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Saturday, November 28, 2015


4 stars out of 5

Will Robie is a paid assassin, working for the U.S. government in extreme secrecy throughout the darkest and most dangerous places in the world. He is highly successful, disciplined and never misses his target. That is, until one fateful day when he chokes.

His secretive boss, Blue Man, puts him on leave; and because there's some evidence that his sudden change is rooted to unreserved issues from his childhood, he heads back to his old home in rural Cantrell, Mississippi to confront the people and places he left 20 years earlier.

After he left home - and his lawyer father, Dan Robie - Will never went back and never had further contact with his father, who abused his son both physically and mentally. He soon learns that his father - who's since been elected the town judge - is in jail after being charged with murder. Is he guilty? Will doesn't want to believe it, but his contrarian father isn't talking and refuses any help from his son. 

Even though he's not even remotely close to his father, Will refuses to turn his back and leave (especially since his father now has a wife about Will's age and a young son - Will's much younger brother). As he begins to investigate, as he meets characters ranging fron seedy and dangerous, and a very different side of his old stomping grounds begins to emerge. Murders just keep piling up, and trying to track down the killers puts Will's own life - and that of his good friend and fellow assassin, Jessica Reel, who's sent to help him - in great danger.

Reading about the usually unemotional Will as he tries to sort out his feelings in what is for him a very different setting makes for an interesting story. Beyond that, though, the rest of the plot stretches the imagination almost to the breaking point (and almost to the point of my assigning the book 3 stars rather than 4).  The ending, too, was somewhat disappointing; some loose ends were left hanging - as might be expected - while others were tied up much too easily given the complexity of the situations. I enjoyed this book, but honestly, I'm hoping Will gets his mojo back in time for the next installment.

The Guilty by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing, November 2015); 433 pp.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


4 stars out of 5

If nothing else, the latest adventures of bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is a hoot. By the end of a handful of chapters, I'd laughed out loud at least twice and once the water I was dumb enough to be sipping as I read got snorted out my nose. Quite a few of the chuckles came at the antics of Stephanie's office cohort, Lula, who is always a trip to say the least. When it comes to length, it's practically a novella, making it a quick read (for anyone who wonders about such things, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America defines "novella" as 17,500 to 40,000 words, or roughly 100 pages).

As usual, Stephanie is working at making a living, this time by chasing down Ken Globobic (Gobbles), who lives at the Zeta fraternity house at Kiltman College and was arrested for beating up the dean of students. When Gobbles didn't show up for his court date, Stephanie and Lula head out to check the frat house, where very strange things seem to be happening and some of the characters are weird by anybody's standards.

When a particularly unpopular campus big shot gets bumped off, things get stranger still; this time, though, Stephanie's main squeeze, Trenton, N.J. cop Joe Morelli, is on the case. Morelli also is fighting demons of his own in more ways than one, threatening his relationship with Stephanie and opening up the possibility yet again for dilly dallying with her hunka-hunka security guy Ranger (for me, most of that scenario has been a yawn over the span of several books).

Also as usual, the scrapes Stephanie and Lula get into border on the ridiculous (but somehow seems to me to be part of the appeal), as does the plot (ditto). There are the expected near-misses on losing life and/or limb and bullseyes on totaling at least one of Ranger's fancy cars, all of which is in good fun. All in all, reading this is a relatively fun way to wile away a few hours.

Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich (Random House LLC, November 2015); 304 pp.

Monday, November 23, 2015


4 stars out of 5

The trouble with Harry is that he's agreed to work with his "Lincoln Lawyer" half-brother. I love both characters (Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller ), but if I'm honest, I'd have to say I wasn't as thrilled to see them working together as I thought I'd be. I'm not exactly why, except that while both share center stage as they go about their respective business, some of the shine (for want of a better word) that puts the uniqueness in their personalities just seemed a bit dull around the edges.

The story begins as the Mickster is defending a former gang member who's been charged with the brutal murder of a woman - according to the cops and prosecutor, an open-and-shut case. Haller, though, is convinced his guy has been set up; but to prove it, he needs a better-than-good investigator. Enter Bosch, who retired from the Los Angeles Police Department and in theory is available. Problem is, he doesn't want anything to do with Haller or his blustery, sometimes shady tactics; signing on with the defense would be tantamount to thumbing his nose at his former LAPD family.

Eventually, Haller wears down Bosch's defenses, convincing him to view the job as if he were doing his cop thing by finding the real culprit rather than helping to get a low-life killer out of jail (like beauty, intent apparently is in the eye of the beholder). And as he starts sniffing around, Bosch finds several holes in the investigation that make him think the case may be more open than shut - and his old cop instincts really do start kicking in.

So does the action, which includes a hit-and-run, scantily clad "businesswomen," more murders and the potential for blowback that could put the LAPD in the eye of a hurricane. As he gets deeper into the investigation, Bosch seeks help, and gets it, from a few former colleagues like former partner Lucia Soto even as he butts heads with a few other department cronies who are less than thrilled that he's joined the dark side.

All things considered, this book is very good, but not great. I look at it this way: After more than seven decades of eating, I still get a little antsy when different foods on my plate touch each other; similarly, I prefer that my characters lead separate lives (and books).

The Crossing by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Co., November 2015); 401 pp.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


5 stars out of 5

When you've got a police chief named Dove Carnahan who jokes (or maybe not) that she was named for her late mother's favorite soap, what's not to love? Nothing, in my mind - nor was there anything not to love in the rest of this book (even though I was introduced to more dysfunctional families than I've seen since the days of Starsky and Hutch).

Dove, who's 50, has a younger brother who hasn't been heard of for years, a sister who much prefers dogs to people and a beautiful but dead mother who was totally devoid of motherly instincts and was murdered brutally in her bathtub when Dove was a child. Dove enjoys her job in the rural Pennsylvania town, where serious crime isn't the norm. But then, a beaten-to-death girl is found in an old, still-burning mine sinkhole; turns out she belongs to the Truly clan of local rednecks and [mostly] petty criminals. 

To say family members are uncooperative when it comes to the investigation is an understatement; cooperating with police isn't even on their radar. In the middle of all this, the man who was convicted of killing Dove's mother gets out of jail and shows up, insisting he was innocent and threatening to make Dove's life - and her sister's - a living hell. Throw in news of the wayward brother, and things quickly get complicated.

Not, though, for the reader; the author is adept at showing us inside the lives and minds of all the characters - whether or not they're lovable (all I'll say about that is that nobody's flawless). There are some plot twists, one of which made my jaw drop; and while the ending didn't come as a total surprise, it certainly tweaked my heartstrings.

For me to highly recommend this one, then, is a no-brainer - and I thank the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read and review it. It's just too bad that the rating scale tops out at 5 stars.

Angels Burning by Tawni O'Dell (Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc., January, 2016); 288 pp.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


5 stars out of 5

Riveting. Haunting. Poignant. Disturbing. Enlightening. So did I enjoy this book? The answer is absolutely, but not in the usual sense; the official description reveals very little about the real story between the pages (to put it another way, Rizzoli and Isles it ain't). As other readers have noted in their reviews, the content came as a surprise - but for me, it was a difficult book to put down. Thankfully, it's short enough that I was able to finish it in one day. 

The thriller element is here, of course, but it plays second fiddle (pun intended) to a story of how the Holocaust played out in Italy beginning in the late 1930s. It begins when violinist Julia Ansdell, mother of 3-year-old Julia, is in Rome for a performance and visits an antique shop to look for old music to add to her collection. She finds what she's looking for - a book - and falling from between the pages is a real treasure: a handwritten waltz titled Incendio (fire). As a musician, she recognizes immediately the potential beauty and emotional impact of the piece, so she buys it and takes it home to Boston.

There, the fire soon threatens to consume her entire world; when she first tries to play the composition, it appears to transform her young daughter - but in a terrible way. Her husband and sister, though, suspect it's Julia who's changed; her late mother had a history of mental illness, after all. But even though she worries that they're right, Julia remains convinced that there's something evil in the music - so she sneaks away from her husband Rob and daughter and sets out to learn its history.

Her destination is Venice, where she meets up with her friend, a cellist in whom Julia has confided her concerns about her daughter's sudden tendency toward violence. There, they learn more about the composer and the dark side of the waltz's origin - and in the process put their lives in danger from those who want secrets from the past to stay hidden.

There's action and suspense as Julia tries to avoid being killed, but much of the book tells the tale of the composer - and that centers on rather graphic accounts of what happened in Italy during the Holocaust. It's a beautiful yet ugly story that's rooted in fact; in 1938, the Italian Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini enacted a number of laws restricting the Jewish population, and from that point on, life as a Jew in Italy turned horrific to say the least. Bringing that history to life and honoring those who were "heroes" is, the author says, a major reason for writing the book.

When I finished, I had a few questions about Julia's part of the story that I wish had been answered, but in the end they really don't matter much. Suffice it to say this book grabbed me at the beginning, and I expect it will be a while before it totally releases its grip on my mind.

Playing With Fire by Tess Gerritsen (Ballantine Books, October 2015); 273 pp.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


4.5 stars out of 5

I love to love books by John Grisham - in large part, I'm sure, because I'm a huge fan of legal thrillers - and almost without exception, that's certainly been the case. And happily, it's true here as well. I will say that for most of the first half I concluded this is meant to be a book of short stories or vignettes that take place in the life of street lawyer Sebastian Rudd. But while each "story" might be able to stand on its own, bits and pieces of each are connected to create (aha!) a whole book. And that's not easy to pull off.

Rudd really doesn't have a home base, unless you count a tiny, well-secured apartment and the heavily armed van complete with heavy-duty bodyguard/driver that serves as his mobile (and only) office. He's got a young son and an ex-wife lawyer whose primary goal in life, it seems, is to gain sole custody plus 25% ownership in a mixed martial arts cage fighter named Tadeo. Rudd's paid work, for the most part, consists of defending bad guys (and I suppose gals) other lawyers won't touch with a 10-foot pole.

Rudd doesn't love them either, but neither does he have much respect for insurance companies, government or the criminal justice/legal system. Even if his clients are guilty - and in fact, most of them are - when he wins (and that's fairly often), he derives satisfaction in knowing he's once again stuck it to the unethical powers that be and lived to tell about it.

Given the natural tendencies of his clients, though, that last part is subject to change at any moment. Early-on clients include a teenage boy who's accused of the grisly murders of two young girls (a case thought to be a shoe-in win for the prosecution) and defense of "his" fighter Tadeo who, after losing in the ring for the first time, pounded the hell out of a referee who happened to be in the ring at the time of the judges' decision. The pounding, caught on video, proved fatal - and now Rudd is the only thing standing between his fighter and decades in jail.

If I have a complaint, it's that there's a fair amount of repetition, although that's necessary to some extent to make sure readers connect the dots among the various "stories." Still, because there seems to be a little too much of it, I'm inclined to knock this one down to 4.5 stars. The ending also left the door wide open for a sequel, and since I thoroughly enjoyed this one, if that happens it's a sure bet I'll be in line to read it as well.

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham (Doubleday, October 2015); 354 pp.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


5 stars out of 5

Two points to note here: First, this is a very short story, not a book. Second, it's not new; it was first published as "What Do You Do?" in George R.R. Martin's Rogues anthology that includes all-new works by a number of other authors. Recently - I suppose to capitalize on author Gillian Flynn's success with Gone Girl - this was released as a standalone Kindle Single. While I rarely read short stories, my love of Gone Girl prompted me to ante up $2.99 for this one.

At just 66 pages and a single chapter, it was a quick read. Happily, it also was quite good; starting to read it perhaps an hour before bedtime wasn't very smart. In the end bedtime won, but I finished it the next morning before my usual two cups of coffee were empty.

The story centers on a young woman who makes a pretty good living "servicing" men in a back room at a psychic reading parlor. When she ends up with carpal tunnel syndrome and for the most part is unable to ply her trade, she moves to the front of the building to hand out (pun intended) her take on auras. Not long thereafter (this is a short story, after all), she meets a woman who claims to be terrified; she's living in a Victorian mansion that has a shady history with her often-gone husband, their son, and her stepson. The latter, a 15-year-old terror, is intent on killing her.

Needless to say, the woman foresees an income opportunity and agrees to help. More than that I can't reveal, but it's a really good story for those who aren't put off by the world's oldest profession and a some rather explicit language.

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn (November 2015); 66 pp.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


5 stars out of 5

At first blush, it was same old, same old: Medical Examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta's colleagues don't respect her. Her investigative partner Pete Marino doesn't trust her. Her techno-wizard, filthy rich niece Lucy doesn't believe her. Her FBI profiler husband Benton Wesley won't confide in her. And a psychopathic liar, murderer and Lucy's one-time love interest is out to kill her. 

Or so the good doctor, whose mind has moved disturbingly toward the paranoid in recent books, is convinced. This time, though, she's right on the money with that last one. After nearly killing Scarpetta with an underwater spear gun somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle a couple of months earlier, it's a pretty sure bet old nemesis Carrie Grethen wants Scarpetta - and maybe Wesley, Marino, Lucy and her now-partner Janet - at the very least discredited professionally and at worst dead. 

As she investigates a death scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Scarpetta gets a text message, apparently from Lucy's secret phone line, with a video link to a film of Lucy, taken a couple of decades ago when she was an FBI rookie. Soon thereafter, Lucy's highly secured estate becomes the target of an intrusive search and seizure presumably designed to collect enough evidence to send her to prison. That's followed by the murder of the daughter of a Hollywood heavyweight in her own home. Wedged in and around all that are murdered cops, more revealing and incriminating old-time videos of Lucy, and, of course, lots more Scarpetta angst.

This time, though, the story is so intriguing that Scarpetta's fretting over not being the center of everyone's universe really didn't bother me much. As the plot thickened, I was far more worried about what was happening - and about to happen - to the others. More often than not, nothing is as it seems; just trying to keep all the head games straight in my own mind was a challenge, and hanging over it all was the fear that this time, someone might not live to see another book. All in all, it's an exciting book and, IMHO, one of the best in the series of late.

Depraved Heart by Patricia Cornwell (William Morrow, October  2015); 480 pp.

Saturday, November 7, 2015


3.5 stars out of 5

My feelings about this, the 23rd book featuring former LAPD Lieutenant Peter Decker and his wife, Rina Lazarus, are somewhat mixed. I admit I haven't totally adjusted to their move from California to a far less hectic life in upstate New York, although they seem to be handling it fairly well at this point (the second book set in their new location). When I finished the previous book, Murder 101, I had hopes that Rina would take a stronger role on the crime-solving end from then on. And to a certain extent, in this one she does - but it still seems she's much more valued for making sure lunch and dinner are on the table and soothing her overworked husband's ego. 

This one begins when Peter, who now works at the Greenbury Police Department, is called in when the nude body of a young man is found in the woods. Killed by a single gunshot to the head with the gun near the body, at first blush the death is considered to be suicide. Peter gets some help from Tyler McAdams, a former Greenbury police colleague who's back in the area prepping for Harvard Law School finals (he earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard, is quite wealthy and, as readers are reminded many times over, isn't worried about passing his exams and therefore is able to help with the investigation despite Peter's insistence that he pay more attention to studying).

The body turns out to be a student in the Mathematics Department of Kneed Loft College, where he's considered a prodigy - working on (officially and unofficially) projects with real-world applications that could be worth millions. This is where things start to get a bit jumbled, at least to my totally math-challenged mind. No matter how  - or how often - the concepts are explained in "layman's" terms, I didn't really grasp a word anybody said (with one notable exception that I can't reveal without spoiling it for others).

In the end, though, understanding really isn't all that important, except that it does give Rina a chance to show that her brain is capable of cooking up more than a great brisket. In fact, it appears she majored in math in the brief time she spent in college (a bit too conveniently, perhaps) and thus, with a tiny bit of brushing up, is able to explain what the math students and professors are about. There's even a suggestion that she should return to school and get a degree in math (aha - do I smell the basis for another book)?

Maybe yes, maybe no, but when that next one comes to pass, count me among those who will be reading it. I'm still a big fan and I don't see that changing anytime soon; I've followed this couple from the time they first got together, and they're almost like family to me. Yasher koach!

The Theory of Death by Faye Kellerman (William Morrow, October 2015); 384 pp.

Thursday, November 5, 2015


4.5 stars out of 5

The title of this book says it all: It takes place in Chicago, and if the story got any darker, I probably would have stopped reading after the first few chapters. It was unsettling, upsetting and, in some respects, unsatisfying - but it's also an outstanding work. Thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read it in exchange for a review.

Ray Nelson is more than a bit of a physical freak - never loved by his now-gone parents and shunned by neighbors in his apartment building. His drug-addicted sister, Stephanie, pops in from time to time (primarily to raid his wallet), and he mostly rebuffs the efforts of the young girl next door, Natalie, to befriend him. In essence, he's a virtual recluse; the only thing that seems to keep him going is something that just as easily could kill him: organized street brawling in the dark of the night, earning enough money to pay what few bills he has.

Over the years, he's tried to keep his sister out of trouble, and as he sees Natalie head into mid-teen years, he grows concerned about the bad neighborhood and what will happen to her in a place where tomorrow is no better than a repeat of oday. That takes a more sinister turn with the appearance of a white van whose driver is looking for - and finding - young victims. Ray wants to help his sister and is determined to protect Natalie, but he's got plenty of secrets in his own past that threaten his good intentions. There are several unexpected twists as the story unfolds, none of them pleasant (but then this is a dark mystery, after all).

The sadness and despair that permeate notwithstanding, this is a hard book to put down. I wasn't able to find a page count anywhere, but I finished it in three days of very little spare time for reading, so it isn't very long. The ending brings (surprise!) another smack in the gut, but also a tiny glimmer of hope. Is it enough? I'll never tell - you'll just have to read it and decide for yourself. 

Breaker: A Windy City Dark Mystery by Richard Thomas (Alibi/Random House, January 2016).

Monday, November 2, 2015


5 stars out of 5

Wow - what a wild, wonderful ride! This one's got "winner" written all over it - I didn't even have to think before awarding it 5 stars - so here's an extra-special thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for giving me the opportunity to read it in exchange for a review. 

As if a terrific, unique story weren't enough, it left me guessing all the way to the end as to how it would end - something that happens all too infrequently in most of the books I read in this genre (which, for the record, is a pretty hefty number). Even the ending - for reasons I can't say without screaming "spoiler alert" - left me with the slightly uneasy feeling that there could be more to come.

The book begins when a woman named Tanya Dubois turns up in a bar about 48 hours after leaving her dead husband at the bottom of their stairs. By then, she's called a "contact" from her past to get a new identity, dyed her hair and answers to the name of Amelia. In the bar, she's befriended by the bartender, Blue, who seems to understand Tanya/Amelia is on the run and offers to share quarters, at least for the short run.

That's not all she shares; apparently, both women are trying to escape their pasts (for Amelia, we know it involved some very serious events that are hinted at through brief flashbacks). So, to throw a few more chinks in the wheels of those intent on finding them, they exchange identities. Amelia is now Blue (who says her name in her former life is Debra) and Blue becomes Amelia. The benefits of that switcheroo don't last long, though, since Debra has more than a few past secrets of her own (I'll just say she wasn't hiding out as Blue for no reason at all). 

Got all that so far? Well, hang on, because it's not over till it's over - and as I hinted earlier, maybe not even then. There's a lot more running, a few more identities and more clues to what really happened all those years ago that started the ball rolling. As I said at the beginning, it's a wild, wonderful ride. Not since Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train have I been this enthusiastic about a new book. Highly recommended!

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz (Simon & Schuster, March 2016); 320 pp.