The Wanted by Robert Crais

Let’s just get this out of the way: I have been a diehard fan of Robert Crais/Elvis Cole/Joe Pike for THIRTY YEARS. Seriously, when The Monkey’s Raincoat was published in 1987, I was working in a public library, grabbed it as soon as it came in, and was HOOKED. Since then, this has been one of the most reliable series in the mystery genre – consistent as in “OMG, <blank> has a new book coming out! YAY!” So I was happy to receive a copy of The Wanted from G.P.Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley in return for my honest review.

In this latest installment, a single mother named Devon Cole comes to Elvis Cole because she is concerned about her teenage son, who suddenly has cash, which makes her suspect he might be dealing drugs. Devon’s mom reveals that her son Tyson has serious anxiety issues and has been failed to succeed at several schools, finally landing in an alternative school. His mom first notices he is wearing new shirts from Barney’s, an extremely expensive store. Tyson tells her that one of his friend’s parents runs a studio’s wardrobe department and got them a great deal.

After the shirts, Tyson acquires an Xbox and a new computer with three monitors. Elvis discovers hidden cash totaling tens of thousands of dollars, and a Rolex watch worth upwards of $20,000. So clearly he is up to SOMETHING. The truth is that he and two friends have been burglarizing the houses of rich folks, getting lots of cash and new clothes in return. As it turns out, the Rolex provides a clue for Elvis, as it is registered to a specific person, and with that clue, Elvis is off and running. But the happen to steal the wrong thing from the wrong house, and one of them is murdered.

The victim, who REALLY wants his property back, hires two killers named Harvey and Stems, who are frantically looking for Devon and his girlfriend. Elvis, determined to find Devon and the girl before the bad guys do, brings in Joe Pile and Jon Stone.

In addition to just absolutely loving Elvis, I love Robert Crais’s writing, including structure, setting, character and plotting. The structure is terrific, going between Elvis Cole and two hired killers, Harvey and Stems. Each time the story shifts to another character’s point of view, we get another clue. The various areas of Los Angeles are familiar, and well described as Elvis searches for the missing teens at places including “…celebutante clubs with a squad of paparazzi camped at the door…”He not only captures the vibe of Southern California, he is great at describing people: one potential witness is “a flea market regular, this older woman with sun-scorched skin and liver spots…” and Devon “…carried herself with so much tension she might have been wrapped with duct tape.” Elvis is his usual intuitive self: “…something about her bothered me, but I wasn’t sure what.”

Then there is the scene where Harvey and Stems are passing time in the car, discussing the movie Psycho while staking out a house, watching for Elvis: one guy’s take is “The message was women are powerless. Here’s this lunatic, he’s stabbing her, what did she do, the chick in the movie? Just stood there. So what’s being modeled? Whatever some guy does to a woman, they’re supposed to take it. That’s the message.”

The plot is complex, as the story races forward at a pace that kept me up til nearly dawn when I got to the final reveal that felt just right. Robert Crais is one of the very best mystery writers out there, and although there are recurring people and places in this series, this story can be read as a standalone. I had huge expectations for The Wanted, and it met (or exceeded) them all. Five stars!

 

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

I am generally a fan of Harlan Coben (although I admit I am less fond of his Myron Bolitar books, which is heresy to many of his fans!) so I was pleased to get a copy of “Don’t Let Go” from Dutton/NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

In this latest, we meet Nap (Napoleon) Dumas, a police detective in suburban New Jersey. Nap had a twin brother who died when they were in high school, and Nap has never really recovered. Since then, he has grown close to a cop named Augie who has been a mentor, and who Nap truly loves. They have something in common, as Augie’s daughter Diana was with Nap’s brother Leo when they were both killed on the railroad tracks across town. At the same time as this horrible accident happened, Nap’s goddess girlfriend Maura disappears, adding to the obsession Nap has about finding out what really happened the night Leo and Diana died.

For fifteen years, Nap looked for answers (and for Maura, sometimes going outside the ethical lines to search for clues to her whereabouts). Following a murder in a neighboring town, Maura’s fingerprints turn up in a rental car linked to the murder. Nap goes full bore into a search for the answer to the earlier deaths as well as the more recent deaths of people who had been in the same group as Leo back in the day.

In the foreword to the book, Coben tells the reader the two-pronged suburban legends he heard growing up: that there was a Nike missile launch center with nuclear capabilities, and that there was a mansion (complete with armed guards) owned by a member of the mob that was on property that supposedly included an incinerator/crematorium. He ends the foreword with the words “Years later, I learned that both legends were true.” When the Nike missile site appears as part of the story, I sort of kept expecting the Mafia guy’s estate/crematorium to figure in to the plot, but that part never happened.

There is, however, plenty of mystery, action and character development to keep this one rolling along. It help my interest right til the end. As usual, I hadn’t figured out the mystery (I usually don’t) and was somewhat surprised by the ending. I didn’t like a couple of key characters, but I did enjoy Nap and expect to see more of him in future Coben books. And, for the Myron Bolitar fans, he does make an appearance (although miniscule) early on. Four stars.

 

Clean Protein by Kathy Freston & Bruce Friedrich

As a non-carnivore, I have had some concern about whether or not I am getting enough protein in my diet, how much protein a woman my size actually needs, and whether I really need as much protein as my husband keeps reminding me I do, so I was pleased to receive Clean Protein by Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich from Perseus Books/Weinstein Books (really?doubtful this imprint will last) and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I read that Freston is a well-known “author and vegan lifestyle expert,” and Friedrich is the Director of the Good Food Institute…which basically told me nothing. But I had read some of Freston’s work before  (including her blog), and I remembered that the GFI were the ones who had advocated for the addition of a veggie burger to the menu at In-N-Out, so I decided that for my purposes they were expert enough! This, of course, was as long as the book wasn’t just a load of what I think of as nutribabble—lots of words and advice about how to eat without anything to back it up.

I was happy to see how well sourced the book is, including peer-reviewed scientific studies and medical experts. When combined with the numerous personal stories they relate, the result is an information-packed handbook that will be a good resource for those interested in eating well without meat who don’t really need or want to wade through scientific literature. The book is extremely readable, and includes a plan, recipes, and tips for those who are moving toward a plant-based diet. Three and a half stars.

I Can’t Breathe by Matt Taibbi

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I love Matt Taibbi, so I admit to a preconceived bias toward this book. I went in wanting it to be good. And I thought I was familiar with the sad story of Freddie Gray, the African-American man shot as he was selling “loosies” (single cigarettes) in New York. But I realize I knew SO LITTLE of the real story. For starters, Freddie was not a large, shambling doofus as he was often portrayed. He was incredibly intelligent, and a hard worker. And the actual killing was way more complicated than I had previously thought.

I’m not completely ignorant of the realities of big-city crime: I have read some books about the serious issues in law enforcement in the U.S., particularly as pertains to African-Amercians. But I had not read ANYTHING that was so accessible – so well written in terms that are easily understandable. It’s just a huge accomplishment the way Mr Taibbi has told Freddie’s story along with informing the reader about the realities of the justice system — which, for too many Americans, particularly those of color, is better referred to as the “justice” system. Shocking, sad, needs to be widely read. Five gigantic stars.

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

SPOILER ALERT: The basic premise (which is a surprise at several points) of Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know is laid out here; so if you want total surprise, stop reading! But I’m not giving away the BFD ending which is designed to be a real shocker, so if you don’t mind reading a plot outline, have at it!

I had read some of the hype about this book (optioned as a film with Charlize Theron, so my image of protagonist Vivian Miller was of Charlize), so I was pleased to get an advance copy of this book from Random House/Ballantine and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. As the story begins, we meet Vivian Miller (Charlize), a super-dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst who has been working for years on a project that, if successful, will uncover the identities of people living in the U.S. as members of Russian sleeper cells. She has developed this system to identify the people who appear to be normal residents of the U.S., but who are actually working as Russian agents.

Vivian’s life has gotten complicated as she and her husband Matt and their four children live the lifestyle of a middle-class couple, complete with a big mortgage and some medical problems for one of their kids that guarantee they can’t just walk away from her job on a whim. One day, while she is online accessing the computer of someone she thinks may be a Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret file that contains information about deep-cover agents in the U.S. As she scrolls through the photos of the agents assigned to the suspected handler, she is stunned to see her husband Matt’s photo. She is torn about what to do – if she turns him in, her job will be over, her kids will be devastated, and everything that matters to her will be gone. Should she confront Matt? Maybe tell her boss? Or tell her trusted friend who works with her on the special project, FBI Agent Omar?

She seems to be faced with impossible choices. She starts looking back at her entire relationship with Matt – how they “met cute,” fell in love, got married, had kids, lived together for a decade – is it possible she is wrong, her life’s work of developing a method to identify the sleeper agents a failure?

I really enjoyed the process of reading this, and it was pretty much all-engrossing. But it required a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, because this genius woman seemed to keep making some dumb decisions. But then, I’d think, “Who knows what I’d do in her situation?”

Good plotting, good character development, good escapist entertainment. More than a bit unsettling, TBH. Just like you sometimes find out the seemingly normal guy down the block is a serial killer, you might have a member of a sleeper cell in the neighborhood, coaching your kid’s soccer team. Four stars.

1917 by David Stevenson

Over the years, I have gone through periods of fascination (obsession?) with WW I, reading fiction and nonfiction. It’s always been something I never could quite get my hands around in terms of understanding – we learned in school about Archduke Franz Ferdinand, trench warfare, etc. but that was just skimming the surface. With the recent disaster surrounding U.S. involvement in the Middle East making me struggle to learn more about the history and reasons for the seemingly random carving up of the Middle East, I welcomed the opportunity to receive a copy of David Stevenson’s 1917 from Oxford University Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Stevenson, a renowned WW I scholar and historian at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has several previous books including Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904-1914 (1996), 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (2004), and With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (2011). Clearly he is up to the task of presenting his readers with the facts about the events of this pivotal year.

But this is more than just facts. The full title of the book is 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, and while it focuses on how events in one year can transform history, it also examines what made the war escalate in subsequent years. Stevenson focuses on two areas in particular: the Russian Revolution and American intervention. He looks at key decisions that were made along the way, including the German campaign of “unrestricted” submarine warfare, he official declaration of war by the U.S. in response, the abdication of Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and Britain’s actions in the ill-fated Third Battle of Ypres.

In addition to his close look at 1917, Stevenson points out the consequences involving other countries (including, India, Brazil, China the promise of a Jewish national home in Palestine). Both military history and political history are included and, as noted above, Russia and the U.S get the prime focus.

TBH, this book is awesome but may have been even more than I needed to know about 1917! For anyone with a particular interest in this time period, or wanting to delve into the root causes and trace the horrible branches of turmoil that continue to this day in the Middle East, this book will be treasured. Superb history! Five stars.

 

Deep Freeze by John Sandford

OK, I’m biased. I admit it! I love Virgil Flowers (aka “That f—– g Virgil Flowers,” as he is often referred to). Virgil is an investigator with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), sometimes sidekick to Lucas Davenport (one of Sandford’s most frequent protagonists), hunter and fisherman, wildlife photographer, and all around good guy.

So I was pleased to settle in with Virgil’s latest adventure in Sandford’s new title, Deep Freeze (with thanks to Penguin Group/Putnam and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review). Virgil’s most recent adventure takes him back to the town of Trippton, Minnesota, where in Sandford’s Deadline he dealt with a corrupt and murderous school board. Now, a successful local businesswoman has been found dead, frozen in a big block of ice. Apparently she is part of a group that has been planning a high school reunion, so members of the planning group all need to be investigated.

The book opens with the murder, including the identity of the murderer, so it isn’t really a “whodunit”—but Virgil is on the case, so we know it will be solved somehow, and it will be entertaining. At the same time as this murder is being investigated, Virgil is tasked by the governor to deal with another situation in Trippton: some women are making a living by modifying Barbie and Ken dolls in an interesting (some might say obscene) way. When Virgil starts to investigate, he is beaten by a group of women who just want to be left alone to make a living in this economically distressed time and place. This story parallels his murder investigation throughout the book.

I love the way Sandford captures the  locations in his work. This time, I felt cold just reading about the Minnesota winter weather – but I could still visualize the natural beauty. And as usual, Virgil meets up with interesting characters, which Sandford captures perfectly. This time, we again encounter Johnson Johnson, one of his best friends. Sandford (and Virgil) warm my heart with observations like this: “Pretty people, Virgil believed, both male and female, had a totally unwarranted, unearned lifelong advantage over average and ugly people.” And “As he drove up the driveway, it occurred to Virgil that if it had been a scene from a Stephen King movie, somebody was gonna die and it was gonna be ugly.”

This title is part of the Virgil Flowers series, but stands on its own. Although there is plenty of the expected humor in this book, beneath the laughs it really is is a fairly dark story of rejection, economic hardship, and violence. Great talent to combine those two things so well. So, overall, I really enjoyed the experience of reading it, and I will eagerly grab the next Sandford release – but I have to say this one loses a star for the ending. I hated it. Just didn’t work for me. (Not the ending of the mystery – the actual final paragraph).  Four stars.

Murder in Palm Beach by Bob Brink

Palm Beach is in the news quite a bit lately – you know, the Mar-a-Lago version of Palm Beach. Well, apparently, there is another side to this town, and it is the setting for Bob Brink’s Murder in Palm Beach, a work of what is sometimes called “faction.” It is a novel that is based on true events, in other words.

In this story, Mitt Hecher is not a model citizen and he was known to battle other individuals and even the police. He wasn’t a murderer, but with a corrupt judicial system and some local prosecutors wanting to make a name for themselves, there is a conviction of an innocent man.
The murder victim, Rodger Kriger, lives with his family in the “nice” part of PB. He was shot at home and died after 11 days in the hospital. As is often the case (I watched The Wire, so I know these things!), the cops and courts can’t be relied on to provide justice. All the police want is to solve the murder (get a conviction of SOMEONE) to boost their statistics and they don’t take time to be sure of the facts.

Mitt has a sick wife and a child, to add to his problems – as in, who can care for them with him in prison? TBH, I found this a bit depressing, and as it is/was apparently Mr. Brink’s debut novel, I don’t want to be too harsh. It just wasn’t my thing. Two stars, for effort. And thanks to BooksGoSocial and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

The Curl Revolution by Michelle Breyer

I grew up on the beach back when the only acceptable hair was stick straight. Mine was curly. Not the fall-into-soft-ringlets-like-an-angel curly that my sister got — mine was the Bozo-frizz-around-the-face curly. I spent years hating it, straightening it, sleeping on huge rollers–you get the idea.

A few years ago, I found someone who knew how to cut curly hair, and when I think of all the hours (adding up to months, maybe years) I spent (wasted) dealing with my hair, it makes me want to…well, actually it makes me want to recommend this book to anyone with curly hair, whether they hate it as I did or love it as I am learning to do!

The Curl Revolution: Inspiring Stories and Practical Advice from the NaturallyCurly Community by Michelle Breyer is amazing. There is a website from these people  (NaturallyCurly.com is their website) who have spent years figuring it all out. They don’t focus on any one method, product line, ethnicity — they tell you how to identify what your hair is and needs.

I always know I had thick, coarse curly hair. Or at least I thought that was it. Apparently there is a whole formula that takes into account width as well as amount of hair plus texture. Then there is the proper cut. Then there are an increasing number of products available for curlies.

The picture-filled book also functions as a how-to guide with the goal of helping people identify hair type, determine a hair care regimen, find a good haircut, and get inspiration from other curlies.

Thanks to Greenleaf Book Group and NetGalley for a copy of this treasure in exchange for my honest review. Five gigantic stars.

Murder in the Courthouse by Nancy Grace

OK, I admit to watching Nancy Grace years ago before she was quite as…Nancy Grace as she is now. Recently I’ve just thought of her as the woman-in-danger-true-crime obsessed blonde who is quick to label males suspects as guilty (admittedly, she is often right).

Apparently, she has written other novels, including two others featuring the protagonist Hailey Dean, the prosecutor who has never lost a case. In this third in the series, Hailey goes to Savannah, GA to testify as an expert witness and, while there, she gets embroiled in other murders…so far, so good. But the details of a man murdering his pregnant wife and then hers and the baby’s (fetus’s?) bodies washing up after being dumped in a body of water…it made me wish Nancy had written a more original plot. It isn’t like she was writing a roman a clef — too many differences. In any case, that kept getting in the way of my being able to just go with the story and assess this book fairly.

I do think that this might be perfect for the people who want something light with a mystery and some twists to read while sitting on the beach. Nothing that makes you think too much, you know? But it just wasn’t my thing.

Thanks to BenBella Books and NetGalley for a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review. Two stars.