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Friday, July 25, 2014

THE HEIST

4 stars out of 5

I love a great hero; from Tarzan to Perry Mason to Harry Potter, the good guy - especially if there's a titch of bad guy under the edges - gets my attention every time.  Over many years of reading, favorites have emerged - characters whose personalities are so appealing that I look forward to reading about them again and again and, were it possible, with whom I'd love to share a beer (or two) and what I have no doubt would be interesting conversation for a couple of hours.

These guys have been on my Top 10 list for quite some time now (in case any are unfamiliar to other readers who might want to give them a try):

10. Forest ranger Joe Pickett (author C.J. Box) 

9. Manhattan bookstore owner and part-time burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr (Lawrence Block)

8. Prison chaplain and former police officer John Jordan (Michael Lister) 

7. Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers (John Sandford)  

6. Psychologist and police consultant Dr. Alex Delaware (Jonathan Kellerman)

5. Cleveland private eye Milan Jacovich (Les Roberts) 

4. The mysterious Roarke, husband of police lieutenant Eve Dallas (J.D. Robb, a.k.a. Nora Roberts) 

3. British 007 agent James Bond (Ian Fleming)

2. Boston private investigator Spenser (Robert B. Parker) 

And in the No. 1 spot? None other than art restorer and accomplished Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, who's the star of this book. In it - the 14th in the series - his beautiful (and younger) wife, Chiara, is pregnant with twins; they've been living in Vienna, where Gabriel is helping restore a major work of art. When a friend discovers the torture and murder of a former British diplomat who apparently has turned to trafficking stolen art, Gabriel begins to investigate - learning that the works of art may be a cover for a Syrian dictator to hide scandalous amounts of money. The chase, as usual, takes Gabriel to several countries where he dons different disguises as he and his team put together an involved operation to bring the dictator to his knees and, hopefully, locate the stolen art (in particular, a Caravaggio that's been missing for decades).

Many characters from previous books return in this one, and perhaps a little too much space is given up to explanations of who they are for the benefit, I suppose, of making sure new readers know the background rather than simply trying to fill up pages. Also, the ending is predictable and a bit abrupt - reasons that prompted me to give this one 4 stars rather than 5.

But in the end, it's a great adventure and a pleasure to read. I always enjoy the historical information that's sprinkled liberally throughout (even if it's not always factual). I honestly can't say this book is the best of the bunch, but it sure held my attention throughout.


The Heist by Daniel Silva (Harper, July 2014); 497 pp.

Friday, July 18, 2014

THE CITY: A NOVEL

5 stars out of 5

If for no other reason than writing that is eloquent, even exquisite, this book deserves to be read. It is, IMHO, story-telling at its absolute best (and if I could give it 10 stars, I would). Basically, it's a tale of lifelong friends,  Jonah Kirk and Malcolm Pomeranz, that takes place in New York City and begins in the 1950s and ends when Jonah, who relates most of the story as a recollection of life-altering events, is 57. 

Actually, it begins with The Neighborhood, a short story and prequel to this book (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/989028284). It was very good - I gave it 5 stars as well - so it's definitely worth reading. But although it provides a foundation for this book - and I recommend reading it if you can get your hands on a copy - I don't think it's absolutely necessary to read it before tackling The City.

Both Jonah and Malcolm are musical prodigies - Jonah a piano man and Malcolm a saxophonist. Jonah is black and Malcolm is white, and both come from interesting, if different families. Jonah's mostly-absent father has a history of breaking his mother's heart; Malcolm's parents, who live in the same house, are equally absent from each other, forcing Malcolm and his older sister, Amalia, to do all the household chores. When the story begins, Amalia has earned a scholarship to a prestigious university and soon will be leaving Malcolm, who is somewhere around 12 years old, behind.

A few years earlier, Jonah a mysterious woman he calls Pearl - a woman who changes his life forever by somehow arranging for a piano to appear in the community center Jonah frequents; that leads to piano lessons and a path toward becoming a professional musician like Jonah's mother - a lunch counter waitress by day and singer by night.

As Jonah relates the events of his past, readers learn of the endearing and contentious relationships with his mother, his grandfather, his errant father, another mysterious woman named Fiona Cassidy who appears to Jonah in a dream (dead, I might add) and a couple of other notable characters. Jonah's tale is one of love, intrigue and yes, suspense - but don't expect in-your-face, edge-of-your-seat horror. More than anything else, this is a touching story about love, courage, the end of innocence in the whole of a city that's bigger than the sum of its parts. Or, to quote a line from the book, "Time teaches us that the musical score of life oscillates between that of 'Psycho' and 'The Sound of Music'..."

The City: A Novel by Dean Koontz (Bantam, July 2014); 418 pp.

Friday, July 11, 2014

GHOST SHIP

4 stars out of 5

Dirk Pitt, Clive Cussler's legendary hero who's now heading up the National Underwater and Marine Agency, doesn't play much of a role in this one, but there's plenty of action nonetheless. In fact, it's a little too much for me; NUMA agents Kurt Austin and fellow agent and friend Joe Zavala are about as close to super-heroes as you can get. No capes, perhaps, but plenty of other gadgets and gizmos courtesy of the U.S. government (chameleon suits? Who knew??) to satisfy all the techies out there.

In the beginning, Austin is injured while trying to rescue folks (one a former love) from a yacht that's about to sink. But his injuries come with memory malfunctions, and he isn't sure exactly what he saw. Determined to get to the truth - and prove that his long-ago love really isn't dead - he teams up with his pal Zavala to investigate (with Pitt's permission). All this leads to the discovery of a ship that was thought to be lost nearly a century ago and the possible downfall of the United States itself that brings computer hacking to a whole new level. 

Some of Cussler's work of late has been less than satisfying, but this one - co-written by Graham Brown - is, with the exception of the aforementioned almost unbelievable super-hero antics, perhaps - very well done. The story is a bit complex, but the authors do a great job of sorting it all out so it makes sense in the end.

Ghost Ship (The NUMA Files) by Clive Cussler (Putnam Adult, May 2014); 440 pp.

Friday, July 4, 2014

THE BODY AND THE BLOOD

5 stars out of 5

After I read Blood Sacrifice, which is No. 5 in the series featuring North Florida prison chaplain and former cop John Jordan, I loved it so much I knew I wouldn't stop until I'd read others - even if it meant reading them out of order. If my experience with that one taught me nothing else (except what a terrific writer Michael Lister is), it's that these books can stand alone (read my review of that one at https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/880641103).

Since I'm always looking for bargains, I didn't rush out to buy another one, though, and as it turns out I'm glad. Not long after I finished Blood Sacrifice, I was notified of a credit to my Amazon account as a result of a class-action settlement regarding Kindle book pricing, and I was able to snag two more of the series including this one. It's No. 4, and I had zero problem with reading it even though I'd already read the one that follows.

And happily, it didn't disappoint. This one takes place in the Potter Correctional Institution's Protective Management Unit, which houses inmates who, for various reasons, aren't likely to live long and prosper in the "regular" part of the prison. Jordan is here because he received a note claiming that a murder will take place during the Catholic Mass. Just after the elderly priest serves communion - the body and blood - Jordan sees an inmate enter a cell alone, and shortly thereafter blood begins to spread out from under the locked door. 

Sure enough, the inmate is dead - his throat cut quite recently - but no one else entered or exited the cell. It turns out that the inmate, a very talented artist, may have been an innocent man - and a man who, for a different reason, was to be released in a few days. One question, of course, is why he was killed, but an even more puzzling one is how. It seems impossible that anyone could have gone in or out without being seen.

As the story moves along, still more crimes turn up, and the number of suspects grows as well. On the list of possibilities are a couple of unit officers, the victim's sister, a few inmates (one of whom is the victim's lover) and even the elderly priest. Meantime, Jordan is trying to get his jumbled personal life in order, having recently entered into a tentative reconciliation with his estranged wife Susan. 

Interspersed is a bit of humor - in his car being followed by two suspicious characters, for instance, Jordan muses that if they catch him, he'll have to pull out the only weapon he has at hand - a Barry Manilow CD. 

Lister has another winner on his hands, and now I can't wait to start the other one I have (Rivers to Blood, which is book No. 6. 

The Body and the Blood by Michael Lister (Pulpwood Press, December 2011); 336 pp.