No Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan

COVER Buchanan No Turning Back

As a teacher, I was always kind of a softie – an easy grader. And I suspect that is true of my reviews as well. And I REALLY liked the sound of this one: “emotional roller coaster filled with heart-stopping secrets and hairpin turns.” Sounds like my kind of escapist fiction! So, when I received an advance copy of Tracy Buchanan’s No Turning Back courtesy of Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley, I was ready for a good time!

The premise is interesting, and the beginning is strong. In fact, reading the prologue, I was sure it would be awesome: “My heart pounds, a bird trying to flutter its way out of a cage. I’m breathing fast and heavy, my bare shoulders scraping the brick with each movement. But I keep looking up, not care about the pain. He hunches down, his pale fingers curling around the wooden slats above. I hear his breath, deep and low.” THAT creeped me out, and I was sure that an author who could set a scene of danger so vividly would meet my standards for a good mystery/thriller. I read on…

In this novel, Anna Graves is a new mother who has recently gone back to her work as a radio personality following the breakup of her marriage. She is walking on the beach with her daughter one evening when she sees a group of teenagers who are not people she knows. Alert to any risk to her daughter, she is stunned to see another teenager (not part of the group) coming at her with a knife.

Adrenalin kicks in along with terror, and Anna reacts instinctively to protect her baby. The result is a tragedy but Anna and her daughter are both safe. Then her life starts to fall apart, and we watch Anna falling apart following this event and the re-emergence of the “Ophelia Killer,” a serial killer who hasn’t been heard from for twenty years. The killings stopped right when Anna’s father committed suicide (red flag alert). That event sent her mother over the edge, and Anna has bonded with her grandmother, who has always been her source of comfort.

So far, so good. And I appreciate the way the author let the reader know about Anna’s journalistic instincts. “She just had what her dad used to call the “crowd’s gut”: a natural instinct to know what the zeitgeist was at any given time.” Nice!

But things fell apart for me as the clues mounted, and the revelations about both the current mystery and the events from twenty years earlier began to mount up. At the end, I just wanted it to be over.

I looked at the author’s other titles and think that if I had looked at any of her previous work I would not have been interested in this one. But damn did the marketing people put on a good case! I was convinced, and again, it started strong. I might consider looking at her work again, because she does have strengths in the genre. But it wasn’t put on my favorite new author list. Easy grader that I am, three stars.


The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

cover shreve stars are fire

For some reason, I think of Anita Shreve’s books as “beach reads,” and her newest “The Stars Are Fire” will most likely be a summer favorite in 2017. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley, I received an advance copy in exchange for this honest review.

The story is set in Maine in 1947, and begins with a very wet rainy season. As summer comes, the initial relief felt by the townspeople of the coastal town where Grace Holland lives with her husband Gene and their two children is short-lived as they enter a period of serious drought. Both these seasons are described with words that make the reader feel first the bleak and gray dampness and then the oppressive airless dry heat.

Grace is living with a taciturn man and apparently thinks he is a good husband…even though there is no joy or warmth between them. “When Grace walks into her mother’s home, she has a sensation of great warmth and safety. This doesn’t occur in her own house despite the fact that at night and on Sundays, there’s a man to protect  her.” Her life “…before she met Gene, before life became uncertain and even a little frightening,” was strictly confined and she grasps at small moments of freedom when she can do nothing more than sit and stare at the ocean.

When fires break out along the coast in October, Gene volunteers to go off to fight the fires leaving five-months-pregnant Grace with two kids both younger than two to fend for themselves. The entire town pretty much burns to the ground, and Grace is left homeless and penniless. Out of this tragedy comes the opportunity for Grace to discover herself as an individual, rather than just in relation to a (crappy) husband. She blossoms, her spirit soars, and then…well, things change. To reveal more would spoil what is quite an interesting story.

I enjoyed reading this…it’s an easy read, and the people are written so that we come to care about what happens to them. I give it four stars.

After reading it, I did some research on the terrible fires which devastated Maine in 1947. That made the story even more real for me, and I appreciate the author’s skill in bringing this bit of history alive.



The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda

cover Miranda PErfect Stranger

I first became aware of Megan Miranda’s storytelling skill when I read her previous novel All the Missing Girls, which was told BACKWARDS. Not an easy thing to pull off, but she did it in a 5-star fashion, so I was ready with high expectations when I received an advance copy of her latest book The Perfect Stranger in exchange for my honest review (thanks, Simon & Schuster and NetGalley!!)

In this one, the protagonist is an apparently troubled journalist named Leah Stevens, who has moved to a small town in western Pennsylvania to escape and start over. She picks up and takes off with her friend Emmy, becoming a high school teacher while Emmy works odd jobs under the table…or does she??? In fact, did Emmy really exist at all? When Leah reports her missing and the police come to investigate, there is no record of her existence anywhere, either currently or in the past when Leah and Emmy were college roommates. The reader is taken on a twisted ride while Leah tries to find Emmy while hiding her own past (the details of which are rolled out slowly, revealing the reason for Leah’s rush out of Boston and into Pennsylvania.

As the details of her past are revealed, we learn there was a restraining order against Leah and a threatened lawsuit for her actions in a story she wrote in Boston. Leah is just settling in to her new life when someone beats the crap out of a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Leah, and then Emmy disappears.  Leah desperately wants to find Emmy, and becomes deeply entangled with the lead detective working on Emmy’s disappearance. She tries to cooperate, but the is no trace of Emmy, not even a digital footprint. At this point the reader may wonder if Emmy ever existed, or whether Leah might have dissociative identity disorder.

The possibility of a split personality is revealed as Leah tells the reader “I was an adolescent when I first started to see myself as two people…I was both walking down the hall and watching myself walk down the hall.” Speaking of a female student, she said she ”…held herself as if she knew it. She must’ve thought there were certain rules that still applied. “

Leah’s struggles become more clear as she continues ”…then you learn. Your backbone was all false bravado. An act that was highly cultivated, taught and expected of girls now. The spunk that was appreciated and rewarded. Talk back to the professor to show your grit.” Leah has learned that for her young student “…danger had not yet made itself apparent, but it was everywhere, whether she wanted to believe it or not.” 

That is part of what makes this so GOOD: this is not just a mystery/thriller (although it definitely is a good example of that genre) – it is also a critique of how women fit in (or not) and learn to make their way in the world, whether it is essential to follow the rules, and the importance of learning about trust.

Leah’s struggle to reclaim her good name, find Emmy and figure out who, if anyone, she can trust makes this an interesting and exciting book. Five stars. And I look forward to Megan Miranda’s future work!


Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber


As a big podcast fan (admittedly sparked by Serial), I found the premise of this thriller intriguing: a hugely popular podcast has begun exploring the murder of a young woman’s father. The young woman is Josie Buhrman – who has changed her name and removed herself from the midwestern town where it happened, cutting herself off completely from her estranged twin sister Laine and the aunt who raised the two girls when their mother ran away to join a cult following the murder of her husband. Got it so far? I admit I was sort of hooked just reading the blurb about this, so was happy to receive an advance copy from Gallery Books and NetGalley in return for my honest review.

When the book begins, we meet Josie Buhrman, who has spent the last ten years away from her hometown. Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, a man she met while traveling the world in search of – what? Seems like she mostly wanted to just be AWAY and NOT the murder victim’s daughter. But she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past, including her name and she isn’t quite sure how to tell him the truth: “There was a minefield of lies between us, and the only safe thing to do was to say nothing at all.” When she receives word that her mother has died, she heads back to her hometown, where she is confronted by the Sarah Koenig wannabe Poppy Parnell, whose podcast has stirred up a s&%storm questioning the conviction of the neighbor, who was identified by Laine who claimed to have witnessed the killing.

I enjoyed reading the story, and felt some aspects of the characters were well drawn, although the ending was not a surprise. The author cleverly identified a hook that might entice readers, and she has a knack for creating a tense scene, as when Josie goes in search of her sister: “I could hear the feathery tops of weeds brushing against the car’s undercarriage as I slowly inched forward in the darkness, squinting to make out the confines of the overgrown road.” That kind of descriptive writing is enough for me!

I willingly suspended my disbelief about the outcome and the relationships in Josie’s life (both familial and otherwise), and just went along for the ride. Four stars.




Everybody Had An Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s LA by Wm McKeen


I grew up on the beach in Southern California in the 60s (San Clemente High, Class of ’65!!) so I LEAPT at the chance to have an advance copy of Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles by William McKeen (thanks to Chicago Review Press and NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.

For starters, I wanted to LOVE this book. Music was one of my best friends in my teenage years, and I retain vivid memories of artists, radio stations, TV shows, and all just hanging on the beach with transistor radios blaring music (unless the Dodgers were playing, in which case it was like a battle of the bands between the music and Vin Scully). Spoiler alert: I DID love it!

Just glancing at the cover made me happy: there were the 1960s images of some of my favorites: the Mamas and the Papas, Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Jan & Dean, Charles Manson – wait, WHAT???  Yep, it’s true: while this book is a detailed history of the 1950s and 19060s and the migration of the music industry to Los Angeles, it also is a fascinating look at the dark side of the time, including Manson, the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., the murder of Bobby Fuller, and more. As McKeen notes “Los Angeles was fecund with corruption. As it became the American capital of crazy, it also became a reliable source of ghastly crimes…Los Angeles was the promised land and a pathetic and brutal place.” And there is acknowledgement that the stories about Manson’s rejection by the music industry may have led directly to the Manson Family murder spree are in fact true. In addition to Manson, the book includes juicy stories about personalities including Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and that very weird Phil Spector.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story of the development of rock music is its relationship to race. “Black America met White America through music…once we were all dancing to the same beat, Jim Crow didn’t have a chance and walls came tumbling down.” Some claim that “rock ‘m roll is just black folks’ music played by white boys,” but the bottom line is that “the musical revolution…led to a social revolution.”

Segregation and bigotry are vividly described, especially in the way “the music industry’s official term for black music was “race” (as in “race records” on the radio)”” ...and for white country music it was “hillbilly”.” The term “rhythm and Blues” gave way to rock ‘n roll. It was Alan Freed who changed things: “Freed liked the way it sounded. “Rhythm and Blues,” the new industry term for black music, still bore the stigma of “race records” and Freed saw it as his sad duty to push his particular boulder uphill, trying to introduce the masses (mostly white kids) to this music he loved.” Once he coined the term “rock ‘n roll” for this new music, it stuck.

This book is absolutely packed with stories about the music and people surrounding the music industry. To be honest, I learned way more about Brian Wilson and Jan & Dean than I needed (or wanted) to know, but nothing in the book feels like it is over the top – the stories about the icons of “surf music” are often wild, but are an essential part of the story McKeen tells. Yes, I did love this book, and I’m pretty sure I won’t listen to Sirius Channel 060 the same way again! Four stars…if the final version has pictures, it would likely be 5.

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin


I had read one of Ian Rankin’s books a couple of years ago, but somehow I had overlooked the fact that there were TWENTY of his books featuring John Rebus, a detective in Scotland (Rather Be the Devil is #21). Thanks to Little, Brown and Co. and NetGalley, I had the opportunity to review the latest in this series, and  I LOVED it.

Without giving too much away, John Rebus is retired as this one opens. He seems sort of settled down, with a dog and a relationship and an attempt to give up smoking. The one thing he can’t seem to give up is his attachment to detective work and he begins looking at a cold case that happens to put him in contact with a couple of recurring characters from the series: Detective Inspectors Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, who has been assigned to the Scottish Crime Division.

As the story develops, various plotlines are swirling around Rebus’s new life and two other characters from the Rebus series  (Big Ger Cafferty and Daryl Christie) and money laundering/fraud. In some ways, this seems like it might be a retread – which some authors have done enough to drive me crazy, as they drag out the protagonist and tell the same story over and over with minor variations. But there is real character development as Rebus faces his changing status as both a retiree from being a detective and moving toward being a senior citizen.

As the story wraps up, there are a couple of lingering questions, which bodes well for fans hoping for #22 in the series. I plan to find several of the titles in the series and read them, as there is nothing quite as satisfying as discovering an author you like and finding out they have a boatload of titles – like hitting the bibliographic jackpot! Four stars.

Lying Blind by Dianne Emley


I’m kind of partial to procedurals with “plucky” heroines (think Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, French’s Antoinette Conway or Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. So, when I read that Dianne Emley had a new book, Lying Blind, featuring the recurring character Detective Nan Vining (a character I had never encountered) and that the new book was described as a “hard-edged thriller for fans of Patricia Cornwell, Tana French, and Lisa Gardner,” I was ready to meet Nan!

How have I missed this series? Emley’s previous Nan Vining books include The First Cut, Cut to the Quick, The Deepest Cut, Love Kills, and Killing Secrets. In this latest in the series, Pasadena, CA’s Homicide detective Nan Vining gets involved in a murder case and arrives at a mansion where a beautiful young woman is floating face down in the infinity pool. Nan is curious as to why her boyfriend, Sergeant Jim Kissick has arrived on the scene first. Why did the homeowner contact Jim first (via text), before placing the 911 call that brought Nan to the scene?

Jim’s explanation is that he is old friends with the homeowners, Teddy and Rebecca Sexton. Nan begins to investigate, and becomes certain that the three of them are all hiding something. Meanwhile, in Lake Nacimiento (near Paso Robles, CA) a body is discovered, and that investigation brings detectives from that jurisdiction south. Soon the two crimes are intertwined and Nan feels like her relationship with Jim is falling apart.

Nan is a great character, the story is well plotted, and I enjoyed it a great deal. While there are some references to past experiences for Nan and Jim, I didn’t feel like I should have read the previous books in order to follow this one (although I plan to read earlier books in this series and hope I won’t get the “oh crap, I should have read this one first! Now I know what happens to these people!” feeling). There was a slight convenience to the resolution, meaning a tiny bit less of a rating, but overall I really enjoyed this!

Other fans of plucky heroines will enjoy this, as will people who enjoyed T. Jefferson Parker’s earlier books set in Southern California. (Everyone who has lived in Orange County seems to enjoy Parker’s early novels). Both Parker and Emley do a great job capturing the feel of SoCal, and I look forward to reading more by this author. Four enthusiastic stars, and thanks to Random House/Alibi and NetGalley for providing an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.



Failure of Justice: A Brutal Murder, An Obsessed Cop, Six Wrongful Convictions by John Ferak


Failure of Justice by John Ferak is a true crime book that will make fans of “Making a Murderer” absolutely freak out. (Note: a forthcoming book, Avery, by the prosecutor in the Steven Avery case, is reviewed here).  In Failure of Justice, John Ferak covers the murder, subsequent investigation, the trial, conviction and eventual exoneration of the Beatrice 6.

The crime occurred in 1985 in a small town in Beatrice, a small town located in Gage County, Nebraska (about 50 miles south of Lincoln, the state capitol). Beatrice (pronounced “bee-AT-rues”), not a hotbed of crime, was mostly white, with a population lower than average in education and income. So when Helen Wilson, a 68-year old widow, was brutally raped and murdered, beaten to death in her downtown apartment, the place went crazy with fear, anger, and lots of people clamoring for justice.

The crime scene was “eerily ritualistic,” and despite the efforts of law enforcement, the trail went cold for four years. Then, the case was apparently miraculously solved with the arrests of six social misfits who, at the time of their arrests, were living in various places including Alabama, North Carolina and Colorado. WTF? Why had they as a group been involved in murdering a kindly, quiet widow?

All six (Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden) were eventually convicted of the crime and sent to prison, with all of them but White admitting guilt. The folks in Beatrice, particularly Helen Wilson’s family, were convinced that justice had finally been done. They were especially grateful to Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, Deputy Burdette Searcey and Reserve Deputy/psychiatrist Wayne Price, who had been instrumental in obtaining confessions/plea deals and bringing closure.

Nearly twenty years later, White’s protestations of innocence were proven correct when DNA testing of crime scene evidence showed that another man, Bruce Allen Smith, had actually been the murderer. The six, now known as “the Beatrice 6,” were exonerated and later sued Gage County, The case, which went to trial in U.S. District Court in 2014, ended in a mistrial. A new trial, ordered by the 8th Circuit Court, took place in 2016, and ended with the jury awarding the six a combined $28.1 million, plus attorneys’ fees and other costs.

I have long been fascinated with wrongful convictions, particularly those that turn out to be the result of coerced testimony and confessions. As the Beatrice 6 sat in jail, they had all been constantly reminded of their possible fate in Nebraska’s barbaric electric chair. The lengths to which the “authorities” went to get a conviction are stunning, and remind us that our criminal justice system is a mess, particularly when overzealous (sometimes called wacko) policing and prosecution efforts are involved.

What is also fascinating is that Gage County, with a population of just over 20,000, is on the hook for the settlement, awarded to the 6 late last year. (Note: the county declared its intention to appeal in October, and after several extensions, its attorneys submitted a 107-page brief in January 2017. These developments occurred too late to be included in the book, and are interesting postscripts to a story that really explores how people who are misfits, sometimes with limited capacity to understand the situation, can be railroaded in the frenzied, not always well-intentioned, search for “justice.”

With thanks to WildBlue Press and NetGalley, I appreciate the opportunity to receive an advance copy of this book in return for my honest review. It isn’t literature, it’s true crime. And I have read a LOT of true crime, certainly enough to recognize a quality effort in the genre. With that said, this is true crime that is worthy of 5 stars.


A Colony in A Nation by Chris Hayes

Having both watched him for a few years on MSNBC and having read his work in The Nation, I love Chris Hayes, His earlier book Twilight of the Elites (called “a stunning polemic by Ta-Nehisi Coates), emphasized how out of touch America’s political leaders were with those they were elected to govern (and this was in 2012!). In his new book, he takes the experiences he has had reporting from places like Ferguson and West Baltimore and combines it with his outstanding knowledge of U.S. history and concludes that our country has broken into two distinct factions: the Colony and the Nation.

As he examines the issues and events in Ferguson, West Baltimore and other places where racially-motivated crime and violence have been in the news in recent years, he contends that the conditions in these cities and towns mirror those that sparked the American Revolution. Along the way, he examines the political, economic and social conditions in both eras.

He explains that despite our wish to live in a “post-racial” world, the situation that exists in “the Colony” looks very much like a police state, where aggressive policing makes the police look like an occupying force and fear is paramount.

He points out that our country imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other county, except the archipelago of Seychelles, with “nearly one out of four prisoners in the world …an American,” although we have only 5% of the world’s population. And “American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.” Ouch!!

He examines the end of Jim Crow and the change that happened in the 1960s is a time when some believe “it was reconceived and reborn through mass incarcerations” – for me, this was unsettling to read. In Ferguson, Hayes believes “…the police had taken on the role of enforcing an unannounced but very real form of segregation in the St. Louis suburb.” Further, he says our “post-civil-rights social order …gave up on desegregation as a guiding mission and accepted a country of de facto segregation between “nice neighborhoods” and “rough neighborhoods,” “good schools” and “bad schools,” “inner cities” and “bedroom communities.””

To his credit, he in unflinching as he presents his self-analysis of his own privilege as he lives the “the Nation,” and explains “None of this came about by accident. It was the result of accumulation of policy, from federal housing guidelines and realtor practices to the decisions of tens of thousands of school boards and town councils and homeowners’ associations essential drawing boundaries: the Nation on one side, the Colony on the other,” And, as in the case of Sandra Bland, “In the Colony, violence looms, and failure to comply can be fatal.” And he points out that this is not so in The Nation.

Many of us are currently pondering how the hell our country got to the point where it is today. This book doesn’t have all the answers, but it is eye-opening, well researched, easy to read and comprehend, and reveals Hayes’s intelligence as well as his compassion and desire for change. It comes at a good time for anyone wanting to have some awareness of how we got to where we are, and I highly recommend it. Five stars.

Avery: The Case Against Steven Avery and What “Making a Murderer” Gets Wrong by Ken Kratz


OK, True Crime IS my guilty pleasure genre. And I am particularly fascinated by stories of “justice gone wrong,” and am a strong advocate for fairness in the justice system and a believer in the need for judicial reform. So, the whole phenomenon around Steven Avery and the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” would seem to be right up my alley. After all, I was obsessed worth Serial, so a story about a wrongful conviction should be my thing, right?

But here is the thing: it’s easy to advocate for justice for an intelligent, articulate young man (Serial’s Adnan Syed). It’s a lot harder when the accused murderer is a man like Steven Avery: a crude, uneducated man whose family business is an auto salvage yard where he lives in a trailer among rusted out wrecked cars and indulges himself fathering children, harassing people, and torturing animals. Truly.

Some years ago, Avery was accused and convicted of raping a woman, and sent to prison where he stayed until the case was overturned, as his innocence was proven. Just when his case against the County was moving toward what looked like a huge cash award for wrongful imprisonment, he was accused of murdering a young female photographer who came to the salvage yard to take photos for Auto Trader.

Making a Murderer presented a compelling argument for what looked like at best inept police work and at worst a totally corrupt judicial system that went after him because his case for the prior improper conviction was about to bankrupt the County. He settled for $400,000, which he used for his defense in the murder trial.

I admit, I couldn’t watch all of Making a Murderer. They actually lost me fairly early on with the animal torture, and while I thought there had likely been some significant errors in the prosecution of the case (especially the way Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey was used), I wasn’t convinced he was innocent.

This book, written by the prosecutor, reinforced my opinion that Avery is a disgusting creep. It also gave me a TON of facts that were not part of Making a Murderer. It’s well written, and Kratz is open with his own story and the mistakes he made along the way (unrelated to Avery’s case). Anyone who watched the series and thinks Avery is innocent should really read this book, and it would be a good choice for true crime fans, especially if they can handle reading about a disgusting man.

Really, if I hadn’t committed to review it, I might not have finished it. I knew the status of the legal case, and I felt like I didn’t care if he had been wrongly convicted. Saying that goes against my personal beliefs, and I do think there are huge problems with our system of “justice” – but this man should be locked away forever, IMHO.

Four stars. I still hate Avery, and am not a big fan of Kratz, but the book is well done.

Richie by Thomas Thompson


Richie: A Father, His Son, and the Ultimate America Tragedy, originally published in 1973, tells the story of an event that occurred in Nassau County (Long Island, NY) in1972. I was not familiar with the case, and True Crime is my “guilty pleasure” genre, so I was please to read an advance copy in exchange for my honest review (thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley!)

If you are familiar with this story, either from news accounts, the earlier edition of this book, or the TV Movie (spoiler alert!) The Death of Richie, your experience reading this will be different from mine. I was not familiar with the events, so for me it was both a true crime narrative and a thriller, because I had no idea what would happen in the end.

The story involves George Diener, who was a “salt of the earth” kind of guy: World War II veteran and traveling salesman, he is the epitome of the stereotypical member of the “older generation” who found themselves puzzled and appalled by the youth movement of the late 60s and early 70s (drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll). He and his wife, Carol, had old-fashioned values and found pleasure in the simple things, including watching their two sons growing up in a middle-class Long Island suburb.

If you have had a family member or close friend whose life has spiraled out of control due to drugs, the story will be familiar, and you may find yourself mentally shouting at the parents to take some action as their son Richie’s life goes downhill. Richie was a golden child, shy by most standards but close to his parents as a child. But at the age of fifteen, everything changes as he “got in with a bad crowd” and began having incidents related to a deep dive into drug addiction. He turned violent and repeatedly was in trouble for both drug-related and violent crimes, and his parents were increasingly at a loss as to how they could help him.

Sadly, in 1972, their dreams for their son were extinguished by a tragic event in their home.

Thomas Thompson, who also wrote another true crime classic, Blood & Money, is a master at writing true crime and this story captures the incredible gulf between the young and old was at its peak. A good read on several levels, and a must for true crime fans. Five stars.


Tell Me No Lies by Lynn Chandler Willis


Tell Me No Lies: An Ava Logan Mystery by Lynn Chandler Willis is described as “Mystery Thriller General Fiction (Adult)” Knowing that, I settled in for what I hoped would be enough to take my mind off politics :). And, to just get it out of the way, I really really enjoyed this book. The author’s background includes ownership of a small-town newspaper (like her protagonist Ava Logan), and work in television, both of which may have contributed to the way the writing flows nicely while providing a rich visual portrait of both characters and environment.

Another thing to get out of the way is to clarify that it isn’t really possible to say much about the book without spoiling it. Now, about that: I am an avid mystery reader who generally doesn’t figure things out ahead of time, which is fine by me. I prefer being surprised (but only in reading, never in real life!) But there was a mention early on of something about the character that turned out to be the villain that made me say “hmmmm.” So, perhaps other readers may find the ending was telegraphed early on – but I was actually still somewhat surprised AND it didn’t lessen my enjoyment.

So, here is what I CAN say: the protagonist, Ava Logan, is a single mother to amazing children who live deep in Appalachia (and the setting turns out to be a significant aspect of the book’s appeal, as Willis uses both the natural beauty of the region and the appalling poverty to move her story along. Ava’s past is referenced (she tells us “…I had always been the girl with the mom in prison”).

Ava has made a good life for herself and is the publisher of the local newspaper. In her role as publisher/writer, she encounters some stories related to the upcoming local election about a rash of ginseng thieves (really? Who knew? Well, not me). Then on a day when Ava is watching a toddler belonging to her friend (another single mom), the friend is murdered and Ava finds herself in the middle of that case, the thievery, and a side plot about her multiple male friends, who are both prominent in the town.

When I write it down it sounds so cliché and like it might not be that much fun to read, but seriously, you just need to trust me. If you enjoy a clever mystery, mostly likeable characters (including a “plucky heroine”), you will like this.

With thanks to Henery Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy in exchange for my honest review, I give it four stars. Only negative for me was the fact that the clue to the mystery may have been too obvious which I know turns off some mystery readers. Again, for me, that was not an issue and I will definitely recommend this one.

Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry by Marcus Thompson


Marcus Thompson II covered the Warriors for ten years, so he has seen the franchise emerge from the bottom of the heap to an incredibly popular, highly marketable and incredibly fun to watch team – and the centerpiece of their success is Wardell Stephen Curry, also known as Steph.

In Golden, Thompson tells the story of Curry’s rise to superstardom, and goes into a significant amount of detail about his years at Davidson, a college not known as a basketball powerhouse. As the son of an NBA player (Dell Curry), Steph was familiar with the trappings of fame and the lifestyle made possible by playing at a high level in the NBA. In fact, Thompson points out in the chapter “Curry Hate” that being the son of an NBA player is one of the marks against him – a reason he is the target of hate. (The two other reasons for the animus toward Curry are his light skin and his wholesome image.

The whole light skinned thing is covered in depth, and Thompson doesn’t shy away from discussing racism and the issue of varying shades of color among NBA players (which I confess I found fascinating). Equally interesting was the detail about what has driven Steph to become the most popular NBA player (with his jersey ranked #1 in sales in multiple years).

As a Bay Area resident, I appreciated Thompson’s in-depth look at how “In a span of a few years, the Warriors went from a cute start-up, the trendy watch for those in the know, to champion, to despised favorite.”

Along the way, Steph’s journey has taken him from the “unathletic” kid who loved the game to be known as the Baby Faced Assassin. “The alter ego that would turn the kindest cutest kid around into a vindictive, explosive predator on the court.”

Despite the “Curry Hate” mentioned above (which I admit I really don’t get), Steph continues to be beloved by parents who want their kids to look up to someone with such a wholesome image. And he treats people well: “He has an uncanny ability to make people walk away from a Curry interaction feeling like they have a new friend who is really good at basketball.”

There is something for everyone in this book: human interest stories about his family, historical perspective on both Steph and the Warriors, and lots and lots of detail about specific games as well as specific details that a true hoops fan will appreciate. In discussing the debate as to whether Steph is a point guard or a shooting guard, we are told that “He is a point guard who can light up the scoreboard with the best of shooting guards. He is a shooting guard with all the skills of a top point guard.”

As both a basketball fan and a Curry fan, I enjoyed the book. Thompson’s long tenure covering the team made him an ideal candidate to write this story, which will be appreciated by the many Warriors fans in general and Steph Curry fans in particular.

The book presumes some knowledge about the league, the team, and Steph himself. Because the book needs some editing to tighten up the organization and make it flow more smoothly from one chapter to the next as well as providing some context for a curious reader who is less knowledgeable, I gave it 3.5 stars (which will show up as only 3, but it’s better than that). And frankly, I’m not sure how to find the balance: if you make it more clear for those unfamiliar with the game/player, the basketball geeks might be bored. In any case, I appreciate the chance to read an advance copy in exchange for my honest review. Thanks, Touchstone and NetGalley!

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See


I have loved reading Lisa See’s books, particularly Shanghai Girls, Dragon Bones and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of her latest, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, thanks to Scribner and NetGalley.

We meet Li-Yan when she is a girl living in a remote village in the mountains of Yunnan province. Life is hard for the families in the ethnic Akha minority as they harvest tea and follow routines and rituals that have been ingrained in their lives for generations. Li-Yan is the only daughter, living in a family compound with her parents and her three brothers and their wives, and she has an aptitude for learning that is fostered by her teacher.

Li-Yan falls in love with San-Pa, who leaves her to make a life for them outside the village. She learns she is pregnant while he is gone and gives birth to a baby girl (which tradition deems a “human reject”). Because she cannot bring herself to kill the baby, she wraps the baby in a blanket (tucking a tea cake alongside her) and walks for miles to a village where she abandons her beloved baby, hoping someone will care for her.

There is an incredible amount of history and detail as the story follows Li-yan’s effort as she grows up to enter the world beyond the gates of her village. It is an amazing journey with memorable characters and more than you will probably ever want to know about tea!

Meanwhile, her daughter is adopted by a loving family in the U.S. and is raised in a life that contrasts sharply with Li-Yan’s. An impressive amount of research was done by See, who grew up in a large Chinese-American family in Los Angeles. Themes of international adoptions, ethnic minorities in China (specifically the Akha people), and the history and cultural significance surrounding tea (farming, production and consumption) all contribute to the story.

As one might expect in a book by Lisa See, the main female characters are strong, clever women whose familial bonds overlay their experiences as individuals. It won’t be a surprise that Li-Yan’s desire to search for the daughter she gave up is recounted in chapters alternating with the story of Haley, the girl adopted by Americans who longs to learn about her roots and birth family.

As noted, there is more than I really wanted to know about tea, but it was an integral part of the story. I appreciate learning about Chinese history and culture in such an entertaining way, and my only critique is that the circumstances which make the resolution of the story feel so positive are (for me) bordering on “too good to be true,” as both Li-Yan and Haley are living ideal lives surrounded by perfect people and circumstances.

It’s a powerful story, well-researched and affecting on many levels. I loved the experience of reading it, but the ending reminded me that it was complete fiction – so four stars.

BTW, Lisa See will be at a Bookshop Santa Cruz event March 23, 2017.

Evidence of Love by John Bloom


The True Crime genre has been a guilty pleasure of mine since I worked in a public library back in the 1980s and discovered the treasures that awaited me in Dewey # 364.1523. I was happy to have the opportunity to receive an advance copy of Evidence of Love by John Bloom in exchange for an honest review (thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media).

Subtitled “A true story of passion and death in the suburbs,” this fascinating story was made into a movie titled “A Killing in a Small Town” starring Barbara Hershey and Brian Dennehy in 1990. Yes, over 25 years ago! TBH, it wasn’t until I was nearly finished with the book that I checked and realized this crime happened in 1980, and the original copyright date is 1983. It isn’t totally clear to me if the book has been updated for the 2016 edition or is just being republished, but it’s a testament to how good it is that it doesn’t seem dated and the story holds up as well as it does.

The story is set in the suburban area in Texas known as the “Silicone Prairie,” and focuses on two families, both headed by men who work in high tech. Pat Montgomery is a successful engineer who is married to Candy. They are friends with the Gores, Allan and Betty. The story opens with Candy telling stories to children at a gathering at the church they all attend. Later that same day, Betty Gore is found murdered, the victim of the classic “axe murderer” that is somewhat a cliché (although apparently not that many murders are committed using an axe).

So, here’s where it gets tricky to review this without spoiling it. Although this was apparently a well-known crime, I was clueless about it when I began to read, and I think if I had known what was coming it might have been a totally different reading experience. (I admit I was creeped out while reading it, and since I always like to look at the photos first when reading true crime and my digital edition  didn’t include photos, I Googled the names and was stunned to read the headlines since I had about 40 pages left to read – it might have made a difference.) I don’t know if the print edition will include photos, but these characters are classic suburban couples with lives that revolve around their family, church, and (for the Dads) their work.

If you enjoy true crime, this is GREAT. If you like suburban drama, same thing. It isn’t a mystery in the sense that we know early on who died and who was responsible, but there is a mystery surrounding the nature of the killer’s defense, and whether it will prove successful. I didn’t find any of the characters to be particularly likable, but that didn’t detract from the fact that this is true crime at its best. FIVE stars.

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn


I’ve been curious about Jonestown since the 1970s, finding myself fascinated in general about cults and repelled by the horror of Jonestown. I lived in Humboldt County, not all that far from Jones’s settlement in Ukiah, and we heard bits and pieces about the group (sort of like when we moved to Santa Cruz, hearing about the “red people”) – then the astonishing news when it all turned to hell in Guyana. So I was happy to receive an advance copy of The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn from Simon & Schuster and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The book went WAY more in depth into the early years of “Jimmy” Jones, and TBH he creeped me out all the way back in Chapter 4 (of 52) when little Jimmy, not yet ten years old, was holding animal funeral services and exhibiting a serious fascination with the Nazis: “…he was fascinated with the Nazis, enamored of their pageantry, mesmerized by obedient hordes of fighting men goose-stepping in unison.” He “Studied Adolf Hitler intently, how he stood in front of adoring crowds for hours…” 

In Jimmy’s hometown of Lynn, Indiana, a new Apostolic church opened up, featuring people speaking in tongues and “rolling around, babbling gibberish. It was wonderful entertainment.” Jimmy was always drawn to religions, and became a pastor at Community Unity church, a storefront operation that he worked hard to link with an established church. As years went by, Jim Jones became more and more a showman in his services, enlisting help from accomplices to demonstrate the miracles he could perform: as he “cured” a cancer of an audience member, his assistant would be in the audience “brandishing a bloody, foul-smelling lump clutched in a white cloth or napkin. Jones would declare that her was the cancer,” and encourage people to examine it (but not too closely, as it was extremely infectious. “Jones often engaged in the laying on of hands, commanding aches or tremors or chills to be gone—and usually, but not always, sufferers experienced instant relief.”

The name Peoples Temple came about after Community Unity bought property left when a Jewish congregation vacated it. “…the word “Temple” was carved in stone outside the building, and so Jones decided that the name of his curacy would reflect both its philosophy and the carving: Peoples Temple, not People’s, because the apostrophe symbolized ownership.” And Jones totally discouraged ownership of material possessions by his parishioners, urging them to give everything to the church.

One scam—rather, moneymaking operation, which Jones incorporated into building his empire, was that they “took over management of several nursing homes. These provided jobs for Peoples Temple congregants, and the money needed not only to pay for outreach programs, but also to promote them. Jones was able to purchase daily time on a local radio station,” and began expanding his outreach using media.

He paid close attention to Father Divine, and he “intended not only to emulate Divine’s ministry, but also to inherit his followers after the old man died.” Hoping to unite his Peoples Temple with Divine’s Peace Mission, he worked long and hard on the plan, but it never happened.

Throughout his rise from poor preacher to powerful leader of a huge congregation, we learn way more than we probably ever wanted to know about Jones’s peccadilloes and we see him at first veer off the path in his personal life, then flagrantly violate various Commandments as his life spiraled into a corrupt, vile mess filled with sex, drugs and real estate when he bought the property in Guyana. The Church incorporated physical punishment to keep followers in line, and he circumvented rules with situational ethics, as he “preached, and his followers believed, that the U.S. criminal justice system was corrupt, as well as rife with racism.”

He tried to establish his ultimate church in Los Angeles, but city politics and the geography of sprawling Southern California kept him from realizing his dream. Focusing his efforts on the San Francisco Bay Area, he offered grim sermons to his devoted followers, habitually using obscenities. “Temple members loved it – Father was talking like a real person, not acting prissy like so many pastors.” (at this point, I was reminded of the current political situation, and how a tyrant can easily dupe people into becoming blind followers – but that’s another story).

His paranoia, fueled by drug addiction, grew and spiraled further and further into madness. As events led up to the final confrontation with Congressman Ryan’s group in Guyana, it felt like there was no hope (of course, knowing how things would turn out, this was no surprise). “On that afternoon in Jonestown, when he told his followers that there was no other way, he believed it. As far as Jones was concerned, if he had come to some place that hope ran out, then so had they.” It was chilling to read about the times Jones told his followers they were drinking poison, and they DID IT, only to be told it was just an exercise. I imagine many of them thought it was just another exercise when they drank that poison on the final day.

Seriously, this book was upsetting. If I had not been committed to read and review it, I might have given up because the detail and relentless presentation of his horrific behavior began to feel overwhelming.

It is very extensively researched, and includes notes documenting sources. For anyone who really wants to know IN EXTREME DETAIL what happened to little Jimmy Jones to make him turn into the monster responsible for the deaths of so many who worshipped him, this is the book. It’s unsettling, no question, and I was relieved when I finished it – but I have to give it 4 stars just for the enormous work that went into it.

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian


I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian for many years, so when I had the opportunity to receive an advance copy of his latest novel, The Sleepwalker, from NetGalley and Doubleday Books in exchange for my honest review, I jumped on it!

The story is told looking back at the year 2000, and revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Annalee Ahlberg late one night. Her two daughters (21-year-old college student Lianna, who is home for her break, and 12-year-old Paige) both sleep through the night with no awareness of why their mother is gone when they wake up. Their father, an English professor at a nearby college, is away at a poetry conference the night Annalee goes missing, so although the police always look first at the spouse, he seems to have a rock solid alibi.

He works to keep his wife’s status in front of the public to help in the search for her, as he is well aware that people move on: “People survive by being callous, not kind, he sometimes taught his students, not trying to be dismissive of the species, but realistic. How, he lectured, could we ever face the morning if we did not grow inured to the monstrosities that marked the world daily: tsunamis and plane crashes and terrorism and war?”

As the story unfolds, we learn that all was not always smooth sailing in the marriage, although things usually LOOKED calm. Lianna sees beyond the surface: “Usually when they fought, they fought rather quietly, their barbs sharpened on whetstones of condescension and sarcasm.”

We learn that Annalee had a history of sleepwalking, although she never had an “event” if her husband was home. We also learn that they had been through multiple miscarriages between Lianna’s birth and Paige’s, and there was town gossip about Paige’s paternity. Lianna finds herself attracted to Gavin Rikert, the police detective who takes the lead on the investigation – and keeps their growing relationship secret from her father and sister. Things get complicated when she learns that Gavin is also a sleepwalker, had met her mother at the sleep clinic, and that they had an ongoing friendship (which no one in the Ahlberg family knew ANYTHING  about).

This is way too challenging to discuss without spoiling the mystery. As I read on my Kindle and realized I was 95% through the book, I was wondering how the BLEEP the story would be resolved in the few remaining pages. And once I finished it, I found myself wanting to go back and re-read it, armed with my new knowledge!

I learned a ton about sleep disorders, which I appreciated, having been a sleepwalker as a child and, as an adult, having spent a few nights covered with electrodes at the sleep clinic (although my disorder was not and is not at all similar to Anna lee’s).

It’s well written, the mystery was not revealed until the very end (although I am one of those mystery readers who rarely figures things out before the big reveal), the characters were very well drawn, and I learned some things! I give it five stars.

Infamy by Robert Tannenbaum


I’ve read most of Robert Tanenbaum’s books featuring Manhattan District Attorney Butch Karp and his wife, Marlene Ciampi, so I was happy to receive an advance copy of Infamy from NetGalley and Gallery Books in exchange for my honest review. The story is basically this: a former Army veteran murders a colonel in New York, then claims that he was being manipulated as part of mind control experiments. A hotshot criminal defense lawyer (with ties to the White House), decides to defend the killer, and uses the veteran’s apparent post-traumatic stress from his tours in Afghanistan as his defense.

DA “Butch” Karp works with an old friend (frenemy?), investigative reporter Ariadne Stupenagel. She suspects that one of her victims in the shooting was a source she was using for a story on high-level government corruption, and argues that the shooting event was a hired killing, contracted by people at the highest levels of government, rather than some random violent event.

It’s a fast-paced thriller, and Karp feels that not only he, but also his family and friends are in danger if he goes ahead with the prosecution.

At times, it seems the story was created with a movie in mind, and for me it wasn’t up to the level of some earlier books in the series. Or perhaps my expectations were too high? Or perhaps disillusionment with government ethics following the election of 2016 affected my enjoyment of this thriller that was political as well as legal. I found Butch to be a bit too right of center for me to really love his actions. (“Really, Mr. Tanenbaum, it’s not you – it’s me!!”)

In any case, fans of Tannenbaum’s will enjoy it for sure. Four stars.

The Cutaway by Christina Kovac


The Cutaway by Christina Kovac is described as being “perfect for fans of Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn,” so as a fan of those two books, I was happy to receive an advance copy from Atria Books and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I tend to enjoy books about the inner workings of media when they are written by someone with actual real world experience – and Ms. Kovac has seventeen years of experience in broadcast news, so I figured this was drawn for stories and people with whom she had worked in the past, and for me it rang true.

The story is set in Washington, D.C., and includes elements from news, politics and crime as it follows Virginia Knightly, a TV news producer, who receives an unsettling notice about a young attorney who is missing. The woman was last seen leaving a fancy restaurant after a domestic dispute, and Virginia finds herself investigating the disappearance on her own as her skeptical colleagues aren’t on board with her suspicions.

The pace is fast, the characters well-drawn, and the corruption among the police, the politicians and the press are pervasive…and creepy as we enter into an era marked with unsettling links between business and government following the recent election.

Described as a “psychological thriller,” it will appeal to fans of stories such as Big Little Lies, Gone Girl, Girl on a Train and Missing, Presumed.

My husband found a few details that, for him, disturbed the flow of the narrative – things along the lines of  “wait, if she had lost her wallet, how did she…” so I felt I couldn’t give it five stars, but those didn’t really bother me, and I hope this is the first in a series of stories involving Virginia Knightly!

Four stars.

The Forgotten Girls by Owen Laukkanen

Cover Laukkanen Forgotten Girls.jpg

Several years ago, I stumbled upon Owen Laukkanen’s book The Professionals, featuring the crime-fighting team of Kirk Stevens (with the Minnesota BCA) and Carla Windermere (FBI). It was great! Since then I have enjoyed the exploits of these partners (in Criminal Enterprise, Kill Fee, The Stolen Ones, and The Watcher in the Wall), so I was happy to get an advance copy of The Missing Girls (to be published in March 2017), thanks to Penguin Group Putnam / G.P. Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley.

I wasn’t more than a paragraph or two into the Prologue before a scary premise was revealed: young women are hopping freight trains and meeting creepy guys. Given the title, I knew this wasn’t going to end well for more than one of them. And the line from the Prologue, repeated early on in the book, sent a chilling message: You don’t ever surf trains on the High Line.(seriously, it creeps me out just to write the words.)

Seems there is a serial killer targeting women, all of whom tend to fall into the categories that are unlikely to be missed: runaways, freight hoppers, barmaids, prostitutes, etc., many of them Native Americans – and many who disappear into a snowbank, not to be found until the spring thaw. He chose women the mountains wouldn’t miss, women who died easy. Women who nobody saw, anyway.

It takes awhile for the identity of the killer to be revealed, and Laukkanen is extremely skilled at building tension and describing the atmosphere. So good, in fact, that I kept having to get under a heated blanket as I followed Stevens and Windermere while they worked the case in horrific winter conditions in the North (Montana and into Canada).

Both the atmosphere and the killer are incredibly COLD: “…put that girl’s death down to natural causes, whether it was cold that killed her or a man. It’s all the same thing on this side of the mountain.”

Earlier titles in this series seemed to focus a bit more on the relationship between Stevens and Windermere, which is clearly now only a professional partnership. But they work well together and share a commitment to following through on the search for the killer, because they both clearly care about the women, regardless of their social class, history or current living situation.

Not so much a who-done-it mystery as a character study for the reader but there is a puzzle for them to solve in order to identify the killer, and there is some nifty Internet/Cloud technology as they follow the trail. And OMG, the scenes as the victims and the authorities plow through near-blizzard conditions! These chapters are incredibly tense and build to the ending (not perfect for all the characters by any means).

A great weekend of escapist fiction reading, and another winner from Owen Laukkanen. Five stars.