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Sunday, November 19, 2017

THE ROOSTER BAR

5 stars out of 5

"O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!"
-- Sir Walter Scott

I lost count of the times that quote popped into my head as I followed the adventures (and misadventures) of law school students Todd, Mark and Zola. Just one semester away from graduation at the Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington, D.C., the friends realize their school is mostly a sham and they're hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt with no hope of getting meaningful employment even if they pass the bar exam (which, not insignificantly, most graduates fail to do).

On top of that, Zola's parents, who have been in the United States as productive, but illegal, residents for nearly a quarter of a century, are in danger of being summarily rounded up and kicked back to their native Senegal. It's a bleak outlook all around, to say the least. But then comes the discovery that their for-profit diploma is one of several owned by a filthy rich guy who also owns a bank that hustles student loans. So as they gather 'round a table at the neighborhood Rooster Bar, a plan starts to hatch - one that begins with dropping out of school.

In a very real sense, though, their plan is nothing to crow about. From the start - with the tactics they'll take to earn money to live on - virtually everything they do is illegal and could land them in jail if they're caught. It's also a seat-of-the-pants operation; as one door closes, they're forced to find another one that opens - and so it continues until the end, when everything that goes around, comes around. How they pull everything off  admittedly tests the limits of credibiity here and there, but it also provides a wild but enjoyable romp for readers as well as a chance for the author to put the spotlight on injustices (as he sees them) in the student loan industry and immigration policies. Kudos for another one well done!

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham (Doubleday, October 2017); 368 pp.

Friday, November 17, 2017

EVELYN MARSH

5 stars out of 5


I've never panned for gold, but I can imagine my delight at finding a nugget or two amid the rocks. Similarly, given the substantial number of books I read each year - some wonderful and some not so much - it's a treat to find a gem like this one.

The story is, if I may borrow the title of another novel and motion picture, an anatomy of a murder; after all, readers know from the start that the title character isn't new to the game ("Evelyn's first murder was an accident," the description reads). That at least one more follows, then, comes as no big surprise.

Discovering the who and why is what kept me reading almost nonstop (which didn't take long; at 185 pages, the book is closer to a short story than a novel). It's well thought out, riveting and reminiscent, at least to me, of Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." And that's a good thing.

Evelyn Marsh can lay claim to being a "normal" housewife; at age 49, she's been in a somewhat boring but comfortable marriage for 25 years. Now that their two children are grown and out of the house, she's looking into selling the artwork she's been giving away all those years - encouraged by friends and family (except perhaps for her successful lawyer-husband, who's content to have a stay-at-home wife with a nice hobby).

What follows is a story of betrayal and awakening of inner emotions that most likely lie within all of us. Are we all capable of following a course of action as Evelyn did? Probably. Would we? Probably not - at least I'm pretty sure I wouldn't. But on the other hand, I'm willing to concede that anything is possible.

Just because I know folks who would be upset by sexually graphic language, I'm compelled to note that there's a little of that in here. As one who's way too old not to have heard those words before, I'll call this one a winner and thank the author for sending me a copy to review. 

Evelyn Marsh by S.W. Clemens (Kindle Press, March 2017); 185 pp.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE MIDNIGHT LINE

5 stars out of 5

By now - the 22nd book in the series - Jack Reacher seems like an old friend. And like most old friends, he's welcome to visit my home any time he wants. Thankfully, though, he's not the real deal and I don't need to feed him; at 6 feet 5 and not far from 300 pounds, this former West Pointer wouldn't make it much beyond breakfast on what we've got in our fridge.

Speaking of West Point, the academy provides the impetus for this story. On his way to nowhere in particular from a short stretch in Hawaii at the end of summer, Reacher ends up on the shores of Lake Superior. In a small town there, he stops at a pawn shop and finds a ladies' West Point class ring from 2005 - with a price tag of 40 bucks. Given all that the owner went through to get that ring, Reacher figures she didn't relinquish it under normal circumstances. So, he makes it his mission to track her down and, if she's still alive, return it.

Turns out, though, that she wasn't the one who brought it to the pawn shop; a few physical encounters later (Reacher 1, bad guys 0), all Reacher can get is the name of the man who did. That trail winds its way to Rapid City, Iowa, and a man named Arthur Scorpio - a guy the local cops and feds have been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to put behind bars. He owns a laundromat with a suspicious back room, but despite stakeouts by local law enforcement like Detective Gloria Nakamura, enough evidence to get a search warrant hasn't turned up.

As an aside, Scorpio's colorful description is an example of one of the reasons I love these books: He was, "Maybe six feet two. Maybe a hundred and sixty pounds. But only if he had a dollar's worth of pennies in his pocket."

Eventually, Reacher manages to learn the name and background of the woman he's searching for. That in turn leads him to a close relative and former FBI guy Terrence Bramall, who's now a private investigator. They end up in remote Wyoming, where of course Reacher and Bramall find themselves on the receiving end of even more physical encounters (hey, that's another reason I love these books). The rest of the story isn't pretty (figuratively and literally), and it also puts a spotlight on issues facing way too many returning U.S. veterans. No doubt that's a big part of the point; the book is dedicated to Purple Heart recipients.

That's about all I can say without revealing too much, although as usual, Reacher's considerable survival and intuitive skills get a good workout. The story seems a bit darker than some of the others, but everything gets resolved at the end. That is, perhaps for one thing: Did that person who got tied up in Scorpio's back room ever get out? Inquiring minds would love to know.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child (Random House LLC, November 2017); 384 pp.

Monday, November 13, 2017

TWO KINDS OF TRUTH

5 stars out of 5


Harry Bosch isn't getting any younger, and signs that he's even more fed up than usual with his life in general - and the Los Angeles Police Department in particular - are everywhere in this, the latest installment in one of my favorite series. A big part of his discomfort stems from learning that one of his LAPD cases is coming back not only to bring into serious question all his other cases, but to threaten his future as a volunteer who now helps solve cold cases at the San Fernando Police Department.

On the whole, I'd say this one is not my pick of the litter - it falls a little bit short of making my heart go thump-thump. But on the other hand, just when I was feeling just a bit disappointed, along comes Mickey Haller - the "Lincoln Lawyer" of the author's other popular series who's also Harry's half-brother. They've made crossover appearances in other books, but this time, the interaction seemed to last longer and boosted my interest right back to the top of the scale once again.

This one begins as Harry is starting to work on an SFPD cold case of a woman who disappeared 15 years ago, leaving behind an infant. She was never found, and because of the baby, it's assumed she was the victim of foul play. Just then, he gets a visit from LAPD representatives, including his former partner Lucia Soto. As he expects, the news isn't good; Preston Borders, who's been on death row for 30 years, has come up with "evidence" he insists will clear his name and get him released from jail. That evidence also implicates Harry, who handled the case way back then - and it's damning enough that his enemies at the LAPD are determined to reopen the file and investigate.

Meanwhile, back at the SFPD, a new case comes in; father-and-son pharmacists are shot to death in their mall store, with all the characteristics of a mob hit rather than a robbery gone terribly wrong. Immediately, Harry gets deeply involved in this case as well, taking on a role unlike any he's ever played before. As all this is going down, the LAPD investigation that calls Harry's actions on that long-ago case into question starts to heat up, he ups and calls Mickey - who's more than ready to put his sometimes out-of-the-mainstream (and always fun to read about) investigative and courtroom skills to work. But Mickey's methods almost always leave a bit to be desired on the ethics side, and let's just say that adds tension to the already somewhat strained relationship between the two.

In the end, everything comes out in the wash, although not everything ends up spotless. That's just fodder, I'm thinking, for the next go-round. Woo hoo - bring it on!

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Co., October 2017); 417 pp.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

ENDURANCE

5 stars out of 5

Almost every review of this book, I'll bet, will begin something like this: "When I was a kid, outer space was fascinating...I dreamed of being an astronaut." I wholeheartedly agree with the first part; it was true of me then - back in the '50s when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded, and it is true now that I've reached septagenerian status. But beyond that, flying 900 feet in the air under a parasail firmly attached to a heavy cable is about as high as I ever want to go (and don't care to go ever again, thank you very much). Besides that, just thinking about stuffing my body into one of those capsules that carry astronauts to and from terra firma makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Truth is, I'm quite content to read about other people's experiences - and this account is one of the best I've encountered since Tom Wolfe's 1979 classic, The Right Stuff. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Wolfe's book served as the impetus that turned Kelly's life around - from a kid who had no plans for his future and didn't much care for education to one singularly focused on a very lofty and difficult-to-reach career goal and knew education was the key to reaching it. 

In this book, Kelly, who holds the American record for consecutive days spent in space, tells it like it really was - both in his personal and professional life. For those who might not know, he is the twin brother of astronaut Mark Kelly, also the husband of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011. The prologue of the book hooked me immediately: now back on earth for 48 hours, Kelly was suffering the effects of a return to gravity after a year of looking down on civilization as we know it from the International Space Station (which he notes is today the longest-inhabited structure in space by far and the largest peacetime international project in history).

That's impressive in and of itself, but along the way - maybe because I spent my youth in the throes of the Cold War, crossing my fingers that school desks would protect me from a nuclear blast - I was blown away by one comment in particular: That Kelly found himself heading to space with two Russian companions, all of whom not that long ago might have been ordered to kill each other. Now, their very lives depended on total cooperation and trust.

Chapters shift from Kelly's pre-astronaut years to his experiences on four space flights including his final mission aboard the ISS. Although I'm sure he left out plenty of classified details, he pulls no punches when it comes to describing what it's really like in a confined space in zero gravity (right down to how human waste is contained and what happens to any of it that isn't). Some happenings are day-to-day routine and others have the potential to make the writing of this book not a happening thing, but all share a common bond: not a single one is boring. I finished the book as fast as I could, and when I got to the last page, I wished there were more to read. As I said at the beginning, space - and Kelly's part of exploring it - are nothing short of fascinating.

Now that his in-space voyages have come to an end, to Kelly I say thank you for your service and your wonderful book. Oh yes, and one other thing.

Live long and prosper!

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly (Knopf, October 2017); 400 pp.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

NOW YOU SEE ME

4 stars out of 5

Looking for a new murder/detective series and love characters who have "issues?" This just may be a good place to start. It's the first installment featuring 34-year-old FBI Special Agent Jess Bishop, who brings sins of the past to a whole new level. To that end, she reminds me a bit of J.D. Robb's Lt. Eve Dallas, although Jess tends to be more melodramatic, devoid of emotion and on the whole rather unlikable. Still, she's a hard-working, get-the-job-done detective and an intriguing character I'd like to read more about.

She and her former partner, Jamison Briggs, parted on shaky terms; her current partner, Alex Chan, is a good detective but about as companionable as our next-door neighbor's pooch who growls every time he sees me. Jess isn't fond of him either, but she's adjusting; as the story begins, the two have gone from their Washington, D.C., base to Louisiana. In a bayou there, the torso of a woman has turned up. The head is missing - and since it appears to match the MO of other murders, the agents are concerned that they're on the trail of a serial killer who may be keeping victims' heads as trophies.

Then what to her wondering eyes should appear but Jamison - back from an undercover job and ready for reassignment as Jess's partner. There's a lot of mutual hand-wringing and head games as the two try to come to terms with their earlier break-up and Jamison's new love interest, but professionalism (and an obvious like for each other) eventually win out. As for Alex, he doesn't seem fazed by losing his shotgun-riding status - to him, it's just another crappy day in paradise, I guess - and anyway, enough headless bodies keep turning up to keep his and everyone else's minds on finding the killer.

In the middle of all this, Jess meets Matt Ramsey, a smooth-talking, exceptionally hunky FBI agent who's determined to make an honest woman out of her. True to her emotion-shunning personality, though, he pretty much has to stalk her to get her attention - and even when he succeeds, he isn't able to hold it for long. That's partly because as evidence piles up, a worst-case scenario rears its ugly head: could it be that the murders are somehow related to the sordid past Jess has spent all of her grown-up years trying to hide?

The whole thing was a wild ride all the way to the end, when a few strands are left dangling to whet appetites for the next book. Overall, this definitely was an enjoyable experience for me, though my enthusiasm was dampened a bit by repetition and typos (the latter, I trust, will be corrected before the book is released; I read an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review) as well as a few glitches in the story. As hard-nosed as Jess is, for instance, it's really tough to fathom how she (or anyone else) possibly could go out for a run hours after cutting her bare feet by stepping on glass shards. Ouch!

Now You See Me by Kierney Scott (Bookouture, November 2017); 318 pp.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

THE GIRL WHO LIVED

5 stars out of 5

My first encounter with this author came via Jack of Hearts, a recent entry in his series featuring detective Jack Stratton. That one made a favorable impression - I look forward to the next one, hint, hint - and when I ran across this new standalone, I considered giving it a try. When I read the description, I was convinced that reading it would be a good idea - so even though it was just days before the release date, I requested, and was approved for, an advance copy (thank you).

In fact, it turned out to be a great idea; my concern that I might not get it finished on time vanished after a handful of chapters. NFL and college football games came and went unwatched, Lawrence Welk got recorded, and I even skipped at least one lunch because I couldn't bring myself to put it down. A 5-star rating? A no-brainer.

The book's title reflects the title of another book - one written by the mother of Faith Winters. Ten years earlier, Faith's beloved sister Kim and two others died violent deaths, reportedly at the hand of her father, who then committed suicide. Faith, who was present at the time, managed to hide out in the dark woods. She escaped certain death, yes, but she  was left with deep psychological wounds. Faith's mother, a therapist, worked through her own grief by way of writing a tell-all book about the daughter - Faith - who survived.

Faith continued to bury her anguish by way of alcohol, temper tantrums and other behavioral no-nos, which in turn landed her in a psychiatric hospital. But now, close to the anniversary of the murders, she gets the okay for release - on the condition that she return to the hometown in which all the blood was shed and participate in group therapy programs. No matter what she tries, though, she's not able to shake off the trauma of her past - nor her belief that the father she loved did not commit the awful crimes. That's because she'd seen another person at the scene back then - an unknown man she calls "Rat Face."

But alas, no one - not even the police - believed her then, nor do they believe her now. Even when she spots him once again, everyone thinks it's all in her twisted mind. Everyone, that is, except Rat Face, who learns that Faith has spotted him again. Now, he - and possibly his partners in crime - must do whatever it takes to keep from being identified, including making sure that this time, they leave no witnesses. Several twists and turns lead to an exciting conclusion (I won't say it's totally satisfying, but the loose ends get pretty well tied up). In short? Very well done and highly recommended.

The Girl Who Lived by Christopher Greyson (Greyson Media, November 2017); 329 pp.