The New Neighbors by Simon Lelic

 

I’d never heard of Simon Lelic before i got this book, although I now  know he has written some other thrillers. But his latest book The New Neighbors got a positive blurb on the cover from Tana French, and I figured if it’s good enough for Tana, it’s good enough for me.

The story revolves around a young couple named Jack and Syd who have recently been able to (at long last) buy a house in London. It came with all furnishings, including some weird stuff, but they felt terribly lucky to have been picked by the seller to be the buyers of his house, especially as they didn’t have enough money to afford such a big place.

Before long, they start to clear out some of the detritus left by the former owner, when Jack makes an unsettling discovery in the attic. Around the same time, Syd befriends a young girl from the neighborhood – a girl who is apparently being abused by her father – a fact that hits very close to home for Syd. Neither Jack nor Syd shares either of these factoids (the attic find and the abuse) with the other.

The story is told in alternating points of view, as Jack and Syd each write about what happened. There are twists and turns, and suspense as the book moves toward the big reveal – which I (as usual) did not see coming. This has “MOVIE” written all over it – not necessarily a bad thing. For fans of Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, or The Couple Next Door. Escapist entertainment. Well done, and even though  I doubt I will remember it in another month,  four stars (and thanks to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for this honest review).

And I will probably pick up one or more of Mr. Lelic’s earlier books – pure entertainment!

The Bad Daughter by Joy Fielding

 

With all the crap going on in the world, I have been ready for some good fun escapist entertainment. Hoping for something to take over my brain for a few hours, I began reading Joy Fielding’s The Bad Daughter (thanks to Random House-Ballantine and NetGalley who provided a copy in return for my honest review).

Right off, I loved the vulnerability of the protagonist, Robin, who at the very beginning of the story starst to have a panic attack when she picks up a voice mail message from her sister Melanie. They haven’t spoken in two years, and have been estranged ever since their father married Tara, who was Robin’s best friend growing up. Oh, and by the way, Tara was engaged at the time to the Robin and Melanie’s brother when she ran off with their Dad. Got that? In any case, Melanie calls to tell Robin that their father, Tara, and Tara’s young daughter have been brutally attacked in their home in Red Bluff, CA. The kid was shot, the wife/mom is dead, and dad is in the hospital clinging to life.

When Tara married her father, Robin left Red Bluff and went to Berkeley where she got her master’s in psychology, became a therapist, and got on with her life. She’s now living in L.A., engaged to an apparently perfect guy – or is he??—and she feels like the “…panic attacks she used to experience on an almost daily basis were part of her past. “

So Robin heads back to Red Bluff. As she looks into the situation, she begins to wonder if this might have been something more than a home invasion/botched burglary attempt. It seems that everyone—her sister Melanie, her autistic therefore less-than-communicative nephew, her absent brother, and even Tara, her father’s wife—had something to hide.

For those who don’t know, the setting is interesting: “Approximately 14,000 people lived in Red Bluff, most of them white and straining toward middle class. The town’s motto was “A Great Place to Live,” although Robin had always thought “A Great Place to Leave” would probably be a more suitable slogan.” Personally, I’ve always been a bit creeped out by Red Bluff ever since I read Perfect Victim, the book about the “girl in a box.” It’s the true story about a young woman (Colleen Stan) who was kidnapped and held by a mill worker named (I’m not kidding here) Cameron Hooker and kept in a box for SEVEN YEARS. Oh and the neighbors, who knew she was there, with Hooker AND HIS WIFE AND KIDS, never thought there was anything weird. It’s a long story, but it left a lasting impression on my view of Red Bluff. Plus, it’s hotter than hell and it seems people get weird in that kind of relentless heat…

Anyway, figuring out who exactly is The Bad Daughter totally entertained me for several hours. A tiny bit of willing suspension of disbelief required her and there, but nothing too blatant. Not great literature, but doesn’t pretend to be. For what it is, four stars.

 

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Last year, I read Jane Harper’s debut novel, the thriller The Dry, which introduced Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk. I LOVED it, so I jumped at the chance to read the second novel featuring Agent Harper, Force of Nature (thanks to Flatiron Books and NetGalley) prior to publication in return for my honest review.

In this second installment in the series, Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are called to the Giralang Range, because a woman is missing. A corporate team building trip, with five men hiking in one direction and five women going another way goes awry. The two groups were supposed to meet up after three days in the wild, but something has gone wrong and only four women return.

The story follows the police, the search party, and Aaron as they investigate and look for the missing woman (or her corpse?). This progress is related in chapters alternating with the story of the trek as told by the other women who were on the trip. There was so much going on behind the scenes, with tons of secrets, corporate intrigue, grudges and jealousy, so there is a ton of material for Aaron to unravel.

LOTS of suspense, and vivid descriptions of gorgeous scenery and interesting characters. While The Dry focused more on Aaron’s own personal story, Force of Nature continues to reveal details about his past.

While there is violence, there is no gore. I love this writer and this series, and eagerly await the next one from Jane Harper. Five stars.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah’s books are beloved by millions (think The Nightingale), partly for their vivid descriptions of both place and people. They also evoke strong emotional responses to situations and relationship[s that may not be part of the reader’s everyday experience, but yet seem completely familiar because of the author’s skillful writing. So I was particularly happy to receive a copy of The Great Alone (to be released in early 2018) from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in return for this honest review.

First, let’s get this out of the way: one of my stranger quirks is that I have a hard time reading novels set in cold climates (I HATE being cold). So I read at least half of this snuggled under a down comforter even though today (Thanksgiving) it’s in the mid-70s here on the Central Coast of California. That made me less likely to love this book, but I am glad I persisted.

Set in the 1970s, The Great Alone revolves around the family of Vietnam vet, ex-POW, and PTSD sufferer Ernt Allbright, who has tried to get his life together after returning from Vietnam a completely changed man. He is enduring sleepless nights, flashbacks, nightmares and bursts of anger. He’s not the only one suffering: his wife Cora and their 13-year-old daughter Leni are deeply affected by Ernt’s struggles. Things are rocky in the Allbright family as Ernt has trouble holding a job, they move regularly, and the parents frequently fight – all of which are very troubling for Leni, who longs for stability. So when Ernt inherits a cabin and land in Alaska from a dead soldier, he takes his family north with the idea that they will live off the land and be free of the stress they have been experiencing. A new start! They buy a VW van (very 70s!) and set out, completely unprepared for the harsh wilderness they encounter in Kenaq, Alaska.

The descriptions of the dilapidated shack called a “cabin” (no electricity or running water) were (literally) chilling. Despite the family’s hard work (assisted by some interesting community members) and effort to make a go of things, Ernt’s condition worsens as his battles with alcohols increase. Leni and Cora have a close relationship, and Leni learns to find comfort in books, something I imagine many readers can relate to.

Over time, Leni develops friendships and she and Cora find support in the community. The alcoholism, domestic violence, and harsh conditions are terribly challenging. The mother-daughter relationship is fascinating, although I wonder how many readers will find themselves wishing for such a bond and similar support in their own challenging family situations.

The bottom line is there is much to love about this book, especially seeing Leni searching for her identity and some stability at the same time, and her search for identity and roots. At the same time, it’s instructive about both the effect of war on both military members and their families – and instructive about the reality of trying to live off the land vs. the dream shared by many. Another winner for Hannah. Five stars.

 

Look For Me by Lisa Gardner

 I am a big fan of mysteries, and each year I read what seems like a ton of them – especially those featuring a “plucky heroine.” So I was pretty sure I had read Lisa Gardner before, but looking through goodreads and my blog, I see a bunch of Lisas (See, Wingate, Jewell) – but nothing by Lisa Gardner. So I am clearly a bit late to the party here, but thanks to Dutton and NetGalley, I just read Look for Me, Lisa’s latest (published 2018), AND  I just learned this is the TENTH novel featuring Detective D.D. Warren of the Boston Police Department. (Like I said, late to the party).

This latest in the series  all takes place in a dizzying span of a couple of days, and begins when Detective Warren is called to a homicide scene, where four members of a family have been savagely murdered. The fifth member of the family, a sixteen-year-old girl named Roxanna (or Roxy) is missing, along with the two family dogs.

Roxy is a likely suspect, or possibly she was out walking the dogs and narrowly escaped being the fifth victim, D.D. isn’t sure which. An Amber Alert goes out, and she and her team start an intense search for Roxy (and the dogs). They are joined in the hunt by Flora Dane, who was a crime victim featured in Gardner’s Find Her (#8 in the D.D. Warren series), and now is on a mission to avenge crimes (including burning a rapist to death) and provide support for survivors.

 Some of the chapters are told in the first person by Flora, gradually revealing her backstory and explaining the reason she is so hot to find Roxy (no real spoiler here, but Roxy has recently joined Flora’s online chat group, which is by invitation only – Sarah, who is one of Flora’s rescued victims and another member of the group, has befriended Roxy and invited her to join, so Flora has some insider info that D.D. needs). D.D. and Flora both are looking for justice, but it might come in different forms… 

There are also chapters that are essays written by Roxy’s little sister Lola, one of the murder victims. She wrote them as a series for a school assignment, and they gradually reveal some of the horror endured by the sisters during their time in foster care.

As a former foster parent, the stories of the children in foster care (and the system that “cares” for them) hit me pretty hard. And the suspense was terrific. I was seriously tempted to turn to the end to find out WTH had gone on, but I persisted J and am glad I stuck with it.

Good characterization, and the whole thing was chilling.  I’m still not sure how I have missed this series, and am also not sure if the others can stand alone or should have been read in order to fully appreciate them, but I am about to find out! And I will definitely look for future novels by Ms. Gardner. Anyone who likes a good suspenseful mystery/thriller without TOO much graphic violence and especially fans of plucky heroines and police procedurals (in this case, both!) will enjoy this. Five stars

 

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry

I started this book, and after a few pages of VERY intense and detailed narrative about bombs, bomb making,  and what they can do, I just put it aside. I just wasn’t in the mood for something so dark. Then my husband picked it up and he REALLY liked it and thought I would as well. He was right! So, with thanks to Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press and NetGalley, I give The Bomb Maker four enthusiastic stars – and I will be reading more o Perry’s work.

The story opens with a threat called in to the LAPD Bomb Squad, and the results of the detailed bomb-making in the opening of the book result in a horrific event. Half the entire bomb squad (including the man in charge) has been obliterated, and they need a hero. The protagonist, Dick Stahl, is asked by a friend and former colleague to come and take over on a temporary basis until they can get things somewhat up to speed (it takes a full year to train a bomb squad technician).

Stahl was both a cop and in the military and he knows about people as well as bombs, so he is the perfect guy to figure out the process and techniques of the extremely evil villain, a guy who has been recruited by an unnamed organization who promises to pay him ten million dollars for his skills.

Along the way, Stahl gets involved with co-workers in various ways, and although I don’t think many people are as ideal (smart, beautiful, thoughtful) as the two main characters, it actually didn’t seem weird to me that they hooked up right away.  It was handled fairly well, even though there was a bit of male fantasy fulfillment in the actions of Diane at the end of Stahl’s first day on the job. But it’s going to make a great movie – in fact, as the tension mounted and the situation with the bomb maker was resolved, I found myself thinking that if it ended in a certain way, it was probably written with a screenplay in mind. It did, it probably was, and I will most likely go see it when it comes out.

Mindful Aging by Andrea Brandt

I’ve been thinking a lot about topics related to what I’d call “Healthy Living for Seniors,” which includes nutrition, exercise, positive attitude, and mindfulness. Frankly, I was spinning in circles, so I was particularly pleased to receive a copy of the new book Mindful Aging from PESI Publishing & Media and NetGalley in return for my honest review. The author, Andrea Brandt, a therapist in the Los Angeles area, says she has “… discovered that body-oriented therapy is the most effective treatment available today for people who seek to bring their inner world and external world into harmony…” I expected the book to expand on her thoughts about how a mindset she calls ‘realistic positivity can help the reader interested in incorporating mindfulness to their aging process.

The blurb for the book promised to help me “throw out the old stereotypes about getting older and move toward the welcoming new evidence that your future is alive with possibility, providing steps to thrive today and into your golden years…” with “…tools to help …embrace a new mindset and blaze a new trail …fueled by passion, purpose, and creativity.” Since it also said it was full of tools and exercises, I was hooked, but wary with high expectations.

Some of the chapter headings were particularly intriguing, including topics such as “letting go” (of things that aren’t working), “finding joy,” “expressing your creativity,” and “developing your spiritual side.” Each of the chapters includes the personal life stories of real people to expand on the topic, and then (best of all!) she provides strategies and worksheet exercises to help guide the reader toward a more mindful aging process.

Included along the way are ways to cope with loss, embrace our mortality, deal with anger and/or negative thinking (all of which resonated with me), and become more positive in general.

I found that including the stories and the exercises in each chapter was especially helpful. I’ve read a fair amount on the various topics covered in Mindful Aging, and some of the people wrote in a very “woo-woo” way (too much even for someone from Santa Cruz). This isn’t the case with Dr. Brandt – her style is accessible and the readability is excellent. Five stars.

 

MAD Librarian by Michael Guillebeau

OK, full disclosure: I am a retired librarian, and the first 8 or 9 years of my life were spent in public libraries in Northern California. And, frankly, one of the big factors that made me leave to work in the private sector (aka “the dark side”) was having to go to the funding gods (Board of Supervisors, City Council) and GROVEL for money every freaking year. We would trot out the cute kids who talked about the Summer Reading Program, the studies showing…what everyone knows: libraries are ESSENTIAL. I just couldn’t face another budget cycle (and also being told to wear pink the Board of Supes meeting just about turned me into a lunatic). So, the opportunity to read MAD Librarian by Michael Guillebeau (thanks to Madison Press/IBPA and NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review was one I just couldn’t pass up!

The protagonist (heroine?), Serenity Hammer, is a mad librarian in the Southern town of Maddington – mad because the city council thinks libraries aren’t really needed, so they won’t give her adequate funding for the library. It’s so bad she can’t pay the library’s bills – until she is online and comes across a fund and transfers it to the library account. Voila! She can pay the bills! The child of hippies who is now married to a cop, Serenity has some pangs of guilt but since money keeps flowing into the account, she (along with some interesting staff members) perseveres. Revenge Fantasy!!!!

This book has apparently pissed off some readers—which literature SHOULD do, IMHO. But not everyone is mad for the same reasons you might think. Rather than be mad at the lack of support for libraries or the corrupt politics or the sexism Serenity (and seemingly all library staff) deals with, in some strange way I don’t quite follow they are mad at – the author? Not sure, but I just know this book was a lot of fun to read. As someone who found a small $$$ way to help a public library (not to the extent of adding a 7-story addition, but enough to improve things), I appreciated it – anything that makes me laugh AND think is always good!

Michael Guillebeau is generously donating $$ to benefit libraries, but that’s not the only reason this gets FIVE stars – it’s just great fun to read while making a valuable point about the need for libraries today more than ever (and if I hear one more person say we don’t need the new library being built in the town where I live because “everything is online” and “you can do research on Google,” I will scream). Thankfully, our mayor and a City Council member are both very active in our Friends group and huge supporters of the library!

 

Killing Pace by Douglas Schofield

Back in 2015, I read and reviewed Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield, so when (thanks to St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books  and NetGalley) I had the opportunity to read Schofield’s new novel, Killing Pace, in return for my honest review, I leapt at it.

Like Time of Departure, Killing Pace also features a female protagonist facing some crime-related challenges. Time of Departure was set in Florida, and while Killing Pace begins in Florida, it then moves back and forth between Sicily and Florida.

The first chapter is straightforward, and provided me with a good hook, as it described a woman named Lisa Green crawling bleeding and barefoot out of a car accident, completely confused. Not only does she not know where she is or how she got there, she doesn’t even remember who she is. In the next chapter, the woman begins to regain memory with flashes of remembrance related to Flight 103 (crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland), conversations with an older woman, and eating Nutella. She beats the crap out of the man who had been holding her captive and reports herself missing to the police. The next section, titled Sarah, describes the activities of a female Customs and Border Protection Office named Sarah Lockhart, and just as I was wondering if she was the woman in the car accident (despite the different name), the next section was back to Lisa. Because my reading was interrupted by a couple of weeks of personal chaos, I was a bit disoriented by the shifts among Lisa, Sarah, and yet another female character, Laura Pace – but in looking back over the book, I realize this was just me – Schofield did a great job weaving the sections together, and it all made sense.

The story becomes an international chase, involving not just Sarah’s efforts in Italy and Miami on behalf of the US Border Control, but expanding to include the Sicilian mafia, human trafficking (infants taken from Syrian refugees and made available for adoption to wealthy American couples, also known as “baby laundering”), and smuggling. There is also a tiny bit of romantic interest, which I would expect will be explored in the next Laura Pace novel (and I hope there will be one!). And I JUST realized the title is a play on words!!

There are several issues explored, including questions of trust, ethical behavior of government officials, and loyalty. Like Time of Departure, this novel requires some willing suspension of disbelief, but I read with the attitude of “just go along for the ride,” and I am glad I did. Following the two-week hiatus between when I started this book and yesterday when I picked it up again, I was hooked and spent the majority of the day yesterday reading it. I love mystery-thrillers than take over my whole day, and give this one four stars. I look forward to reading more from Mr. Schofield, whose experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney contributes to his ability to tell a story that hooks the reader.

 

 

Love and Laughter In the Time of Chemotherapy by Manjusha Pawagi

 

Manjusa Pawagi was in the prime of life: 47 years old, mother to 11-year old twins, with a rewarding career as a judge in the Court of Justice in Ontario, Canada. Then, in 2014 she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, and this book is her memoir of the two years following that diagnosis.

I have two a good friend who is battling multiple myeloma and recently had a stem cell transplant. Like Pawagi, she has written about her battle with humor and honesty – and, also like Pawagi, she can be very funny.

I l0ve stories celebrating survival, and appreciate the forthright way this book faces difficult truths. Unlike some other “survival stories,” this is not at all faith based. In fact, she tells us in Chapter 7, “ I’m an atheist too, but I’m firmly convinced that if I turn out to be wrong and there is a God, and all the accompanying heaven/hell thing, I am definitely going to heaven. I have no theological basis for this, but I know it would be ridiculously unfair if I were barred because of what I consider to be a mere technicality, which I equate to the minor procedural irregularities I see in court all the time, and which I either ignore or patch up after the fact in some way. Because, while I do not believe in God, I do believe in justice’

Thanks to NetGalley and Second Story Press for the opportunity to read this in return for my honest review. Four enthusiastic stars.

 

The Plant-Based Solution by Joel Kahn, M.D.

I love good books that promote healthy eating/vegetarianism, so I was pleased to receive The Plant-Based Solution by Joel Kahn, M.D. from Sounds True Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. As a non-carnivore for 30+ years, 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.

I’m kind of a skeptic about books which claim to have “the answer” to every nutritional issue, and I went into the reading of this hoping that 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.

But I was happy to see how well sourced the book is, and how readable it is. There are chapters dealing with heart issues, diabetes, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer, brain function, the immune system, GI and kidney systems, animal ethics, and more…even including sex. Looking at the TOC, I wondered whether this was a mile wide and an inch deep, but he gets into each of these topics including personal stories to increase the “relatability factor.” He’s been vegan, not just vegetarian, for many years, which sometimes can come across as a bit preachy and hard to relate to – but the stories really help here, and Dr. Kahn’s personal story is compelling as well.

The second half is really a handbook that includes a 21-day plan (with recipes) to help people get started. This book will be a good resource for those interested in eating well without meat and who don’t really need or want to wade through scientific literature. Four stars.

 

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.