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Saturday, July 14, 2018

PAST TENSE

4.5 stars

Honestly, I'm not at all sure how much I'd like Jack Reacher if I met him in person because he doesn't pull any punches, but I'm certain I'd want him on my side in a fight for the same reason. And in this, the 23rd book in the series, he gets plenty of opportunity to practice his considerable skill.

The story begins as Reacher walks and hitchhikes near a remote and tiny town in New Hampshire on his way to wherever else the wind (or more accurately, any driver who gives him a lift) takes him. When he recalls his late father Stan saying he grew up in the town, though, Reacher decides to pay a visit to the family homestead - if he can find it, that is.

Concurrently, Shorty and Patty, a pair of grifters from Canada - on their way to New York with a get-rich-quick plan in tow - have car trouble. Just as the old jalopy is ready to blow, they spot a sign pointing to a motel in a heavily wooded area of (you guessed it), New Hampshire. Yep, there's a halfway decent room available - but very soon, it becomes obvious that this isn't your average Motel 6. In fact, they may have happened upon their very worst nightmare.

Chapters follow the progress as Reacher tries to find what appears to be nonexistent evidence of his father's old home and the couple try to find their way out of the mess they're in. As expected, the two storylines end up converging - but not before plenty of action takes place in both. Early on, Reacher gets on the bad side of a bad seed and his wealthy father; although the local police are for the most part on Reacher's side - after all, he's been both an Army guy and a fellow cop - they don't want Trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P that stands for Problem. Just go on your way, they tell Reacher, hoping he'll heed their advice.

He'd love to, but he's got problems of his own (not the least of which is getting on the bad side of the folks he runs into when he finally locates the family town). Besides that, other local and otherwise innocent folks are finding themselves in potential danger simply because they helped Reacher; how can he possibly turn his back on them and hike away?

And so it goes, with excitement and action building all the way from town to the woods and back to an explosive end. If I have an issue, it's that I have a hard time believing in coincidences - meaning things that happen at precisely the time they should to make the story work. Life usually doesn't follow that kind of pattern - but then again, it's Reacher's life, not mine. In the end I'm happy, and I'll be looking forward to the next installment as usual. Meantime, I'm thanking the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read an advance review copy of this one.

Past Tense by Lee Child (Dell, November 2018); 400 pp.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

BABY TEETH

3 stars out of 5

"Dysfunctional" doesn't come close to describing this family of three: Mother Suzette, father Alex and young daughter Hanna. Reminiscent of the 1956 horror-thriller movie "The Bad Seed," Hanna is the Devil incarnate; she spends her days dreaming that Mommy is dead (and conjuring up ways to make that happen) so she can have her beloved Daddy all to herself.

Both parents have issues; Suzette, who has suffered from Crohn's disease since childhood, had a messed-up, uncaring mother and constantly worries that she won't be perfect in the eyes of her husband and even the daughter she's come to fear. Alex fuels Suzette's internal combustion by loving her perfection, whether it be through her beauty, their magazine-worthy home or the child he refuses to believe could possibly have a nasty bone in her little body. Both parents are understandably concerned about Hanna's development, but asking what she's thinking won't be much help because she doesn't talk. In fact, she hasn't spoken a single word for all of her seven years. 

She does, however, have a precocious brain, clearly understanding almost everything that's said to her and a whole lot more; for instance, she knows her way around computer searches better than I do. She's also fond of barking, growling and making other ungodly noises, especially when she's around people she doesn't like and wants to upset (including her mother, of course).

Mom and Dad have tried special schools, but to no avail; Hanna simply does something so awful - like setting a wastebasket on fire - that she gets expelled every time. Dad, of course, balks at Mom's attempts to seek more help; after all, he goes to work all day and comes home to find a sweet, loving daughter who's all smiles and smooches. So what's not to love?

Readers learn early on, getting clued in on what's really happening by way of chapters told from Suzette's and Hanna's perspectives. Although there's rarely a dull moment, though, it's positively agonizing to read chapter after chapter as Suzette continues to question what she's doing wrong all the while being terrified of her own child and Alex can't see beyond the end of his own nose. And Hanna? Well, I've given it considerable thought since I finished the book and concluded there's not a single nice thing I can say about her.

Suffice it to say, then, that reading this book isn't much fun. Sure, there's nerve-wracking tension and the constant question of what could this kid possibly come up with next, but mostly I just wanted somebody to get bumped off (and I didn't much care which one bit the dust). That said, this is a well-written book that's loaded with page-turning incentives; those who enjoy psychologically damaged characters as in "Carrie," "Rosemary's Baby" and "Children of the Corn," I think, are in for a real treat. Thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance review copy.

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (St. Martin's Press, July 2018); 320 pp.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

FACTOR MAN

5 stars out of 5


Now hear this: My mathematics skills are limited to basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division - and even then, there's an even chance I won't get it right. Change the problem to apples vs. oranges or trains passing in the night, and well, you might as well be speaking ancient Greek. So it was with more than a little trepidation that I started this book, written by a guy with (gasp!) a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

Oh what the heck, I said, I sailed through Neil deGrasse Tyson's Astrophysics for People in a Hurry without sinking - how bad could this one be? As it turns out, not bad at all; in fact, it was so engrossing that I took my Kindle to bed to finish the last chapter and epilogue (for the record, something I never, ever do). The final verdict? Wow!

The very creative and clever story focuses on "Factor Man," who claims to have resolved the "number factoring" that's used to encrypt information on the Internet and what's called "God's algorithm." Making available these heretofore impossible solutions, it is believed, will allow those who know the code to solve virtually any problem known to humankind (as of 2017, when initial announcement of availability was made). The benefits for business and industry, the government and the future of the entire world may well lie in the applications made possible by this discovery simply because the implications and applications are unlimited - and, needless to say, highly coveted. 

That is, if he's right. And if he is, the man who has gone to great lengths to remain anonymous until "FMCOP" (Factor Man Coming Out Party) stands to become the wealthiest human on the planet. So first, he's got to convince key people that he can do what he says he can. Assuming the answer is yes, his intent is to sell the code to the highest bidder - with some very interesting exceptions - then give it to the U.S. government and, ultimately, to anyone who wants it, free of charge. Initially, he reveals his plan to New York Times reporter William Burkett, explaining that he will factor increasingly higher numbers as evidence that his claims are for real; at a certain point, the numbers will reach the level currently considered unfactorable by experts. Factor Man will accept submissions at his blog at his discretion (the names of those whose suggestions are accepted are in and of themselves pretty doggone cool).

But of course, there's many a slip between cup and lip. The Chinese, who have been prohibited from bidding, are, shall we say, not happy. The only good Factor Man, they decide, is a dead Factor Man. But there's that pesky "anonymous" thing; before they can eliminate him, they must identify him. Meanwhile in the United States, the FBI has become quite interested in identifying him as well; they don't want to kill him, of course, but once they learn the Chinese are after him, they pull out all the stops to ensure that they find him first.

Sp the chase is on; and holy camoly, what a chase it is! Please note that as a mostly retired journalist who is on the whole proud of her spelling ability, I regrettably admit to not being sure how to spell "camoly." I've found it written as "comoly" and "cannoli" (the latter as in the popular Italian dessert), but I'll go with Urbanthesaurus.org's version above. In any event, what struck me most about this book is that I can't imagine what kind of mind could conjure up such a clever, well-thought-out plot - especially one that involves a subject that under normal circumstances is like a foreign language to me. It was amazing, thrilling, educational and, in spots, downright chuckle-producing. But most important to me besides loving it, math-challenged me "got" it. Many thanks to the author, who provided a review copy to me (via NetGalley). As I said in the second paragraph above, wow!

Factor Man by Matt Ginsberg (Zowie Press, March 2018); 281 pp.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

PARADOX

5 stars out of 5


Granted, I'm semi-retired - but finish a nearly 450-word book in two days? Certainly not a normal happenin' thing, but finish it I did. Yes, the story is engrossing and I love FBI agents Sherlock and Savich (this is the 22nd installment in the series). But I'll also credit the author's uncanny way of ending each chapter at such a tantalizing point that it's almost impossible to resist the "just one more" temptation. So strong is that pull, in fact, that at one point I realized I'd read eight chapters beyond the point at which I really, really needed to turn off my Kindle and do something else.

Also curious, BTW, is that almost all the female characters have what at first blush I'd assume are "male" names, among them Ty, Morgan, Marty and Gunny. Happenstance, or intention? And if the latter, why? Inquiring minds would love to know. But I digress.

The married agents have a young son named Sean, of whom, some would say, they're overprotective. That proves to be warranted, though, when in the middle of the night Savich is awakened by warning beeps - and runs to her son's room to find an intruder standing over the child's bed. The man, who was wielding a knife, manages to escape - but the incident forces Savich and Sherlock to acknowledge that their family is on the hit list of a very nasty person.

Around the same time, Willicot, Maryland, police chief Ty Christie is relaxing at her cottage on Lake Massey when to what do her wondering eyes doth appear than a frightening scene: One of two people out in a boat smacks the other and dumps the body overboard, an apparent murder. When said body is found by divers, it turns out to be a female federal prosecutor who's been dating Salo Porto, an FBI agent-friend of Savich, who in turn is called in to help.

But divers find not only that freshly killed body, but a rather large array of old bones and a unique belt buckle - raising suspicions of a serial killer. Most of the bones were collected not far from an abandoned mansion in which two entire families were murdered; since then, the property has been deemed "haunted" and has stood empty. When Savich and Sherlock go inside, they find nothing noteworthy except a single very tidy bedroom amid an otherwise decaying house. That is, until Savich has one of his "visions," leading him to the upper level and the discovery of his old friend Porto, who's been locked in a closet and left to die.

Turns out the killer is a relatively young man who recently escaped from a mental institution - a man with ties not only to the woman he just killed but to Savich, who was forced to kill the man's young girlfriend back when he was arrested. Evidence leads to the certainty that he was the man who attempted to kidnap (or perhaps murder) Savich and Sherlock's son.

But strong suspicion isn't proof (nor are Savich's visions), so the chase is on to gather evidence and track down the killer. The investigation efforts get a big boost from Christie and Palo, who join forces and become major characters in the rest of the book. Even though the killer is known, though, there's plenty of action and even more head games to carry the story through to the end (with a little left over for another book). In short, it's another winner - and once again I thank the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance review copy.

Paradox by Catherine Coulter (Gallery Books, July 2018); 448 pp.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

LAST WITNESS

4 stars out of 5


Engrossing, fast-paced story - and maybe better still, a character who's a highly capable cop tinged with vulnerability (in fact, he and his wife remind me a bit of another favorite couple of mine, James Patterson's Alex Cross and his wife, Bree Stone). I missed the first book in this series, but trust me, I'll be at the head of the line when the next one comes out (reportedly in early 2019).

Detective Inspector Zachariah Boateng, who is South African, works for the Lewisham Major Investigative Team (U.K.) and is married to Etta, an attorney. Their young daughter Amelia was shot and killed five years ago (I presume that was detailed in the first book). Responding to an invitation from old friend and police colleague Troy McEwen to come talk about "back then," Zac walks in to find Troy dead - an apparent suicide. Zac thinks otherwise, believing that Troy's death is connected to some mistakes that happened during a case they worked some 20 years earlier that they buried under the paperwork.

If Zac is correct about Troy's death being a murder, he believes he could be a target as well - as could others involved in that long-ago incident. When a another one turns up dead, Zac is certain he's on the hit list as well. Problem is, he can't conduct an official investigation of Troy's death without revealing everything he knows about what really happened back then - details he's never shared with anyone, including Etta; putting the spotlight on them could, in all likelihood, cost him his career and his marriage. So amid his other duties, Zac tries to work in surreptitious investigation of Troy's death, with the assumption that there's a single killer with the singular purpose of evening up the score. But can he find that killer before the killer gets to him?

The path toward that end is filled with speed bumps, misdirections and dead ends as expected - and the ending leaves the door a little bit open for future stories (also as expected with a series). The ride at times seemed a bit choppy and disconnected, but my overall take is that I enjoyed it - in no small part because the driver is such an interesting character that I want to read more about him. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the advance review copy. Good job!

Last Witness by Chris Merritt (Bookouture, July 2018); 325 pp.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

SOMEBODY'S DAUGHTER

4 stars out of 5


For sure, this book held my attention all the way through. In fact, it latched on so tightly that our dinner got put on hold for a little over an hour while I plowed through to the final page. But that said, I really never really "connected" with any of the characters (more on that in a bit). Besides that, thoughts of same concept, different author kept niggling at the back of my brain as I turned the pages.

Here's the deal: Michael Frazier is living the good life with his second wife, Angela, in Cottonsville, Kentucky; that they're trying, so far unsuccessfully, to have a baby is frustrating, but they're hanging in there. His first marriage to a kooky sort named Erica didn't make it much past a year, and they went their separate ways.

Until now. Suddenly, Erica appears at Michael's door, begging him to help find her missing 9-year-old daughter Felicity. Why Michael, after all these years? Well, Erica tells him, because you're Felicity's father. To put it mildly, Michael is stunned - and questions whether it's even true. Nonetheless, he just can't find it in his heart not to help, even when Angela - who's just as stunned as Michael, if not more - tells him he should stay home and let the police handle things. But Erica insists she must take matters into her own hands because the police aren't taking her daughter's disappearance seriously (after all, it's been most of a day and they haven't found her).

So off he goes. It is at this early point, I must add, that I wrote Michael off. Sure, I "get" (well, sort of) his concern over a missing child that might be his and his reluctance to leave an ex-wife in the lurch even though he thinks she's nuts; on the other hand, I just can't work up sympathy for people who totally ignore common sense. But then, of course, there'd be no story. So there we are.

Everything and everyone moves along quickly from then on, bringing a few surprises as chapters follow the progress and setbacks of Michael and Erica, Angela, Michael's sister Lynn and their mother, and the two primary cops working the case. Little by little, readers learn that every character comes with issues - some more related to the child's disappearance than others - and broken trust becomes a common theme among them all.

Most important, though, is whether or not they'll find the child (and the kidnapper) in time to save her. That, in fact, overshadows all else, adding an edge-of-the-seat tension that doesn't quit till the end. Overall, it's quite an enjoyable ride, reinforcing what I already believe: Given excellent writing, it's not necessary to fall in love with the characters to be happy that you've read a book. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance review copy.

Somebody's Daughter by David Bell (Berkley, July 2018); 432 pp.

Friday, June 29, 2018

SUICIDE CLUB

5 stars out of 5

"Brave New World." "Soylent Green." "Thelma and Louise." All of these - and a couple more classics - popped into my head as I read this mesmerizing debut novel. More to the point, if I were given the chance to live for hundreds of years - most of them sans anything I now consider fun to do, eat or wear - would I want it? Now that I've finished this book, I'm still not totally sure, but I've sure got plenty of considerations to factor into my decision (and a doggone good story to illustrate them).

The setting is New York City sometime in the future, when research has found ways for people to live to 100 and far beyond. Those "Lifers" - chosen mostly according to genetic tests  - get regular "maintenance" and replacement parts, like fake but realistic skin, blood and internal organs. They also must follow strict and ever-changing dictums; they cannot, for instance, eat bacon or open windows because doing these things might be detrimental to their well-being. Now, these Lifers are looking forward to the Third Wave, when those selected to be on The List will receive updates that will allow them to live to 300.

Two of these Lifers are Lea and Anja; Lea is about 80 years old and Anja is just over 100. Lea, whose mother died not too long ago, enjoys super success in her career (her father left the family years ago). Anja is caring for her 150-year-old mother, who remains alive - if one could call it that - only because her fake parts are still working (but they're starting to wear out). Anja is also a somewhat reluctant member of the Suicide Club, a group of Lifers who have come to reject the concept of extreme longevity and at some point commit suicide to escape both the fakeness of their bodies and the absence of a truly enjoyable life.

Quite unexpectly, Lea's idyllic existence gets a jolt. Hit by a car when she veers off the standard walking path to chase a man she thinks is her long-disappeared father, she finds herself constantly monitored by the "Observers," who believe she was attempting suicide - a no-no for anyone who aspires to be named to The List. Since her father is an outcast from the utopian society in which she thrives, she dare not tell the truth - that she was trying to reach him and simply not paying attention to her surroundings.

The future of her perfect life now in limbo, Lea tries to prove she's still worthy of The List. She's also been ordered to group therapy sessions, and it is here that she meets Anja, who works with "Sub-100s" - the folks who didn't qualify for replacement parts and will die naturally of old age. Still looking for ways to redeem herself, Lea goes to a meeting of the Suicide Club, where she sees not only Anja, but someone else who's very special to her.

Even if it didn't touch on touchy subjects like engineered humans and euthanasia, this would be a wonderful book simply because of the characters. They're real, they question life and don't always get the answers they seek. But raising those issues makes it even more meaningful; as the characters try to deal with them, readers must do the same (and I admit I didn't come away with conclusive answers). All told, this is a totally engrossing, powerful story I highly recommend, and I thank the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng (Henry Holt and Co., July 2018); 352 pp.