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Monday, May 22, 2017

THE BLACK BOOK

5 stars out of 5

Call me flamboozled. Call me chastised for all the potshots I've taken at Patterson's works of late (on second thought, check that - I meant what I said). Above all, call me happy that I ignored my previous rants and read this book.

The title, as one might expect, refers to a missing "little black book" that didn't turn up after a raid and thorough search at a house of ill repute at which some of Chicago's finest are customers. Needless to say, the house madam ain't talking - and without it, finding even more high-level patrons (including cops on the take) and others who weren't present during the raid, may never be found.

At the epicenter is police detective Billy Harney and his partner, detective Kate Fenton. Billy's sister Patti is a cop as well, their dad, Daniel, was chief of detectives, and dad's friend (and Billy's beloved mentor) heads up Internal Affairs, so clearly copness is a family affair. As the raid is analyzed, Billy insists he had every right to initiate it; but Amy Lentini, the beautiful assistant state's attorney, seems out to prove that it wasn't justifiable (and therefore was illegal), thus putting the kabosh on potential prosecution of everyone captured.

In reality, that event took place in Billy's fairly recent past; his present has taken a very different turn that has left him unable and/or unwilling to remember details (including, perhaps, the whereabouts of that little black book). Chapters shift back and forth, with "past" chapters peeling away more clues to what really happened. Usually, I'm not fond of this technique - nor did I love it here. But it's actually done very well and helped keep me on the edge of my seat even though I guessed pretty much from the start who was behind everything. In fact, besides an intriguing, fast-moving story, my desire to find out if my guess was right (it was) and learn the how and why was a big part of what kept me going.

All in all, it's a totally engrossing book. The Patterson-Ellis collaboration hasn't always produced such stellar efforts - I'm referring specifically to The Murder House and Mistress, to which I gave 4 and 3 stars, respectively - but this one sure hit the mark. More, please! 

The Black Book by James Patterson and David Ellis (Little, Brown and Co., March 2017); 418 pp.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

HEAT STORM

3.5 stars out of 5


It's a little hard to take the Nikki Heat series seriously - whether or not you loved the very popular Castle TV show that starred the New York police detective (played by Stana Katic) and her Pulitzer prize-winning squeeze, Richard Castle (played by the hunky Nathan Filion). I was a diehard fan until the last couple of seasons, when the shows somehow stopped being fun and I pretty much lost interest. Supposedly, the books are written by Castle; but of course, he's not a real person; the true author, in fact, has been speculated about but never revealed. And like the TV show, the books started out quite fun but may be slipping a bit (the last three, including this one, earned just 3-1/2 stars from me). 

This one brings together Nikki and another "Richard Castle" series hero, Derrick Storm - a hulk of a man the CIA calls when something is amiss in the U.S. of A., where CIA investigations are off limits. The pairing, though, seems just plain off. There's plenty of action, particularly on Storm's side of the plot, but I never felt any kind of connection between the two, nor of Storm with Heat's husband Jameson Rook (the name her TV husband Castle assumes in the books) even though indications are that Heat has been friends with Storm for quite some time.

Essentially, what we have are two story lines that, as expected, eventually converge. Ever since Heat's recent sighting of  a woman she's sure is her mother Cynthia - a secret U.S. spy Heat had believed was murdered 17 years ago - she's been frantically trying to track her down. In the midst of that, the female U.S. President-to-be has rather inexplicably asked Heat to be her chief of Homeland Security, so there's a big decision to be made. That's even harder since she's banished her hubby from her life, claiming her search for her mother is a dangerous journey and she doesn't want him to be involved (yeah, I never bought that in the TV series, either).

Meanwhile, Storm took part in the raid of a counterfeiting ring that appears to be connected to a nasty group known as the Shanghai Seven. In the process, he begins to suspect that his own government may be working against him, and he turns to his dad Carl for much-needed help. The two story lines begin to come together when Storm finds a tape with Heat's mother's voice on it that appears to connect her to the Shanghai Seven. At the same time, Heat is taking heat in the form of text messages from someone called "The Serpent" warning her to call off the search for her mother.

From then on, the action really picks up - some of it the stuff a Roger Moore James Bond movie is made of that crosses the line of credulity and leads to a rather sappy ending. Overall, it makes for an easy, breezy read that won't tax your brain cells - perfect for reading on a beach or waiting at a doctor's office.

Heat Storm by Richard Castle (Kingswell, May 2017); 320 pp.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

INTO THE WATER

4 stars out of 5


Okay, I admit I'm not quite as enthusiastic about this one as The Girl on the Train, the author's first, and wildly popular, novel. At the same time, I'm a bit flummoxed by all the negative reviews I'm seeing (as I write this, the book has an average of 3-1/2 stars at Amazon, based on 169 customer reviews - 32% of which are 1- and 2-star ratings. Wow - did y'all read the same book I did?

To a certain extent, I get it. While I honestly enjoyed this book overall, there are a few things that gave me pause (and prompted me to knock it down one star from the enthusiastic 5 stars I gave the author's first stellar effort). I agree, for instance, that there are too many characters - a couple of whom really don't contribute much to the story. I've also grown weary of chapters that shift from character to character and in time frame (although to my great dismay that seems to be the norm now, so guess I'd better get used to it). The story gets a little confusing - who really knew what and when and why it really matters - and all the characters are so flawed and have so many secrets that they all fall short of likable.

Forgive me, though, if all that sounds off-putting, because on the whole it really isn't. Each chapter adds details to the background, peeling back layers that allow readers to learn what's really going on now, what went on in the past and how it's all connected (or most of it, anyway - some secrets, or at least things I suspected were secrets, stayed that way till the end). 

Here are the basics: A single mother, Nel, is found dead at the bottom of a part of a river known as the Drowning Pool because so many other women died there. Nel leaves behind a moody, incorrigible 15-year-old daughter, Lena, and a long-estranged sister, Jules. No one knows who Lena's father is (well, except for Nel, and she's not talking). Lena resents Jules and Jules still detests her dead sister, but they agree Nel didn't commit suicide as is the common belief given the surface evidence. An investigation brings in local police officer Sean and his new-to-town partner Erin - both of whom (surprise!) carry baggage from their own pasts. It is learned that Nel was compiling a book detailing the lives and deaths of some of the other women who lost their lives in the Drowning pool - and then everything begins to unravel as clues lead to characters whose lives were intertwined with Nel's. 

The ending came as a bit of a surprise, but was it satisfying? Not really - but on the other hand, given everything that preceded it, it seemed fitting. And that, my friends, is good enough for me.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books, May 217); 394 pp.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

16th SEDUCTION

4 stars out of 5


They're baaaaack: Lindsay, Claire, Cindy and Yuki all get fairly substantial roles in this, the latest installment of the Women's Murder Club adventures. There's plenty of murder and mayhem - some of which hits more than a little too close to home for one club member - and Lindsay must come to terms with her true feelings for Joe, her once-beloved husband.

The book opens as Lindsay, a San Francisco Police Department detective, is having a "date night" with Joe, who she reluctantly kicked out of her life after learning that in essence, he's been a spy and neither 'fessed up to his secret activities nor apologized for doing them. The spark between the two (and love for their young daughter, Julie) remain, though, and they're keeping things civil as Lindsay tries to decide whether to keep Joe or turn him loose. As they're starting to engage in meaningful conversation during a restaurant dinner, all hell breaks loose: A popular attraction nearby explodes, showering rubble and body parts for blocks. Lindsay just came off the successful take-down of a member of a bomb-loving terrorist group - could it be more of their work?

Rushing to the scene, Lindsay and Joe find what appears to be the answer; but within 24 hours, the case turns sour in more than one way and Lindsay finds her career in jeopardy as she tries to defend her actions. Attorney Yuki Castellano gets her day in court and crime reporter Cindy Thomas scoops the competition. Not to be left out, medical examiner Claire Washburn finds evidence that a serial killer may be on a rampage - giving Lindsay and her partner, Rich Conklin (who lives with Cindy) something to do that takes Lindsay's mind off the possibility of losing her job and making up her mind what to do with Joe.

As usual, it's all good fun - with most, but not all, the issues resolved in the end (also as usual). And, I always get a kick out of the author's crediting Humphrey Germaniuk, medical examiner for Trumbull County, Ohio (my county of residence), for his help; this time out, Chuck Hanni, a fire investigator from nearby Youngstown, gets a nod as well. Nice going, gentlemen - you done us proud.

16th Seduction by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro (Little, Brown & Co., May 2017); 384 pp.

LIAR

5 stars out of 5


Thank goodness this one is short, because it's very, very hard to put down. As the official description of "psychological thriller" suggests, it messed with my head - mostly as I tried to figure out what was really going on in the minds of the two primary characters, both of whom clearly are in need of some serious psychiatric help.

One of those characters, Judi, is mother to Ben and grandmother to his two young sons. Another of Judi's sons, David, was killed years ago, but she maintains his bedroom almost as a shrine in the home she shares with her husband. Especially since her relationship with her husband has deteriorated over time, helping Ben with his sons provides her with much-needed joy and comfort - and she'll do absolutely anything to keep them all close. A couple of years earlier, Ben's wife (and mother of the grandsons) died, leaving Ben to raise them on his own. A dedicated teacher, Ben is lonely; but focusing on his work and his sons (and endless help from his mother), he's coping as best he can.

But suddenly, Ben meets Amber - and everything changes. As their whirlwind romance begins, Ben is happy once again; his mother Judi, not so much. As Amber worms her way into Ben's life - taking over "responsibilities" Judi believes are now and always will be hers and threatening her treasured family dynamic - the tension builds. Amber, Judi is certain, is up to no good; and she sets out to find out exactly why that is (and in the process discredit Amber in Ben's rose-colored eyes). That becomes harder as Judi encounters resistance from Ben and her husband, both of whom think she's being overly critical. Judi herself even has a few doubts about her feelings, given that she's also dealing with the physical symptoms of menopause (as an aside, that was a little puzzling to me since Judi is 59 - way beyond the average age of 51. Certainly, it can begin much later, but it's far less common). At any rate, Judi goes to great lengths to keep that change a secret from the men in her life - I suppose because she thinks they'll take her even less seriously (as if that were possible).

Constantly facing opposition from them but convinced Amber is up to no good, Judi begins to dig deeper - and what she learns only bolsters her belief and distrust of Ben's about-to-be second wife. As all that unfolds, readers are treated to snippets of  what Amber really is thinking as chapters shift from her perspective to Judi's. The whole thing comes to an exciting climax as dark secrets from the past of both women are revealed. 

My conclusion? Pretty creepy - and thus destined to be a hit. Many thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

Liar by K.L. Slater (Bookouture, June 2017); 303 pp.

Friday, May 12, 2017

ROBERT B. PARKER'S LITTLE WHITE LIES

4.5 stars out of 5


The author has done a commendable job taking over the late, great Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, IMHO. Most of what I've missed is the snappy banter between Spenser and his faithful sidekick Hawk (and to some extent, between Spenser and his main squeeze, Dr. Susan Silverman). That, and the occasional interjections of humor, seem better here. When Spenser visits a service in a Georgia mega-church and listens to the music from a rock band and a gospel choir, for instance, he quips that it "was a bit like Andrew Lloyd Webber meets Three Dog Night."

The adventure begins when Spenser gets a visit from Connie Kelly, a woman not only scorned, but ripped off. Her handsome and much older lover - whom she met online and trusted because he's a "talking head" TV networks - has flown her coop along with the nearly $300,000 she gave him to invest in a "sure thing." Distraught, she discussed her feelings with her shrink - you guessed it, Susan - who in turn recommended that she bring the matter to Spenser's attention.

 All Connie wants is for Spenser to find the man who done her wrong, M. Brooks Welles, and get her money back. But almost immediately, Spenser learns Welles is far from what he claims to be; his hot-shot military and espionage experience, Harvard degree and even his name are nothing more than hot air. But wait, there's more: it seems he's to in cahoots with some very dangerous characters from the Atlanta area who don't take kindly to a Boston private eye poking around in their territory. What's more, they, too, have set their sights on finding Welles; apparently, Connie isn't the only person he ripped off. 

Even after some twists and turns that mean he could turn his back on the whole mess and walk away, Spenser remains determined to carry out Connie's directive and recoup her money. To help, he calls in the super-capable Hawk and even his old pal Teddy Sapp; but will they be able to get to the bottom of things before at least one of them gets seriously wounded or even killed? 

Ah, you'll just have to find that out for yourself. It's short, sweet and snappy - what I call perfect summer reading. 

Robert B. Parker's Little White Lie by Ace Atkins (G.P. Putnam's Sons, May 2017); 310 pp.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A TALENT FOR MURDER

5 stars out of 5

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared from her home and her seven-year-old daughter Rosalind; 11 days later, she turned up in a hotel - safe and sound, but according to her, unable to recall what had happened. Later, biographer Andrew Norman reportedly wrote that she suffered from amnesia and was suicidal, and much speculation has come from other sources. Was it a publicity stunt to draw attention to her books? Was she distraught over learning of her husband (at the time) Archie's mistress, Theresa Neele?

To this day, the mystery of her disappearance remains unknown. The author, however, has given it his twist in this book - creating an engrossing account of the missing time in a work worthy of the late, great English crime novelist, playwright and writer of short stories that seems to me to be well-researched. A little far-fetched? Perhaps, but no more so than one of Christie's own novels.

The tale begins as Christie is saved from falling in front of an oncoming train. Or was she? It seems her "rescuer," a physician, has darker things in mind. His offer of comfort as they share tea in a cafe following the near-fatal accident quickly becomes an offer of another sort entirely. The not-so-good doctor, it seems, knows everything there is to know about Christie and her family - including her husband's infidelity. Unless she follows his plan to the letter - the first step of which is that she must disappear - he'll reveal all and possibly even cause physical harm to Christie's young daughter.

So begins her frightening journey into a fictional adventure that mirrors all too closely the intricate novels for which she is becoming well known. It is a journey filled with intrigue, cover-ups and murder; throughout, Christie's resourcefulness is put to the test as she tries to extricate herself from the tasks she's being blackmailed into doing without jeopardizing the lives of her family, friends, and even herself. How (and to what extent) she pulls that off is the stuff of this clever, well-researched novel. Well done!

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson (Atria Books, July 2017); 320 pp.

Monday, May 8, 2017

TWO NIGHTS

5 stars out of 5

No Bones about it: This is a really, really good book.

It is not, however, one of the author's popular books featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (she of the equally popular and long-running TV series, "Bones"). Rather, this is a thriller that stands entirely on its own. 

Just to be clear, there's no anthropology here, nor forensics. And in place of a self-assured (some might say know-it-all) heroine like Temperance, the main character is more than a little flawed (some might say starting with her oddball name of Sunday Night). She's got psychological scars - and a very noticeable physical one - from a disturbed past she can't forget. She lives on a secluded island; one of her next-door neighbors hanged himself, and the neighbor on the other side avoids her in the belief that she's a crazy woman. Reminiscent of the late, great Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone, she's a bit verbally challenged - tending to speak in short, clipped responses (when she feels like speaking at all).

But she's hardly deprived of skills; in years past, she was a cop who ran into some trouble that brought her promising career to a screeching halt. Now, though, one of the few people she trusts asks her to take on the case of a missing young woman whose ultra-wealthy grandmother is convinced has been kidnapped by some kind of cult.

Sunnie, as she's called, is at first reluctant to get involved despite the promise of a lucrative payday. But when the grandmother explains that the girl's mother and brother were killed in a terrorist bombing in Chicago at the time the girl went missing, something in Sunnie's past compels her to investigate. The goal, the grandmother explains, is to find the granddaughter (hopefully alive) as well as the people behind the kidnapping (dead or alive doesn't matter). The trail leads from Charleston, South Carolina, to Chicago to California to Kentucky. It's also a rocky one for Sunnie physically (let's just say bad guys and gals are prone to carry weapons) and mentally, as events in the current situation uncomfortably mirror those of her past.

Based on my love of the Brennan series, I requested an advance review copy from the publisher - and was absolutely thrilled when that request was approved. Now that I've finished, I'm even happier. I have no doubt this one is destined for the best-seller list!

Two Nights by Kathy Reichs (Bantam, July 2017); 336 pp.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

FALLOUT

4 stars out of 5


Victoria (V.I.) Warshawski has long been a favorite of mine; she was a successful Chicago-based private detective and one of the first to be (gasp!) a woman. Over the years, I've always looked forward to a new adventure - and this, I believe, is the 18th. 

This time, though, a new case takes her from her familiar, comfortable home city to the "wilds" of Kansas - accompanied only by her dog Peppy and expecting that her stay in the Sunflower State will be relatively brief. The reason for the trip? A young Chicago filmmaker wannabe is thought to be accompanying an aging former film star who wants to return to her Kansas roots to film her life story, and both have disappeared. To keep the peace with family and friends, Vic reluctantly agrees to track them down.

What she finds is a close-knit community (make that two communities - one white and one black) that is far less than welcoming. The local residents' unwillingness to help is echoed by the local police and representatives of the U.S. Army, who clearly resent her presence. Apparently, the community has lots of secrets they believe should stay that way, all seemingly related to an old Cold War-era missile site in the middle of their otherwise rural nowhere. 

Tensions build up quickly, as does the body count. Complicating matters is that even if Vic can convince someone to share information with her, can he or she be trusted? What really went on at the missile site all those years ago, and could it possibly be going on yet today? Other complications intervene as well: Her musician love interest left for a can't-miss opportunity overseas, leaving her behind when she refused to accompany him. Will he come back to her, or find fulfillment and romance elsewhere? And will Peppy become so attached to his Kansas doggy day-care helpers that she won't want to go back home to Chicago with Vic?

It all adds up to a merry, and sometimes scary, chase that I enjoyed from start to finish. Admittedly, it's not the best I've read in the series, but that was mostly because there were so many characters that I finally gave up trying to keep them straight, figuring they'd all be sorted out in the end (they were). And, while the story line was very interesting to someone like me, who remembers hiding under a desk at school so I'd stay safe during a nuclear attack (I know, I know, but we believed it at the time), the complexity of the "cover-ups" here was a little hard to swallow.

All in all, it's another solid installment in a series that's been (and still is) special to me.

Fallout by Sara Paretsky (William Morrow, April 2017); 448 pp.

Monday, May 1, 2017

FAST AND LOOSE

4 stars out of 5


Maybe I'm just going soft in my old age, or maybe I've just come to realize that a respite from the shoot-'em-up, gory entrails and head games in my usual reading fare is a good thing. But the fact is, for the most part I actually enjoyed this, the 41st in the Stone Barrington series. Yes, it's borderline insipid (there's a reason I refer to the guy as Stone Yawnington) and the "action" is more than a bit hard to believe. But overall, it was, well, sort of fun - and easily read in one day. 

As usual, everything (except perhaps Stone's ever-increasing wealth) is vastly understated as the prominent, world-traveling New York attorney tries to mind his own business. Somebody get murdered? Let's drink to that. Almost blown up by a bomb? How about dinner at Stone's favorite Patroon - or better still, in the formal dining room of one of his mansions? Perhaps this exchange between Stone and his great friend Kate - the current U.S. President - says it best:

"This is wonderful," Kate said. "All our problems solved before dinner!"

"We do what we can," Stone said.

This one begins as Stone is sailing alone in Penobscot Bay off the coast of Maine. He's so relaxed that he falls asleep, waking to find himself surrounded by fog as thick as pea soup. Suddenly, there's a big bang, and he's thrown overboard and knocked unconscious. Turns out he was hit by a much larger boat; luckily (as always seems to be the case in these books), somebody on the big boat noticed and pulled him out of the water. Happily for Stone, the boat owner is the well-heeled doctor-owner of a highly successful health-care facility, who is vacationing with his (you guessed it) beautiful, unmarried daughter - also a doctor. They patch Stone back up, invite him to a lobster dinner and - later - provide him with a new and improved sailboat courtesy of their insurance company.

As they all get to know each other (Stone and the daughter exceptionally well, BTW), Stone learns that a clinic takeover bid is in the early stages, and the good doctor is worried. The takeover, it seems, is led by a particularly nasty guy who made a takeover of his own after his company's former CEO got blown to bits when he tried to open a "protected" briefcase he'd stolen (a reference to a previous book). Stone, of course, is indignant, and immediately agrees to help thwart the takeover by rounding up the half a billion dollars needed to make a counter-offer.

Understandably, that doesn't sit well with the bad guy, who decides to fight back. From there on, the story turns into a race to determine who will remain standing - the bad guy or Stone (the latter of whom gets loads of help from his New York Police Commissioner buddy Dino and a few other well-placed colleagues). Stone, if nothing else the consummate ladies' man, manages to do some of his best work in the bedroom (I'll caution, for those who might give a whoop, that such antics by Stone and his friends seem to take place a little more often, and a little more explicitly, in this book than in others).

Fans of these books can be sure, however, that Stone himself will live to see another one - and we can be pretty confident he'll end up with more money, more properties, more friends in high places and another woman or two in yet other ports as well. And so it goes. Now you'll have to excuse me - I'm off to read something that challenges what few brain cells I have left.

Fast and Loose by Stuart Woods (G.P. Putnam's Sons, April 2017); 364 pp.