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Monday, December 29, 2014

THE GOLEM OF HOLLYWOOD

4 stars out of 5

This is a book I've had access to since shortly after it was released, but I kept moving it down a notch or two on my to-read list for several reasons. First, it exceeds 500 pages, and anything much over 400 - unless perhaps it's by Stephen King - is daunting enough that I tend to think twice before opening. Second, I'm a huge fan of the writings of Jonathan Kellerman and his wife, Faye; their son Jesse, not so much. And last but hardly least, the reviews for the most part are bloody awful (at the time of this writing, the average from 485 customers was a pitiful 2-1/2 stars).


Still, every time I saw the title lurking on my Kindle I said to myself, "self, one of these days, you really should give it a go." That day finally came a few days before Christmas, when - quite honestly - I wanted to start a book, but not one that was too engrossing to put down when all the greeting, cooking and gift-wrapping tasks of the holidays called my name. 

Well, guess what? At first blush - and half a dozen nonstop chapters later - I decided that maybe, just maybe, those naysayers got it wrong (love when that happens). As I approached the halfway point - now cursing the fact that holiday demands forced me to stop reading when I don't want to - I had reached the "What were they thinking" mindset when I recalled all those nasty reviews.

That said, I get the objections. This is nothing like the usual Kellerman fare (none of the three), even though it involves a Los Angeles detective who is the son of a rabbi. He's working a case, yes, but it quickly evolves into a thriller mixed with Jewish history and a heap of the supernatural. The chapters switch from the present and the detective's investigation to the land of Cain and Abel. While some have called that difficult, I didn't mind a bit. In the first place, it's easy to tell the "old" characters and settings from the new; in the latter, the present-day chapters are numbered while the former are names of people and places.

Moving in and out this way also is necessary for the progression of the story - and the resolution of everything as the ending nears. It's also important to understand the meaning of the title (yes, I looked it up before I started the book; I'd heard the term before, but I had no idea what it meant). A golem, according to several sources including the dictionary, comes from Jewish legend/Hebrew folklore and describes a clay figure that's endowed with life. Golems began as servants but later came to be thought of as protectors of the Jews in times of persecution.

One such legend is of the Golem of Prague, a creature fashioned in the 1500s by a rabbi who wanted to protect his congregation. The figure has lain dormant in an old synagogue since then - until now. And when Detective Jacob Lev begins his investigation of an unidentified head found in a remote house with the Hebrew word for justice burned into the kitchen counter, he sets off on the adventure of a lifetime - a lifetime that connects with his own in both satisfying and frightening ways.

Because of the mythical aspect, I certainly understand that this book won't be everyone's cup of tea. But now that I've finished it, I totally agree with Stephen King's assessment that it is a "rare collaboration where the sum is truly greater than the parts." I also agree with one reviewer who simply deemed it "weird." It's definitely out of the ordinary - but also, IMHO, well worth reading.

The Golem of Hollywood by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman (Putnam Adult, September 2014); 552 pp.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

THE LIKENESS

5 stars out of 5

A year ago - almost to the day - I finished the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods. I'd given that book a go because one of my good friends kept telling me (make that pestering me) about how good this author is. She was right; by the time I was halfway through that one, I was certain it would earn 5 stars from me, and it did (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/551220964?book_show_action=false). Of course, I planned to read others; but life (and a lengthy to-read list) got in the way. When I finally opened this one, the second in the series featuring Detective Cassie Maddox, it was with great expectations.

Quickly, they fell a bit flat; whether it was because it's a busy season and my mind was on other things or because the first few chapters just didn't grab me, I struggled a bit to get into it. But I'm betting it was the holiday bustle, because suddenly things started to pick up and didn't stop till the end - which, given the time I was forced to spend shopping, wrapping, decorating and cooking, didn't happen nearly as soon as I'd wanted.

Just a few months after coming off the life-changing events of the first book, Cassie has left Homicide behind and is working the Domestic Violence beat. Then, she gets a call asking her to come to a crime scene. A girl has been murdered, but there's a freaky twist: The dead girl is a dead ringer for Cassie and even has an ID card bearing the name Alexandra Madison, an alias Cassie used during an undercover sting. Although Cassie is reluctant to get involved, she's naturally curious - and accepts the assignment that will take her undercover once again, this time posing as the "twin" to go live with the dead girl's housemates. 

Although they knew their friend had been stabbed, they hadn't been told she'd been killed; all Cassie had to do, then, was study Lexie's vocal and speech patterns, stick on a bandage to cover the fake wound (also helpful in concealing a microphone) and assume Lexie's identity. Meantime, Cassie is trying to juggle a budding but serious romance with fellow Detective Sam O'Neill, who's also working the case and is, to put it mildly, less than thrilled when Cassie agrees to duck under the radar all by herself. 

As an aside, I must say that the names gave me pause for a while until I got used to them; two of our now-grown granddaughters - sisters - are named Cassandra and Alexandra. And as a second aside, I'll note that it's not necessary to read the first book to enjoy this one; the author has provided ample background information here so nothing is lost (except perhaps the enjoyment of reading the also-outstanding first book).

Cassie pulls off the impersonation in fine form, although not without a few hiccups here and there that, had she not had her wits about her, would have given her away. But after all, it wasn't supposed to be a long-term deal. The intent was simply to find out what she can from the other housemates, who are such tight comrades that they've stuck to what the police believe is a concocted version of what happened on the night of the murder. Get the info and get out was to be the name of the game.

Good plan, perhaps, but game rules are subject to change as they do here, when Cassie and her detective buddies learn that Lexie may not have been the person her housemates thought she was. And, the closeness of the group with such quirky personalities brings up still more unsettling questions. Then, as Cassie gets to know the others, she begins to relate more to Lexie's persona than an objective investigator should - not a plus if she wants to get out alive.

When it comes to character development, the author does a stellar job. Whether or not any of the people here are likable wasn't important; all that mattered to me was finding out what was lurking in the depths of their minds - exactly what Cassie herself was trying to learn. Put that together with well-written, believable dialogue and a suspenseful plot, and it's another winner in my book.

The Likeness by Tana French (Penguin Books reprint edition, July 2008); 492 pp.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

GIDEON'S SWORD

3 stars out of 5

This is the first book featuring Dr. Gideon Crew, whose mission in life is to avenge the murder of his father, who was made a scapegoat by the U.S. government as a result of an unsuccessful intelligence project. Because I'm a fan of both authors (singularly and collectively), when I got a chance to get all three books in the series at a super price, I jumped on it - even though of the 440 reviews of the first one at Amazon.com (at the time of this writing), 213 were one and/or two stars. 

Here's the deal: A renegade through and through, Crew is offered a job with a private contractor that involves finding a Chinese scientist who is supposedly sneaking plans for a deadly weapon into the United States. Apparently, someone else wants what the scientist has as well, and in an early-on melee, the scientist ends up dead. But that's not before he passes on a string of numbers to Crew, who tries to save him. Now, the race is on to find out what those numbers mean. 

Now that I've finished the book, I understand why many of the ratings are so low. The action is almost nonstop - with gruesome murders happening at every turn. But that's not necessarily a good thing; much of the action involves such super-human efforts that it's just not believable. Perhaps worse, speed seems to have replaced quality; the characters aren't very well developed. Crew himself fares a little better in that regard, though I won't go so far as to call him likable.

All those issues aside, it really wasn't that bad; the ending set up a scenario for the next one, Gideon's Corpse, and yes, I still plan to read it - if only to see if the characters are better fleshed out and some of the over-the-top wild action gets tamed.

Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Grand Central Publishing, February 2011); 356 pp.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

HOPE TO DIE

5 stars out of 5

Mark this day on the calendar, folks: It's the first time in a while
that I've given a James Patterson book 5 stars. His series featuring Detective Alex Cross is one of my favorites, to be sure - partly, I think, because he writes these books all on his own as opposed to "share-cropping" with co-writers to  varying degrees of success.

This rating also comes after reading, and being quite annoyed with, the previous book in the series, Cross My Heart. It was good, but the cliffhanger of an ending, as I said at the time, so reeked of promotion for this one that I almost vowed on principle not to read the follow-up.

Well, truth is I'm glad I did. At the end of Cross My Heart, the 21st in the series, Cross had lost his entire family to kidnappings by a demented killer. That scenario is continued here as he works nonstop to find them (hopefully alive); and as might be expected, the tension gets hot and heavy. In fact, if I have a complaint, it's that the drama "crosses" the line of excessive - but even that really didn't take away that nonstop, edge-of-the-seat excitement.

Cross is being stalked and mentally tortured by someone who clearly has a psychotic streak; early on, as two mutilated bodies turn up that are presumed to be Cross's wife Bree and his son Damion, Cross is so emotionally devastated that he's barely able to function. But function he must if he has even the slightest chance of catching the diabolical killer and find his precious Nana Mama and the rest of his children alive.

To be fair, there are more than a few "holes" in the story - from lapses in police procedure to how the killer manages to accomplish everything given time and circumstances to wasting too much space on repetition. Still, the action moves along fast, thanks mostly to Patterson's way with words. While I'm basically not an OCD personality, I admit that having to stop reading anywhere other than at the beginning of a new chapter when life interferes makes me crazy; short chapters make it easy to avoid that mental upset. And since I've always been a critic of what I consider to be short-changing readers by filling up to 20% of the advertised number of pages with sample chapters from other books, I'll note that the pages devoted to previews are far fewer here.

I'll also note that while this book can stand alone, it's meant to be the second of a two-parter. To get the biggest bang for your bucks, then, I suggest reading Cross Your Heart before tackling this one.

Hope to Die by James Patterson (Little, Brown and Co., November 2014); 404 pp.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A CHOICE OF DARKNESS

3 stars out of 5

For many years I've been a professional journalist, writer and copy editor, albeit rarely of fiction. I also read a lot of books, mostly legal and medical thrillers and police procedurals. Nonfiction and fiction are two different animals, but there's one thread of commonality that connects all genres: Errors in form and/or function are not acceptable to me, no matter whether the work is by an established, successful author or a self-published first novel. 

Most of us are aware of introductory clauses (such as prepositional, participle and infinitive), even if we don't know what to call them, to-wit:

"Feeling a bit whimsical, he blew a kiss to the woman dressed up like the Tooth Fairy."

"Concerned about hurting his lady friend's feelings, he hesitated before answering her question about whether the dress made her look chubby."

I'll be the first to say such clauses can be useful. Until, that is, they're not.

Starting with the first page of this novel, the clauses came one after another, starting just about every other sentence. By the time I got to the end of Chapter 4, they were coming so fast that my inner voice reached Shakespeare's Macduff proportions, screaming, "Hold enough!" 

And hold enough I almost did; but I can count on the fingers of one hand with three fingers left over the number of times I failed to stick with a book to the end, so I sucked it in and kept going. Thereafter, I noticed a few other errors that, IMHO, should have been caught before publication, such as "reluctance" instead of "reluctant" and "site" instead of "sight." And when I read that a character removed his tongue from his "pallet," I nearly choked.

Okay: All that's off my chest - mentioned primarily because this appears to be the first in a series, and it is my fervent hope that, when the next one is published, the editing will be much improved. As for the story, it's engaging enough that a follow-up (or two, or more) could well be in order.

Here's the lowdown: The setting is Harrisburg, Pa., where a new group of investigators called the Major Crimes Task Force has been pulled together to help solve crimes - hampered somewhat by having to serve two masters including the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the state governor. Almost immediately, they're faced with the probability of a serial killer who targets young boys (as a big fan of TV's "Criminal Minds," serial killers always get my attention - so we're off to a good start).

Chapters shift from the ongoing investigation to glimpses into the mind of the killer to learn why he goes on his rampages in the dark of night and the significance of the yellow blanket with which he covers his young victims. As team members get to know one another better, their get-down-to-business activities are interspersed with kidding around (some of the latter antics reminded me more of junior high than the behavior of grown-up professionals, but then that's probably a guy thing). And as the book description says, team members are a diverse group of seasoned investigators with unique skills as well as "physical and psychological scars from years of battling criminals, comforting victims and living life," so it makes sense that they'd want to let off some silly steam once in a while.

Although I might argue that anyone as severely mentally ill as this killer really doesn't have a "choice," it's clear he must be caught before other young lives are lost - no matter what the cost to the psyche's of team members. Revealing how that happens - or even if it happens, of course, would spoil things for other readers. 

A Choice of Darkness by Jon Kurtz (Amazon Digital Services Inc., December 2013); 384 pp.

A postscript: I don't know whether others will have the same experience, but I will warn that on two occasions (at Chapters 5 and 8), when I clicked on the bookmark icon on my Kindle Fire at those points, at least three pages suddenly went blank including the first page of the chapters. I'm not sure how many pages were lost - and I was able to pick up on what was happening fairly well without the missing pages - but it may be a concern that needs attention.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS

4 stars out of 5

It's no secret that I read a lot of books (on my Kindle Fire, thank you very much - I think the only books with real pages I've read in the past eight years or so had Harry Potter in the title). It's also no secret that I love a good bargain. And when those two passions come together, well, I'm a happy woman.

In this case, make that deliriously happy. You see, I fell in love with the Lawrence Block series featuring Manhattan bookstore owner and part-time burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr from the very first; they're funny, a delight to read and offer a wonderful respite in between heavier tomes (another series I love and turn to when I'm tired of blood and guts, BTW, is Spencer Quin's Chet and Bernie series).

But with Block's series, there's been a teeny problem; I've now read them all. In fact, I finished The Burglar on the Prowl, written in 2005, this past August (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1015328840). On no, said I, whatever shall I do for comic relief now?

And then to my wondering eyes came a list of books on sale, as it turned out, for just one day. And would you believe that list contained the most recent, and new-to-me Rhodenbarr Book No. 11? And at just $1.99, no less? Needless to say, it was mine as fast as I could i-click it to my Kindle (for the record, it's priced at $3.99 as I write this). For a fleeting moment, I vowed to put it aside until I'd finished a book or two that messed with my head - but alas (or happily, in this case), I didn't listen to my inner voice, opened it up and got right down to it.

And while I know I'll be kicking myself later when I'm in need of something breezy, I'm too delighted to have found (and enjoyed) this one that for now, I'll worry about tomorrow, well, tomorrow.

I will say, though, that although this one is very good, it's not quite the Bernie Rhodenbarr of old. The standard formula - Bernie breaks into someone's home or apartment to steal something, finds a dead body (or one turns up shortly thereafter) and Bernie gets accused of the murder, usually by his nemesis, NYPD officer Ray Kirschbaum, really doesn't happen here. Oh yes, there is a body - that of a wealthy elderly widow who returns home early from a Metropolitan Opera concert and collapses after seeing what apparently was a robbery. But Bernie was nowhere near the place; instead, he was busy breaking in elsewhere, to steal an object for a client who has a button fetish and is willing to shell out big bucks to add to his collection.

Also in a bit of a plot twist, rather than being somewhat at odds, Bernie and Officer Ray actually team up to solve the widow's murder - culminating, as usual, with a gathering of all the suspects (and Bernie's pet-groomer lesbian sidekick, Carolyn) at the bookstore, where the culprit will be revealed.

As one reviewer pointed out, it's not known whether Bernie and friends will make more appearances between pages - Block self-published this one and
apparently isn't talking. I do know, however, that my fingers are crossed. I've got a big list of heavy-duty thrillers vying for my attention, and I'll be needing a respite soon.

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block (Amazon Digital Services Inc., December 2013); 250 pp.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

REVIVAL

5 stars out of 5

Few writers can weave a tale any better than Stephen King; it's a tribute to his talent that I - one who has the patience of a flea - am willing to dive in to his books even when they're 600-plus pages long. In this case, that wasn't an issue; it's a very reasonable 417 pages - almost a novella by King standards. And by golly, it's a good one.

It starts in a small town about 50 years ago, when new preacher Charles Jacobs takes over the smallish Methodist Church (bringing back memories of my own childhood that included great times in the little country Methodist Church I attended). Jacobs is charismatic, his wife is beautiful, and they have a young son; quickly, he wins parishioners over and makes friends with young Jamie Morton and his family. He and Jamie form a special bond when he shares a secret passion - electricity - which he uses to  "cure" a serious health condition of Jamie's brother.

Soon, though, tragedy strikes Jacobs hard when his wife and child are killed in a horrific traffic accident. One Sunday morning not long after, Jacobs goes on a tirade against God from his pulpit, ranting and raging and angering parishioners to the extent that he loses his job and leaves town. Jamie and his family have their own problems, and Jamie - who plays a mean guitar - begins to play in bands as he roams around the country. When he reaches his mid-30s, he's a heroin addict and nearly destitute - the perfect time to meet up with his old friend Jacobs once again. 

Then again, maybe not. The rest of the book follows Jamie's rather tumultuous life and his here-and-there encounters with the one-time minister, whose passion has turned to obsession - all leading to a dark and stormy ending. 

 I've read several reviews that bandied about the word "classic," but I'm not sure I totally agree. Even as the ending came fast and furious, I never felt anything close to fearful. Most of it, in fact, just seemed to be a really good old-fashioned story that offers an in-depth look into the lives of two main characters - although it can be said that neither has followed the beaten path. A word of caution is in order, though: The theme, one of finding out what happens after we humans leave this life, may be off-putting, blasphemous, frightening, or just strange, depending on your degree of religiosity (I thought I'd made up a new word here, but no cigar - it already exists and yes, refers to aspects of religious activity). As for me, I'll just call it a great story - and another winner for the King.

Revival by Stephen King (Scribner, November 2014); 417 pp.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

THE CINDERELLA MURDER

4 stars out of 5

This book brings together two best-selling authors who have teamed up to write "An Under Suspicion Novel" - which some say (and the subtitle suggests) is the beginning of a new series. If that's the case, count me as a bandwagon-jumper when the next one is published.

"Under Suspicion" is the title of a reality TV show produced by Laurie Moran and her team. The pilot for the series, which revisits cold case crimes through reenactment, focused on the murder of Laurie's own husband and was a great success. Now, she's found a topic for the second, the so-called "Cinderella Murder" of a talented UCLA student named Susan Dempsey some 20 years ago. First up, though, she must convince her boss that it's worth the time and, most importantly, financial investment.

She does that by looking at the evidence and asking questions; why, for instance, was one of Susan's shoes missing when her body was found (hence the moniker "Cinderella Murder")? Why does Susan's mother fervently believe her daughter's cheating boyfriend killed her? Is there a connection with the leader of a controversial mega-church? Needless to say, finding the answers is appealing to her boss, but it isn't until top attorney Alex Buckley, who served as the host/interviewer in the pilot, agrees to return that Laurie gets the go-ahead and a production budget.

As one might expect, production doesn't quite go as planned, with twists and turns and more than one new murder. In fact, there aren't a lot of big surprises anywhere in the plot, from who's going to bite the dust next to a blossoming love interest to whodunit. I also noticed a couple of what I'll call inconsistencies along the way - facts that are presented in one manner and contradicted a couple of chapters later - leading to my rating of 4 stars instead of 5.

That said, this is  murder on the lighter side (meaning hardly any blood and guts and no messing with my head) - something I've come to expect from Higgins Clark. It's a quick, enjoyable read that was exactly what I needed after reading some heavy-duty, mind-bending thrillers.

The Cinderella Murder by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke (Simon & Schuster, November 2014); 320 pp.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THE ESCAPE

5 stars out of 5

It's impossible to describe what a treat it is to read a well-written action thriller that kept me turning pages even when I should have been doing other things and kept me wondering how it would turn out until close to the end. Of course, it shouldn't have come as a big surprise; this is the third book featuring U.S. Army Special Agent John Puller, and I gave 5 stars to Book No. 2, Zero Day, and 4 to the first, The Forgotten.

This one, though, has a major twist; Puller's intellectually gifted older brother, Robert, has been convicted or treason and has been in a high-security military prison. Then one day, he somehow escapes, leaving an unidentified dead man in his cell (who, apparently, he has murdered). Then something truly unheard of happens: John Puller is allowed to hunt down his brother and bring him in. On the surface, it doesn't feel right; just as an attorney shouldn't defend nor a surgeon operate on a close relative, under normal circumstances Puller wouldn't be allowed near the case. Some government big-wigs, though, seem to think he's the person best qualified to get the job done, and in part because he's never quite believed his brother really committed treasonous acts, Puller agrees.

Very early on, it becomes clear that some folks don't want Robert Puller brought in alive - and they may well be lurking among the very folks who gave John Puller the assignment. Also early on, the younger Puller finds himself stuck with a mostly unwanted female partner - also an agent, but not necessarily allied with the same powers-that-be as Puller. Who to trust, in fact, becomes an almost bigger issue than trying to find a runaway soldier whose skills and experience in the field may be sharper than Puller's - and he's no slouch in either department. The only thing that's crystal clear is that something big is afoot, and some very powerful people want to make sure the truth never gets out no matter what the human cost.

The Escape by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing, November 2014); 470 pp.

Monday, November 24, 2014

THE BOY WHO RAN

4 stars out of 5

Abandonment, fear, jealousy, loneliness, anger, self-reliance, bullying, love, acceptance, responsibility. All those feelings and emotions and more are dealt with in this book, a winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal for Juvenile Fiction. Because of the age group targeted (and because the story sounded interesting), I agreed to read and review it when I was offered a copy at no cost.

The story, which takes place 6,000 years ago, centers on a young boy who was the sole survivor after everyone in his village was massacred by an invading tribe. His only memory is that of an injured woman - most likely his mother - uttering a single word as she carried him to the edge of the forest: "Run." as she  After spending considerable time in the woods, he finds another group of people who take him in, albeit grudgingly. Although he is given shelter and food, he always feels those things are given grudgingly and that he's an outcast.

Throughout several years, he never utters a word - always moving in stealth, wandering in and out of the forest in which he's more familiar and content and where he practices his considerable skill as an exceptionally fast runner. Then, as he watches other young boys in the group being taken under the wings of elder-teachers to learn hunting skills and what their responsibilities will be as adults, he decides to follow along (surreptitiously) to acquire that knowledge for himself.

Revealing much more would spoil the fun of reading it for yourself, but suffice it to say I'm quite sure (as the mother of four grandchildren who passed through this age group, albeit quite some time ago) that most youngsters will relate to the boy's experiences and find the book enjoyable. 


I will say, though, that the ending - an epilogue - could use a bit more fleshing out. Without giving too much away, it seems to me that for a new family member to appear out of nowhere with no explanation of how many years have passed or how that new member came to be there gave me pause - and in this day and age, I'm pretty sure it would elicit questions even from a first-grader. Also, at least in the Kindle edition, the paragraphs are way too long and need extra spacing between each new one to make reading easier.

The Boy Who Ran by Michael Selden (Woodland Park Press LLC, November 2013); 160 pp.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

BLUE LABYRINTH

4 stars out of 5

This is, I believe, the 14th book in the series featuring FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, who loves what he does so much - and is so independently wealthy - that he accepts a "salary" of only $1 a year. Not insignificantly, this also allows him far greater latitude as he conducts crime investigations and helps him remain more than a little bit of a mysterious streak.

For the record, I've read only one other in this series - White Fire - which is the 13th. I enjoyed it very much as well, and I remain steadfast in my belief that someday - really - I'll get around to reading a few of the earlier editions. That said, the two I've read stand alone well enough that while having a more in-depth knowledge of character development over the years would be helpful, it's certainly not necessary.

This book, too, was hard to put down, resulting in much daily grousing when other chores loomed between me and my Kindle Fire. I will, however, offer my only criticism - such as it is - that the ending is a bit over-dramatic and implausible (hence 4 stars instead of 5). But when I think about it, that's to be expected in a Pendergast book.

It begins as Pendergast opens his front door to find a body "standing" there. It's not just your average old body, though - it's the body of his worse-than-evil estranged son. There are no apparent clues until an atopsy reveals an unusual piece of turquoise in his stomach; after uncovering the probable source of the stone, Pendergast travels to an abandoned mine even though he's sure the whole thing is a set-up.

A set-up it is, and what happens to him there leads him, his close friends and FBI co-workers to a long-ago Pendergast family secret that's gone seriously awry and threatens the agent's very life. More explanation would reveal too much of the story, so I'll simply say this: Another outstanding piece of work, guys!

Blue Labyrinth by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Grand Central Publishing, November 2014); 408 pp.

Monday, November 17, 2014

FLESH AND BLOOD

4 stars out of 5


I looked forward to reading this, the 22nd book in the series featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a crack medical examiner. The previous book, Dust, was Cornwell's best in a while - I'd grown weary of a whiny Scarpetta whose mostly unfounded paranoia seemed to grow worse by each successive book. Turning on my Kindle Fire and loading up this one brought expectations of a return to the Scarpetta of old.

I'm happy to say I wasn't disappointed; yes, Scarpetta continues to think the world revolves around her (pouting when she discovers her husband, FBI profiler Benton Wesley, and her technologically gifted niece, Lucy, shared information they didn't immediately pass on to her, for instance). But for the most part, that's kept to a minimum as they try to identify and catch a serial sniper who may, in fact, be targeting one or all of them as well.

The game begins on Scarpetta's birthday as she and her husband are preparing to head to Miami for a week's vacation. As they fire up the grill to make dinner, though, she notices seven pennies lined up on a wall at the edge of their yard - all polished to a fare-thee-well and all dated 1981. As she muses about what that might mean, she gets a call from longtime cohort and detective Pete Marino telling her she's needed at the scene of a nearby homicide. It's the work of a very skilled sniper, who appears to have left not a shred of evidence behind except a few copper bits. Almost before the crawly things begin to invade this body, another one bites the dust. Clearly, someone is on a spree with no end in his or her sights (pun intended).

There's plenty of technical "stuff" here, particularly on the topic of ballistics (almost too much, in fact). But as the investigations continue, what little evidence turns up begins to turn the spotlight on Scarpetta, her husband and niece. Are one or all next on the killer's list? Or is there an even more sinister, more personal connection? And will Scarpetta and Wesley ever go on that long-awaited vacation?

Most of these questions are answered, but be forewarned that there's a cliff-hanger ending - an apparent attempt to generate a ready audience for what will be the 23rd book (and a tactic I dislike intensely, for the record - hence the 4 stars instead of 5). As a Cornwell fan, I plan to read it anyway - but knowing that I must read it to get to the ending of this one doesn't sit very well with me.

Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell (William Morrow, November 2014); 389 pp.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A LAST ACT OF CHARITY

4 stars out of 5

After I finished this book - which I received free in exchange for a review - the first thing that came to mind is how on earth to describe it. The writing is tedious, ponderous and downright esoteric in spots. The experience was a lot like driving through a heavy snowstorm; if you don't maintain total concentration, you could end up where you don't want to be. Put another way, don't even think about breezing through this one with one eye on the Ohio State game.

That said, it's very well done. Did I enjoy it? Not exactly. No lovable characters here (in fact, they're barely likeable). The head honcho, JJ Stoner, used to be a hired killer - first in the military and then in private practice. His art hasn't been wasted since then, but now he does it on his own behalf when the mood strikes. He's a biker and a musician (he plays blues guitar at a local club to let off steam and get in touch with his inner self). His friends - if in fact they could be called that - are even more strange. They, too, speak in riddles and behave in mysterious (to me) ways.

Here's the deal: Stoner, who now takes on covert investigations for intelligence agencies, looks into a series of particularly grisly murders (think lots of blood and missing body parts) that may have been committed by sisters - the book is subtitled "Killing Sisters Book 1," BTW. Early on, a former military friend who's now in the same business as Stoner shows up, apparently to make nice. Each is wary of the other's intent, though, and they're near equals in the successful killing department - so they agree to hold hands to keep from fighting (for the time being, at least).

As for romance, you won't find it here in the traditional sense. There's no shortage of relatively graphic sex, most of which falls way outside the norm, at least in my world. These scenes don't cross the line to gratuitous, although in fairness, I'm pretty laid back (no pun intended) when reading such stuff; still, to say they're a bit on the kinky side would be an understatement.

Bottom line? If you like very dark thrillers and have a place you can hole up and read this one undisturbed, it's definitely worth a try - although I won't guarantee that you won't be a bit disturbed by the time you finish it.  

A Last Act of Charity by Frank Westworth (Book Guild Publishing, September 2014); 432 pp.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

PAW AND ORDER

4 stars out of 5

Woof, woof, woof, woof - make that 4 stars for the 7th installment in the life of Chet, the lovable pooch whose equally lovable owner, Bernie, operates the Little Detective Agency (Little is his last name). Chet - who narrates each of the books in the series, all of which I've read - flunked out of K-9 school on the last day (he claims a cat was at fault).


In addition to being rooted in a good story, the books are a hoot because of Chet's take on things. Throughout, there are doggie "asides" to make you smile (well, they never fail to put a grin on my face, at least). Here's a sample, straight from the pooch's mouth:

"I've always been interested in toilets, by the way., Sometimes you can find the very freshest water in them - and sometimes not."

This one mostly takes place in Washington, D.C., where Bernie's love interest, Suzie, has moved to take a job at the Washington Post as a reporter. Lonesome and wanting to resolve some of the issues that were in play when she left, Bernie heads across the country for an unexpected visit. His greeting isn't quite as warm as he'd hoped for; it seems Suzie is ferreting out details for a big story, but she can't reveal any details. Early on, Bernie has a run-in with some beefed up jerks, one of Suzie's friends turns up dead and Bernie is arrested for the murder.

In the end, though, the best I could muster for this one is 4 stars despite the chuckles it elicited. For one thing, the plot was more difficult to follow than that of other books. For another, while I love Chet's narratives, they're a little too repetitive and a little too lengthy here than in the others. Still, if you're looking for a mystery on the lighter side, this - and any of the other six - should fill the bill nicely.

Paw and Order by Spencer Quinn (Altria Books, August 2014); 320 pp.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

GRAY MOUNTAIN

3 stars out of 5

It's not often that I just can't get enthused about characters in a book - in fact, I don't recall the last time that happened. But as I read through this one, I realized I didn't much care how it turned out simply because I didn't much like anybody involved. That said, it's worth reading - it's Grisham, after all - even on a bad day he doesn't write junk.

The main character here is Samantha Kofer, a hot-shot career attorney at a New York law firm until she gets cut off at the knees by the 2008 recession and downsizing fallout. She and several coworkers are offered an "opportunity" to work for free for a year at various nonprofits throughout the country (assuming they can find one that will take them on). After that time without pay, there's a chance - albeit a small one - that she'll get her old job back.

She's not sure she wants it back, nor that she wants to go the nonprofit route (in fact, throughout the book she doesn't seem very sure of anything; she's almost totally without emotional connections - no doubt one of the reasons I never connected emotionally with her). Ultimately, she decides to leave the big city for a legal aid office in rural Brady, Virginia, where she's a fish out of water for many reasons. She's never been exposed to life in Appalachia, and she's never seen the inside of a courtroom except perhaps in law school - heck, she's never even owned a car. 

Needless to say, she's forced to hit the ground running, trying to muster up an effort to help some colorful local characters who need it (for the most part unsuccessfully, IMHO - another reason I didn't like her much). She also bumps up against another town attorney - the hunky nephew of her boss at the legal aid office who's devoted his career to chasing potential big-money cases that involve the coal-mining industry - and his equally hunky non-lawyer brother (hint: potential love interests).

And here's where I encountered another problem. I'm aware of most of the issues surrounding Big Coal - I live just across the border from West Virginia and Pennsylvania (in the Keystone State, for instance, bituminous coal fields have been around since the late 1700s and was first mined at what is now Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection). Unquestionably, it's an industry that's fraught with serious problems even today (which, given powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C., apparently we can expect to continue). But my objection here is that they're pointed out in a rather heavy-handed, almost "preachy" manner. Throughout, I got the message that if readers glean nothing else from this book, it's that we should all run out and do whatever we can to shut down coal mining for good. Unfortunately, after a while that got in the way of the story.

Not only were most of the characters rather unsympathetic - including Samantha's divorced parents, both lawyers - but the cases she takes on or helps with never really go much of anywhere. Yes, that's often the case in the real world - class-action lawsuits in particular can drag on for years and years - and I suppose that in itself is part of the book's appeal (pun intended). Samantha's life in what she sees as the boondocks is somewhat interesting (or could have been) to me, but she never seems to see it that way. Even when there's a bit of real action, she never gets beyond being a bit ticked off (temporarily, at that) at how it affects her personally.  

Gray Mountain by John Grisham (Doubleday, October 2014); 386 pp.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

BROADCHURCH: A NOVEL

5 stars out of 5

Normally, I hate reading the book after I've seen the movie or TV show (in fact, I could count the number of times I've done that on the fingers of one hand and have four left over). This one, then, is quite the exception - but it's with good reason. I started watching the Fox Broadcasting TV show "Gracepoint" from the beginning - it's an adaptation of the popular BBC show "Broadchurch." But by the third episode of the American version, I was more than a little confused about who's who and what's what. And then, I spotted this book.

Correct me if I've got it wrong, but I believe the book  is a novelization of the BBC series rather than a book on which the series is based. Still, I decided to give it a try, hoping to get my head more clearly around the Fox series (I'm now recording the episodes). The book does read a bit like a screenplay, and of course I'm now visualizing the TV characters as I read rather than conjuring up my own idea of what they look like (which I hate, BTW - one of the reasons I always read the book first). Also for the record, the very capable actor David Tennant stars in both versions of the TV productions - and I probably couldn't conjure up anyone better suited for the role.

For those who haven't seen either TV show, the setting is the small-ish British town of Broadchurch. Detective Ellie Miller has returned from a much-needed vacation, thinking she'll be returning to a new, better position within the department. But that's not to be; instead, an outsider with a questionable past, Alec Hardy,  has been given the job instead, putting her under his command. On top of that insult, his attitude toward her is at best aloof, and at worst downright rude. 

But before she can sort it out, an 11-year old boy, Danny Latimer, is found on the beach. At first, it appears to be a suicide - he's jumped from the high cliffs above - but a closer look reveals that it's murder. Not only is it a travesty never before experienced in this on-the-sea town, it hits close to home for both Miller and Hardy; the boy was close friends with Miller's own son. For Hardy, it brings back uncomfortable memories of a similar case that drove him from his previous job to this sleepy, rather sheltered community.

Fairly early on, it becomes clear that the murderer is someone close to the boy - someone very well known to everyone involved including Miller and her family as well as Danny's. As the plot unfolds, plenty of secrets are revealed, and relationships become strained. And throughout, everyone involved - including readers - knows that once the killer is identified, nothing will ever be the same. Readers are left guessing

The book is outstanding despite being written in the present tense - of which I'm not particularly fond. It also provided what I need to watch the rest of the series and fully understand what's going on. That said, I'm not sure I'll bother returning to the series now even though it's very well done (personally, I'm not sure whether my uncertainty is a plus or a minus, but I am sure which side of the issue the TV producers and advertisers will be on).

Also happily, I've found a new (to me) author: Kelly. She's written at least three other mysteries that garnered decent reviews and sound interesting, and after sampling this one, I'm more than willing to try another. Her co-author, Chris Chibnall, is an English playwright, TV writer and producer perhaps best known for work on the science fiction series, "Doctor Who."

Broadchurch by Erin Kelly and Chris Chibnall (Minotaur Books, September 2014); 449 pp.

Monday, October 27, 2014

PARIS MATCH

3 stars out of 5

My reviews of the more recent Stone Barrington books haven't been all that great - the plots have been thin (almost nonexistent, in fact). As for real action? Fuhgettaboutit. This, the 31st in the series, started off much the same, with typical British understatement of just about everything that happens. 

"Oh, someone has shot off your arm? Bummer. Might I offer you a glass of champagne before the ambulance arrives?" (my words, BTW). 


There also seems to be more in-bed action in this one; within the first few chapters, Barrington has well satisfied, or so it is claimed, no fewer than three different women in about the same number of days. And, there's a fourth so eagerly awaiting her turn that she can't help grabbing his crotch - in public, no less. 

From that description, one might assume I wouldn't care much for this one. In fact, it surprised even me by being, in the end, not all that bad, but still not good enough to earn 4 stars. Yes, the action is understated as usual, but at least there is some. The filthy rich attorney is in Paris for the opening of his new Arrington hotel and discovers that an old enemy - and a couple of new ones - are out to get him. 

Meanwhile, there's a heated Presidential election going on; the current First Lady is in the running to replace her husband as the country's chief. Both are close friends of Barrington, who supports her candidacy and contributed heavily to her campaign (besides that, he's been cohabitating with the woman who will become her chief of staff should she win). Should that happen, Barrington may have to find someone else since she'll be too busy and too far away - bummer.

The threats keep coming - at least one of them because Barrington does something stupid like wander off by himself (reminiscent of the women in horror films who choose to run down a dark alley to escape the ax murderer who's chasing them). How he survives that one is more than a bit unrealistic, and in true Barrington fashion, he just shrugs off the whole episode as another day in Paris. His only notable emotion (even in bed) comes when he actually gets angry enough to say he'd love to see one of his would-be killers dead.

There's a cliff-hanger at the end - suggesting the topic and location of the next book, I suppose. And I suppose I'll read it, hoping that it'll be an improvement on this one.

Paris Match by Stuart Woods (Putnam Adult, October 2014); 312 pp.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

90 MONEY-SAVING WEBSITES

3 stars out of 5

Both my husband and I are retired, and while I still work part-time from home as a freelance writer/copy editor/photographer, I'm always on the looking for ways to save money. When I found this book free with my Kindle Unlimited membership, I quickly hit the download button.


The author says his goal is to have at least one of the 90 "under the radar" websites he mentions motivate each reader to take action. In fact, I jotted down 16 on which I wanted to get more information. The rest? Most I knew about already or - as in the cases of categories like airfare and baby/child - I have zero need to visit (I don't fly, and our youngest grandchild is 14, well beyond the "child" stage). Travel is of some interest to us except for the flying part, but I'm familiar with all but one site in this category. The one that's new to me is just for Disney followers, but nope, although I was a big fan of Mickey Mouse Club as a kid (I was convinced I wanted to marry Tim Considine, the Spin of the "Spin and Marty" series), you won't find me sporting mouse ears any time soon.

Other categories should be of value to most folks, like coupons, clothes, grocery and time (time is money, after all). Also worthy of note is that of the 16 websites I wanted to try, 15 are up and running - meaning the listings in the book are as up to date as possible. And at the end of the book is a list of similar books the author has written, providing even more fodder for those who enjoy the thrill of saving a buck or three.

90 Money-Saving Websites by Blake Dresden (Amazon Digital Services Inc., January 2014); 101 pp.

THE CHRISTMAS WOMEN

4 stars out of 5

It's sweet, for the most part predictable and smacks of  "The Music Man," "White Christmas" and "Grease." In short, which it is at just 219 pages, it's a nice book to read before the holiday season. A friend at Goodreads recommended it just as I was looking for something to counter the somewhat downer effects of a heavy-handed war-action thriller, and when I learned it's free with my Kindle Unlimited membership, I downloaded it immediately (the regular price is $2.99).

When Trudie Parks, a former student of retired high school drama teacher Myrna Childs, learns that her beloved teacher may have terminal cancer, she contacts two of her best friends from way back then (Trudie is 38, unmarried and living in her late father's house). The three, all stars of the annual Childs-directed Christmas show, at the time were so close that they were dubbed "The Christmas Girls," although they've scattered to other parts of the country and rarely see each other. Moved to do something to honor their former teacher, the three decide to recreate the show 20 years after the fact. 

As they contact the classmates who were involved in the original production to bring about a reenactment, they come face-to-face with old rivalries, old dreams and (big surprise!) old romances. Will they manage to pull it all together, deal with their ghosts from the past and stage a smashing show? And, given their teacher's weakening condition, can they do it in time?

As I implied at the outset, there aren't many big surprises here - not that there's anything wrong with that. And I admit to feeling special connections as I read along. To begin with, the setting is a small town called Deer Lake, Ohio, just south of Columbus. As an almost lifelong Buckeye who grew up not far from our wonderful capital city, I've never heard of Deer Lake, although Deer Creek State Park is in the approximate area. But the subject matter struck close to home as well; both my husband, a retired high school English teacher, and our daughter, a middle school language arts teacher, have been heavily involved in high school play production (our daughter still is). 

For years, we've lived through all the excitement, last-minute glitches, personality clashes and anticipation of opening nights; and not a few of the classmates in this book - including the hometown clown turned well-known Hollywood actor - resonated in my own memory bank. I know firsthand how much work, time and frazzled nerves are involved - and I also know that no matter how apprehensive teacher-directors may be on opening night, parents, grandparents and friends will know for certain that the students they came to see are nothing less than Bing Crosby, Shirley Jones, John Travolta or Olivia Newton-John.

All that said, it was an enjoyable read for me. I do, however, have one tiny nit to pick: At one point, the author says one of the classmates attended "Perdue" after high school - to study engineering, if I recall correctly. Unless he secretly was taking classes in chicken plucking, though, I suspect he really went to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where the overall undergraduate engineering programs are ranked 9th nationally. 

The Christmas Women by Elyse Douglas (Amazon Digital Services Inc., September 2014); 219 pp.

Friday, October 24, 2014

WHITE LIES

4 stars out of 5

I've never been a fan of books about war (or movies, for that matter). But I do love a good action/adventure book, and with all the turmoil that's happening around the world these days, I'm not surprised that settings often are in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. I'm not thrilled about that, but when a book keeps me engaged throughout - as this one does - I'm willing to deal with it.

This is the 11th in the series featuring British MI5 agent Dan "Spider" Shepherd, and I've read and enjoyed quite a few of the others. Here, he's just come off a botched undercover assignment, only to learn that a young man he once mentored has been kidnapped in a remote part of Pakistan by al-Qaeda terrorists. Shepherd's controller, Charlotte Button, desperately wants to rescue him, but attempting that through the usual (and legal) channels isn't an option. So, she calls in a few chips - and then calls Shepherd and some of the Navy SEALS who were responsible for killing Osama bin Laden - to tackle the job. 

Needless to say, there's plenty of action, which is more than a little bit heavy on torture (one of the reasons I don't like war stories). As usual, the chapters jump back and forth among the various players - those doing the planning and those on the front lines of the action. In between, there's a ton of information on guns and surveillance equipment, the layout of a country most of us know little about and details of the thinking that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that the covert operation is a success. 

In the beginning, Shepherd - fast approaching his 40th birthday - remains confident of his ability, but his MI5 psychologist suspects he may be losing his edge and more suited to a desk job. In the end, there's no resolution of that issue - but it did seem to me that Shepherd himself was less a focal person in this book than in those I've read previously. Perhaps that signals a change in his future similar to John Sandford's Lucas Davenport's "graduating" from street work to a less dangerous, but still important, supervisory role. 

Oh well - guess I'll just have to wait for the next one to find out.

White Lies by Stephen Leather (Hodder & Stoughton, August 2014); 384 pp.

Monday, October 20, 2014

DICK FRANCIS'S DAMAGE

5 stars out of 5

There are no words to describe the thrill of reading a mystery with a well-thought-out plot, impeccable language and not a single typo (at least not that I noticed). The late Dick Francis, father of Felix - who wrote this book on his own - never failed on any of those measures. And Felix, who co-wrote several books with his father before going it alone in four others, clearly has learned from his master's voice, churning out yet another winner in my book.

As usual, the topic is horse racing in Great Britain; in this instance, undercover investigator Jeff Hinkley is asked by the British Horseracing Authority, which governs the Sport of Kings, to do some sleuthing with regard to a trainer who's been banned from the sport for doping his horses. But then, Hinkley witnesses an unexpected murder - and the case takes a different turn. 

As his investigation proceeds, Hinkley must deal with food poisoning of jockeys, a fireworks-laden steeplechase and a very real threat that jeopardizes the whole of racing in England. In the midst of all that are personal issues including his sister's dire cancer diagnosis, the threat of her son being convicted of dealing drugs and the ticking of his own biological clock (yes, apparently some guys have one of these, too).

The ending seemed a teensy bit abrupt, but on no way did that take away from an easy-reading pace that moves along quickly. In fact, my only disappointment is that it ended too soon; writing that flows this well and holds the reader's interest throughout is is short supply. Ah well, I'll just hope there's another one in the pipeline!

Dick Francis's Damage by Felix Francis (Putnam Adult, October 2014); 387 pp.

Friday, October 17, 2014

THE GIFT OF AGE: WIT AND WISDOM, INFORMATION AND INSPIRATION FOR THE CHRONOLOGICALLY ENDOWED AND THOSE WHO WILL BE

4 stars out of 5

No matter how old you are, it's hard to read when your eyes are dripping tears from laughing so hard. Even after stopping to dry off every few minutes, this is a short (168 pages) book that can be finished in a couple of hours tops. And if you're anywhere north of 55 years of age, I'm pretty sure you'll be cracking up through the whole thing just as I did.

Dr. Richard Lederer has written more than 35 books, almost all related to the
use (and misuse) of the English language - one or two of which I read years ago. Now that I'm over the hill myself (he's somewhere around 76, just a couple of years older than I), the subject matter of this one is of special interest to me. And knowing firsthand how funny the guy can be - and learning that his honors include International Punster of the Year and a winner of Toastmasters International's Golden Gavel - I couldn't pass it up when it was offered free through my Kindle Unlimited membership.

As the title suggests, this little gem is loaded with mostly humorous tidbits relating to growing older - from bumper stickers to puns to inspiring quotes such as (from Leroy Satchell Paige), "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?")

Many, from oldsters we all know and love such as George Burns, Will Rogers, Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers, inspire giggles, if not outright chortles:

"You know you're getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you can do while down there." 

"We could certainly slow the aging process if it had to work its way through Congress." 

"By the time you've lit the last candle of your birthday cake, the first one has burned out."

And my personal favorite:

"Going braless pulls all the wrinkles out of your face."

In all honesty, there are quite a few I've heard before, but that didn't mean I laughed any less; this is  a terrific collection of zingers on the aging process. I think I'll have to get a hard copy, in fact; reading it to my friends is sure to make me the hit of our Saturday afternoon golf cart posse to Walmart.  

The Gift of Age: Wit and Wisdom, Information and Inspiration for the Chronologically Endowed and Those Who Will Be By Richard Lederer (Marion Street Press LLC, April 2011); 168 pp.

BURN

3-1/2 stars out of 5

After reading countless books by Patterson and his co-authors du jour, I'm aware of two things when I open up the next one: It won't tax my aging brain or put me on the edge of my seat, and the pages will whiz by in a flash. This one, the seventh in the series featuring Detective Michael Bennett and his rather large family, fit that pattern perfectly.

Well, almost; I gave four stars to each of the other six, but I just can't muster up more than three for this one. Exactly why I'm not totally sure, except this one seems to be more of a mishmash of story lines, with an ending that sort of left things hanging and felt thrown together at the last minute.

Here, Bennett and his crew return to their New York City home; they've been spending time in witness protection after Bennett captured a crime biggie who was intent on payback. Shortly after his return, Bennett is called in by a boss who's carrying a grudge; instead of a pat on the back for bringing a top criminal to justice, Bennett is reassigned to what's called an "Outreach Squad" in Harlem. 

The ragtag squad members have been hardly working, but with a few carefully chosen phrases, Bennett turns them into professionals who are working hard (yeah, right)! Most of the calls to the squad are complaints from neighborhood residents that aren't even police matters, and when one speaks of seeing some well-heeled dudes having a strange get-together in an abandoned building, Bennett figures the caller is a nut case. That is, until a charred body turns up in that building - bringing a whole new meaning to barbecue spit.

Ah, but we're not done yet. After a short time at the squad, Bennett is called by an old friend who's pulled some strings to get him back to his old job to help capture a team of robbers who are hitting high-end jewelry stores. Of course, Bennett's offer to return is conditioned on his solving the case and bringing the thieves to justice within two weeks. Because Bennett has bonded so well with his new crew, he just can't force himself to abandon them - so he insists on investigating both cases simultaneously.

As if all that weren't enough, Bennett continues to deal with feelings for his children's "nanny" and housekeeper, the very Irish and beauteous Mary Catherine, the health crisis of a close family member and - whew! - the threat that he'll lose one of his adopted daughters to her biological father.

Hey, don't shoot the messenger - I told you early on about the story line jumble. All things considered (and clearly there are plenty of things going on here), it's not an awful book. But I'd at least wait till the paperback comes out and it won't cost as much.

Burn by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge (Little, Brown and Co., September 2014); 433 pp.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE MOST USEFUL WEBSITES FOR SMALL BUSINESS & ENTREPRENEURS

4 stars out of 5

Here's the scoop: I'm officially retired, but I still operate a home-based small business to account for my freelance writing/copy editing/photography services. And, those services include a monthly newspaper column on websites of interest to business. That gave me two reasons to download this book, which usually costs $1.99 but was free through my Kindle Unlimited membership. At 62 pages, I figured, how could I go wrong? The worst that could happen is I'd find a how-to book If I can mention in one of my columns.

Now that I've gone through it - which took at most 45 minutes largely because some of the websites mentioned are already familiar to me and others aren't particularly helpful to my business - I'll say it's more than worth the price I paid. If you're a business owner who needs help with things like identifying callers on your cell phone, finding out whether or not your emails were opened by the recipients or verifying that a job-seeker really earned the degree he or she claimed on the application, I'll even say it's worth the paltry two bucks, so by golly, go ahead and spring for it. 

The Most Useful Websites for Small Business & Entrepreneurs by Valerie McGilvrey (McGilvery ePub, December 2013); 62 pp.

DEADLINE

4 stars out of 5

Not long ago, I was challenged to come up with a Top 10 list of all-time favorite book "heroes." Sandford's Virgil Flowers came in at No. 7 (though my ranking for 7 through 4 are pretty much interchangeable depending on how much I enjoyed the most recent book). Nothing in this one changed my mind - that fu**in' Flowers is still a hoot and this, the eighth in the series, is another winner.


What makes me love him so much? I'm not totally sure, except to say that unlike his boss, the richer-than-God Lucas Davenport (the main character in another Sandford series), ol' Virgil still has a hint (okay, more than a hint) of maverick in him. Then too, there are the wisecracks (although not always coming from Virgil), to-wit:

"It's darker in there than a black cat's ass in a coal mine."

"Coyotes don't eat dachshunds."

"It's a fu**in' Chihuahua. It's practically a fu**in' hamster."

And if that isn't enough, what's not to love about a guy whose favorite brewski is Leinenkugel?

As you might suspect, this one has gone to the dogs. There is, it seems, a whole lot of dognapping going on; at the request of a friend, Virgil starts a mostly unofficial investigation of the apparent theft of dogs from local owners in rural southeast Minnesota. Most likely, the theory is, the kidnappers are rounding up the canines to sell to medical labs for research purposes.

Then comes a call from boss Davenport; a local newspaper reporter has been found murdered, and this investigation is an official assignment. So, for the most part the other investigation goes to the dogs while Virgil follows clues to track down the killer and finds himself in the middle of a hugely lucrative embezzlement scheme involving, of all things, members of a local school district's board of education.

There aren't a lot of surprises here, nor are there meant to be; for the most part, the bad guys and gals are known pretty much from the git-go. The fun comes in the where, when and how of nailing down the evidence so arrests can be made (with not a few more dead bodies turning up along the way). 

I won't say this is the best-ever entry in this series, but it's still a hoot and, IMHO, well worth the relatively short time it takes to read.

Deadline by John Sandford (Putnam Adult, October 2014); 389 pp.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

OFF MY ROCKER: ONE MAN'S TASTY, TWISTED, STAR-STUDDED QUEST FOR EVERLASTING MUSIC

5 stars out of 5

It's rare that I stray from my favorite thrillers and police/legal/medical procedurals, but when I saw this one offered free with my Kindle Unlimited membership, I took a second look. Maybe it was the first three words of the title - goodness knows I can identify with that phrase. Maybe it was the awards the book earned when it was published in 2013 (such as the 2014 IPPY Award for Best Personal Nonfiction Ebook). More probable, though, is the mention of rock-and-roll and names from a generation with which I'm intimately familiar. That - and the fact that I'd just shut the book on a very unsatisfying tome I wish I'd never opened - meant starting this one was accompanied by hopes for the best.


At about the halfway point, I turned to my husband Jack and said, "This reads a lot like a 322-page 'what I did on my summer vacation' essay, except that the vacation lasts for 25-or-so years."

More telling, however, is what I uttered next: "And guess what? I'm loving every single minute of it."

Let me be clear: I love music, especially the rock-and-roll I grew up with in the 1950s and early 1960s (although with the possible exception of disco, there's really no music genre I don't like at least a little bit). So when Weissberg starts around 1967 when he went to see Otis Redding in concert as a student at the University of Wisconsin - a concert that never happened because Redding and his band were killed in a plane crash - he had my attention. And as the names kept coming - they're sprinkled liberally throughout - that attention never wavered. Then, when he revealed that his favorite concert was by the late Roy Orbison (in 1987), I was totally hooked. Orbison is of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters, and to this day I'm grateful for the opportunity to see him live (on the revolving stage of the now-closed Front Row Theater in Highland Heights, Ohio) shortly before he died.

Weissberg begins with his early years as a radio personality, after which he takes readers through a long and varied career in the music entertainment business. Normally, I'm not fond of expose-type name-dropping - I consider that just a ploy to sell books - but it's done well here. The "good" guys and gals get mentioned (like B.B. King and Bonnie Rait) as well as the not so good, but at no time is there any flowery gushing over the good ones and the slamming of the others that I personally find rather disgusting. When he added Dionne Warwick to the latter bunch, in fact, I was hoping for some real dirt; I don't recall exactly what happened, but I do remember being glad we hadn't been able to attend when she came to nearby Youngstown, Ohio, a number of years back and totally alienated concert-goers with her unprofessional behavior.

In between are lots of familiar names and more than a few I've never even heard of (which is part of the point, since Weissberg's passion was introducing audiences to outstanding, but largely unknown, musicians). All in all, this is an interesting look at the music industry from one who's seen it from the inside.

Off My Rocker: One Man's Tasty, Twisted, Star-Studded Quest for Everlasting Music by Kenny Weissburg (Sandra Jonas Publishing House, November 2013); 322 pp.