Testimony by Scott Turow

Cover Turow Testimony

How much do I love Scott Turow? I read tons of mysteries/thrillers, and am particularly fond of legal intrigue in that category. But I will drop EVERYTHING on my TBR list when a new book by Scott Turow is released! So when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Testimony (release date May 16, 2017) from Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley, I basically shut off the world for a few days! (Turow’s books are definitely not in my “one night stand” category!)

I read his first novel, Presumed Innocent, when it first came out back in 1986, meeting characters in the fictional Kindle County (cough Chicago/Cook County cough) – several of whom reappear in later books in the Kindle County series. Testimony is the latest in this line, this time featuring fifty-year-old former U.S. Attorney Bill Ten Boom,  who finds himself in early 2015 at a crossroads: he has left his second career as a successful attorney at a major firm (so successful that he doesn’t need to work), is fairly recently amicably divorced from his wife of many years (they were both bored), and is unencumbered by people or things.

Bill (or Boom, as he is often called) happens to run into Roger, his friend since law school, who has spent the past thirty years in the Foreign Service. Roger tells him of an opportunity he might consider, working as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (a permanent war crimes tribunal) in The Hague. Bill accepts the opportunity and very quickly, he is at work in The Hague, in the middle of what appears to be a massive war crime involving the massacre of hundreds of Roma (aka “Gypsies”) at a refugee camp in Bosnia ten years earlier. The story takes place between March and July 2015, as Bill works with locals in The Hague, the U.S. military, and Bosnia to investigate this alleged war crime.

Bill/Boom is a terrific character, and Turow reveals his character both by his actions and his words/thoughts. Boom muses  “These remains, just the first sight of them, affected me more strongly than I had been prepared for. Lawyers—all lawyers—live in a land of concepts and words, with precious little physical reality intruding.” And “Someday, when I finished bringing international justice to the globe, I was going to figure out the connection between self-image and love.” There are some fascinating relationships (including romantic ones) that develop during Boom’s  first months in The Hague, and they enhance the development of his character while never distracting the reader from the story. And what a story! In addition to being a terrific mystery, it turned out to provide clarification for my (mis)understanding of the events that occurred in Bosnia in the 1990s. I love it when I am simultaneously entertained and educated!!!

The plotting in Testimony is complex, as we are introduced to a variety of suspects, including the Serb paramilitary, organized crime, and the U.S. military. Along the way, Boom is enmeshed in a variety of shifting alliances and some treachery, and it’s all done in Scott Turow style: it draws the reader in and won’t let go!

We often hear advice to authors to “write what you know,” and Turow clearly knows all aspects of this story. He worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago for 18 years. He then began writing, but continued practicing law: in 1995, he won a reversal in the murder conviction of a man who had spent 11 years in prison, many of them on death row, for a crime another man confessed to – and it was a pro bono effort! Since I can’t give this SIX stars, I’ll go with five. Thank you, Scott Turow!



Golden Prey by John Sandford

Cover Sandford Golden Prey

I’m a sucker for pretty much any Sandford books, whether it features Lucas Davenport or Virgil Flowers or (occasionally) both. The plotting is sharp, the characters are well developed (and more so with each title, as we come to know more about their lives with each new case). So, I was happy to receive an advance copy of the latest Lucas Davenport “Prey” book, Golden Prey, from Penguin Group/Putnam and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

In this latest entry in the series, Lucas has moved out of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and is now working for the U.S. Marshals Service, able to pick his own cases and follow them wherever they lead (which doesn’t endear him to the nominal head of Marshals’ office in Minnesota).

The crime spree opens with the robbery of a Honduran drug cartel’s money counting house in Biloxi, MS. During the crime, five people are killed, including a six-year-old girl – and millions of dollars in cash is taken. Lucas heads up a team including what I consider potentially recurring memorable characters to search for the “Dixie Hicks” who took out the counting house. At the same time as his team’s search is going on, The cartel sends their own people — including a crazy bitch torturer known as the “Queen of Home Improvement tools” and a couple of lesbians, all of whom are on the hunt.

Even though we pretty much know going in that Lucas will solve the case and there will be lots of action, some witty dialogue, and more information about what makes Lucas tick, it is a fun ride.

I always love the scenes where Lucas has to fly, and is sure every takeoff and/or landing will result in a fiery crash. I also love the way he dives into the local cultural quirks – this time, in the South. “He went to sleep thinking about gRita and especially okra. Who in God’s name was the first guy to stick an okra in his mouth? Must have been a brave man, or starving to death…”

Then there are the vivid descriptions, as when he goes to interview a good old boy who lives with his cockatoo in a small house: “The place smelled heavily of Campbell’s Chunky Hearty Bean with Ham soup, a touch of the consequent flatulence, with a subtle overtone of newspaper-and-bird-shit.”

Like I said, it’s a fun ride. Sandford’s books are reliable entertainment, and this one is no exception. It’s more than four stars for sure, but not quite five stars, as the complex chase required a few too many turns that bordered on deus ex machina. I’ve been told I am a “way too easy”  grader, so it’s gotta be four stars!

The IBS Elimination Diet and Cookbook by Patsy Catsos

COVER Catsos IBS elimiation diet

It isn’t a topic that is often discussed with strangers (if at all), but anyone who suffers with IBS knows there is SOMETHING going on in their digestive system that isn’t quite right. And that person has probably spent years searching for the answer. Thanks to Crown Publishing / Harmony and NetGalley, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of The IBS Elimination Diet and Cookbook in exchange for my honest review.

This book explores the relationship of FODMAPs to IBS. While IBS is a well-known term, we are only recently hearing much about FODMAPs. The idea of a low-FODMAP diet as part of the treatment for IBS has been gaining traction in the past year. Go ahead, Google it – a quick search for “fodmap” returns 31 million hits!

So what’s a FODMAP anyway? The word is an acronym for “fermentable oigo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols,” which are a group of hard-to-digest carbs found mostly in wheat, milk, beans and soy (along with some fruits and veggies). Not everyone with IBS is sensitive to the same things, so it’s important to find out just what your senstitivites are. This book, originally self-published as IBS—Free At Last, has been expanded to include recipes and is designed to walk you through eliminating all the FODMAPs from your diet, then adding them back one at a time to uncover your individual sensitivities.

It is estimated that there are over 60 million IBS sufferers in the U.S, along with many others who suffer from Crohn’s, celiac disease and ulcerative colitis. Monash University in Australia has led the way in learning about FODMAPs and providing hope for millions who are all too familiar with the problem (whether they choose to talk about it or not!), but easy-to-understand specific information has been somewhat scarce.

Written by Patsy Catsos, MS, RDN, LD, who is a medical nutrition therapist and FODMAP expert, as well as an author, this guide would seem to be a good starting point for those unfamiar with FODMAPs as well as a source for some recipes to help cope with the day-to-day reality of IBS. Four stars.

Rough Trade by Steve Jackson

cover jackson rough trade

Hmmm. Where to start with this one? I’ve often thought that, contrary to traditional theories, you frequently CAN tell a book by its cover – not so for Rough Trade by Steve Jackson.  A close-up of the face of the creepy perv – I mean bad guy – shown above dominates the cover along with the lurid subtitle: “ A shocking true story of prostitution, murder and redemption.” Frankly, its appearance is that of a trashy story that was rushed into print for maximum shock value. And that was totally not the case with the copy of this title that I received from Wild Blue Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Jackson includes an extensive foreword that provides insight into what makes him a different true-crime author. He tells us “It’s not the blood and gore, or sexual titillation, I’m looking for…I’m interested in the psychology and “ripple effect” of violent crime, and the back stories of the human beings involved: killers, victims, law enforcement, those involved in the justice system, and the community.” He establishes that the story of the murder of Anita Jones by itself was not enough to build a story around: “her short sad life could not carry a book.” But a fellow prostitute named Joanne Cordova, who had known Anita briefly, was “the flawed heroine seeking redemption.” Joanne Cordova was a former police officer whose life went to hell as she became a crack addict in Denver, during which time she encountered Robert Riggan, the murderer, and subsequently made the difficult choice to do the right thing and work with the police in search of justice for Anita. She did this even though it meant she would be labeled a snitch, thereby putting her own life in danger. (After all, she knew from personal experience as a police officer that “snitches end up in ditches.”)

Then there is the creepy perv – I mean murderer. Robert Riggan “was no Ted Bundy, whose good looks, charming ways and evil cunning has enthralled true crime readers through multiple books.” He was just a “scared, psychologically stunted” man whose horrific crime seemed all too common. It wasn’t until the story of his childhood emerged that the reader learns the reason for him becoming the person he was. As Jackson notes, “sometimes the monsters in our real-life nightmares are created in the homes and by the people who are supposed to represent safety to a child.” Riggan endured rape, incest and horrific abuse growing up. As a former foster parent who has seen and heard the horrors that are all too common for many children, this was heartbreaking. Jackson presents the details in a straightforward way, never sensationalizing them, yet painting a complete picture of the abuse that contributed to Riggan becoming a monster.

The discovery of  Anita’s body was serendipitous. It was only because a young couple driving to work in the mountains of Colorado just happened to catch a glimpse of what looked like a man dragging a body up a secluded trail as they drove past. They had a hard time believing what they were seeing, which turned out to be  Riggan, who was leaving behind a bloody, dying Anita Jones. He fled the scene as  they stopped, but their information and Joanne Cordova’s subsequent efforts resulted in his arrest and conviction.

The story of the crime and its aftermath includes the details of how Joanne Cordova’s choices took her from her life as an outstanding police officer to become a crack-addicted streetwalker.  As part of her life on the streets of Denver, she had herself submitted to violent sex with Riggan in exchange for drugs. When she became aware that her friend Anita had been murdered by that same guy, she had a terrible choice to make. Rather than opt to look the other way, keeping herself safe (which would result in Anita’s killer being free to continue his violent attacks on women), she realized that despite all her mistakes in life, “it is never too late to do the right thing.”  As she endured the humiliating, detailed exploration of her life during Riggan’s trial, she coped as she had learned to do, by putting on a virtual mask. Rather than crack, her mask was now held in place partly by “the pot and alcohol,” and despite the grueling odeal she went on to find her own personal redemption.

This isn’t great literature, nor is it intended to be. But it is well-written and researched, and includes an important  message about the possible results of childhood abuse and bad choices. In addition, it reminds us of  the redemption that can occur when someone does the right thing. Five stars (again, it isn’t 5-star “literature,” but it is definitely 5-star true crime).

Actual Malice by Breton Peace and Gary Condit

Cover Peace Actual Malice

Admittedly, the true crime genre is a guilty pleasure of mine. I also follow politics, so the whole sad, sordid Chandra Levy saga looked to be right up my alley, and eagerly anticipated reading Actual Malice by Breton Peace, published in fall, 2016. I appreciate receiving a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review – thanks to Ghost Mountain Press and NetGalley.

It’s difficult to describe my level of disappointment in this book. It was described asa true crime thriller that will take you through the backrooms of political gamesmanship, deception, and cover-up.” For me, not so much! Where to begin??

This book presents the reader with the story (or at least one view of the story) of 24-year-old Chandra Levy, a  constituent of Congressman Gary Condit of California’s Central Valley, and her disappearance in 2001 just as her internship with the federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. came to an end. As the investigation into her disappearance unfolded, it was on the news 24/7 after Condit was revealed to be “involved” with Chandra. Good grief, it was on the news 24/7 and Condit came off looking suspiciously like a lecherous creep. I was hoping the book might reveal some backstory that would make the whole thing at least a tiny bit less creepy.

Alas, even though this book was co-authored by Condit himself and therefore clearly meant to present him in at least a slightly favorable light, he still comes off as a lecherous creep!

I did enjoy the parts of the book describing Condit’s role as a “blue dog Democrat” in the sort-of-sleazy world of California politics, as he worked closely with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in a rapid rise to power. Condit was photogenic, charming, and ostensibly able to “work across the aisle.” Anyone with an interest in politics would find this interesting, and I did, although I kept being distracted by the gigantic need for an editor (example: when Condit’s chief of staff was described as “pouring over newspapers.” Ugh. Lots of errors like this that, to some of us, are visual fingernails on a blackboard!)

When he left California to take on the role of Representative in Washington, Condit was part of a coalition that delivered bipartisan victories during Clinton’s second term and sat on the House Intelligence Committee. It seemed like he had accomplished something that seems impossible in today’s political climate—genuine political independence from both sides of the aisle. Should have been golden, right? Well, no.

Despite all this promise, Condit seemed to have several red flags, including his relationship with his driver/bodyguard Vince Flammini, who comes across like a character from Goodfellas – or at least a wannabe in that vein. And as the Levy story is devoured by the media, stories of Condit’s womanizing emerge, contributing to the less-than-flattering picture of him.

So, overall, my four big takeaways from this book are:

  • Chandra Levy’s disappearance (and murder) is a sad tale, made even more so when you consider that the case was never solved.
  • Police often seem to find a suspect and then tailor their investigation to fit that storyline.
  • The media is an insatiable beast, especially when sex and politics are involved.
  • Men (including high-profile politicians) who can’t keep it in their pants say and do really stupid things.

Actual Malice is presented as a book that chronicles in vivid detail the heartache and intrigue behind the salacious, if fanciful, headlines that too often drive public debate and derail the serious business of our nation and its system of justice.” Really? To me, it comes across as almost a puff piece, sort of gliding over the facts that demonstrate that yes, Condit was a lecherous creep who betrayed his family as well as his constituents. I am actually surprised and a bit disappointed in myself as I admit that I expected more – even though Condit was co-author. Duh. What was I thinking?

I couldn’t resist — I knew that Condit has lost his bid for re-election and faded away, but I just had to look and see what became of him: according to the Washington Post, “Condit has written a book but allegedly can’t find a publisher. Soon after leaving politics, he invested in Baskin-Robbins ice cream franchises. The stores failed and prompted a breach-of-contract suit in which Condit was ordered to pay about $98,000. A source close to the Condit family says Gary has long since left the ice cream business.”

Like I said, sad. Two stars. I rarely give anything fewer than three, but this one was just awful in so many ways. Despite the effort of the two authors to present Condit in a positive light, I still felt like I need a shower.