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Friday, November 22, 2013


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


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


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.