story swirls: Rory and Arden. These two young women are cousins who have always been inseparable and apparently almost identical. They have gone away to college together, even becoming roommates. The weird and almost sad thing is they end up attending a college that wasn’t anywhere either one of them had any desire to attend – but a serious financial crisis in their shared families has meant that Rory isn’t able to go to an elite university (a lifelong dream) and Arden can’t escape to the left coast to attend art school.

After the first 6 weeks of the freshman year, there is a fire in their dorm, leaving a close friend dead and both of them unconscious in the ER. The two sets of parents deal with the shock and gradually evolving drama that leads to a police investigation.

The “perfect” cousin Rory (bound for the elite university) is somewhat a princess, with an outward appearance of social ease and popularity. Her artsy cousin Arden is quite insecure and lives in Rory’s shadow. The novel unfolds in alternating chapters and reveals their shared history gradually. Arden’s mom (Natalie) is in total denial about whether her child could be anything other than perfect, and we come to learn more and more about the family dramas that have bound these people together (and threaten to completely rip them apart).

Rory, the princess, is gradually revealed to be incredibly manipulative and deceitful, living in terror of being revealed as anything less than perfect. As the past comes into focus, we see the two families both supporting and destroying their extended bonds…an aspect that I found really well done.
We come to learn how the fire started as we learn about the fate of the family members individually and in relationship with each other. As one reviewer put it, “Love and disdain are two sides of the same coin and … that was portrayed here quite well. “

It totally help my interest, and while I had an “oh no!” moment near the end, I did like it a lot. In some ways Carla Buckley’s writing reminds me of Jodi Picoult – fans of Jodi’s will appreciate this one, and I will look for future books by Ms. Buckley!

Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

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I was happy to be given a copy of Linwood Barclay’s latest novel, “Broken Promise,” in exchange for an honest review. He has been one of my favorite authors, and I had high expectations…that were more than met overall.

When David Harwood (introduced in an earlier book, although this title stands alone quite nicely) returns to his hometown of Promise Falls, New York, he is a widower with a young son, Ethan. He gave up his job at the Boston Globe so he could spend more time with Ethan, returning to the newspaper where he originally worked, being hired away by the Globe. However, as soon as he starts work, the hometown newspaper is shut down, and he is out of a job, living with his parents, trying to figure out what to do next.

The town of Promise Falls is heading downhill, with plenty of scandal and crime to keep an out of work reporter busy investigating. (Barclay’s line about the town is that it is like a suit that was once new but is now shiny and threadbare…love that line!) Things like dead squirrels, woman stabbed in her home, baby disappearing, attempted rapes at the college, illegal immigrants, sleazy local politicians, gambling problems/debts, and more.

There are several story lines running parallel to each other, and you just KNOW they will come together…and they do.

There is a slight hanging thread, which seems primed to be the beginning to the next book in what looks to be a great series.

Setting is well done, characters are many and complex, but not to the point of making you want to pull out your hair and throw the book across the room. Barclay seems to be a consistently entertaining writer, and I will eagerly read his future books!

5 stars from me! And THANKS to NetGalley.

Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman

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I received a copy of Bradstreet Gate for review…and I was really looking forward to it! Comparisons made to Tartt’s Secret History and The Interestings (loved the former, felt the latter was not as interesting as the characters thought they were!) And I love mysteries, and looking at this, I had some sense that it might be a thriller – all right up my alley!

But Bradstreet Gate was difficult for me to read…it kind of plodded along, and I admit I left it twice to read other things. There was plenty of plot, and the writing is excellent. I thought the characters were well drawn, and I kind of loved that the three main characters (Charlie, Georgia and Alice) were all troubled souls who seemed to be looking to advance up the social hierarchy as a result of attending Harvard (a not unreasonable progression, IMHO). The book is ostensibly focused around the murder of another student, Julie Patel, but really it evolves into a chronicling of several outwardly successful Harvard graduates and their various ways to deal with their acquired privilege and to squander their lives in a decade…

The other character, Storrow, sort of creeped me out (again, well written to have such an effect on the reader). The ending of the book was not wrapped in a tidy bow, and there were several subplots left unresolved.

I think perhaps I just didn’t care enough about the characters. While they were well drawn and fully developed (the three main characters, at least), they were so well developed that they became real people…none of whom I liked.

Possibly my expectations were too high. In any case, the writing was good enough that I will definitely read Kirman’s next book!

Eden in Winter by Richard North Patterson

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Eden in Winter concludes Patterson’s trilogy focused on the Blaine family of Martha’s Vineyard. In all honesty, I read the first in the series (Fall from Grace) in 2012, but somehow missed the second installment. Not sure if this affected my appraisal of this one, but really, I think in a series like this, it would be ideal if each book could stand on its own, and in this case perhaps an initial recap to bring new readers up to speed could then be followed by the “new stuff.”

However, that isn’t how this one (which I received in exchange for an honest review) works! When this one opens, the protagonist, Adam Blaine, has returned home following the death of his father, the world-famous novelist Benjamin Blaine, from whom he has been estranged for years. If this series is a roman a clef, I am not in the loop enough to pick that up, so apologies if this is the case…

So, Adam has been off doing his thing (CIA) in Afghanistan, and when the book opens, there is an investigation to determine Ben’s cause of death. Apparently, there is a list of potential assistants more than willing to assist Ben to his death, although the scene looks at first like an accidental fall from a high wall.

We are soon to realize that Adam knows it was murder, and he knows the killer. But, as you might expect in a multigenerational saga of betrayals, infidelity and abuse, Adam decides to protect the murderer, using his special CIA tradecraft skills.

It seems Ben has left almost his entire estate to Carla Pacelli, a young actress who happens to be recuperating on the island after a stint in rehab, and she is pregnant with Ben’s child. The creepy meter began when Adam and Carla develop an attraction to one another, and Adam realizes he has some Daddy issues, but the budding romance is designed to make Adam and Carla more likeable.

Seems like a struggle for Patterson to make this long saga of an unhappy family into a believable psychological drama by having Adam consult a local therapist, who works with him on the whole Oedipal thing, and reveals lots of betrayals, infidelities, class struggle, abuse – yikes.

I suspect this would be greatly appreciated by fans of the first two in the series, but looking at it as a standalone novel, I suspect it is just overly complex, with stilted dialogue and situations as Patterson works to explain how everyone is related (by birth and situationally) to everyone else. It was an enjoyable read, but I have to admit I usually REALLY enjoy Patterson’s legal dramas and was a bit disappointed not to have more courtroom-based action. I found I was a bit relieved when it was all over. If you like psychological examinations of families that will make you feel something along the lines of “wow, my family isn’t as screwed up as I thought we were,” this one is for you!

 

Rising Strong by Brene Brown

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I love Brene Brown. Watched her TED talks, took an online class through OWN, read her books and blog – I love her. So I was really pleased to receive an advance copy of her new book, Rising Strong, to review (thank you NetGalley).

Brene’s voice is there in this book, as in her previous works. And her essential openness and vulnerability (two of the things that make her work resonate with so many people I know) are there from the opening story–more on storytelling later. And hearing her reassure us that “the process of struggling and navigating hurt has as much to offer us as the process of being brave and showing up” – I mean, who can resist that? (well, who among those of us who really love digging around in this kind of uber-instrospective self-analysis, perhaps).

The book starts rather gently, outlining the overall concept. In Chapter 4, she really starts in on specifics, going beyond her generic advice to “walk into [our] story and own [our] own truth” and gives us specific examples from her own life about recognizing the feelings associated with being overwhelmed by emotions, and (starting to get into the whole storytelling thing) how to recognize the kinds of stories we make up about why we feel a particular way and how to dive into the ugly complexity of those stories, rather than avoiding them or running from them. This is also the chapter where she reminds us that “depression and anxiety are two of the body’s first reactions to stockpiles of hurt.”

In Chapter Five, she offers a structure for actually writing out “the story I’m making up” about any conflict, situation or feeling. This can help us work through these, rather than avoid them or merely justify (to ourselves and others) our response to them. She provides examples and questions to help people uncover their own SFD (or “shitty first draft” of the story — a term she credits to Anne Lamott).

The idea is once you have gotten all the garbage out on paper, you can then think about what makes the story you’re telling yourself so appealing, looking at what the story allows you to avoid and what buttons might actually be being pushed.

I found this idea really interesting, although the whole “reckoning, rumble, and revolution” thing got lost for me a bit…

By far, my favorite chapter is “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws,” which has kept me thinking for days and provided hours of discussion among family and friends. The basic theory that there are two types of people (those who try their best, follow rules, and are respectful, and then the sewer rats and scofflaws who don’t try their best and basically go around taking advantage of people). I have been posing the question to people “do you think that people are, in general, doing the best they can???”

For example, the guy who ran the stop sign and cut in front of me in traffic – my initial response was anger, the whole “what an asshole” reaction. But, what do I really know about why he did that? Maybe he got a call and there is an emergency at home, or he is late to work and worried about being fired, or – who knows? Could be anything. But for me, the point is that me being upset about it isn’t all that healthy for me, and I could really benefit from a shift in my initial negative perspective…so really, would it make a difference if I knew he was doing the best he could? Gotta admit yes.

I think there are tons of things in this book that will stay with me. Like being reminded that “disappointment is unmet expectations.” (Or, to quote Anne Lamott, “expectations are resentments under construction.” YES!

And overall this book reinforces my love for BB, going beyond the initial epiphany I got from an earlier book (the distinction between “I failed” and “I am a failure”) to the sewer rat/scofflaw idea, which just feels HUGE to me.

I asked my husband to read Chapter 6, which he did, and we had a great discussion…when I asked him if he liked it, he said “it’s WAY too introspective for me” but he agreed it elicited an awesome discussion!

Highly recommended for Brene Brown fans…and recommended for people who enjoy this kind of introspective self-analysis…

A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George

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I LOVE Elizabeth George, and have been reading the Inspector Lynley novels (or, as I prefer to call them, the Lynley-Havers novels) since the mid-1990s when introduced to them by a fellow librarian when we were stuck in an airport. So I was extremely pleased to receive an advance of A Banquet of Consequences (#19 in the series) from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Right from the start, this one was different for me: I had no idea what the story involved, who died, where and how the crime would be investigated, and by whom. 2013’s Just One Evil Act (#18 in the series) ended with Barbara Havers being seriously on the outs with the bosses at New Scotland Yard – especially Superintendent Isabelle Ardery – after Barbara violated a boatload of rules and ignored instructions as she went to Italy to deal with a crisis involving her neighbors, Taymullah Azhar and his daughter Haddiyah, both of whom had clearly broken through Barbara’s tough outer shell constructed to protect herself from the hurt inherent in becoming emotionally close to people. At the end of that novel, the Azhars had fled to Pakistan, and I admit I was hoping for an update on this whole complex relationship… but, back to the Banquet!

I began reading without the benefit of even a dust jacket summary and was immediately caught up in the lives of a famous feminist author, her editor, and her assistant, one of whose sons is a young man with a Tourette’s-style affliction and the other is a therapist struggling with his own marital relationship issues – which almost pale in comparison to the mother’s ugly marital situation…wow, this woman can be a complete shrew!

So, early on, the Tourette-ish son flings himself over a cliff – but that isn’t the murder, as it turns out. It took a while for the stories to unfold, and we began to be involved with a variety of relationships…and we just KNOW that the complex interrelationships of the author, her editor, her assistant, and that woman’s extended family are all going to come together is some way!

There are various subplots swirling around the investigation into the actual murder (plus a subsequent attempted murder), the investigations of which involve both Lynley and Havers, in London and in Dorset. Familiar characters appear, including Winston Nkata, Isabelle Ardery (Lynley’s former lover and current boss to both him and Detective Sergeant Havers), Daidre the veterinarian who seemed to be a likely candidate to bring Lynley out of his ongoing mourning following his wife’s murder a couple of books ago…like getting an update on old friends.

George does a terrific job moving the relationships and complex plot (and subplots) along, with a resolution that was a bit of a surprise (admittedly, I am terrible at solving mysteries, despite how many I read). It was a wonderful rebound following the past two Lynley-focused books, which seemed almost stale, as if she might be growing tired of her own characters’ stories. (Book #18 focused on Havers and took place largely out of the UK, and seemed almost as if it were part of another series. Frankly, it was a nice change after two less than astonishingly written Lynley-Havers books, and it seems unfair to compare it to books in the Lynley-Havers series).

As always, George’s use of language is a delight:

  • Describing people: “…a young individual of rather ovine appearance suggestive of too much inbreeding among people with excessively curly hair and faces of a triangular shape in which the apex was upended to form a chin.
  • Describing places: “…the tables were of a vintage and an unmatched variety…and the chairs looked like a furniture version of the United Nations.”

And, whether from her own large vocabulary or my own limited vocabulary, I always enjoy the way she keeps me reaching for my dictionary (bold type mine):

  • “…grasses coruscated like diamonds as the dew that bent them was hit by the daylight.”
  • “…heavy mist creating a tenebrous shroud.”
  • “…breathing whose stertorous nature suggested a life of heave smoking or asthma or both.”

After a couple of disappointments, this more than met my expectations, and I am thrilled that Elizabeth George is back among my favorite authors!