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Saturday, November 29, 2014


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.