THE NIGHT RANGER, by Alex Berenson

8/series. Talk about last-minute, white-knuckle drama! Berenson's got it coming from all directions, from African warlords to the White House!
Four volunteer aid workers in a Somali refugee camp, college kids, are kidnapped as they travel in Kenya. The Kenyan police, corrupt and inefficient, are unable to find them. CIA Iron Man John Wells' estranged son is a friend of one of the girls. When he asks Wells if he would find them, and he of course agrees at once. Anything to help him find a way into a relationship with his son. Once in Africa, Wells must connive his way to the Somali refugee camp and elude Kenya's finest, and then discovers that the hostages have vanished. As with all Berenson's novels, this one is frighteningly tense, with Wells' contact at the CIA desperately fighting off the amoral posturings of their boss while Wells plays brinksmanship with Somali fighters who have nothing to lose. Few writers can match this superb author for such compelling, edge-of-seat action.A 5. Read them in order if you're new to this stellar series.


TAKEDOWN TWENTY, by Janet Evanovich

20 (duh)/series. Stephanie Plum, goddess of wrecked cars (to say nothing of wrecked libidos) returns, this time trying to locate a mob boss, Salvatore "Uncle Sunny" Sunnuchi, who's gone on the lam. Beloved of folks in The Burg, the mobster has vanished. Problem piles upon problem (Uncle Sunny is really love-interest Joe  Morelli's godfather...really) (Grandma Mazur, world's oldest nymphomaniac-wannabe, gets involved) (then there's a giraffe named Kevin) (will the near-slapstick never stop??). Donuts and pizza and Cluck in a Bucket fly by. Cars are destroyed. Teases, sexual encounters, and near-misses - Ranger? Morelli? - happen. And still that damn giraffe. Business as usual for this wacky, incredibly popular series. It's a 4. Best to read these in order, it's more fun that way. Despite a sag back around #16, Evanovich has managed to (mostly) imbue something new and surprising in most of these romps.


OLD BOYS, by Charles McCarry

Forget LeCarre and all the other espionage superstars. Get yourself to McCarry's mesmerizing novels, based solidly on two decades of the author's employment by the CIA (plus, of course, a fabulous imagination and a really deft hand with memorable characters). You'll be delighted you did.

This one is chock full of seamless, solidly-grounded spy skulduggery. Out-to-pasture spooks gather to find one of their own. Led by Horace, cousin of the suddenly-vanished Paul Christopher. After an urn containing Paul’s ashes is shipped from western China, a group of doddering old guys is talked into coming out of retirement to track down the story behind the ashes. From Urumqi to Rome to Istanbul to Budapest, from the empty desert of Chad to Khazakstan and other points few have ever heard of, Horace and his cohort slowly unravel both a new and an old mystery. While this could be read as a stand-alone, Paul Christopher - a series character - does appear in most other of McCarry's books, notably Christopher's Ghosts, which I found mesmerizing. Old Boys is a 5, a timeless read for those of us addicted to good spy yarns and still-exotic places.

SAFE HOUSE, by Chris Ewan

Set on the Isle of Man, this intricate contemporary mystery begins with a motorcycle wreck that only the victim, Robert Hale, remembers correctly. Even the police tell him he’s wrong, that he was alone and it was an accident. But Hale knows better and his search for the truth leads him on a chase to find the girl, Lena, who was on the bike with him. Enter Lena’s fabulously wealthy father. And British Secret Service. And another gang whose provenance is a lot murkier. Despite some major flaws (a dog that didn’t bark, for example), this is a good read, with some excellent and suspenseful action. A 3.


THE GOD OF SPRING, by Arabella Edge

Paris, 1818. Post-Napoleon, everything’s sliding back into the old ways, including total incompetence of noble appointees. The Medusa, part of a small flotilla of boats sent from France to re-assert control over Senegal, founders on a reef off West Coast Africa due to the blithe incompetence of a well-connected pilot. Most of the crew is set adrift on a jury-rigged raft, and for harrowing days on the Atlantic searches in vain for rescue. Scandalized and disgusted by the French court’s indifference, artist Theodore Gericault decides to create a massive oil painting of the peak moment of the ordeal. His depiction of the hopeful, dying mariners on their disintegrating raft is an icon, which you'll at once recognize. The author has created scenes in Gericault’s life from sublime to grisly, making this book a must-read for historical novel enthusiasts. If only the ending had been a bit stronger. It’s a 4. Great for a book club.

THE SHADOW PATROL, by Alex Berenson

6/series. Ex CIA/loose cannon iron man John Wells revisits the country where he spent nearly a decade under cover: Afghanistan. This time, he’s not undercover as a Taliban fighter, but in Kandahar investigating possible American troop corruption. Among other things. Berenson (whose thanks page includes the pilots who took him along on recent patrols in the Afghan theater) brings an authenticity to his books that’s hard to match. The melding of internal and external lives is almost textbook perfect, and his portrayal of the stresses on our soldiers is at time heartbreaking. Never tell yourself that we do not suffer as a country when we go to war in a foreign place. We do, and our kids, our treasure, do even more. A 5, as always, the book is topical, very well-researched, and exciting.



Stand-alone contemporary fiction. Abandoning Commissario Brunetti and the Venice Questura, Donna Leon ventures out with a free-standing novel about a twenty-first century baroque musicologist, Caterina Pellegrini, who returns to her home town for a new job investigating the contents of two 17th century trunks. Two distant relatives, greedy men, now seek to understand the possible legacy from a priest who owned the trunks. Despite a shaky premise (the Vatican giving up two ancient unopened trunks? Not!), the story is fascinating and moves along briskly to its climax. A 4; the writing is, as always, stellar, but for me the plot’s a bit shaky and some of the characterizations aren’t up to Leon’s usual high standards.


Anne McCaffrey fans, strap yourself in for a fabulous ride!
1/series. Europe, mid-1800s. After a spirited engagement, British Navy officer Will Lawrence boards a French merchantman to find its most precious cargo is a dragon's egg. Ready to hatch, the emerging dragon immediately adopts Lawrence as its captain, forcing the reluctant officer to abandon his Navy career and enter the despised Aerial Corps. Lawrence's first act is to name the dragon: Temeraire, after Nelson's famous warship; a most unusual name for a dragon. But, this is a most unusual dragon, as Lawrence finds out. A delightful compound of alternative history and dragon fantasy, this seamless tale is the start of a series you will not want to miss. I can hardly wait for the next one! A fun, fabulous 5.



Light-hearted, well-constructed historical romance doesn't come my way all that often. There's usually a major flaw, like a simplistic plot line or predictable characters. This little book, published in 1996, was a pleasure to read and enjoy. Even the secondary love story, not only a surprise but a great way to wrap it up. Miss Mary Goodwin, who thinks she's plain and simple, falls in love with Jason, a young law clerk. By a twist of fate, Jason becomes the Earl of Helsbury, and along with the title inherits Helsbury Hall. And an attitude, an overweening aunt, and a scheming cousin. And - worst of all - a conniving ghost, Vincent, who has scores to settle. Read and enjoy. It's a 4.


THE LOST GIRLS OF ROME, by Donato Carrisi

A complex, many-layered contemporary mystery set in Rome that starts with a dying man whose chest tattoo says Kill Me, and the disappearance of a young women, only the most recent of a series. On her trail is the enigmatic Marcus, beset by nightmares from his own near-murder. No spoilers here, you'll have to read it to learn more about the plot. This is a police procedural with an off-duty cop seeking to solve a spouse's murder, and a mysterious church group of criminologists in cassocks. It's complicated by various other legal and extra-legal pursuers, until at times it becomes a bit challenging to keep it all straight. And just when you think it's all coming together, it goes off in another direction! If you like subtle puzzles with a Vatican-as-character aspect, this one will be right down your alley. It's a 4. Translated from the Italian.
Unfortunately, his web site is solely in Italian, not even a "translate" button. www.donatocarrisi.it.com


CULINARIA...a cookbook series

I love books. I never want to not be surrounded by books (and if you could see my house, you'd know I never will be without them, they are everywhere). Non-fiction books that I particularly like have to do with food and travel. I've found that one surefire way to get to know a country I plan to visit is to read some cookbooks. I have hundreds of them, I read them just because, not because I need a recipe. If I can get two or three good recipes out of a cookbook, I consider myself fortunate. You may go to Epicurious or other foodie websites, but give me a paper-paged, chock-full-of photos source any day.
Given the above parameters, you may imagine my ecstasy when I stumbled across a series of large, country-specific, hard-cover cookbooks published by Konemann (and translated from the German) under the umbrella name of Culinaria. A friend had the France one. I fell in love. I went out and bought the Italy one. I am mad about Italy and its food, and this gigantic book -  496 stupendous pages, just imagine what it weighs - is a dream come true for a dedicated foodie. These are GREAT.
Need a gift for someone special? This could be it. For me, this kind of book is a 5+.



A pleasure to review this new, but highly accomplished, author. Locke has plenty of writing chops, having worked in Hollywood for many years, which explains in part the flawless plotting, the very deftly-drawn characters, and spot-on dialogue. The good guy, Houston-based black lawyer Jay Porter, has a not-what-I-expected life coming unglued before his eyes. click for more...

FAT TUESDAY, by Sandra Brown

One of the megastars of the romance genre brings on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday to us non-francofones) as the do-or-die deadline for the clash between a grief-stricken, nothing-to-lose cop, a corrupt legal kingpin, and a beautiful woman held captive in a bizarre relationship. And a swamp, an evil henchman, and lashings of sex. Well, that tells you all you need to know. You can adore Sandra Brown or not, but with nearly thirty best-sellers under her belt and millions of books in print, she is almost a force of nature. Try her out, see if she's for you. It's a 3.5; you may give her a 5.



Prolific nature and outdoors author Bass has written a marvelous story of the arid, sun-blasted country of Namibia, southwestern Africa, where even a coastline along the Atlantic offers no respite from the deadly, waterless desert. In this completely inhospitable place, nature has crafted the rhinoceros, up to two tons of myopic, thick-skinned, short-tempered animal with horns up to a yard long and no disinclination to use them. Once plentiful, once the "white man" arrived, they were decimated, by war and poaching and hunters. Bass's musings on the way rhinos came to be gets a tad repetitive, but the tale is mesmerizing, particularly when he's on foot and a female with calf heads directly towards him. If you enjoy reading of the natural world and the odd creatures therein, this could be your book. A 4.


WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, by Laura Lippman

For those of us who appreciate a beautifully-plotted mystery, Lippman can be one of the answers to "what shall I read next?". Nothing showy - no handsome upper-crust heroes, no gilded settings, no flights of literary fancy to set your writerly heart bouncing around - Lippman produces a solid, subtle, totally-human tale of two sisters and their loving parents in a Baltimore suburb. The centerpiece of the novel is a kidnapping, and what happens to a family. Spanning nearly three decades, the tale is crafted like a piece of Chippendale furniture, without flaws. The plotting, and the end game, are superb. Do I give too many 5's? Well, here's another one.



2/series. The romances about the Malloren men (and their unusual women) chronicles the problems and loves of Georgian England, when gaming hells and brothels were where men spent their leisure time. And most of the upper-class men had nothing but leisure. Enter a penniless, argumentative Spinster, Portia St. Clair, whose feckless half-brother Oliver is head of the family. In those ghastly days, men with any vice, no matter how ruinous, could lead their families into complete penury and the women involved were powerless to affect change. Of course Oliver's a terrible gamester, of course he loses everything. And he places Portia in the position of having to rescue him. Spoilers? Not here! A rollercoaster of a ride, complete with near-seduction, near-madness, near-death, and a very feisty heroine. A 4. You'll get hooked on the entire series!