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Friday, May 30, 2014


5 stars out of 5

They're baaaaack - the government-sanctioned assassination team of Will Robie and Jessica Reel. And I couldn't be happier.

Well, maybe a little happier; this latest installment didn't impress me quite as much as its predecessor, The Hit. But the difference wasn't enough to knock my rating down a whole star, so 5 it is.

This one puts the dynamic duo in the crosshairs of a high-ranking U.S. official who's convinced they should be thrown in jail for straying from the script on a previous mission (fact is, they didn't follow orders; and even though in the end their actions saved the day, not following the letter of the law is an irritant in some circles). But the trump card remains in their pocket - approval by none other than the President of the United States.

As the book begins, the pair are put through rigorous training in preparation for a new mission to eliminate a world leader who's hiding out in France. It's clear from the start, however, that what doesn't make you stronger may well kill you - and the two begin to suspect that the latter may well be the real intent of the training. Meantime, Jessica is forced to deal with ghosts from her past that end up threatening them both. Then, they're given another search-and-seizure mission that not a single person believes they can pull off; even Jessica and Will have their doubts.

In retrospect, some of the situations are a bit hard to believe, but honestly, the action never slowed down enough for me to notice while I was reading; all I could think about was getting closer to the end. Another winner for sure!

The Target by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing, April 2014); 432 pp.

Friday, May 23, 2014


5 stars out of 5

When I was offered the chance to get this book for 99 cents as an "earned credit" at, I read the synopsis, checked customer reviews and learned that author Alan Russell, the author of 10 books, has won several writing awards. Satisfied that my almost-dollar probably wouldn't be wasted (and any event it wasn't a lot to lose), I downloaded it. When I ran out of other things I wanted to read a couple of months later, I decided to find out if I'd won or lost.

And wow! This, my friends, is (pun intended) a real sizzler. Not only did I have trouble putting it down, but the closer I got to the end the more I realized I didn't want it to. 

The story begins as LAPD officer Michael Gideon and his K-9 partner, dubbed Sirius, are reassigned to head up a new Special Cases unit after suffering bad burns while capturing a serial killer, who was severely burned as well and now on death row. Essentially, Gideon is told, they'll take on out-of-the-ordinary cases, and the first is a doozy: a teenage boy is found crucified in a city park. At the same time, the body of a days-old infant - apparently left in a box to die by an uncaring mother - turns up near a bridge. Gideon identifies with the infant and vows to find the mother and see that she's prosecuted to the fullest extent.

Juggling those two cases - one official and one unofficial - forces Gideon to come to grips with demons of his own (not the least of which are recurring dreams of burning alive). And, he must deal with an ongoing, but reluctant, relationship with the serial killer, who may hold the key to the boy's murder. Complicating matters even more is a budding romantic relationship with a woman who has made it her job to see that abandoned babies are not forgotten.

There's no shortage of blood and guts stuff here, and it helps that Gideon is a bit of a jokester (well, no belly laughs for me, but I admit to chuckling at quite a few of the one-liners and groaning at a few others). Gideon tends to defuse situations, including his own reluctance to deal with his own emotions, with humor, and it really works.

Burning Man by Alan Russell (Thomas & Mercer, December 2012); 328 pp.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


4 stars out of 5

Bull bollocks! The first thing that came to my mind about halfway through this rollicking novel is that it would have been even more rollicking had I read (or re-read) William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice before I started. But it didn't bother me quite so much when I got to the end and read Moore's explanation; in fact, the book was inspired by The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe as well as Shakespeare's Othello: The Moor of Venice and the aforementioned Merchant. What's Moor (pun intended), Serpent is set in Medieval times, some 300 years before Shakespeare's writing.

It was a time when ladies who wanted to marry into wealth left their knickers at home in the drawers of their hope chests, shagging thy neighbor's wife was frowned upon only when you got caught, and less-than-manly men wore over-sized codpieces to attract knickerless ladies - much as we "girls" stuffed Kleenex into our bras in the 1950s (until, happily, a decade or so later we realized we didn't need bras at all).

At any rate, maybe reading Merchant would have helped a bit, but then again, maybe not so much. I still managed to chuckle out loud every now and then - just not quite as much as when I read another of Moore's books, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. Not a fair comparison, perhaps, since Lamb is without doubt one of the top two laugh-out-loud books I've ever read (topped only by Twisted Tales from Shakespeare by Richard Armor.

This one starts as three men in Venice - Antonio, Brabantio and Iago - lure rascal-fool Pocket to their lair for what was to be wine and a lusty woman (in this case, Brabantio's beautiful daughter, Portia). But alas, the wine was drugged, and Portia is nowhere around. Instead, the plan is to kill Pocket; and for a time, it appears they got away with it.

But no, Pocket manages to escape - with a little help from a creature from a black lagoon. Then, he sets out on a fool's course to set things right, accompanied through most of the trials, tribulations, travails and travels by Jessica, the daughter of Shylock. Other familiar names pop in and out, like Othello, his wife, Desdemona, Cordelia and a monkey named Jeff (well, maybe that one's not so familiar).  

All in all, Moore's written another winner - witty, clever, irreverent and just plain fun to read.

The Serpent of Venice: A Novel by Christopher Moore (HarperCollins Publishers, April 2014); 336 pp.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Author, nature photographer and conservationist Gene Stratton-Porter was a favorite author of my late mother, also an Indiana native, who grew up perhaps an hour from what is now the Limberlost State Historic Site in Geneva. Stratton-Porter and her husband, Charles Porter, built a rustic 14-room log cabin home now far from the roughly 13,000-acre Limberlost Swamp in the early 1900s - and it was here that she wrote and five of her seven nature books and six of her 12 novels, including this one, Freckles and the one with which I'm more familiar, the follow-up A Girl of the Limberlost. I well remember my mother talking about that book, and the author - I'm pretty sure she even read it to me at one time.

So when I was offered an opportunity to get Freckles free at Amazon (through, the memories came flooding back and I immediately downloaded it. Written in 1904 - well before my time and my mother's - I expected it to be a bit stilted in language and with, because of Stratton-Porter's conservationist leanings, a bit of Rachel Carson thrown in.

That it was, and more; it certainly is reflective of a time when the "upper-crust" ruled and anyone without a well-documented family pedigree virtually was a non-person. That theme, almost above all else, came through loud and clear in this book, which follows the adventures of Freckles, a young man who was orphaned as an infant (missing a hand that had been cut off). Now grown, he's earned the favor of a man who owns a lumber company and is charged with protecting the valuable trees in the Limberlost - a stretch of swamp now owned by the company. Soon, a beautiful young woman enters - dubbed the "Angel" because of her love and acceptance of every living thing regardless of "station" in life. The story then follows their adventures in trying to protect the trees, the swamp and all the creatures living within it as well as development of Angel's relationship with Freckles, who sees himself as (in modern-day terms) a total loser because he's missing both a hand and the aforesaid pedigree.

The dialogue is, in fact, a bit difficult, especially given the language of the day and Freckles' rather thick Irish brogue. Presumably, Stratton-Porter borrowed the latter from her Irish husband, but we have no idea where Freckles picked it up, since he was deposited in an English orphanage as a baby and had no interaction with anyone Irish until he was grown up (a mystery that bothers me and not a few other reviewers). 

As I read along, I also kept waiting for something truly awful to happen (a box of tissues was at my elbow throughout). But this really isn't a tear-jerker; and I was more inclined, given the times in which I live, to want to smack the characters upside the head than feel sorry about their belief that circumstances dictated their destinies. But that was then, and this is now - something readers must keep in mind throughout. If you view the book as a love story between two young people and an environment they both love, it's well written and poignant.

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter (sold by Amazon Digital Services Inc.); 244 pp.

Friday, May 2, 2014


5 stars out of 5

For those interested in buying this book, I'll lay out some key points to consider: First, this has to be one of the most definitive books on the history, development and processes involved in hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells ever written. It's also easily understandable by those of us not that familiar with the practice or the industry, but don't expect to skim through it. And, close to 40% of the book's 385 pages consists of comprehensive source material and an alphabetic index. 

Personally, I commend the author - an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal who has covered the industry for many years - for including this information; as a journalist myself, I would have expected no less. I simply want potential buyers to know that a substantial portion of the book is so readers can get more information (and confirm where the author got his). Furthermore, this book is neither an expose nor an attempt to sway the vote in either direction; rather, it's a very thorough report on how the whole thing got started, where it's at now and, insofar as anyone can tell at this point, where it may go in the future.

There's little doubt "fracking" is here to stay, and I freely admit I haven't been all that happy about it since the volume has been turned up in and around my little part of northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania with exploration (some would insist the definitive word is "exploitation") of the vast area that contains Marcellus Shale. But I also admit to knowing little about how fracking really works, so I tried hard to keep an open mind as I read. 

Now that I've finished, I can't say my overall opinion has changed, but my perspective certainly has. In fact, my biggest worry - that too much fracking (cracking solid rock miles below the earth's surface with drills and highly pressurized water mixed with other chemicals) - will blow our home planet apart from the inside out has pretty much gone by the boards, even though the fracking process has been linked to relatively mild earthquakes in some parts of the country (including mine). But that view been replaced by other concerns that continuing this "boom" at the rate it's going now may not be what's best for generations to come.

There's no way to condense all the facts and figures here (nor would I presume to try). But here are a few tidbits I picked up along the way:

  • The gas and oil industry certainly isn't new; the first petroleum engineering degrees were conferred by the University of Pittsburgh in 1915 on four students - one from New Castle, Pa., which is within what I consider my local area.
  • Nearly every well drilled in the United States today is a fracked well. That's about 100 wells a day, maybe more, that are being drilled year-round. "Whether you fear fracking or celebrate it, that's a lot of holes in the ground," the author writes.
  • Fracking is so common that some have dubbed the new United States "Frackistan."
  • By 2030, the United States is poised to become an oil exporter.
  • In 2012, Chesapeake Energy, one of the industry giants and a big player in the Ohio-Pennsylvania market, earned $20 billion; the company drills more than 1,000 wells each year, all of them fracked. From 2004 to 2011, Chesapeake drilled more wells than any other company in the world - an average of four every single day.

One point that stood out in my mind is that the energy industry spends about $105 billion annually on hydraulic fracturing; about $5 billion of that is spent on "cementing," or securing the pipes to ensure that gas or salty water stays in the rock and doesn't flow into another one. But it appears there's precious little evaluation to make sure the cement itself is leak proof; it if isn't, gas can seep into shallow aquifers and then contaminate residential water (no doubt you've heard stories from folks who live near fracked wells about being able to set the water that comes from their kitchen faucets on fire). No, the very few times that happens may not be a huge concern (although those who experience it will say once is too often, and their point is well taken). But in my mind, at least, the issue of whether or not we're doing enough to prevent it from happening at all is.

The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World by Russell Gold (Simon & Schuster, April 2014); 385 pp.