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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

THE CUBAN AFFAIR

5 stars out of 5

The second I finished this book, my husband broke into a happy dance. Why is that, you ask? Well, most of the time when I'm reading I'm sitting across from him as he sits in his recliner watching the idiot box. And most of the time, that works just fine. But along came this character - Daniel Graham "Mac" MacCormick - who triggered giggles, snorts, chuckles and occasionally, outright guffaws from my side of the room. annoying the heck out of my usually sweet sweetie. A for-instance? Much of the book is set in Cuba, where the construction zones are dotted with "Porta-Juans" (okay, it might have been funnier in the moment, but you get the drift).

Needless to say, I did not share my husband's enthusiasm when I reached the end; clearly, Mac - a 35-year-old Army vet now runs a charter fishing business in Key West and narrates the story - has the same wacko sense of humor as I do. That's great, but what's even better is the  intriguing, action-filled plot that kept me thumbing through the pages of my Kindle and unwilling to put it down (yet another thorn in the side of my husband, who expected to be fed now and again).

The story, which takes place as the relationship between the United States and Cuba begins to "thaw," is timely, although the author does remind readers that the book was written before the current administration took office (it's set in the fall of 2015). It's also clear that he's done quite a bit of research, some of it on-site, much to the enlightenment of readers who appreciate history. That I, a person who literally switched my college major because I couldn't fathom taking another boring history class, was glued to the pages is perhaps the greatest tribute to the author's writing skills.

But I digress: The story begins as Mac is waiting in the Green Parrot Bar for a meeting with Carlos, a high-powered lawyer from Miami who's made a name for himself among anti-Castro groups. Turns out Carlos wants to hire Mac to participate in a fishing tournament in Cuba, but Mac isn't buying it. Carlos then ups the ante to $2 million for the job, making Mac put down his beer and agree to a meeting with Carlos's clients on Mac's boat. Turns out that one is the beautiful (and single) Sara Ortega, who claims her grandfather stashed a whopping $60 million in a cave before he fled Cuba during the Castro revolution. The fishing tournament, then, is just a red herring; the real prize is to find, and bring back to the States, the money -  less Mac's rather hefty cut, of course. 

Needless to say, the cash-starved Mac signs on (albeit grudgingly). His friend Jack takes the helm of the boat - now sold to the attorney and renamed to protect the names of the guilty - while Mac and Sara fly to Cuba under the cover of a U.S.-Cuba sanctioned tour of Yale faculty and grads. Needless to say, trying to steer clear of the clutches of the Cuban authorities is muy dificil; there's a fly in the ointment at nearly every turn and twist - quite possibly, Murphy's Law originated in Cuba - making it hard to know who to trust (if anyone) and forcing Mac to put all the skills he acquired during his two tours in Afghanistan to the test.

More than that I can't say without spoiling things for others. What I can say is that as I understand it, this is Mac's debut appearance in the reading world. He not only gets a big shout-out from me  - a more interesting, fun character I haven't come across in a while - but also my hope that I'll meet him again soon (hint, hint). Meantime, many thanks go to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille (Simon & Schuster, September, 2017); 448 pp.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

WICKED DEEDS

4 stars out of 5

Up to now, my only acquaintance with this author has come by way of "Infernal Night," a short story co-written with F. Paul Wilson for the David Baldacci-edited FaceOff in 2014. That's my bad; after reading this one - courtesy of an advance copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review - I'll make that mistake nevermore. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which adeptly mixes mystery and history and sprinkles it with the paranormal.

The plot also centers around one of my favorite story-tellers and poets, the late, great Edgar Allan Poe, who makes several ghostly appearances. The book is, you see, the latest in the "Krewe of Hunters" series, featuring historian Vickie Preston and FBI Special Agent Griffin Pryce. Members have been recruited to this unique paranormal FBI team not only because of their investigative skills, but also because they are able to communicate with the dead. On their way to their new home in Virginia - which will serve as home base as Vickie enters the rigorous FBI training academy in Quantico - they opt for a quiet, romantic visit in historic Baltimore.

Peaceful stopover? Fuhgettaboutit. Griffin gets a call from the FBI powers that be informing him that they're needed to help with a "bizarre" case; horror writer Franklin Verne has been found dead in the wine cellar of a the Black Bird, a Poe-themed Baltimore restaurant (for the record, Poe is buried in the city). It appears the death is a suicide - a recovering alcoholic who went off the wagon and on a drinking binge - but his widow, Monica, insists otherwise. The case is complicated by the fact that not a single soul saw him enter the restaurant - nor did they see any of the three dead blackbirds that now surround his body.

As they begin to assist local police with the investigation, Vickie and Griffin get their first visit from Poe, who claims to want to help solve the murder because it might provide clues to his own death way back when (although several theories abound, exactly how he died remains a mystery). In fact, a chunk of the story is a history lesson; it's all put together quite interestingly, woven in and around the investigation and the ghostly dreams and sightings by the main characters.

But wait, there's more: It comes in the form of a second dead body, which turns up during a seance led by a very kooky and almost totally unlikable character who believes she's got a direct connection to the dead (Vickie and Griffin, though, aren't quick to agree). Now, the FBI is called in officially, and the race is on to find the killer before he, or she, targets someone else and possibly puts the future life of Vickie and Griffin in jeopardy as well.

Once I got going, I found it hard to stop reading, and I apologize to "my" Ohio State Buckeyes for keeping one eye on my Kindle and the other on their game with Army (admittedly made a bit easier during the second half, when the Buckeyes pretty much ran rampant up and down the field). My only suggestion, for what it's worth, is to put the brakes on exclamation points at the ends of sentences. In my mind, they're like laugh tracks on TV comedy shows; if you have to tell me when to laugh, it's probably not very funny (and in any case, I prefer to make up my own mind). That said, this may be my first "Krewe" book, but it certainly won't be my last. Well done!

Wicked Deeds by Heather Graham (MIRA, September 2017); 384 pp.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

COLD BLOOD

4 stars out of 5


Once again, I'll make a pitch for half-stars in book ratings. Because once again, my "real" rating is 4.5 stars - and that's only because I enjoyed it a teensy bit less than the others (this is the fifth in the author's Detective Erika Foster series). 

It stands well on its own, but as those who follow my book reviews well know by now, I always advise starting any series at the beginning, as I did. The bottom line, I guess, is that any time you've got emotionally scarred but likable heroes and heroines, murder and mayhem and an investigation that never loses steam from start to finish, what's not to like? My only reservation here is that in a few spots, the exposition almost seemed like an afterthought - something that wasn't written into the story where it should have been.

That said, the plot is unique, intriguing and fast-paced. Erika is called in to check out an old suitcase that's washed up on the banks of the Thames in London. To everyone's horror, it contains the body of a young man - not only dead, but chopped into smaller pieces so he'd fit inside the container. As Erika gathers her team to get the investigation going, another suitcase turns up - this time with the body of a young woman. She, too, has been whacked to fit, leading to the conclusion that a serial killer is on the loose. Small packets of drugs were found in the stomach of one of of the bodies - another confusing detail but one that ends up not only nearly bringing the police department to its knees, but an end to Erika's career (and very nearly her life).

From the beginning, readers see flashbacks that introduce two far less than upstanding characters named Nina and Max - misfits who have found each other (they're happy, but others who meet up with them are not so much). Chapters told from their perspectives offer highlights of their new life as a couple and are interspersed with those detailing what's going on with Erika and the investigation, all building to an exciting finish as everything comes together. I admit I'm not a fan of this perspective-shifting technique, but that's mostly because it's been done to death (so to speak). But when it's done well, as it is here, I also admit it's very effective.

Overall, this is nothing short of another winner. Many thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read and review it in exchange for an honest review. Over the course of the series, Erika has become one of my favorite characters. Already, I'm looking forward to the next installment. 

Cold Blood by Robert Bryndza (Bookouture, September 2017); 378 pp.

Monday, September 11, 2017

LIES SHE TOLD

5 stars out of 5

Quirky? You bet. Intense? For sure. Headed for the best-seller list? Crossing my fingers, because IMHO, it should be.

The description at NetGalley piqued my interest, and learning that it's a September 2017 selection of the Book of the Month Club prompted me to follow through and request an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Happily, I got the nod, and, well, you already know my honest opinion. 

Now for a few details. Liza Cole enjoyed fame and fortune as the author of a best-selling book. But alas, it was fleeting; her most recent attempt was by most accounts a flop, and she's under the gun to produce something with the potential for success (or at least an outline thereof) within a month. She's also in a clinical trial of a fertility drug cocktail, a last hope that she'll finally get pregnant. Meantime, her husband David just isn't in the mood - it seems his best friend and law partner Nick has gone missing and in addition to being worried, he's buried in work as he takes on Nick's cases on top of his own.

It's hard to focus on writing, but Liza finally comes up with a new heroine, a woman named Beth. Unlike Liza, Beth has given birth to a still-infant daughter; like Liza, Beth is dealing with a husband who's lost interest (and, Beth believes, is cheating on her as well). Chapters shift from Liza's story to that of the fictional Beth, and - no real surprise here - it's not long before the lines begin to cross.

Then, two of the characters - one real and one fictitious - meet untimely ends. Beth has an angry confrontation with her husband's lover, who ends up in the East River. Liza's husband's partner's body is found, and to Liza's dismay, her husband is arrested for the murder. But are both Beth and David really guilty? Beth's motive is obvious - payback to the competition and her wayward husband -  but why would David want his best friend dead? Hmmmm. Maybe there's more to these women's stories (and the stories of the men they love) than we see at the beginning.

Nope, not gonna spill the beans. All I'll say is it sure was fun watching the plots thicken and unravel. Highly recommended!

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan (Crooked Lane Books, September 2017); 288 pp.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

ENIGMA

5 stars out of 5

Fully a score of books in this series has preceded this one, and despite my good intentions - they've been on my want-to-read list for quite some time - up to this point I've read nary a single one. Big mistake, but one I certainly won't make again. Ms. Coulter earned a spot on my list of favorite authors with The Devil's Triangle, her "A Brit in the FBI" series, and this one ensures that she won't be moving off anytime soon. Or, to put it another way, wow!

That the characters weren't familiar to me going in wasn't an issue; early on, I got the drift, and at no time did I feel lost (although I'll advise, as I always do, that it's best to start a series as close to the beginning as possible if only to see how the characters change and who comes and goes over time). Here, the most important people to know are FBI agents named Savich (Dillon), Wittier (Cam), Cabot (Jack) and Sherlock (if she has a second name, it slipped past me). There are a couple of plots going on at the same time, but even though they don't overlap much, I never got confused as to who's who and what's what.

The first story begins with Savich in the home of a very pregnant woman named Kara, who's being threatened by a man who's ranting about people out to get him and insisting he's an "enigma." Savich nails the guy, who then falls into a coma and is taken to a hospital. Kara soon follows - and gives birth to baby Alex. Then comes the unthinkable; the baby is kidnapped from the hospital right under the noses of the doctors and nurses. Further investigation turns up bizzare links between the still unidentified comotose guy, Kara and her baby - and leads Savich, Sherlock and their team to a grandiose scheme involving drugs of a very different sort.

While this is going on, a psychopathic bank robber somehow escapes just as he's arriving at his future home - a federal penitentiary. Whittier and Cabot get the case, following the convict and the people who helped him escape into the wilds of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Apparently, the convict, dubbed "Manta Ray," stole and hid some kind of safe deposit box before he was captured. Could it be that his new companions have an ulterior motive of their own for springing him?

The two investigations lead from U.S.-sanctioned Russian bankers (could that topic be more timely?) to the inner workings of a pharmaceutical firm to the highest echelons of the U.S. government. There's plenty of intrigue to go round, and the action rarely takes a break. This one's a don't-miss - and I heartily thank the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. 

Enigma by Catherine Coulter (Gallery Books, September 2017); 496 pp.

Monday, September 4, 2017

YOU GET WHAT YOU PITCH FOR

5 stars out of 5

Ho-hum. Well, I didn't actually yawn, but my first reaction when this book turned up available for request on my NetGalley list of possibilities wasn't exactly positive. That's for two reasons: One, I'm not even close to a fan of sales pitches (think: door-to-door hucksters and telemarketers). And second, back in my much younger days I had a side business conducting employee development/motivational seminars. What could I possibly learn?

Ah, but there's that magic word: Learn. I may be a slightly gray 76-year-old grandmother of four mostly grown-ups, but I plan on going strong as long as I can. One of the things that keeps me hopping is my firm belief that when you stop learning, you stop living. Well then, I said, bring it on!

And by golly, I learned a lot - starting with (surprise!) "Pitching is not about selling." Besides that, I now know that a) The author is someone with whom I'd enjoy the heck out of tipping a few beers in a local pub and b) He could pitch me under the table in a New York minute.

That he's the perfect pitchster, though, isn't so unexpected; after all, he's got experience out the wazoo. In all likelihood, you've seen him do his thing as the TV "face" of OxiClean. You also may be familiar with his long-time pitch partner and friend, Billy Mays, who died in 2009 - after which the author, informally known as "Sully," kept the pitch perking along (although he now spends more time producing other people's pitches than doing his own shtick). Point is, he's been there, done that - and now he's spreading the wealth of his experience with other folks, encouraging them to follow suit. Better yet, he's done it in a manner that's interesting, informative and easy to understand.

As mentioned earlier, it's not about having a product to sell - unless you count yourself as a product, which is, in fact, the point. The take-away for readers is learning to control any situation, create fierce agreement and get what you want in life (hey, that would be a great subtitle for this book - oh wait, it is)! Anyone who wants to put in the effort to learn how can accomplish all that, he maintains, offering a set of 10 "Pitch Powers" that he explains in  detail. The first of these "superpowers" is "Know Your Acceptable Outcomes." How, exactly, do you want the situation to end (or put another way, what's your goal)? That settled, the question becomes, what will it take to get you there?

He lays out the fundmentals and, using personal examples sprinkled with humor, tells how he puts them into practice and what it will take for readers to do the same. He's also honest; nothing is a sure thing - meaning no matter how you approach a person or a situation, slam-dunk success won't always happen. And if you're not willing to practice, practice and practice some more, you might as well fuhgettaboutit. By the end of the book, you'll have a doggone good grasp of the techniques he used - still does - to become successful. If you pay attention and follow through, they'll be of help no matter whether you want to become a Home Shopping Network sales guru, navigate the corporate ladder or win the hand of a fair maiden (well, at least get her to talk to you).

Throughout, more food for thought is added by way of catchy but meaningful  snippets, such as:

"Facts tell, stories sell."

"Your audience isn't going to decide based on anything you say or do, but on how you make them feel.

"A lesson by example is always more effective than a lesson by lecture." 

"'No' is just 'yes' misspelled.'" Okay, okay, that one is gag-me-with-a-spoon hokey, but it's a point well taken nonetheless.

The bottom line is this: If you're looking to get in control of your professional and/or personal life, this book is a pitch perfect place to start. Many thanks to the publisher for allowing me to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Well done!

You Get What You Pitch For by Anthony Sullivan and Tim Vandehey (Da Capo Lifelong Books, September 2017); 246 pp.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

DEAD WOMAN WALKING

5 stars out of 5

Bloody well done, I say!

Without the shocking surprises, this would have been a good book. With them, well, it's out of the ball park. My proof? I had one eye on the pages of my Kindle Fire while I watched our Ohio State Buckeyes roll over Indiana University in their season-opening game. After that - and I hasten to add I'm not trying to make a political statement here - the same thing happened the next evening during my never-miss The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC (well, okay, I admit Rachel was off that night, but I also like her fill-in, Joy-Ann Reid). That never happens unless I'm so engrossed in a book that I just don't want to put it down.

I can't, of course, reveal any of those surprises, but I can tell you a little about what's going on. Jessica Lane has taken her sister Bella, a Carmelite nun, for a hot-air balloon ride over Northumberland National Park near England's border with Scotland as a birthday surprise. While the pilot is flying low, they watch in horror as a young woman is murdered. Not long thereafter, the balloon crashes spectacularly, leaving just one survivor - the one who saw the killer's face. Unfortunately, he saw hers as well, and he's not about to let her get away.

Meanwhile, the local police have identified the survivor as Jessica, but neither they nor the killer are able to find her. She could be badly injured or so confused that she doesn't know what happened or where she is, but now the police and the killer share the same purpose: Finding her. But could it be that they share the same end game?

Using a mix of flashbacks beginning 28 years earlier, the story begins to take shape as we learn bits and pieces of the sisters' childhood years. The flashbacks are minimal, each bringing the reader closer to the current time period and offering more clues with regard to the real reason behind the balloon crash (I've gone on record with my distaste for the over-used flashback technique, but tell you what: If it's ever been done really well, it's in this book, so you'll get no complaints from me this time out).

The race to find the missing woman is filled with tension that just kept building - and just when I was on my next-to-last fingernail, bam! The first twist hit the fan. OMG, did I really read that, I asked myself, flipping back a couple of pages to be sure my eyes weren't deceiving me. But wait, there's more!

For that, though, you'll just have to read the book for yourself. As for me, I'm, just gonna sit here for a day or two and let the whole thing sink in. Lest I forget, many thanks to the publisher for allowing me to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. My conclusion? Wow!

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur Books, September 2017); 368 pp.