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Monday, December 29, 2014


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


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 ( 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


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 (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


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


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


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 ( 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


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


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.