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Sunday, July 23, 2017

THE LATE SHOW

5 stars out of 5

New character and series? Base hit. By a favorite author? Double play. Getting a copy from the publisher to read in exchange for an honest review? Bases loaded.

The new character is Renee Ballard, a relatively young and feisty detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. The author is Michael Connelly, well known and much loved by me for his Harry Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer (Mickey Haller) series. And my honest opinion? A home run!

Also in all honesty, though, neither Harry nor Mickey need worry; this mama still loves them best. But when someone new comes along that's worthy of note, there's plenty of room left on my virtual bookshelves. And that means the next time Renee Ballard makes an appearance, I'll be there to greet her.

A native of Hawaii with a journalism degree from the University of Hawaii, Ballard spends part of her free time riding the California surf with her faithful dog Lola. She's also fighting a few demons from the past, including the untimely death of her beloved father in a water-related accident and the fact that her long-time day shift partner failed to support her in her sexual harassment claim against her supervisor. As a result of that unsuccessful complaint, she's been relegated to the night shift - a.k.a. the Late Show. Now, she and her new partner, John Jenkins, are charged with investigating crimes that happen in the wee hours, but they must turn all their findings over to an appropriate "desk" rather than follow up on their own. 

It's not always easy to let go of cases that come her way, but she manages - until, that is, she doesn't. On a single night, she lands in the middle of two: The first is the brutal beating of a prostitute who ends up close to death in an induced coma at the hospital. The second involves the murder of several patrons and a female employee at a local nightclub. She pleads her case for continuance on both cases, winning the right to follow up on the prostitute's. On the murders, though, everyone from the top down, including her partner, insists that she back off - but she's not having any of it. Bringing her extensive investigative skills and instincts to bear, she deals the beating incident during work hours. Then, using off hours and spare time, she delves into the nightclub murders with equal gusto - and lands smack dab in the middle of a close-to-home "hit" and a complex case that not only threatens her own future, but that of the entire department.

Now, of course, I'm looking forward to Ballard's next assignment. Bring her on!

The Late Show by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Co., July 2017); 544 pp.

Friday, July 21, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY

5 stars out of 5

Yes, I'm a little behind the times - this book was released last summer - but it's been on my must-read list ever since I read the description for several reasons, starting with the fact that it's a personal account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town. I can relate: I've lived near the Rust Belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, for close to 55 years and have seen first-hand the devastation that resulted with the collapse of the steel and automotive industries. Besides that, my pre-college years were spent in a small community not far from Middletown, Ohio, where the author grew up. He even lived for a time in Preble County, Ohio, as did my late parents for a few years, near the one-stoplight burg of New Paris.

The real story here is the author's, of course; he uses his experiences growing up in and around Middletown after his grandparents moved from the Appalachian region of Kentucky to shed light on the struggles of white working-class Americans - struggles that have become worse, not better, over time. 

America's white working poor, the official book description notes, have as a group been "slowly disintegrating" for more than 40 years. Calling up interesting and often poignant memories of his own life, the author tells of his experience being born and growing up among these people for whom, sadly, the American Dream doesn't exist. "Working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America," he writes. "It's about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it...a willingness to blame everyone but yourself."

This refusal to believe in and deal with reality I've seen first-hand as well. As I oversaw university-based programs to retrain workers permanently laid off by way of steel and auto plant closings, it wasn't unusual for those eligible to refuse to even consider taking any job that paid less than they'd earned on the assembly lines ("I'd sooner go on welfare," was the relatively common refrain). Others would simply opt to wait it out; periodic layoffs in those industries, after all, had been a way of life for them and their parents before them, so no matter what the evidence showed, they had no reason to think the jobs wouldn't come back this time.

Even though my mother came from poor-but-sturdy "hillbilly" stock and my father had been an equally poor "country boy," their childhoods never, to the best of my knowledge, mirrored that of the author. Like his grandparents, who provided perhaps his only encouragement to move up and out, my parents unfailingly believed in the value and future benefits of hard work - as did my many aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. The author wasn't so lucky; just about every one of his days was spent facing psychological, if not physical, abuse from the very people who should have been loving and caring (and were, but only on alternate Tuesdays). Worse, he and his family were not much different from everyone else they knew; it took years before he realized the life he was living wasn't the norm for people in the rest of the country.  Sharing the experiences of those around him, he explains how their "deep skepticism" of everyone and everything outside their own realm came about (and continues to grow to this day).

So what's the solution? The author doesn't have one, at least not a one-size-fits-all. "I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make it better," he writes.

He does, however, believe that any policy that targets the betterment of youth must involve an issue he says his high school teachers deal with on a day-to-day basis: That no matter how positive the school hours are, at the end of the day the students go back home. Based on what I've heard from the public-school teachers in our family (including my husband and our daughter), I couldn't agree more.

And if he could change one thing about the white working class today? "The feeling that our choices don't matter," he concludes. 

The author's life, from that childhood that included a father who willingly gave him up for adoption to the Marine Corps to The Ohio State University to Yale Law School, makes for can't-put-down reading. Interspersed is research that backs up what he's saying (the book ends with a list of resources, linkable on the ebook version). Highly recommended!

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (HarperCollins, June 2016); 273 pp.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

HOUSE OF SPIES

5 stars out of 5

Can it really be true that this the 17th book featuring Israeli secret agent Gabriel Allon? Pretty much from the beginning he has held the No. 1 spot on my list of favorite mystery/thriller "heroes." Every spring I start salivating in anticipation of a new installment, so of course I was delighted to get my hands on this one. 

That many books over the years also brings anticipation of a different sort: How much longer can Gabriel - now chief of Israel's hush-hush intelligence agency, replacing the crusty Uzi Navot (who still holds court in an office across the hall from Gabriel) - keep going? Rumors of his in-print "death," in fact, have been swirling online ever since MGM Television announced adaptation rights to the series (with author Daniel Silva and his wife, CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel, as executive producers). Everything appears to be a go at this point and who will play the role of Gabriel is at the discussion stage. For the record, after cringing at the choice for the lead in Lee Child's Jack Reacher TV series, I'm trying my damndest to remain optimistic (yet relieved to know Tom Cruise is already taken).

But the fact is, despite being the late-in-life father of twins with his beautiful and much younger wife, Chiara, Gabriel's getting a bit long in the tooth. And as chief, he's really not supposed to be running around in a field that has become ever more dangerous with the onslaught of ISIS. But difficult times call for difficult decisions; and it is recent, devastating ISIS "suicide warrior" attacks in London's West End, instigated by one of Gabriel's arch-enemies, that pulls him away from his desk and onto dusty roads of countries like Morocco (where they stay in a safe house dubbed the "House of Spies"). Gabriel has a personal score to settle with the man, known only as Saladin - and despite advice (make that warnings) to oversee the chase to find him from a safe room on King Saul Boulevard in Tel Aviv, Gabriel vows that Book of Romans notwithstanding, vengeance will be his alone.

Still, Gabriel isn't quite as physically active as usual; and much to my disappointment, Chiara doesn't play much of a role here. Other women from Gabriel's past do feature prominently, though including the doctor who nursed Saladin back to near-perfect health in the previous book. Also front and center here is Olivia Watson, a former fashion model and live-in lover of uber-wealthy Jean-Luc Martel, whose money is derived mostly from the drug market. Once it is determined he and his JLM empire are linked to Saladin, Gabriel - together with corresponding agencies in France, Great Britain and the United States join forces (headed up, after heated debate, by the Israelis) to turn the businessman and his lover against the man behind it all. Also recruited to the team because of his tracking and assassination skills is Gabriel's friend from past adventures Christopher Keller, who, as usual, excels at his trade and is quite an interesting character in and of himself.

Needless to say, it's a complex plot that takes a weary Gabriel practically all over the world and back, putting his life is in danger more than once. From start to finish, everything is described in Silva's matter-of-fact, almost understated fashion, but make no mistake - there's plenty of action here. There's also an abundance of history, which is another of the reasons I love this series. Much of those insights come from the author's extensive research which, together with his talent for creating intricate, intriguing stories, makes an unbeatable combination. 

House of Spies by Daniel Silva (Harper, July 2017); 549 pp.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

SINCE WE FELL

5 stars out of 5

To the best of my recollection, the only other book by this author I've ever read was Mystic River, released in 2009 - and it pretty much blew me away. Since then, I've bumped around the edges of others, but for whatever reason, they went by the boards. When this one hit the New York Times Bestseller list, though, I vowed to give it a go.

And once again I'm blown away. 

For the most part, it's not a whirlwind of spine-tingling action, although there's plenty of that as the story clears the mid-point. Rather, it centers on the complexities of the characters - one of the author's creative strengths - in particular those of the flawed Rachel Childs. Surviving (as best she can) a traumatic childhood (her mother, for instance, refused to the day she died to speak the name of Rachel's totally absent father) ends up making a good name herself as an on-air journalist. That comes after she marries a co-worker named Sebastian and finally learns who her father is. But she's been plagued by panic attacks, and she ends up losing her cool (to put it mildly) while doing a remote broadcast from storm-torn Haiti that brings her promising career track to a screeching halt.

After the breakdown, Sebastian distances himself (figuratively and mentally); eventually, she finds yet another soulmate, this one a flash out of her past named Brian. All seems to go swimmingly - until it doesn't; something just isn't as it should be. Now, Rachel's mind goes into overdrive: What if what's really going on could put both of their lives in danger? More to the point, given her fragile psychological history, can Rachel finally trust her own instincts? Even if that's possible, can she muster the courage to once and for all take charge of her life? The answers take shape by way of getting to know the ins and outs of the minds of several characters - primarily Rachel and Brian - and are revealed through many twists, turns and outright surprises that kept me intrigued enough to not want to put the book down till I'd reached the last page.

An afterword: After I finish any book and my own review, I usually check reviews from other readers (that doesn't apply, of course, to the advance copies I get in exchange for a review). In this case, I was a bit dumbfounded; at the time of this writing, the average was just 3.5 stars from 269 customers. That, in turn, piqued my curiosity as to why; what I learned is that apparently, this book veers from the author's "standard" approach to writing - a diversion not appreciated by a number of his faithful readers. I point this out why? Simply as a heads-up to regular fans to be prepared for something a bit different. I, on the other hand, went in with no expectations other than that because I thoroughly enjoying the one, it was likely I'd enjoy this one too. I was in no way disappointed - the writing is nothing short of brilliant.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane (Ecco, May 2017); 432 pp.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

HUSH MONEY

5 stars out of 5

A "throzy," perhaps? See what I did there? Coined a new term for this kind of book: Easy, breezy reading that's a hallmark of a cozy, but enough sex, mayhem and moving-right-along excitement to qualify as a thriller. 

There's another hallmark of a cozy at play here as well: A heroine who is (a) independent, headstrong and professionally successful, (b) fiercely loyal except when it doesn't serve her purpose, (c) hung up on past issues she can't resolve and (d) incapable of heeding anyone else's advice even when it puts her and those she loves in danger. 

And there you have Sydney Richardson, owner of two very different restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin and the star of this, the first book in a new series. One, the Ten-Ten, primarily is a bar that caters to first-responders (her late father was a cop). The other, Hush Money (like the book title) is a hoity-toity sit-down restaurant targeting the upper-crust in this up-and-coming city. She's determined to make both restaurants a success, aided and abetted by her very capable, loving (if a bit overprotective and overbearing) mother, Nancy. Sydney is interesting and likable, except perhaps when she's in (c) or (d) mode - I identify more with the strong woman with a can-do attitude part. When she refuses to listen, or selectively blows off only one of the many who tell her to mind her own business, it's not so much; but then without those moments, I guess there wouldn't be much of a story.

And make no mistake, it's a solid one. One of the servers, a woman named Wanda (a.k.a., Windy), fails to show up for work at Hush Money. That evening, Sydney has a run-in with the very drunk wife of the town's hard-driving - some would say ruthless - mayor, who claims she was waiting for her no-show husband. Turns out he had a good reason; back at their home, hizzoner has met an untimely end. And who is the prime suspect? None other than Windy, who is at the home and covered in the mayor's blood.

No matter how convinced the cops are that Windy is guilty - including Sydney's father's old police partner Horst Welke, who's been assigned to the case - Sydney simply can't believe that this mother of a young daughter did the deed. So, Sydney hires hot-shot attorney Andrew Conyer who will, hopefully, get her off. As the evidence against Windy mounts, so does Sydney's determination that the woman is innocent; but will Sydney's constant push-backs against the police and Windy's lawyer do more harm than good?

Throughout it all, Sydney must keep the restaurants running (which involves, not insignificantly, riding herd on a talented but impossibly egotistical chef). Apparently she doesn't need much sleep, since many nights after her fancy restaurant closes, she heads for the Low Down, a blues bar, to kick back to the music and bask in the company of the handsome, witty, wife-free (of course) guy who owns it.

Everything builds up to a surprising conclusion, when just about everything is resolved except those pesky details of Sydney's long-ago past. Now, she's free once again to build up business at her restaurants, possibly find a love life and, almost certainly, tackle another murder - all of which, I assume, will be fodder for the next book. I'll be waiting!

Thanks very much to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Hush Money by T.E. Woods (Alibi, August 2017). Page count not listed.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

GIRL IN SNOW

4 stars out of 5

This book is, first, foremost and almost entirely, an in-depth study of three characters in the aftermath of the murder of small-town Colorado high-school student Lucinda Hayes. Friends Cameron and Jade loved her and wanted to be her, respectively. Russ, a police officer involved in the investigation, is connected to many of the people around her - one of whom most likely is her killer.

All four, including Lucinda, are quirky at the very least; and they all have deep, dark secrets that are revealed in chapters that switch from perspective to perspective. As an aside, this is a technique that when done well - as it is here - is very effective; but it's also one of which I've grown weary over the last couple of years as author after author has adopted the style (much like sticking the word "girl" in the title). In addition to their secrets, every single one of these boys and girls (plus a few adults) speak a language that's way beyond the world in which I live. Take teenage Jade, for instance; at one point she utters at her shower door, "I step in with my pajama shirt still on and try to rinse the dream away from my vulnerable unconscious."

Okaaaaaay. The writing can be described, I'm sure, as eloquent prose; for me, esoteric is a better fit; to say that reading it was tedious is an understatement. That's not to say it isn't a well-crafted story, mind you, but it took me longer than usual to read because it's impossible to skim (three or four chapters were about all I could handle at one sitting before my brain started to hurt). I also must say that because there's virtually no investigation to follow despite the fact that the police, and the aforementioned Russ, were called in - nor is there much real action at all since almost everything takes place inside the characters' heads - it's very interesting, but not really a thriller, a police procedural or anything much beyond looks inside the heads of some seriously screwed-up people. Fairly early on, the girl's murder - and who did it and why - became almost inconsequential (yes, I was surprised, but when that person was revealed near the end, my reaction was much closer to, "All rightee, then" than "Wow!" )

Overall, I consider this to be a stellar effort, especially for a debut novel. It's a little too "deep" for my liking - especially for a book in this genre - but impressive nonetheless. Thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka (Simon & Schuster, August 2017); 368 pp.

Friday, July 7, 2017

SNAP JUDGMENT

5 stars out of 5

Just like its two predecessors, I loved this book. So much, in fact, that I really hope the author reconsiders the three-book series and brings readers more tales about super-cool but flawed attorney Samantha Brinkman.

For those thinking about diving in, I will say the water will be more comfortable if you start at the beginning (Blood Defense followed by Moral Defense). I had no trouble following the goings-on in any of the books including this one, but I'm also sure I got far more out of each one just because I read the one that came before. And lest I forget, many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review (as was the case with the first two books as well).

This one begins as college freshman Alicia, daughter of well-known attorney Graham Hutchins, is murdered. Not long before that, she dumped her abusive boyfriend Roan - and apparently he retaliated by posting online extremely personal photos she'd taken of herself for his eyes only. Nothing screams payback more than a spurned lover, so it's not surprising that Roan is considered the prime suspect. But then Roan is found dead - an apparent suicide. His mother insists he was murdered, though, and the coroner's report is inconclusive. Alicia's father had every reason to avenge his beloved daughter's death, so he suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs of the police.

Samantha, better known as Sam, knows Graham; when he calls for help, she agrees despite not really wanting to get involved in the case (he's a well-heeled customer and she's having a tough time paying the bills, so she can't afford to say no). Soon enough, she and her tech-savvy, hunky investigator Alex are up to their eyeballs in pot-smoking college students, secret lives of the rich and famous and pulling out every trick in their bags (some legal, some not so much) to ferret out evidence sufficient to get their client off the hook. In fact, one of the most interesting components of this series is being privvy to the legal goings-on inside and outside a courtroom - told through the eyes of someone who knows (we all remember the infamous trial of former NFL star O.J. Simpson, at which the author was the lead prosecutor, don't we )?

As if that weren't enough, Sam gets a very unwelcome visit from a big-time gangster from her past (and from past books in this series). He's privy to one of Sam's big secrets, and he's not above calling in a chit now and again when it suits his purpose. This time, he wants Sam, with help from her police officer father Dale, to locate the only witness to a murder committed by one of his relatives. Sam is convinced that her success will mean certain death for the witness, who's set to spill the beans at that relative's trial. But if she refuses, it just as certainly will mean her own death - so saying no just isn't an option.

Can she juggle both cases and come out a winner (or at least still alive)? Everything is resolved in the end, but of course I won't reveal how it all plays out. Now, the only question for me to ask is can we have more of Samantha? Please?

Snap Judgment by Marcia Clark (Thomas & Mercer, August 2017); 462 pp.

Monday, July 3, 2017

SHADOW GIRL

4 stars out of 5

Looking for a just-plain-good murder mystery with no female histrionics, flashbacks or chapters that flip back and forth from the perspectives of seven different characters? By golly, this one fills the bill. It's the second in a two-book series, and I must say I didn't feel at a disadvantage for not having read the first. Still, this one's good enough that if I could do it over again, I'd start at the beginning with Little Girl Gone (always my advice to anyone jumping into a series, BTW).

This one begins with an horrific scene in Minneapolis: Out of the blue (or perhaps more accurately, in the blue), a helicopter is blasted out of the sky. Turns out it was delivering a donor heart to multi-millionaire Leland Odin, head of a popular home shopping network who's at the brink of death and waiting for a transplant. Needless to say, the pilots were killed, and the fallout resulted in dozens of injuries on the ground. Also not surprisingly, the police hit the ground running - most notably, family liaison officer Afton Tangler and her partner Max Montgomery.

Early on, it becomes clear that someone is out to get the ailing Odin; as he clings to life in his hospital bed hoping a new heart will become available in time to save him, someone manages to sneak in and slit his throat (thus rendering moot that new heart). Now, the investigation centers on who wanted the guy dead and why.

Could it be his business partner, perhaps hoping for a big payout by selling off the shopping network? Could it be his obscenely rich wife, looking for a big payout through inheritance (or possibly payback for his cheating heart)? Or could it be that his illicit business deals have crossed a powerful someone who then put Odin in his or her crosshairs?

There's a fair amount of violence that turns personal for Afton, who keeps following clues that bring her closer to the truth (despite warnings from her partner and other department officials to back off a bit, reminding her that she's not a "real" police officer and doesn't even carry a weapon). Of course, she doesn't listen - and the chase is on to catch the killers before they catch her.

In short, this is a perfect book for beach reading, or any time you simply want to get lost in a fast-moving, interesting story. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Shadow Girl by Gerry Schmitt (Berkley, August 2017); 320 pp.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

ARE YOU SLEEPING?

4 stars out of 5

In the end, I enjoyed this book - but it was the plot, not the characters, that turned the tide. For much of the first half, all I did was mutter to myself how much I detested main character Josie Buhrman (and to a slightly lesser extent, her twin sister Lanie). The latter sister struck me as the "evil" twin, just as apparently she did to the characters in the book who knew her. Josie was another story; she spent most of her time berating other people for their lying ways when she was arguably the biggest liar of them all.

To be fair, the now-estranged Josie and Lanie had it tough growing up. Their mother had some kind of mental illness, their father was murdered 13 years earlier, and not long thereafter, the mother ran off to join a hippy-dippy cult. If there was a saving grace, it was that their father's killer was caught and convicted - identified by Lanie, who claimed to have seen him do the dastardly deed. Throughout his years in jail, though, he's insisted that he's innocent.

Not long after their mother abandoned them, Josie left home, ending up in New York with her partner, Caleb, and zero intentions of ever going back to visit once-treasured relatives. But then, a self-described "investigative" reporter named Poppy Parnell reveals a podcast which she claims will shed new light on the twins' father's murder. Was a man wrongly convicted? Did Lanie, who changed her original story that she'd seen nothing, lie on the witness stand? And if those things are true, who is the real murderer and what was the motivation?

The podcast, downloaded by thousands including Josie, opens up old family wounds - especially, it seems, for the twins' mother; not long after the first one appears, she is found dead on the cult's property, clearly a suicide. Now, Josie feels compelled to return home for the funeral of the mother she loved, hoping to avoid interaction with anyone else. She also doesn't want to interact with Caleb, who's ready and willing to accompany her. Why? Simply because everything she's told him about herself is a big fat lie, including her last name - which she changed to rid herself of the stigmas of her past and live in relative anominity.

Although she was given ample opportunity and good reason to 'fess up, Josie refuses to come clean - reasoning that her beloved Caleb just wouldn't understand and would exit stage left. Instead, she manages to convince him to stay put while she heads home alone. If I didn't already dislike her, that sealed the deal for sure.

From then on, much of the story focuses on Josie's encounters with family members, most notably her sister, interspersed with text of the podcasts and readers' reactions as they are released. As tensions begin to heat up, Josie gets a surprise visitor; and from that time forward, the story starts to move quickly, capturing my attention to the somewhat-of-a-twist ending.

My conclusion? If you can stand neurotic, sometimes totally unhinged females, this is a very good, intriguing book with a plot that's a bit different (and thus welcome, especially given all the recent books featuring neurotic females). Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Are You Sleeping? by Kathleen Barber (Gallery Books, August 2017); 336 pp.