30.11.19

SAFECRACKER, by Ryan Wick

Wow! What a wild ride! Lee Child, move on over, Reacher's got real competition. I can hardly wait for the next installment. Michael Maven, professional thief who's got magic fingers around a safe, is surprised during a heist when another burglar arrives, in the company of the householder.  Things spin out of control as Maven snuggles in a closet and then tries to apprehend the other thief. Who is also a stone-cold killer..
So much happens in this twisted tale, and at so fast a pace, that spoilers are inevitable. But know that the author has endless tricks and turns up his sleeve and no matter the spoilers, you'll still be mesmerized and surprised. And maybe at moments grossed out.
Shortly after losing his grip on the murderer, Maven's throat is cut. Literally. Then he comes to the attention of one of New York's most vicious drug lords. And Maven gets an offer he doesn't dare refuse: burgle the impregnable mansion of another drug lord and bring back a ledger.. Or else everyone he knows, and their extended families, will die very ugly deaths. Drug lords really know how to get one's attention.
The author managed to cram endless the action into this book without overwhelming the story and provides us with a tense, read-all-night story, blood-drenched in spots but still with enough human interaction and emotion in it to keep it from being just another litany of drug violence. Readers of Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Elmore Leonard, J. D. Robb and others will gobble this one up. Enjoy! TThis is a solid 5+, one of the best reads of 2019.
Thanks to Netgalley and MacMillan for the advance reading copy. The book will be published in June of 2020. It'll be worth the wait!

SELF DEFENSE FOR BUSY PEOPLE, by Steve Brass

I know I am fortunate that I have never been physically attacked. Burglarized and sexually harassed, yes. But never an imminent personal threat. The author, an expert on personal safety, suggests a multitude of techniques that he promises will increase your safety. Primary is Situational Awareness, just knowing what's going on around you. In this day of cellphone addiction, when a large proportion of people never look up from their cellphone screens, this one tip would make many people - women, in particular - safer. 
The author goes on to detail a number of physical techniques beyond merely knowing what's going on around you. Elbow strikes, groin slaps, and things of that sort. I'm five-one and of retirement age to put it delicately. Some of the techniques I found hysterically funny simply because the one thing most people don't have is warning of an attack. I think of the recent shooting rampage in Texas in which three police officers were left flat-footed, taken totally by surprise, as a gunman murdered innocent people. If highly-trained professionals can't get it together, what hope is there for me?
The book no doubt will offer some comfort to the more physically fit in our society, particularly males with their usually superior muscle mass. Younger women as well will find it useful. The notion that it can't happen to you is delusional. In 21st century America, anything can happen to anybody. Just reading the book will help to reinforce what ought to be better habits of self-protection (get your face out of that phone!), and might offer some psychological support for those of us who have never been assaulted. Being a sitting duck is never a good option.
But...the physical condition and mental state required to pull off the majority of suggestions is, to my mind, simply not attainable regardless of intent or practice. As a pep-talk, the book is useful. As a guide to survival, for me it is not. The intent gets it a 5, but the overall impact and effect gets it a 3.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, BooksGoSocial, for the opportunity to review this book in advance of publication.

THE UNSUITABLE, by Molly Pohlig


 Iseult Wince, 28 and very nearly a spinster, lives in mourning clothes for her mother Beatrice who died giving birth to Iseult. She lives with her cold, preoccupied father, her sole companion the housekeeper. Plus Beatrice, who lives in the swollen scar on Iseult's neck. Despite her age and her peculiar manners, her father does not give up trying to foist her off on various would-be suitors. To date, Iseult  - with her mother's help - has driven them all off.
Beatrice might be gone but she certainly isn't forgotten: She never stops talking. Awake or asleep, Iseult has the drone of her dead mother's voice in her ears, often drowning out the dinner table conversations and often drowning out Iseult's own thoughts.
When her father finally brings s suitor who will take her on, a chain of seemingly minor events is set into motion, culminating in a catastrophic father-daughter interview that changes both Iseult's past and her future.
Creepily atmospheric and at times graphically gruesome, The Unsuitable is also slyly funny. The mother-daughter dynamic is a psychological study in what appears to be disappointed love as well as selfishness and cruelty. The denouement is gothically graphic.
Initially, the format the author chose tempted me to stop reading, but a dozen pages in I couldn't put it down. It's a 5, a finely-drawn psychological map of madness, normalcy, cruelty and -  maybe - demonic possession.
Thanks to NetGalley and MacMillan Publishing for supplying an advance copy. The book will be issued in March 2020.

28.11.19

A PLAGUEOF ZOMBIES, by Diana Gabaldon

A wonderful read-it-in-one-evening novella starring Lord John Grey, who now stars from time to time (not often enough for me) in his own series rather than as a brilliant supporting character in the famed Outlander series.
Jamaica, then part of the British Empire, is a beauiful mountainous island blessed with beaches, harbors, rivers and waterfalls, and cursed with the vicious world of slavery. In Jamaica, it's  largely sugarcane plantations. As with most plantations anywhere in the slave-owning world, the enslaved outnumber the owners by a huge number. Revolt and rebellion simmer constantly, and the means employed to keep the slaves subdued are horrific.
Lord John is in Jamaica on the King's business but is at once drawn in to the sinister world of voodoo and zombies when the local Crown representative is murdered in a ghadtly scene. The author could've slid into zombieland, and does for a few moments, but the supremely practical Lord John at once begins to sort out the strands of at least two mysteries.
As always, the author is amusing, bloody-minded, and utterly merciless.
A wonderful read, perfect for a winter evening. It's a four.
 

24.11.19

THE KITCHEN WITHOUT BORDERS, from The Eat Offbeat Chefs



Any cookbook that provides me with three or more good recipes is, in my view, a good cookbook. By those modest standards, The Kitchen Without Borders is a rousing success.  Not only was it fascinating to explore the cuisines of the Levant, Algeria, West Africa, Sri Lanka, India and its neighbors, and Venezuela, but the profiles of the intrepid cooks who left their homes and voyaged to America gives voice and face to the modern immigrants who help keep our country a vibrant, growing melting pot. .In this case, the chefs are gathered in the kitchens of Eat Offbeat, a caterer in Long Island City, an area fittingly just across the East River from the United Nations.
While some of the 70 recipes are not your whip-it-out on a work weeknight dishes, many of them are, thanks to detailed coaching on method, easily attainable for the average cook. For a first simple sampler, try the recipes for Hummus or Baba Ganoush. Or Red Rice (basmati rice with tomato, raisins, almonds and fried onion). Then move on to Joloff Rice, a West African staple starring sauced onions and bell peppers.
The use of curry and fenugreek leaves in, for example,  Chu La (ground chicken curry from Pakistan-Afghanistan-North India) is repeated in other dishes. These days, neither leaf is difficult to source. One of my local Vietnamese food shops carries fresh curry leaves.
Chicken Shawarma, a take on the ubiquitous mid-eastern street food, is quite simple once you have the spices in house. Then you can go on to concoct such flavorful entrees as Chari Bari (chicken meatballs in a Nepali-spices cashew sauce), and vegetarian soon-to-be-faves such as Adas (lentils pureed with berbere spices) and Toor Dhal (yellow lentil dhal), and Bhonji Carrot Curry (using another favorite ingredient, coconut milk). There's even a fairly simple recipe for dosas, one of my Indian favorites that are almost impossible to find in the U. S.
For any cook with curiosity and a yen to learn new flavor profiles, this is an invaluable source. The chef profiles adds an extra depth to the book. This is as much travelogue and mini-biography of its intrepid cooks as it is a mere collection of recipes. It's actually a collection of lives written in terms of their common love, food.



21.11.19

LULLABY TOWN, by Robert Crais

This third book in the Elvis Cole series no doubt cemented Crais's place as a master of suspense, tricky plots, dialogue ranging from near-slapstick wit to gut-wrenching, and razor-sharp action. There's also Elvis Cole, LA private eye and his awesome sidekick Joe Pike, plus a cast of characters both unique and humanly familiar. Crais, once a writer for TV series (Hill Street Blues, etc.), was no doubt exposed to a good number of inflated personalities while in Hollywood. His inciting character in Lullaby Town  is one of them.
Peter Alan Nelson, wunderkind movie director, asks Elvis to find his ex-wife Karen and by now 12-year old son Toby. Underwhelmed by Nelson's egoism and self-absorbtion, Cole agrees with some reluctance. But Karen Nelson doesn't exist in public records. Cole digs deep and finds an old landlady, and a decade-old letter. From that point, the normal course of finding a long-lost person spins wildly out of control.
In a coast-to-coast tour de force of coincidence and violence, Cole and Pike must protect Karen and her son while dealing with hit men, pimps, cops bent and straight, and everything a mafia capo can throw at them. And Peter Alan Nelson, the consummate ego-driven jerk, spoiler, and character you'll want to give a good smack in the head with a two by four. The denouement is wrenching.
Fabulous read with non-stop action balanced by deep and complex character development. A five-plus stars! Read this award-winning series in order if you can, although each book is a satisfying stand-alone. A bnge read, however, will reward you with the always interesting life of Cole, his ups and downs, his loves and losses, everything that makes this hero a real hero. Pike, of course, is an enigma wrapped in a riddle (to coin a phrase). However you read these books, they will completely absorb you in the LA world of Cole and Pike.

19.11.19

THE MERMAIDS SINGING, by Val McDermid

Book #1 in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. A chilling, in places horrific, look into the mind and methods of a sadistic serial killer and the police who work round the clock to try to stop further grisly killings. Set in Bradford, an English city, this many-faceted police procedural focuses on not only the crime but the politics and personalities of the coppers, both traditional and forward-thinking. This is a series that promises to be rough and very tough, not for the squeamish or tender-hearted.
Dr. Tony Hill, police profiler with a deeply-guarded personal secret, is grudgingly accepted as advisor by some on the force. His liasson, attractive Detective Inspector Carol Jordan, welcomes any help, no matter how theoretical. She walks a fine line as she finds the consultant appealing. The author skillfully manages to not give away the underlying traumas that makes the relationship so prickly and, for Hill, impossible. He admires her razor-sharp intellect, but can't afford to admire anything more.
As the body count mounts and Hill develops his profile of the ingenious killer, he fails to  understand that two can play cat and mouse. Jordan, obsessed with preventing further atrocities, knows the killer could target Hill, but somehow fails to convince him to be more wary. But almost any level of vigilance would be useless against this inventive, skilled murderer.
Too late Hill puts the puzzle together, and must face the full horror of the murderer's mind and method with only minutes to deflect the killer. Too late Jordan figures it all out. The final race against time is stay-up-all-night tense and compelling.
A pull-no-punches read for those devoted to the darker end of police procedurals. It's a four.

18.11.19

THE LAST GOOD GUY, by T. Jefferson Parker

Book 3 in the Roland Ford PI series. What happens when Ford, still grieving the loss of his wife, is attracted to a beautiful, mercurial woman who is lying to him?  When Penelope Rideout comes to Ford asking him to find her runaway teen-age sister, the information she gives him doesn't check out. Does Penny have a husband? Did her sister run away or was she kidnapped?
Checking the story, Ford's first taste of what's to come is lying in bed with a bullet hole in his forehead. The sister's taste runs to mature men (20-ish), and it appears from witnesses that she didn't object to being taken away in a white logo'd van. The logo is traced to a security firm. When Ford tails one of its employees, all hell breaks loose.
Filled with twists and turns and complex what-ifs, Ford must unravel the connections between the runaway teen, the security firm, a long-time white supremacy leader and his wealthy, not-quite-there wife, and the charismatic preacher of a peronality-driven white-is-the-right-color church. What he finds is not only chilling but, for the thoughtful reader, a deeply unsettling window onto the forces at play in America today.
It's a four, a mesmerizing read with enough puzzles, action, and emotion to keep any fan happy.
Many thanks to the publisher, Penguin Random House, and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book.

12.11.19

BLIND SEARCH, by Paula Munier


Reading a novel that hasn't had its final editing can be frustrating. At times, when she becomes he, or a character whose name was changed during writing didn't get changed everywhere, or a certain descriptive phrase is used waay too many times, divining the author's intent or competency can be tricky.
In this second book of the series, foemr Army MP Mercy Carr and her ex-Army dog Elvis must deal with not only blizzards and illegal night hunters but Henry, an autistic nine year-old who may hold the clues to solving a grisly bow-and-arrow homicide. Add to the mix the growing attraction between game warden Troy Warner and Mercy, whose fiancé died in Afghanistan. A plethora of other characters fill this small-town Vermont setting to the brim with notable, quotable moments.
This is a textbook small-town murder mystery. Maybe a bit too textbook. Bucolic setting: check. Feisty ex-military heroine with emotional baggage: check. In fact, both lead characters with cartloads of issues: check. Quirky support characters including an aunt who seemingly can move mountains: check. Military dogs: check. A blustering, incompetent cop: check. A ruthless killer protecting past errors: check.
The one thing the book lacks (so far) is a sensitivity reader. The author's use of a stereotyped, tacky dialect for an Indian physician was crass and off-putting. If it weren't for that gaffe, I'd give it a four. As it reads today: a three.
This review was written prior to publication. Thank you to MacMillan and NetGalley for providing the Advance Reading Copy.

THE BORGIA CONFESSIONS, by Alyssa Palombo

Italian Renaissance history that any aficionado would gobble up. Skillfully arranged, told by two totally opposite characters, this historic novel manages to imbue suspense and drama into facts we already know.
Cesare Borgia, from a young age heir apparent to his scheming father's dynastic plans, tells the story of he and his siblings, including crass and licentious Juan, and beautiful, notorious sister Lucrezia. All the senior Borgia's children were pawns in Roderigo's grandiose plans to dominate the Italian peninsula. In an age when cynical manipulation and rampant self-dealing were the norm (no, not 21st century America), Roderigo Borgia was in a class of one.
Also known as Pope Alexander VI, Roderigo was brilliant, a larger-than-life figure who rose to the top of the Italian and Vatican heap. His children by various mistresses were a scandal, but he unappologetically used them. Seen through Cesare's fond but clear-eyed lens, the Vicar of God seems little more than an over-reaching tyrant.
Contrast the weary, worldly, often cynical Cesare (made a Cardinal at 18) with the maid Maddalena, who works in the various Borgia households, particularly that of Lucrezia. Deeply religious, deeply moral, the pretty maid eventually catches the eye of more than one Borgia, with far-reaching consequences.
This was the age of the Bonfire of the Vanities, when the Florentine priest Savonarola preached simplicity, definitely not on the Borgia agenda. The tumultuous collection of squabbling, conniving counts and dukes of small city-states all jockeying for advantage, all part of a balancing act Alexander VI must keep from crashing down. And Cesare the nobleman and Maddalena the servant are there to chronicle all of it.
The author, in her post-script, mentions she might do a sequel to further follow Cesare. I think that would be an excellent idea. For the devoted history reader, this is a great find. It's a 4.
Thanks to the publisher, St. Martins Press, and NetGalley for the advance reading copy. The book will be released February 11, 2020.

DREAMLAND, by Nancy Bilyeau

A marvelous evocation of life in 1911 New York, as told through the eyes of twenty year-old Peggy Batternberg, rebel daughter of privilege who "slums" with her extended Jewish family for a summer at Coney Island. But why has this pompous, fabulously rich upper class family consented to the stay at the hoi-poloi Brooklyn shore? Peggy's sister, the only member of the clan she has a meaningful relationship with, is engaged. It was the fiance's demand.
Rebellious and open-minded, chafing at the restrictions a female from her class must endure, Peggy goes to Coney Island with three male relatives. She storms away from them and finds herself in Dreamland, one of Coney Island's massive amusement parks. An art exhibit captures her interest. She meets Stefan, a poor Serbian immigrant and talented artist. She likes him. They can talk. He takes her to dinner. Her family would be horrified.
But the proper veneer of respectability the Batternberg family - particularly the men - projects hides a multitude of sins, most shared by the mercurial Henry Taul, Peggy's future brother-in-law. Who has a mistress, and where is she kept? Which brothels do they patronize? Who is involved in the murders of young women? Why have the police singled out a poor, powerless Serbian artist as suspect? When Peggy protests at Stefan's brutal treatment, her powerful Uncle David threatens her with the ultimate punishment.
You'll be grateful for your air-conditioning, for comfy clothes, for the right to vote, indeed for the many freedoms women didn't have and are so well-drawn in this book. It is as much social commentary as well as historical murder mystery. It's a five.
Many thanks to the publisher, Endeavour Media, and NetGalley for this Advance Reading copy. Dreamland will be released January 2, 2020.

THE MUSEUM OF DESIRE, by Johnathan Kellerman



Further adventures of Dr. Alex Delaware and LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis brings a level of strangeness I've not encountered before. A bizarre scene containing four bodies is discovered at an empty house sometimes rented for parties. It's kinky enough, "different" as Sturgis puts it, to warrant Delaware's full participation. Suspects and characters, some quite weird, abound as Delaware prowls the art world in search of clues both modern and ancient. The clues are sparse and obscure. Milo is his unflappable self, Delaware's prescience waits for one vital connection. When it comes, it's a doozy.
As always with Kellerman books, the writing is excellent, and the characters are human and compelling. Perhaps too used to Jack Reacher levels of gore, the grisly setting as described didn't seem to warrant the reactions from the pros. Sure, the body arrangement was repellent, but to make strong people pale? No.  As well, the winning clue is so far out in left field it felt contrived. The denouement was a disappointment to me. 
Overall, a good read but not up to usual standards.  It's a four, not my usual five.
Many thanks to the publisher, Random House, and to NetGalley for supplying this Advance Copy.

10.9.19

THE BEEKEEPER'S BULLET, by Lance Hawvermale


Germany, 1917. A mesmerizing story of flying aces, feisty heroines, and death in the sky over war-torn Germany. When a British flying ace crash-lands his stolen plane near a German farm, American Ellenor Jantz, beekeeper on the farm, shoots first and asks questions later. She ought to turn the handsome pilot in, but something about Alec Corbin-Dawes instead makes her hide him in the farm's stables.
Alec is on a personal mission: to save his sister, who lives in Metz, which is scheduled to be hit by a massive air-raid in four days. He talks Ellenor into helping to start the plane he plans to steal from the German squadron based on the farm. In the pre-dawn process, as the plane taxis across the field, everything goes terribly wrong.
As usual, you'll get no spoilers here. It's a fun beach read, with a plethora of arcane facts about bees, "crates" as the pilots called their flying machines, and the intricacies of mid-air dogfights. There's also a charming but deadly villain, an underground anti-war cell, and a nice war-time love story. 
It's a 4. A fun read with some interesting historical tidbits and a fascinating in-depth look at the original fighter planes. Unsurprisingly, the author is a beekeeper.