Deadly Obsessions: Three True Crime Sagas by Joan Barthel

What a deal for true crime junkies!!! Three books in one, and all of them fascinating!

The first story, A Death in California, is way more interesting than its generic title might suggest. More than thirty years ago, a beautiful Beverly Hills socialite named Hope Masters fell in love with Bill Ashlock, a handsome advertising executive in Los Angeles. She had been married an divorced twice, but she thought her life was finally turning around – and then this bizarro story: she and Bill went to her family’s ranch in Central California, and were joined by a new acquaintance of Bill’s for a weekend getaway and supposedly a photo shoot. The next day, Hope wakes up with a gun in her mouth and her Bill dead in the next room. Then, after a weekend of rape and torture, Hope began to fall in love with Taylor Wright, the killer.

There is more family dysfunction than you can imagine, and I don’t think anyone will ever know what really happened…but this is another case set in Los Angeles, where you can definitely get all the justice money can buy.

The second book is A Death in Canaan. When eighteen-year-old Peter Reilly arrived home to find his mother naked on the floor with her throat slashed, he was immediately the prime suspect. local police made him their prime suspect. After eight hours of interrogation and a polygraph test, Peter confessed following many hours of harsh interrogation and a lie detector test. But the people in Canaan, CT couldn’t believe he did it, and they began a campaign to seek justice. It reminded me of Adnan Syed, where the police first decide on a suspect, then look for evidence (and, ideally, a confession) to point to that suspect as the killer, without looking anywhere else. Scary stuff.

Finally, in Love or Honor, a police officer named Chris Anastos, who was happily married and busily working on the NYPD’s anti-crime unit, was assigned to go undercover in order to investigate possible links between the Italian mob and a Greek criminal network in Queens. Anastos did this for five years, going back and forth between his comfortable home life and a criminal underground world of “wise guys, pimps, and thieves.” Then he fell in love with the daughter of a Long Island gangster…what could POSSIBLY go wrong?!?!

Excellently written, and sure to be enjoyed by fans of true crime. Four stars and thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my review.

 

The Death of An Heir by Phillip Jett

I admit, when it comes to my reading habits, my guilty pleasure is true crime. So a title like The Death of An Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty leaps out at me! That title turned out to be a spoiler for me, because I admit I had no awareness of this notorious crime – no idea that the CEO of the Coors family beer empire had been kidnapped and murdered at the age of 44 as he was on his way to work one morning in Golden, Colorado. (Of course, I was 12 when it happened, so I claim adolescence as my excuse!)

In the 1950s and 60s, the Coors name represented the dynasty that ruled over business and society in Colorado. Emerging stories about possible unionization of workers at the family business were seen as a threat by the patriarch, Adolph Coors, Jr., who drew a hard line against organized labor. His view was that the family had worked hard for what they had, so they could decide how to run the business and no one had a right to direct their activity. This led the authorities to suspect possible retaliation from one or more disgruntled workers when they began to investigate the disappearance of Adolph Coors III.

In February 1960, Adolph “Ad” Coors III, got into his car and left for work at the brewery, located twelve miles away. He saw a car stopped by a bridge, with the hood up, so he stopped to offer assistance. There he encountered a convicted murderer who had escaped from prison in California several years earlier, who thought if he made one big score by holding Ad for ransom, he would be set for life. Unfortunately, Ad was never seen alive again, and the search for his killer was exhaustive and included turf wars between the FBI and local law enforcement officials.

The search for Ad was the largest manhunt in the U.S. since the Lindbergh baby had been kidnapped. Everyone in the FBI up to and including the director J. Edgar Hoover worked on the attempt to locate the kidnapper(s?) and the victim. For months, Ad’s wife and four children waited and hoped for a miracle.

The Death of an Heir is a fascinating look at the incredibly detailed manhunt that resulted in the conviction of the kidnapper/murderer. The amount of tedious investigation that was required to be done manually before the Internet and the dedication of the FBI agents to “always get their man” is astonishing, although it turned out to be a Canadian officer who successfully located the suspect. The dislike between the federal and local authorities is emphasized by the way the showboat Colorado Sheriff (who later resigned in disgrace rather than be prosecuted on corruption charges) happily went to escort the suspect and escort him back to Colorado early one morning, only to be told that the suspect had been flown out of Canada in the dead of night by the FBI.

It’s an interesting story, particularly the detail on the manhunt and the impact of the tragedy on the family members, both in Ad’s immediate family and the larger Coors family empire. Very well researched and sourced, and an entertaining read. With thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review, I give this one four stars.

 

Mindfulness On the Go Cards by Jan Chozen Bays

Like many others, in the past when I had thought of mindfulness and meditation, what came to mind was the Transcendental Meditation of the 60s or, if not that exactly, possibly extremely long periods of silence  sitting in an uncomfortable (or, for many of us, impossible) position. When I spent time at the Tassajara Zen Center I had seen the residents on their way to and from sitting, and heard their tinkling bells at o-dark-thirty every morning. That kind of confirmed for me that meditation wasn’t something that I could do. Plus, there is that mind-you-can’t-shut-off thing that I had going on…

More recently, I have realized that mindfulness is more about being in the moment and experiencing life fully, moment by moment. As the author of the Mindfulness On the Go Cards I received for review defines it, “Mindfulness is deliberately paying full attention to what is happening around you and within you—in your body, heart, and mind Mindfulness is awareness without criticism or judgment.” I have read a few books on the subject, and have tried exercises to foster the ability to BE, but it seems like I am someone who can’t quite get there. I mean, I want to be someone who meditates, I just don’t want to do the work of actually meditating.

This set of cards developed by Jan Chozen Bays, MD, a pediatrician and Zen teacher, sounded intriguing, and thanks to Shambhala Publications and NetGalley, I received it in return for my honest review.

The idea is that there are 52 cards, each with an exercise or meditation practice that the author has used in her teaching and found helpful for students who are getting into mindfulness.

The author suggests selecting one card each week for a year. Each card has three components: first is a description of the practice to be followed during that week, followed by some of the possible insights that might come out during the week, and finally a brief statement designed to sum up the exercise and inspire the student to continue the practice.

Some examples of the topics are:

  • Each time the phone rings, take three breaths before answering
  • When eating, just eat
  • Listen like a sponge
  • Resolving to pay a compliment each day

The idea is that small moments of awareness such as these will become second nature and promote a naturally mindful life.

Frankly, I love this idea. I don’t want to wait to review this because I want to get started, and so I have ordered a set of the cards. TBH, the digital version I received is a bit of a challenge because the topic is displayed clearly, but the sections with the possible insights one might receive is very faint and difficult to read. The third section (the summing up/inspiration section) is displayed in italics and is very clear. I expect the physical cards to be much easier to use.

It’s a simple idea, and having looked through all the topics am hoping that the result will be a more conscious way of being in the moment, without having to pretzel myself into a lotus position or get up in the dark for early practice in sitting. As Dr. Bays says, I want to “learn to be present with things just as they are.” I give this idea and these cards five stars!

 

 

 

Amanda Wakes Up by Alisyn Camerota

 

Ms. Camerota worked for Fox (or as it is known in my home “Faux”) News (their slogan: “Fair and Balanced”). She then went to work for CNN. Her protagonist in Amanda Wakes Up works for FAIR, whose motto is “True and Equal.” Write what you know, right?

Alisyn has had a busy career and has covered several Presidential campaigns. Amanda is an ambitious newswoman who has her share of adventures, particularly covering the Presidential aspirations and eventual campaign of a brash TV star-turned-politician who basically has no shame. Her network is in the tank for him, and their reporters generally pander to him, giving lots of coverage because his over the top personality gets ratings. (Hmmm, sounds familiar, although Ms. Camerota assures her readers that the character is an amalgam of several personalities. Oh- kay, whatever you say!).

Amanda works for a boss who may or may not represent someone at Fox, CNN or other networks. In her own career, Ms. Worked for Roger Ailes, and has reported that when she asked him about her career, as she was looking for more and better opportunities at the network, he told her: “Well, I would have to work with you — I would have to work with you really closely — and it may require us getting to know each other better, and that might have to happen away from here. And it might have to happen at a hotel. Do you know what I am saying?” All together now: EEEWWW.

To be honest, I was not familiar with her but heard her interviewed on the radio, talking about the book, and thought it might be a fun read. It is! For lovers of satire and news junkies in particular! Four stars.

 

Fatal Deceptions by Joe Sharkey

WHAT?!?! Khalessi as a murder victim? Daenerys Targarian a wife whose husband cheats on her? OK, now that I have your attention, Joe Sharkey’s book Fatal Deceptions is a collection of three previously published true crime books, one of which has been made into a movie starring Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones fame, set for 2017 release. And, thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for my honest review.

The first story, Above Suspicion, is the one that is “soon to be a major motion picture.” A well-written story, this is the true account of Mark Putnam, the only FBI agent ever to confess to murder. In his first posting, he was assigned to Pikeville, Kentucky, he was a real go-getter as he cultivated paid informants, broke up drug rings, and captured bank robbers. He was a rising star in the Bureau, but he became too close to one informant (played by Emilia Clarke). When she fell in love with the Bureau’s rising star, things spiraled so far out of control you could just FEEL the inevitable train wreck coming.

The second story was made into a movie (“Goodnight, Sweet Wife”) in the 1990s. Deadly Greed tells the story of Charles Stuart who called to report to the police that he and his wife, Carol, were in a car and had been robbed and shot by a black male on the streets of Boston. By the time police arrived, Carol was dead, and the baby, delivered at 7 months, died soon after. There was a media frenzy as politicians and police administrators jumped on the story. Charles, a really disgusting creep, then identified a suspect and the media frenzy continued. But the only killer was Charles himself. This story resonated with me for the parallels with stories about the police today who first identify a suspect and then gather their evidence to support that story. Ugh.

In the final story, Death Sentence the vice president of a Jersey City bank moved his mother, wife, and three teenage children into a nineteen-room mansion in Westfield, New Jersey. Then he lost his job and everything changed. So fearful of what this and the changing social mores as the 1960s became the 1970s would do to his children, his solution was to shoot the entire family then disappear, taking on a new identity.

Summing up, three well-written books in the true crime genre all in one package. By the time you finish these, your concerns about police may be deepened, and you will likely think something along the lines of “What the ^&*% was he thinking?”  Four stars.

 

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

The opening of The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti creeped me out, as it was designed to do: “The day the birds fell, I dealt the tower card.” Based on the title, you might infer the birds mentioned were blackbirds, yes? But no, we learn at the start of chapter 2 that “A month before Nate was fired, nearly a thousand starlings fell from the sky. Not fluttering to the earth like snowflakes, but plummeting, like quarter-pound raindrops.”

So I was already thinking maybe I was just not reading carefully enough (happens more with each passing year, but I went back to resolve my ornithological confusion). TBH at the end of this excellently written and paced mystery/thriller, I was still not clear on the whole bird thing. But a fun read!

Here is the basic premise: there is a small town in the east where the high school has a beloved high school teacher, who is also the baseball coach in a town where baseball means WAY more than either football or basketball. We are led to wonder about his possible involvement with the disappearance of a female student as we learn that Nate, the teacher/coach, “…always had a soft spot for her and those like her: the damaged, pretty girls.” When the police become involved, Nate is less than fully honest about his involvement with Lucia, the missing student. While being questioned, he “…had no way of knowing that this moment would become the linchpin, the moment that all the moments after would hinge upon. The papers would call him a murderer; …ex-friends, his gym buddies…would say, Nate was the last one to see her alive, right?”

Really nice way she reveals information about the four main characters who tell the story in alternating points of view: Nate, his wife Alecia (who is a frazzled stay-at-home mom to their autistic son and maybe is inclined to suspect Nate’s involvement; Lucia, the missing student: and Bridget, a co-worker and buddy of Ned who was part of the two-couple friendship with Nate and Alecia before her husband dies (and was the only character I REALLY liked). Not everyone in the story is likable or smart. In fact, Nate seems like quite a dolt and Alecia sure was quick to suspect her husband of possibly killing a student with whom she is sure he was having an “inappropriate relationship” and she was awfully bitchy to Bridget. I wanted to like her, but found her annoying as her frustration with Nate, their child, and the marriage in general kept moving her actions along.

Again, some great writing, as in this passage where we learn a great deal about both Lucia and Bridget: “Lucia tackled pain and death clinically, a biology lab discussion. As if Bridget’s hurt could be pulled apart like little frog’s legs, pinned back to the wax, sliced clean down the middle and simply exorcised.”
Okay, there are lots of clichés here, in the small town, star athletes, rocky marriage, beloved teacher, etc. But Kate Moretti is a GOOD writer and my only thought was some editing of the narrative about the woods/mill etc. might have helped. Overall, it’s a fairly quick read, and quite well written. I’ll definitely check out Kate Moretti’s other work, and I appreciate Atria Books and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for my honest review. Four stars.

 

The Kennedy Imprisonment by Garry Wills

Garry Wills, who has been described as “a sort of intellectual outlaw” by the New York Times, has written many books related to politics, including Reagan’s America, Nixon Agonistes, Lincoln at Gettysburg (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), and The Kennedy Imprisonment, originally published in 1982. This 2017 edition of The Kennedy Imprisonment includes an updated preface, but is still essentially Wills taking on the myths surrounding the Kennedy clan and disabusing people of the popular vision of the Kennedy image as viewed through the lens of Camelot.

For Kennedy fans who haven’t done much reading about the reality, this book may be unsettling as it pulls back the curtain and reveals a corrupt and opportunistic political family who valued image over reality, flattering myths and stories over truth,
and a world of “almost-Kennedys” and hangers-on who gave up their own integrity for the privilege of basking in the reflected glory of the Kennedy clan.

Wills covers the PT-109 story and the expert manipulation of it in print and film, the question of actual authorship of Profiles in Courage, the story that was presented as historical fact about the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the notorious womanizing of Joe Sr., John, and Teddy (with Bobby allegedly being the faithful one).

The book is divided into five sections, each devoted to a particular aspect of the Kennedy family: Sex, Family, Image, Charisma, and Power. But even before we get to these, the prologue tells us the particular slant of the author: “Because of privilege of various sorts, bad behavior does not have consequences, which means that it continues and becomes more pronounced.” The heavy weight on each of the brothers following the deaths of their siblings culminates in Teddy’s sad comment: “After Robert was killed, he told his aide Dun Gifford: “I can’t let go. We have a job to do. If I let go, Ethel will let go, and my mother will let go, and all my sisters.”” Yikes, what a heavy load he carried…and his dysfunctional, doomed campaign for the Presidency in 1980 is covered in depth, including a good look at poor Joan, who never really made it into the insular inner circle of the clan.

Wills says there was a palpable energy between and among the Kennedys that excluded all outsiders: “When the nurse took the Kennedy children swimming at Taggert’s Pier, back in the thirties, they all wore the same color bathing hats, so they could be distinguished from the other children…Ever since they have been wearing invisible caps that signal to each other on a radio frequency no one else can use.”

I have vivid memories of JFK’s inauguration (when a TV was wheeled into my elementary school classroom so we could watch and hear his speech) and the assassinations, including the televised coverage of the aftermath each time another tragedy unfolded. I admit it was a bit disconcerting to learn the level to which coverage and myth protection was managed and manipulated, but I was still pleased to have the opportunity to read a copy of this edition (thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley).

For me, the problem is that this book, written as it was in the early 1980s, assumed a familiarity with many of the people and events that was likely appropriate 30+ years ago, but for many of us, memories fade – and for others, there is complete cluelessness about who these people are and what their significance was to the Kennedy story of the 1960s-80s.

In addition to needing to figure out the characters and their roles, the author’s writing became annoying. I appreciate a strong vocabulary, but in several instances, it seemed like a simpler word might have served the purpose: for example, “jansenist,” “circumnambient,””orotundities,””thurible,” and “perdured’ seem a bit over the top (while the less puzzling “circumlocutious,” panegyric,” and “simulacra” seem to adequately demonstrate the author’s fine vocabulary). Or maybe it’s just me, and everyone else is completely familiar with the over-the-top examples listed above? In any case, that detracted from my appreciation of the book. (And spellcheck was equally puzzled by 7 of the 8 words listed above!)

In any case, it is a fine history of the clan and their impact on U.S. history and, while it may provoke a certain level of disappointment for readers to learn about both the human frailties and downright corrupt actions of their heroes, it is hugely entertaining. Political junkies in particular will love this. Four stars.

 

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

I’ve enjoyed many books by Michael Connelly, and when I learned his new book, The Late Show, was coming out, I looked forward to reading it. I didn’t know anything about the storyline, and I think perhaps I assumed it would be another in the long line of Connelly’s crime novels set in Los Angeles with a strong male protagonist (such as Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller).

But no! In the first paragraph, we learn that two police officers (“Ballard and Jenkins”) are working the night shift. We soon learn that Ballard is a female officer (at which point I thought, “OMG, is she the lead character here? A woman? AWESOME!!)

The way Connelly reveals Renee Ballard’s backstory, interweaving it with a complex police procedural full of the workings of the LAPD, is masterful. We learn that she is working nights (aka “the late show”) as a punishment for filing a sexual harassment suit against a former supervisor. She managed to keep her badge, but is clearly a black sheep in the squad room.

One night Renee catches two assignments that seem unrelated: the brutal beating of a prostitute left for dead in a parking lot and the killing of several people in a nightclub. Although typically the night shift turns all their cases over to the day shift, Ballard is determined not to give up these two cases. As the plot moves along, she chooses to go against both explicit orders and her partner’s wishes, working on both these cases during the day while still taking her regular shifts at night.

She is definitely a woman with a past that drove her to become a cop. After a fatal shooting, she notes there “…was something inside her she didn’t know she had. Something dark. Something scary.” As her investigations progress, she calls on sources she has developed, including navigating the intricacies of dealing with the media: “She knew a couple of things about how the murky lines between the media and law enforcement were negotiated. She knew there was little cooperation.”

She is advised that her job takes her “…into the bleakest side of the human soul…If you go into darkness, the darkness goes into you. You then have to decide what to do with it. How to keep yourself safe from it. How to keep it from hollowing you out.”

No spoilers here, just a STRONG recommendation for Connelly fans, anyone who likes a good mystery, appreciates police procedurals, or just enjoys a good story with a strong, interesting female character, to READ THIS BOOK. It is terrific! Five stars (only because I can’t give six)!

With gratitude to Little, Brown and Company and NetGalley, as I received a copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

UNSUB by Meg Gardiner

UNSUB by Meg Gardiner has gotten GREAT reviews, so when I started it and found my mind wandering, I put it aside for a couple of weeks and picked it up again.

I knew going in that the story involved a serial killer in the Bay Area with a catchy nickname, reminiscent of “The Zodiac Killer.” This time, the name is “The Prophet,” and this book is a dark, twisted thriller revolving around the apparent reappearance of a criminal who terrorized the Bay Area before disappearing a couple of decades ago.

Back in the initial hunt for The Prophet, Mack Hendrix was the lead police detective in the effort to stop the crime wave. His failure to do so has haunted him ever since. Now, his daughter Caitlin is also a police officer, whose focus has been narcotics. She looks to her father for help as she takes up the work of catching the killer whose victims bear the characteristics of The Prophet’s victims.

I suspect my lack of enthusiasm for this book is based on my own weird experiences. Living in Solano County in the Bay Area during the time of the Zodiac spree, I knew a man who was creepy. I saw a large flashlight in his car with clear red wrapping paper over the lens, held on with a rubber band. The Zodiac supposedly used a flashlight as he approached victims’ vehicles, possibly a large red flashlight to make people believe it was a police vehicle approaching. And as if that wasn’t enough, someone had tracked this guy’s schedule and he was always out sick or otherwise unaccounted for on the dates of the killings. I distanced myself from this creepy guy, but he contacted me by email in the year 2000 to tell me he had been “following” me online. So, yes, anything about the Zodiac brings up some less than positive feelings!

But, I digress. Lisa Gardiner has done a masterful job of plotting and character development showing both Caitlin’s strengths as a police officer and her softer, more human side. I expect we will see a string of stories featuring this feisty young woman. The ending was a bit abrupt, so that knocked off a star. The creepy factor almost knocked off another one, but the “it’s not you, it’s me” thing isn’t something I like to bring into my reviews. Thanks to Penguin Group/Dutton and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my review. Three and a half stars, will show up as four.

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham

I am most familiar with Australian author Michael Robotham’s series of novels featuring protagonist Joe O’Loughlin, and I have recommended him to many people without hesitation. When I received a copy of his latest, The Secrets She Keeps, from Scribner and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review, I had no idea what the premise was, whether it was an O’Loughlin book, or something new and different. And it WAS different – for sure. This is the story of two women who are apparently pregnant at the same time. One of them, Agatha, works at a supermarket, isn’t married, and spends a lot of time and energy dreaming of the life she doesn’t have (especially the roles of wife and mother). She watches (and seriously at first her stalking really creeped me out) Meghan, a beautiful mother of two seemingly perfect children, wife to a good-looking television personality, whose pregnancy seems about as far along as Agatha’s own.

We learn that although everything LOOKS perfect. Meghan is restless in her marriage: “…sometimes I rake my memory to find moments that make me truly happy.” Told in the alternating points of view of these two women, a recurring theme of honesty and trust is voiced by Meghan early on: “Anyone who says that honesty is the best policy is living in la-la land. Either that or they have never been married or had children. Parents lie to their kids all the time—about sex, drugs, death, and a hundred other things. We lie to those we love to protect their feelings. We lie because that’s what love means, whereas unfettered honesty is cruel and the height of self-indulgence.”

Agatha is no less unsettled: “How can she ever understand my life? What it’s like to live in a cramped, claustrophobic tunnel that gets smaller and darker as each year passes.” Much of her viewpoint is revealed when she says to Meghan “I am an outlier. I am the incredible disappearing woman. I am childless. Less of a person. Not in the club. You take those things for granted.”

Agatha wants the life she thinks Meghan has. Meghan sees Agatha as a familiar face from her shopping trips and yoga class, but little does Meghan know that the ho-hum exchange she has with a store employee during her hurried afternoon shopping trip is about to change the course of her not-so-perfect life!

It’s quite the page-turner, as the characters of the women and their families are revealed in alternating chapters. I was somewhat skeptical about Mr. Robotham’s ability to write from the perspective of two different pregnant women, but he did it with his usual outstanding plot development and attention to details of the characters’ personalities. Never having been pregnant myself, lots of the feelings about pregnancy were unfamiliar – but the lines about childlessness really resonated. I take off one star just because I wasn’t wild about the ending, but I really did enjoy reading it (in pretty much one sitting – I was riveted). Four stars.

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

I started a neighborhood book club a little over two years ago, not sure it would work out. The first book we read was Diane Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies, and it was a great choice: it was set in a small Southern town fifty or so years ago, it included social issues (mental illness, forced sterilizations, the “appropriate” role of women in marriage) and it was filled with characters who stayed with the reader long after the last page was read. It also had the added EEEK! factor that occurs when you find out a novel is based on reality: in this case, forced sterilizations and racism. It made for some good discussions! So, with all that, I was happy to receive a copy of Ms. Chamberlain’s new book  The Stolen Marriage, from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This new book is also set primarily in a small town in the South, 50+ years ago. The protagonist, Tess DeMello, ends her engagement to a man she loves dearly, quickly marries a stranger, and moves to Hickory, North Carolina. Hickory is a small town struggling with racial tension and the hardships imposed by World War II. Tess finds out her new husband, an extremely successful furniture manufacturer, is quite mysterious: he often stays out all night, hides money, and is totally uninterested in any physical contact with his new wife. Although her new husband tries to give her everything she might want, Tess feels trapped and desperately wants out of the unhappy situation: “I hadn’t been happy in so long, I doubted a new house was going to fix what was wrong with me.”

The people of Hickory love and respect her husband, and see her as an outsider. When Tess is blamed for the death of a prominent citizen in an accident, she is treated with scorn and derision. She begins to feel like she is being followed, and becomes more and more unhappy. The town is a classic racist town, and even the “nice people” have stereotypical views of the times, reflected in Tess’s feeling that “…it was crazy that any state in the country allowed colored and white to get married in the first place. It only created problems for everyone.”

When a sudden polio epidemic strikes the town, the townspeople band together and build a polio hospital in just a few days (!). Tess begins to work at the hospital, finding a rewarding sense of identity in caring for the young victims. But the whole mess with her husband and his horrific mother and sister continues to make her life as a married woman completely NOT what she had dreamed of. It has suspense, drama, and a surprise ending that I loved.

This will be a good choice for book clubs, with the issues of women’s rights and roles in their marriages, interracial marriage, medical ethics (as an epidemic breaks out among people of all races and religions), honesty and trust. It is an easy read, but has a lot of depth. I read it a week ago, and keep thinking about the town, the people, the situation…so it’s an easy five stars for me…and a good future choice for our book club, still going strong.

BTW, the true story of a town that built a hospital from the ground up in just a few days in order to deal with the polio epidemic is awesome!

 

 

 

Snap Judgment by Marcia Clark

Cover Clark Snap Judgment

Last fall, I reviewed Moral Defense, by Marcia Clark (yes, THAT Marcia Clark, of OJ Simpson trial fame), which was the second in the series featuring criminal defense attorney Samantha Brinkman, based in Marcia’s turf, Los Angeles. Sam first showed up in Blood Defense, the first title in this series, in which she defended a decorated homicide detective accused in a double murder. That defendant is a recurring character in the series, as are Sam’s two associates (one of these is a genius ex-con, and the other is Sam’s closest friend since childhood).

In Moral Defense, I realized Sam is a REALLY great character, with opinions that I suspect reflect how Marcia may have felt during her legal career: “I’d been trashed on cable for dressing like a bargain-basement rag doll. Someday, women won’t have to put up with it. Someday, people are going to care more about what we say and do than what we look like. But that day didn’t seem to be coming any time soon…”

So we meet Sam again in Snap Judgment, #3 in this series. In this one, the seemingly perfect daughter of prominent civil attorney Graham Hutchins is found with her throat slashed. Her spurned ex-boyfriend seems the likely suspect, but he is found dead soon after in an apparent suicide. The person of interest in the boyfriend’s death is Hutchins, who hires Sam & Associates.

We learn that the boyfriend was uber-controlling and a creep who posted revenge porn online. The investigation quickly focuses on the daughter’s friends and classmates as well as perhaps some of her off-campus neighbors at USC (or, as many of us refer to it, “University of Spoiled Children.”): “For all that USC is a richy-rich kid school, the campus is in a shitty ‘hood where anything can happen.

Graham is a tough client. As a specialist in civil litigation, his perspective differs from Sam’s since “…in criminal court, the worst people are on their best behavior, and in civil court, the best people are on their worst behavior.” The investigation into the parallel mysteries takes the reader around Southern CA, areas Marcia Clark knows well. Good location detail, lots of interesting characters (and we feel like we are getting to know Dale, Greg and Michy VERY well), and a super twisty plot with great suspense make this a really good book.

In my prior review, I confessed my fascination with Marcia Clark, going back to the early 90s when she was a media star as well as a legal star as she battled to convict OJ . In her other series of novels there is also a female protagonist, Rachel Knight, but Rachel is on the other side, prosecuting cases (something Marcia knows inside and out). Placing Sam in the role of criminal defense attorney has allowed Ms. Clark to explore the “anything goes as long as you don’t get caught” side of the courtroom battles.

I am totally hooked on the Samantha Brinkman series, and this one reinforced my opinion that Sam is a much more interesting character than Rachel Knight, just IMHO. Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and Net Galley for an advance copy of this title in exchange for my honest review. Five stars! Can’t wait for the next one!

 

Close To Home by Robert Dugoni (Tracy Crosswhite Series, #5)

Cover Dugoni Close to Home

I first “met” Detective Tracy Crosswhite of the Seattle Police Department In My Sister’s Grave, back in 2014. Since then, I’ve enjoyed following both her adventures fighting crime and her personal story. Close To Home is #5 in Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite Series, and I was happy to receive a copy of it from Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This one is structured like a braid, with three concurrent strands the death of a young African-American student, the legal wrangling over the suspect, who is on active duty at the local naval base, and the epidemic of heroin deaths in the area.

The novel opens with the first strand, a hit and run death of a young African-American on the streets of Seattle. The mystery surrounding his death goes on throughout the book, as Tracy investigates the suspect, who is stationed at the local naval base. The second strand follows his case as it begins to move through the legal systems (both naval and civilian), and he is apparently in the clear when a key piece of evidence goes missing. In the third strand, the suspect in the hit and run death turns out to be linked to a rash of recent deaths from a particularly potent batch of heroin, which is of special interest to Tracy’s fellow Detective, Delmo Castigliano (“Del”) , whose teenage niece has recently died of an overdose.

I was a bit turned off by an early line that states that Del’s niece “…started on marijuana at fifteen, progressed to prescription drugs, and, eventually became hooked on heroin.” Really? I thought, not the old “gateway drug” line??

In the afterword, Dugoni relates that he had “…always believed heroin addicts were people living in rodent-infested apartments.” In his research, he learned that many of them are “good kids from good families.” I appreciated the evolution of Del’s thinking about the war on drugs. Del’s thoughts match Dugoni’s: “People in these homes weren’t supposed to have sons and daughters hooked on heroin. The junkies were supposed to be downtown, living in dark alleys and abandoned buildings, sleeping on soiled mattresses amid garbage and rodents.” The book clarifies the explosion in heroin usage as tied to the legalization of marijuana in the U.S., because the Mexican cartels have seen a seriously diminished income from selling weed, and have turned to growing poppies instead, adding to the supply of cheap heroin in the States.

The story follows the various strands, tying everything together in a satisfying conclusion (with a tiny bit of what felt a bit like a contrived development in Tracy’s life revealed at the end). Along the way, we meet familiar characters (Tracy’s husband Dan, her co-workers Del and Faz, and JAG attorney Leah Battles, who I hope will appear in future installments in the series).

Excellent character development (particularly Del), plenty of twists and turns and Pacific Northwest atmosphere thrown in for good measure. Fans of the Tracy Crosswhite series will enjoy it (although it stands alone very well, so no need to feel you need to start earlier in the series to get what is going on…although I totally recommend this series!) Five stars.

 

 

The California Garden Tour by Donald Olson

Olson CA Garden tour
“Garden Tourists” are a real thing. These are folks who plan their outings around locations such as Filoli, Sunnylands, and botanical gardens such as Southern California’s Huntington Gardens.

In The California Garden Tour, Donald Olson gives all the information a garden tourist needs to know about 50 outstanding public gardens in California, and thanks to Timber Press and NetGalley, I received an advance copy in exchange for my review.

This guidebook is amazing. It is arranged geographically, and includes maps and gorgeous photos, along with useful information such as hours, fees, parking, etc.

The geographic regions within Northern California include the East Bay, San Francisco/Peninsula, Sonoma, and Central & North Coasts. In Southern California, we have Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, the South Coast, and San Diego.

In addition to being a lovely coffee table book, fun to browse, this would be a great gift for both garden tourists and anyone who appreciates plants! Great job! Five stars.

 

 

The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius

COVER Ignatius Quantum Spy.jpg

I remember a year or so ago when Justin Trudeau was asked a snarky question about quantum computing, and proceeded to explain it in language we could understand…and the whole concept of things being two things at once kind of blew my mind. “Things can be in two places at once. The coin is both heads and tails. The cat is alive and dead. A bit is zero and one. It’s only the act of observing these phenomena that collapses their ambiguous state. ” In The Quantum Spy, the race is on between the U.S. and China to build the first quantum computer.

It’s a great setup for David Ignatius of the Washington Post to entertain us with a 21st century spy thriller…and, thanks to W.W. Norton and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for this honest review.

Early on, we meet John Vandel, long-time CIA operative, who is wise to what it takes to survive in the Agency: “He wrote an eyes-only memo later that morning for the national security adviser to cover himself. The rest, he didn’t want to know. The Director was a former member of Congress. Letting the staff do the dirty work was a way of life.”

Some years ago, an Army Ranger named Harris Chang saved Vandel’s life in Iraq. When Vandel thanked him, Chang said “You would have done it for me,” to which Vandel replied “No fucking way.” This tells us quite a bit about both men, and as the story alternates locations including China, Singapore, Washington, D.C., Iraq and Seattle, we follow their efforts to beat China in the race for quantum computing superiority.

Chang goes to a quantum research lab that has been compromised by a suspected Chinese informant. There is a hunt for the mole who may have penetrated the highest levels of the Agency, and things hop around, with a bit of uncertainty that parallels the quantum state: there are leaks, but do the leaks expose real secrets, or are they false trails meant to deceive the Chinese? Chang finds that there is a thin line between loyalty and betrayal, as he follows the path of the investigation wherever it leads.

Sometimes techno-thrillers can be daunting, with details that are beyond the casual reader of spy novels. In this one, Ignatius has done a great job of combining a twisting plot with self-revelation that parallels the paradox of quantum computing. Chang is the model of a conflicted spy who has dealt with racism and bigotry his entire life, and who faces his own duality as he works to solve the puzzle surrounding the mole.

Spy novel fans, computer buffs, mystery lovers, and anyone who likes a plot with lots of twists and well-developed characters will love this one. Five stars.

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

COVER Jewell I found you

It’s been awhile since I read a book that I COULD NOT PUT DOWN.  Well, thanks to Lisa Jewell (and to Atria Books and NetGalley, for providing a copy of I Found You in exchange for my honest review), I had that lovely experience during the past 24 hours.

The weird thing is, I had read the blurb on this one and kind of set it aside for awhile, thinking it was just another woman-in-danger-England-Gone Girl-wannabe, and I have read quite enough of those in the past 6 months to last me awhile.

But once I dove in, I was hooked — and FAST. There are three things going on in this book: 20+ years ago, in a resort town on the coast, three teenagers had a vacation encounter. Back to today, we learn that the newlywed husband of a young woman named Lily (recently arrived from Ukraine) doesn’t come home one night – and seems to have disappeared. And then, the police tell Lily that her husband never existed. At the same time, in a small town, a single woman named Alice encounters a man on the beach who seems to have amnesia. Of course, the first guess is he must be Lily’s missing husband, right? Nope.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with twists and turns as the three stories veer toward and away from each other, leading up to a great conclusion.

Jewell does a great job keeping the reader guessing (or at least she kept ME guessing) until very near the end. Well-developed characters, a nifty plotline and good suspense. Five stars just because I had such a good time reading it!

 

 

The Big Heist by Anthony DeStefano

COVER Destefano The Big Heist

Early on in The Big Heist, it refers to “a crime that he and the rest of America would never forget.” Well, I had forgotten. But that’s the thing: this book assumes a lot of prior knowledge. It IS extremely comprehensive, and provides a rich history of this crime, the Mafia (particularly New York-based), and the bizarre role of the law enforcement community in the investigation. But I think those with more prior knowledge of the subject than I have might appreciate it a bit more (another star!)

For anyone who doesn’t remember the crime itself, suffice it to say that this crime was the basis of the movie Goodfellas and, using recent evidence from the 2015 trial of eighty-year-old Mafia don Vincent Asaro, tells the true story of his long-rumored role in the Lufthansa heist.

The book is divided into three sections. In the firs six chapters, the world of the New York Mafia is explored in depth, including the reach of the Five Families at the height of their power. The second section, chapters 7-12, looks at how this heist happened, and how the mastermind of the crime relied on accomplices who were not too bright, which resulted in a boatload of murders. The final section covers the famous betrayal of Asaro by Valenti at the trial (which resulted in a shocking acquittal).

It’s quite an accomplishment, and would be appreciated by true crime fans in general, organized crime story buffs, and anyone who is curious about the extent of the power held by the mob a few short decades ago. Four stars!

 

A Stranger In the House by Shari Lapena

COVER Lapena Stranger in the House.jpg

The new novel by Shari Lapena, author of The Couple Next Door, has gotten a lot of buzz, and I’m a big fan of psychological suspense, so I was happy to get an advance copy of A Stranger In the House (thanks to Penguin Group/Viking and NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.

In the prologue, a woman named Karen is rushing to escape something, driving wildly across town, and runs headlong into a light pole. Her husband, Tom, comes home and finds the door unlocked, Karen’s car gone, but her purse and cell phone in the house. It doesn’t make sense to him, but he soon finds out Karen is in the hospital, suffering from amnesia.

They love in a comfy neighborhood: “People who live here are successful and settled; everyone’s a little bit smug.” There is a nosy neighbor who seems way too interested in everyone else’s business, and she is only too happy to talk to the two detectives who come around looking into a murder that happened right where Karen’s accident happened – in a part of town where people like her just don’t go.

There are lots of twists and turns to keep the reader glued to the story until the unexpected ending – but it might not be unexpected for everyone; I am notoriously bad at seeing these “unexpected” endings coming.

I wasn’t wild about Karen or Tom, but the plot kept me happy. It’s a clever, suspenseful thriller of the woman in peril genre, and will be appreciated by fans of Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, etc. I think I may not remember much about it in a few weeks, other than the “oh yeah, I liked that one” memory. I will recommend it to people, though, so it’s a solid four stars.

 

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

COVER Whittall Best Kind of People

I keep thinking about this book. Great story, memorable characters, kept me guessing (although most do – I’m horrible at figuring out the mystery in a mystery!) So, why do I have such mixed feelings about it?

I hadn’t read anything by Zoe Whittall, although she has written award-winning “literary fiction”…but I liked the description of The Best Kind of People, and appreciate the chance to receive an advance copy from Random House and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Here’s the outline: the Woodbury family live a privileged life in an affluent suburb (named Avalon Hills, Connecticut…but think Greenwich). The patriarch, George, teaches science at the local prep school, and is regarded as a hero because he once stopped a gunman from shooting up the school. His wife, Joan, is a hardworking ER nurse, described as “…under five foot two with the practical haircut of every nurse on the trauma ward…blended into the faceless mass of small-town life.” They have two children: Sadie, a student at the school where George teaches, and Andrew, who is an attorney living with his partner in Manhattan (where he escaped the homophobic environment in Avalon Hills). Sadie has spent “…years she’d wished she could just get over the awkward, in-between feeling of being a teenaged girl, the feeling of being ugly in the body that is probably the most beautiful you will eve have.” The parents are described as “…the academic sort, floating brains in denial of the body.”

One night the quiet at their expansive home is broken when a police car pulls up and George is charged with sexual misconduct with girls from the prep school when he was a chaperone on a ski trip. —with students from his daughter’s school. Sadie, who has enjoyed status as a smart and popular high school senior, becomes a social outcast. Andrew returns home to support the family, and finds he has to confront unhappy memories. A men’s rights activist group gets involved and attempts to recruit Sadie for their cause. So there’s a lot going on!

I like the way the story demonstrates the way that “perfect” families in “perfect” towns aren’t always what they seem, and how fragile relationships can be, especially when unpleasant truths about relationships are revealed. There is a lot to ponder as Whittall explores issues of trust, love, and rape culture.

So, why the mixed feelings? I ABSOLUTELY HATED THE ENDING. And I mean the very ending…the final paragraph. But I still give it five stars because maybe it’s just me, and it was a good read and it made me think.

Justice Burning by Scott Pratt

COVER Pratt Justice Burning

A few years back, I read An Innocent Client by Scott Pratt, the first in the Joe Dillard series of legal thriller/mysteries. I haven’t read all eight titles in that series, but all the ones I have read were crisp, entertaining, and fun reads. So I was happy to get an advance copy of Justice Burning, a new title by Scott Pratt featuring new attorney Darren Street, from Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

So (spoiler alert) I REALLY liked this book! The characters were vivid, the legal/criminal stuff was interesting, and I just kept reading til it was gone. BUT it turns out this is #2 in the Darren Street series (I must have been asleep or whatever, but I missed the first one, Justice Redeemed.

So Darren Street, like Scott Pratt in a previous lifetime, is an attorney in Tennessee. I’m not sure how much else they have in common, but Darren has recently had his law license reinstated after escaping from a maximum security prison where he spent two years for a crime he didn’t commit. In Justice Burning, he seems to be the target for unknown bad guys, who may or may not have something to do with things that went down in prison. Along the way, he suffers from PTSD, tries to deal with his ex-wife and son, loses a family member, and resolves to see justice (as he defines it) done.

As is my habit, I don’t do spoilers, so there’s not much I can say about the plot except that it was terrific fun. While reading it, there were several instances of me nearly shouting “NO!” and “OH!” and “AARRGGHH” to the point where my husband, ensconced in his recliner located right next to mine, grew a bit tired of asking “what’s wrong?” In the end, he decided he HAS to read this book!

I told him he really should read Justice Redeemed first…while Justice Burning stands alone just fine, there were some situations that had backstory in the first novel that I think might have been even more impactful if I had read the prior book first.

Either way, this one is highly recommended for those who like legal mystery/thrillers, smart down-to-earth protagonists who might sometimes bend the rules but still maintain their own moral compass, and a fast-moving plot with violence but not gore. Five stars.