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Friday, December 27, 2013

CROSS MY HEART

4 stars out of 5

Countless other reviewers already have let the cat out of the bag, so I won't hesitate to carry it forward: This book is a prequel to another one - and a totally unfinished prequel at that. Needless to say, the bulk of the other reviews I've read have not been kind (and that's putting it mildly). And I get it: Paying $7.50 for a Kindle version (or, at last check, the hardcover price of $14.50) only to find you'll have to buy the next book to learn how this one ends seems tacky, to say the least.

For what it's worth, here's how Patterson explains it at the end of the book: 

"Most of us have had at least some taste of tragedy in our lives...this is uncomfortable to experience firsthand - or even secondhand in a novel we've chosen to read...I ask that you understand that I wrote the ending this way because I am trying to be true to Alex - and to you, and to myself...I believe that to be true to life - and to art - one has to accept tragedy as part of it and, from there, allow for the human spirit - be it Alex's, mine, yours - to pull us through."

I'm not sure that's a good enough explanation, but I do know that had the ending (or lack of one) not been what it is, I'd have given it 5 stars. In fact, IMHO it's one of the best in the series about Detective Alex Cross that's come around in a while. Sure, there are a few spots that are sappy and contrived - true of all the books in the series - but all in all the plot held my interest all the way to the end that isn't an end. As Cross and his wife Bree work on separate murder scenes and try to locate a one-time foster child who's gone astray, Cross discovers they're all dealing with a madman who's a master of disguises and is out to destroy everything Cross holds dear - most notably Bree, his nonagenarian Nana Mama and his children - to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is such a thing as the perfect murder.

Truth is, I'm already pretty sure there've been quite a number of near "perfect" murders over the years. And were it not for the fact that I'll have to buy the next book if I really care to know how this one ends (and I'm not sure I'll do that), this book might have ended up near perfect as well.

Cross My Heart by James Patterson (Little, Brown and Co. November 2013); 450 pp.

Friday, December 20, 2013

INNOCENCE: A NOVEL

5 stars out of 5

Eloquent. Thought-provoking. Simple. Complex.
How do I love thee? Those are just some of the ways. Without doubt, this is one of the best, most beautifully written books I've ever read. I couldn't wait for it to end, yet I kept clinging to the hope that it wouldn't.

To be sure, it's a story of good versus evil; it's full of fantasy, mysticism, hope and love interspersed with plenty of thrills and chills. It's Romeo and Juliet against the world, though not necessarily the world as we know it (but then again, it's exactly the world as we know it. It is narrated by Addison Goodheart (an allegorical name if ever there was one), who was born with a countenance so abhorrent to the "real" world that a mere look at him brings out an instant killer instinct. He lives in the shadows of society - the very bowels of the city, in fact - venturing forth only in darkness with his adopted father who shares his disfigurement. Then on one fateful night he meets Gwyneth, a young woman who herself is a fugitive from normal life. Totally unlike him yet totally like him, she, too, tries to make her way through a world that would destroy her if given half a chance.

Throughout, the writing is nothing short of exquisite. Every word is a treasure, creating sentences and pages that almost dazzled my mind. Mr. Koontz, I've always enjoyed your books. But for the life of me, I don't know how in the hell you're ever gonna top this one.

Innocence: A Novel by Dean Koontz (Bantam, December 2013); 352 pp.

Friday, December 13, 2013

TAKEDOWN TWENTY

4 stars out of 5

After finishing the previous adventure of bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, Notorious Nineteen, I pretty much decided to pull the rug on this series (I gave that one just 3 stars). The one-liners that used to make me snort whatever I was drinking out my nose barely elicited a smile, and I was beyond weary of a woman well past the bloom of youth who spent much of the book flip-flopping between the two "hot" co-stars: The mysterious security expert Ranger and her cop boyfriend Morelli.


But this book, happily, leans more toward the Stephanie Plum of years past. By the time I was a quarter of the way through, I'd snorted at least three times and chortled several times more. And while things remain a bit tense in the boyfriend department, it no longer overwhelms the rest of the story. And as usual, that story takes funny twists and turns as it weaves its way through the offbeat (to put it mildly) families of Plum and Morelli.

In fact, this one starts in a family way: Plum is charged with finding "Uncle Sunny," a mobster who bailed on his court appearance after being charged with murder. Problem is, he's family - Morelli's godfather, in fact - and in true mobster family fashion, nobody's talking. And when she tries anyway, accompanied by her self-described former 'ho' Lulu, Morelli's wacky grandmother, Bella, puts the dreaded evil eye on Plum.

In between there's bingo, Plum's wild and crazy Grandma Mazur and an errant giraffe named Kevin (don't ask), so there's plenty of action to go around. Fun!

Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich (Bantam, November 2013); 321 pp.

Friday, December 6, 2013

SOLO: A JAMES BOND NOVEL

4 stars (out of 5)

Any time someone new "takes over" a series of books after an author has passed away, I'm a bit skeptical that the new guy (or gal) will do the original author up proud. In the case of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, perhaps my all-time favorite character, it seems to me an almost insurmountable challenge. Since Fleming's death in 1964, I believe six authors have taken on the task, including such well-known writers as Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Jeffery Deaver. Most did a passable job; in 2011, in fact, I gave Deaver's Carte Blanche 4 stars for coming up with an interesting story and doing a pretty good job following Fleming's style. 

Now comes William Boyd, also an award-winning author in his own right, who may be the best of the lot. No, he's not Fleming, but he manages to keep the "flavor" of Bond intact while writing a story that is intriguing, filled with surprises and, of course, plenty of action.

This one is set in 1969 just as British special agent 007 Bond reaches his 45th year. He's summoned to headquarters by his boss, M, who assigns him to go to Zanzarim. The West African country is in the throes of a civil war, and Bond is charged with the difficult task of stopping the rebels, thus ensuring that the established regime remains in place.

The difficulty, though, becomes nearly impossible once Bond gets to his destination and realizes that nothing is as it seems (and certainly not as he was told). The uprising is far from straightforward, and almost from the start, he learns no one can be trusted. A conspiracy is afoot, and Bond must figure out the real reasons behind all the violence and who's really responsible - hopefully without losing his own life in the process. This one's a page-turner that kept me hooked from beginning to end.

Solo: A James Bond Novel by William Boyd (HarperCollins Publishers, October 2013); 341 pp.

Friday, November 22, 2013

SIGNATURE AFFAIR: LOVE, LIES AND LIAISONS

I'm always a bit reluctant to say yes to authors who offer to send me a free book in exchange for a review. For the most part, that's because I insist on being honest, and while I have no problem pointing out a few blips, I simply don't have the heart to "trash" anyone else's work. Blame it on upbringing; if you can't say anything good, my late mother always said, don't say anything at all.

The same can be said about reading a book by someone you know - or more accurately, know of. When the author of this book was president of Youngstown State University, I was working as a journalist at a newspaper just blocks away, and my husband Jack was a part-time faculty member at YSU (back then, they were called "limited-service"). When I learned that the author - now retired and living in Florida - had penned a novel that centers on university life, I hesitated; what if it were a clinker? But since the description told me the book "exposes the underbelly of academic life on a Midwestern college campus," I just couldn't resist; after spending a good portion of my life as a university administrator myself, I've got a pretty good handle on the politics and peccadilloes that go with the territory. Besides, it wasn't free; I paid $5.99 for the Kindle version at Amazon.

As it turns out, I'm happy to report it's quite good, especially for a debut novel; clearly, Cochran has taken the advice to "write about what you know" to heart. I might even argue there's a bit of "who you know" in there as well; a couple of characters in the book are amazingly reminiscent of folks who were around back when Cochran was at YSU. At 322 pages, it didn't take long to finish, but the plot moved along nicely and held my attention. Had it been possible, I'd have finished it in a single sitting.

That said, I'll get my quibbles out of the way up front. I know that the use of "alright" in place of "all right" is gaining acceptance in some circles, but  in my vocabulary, it's still akin to fingernails on a blackboard. And, I'll give whoever was the copy editor half a dozen lashes with a red pencil for allowing about that number of improper uses of apostrophe's (sic, on purpose to make my point).

The story centers on Steve Schilling, who has been groomed (in ways that can happen only in a university setting) to become the next president of Eastern Arkansas University. Playing all the political angles that involve administration and faculty, the retiring current president, Schilling's mentor, accomplishes that goal - and thereafter remains in the wings to make sure Schilling gets the job done effectively. In fact, Schilling does that and more; quickly, he masters the art of schmoozing, wheeling, dealing and cajoling for money (a.k.a. fund-raising).

Aye, but there's a rub. The good president, it seems, has a serious character flaw - a penchant for women besides his own beautiful, talented wife. Once the total reaches five -- all unknown to everyone else including Schilling's wife -- trying to keep them all happy becomes an impossible juggling act. Problem is, he's convinced he's head-over-heels in love with each and every one and, despite warnings from colleagues, he refuses to let any one of them go unattended for any meaningful length of time. Even a visit to a psychologist (who inexplicably diagnoses Schilling with a nasty case of sex addition within minutes of meeting him) does nothing to convince him he's headed for a big-time train wreck. 

Finally, his wife -- who thus far has forgiven him for suspected marital transgressions -- accepts the truth, and as his professional behavior increasingly becomes erratic, his colleagues become suspicious as well. Worse, the chief of a local newspaper has been tipped off, assigning a reporter to ferret out the facts. But everyone concerned, except perhaps Schilling, also are acutely aware of the damage that public exposure (so to speak) of his illicit affairs will do to the university which, thanks in large part to Schilling's efforts, has achieved greater status and now is a recognized leader in both academics and athletics.

What happens won't be revealed here, except to say the ending is very much in keeping with the ways of academia as I knew it and also provides a nice segue to Cochran's next in what is expected to be a trilogy, Costly Affair (the first chapter of which is included in this book).

Signature Affair: Love, Lies and Liaisons by Les Cochran (Bookstand Publishing October 2013); 322 pp.

Friday, November 8, 2013

THE OCTOBER LIST

5 stars (out of 5)

Quick: When was the last time you read a book from finish to start?

Well, this one gives you that chance. The October List takes place over a three-day weekend, starting on Sunday with a frenzied investment firm office manager named Gabriela whose young daughter has been kidnapped. A relatively new friend and venture capital fund manager has left her to go deal with the kidnapper, who's demanded a $500,000 ransom plus a mysterious document called the "October List" that belongs to her boss, who's gone missing (along with most of the firm's money) and is being sought by police. From there, everything moves backward in time, with each chapter revealing new clues as to how the first chapter (which really is the last) came about.


Honestly, if I were judging this one on the plot alone, I'd probably stick with a four-star rating; it's a good story, but not that good. But the creativity of writing a whodunit starting with the last chapter first - and pulling it off in great style - is worth the extra star and then some.

I'll also admit to two other things: First, it's not all that easy to read; for at least the first half-dozen chapters, in fact, I was pretty sure this wasn't my cup of tea. But mostly, I think, that happened because our minds just aren't trained to see and do things in reverse order - just try writing a sentence backward. So as the chapters moved along, I had to work at remembering the who's who and what's what that happened before (or more accurately, after). The second admission is that when I finished the book, yes, I went back and read the first (last) chapter once again to make sure all the ends were properly tied in my mind.

Despite my five-star rating, I don't think this book is for everyone - certainly not anyone who enjoys a tried-and-true approach to writing (and reading). I also hope this bit of nonconformity doesn't start a trend, because no matter how well written I think this book is, I'm not chomping at the bit to read another one like it. But for those who like a bit of a challenge - and a pretty darned good mystery - I say it's definitely worth a try.

The October List by Jeffery Deaver (Grand Central Publishing, October 2013); 320 pp.

Friday, November 1, 2013

DICK FRANCIS'S REFUSAL

4 stars (out of 5)

The late Dick Francis, a former British steeplechase jockey, was a prolific writer of crime novels that center on the Sport of Kings (somewhere around 40, or so I've heard). On some, he collaborated with his wife, Mary; more recently, it was with their son, Felix. After Dick Francis died in 2010, he son maintained the tradition by writing on his own (albeit with his father's name in the title, as with this one).


I've been a fan for some time, although I thought the books co-authored by Felix were a bit lacking. Here, Felix brings back a protagonist familiar to many readers, former jockey and private detective Sid Halley. Honestly, he's not a character I recall - it's just been too long - so I can't compare Felix's version with that of his father. I will say, however, that I enjoyed this one immensely.

One reason for that, I admit, is that over the past year or so I've nearly overdosed on knock 'em down, bang 'em up thrillers in which the head games and action happen almost nonstop and the language can get a bit gritty (not that there's anything wrong with that). The minute I'd finished the first chapter of this book, though, I actually smiled and breathed a sigh of relief at the well-crafted and almost understated sentences - quite civilised (intentionally spelled with an "s" as a nod to the British). 

Here's the low-down: Halley retired as a P.I. six years ago after being physically beaten so many times (even losing his hand, now replaced by a prosthetic model) that his wife demanded that he quit. Since he's now the father of a young daughter, he agreed. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so when a friend high placed in the racing industry asks him to investigate possible race fixing he declines - until that friend is found dead, an apparent (but unlikely) suicide. Then, after Halley interrogates a couple of jockeys, he gets a threatening call from an unidentified man with an Irish accent demanding that he not only cease and desist his investigation, but fabricate a report to the racing commission stating that he found nothing amiss.

Halley balks, of course - only to have the man demonstrate that he wasn't making idle threats. Now, Halley's family is in danger, forcing Halley rethink his refusal and pull out all the stops and ferret out the details of the alleged racing scandal as well as bring the person or persons responsible to justice.

Dick Francis's Refusal by Felix Francis (Putnam Adult September 2013); 384 pp.

Friday, September 13, 2013

MISTRESS

3 stars out of 5

My just-finished a gin-and-tonic may have put me in a generous mood, but I'm a bit more upbeat about the latest co-authoring effort from James Patterson than others are. At the time of this writing, 93 reviewers had rated the book on Amazon.com, 38 of whom gave it just one star, 11 gave it two and 10 agree with me at three. "The book is simply drivel," one reviewer said. "This was a waste of money to me," said another.

I don't disagree with either one, but unlike a few reviewers, I managed to finish the book - and even look forward, at least somewhat, to learning how things would work out in the end. I admit I had this nagging feeling that I'd be gob-smacked with something akin to the Bob Newhart-Suzanne Pleshette "Newhart" finale, one of the most memorable in TV history (if you don't know what happened, Google it). Although I'm not one to offer spoilers, I will say nothing like that happened here, thank goodness.

This one features Benjamin, the more-than-a-little paranoid and very wealthy owner of an Internet newspaper whose mind tends to wander all over the map - movies, presidential minutia and other trivia. He's also obsessed with a beautiful woman named Diana, who has asked him to install surveillance devices in her apartment while she's gone. As he exits the building, she comes in - only to jump off her sky-high balcony in an apparent suicide while he's still in the neighborhood.

Very soon, though, he begins to realize Diana isn't quite the perfect woman he thought - and trying to find out what really happened puts him in the crosshairs of everyone from the CIA, the Russians, the Chinese and even the U.S. President. Soon, he's convinced he's the target  - even if you're paranoid, after all, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you - and the race begins to see if he can uncover the truth before he gets captured or worse, killed.

At every turn of his motorcycle, bike and even his own head, Ben spouts trivia (usually from movies) - ad nauseum. At first, it helped define his obsessive personality; but very quickly, it turned just plain annoying. By about a third of the way through, I learned to skim over those parts (one reason, no doubt, that I was able to finish the book in short order even with limited spare time). And you know what? When it came to the plot, I didn't miss a thing.

The bottom line? It's readable, but take my advice and borrow it from a library or a friend for free. Even the Kindle version at $12.74 is way too much to pay for this one.

Mistress by James Patterson and David Ellis (Little, Brown and Co., August 2013); 448 pp.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

THE BEAST

5 stars (out of 5)

Opening a new Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus book always is accompanied by a bit of excitement - I've read them all (this is the 21st), and while some have been better than others, I've enjoyed every single one. This one, IMHO, is one of the best.

Any disappointment, if you can call it that, is that it seems Rina's role has diminished over time (a trend that became noticeable in last year's Gun Games). In the past, she's been more directly involved in her husband's murder investigations, and there's been more interaction between the two of them. Now, her life has taken a back seat, mostly serving as the chief family cook and mediator between Peter, an LAPD detective, and the high-strung musical prodigy they've taken in at least for the short haul. 

Besides that, I've always enjoyed learning more about Orthodox Judaism (Peter came to that party when he married Rina many years ago). But in this book, except for a mention or two of Peter's need to be home by sundown on Friday to observe Shabbat, the subject is virtually nonexistent. Then too, there's the matter of more than a couple of grammatical errors that should have been caught - but that's more on the head of copy editors than the author (and something, unfortunately, that's become quite common in books I've read over the past few years).

As for the story, it involves a particularly gory murder of an old, and extremely eccentric and exceedingly wealthy recluse who keeps an adult tiger in his apartment and apparently enjoys kinky sex with ladies of the evening. Early on, Peter and his LAPD colleagues learn that the tiger's roar is much worse than her bite  - and the chase is on to find the real killer. That leads the crew from a remote wildlife sanctuary to Las Vegas casinos and includes a consult with Dr. Alex Delaware, the lead character in books by Kellerman's husband, Jonathan.

Meanwhile, that teenage child prodigy is having problems all his own, creating tension at home. Everything comes together to present a dilemma (and possible major life change) for Peter and Rina which, I assume, will provide very interesting fodder for the next book.

I'll be waiting!

The Beast by Faye Kellerman (William Morrow, August 2013); 384 pp.

Friday, August 16, 2013

THE ENGLISH GIRL

5 stars (out of 5)

When it comes to books, not much thrills me as much as learning Daniel Silva has produced another featuring art restoration expert and Israeli super-spy Gabriel Allon. No surprise, then when I couldn't wait to get my Kindle stylus tapping on the latest adventure. That said, I always open them with a sense of hesitation; I'm always fearful (make that scared to death) that something awful will happen to him and/or his beautiful wife Chiara. 

So, as each chapter begins and Gabriel's always complex, always dangerous adventures unfold, I take a deep breath in anticipation of reading something I hope I never have to read. That is, I think, a complement to Silva, who has managed to tap into my emotions like few authors have done and, simply put, make me care enormously about all of his characters.

This one begins as a young British woman with links to the Prime Minister disappears on the island of Corsica and, in part to avoid a scandal that threatens to topple the English government, Gabriel is called upon to handle negotiations with what is assumed to be a kidnapping. Of course, nothing in the world of espionage is ever as it seems, and just when you think a situation has been resolved, a new and even more potentially dangerous twist appears on the horizon. Along the way are Silva's wonderful insights into his characters -- not many authors do a better job, IMHO -- as well as interesting and informative looks into the history of the countries in which the action takes place (most notably Israel, a country that has long fascinated me).

Much more than that I can't say without revealing too much of the plot, although I will add that the ending brings into question exactly what Gabriel's role will be in future books. But I enjoyed this one from beginning to end and think it's one of Silva's best - were it possible, in fact, I'd have given this one 6 stars. 

The English Girl: A Novel (Gabriel Allon) by Daniel Silva (HarperCollins Publishers July 2013); 490 pp.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

HIDDEN ORDER

As I've mentioned in other book reviews, I am so not a fan of history in any size, shape or form. Museums? You've got my attention for half an hour, max. Books? Fuhgettiboutit! So when I say that Hidden Order not only taught me a few things about history but made it interesting in the process, you can be sure that's a compliment to the author's considerable talents.

This book marks, if I'm not mistaken, the 12th in the series featuring Scot Harvath, a covert counter-terrorism operative and former Navy SEAL. The private firm he now works for has been called in to investigate the sudden disappearance of five candidates under consideration to head the U.S. Federal Reserve Board. When the candidates start to turn up dead, the situation takes a more urgent turn in an effort to prevent all from being slaughtered in horrific fashion. Clearly, someone is sending a message, and solving the case means finding out who's doing it and why.

The chase leads Harvath to match wits with CIA officers and Boston detectives, one of whom proves to be a "match" for Harvath in more ways than one. The action moves along quickly and, for the most part, believably - with only a few instances of super-human efforts - and my suspicion of the whodunit didn't come until fairly close to the end. For the record, yes, I was right, but as the TV commercials say, wait, there's more. 

I was also happy that the "rants" the author is fond of making (and which, in his last couple of novels, were a bit over the top), were kept to a mild roar. It's obvious he wants the public to be aware of the absolute power of the Federal Reserve - which, as he points out, is neither federal nor has any reserves yet has almost total and unchallenged control of U.S. monetary policy. But this time the facts, figures and warnings are worked into the plot on a more subtle basis - I didn't feel as if I were being hit over the head with a two-by-four.

Hidden Order: A Thriller by Brad Thor (Stria/Emily Bestler Books, July 2013); 374 pp.

Friday, July 26, 2013

ZERO HOUR

4-1/2 stars (out of 5)

After reading Cussler's disappointing Poiseidon's Arrow, co-written by his son Dirk Cussler last year - I gave it just 3 stars - I wasn't expecting this to be much better (read my review here). That book was the 22nd "starring" Dirk Pitt, who since his introduction in 1965 has "graduated to head up the National Underwater and Marine Agency. Pitt makes an occasional appearance in that capacity in Zero Hour, but this one (Book 9 of The Numa Files) follows friends Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala and the rest of the Numa team as they try to stop a mad scientist who's bent on destroying the world as they know it.

The focus, if you will, is on "zero point energy," which is a theoretical state of energy that well-known scientists like Nikola Tesla reportedly espoused but for which his designs mysteriously disappeared before they could be tested. If tapped, it could be used as an energy source for the betterment of the world; but misused, the consequences could be dire. Here, the Numa team learns that a discredited and paranoid scientist has mastered the technology and, together with his son, plans to unleash it by targeting a fault line that runs through the middle of Australia and splitting the continent right down the middle.

As the team searches to find and shut down the villain before that happens at "Zero Hour," the chase moves along nicely, making this book hard to put down. On occasion, the boundaries of what the human body is capable of are tested a bit as the testosterone levels shoot up (literally and figuratively), but it never quite reaches the point of super-human that always bugs the heck out of me when I run across it in other books of this genre. All in all, a great job! 

Zero Hour by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown (Putnam Adult, May 2013); 400 pp.

Monday, July 22, 2013

MATANZAS BAY

4 stars (out of 5)

It was the setting - St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States - that made me take a closer look at this book, which, when I got it, was free on the Kindle. My husband and I have friends in the Sunshine State who have taken many beautiful photos of the attractions there, like the historic lighthouse and the Alligator Farm, so I was hoping I'd be getting an enjoyable bargain.

And that I did. The first in a series featuring private investigator Quint Mitchell (the second, Bringing Down the Furies, has been published as well), it's very well written and held my interest right to the very last page. And to my special delight, some of the action actually takes place at those two landmarks I mentioned earlier.

The story begins as Mitchell is helping at an archaeological dig, where a more recent and gruesome find turns up. When the lead archaeologist and Mitchell's personal friend is charged with the murder, the PI sets out to find the real killer. In the process, he runs afoul of local law enforcement, city leaders and politicians who have irons in fires that have yet to start burning. 

If I'm honest, I must say I suspected how this one would end. But at no point did I know for sure until the author (whose real name is Victor DiGenti, by the way), put it in writing. All in all, I very much enjoyed Quint Mitchell's debut - and I look forward to reading the next one (which takes place in South Carolina).

Matanzas Bay by Parker Francis (Windrusher Hall Press, March 2011); 258 pp.

Friday, July 12, 2013

BREAKING POINT

5 stars (out of 5)

What's in a name? If it happens to be mine, you can be sure I'll take notice. I first discovered C.J. Box's series featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett years ago with the first - Open Season - simply because Pickett is my family name. I'd have read it just because of that, but the fact that it fell into the genre of books I love most made me even more eager to check it out.


That was then - 2001 - and I've been a happy reader ever since. As always, I couldn't wait to get the 13th and latest, Breaking Point, on my Kindle. And like all the others, it was hard to put it down and the ending, which of course I won't reveal, made me want to learn what happens next.

Part of the books' appeal is that they're not simply about the game warden and his adventures, but his wife and children as well. But now, his daughters are practically grown (one is in college), and I was curious to see how the family dynamic would be worked into this story. And in fact, while Joe's wife Marybeth has a bit of a role here, there seemed to me to be noticeably less emphasis on the family angle in this installment. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the next book in the series.

This one, which brings into play the dire consequences of government power gone wrong, is based on a true story that ended up before the Supreme Court (Sackett v. EPA 2012). Butch Roberson, Joe's family friend and business owner, has become the target of the Environmental Protection Agency, which apparently is out to get him by ruining everything he's tried hard to build up by declaring a tract of land on which Butch and his wife plan to build a retirement home a protected wetland. But then, two EPA agents are murdered, and the evidence points to Butch as the killer - suggesting that he he may have reached his breaking point.

As Butch goes on the run, a manhunt ensues, and it becomes clear that the powers-that-be aren't looking to capture him alive. As the local game warden and a man who is familiar with Butch, Joe is called into service to assist in the hunt. But early on he begins to suspect that something is very wrong and that some of the very people who employ him may be less than honorable - and who, by the end, bring Joe to a breaking point of his own. 

If I have a criticism, I suppose it would be that almost all of the U.S. government folks are shown in a much less-than-positive light - bringing to mind the political rants late author Vince Flynn would insert into his novels (for the record, he's a favorite author too). At the same time, author Box is a life-long resident of Wyoming, so I'm sure the Sackett case struck a few personal chords. And, much of the criticism is justified; sometimes, the government really is out to get you.  

Breaking Point by C.J. Box (Putnam Adult March 2013); 384 pp.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

INFERNO

4 stars (out of 5)

By the time I'd read the first half-dozen chapters in the latest adventures of Harvard professor (and art historian who specializes in iconography) Robert Langdon, I concluded this book must have been written with a movie in mind. And now that I've finished it, I'm even more sure of it.

I'll also say up front that my reason for giving the book 4 stars instead of 5 (as I did for two of the author's other incredibly popular Langdon books, The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons) is - ironically - that this one seemed easier to read: much less complex and difficult to follow. And in many instances, that's is a good thing. But ease of reading doesn't necessarily mean better - and while I enjoyed this one, I can't honestly say it's as well written as those other two.

That Brown has done considerable research is obvious; if nothing else, this book is a history lesson on the architecture of important buildings in all the places in which Langdon finds himself as the plot develops as well as insights into a literary masterpiece, Dante's <i>Inferno</i>, from which the book gets its title. But frankly, such in-depth descriptions of the meaning of every little nook, cranny and horse's foot can get a little tiresome fairly quickly.

From the start, Langdon and his female companion in this book, the beautiful and secretive Sienna, spend much of their time evading capture by forces out to get them (which includes the U.S. government), scurrying in and out of seemingly inescapable hidey-holes. And too often, the situations they encounter seemed contrived (bringing the concept of writing for a movie back to mind again). Yes, Langdon has an eidetic memory, but the uncanny knack of knowing exactly where the secret passageway is and how to get it open sort of strains credulity after the second or third time. 

The same can be said about Langdon's responses at the times when interpretation of a symbol, word, or lines from Dante's work are crucial to solving a particular mystery. Oh, whatever does this mean? Oh wait! I'll just spin around three times, turn the letters upside down, eliminate all the vowels and spit into a silver bucket and eureka - now I've got it! 

Still, it's fun to watch as Langdon uncovers not only who the bad guy is but what he's up to - something that threatens humankind as we know it - and then unearths clues that hopefully will lead him to a way to stop it from happening. There are a few surprises (although not altogether unpredictable). There's even one plot twist that's reminiscent of the ending of Bob Newhart's second TV show when he wakes up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the first show.

Apparently, I'm not alone in my criticism of this book; of the 220 reviews of the book at Amazon.com at the time of this writing, 92 readers gave it three stars or less. But all things considered, I say it's a decent book - just not quite up to the level of writing I'd expected.

But hey. Maybe this will be one of those rare books that works better on the big screen.


Inferno by Dan Brown; Doubleday (May 2013); 480 pp.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

UNDER THE DOME

5 stars (out of 5)

For a voracious reader like me, it doesn't get much better: When I finished the first [short] chapter of this book, I was so totally blown away that a big "Wow! came out of my mouth, startling my husband Jack who was sitting next to me reading a book of his own. My next thoughts were that this is a perfect example of what great writing should be, followed by the question of why, since I used to be a huge Stephen King fan, I haven't read any of his books in several years.

The question, though, is fairly easy to answer. Many of King's early books were, in addition to terrific, relatively short. Cujo, for instance, is 324 pages; another favorite, Thinner, is 356. As a busy working mom with little free time to read, these were a great way to satisfy my craving for mystery and thrills in fairly short order.

But then, King started to go wild and crazy, churning out epics that required two free hands to pick up (drinking a cup of coffee or sipping wine while reading them was next to impossible). In addition, patience has never been one of my virtues; when I start a new book, I want to finish it now. As you might expect, then, it's pretty much a rule that if it's more than 350 pages, give or take another 50, I won't be reading it - even though I have far more free time now that I'm semi-retired.

That said, there are two authors (and only two) for whom I'm willing to break that rule: J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame (and more recently, The Casual Vacancy) and King, although it's been a long time since I tackled a tome by the latter. But then, I started seeing promotions for "Under the Dome," a 13-episode TV show on CBS based on King's book of the same name. I wanted to watch it for sure, but as with most books-turned-anything else, I wanted to do the reading first. Published in 2009, it wasn't hard to find - but then I saw the 1,088 pages and gasped. I can read four other books in the time it will take to finish this one, I reasoned - and besides, would I be able to get it done before June 24, the date the first episode airs?

Since you're reading this review, it's obvious that I made it with time to spare. And what a read it is!

If you've seen the TV trailers, you already know the basic premise: Suddenly, without any warning at all, a small town in Maine becomes enclosed in an invisible barrier - much like the clear glass cover on a turkey platter. The "thing" is ever-so-slightly permeable by air and water - sound doesn't seem to be a problem - and it's nearly impossible to determine how high (or how far underground) it reaches. That it can't be seen is demonstrated time and again by trucks, airplanes and animals that crash into it, blowing everyone in them to kingdom come. No one in or out of the town has a clue where the thing came from or when (or if) it will go away again.

The real story here, of course, is how the townsfolk react to the situation; many have lost loved ones - either by accident or because they're on the outside of the dome - and there's a threat to life itself with no possible way to connect to the rest of the world for supplies, water or oxygen. As one might expect, the community becomes split into two factions; one is led by a used-car dealer and dictatorial town politician who's used to getting what he wants (often in ways that aren't legal). The other, much smaller, faction is led by a former army officer who's found a place where he can forget about his time in Iraq and the editor/publisher of the town newspaper.

As the situation becomes known to the outside world, the army guy - Dale Barbara - is re-recruited by his old commander who's on the outside to take charge of the inside per instructions from none other than the U.S. President. This, understandably, rankles the politician ("Big Jim" Rennie Sr.), who's intent on establishing himself as the in-charge guy during the disaster and after, assuming there is an after. Quickly (well, in a book this long that's a relative term), things go from bad to worse and bodies start piling up literally all over the place - some from natural causes and others not.

If I have a criticism, it's hard to keep all the characters straight except for the "biggies" - not only because there are so many, but because they keep dropping like flies never to be read about again. Still, the interactions among those who remain held my interest all the way through, making me forget (well, almost!) about the overarching threat - the dome itself.

Kudos, Mr. King - I'm really looking forward to seeing the TV adaptation. I've read that the ending in the book has been completely changed, and a couple of the main characters seem to have dropped in age by quite a few years (pandering to the youth market, I suppose). Well, we'll see - this is why I always want to read the book first!

Under the Dome by Stephen King (Scribner, December 2009); 1,088 pp.

Friday, May 31, 2013

DOG ON IT: A Chet and Bernie Mystery

4 stars (out of 5)

Admittedly, I'm a bit of a sucker for books that involve cats and dogs. I never missed a single one of "The Cat Who..." mystery novels by the late Lilian Jackson Braun, for instance - I loved the antics (and murder-solving abilities of KoKo and Yum-Yum, the two Siamese cats owned by former newspaper reporter James Qwilleran. And one of my favorite books of all time is Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain.

So when one of my e-newsletters arrived from BookBub.com announcing availability of this book for $2.99 at Amazon.com, I read the description, noted the average of 4-1/2 stars from 448 customer reviews and didn't "paws" long before hitting the "Buy Now" button.

Still, there's always a bit of concern over wasting time and money (even if it's just a little bit) as I Fire up my Kindle and navigate to the first page. Will it be a clunker after all? That feeling hung around for less than three pages, I'm happy to report - that's when something I read made me chuckle right out loud. Okay, I said to myself - we're good to go.

The books are narrated by Chet, a lovable dog who's loyal to Bernie and very smart (but not smart enough to avoid flunking out of K-9 police school). He's owned by Bernie, a relatively small-time private investigator who has to scramble to have enough money for his breakfast eggs. They're called to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl who's gone missing and may (or may not) be the victim of a kidnapping. She turns up safe and sound, but days later she's gone again. Bernie's suspicious, and Chet's keen sense of smell tells him something's not quite kosher as well.

The search takes them to the desert, biker bars and abandoned mines, threatening both their lives at various stops along the way. Each step is described in typical doggie fashion by Chet, who does a pretty good job of figuring out what humans are up to even though he can't quite get a grip on emotions (smells, on the other hand, he's got down to a science).

The book is well written and the plot is for the most part plausible (if perhaps not the most gripping, edge-of-seat story I've ever read). Best of all, it's just fun; Chet's take on things can be a bit of a hoot - or should I say bark. All in all, an outstanding debut novel. Even better, it’s the first in a series, followed by A Fistful of Collars, The Dog Who Knew Too Much, To Fetch a Thief and Thereby Hangs a Tail. I’ve already read Fistful - but I’ll let you try this one before I start howling the praises of that one.

Dog On It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery by Spencer Quinn (Atria Books February 2009); 324 pp.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

THE DARK POOL

4 stars (out of 5)

I've had great success, so far, with snagging no- and very low-cost books at sites like Lendle.me, Freebooksifter.com and BookBub.com. Part of that success, though, comes because I never fail to check the ratings of other readers as well as the track records of the authors before I forge ahead.

This time, though, there were only four customer reviews - and I'm always a little suspicious when every single one gave the book 5 stars (most writers easily can scare up that many friends and relatives who are willing to say wonderful things, after all). But the description sounded interesting, and Fishman has a strong background as a former editor at Doubleday and literary agent in New York plus two thrillers to his credit. Since the price through BookBub was was right - just 99 cents - I figured it was worth a shot. And I'm happy to say this one hits the target.

The story centers around the nation's winning-est inner-city high school football coach who loves his players more than life itself. When his star running back, who is headed for The Ohio State University [Go Bucks!!],is accused of rape, everything starts to fall apart. Then even worse things begin to happen that lead to the coach's financial wizard brother, who dabbles in a secret marketplace called the "dark pool" together with other money-hungry investors - some of whom apparently will do anything to avoid a financial crash-and-burn. Could there be a connection that is pitting brother against brother? Is there a future for the once-powerful football team and its coach?

The book is quite well written and I wouldn't hesitate to read another book by this author, but I gave it 4 stars for this reason: About 40% of the way through (I don't have page numbers on my Kindle Fire books), it suddenly struck me that unlike most other thrillers, I didn't feel compelled to keep going. At that point, I realized, I hadn't established much of a rapport with any of the characters. In fact, I could have put the book down and never opened it again without any great sense of loss.

I didn't, of course (my mama didn't raise no quitter), and after another couple of chapters, the action started to pick up and I grew enthusiastic enough that I polished it off without stopping. I was pretty sure what would happen in the end - and I was right - but exactly how it would happen, and to whom, kept me guessing right up to the last few pages.

The Dark Pool by J.E. Fishman; StoneGate Ink (January 2013); 323 pp.

Friday, May 17, 2013

12th OF NEVER


4 stars (out of 5)

Having just come off of reading a couple of heavy-duty mind-bending thrillers, I was close to excited about starting this one by the prolific Patterson and co-writer Maxine Paetro (she's perhaps my favorite of the ones he's been working with - especially of late when for the most part he seems to be sacrificing quality to get quantity). The books in his Women's Murder Club series are almost guaranteed to be heavy on the easy and breezy and light on the queasy - and that's just what I needed right about now.

If that weren't enough, it's very neat that one of the consultants Patterson uses for the books is Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, medical examiner and coroner of Trumbull County, Ohio - the county in which I've made my home since 1962. You'll have to go to the credits to find his name, but I'm happy to see some positive light shining right here in my neck of the woods.

For those who might not know, the Women's Murder Club consists of Lindsay Boxer (a San Francisco police detective), Claire Washburn (a medical examiner), Yuki Castellano (a district attorney) and Cindy Thomas (a newspaper reporter). Each brings a different personality and different skills to the table, and when they gather around it, things can get very interesting (and murders can get solved). I've read most if not all the others - starting with 1st to Die - and enjoyed each and every one.

In between, I also enjoyed the relatively short-lived TV series starring the beautiful and talented Angie Harmon as Lindsay. And when I started this book I was surprised to learn that Lindsay is a blond - a fact I'd apparently missed through all those books. In fact, I thought Angie was a natural for the role. How on earth did I miss that?

This one begins with the earlier than expected birth of Julie, the daughter of Lindsay and her husband Joe. The baby is having some health issues, but a couple of new cases mean Lindsay has to return to work and leave the baby in Joe's capable hands. Yuki, meanwhile, is prosecuting one of the biggest cases of her career - a man who allegedly murdered his wife and daughter and has hired a killer attorney - and Claire is having problems of her own keeping tabs on a murder victim who's landed in her morgue. Cindy doesn't get a home free card either; the relationship with her police officer fiance isn't exactly smooth sailing, and things go from bad to worse after a beautiful intern joins the department.

As is always the case, everything (well, almost everything) works out by the end - and the "almost" parts leave the door open for the next book, of course. All in all, it's a fun ride that won't try your brainpower or your attention span (I could have finished it easily in half a day or less if I'd had that much available time). 

I do want to add something else, though, that troubles me considerably - the promotional tagline I assume comes from the publisher: "Lindsay Boxer must choose: stop a vicious murderer or save her baby?" I can't explain my objections without revealing too much about the story, so suffice it to say that while yes, there's a serious issue with the baby, the tagline is misleading at best and at worst a bit offensive to all the working mothers out there.

12th of Never by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro; Little, Brown and Co. (April 2013); 432 pp.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

WHISKEY BEACH

3 stars (out of 5)


Put my feet to the fire and I'd consider giving this one 3-12 stars, but for now, 3's my story and I'm stickin' to it. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it - every time I had to put it down for a while I looked forward to opening it up again, at least sort of. But from the git-go, it just didn't grab me the way a thriller should (especially one from the usually talented author Nora Roberts, whose books I've enjoyed in the past).

My lack of interest mostly centered on the characters -- starting with Boston lawyer Eli Landon, who's been convicted in the minds of many of  murdering his wife even though he was never charged. In semi-disgrace, he returns to Bluff House, his family's home on Whiskey Island. There, he meets the offbeat Abra, who left a life in the corporate world and personal trauma behind to "find herself" on the island (of course, they quickly become an item). Thereafter, another murder happens and Eli becomes a suspect once again - and continues to be hounded by a Boston detective who's convinced Eli is twice guilty is bound and determined to prove it.

Problem is, not one of these characters is particularly credible, or even very likeable. Any detective who harassed private citizens to the extent this one did wouldn't be a detective very long. Abra is simply too "perfect" to be believed; in fact, I spent most of the book convinced that she was so goody-two-shoes that she just had to end up a villain. Despite his protestations of innocence and attempts to prove he didn't commit either murder, I just couldn't muster up much sympathy for the very stubborn Eli. Even the fairly explicit love scenes between Eli and Abra were, well, lackluster - mostly because I never felt much real chemistry between the two.

Then too, words and phrases kept appearing and reappearing, sometimes in the same paragraph - and although it's been said that repetition is the key to learning, it does nothing to boost the excitement level. In fact, it's downright boring, and it made me conclude that this tale could have been told more effectively in half the number of pages. Leave out some of the multi-talented Abra's endless accomplishments (good lord, is there anything the woman can't do?) and I was sure of it. At one point, in fact, I even envisioned her in the Yoga downward facing dog position while chopping apples with one hand, washing the dog with the other and balancing Eli's laptop on her upward-facing butt.

All along, I kept thinking (make that hoping) that I'd come to a few plot twists that would spark a little emotion - perhaps that one of the characters wasn't who he or she purported to be and I'd at least get to be surprised. Whether or not that happened I can't write here without revealing too much, so I'll just say that while this isn't an awful book and I'm not sorry I read it, it's not even close to a favorite.  

Whiskey Beach by Nora Roberts; Putnam Adult (April 2013); 495 pp.

Friday, April 26, 2013

THE STRIKER


Let me fill you in on a little-known fact: I am not - let me repeat that, not - a history buff. Back when I finished the first of what would be three basic history classes in college, in fact, I changed my major simply so I could avoid taking the other two. Honest.


So when I saw the period setting of this book, the fifth in Clive Cussler's series featuring early 1900s detective Isaac Bell, I was more than a little reluctant to start reading. Then I learned that it takes place in and around the coal mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania not far from my home at a time when labor unions were trying to gain a foothold. Vilified by mine owners, union organizers were targeted, roughed up and even killed as they  attempted to win higher pay and safer working conditions for workers in this extremely hazardous, but exceedingly profitable, industry.

This is the fourth in the Bell series written in collaboration with author Justin Scott, an established writer of several novels under his own name and the pen name Paul Garrison - for whatever that is worth. I've read and enjoyed other books by Cussler, but not any in this series; that, too, gave me pause until I found out it's really a prequel to the other four - the book in which Bell proves his bones as a private investigator. 

Bell, who is relatively fresh out of an apprenticeship at the Van Dorn Detective Agency, is hired to find unionist saboteurs in the coal mines. In the process, he witnesses an accident that he believes wasn't an accident at all - and sets off to get to the truth. Doing so pits him against very ruthless and powerful people who, especially in the days of crooked politicians and coal industry magnates, will stop at nothing to keep the "working man" in his place and keep racking up enormous profits to fund their private yachts, elegant mansions, steamboats and special railroad cars.

I admit reading was a bit of a slogfest for me, but only because the dialogue is in keeping with the times (and yes, a bit of my aversion to history). But it was totally fascinating and expertly crafted; I'm sure a great deal of research went into the writing and many of the happenings are based - though perhaps loosely - on real events. There really was a Henry Clay Frick (a bad guy in this book has a similar name) who was a major American industrialist and financier during the coal-coke-steel industry's early years, for instance - at one time he was considered the most hated man in America.

It was also quite interesting to see names of places very familiar to me: Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, the Monongehela and Ohio rivers on which barges tote coal to big cities like Cincinnati (perhaps stopping for water in Steubenville, Ohio). 

Heck, I even got a chuckle or two, such as when a powerful judge pronounced, "Nothing becomes Pittsburgh like the leaving of it!"

All in all, it's an excellent read - and for those who love history and whodunits, it's ideal. I know I'll take a break by reading a couple of other books in present-day settings, but this one was interesting enough that I'm actually considering giving the rest of this series a try.

The Striker by Clive Cussler (Putnam Adult, March 2013); 384 pp.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

IDENTITY: YOUR PASSPORT TO SUCCESS

4 stars (out of 5)


Partly because my undergraduate degree is in psychology, partly because I'm a classic Type A personality and partly because I'm a want-to-know-it-all Aries, I've always had an interest in self-help books - or at least that was the case back when I had full-time jobs and always looking at the next rung up on the career ladder. Zig Ziglar, Steven R. Covey, John Maxwell, Ken Blanchard and their ilk always had a place on my bookshelves.

And once, I read one by Stedman Graham, chairman and CEO  of S. Graham & Associates perhaps more universally known as Oprah Winfrey's significant other. In fact, he's penned something like 10 books including this one. Although I'm far less inclined to read books like this now that I'm mostly retired and my legs are a bit too old to try that ladder, I enjoyed the one I read so many years ago, and this one sounded like a good bet as well (and it didn't hurt that I was able to snag the Kindle version free at Amazon).

Actually, there's another reason for my interest in self-help books: For several years, I conducted what I'd call motivational/employee development workshops, and I was always looking for tidbits I could use in an attempt to get folks to become "internal" thinkers - taking charge of their own lives instead of wasting away blaming everyone else for their problems. "There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree," was one of my favorites (from Ziglar, if I recall correctly). "You can go out and climb it or sit on an acorn and wait for it to grow."

Graham's latest book emphasizes that same theme; it's your life, and if you want to get anywhere (however you choose to define "anywhere"), you've got to take charge of yourself. As such, he's developed a Nine-Step Success Process - sort of a variation on the "Conceive, Believe, Achieve" espoused by another biggie in the motivational market, Napoleon Hill.

And therein lies one of the first truths about motivation: There's nothing really new in the world or on the horizon. The difference between any two of these well-known speakers and writers is mostly in the packaging: You might say each has developed an "identity." In this book, Graham encourages readers to do the same - and that's not a bad thing.

The whole thing is put together concisely and well; each chapter offers insights from Graham as well as success stories from well-known people who have made it big, like the late Steve Jobs and Sen. John McCain. The core idea, Graham says, is this: "Your happiness and success in life flow from becoming clear about who you are and establishing your authentic identity - first inside yourself and then externally in the world."

Or, put another way, "I've learned that, for the most part, extraordinary people are simply ordinary people doing extraordinary things that matter to them." 

The point of this book, then, is to show you how to stop thinking of yourself as a victim of your circumstances and become "extraordinary," starting with becoming self-aware. In that regard, it is a bit reminiscent of Pastor Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life.

The nine steps, for the record, are appropriately titled for a journey, such as "Develop Your Travel Plan" and "Master the Rules of the Road." But as you might expect, the devil is in the details;  success stories of Graham and others round out each chapter and are followed at the end with questions to answer that will help you uncover, with the goal of eventually living, your true "identity."

If nothing else, if you walk Graham's talk, you'll learn a lot about yourself. And that's not a bad thing, either.

Identity: Your Passport to Success by Stedman Graham (FT Press February 2012); 222 pp.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

WHISKEY ISLAND


5 stars out of 5

Wish I could remember who got my husband Jack and I started reading books by Les Roberts, but all I know for sure is that it happened many years ago (this latest one, Whiskey Island, is the 16th featuring cop-turned-private detective Milan Jacovich). Initially, our interest was piqued because the P.I. lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio. Since it's a little more than an hour's drive from our home, we're fairly familiar with the city, and it's fun to read about places, and sometimes people, we know about.


Over the years, we've enjoyed many of Roberts's other books (The Strange Death of Father Candy and We'll Always Have Cleveland: A Memoir of a Novelist and a City among them). The latter, by the way, offers an up-close-and-personal look at what brought Roberts from the sunny climes of California to the more dismal Lake Erie shores of northeast Ohio. Out west, among other accomplishments, he was a writer for the TV show "Hollywood Squares," "The Andy Griffith Show" and others and has been a professional actor, jazz musician and teacher. 

It is the books in the Jacovich series that remain our favorites, though, and Whiskey Island doesn't disappoint. The topic of disappointment does crop up in the context of Roberts's books, though, since none are available for the Kindle (if you've got a Nook ebook reader, you're in luck, but we have to settle for a hard copy, and that does not make me a happy camper. The only reason I'm willing to consider that option, in fact, is that so far, at least, I enjoy the books so much that I don't want to miss one. 

Here, Jacovich - who's pushing 60 - takes on a brash young apprentice who's trying to make his bones as a private investigator and maybe even earn a full-time job as well. Sometimes, their relationship mixes no better than oil and water, but for the most part, they get along fairly well. Even before Kevin O'Bannion - known as "K.O." - gets a desk and computer, the firm is hired by a city councilman who's been indicted on many counts of bribery and other deeds unbecoming a public official and is looking at serious jail time. Apparently, or so he claims, someone is trying to murder him - and Jacovich and K.O. take on the job of finding out who that someone is before it becomes mission accomplished.

All that leads the dynamic duo through a maze of dishonest politicians and businessmen, a call girl who turns up dead and hanky-panky on Cleveland's Whiskey Island - hence the name of the book. Along the way, both Jacovich and K.O. get lucky in the female department, although it's hard to tell which of the guys is more surprised.

The chapters alternate from the point of view of Jacovich and K.O., and interestingly (well, to me, anyway), the Jacovich chapters are written in the first person just as in past books, while K.O.'s are written in the third person. I'm not sure what the significance of that is other than to keep things changed up a bit, but the thought certainly occurred to me that perhaps K.O. has a future in a spin-off series - perhaps even taking over when Jacovich decides he's too old for the private eye life and calls it a day.

Whiskey Island: A Milan Jacovich Mystery by Les Roberts; Gray & Co. Publishers (August 2012); 259 pp.

THE BONE BED


4 stars out of 5

After a couple of not-so-great Kay Scarpetta mysteries, Patricia Cornwell moved back toward her style groove in the 2011 Red Mist. So, I was hoping the trend would continue in her latest, The Bone Bed. And happily, it did.

This one begins as Scarpetta, chief medical examiner at a facility in Boston, receives a mysterious emailed video that suggests a missing paleontologist has been murdered at a "bone bed" archaeological dig a couple of thousand miles away. Then, just as she is forced to testify in the trial of a wealthy man accused of murdering his wife, whose body was never found, Scarpetta is called to help with a woman's body that's become entwined near an old boat in the Charles River - along with a huge, endangered leatherback turtle. Could this unidentified woman be the murdered wife? Are there connections with the woman in the video?

As she tries to follow where the evidence leads, she is mystified by actions of her technologically gifted niece, Lucy, as well as by her FBI profiler husband, Benton Wesley, the latter bringing into question his fidelity and the strength of their marriage. Also coming into question is the loyalty of her old friend and work colleague Pete Marino, who's landed in hot water following an Internet "relationship" gone sour and seems to be heading back down that slippery slope toward alcoholism.

Still an issue for me is Scarpetta's questioning of what's in her own mind (although it's not as noticeable in this book) as well as her near paranoia and over-thinking of every word and action of her husband, Lucy and just about every other character with whom she comes in contact. To be sure, getting older has a way of bringing with it certain insecurities, but somehow that just doesn't quite fit with the Scarpetta I've come to know and love. She's been around the block for too many times, and much too successfully, to question her own abilities, at least to this extent. 

The Bone Bed by Patricia Cornwell (Putnam Adult October 2012); 480 pp.

BOSSYPANTS


3 stars (out of 5)

Let me say at the outset that I don't know a lot about Tina Fey except that she's exceptionally talented, and I chuckle every time I even think about her spot-on  impression of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. But I've never watched her popular 30 Rock TV show or, for that matter anything else she's ever been in. But what little I do know was enough to entice me to take a peek at her autobiography - figuring at the very least I'd get a chuckle or two out of it.

And I did, at least at the outset. In fact, I told my husband Jack to be prepared to hear me chortle as I read through this one. But alas, the laugh-out-loud stuff came to a halt rather quickly, and the best I could muster from then on was an occasional smile. Although it was somewhat interesting overall, discovering such life-of-Fey trivia like what she learned from Lorne Michaels (creator and producer of the aforementioned SNL just didn't grab me much.

What I learned isn't much beyond what I already knew: She's exceptionally talented and her Sarah Palin thing was a bit hit, in large part because they look so much alike. New to me was that she has a scar on her face that she got as a child that has helped mold the person she is today (see, I told you I've seen her only on SNL sketches, and most of that time I was half asleep).

That's not to say the book isn't interesting; it's just that it's written much like one of her TV sketches - and sketches work best when they're seen, not read. Still, the book is punctuated with a few real gems. Her observation that "Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience are a virtue," for instance, almost made me snort coffee out my nose. And near the end (when the book starts getting really funny again), her bit on breastfeeding is a hoot. 

I certainly wasn't disappointed after reading her life story as it's happened so far; for such a well-known, public "personality," she's a relatively normal woman with a good head on her shoulders, feet solidly on the ground and a work ethic that would put a Midwesterner to shame -- and in my world, by golly, that's a Martha Stewart good thing. 

Bossypants by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur Books 2011); 288 pp.

THE CASUAL VACANCY


5 stars out of 5

Yes, I know this book isn't for kids; it's J.K. Rowling's first attempt at writing a novel for adults. But as a died-in-the-wool fan of the Hogwarts clan - I've devoured every single page of every single Harry Potter book she's written, seen all the movies and bought all the DVDs - I figured if she can work her magic that superbly on books that appeal to just about all ages, her new one is bound to be pretty good at the very worst.

To be sure, reviews have been mixed; some folks think it's great, and others have given it so-so ratings. So from the git-go, I tried to keep an open mind and, of course, put wizards and Muggles out of my thoughts. That said, after just a few chapters, Rowling's writing style came through. Maybe it was my unconscious mind peeking through, but I could tell who wrote this book right from page one. 

The setting is set in the small English town of Pagford and opens with the unexpected death of one of the town's council members (thus creating the title for the book). From there, it explores the backgrounds of the town and its rival neighboring village of Yarvil and a number of the residents of both - warts and all. All this is tied to the search for a council replacement; the winner, it seems, will have the power to effect changes that will be welcomed by some and not others.

Early on, it's a big of a chore to keep all the characters straight. Rowling does a terrific job of introducing them and providing background information, but perhaps because my aging brain doesn't have the recall ability of my younger years, I tended to be a little foggy on who's who in a until about a third of the way through, when new characters stopped coming and I was comfortable in knowing the good, the bad, and in some cases, the ugly, of each.

Yes, it takes a bit of slogging to get through the book - at 512 pages, it's hardly a piece of fluff (but if you think this is long, try wading through the 739-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in her HP series). But just as with the Potter books, it is character development, and using well-crafted words and phrases to show how they're all intertwined, that is Rowling's strong suit here. Described by some as a comedy, this book is not a cliff-hanger that will have you on the edge of your seat; there are no ax murders or kidnappings and nobody falls off a broom during a Quidditch match.  Rather, it's an in-depth look at life that touches the emotions on many levels. Worth reading? Absolutely! 

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Little, Brown and Co., September 2012); 512 pp.