Review: You Again: A Novel

One day while sitting in a cab, Abby Willard spots a young woman on the sidewalk, only to realize moments later that it’s a younger version of herself.

From this opening, we delve into Abby becoming slightly obsessed with the younger her, and she begins to go to various places she went to when she was young, knowing she will find herself there. Surrounding the mystery of why she is seeing herself, and why there are gaps in her memory, are various other stories: her soul-sucking job for a big pharmacology company as a graphic designer, her husband’s work woes, her oldest son starting to run with a group of antifa protestors with his new friend Dmitri, who may or may not be what he seems, and her interaction with a detective after her son is arrested.

Amidst all of this, Abby continues to follow the younger her, eventually speaking to her, trying to talk her out of the mistakes Abby knows she will make. Interspersed with this are notes from therapy sessions, and a neurologist reviewing medical records and images – at the outset, we’re not sure what those records are or who they are about.

Along the way, we learn that both Abby and her husband are very talented artists, but both gave up their art when it wouldn’t pay the bills. The younger Abby then starts appearing to older Abby at random moments – proving the oddball nature of this goes both way – offering her own advice to the older Abby.

Events reach a crescendo in the last third of the book, with a fire, a death, and a question about space and time.

The writing is almost stream of consciousness, with sentence fragments scattered widely throughout the book, and this works well with the story, since we are watching Abby experience some very existential questions about herself and the world in which she now lives.

A solid three and a half stars out of five.

Thanks to NetGalley and Ecco for the advance copy.

Review: A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age

In the sunset of the days of the last real political bosses, robber barons, handpicked judges, and laws designed to help only them, Alexander McKenzie tries to wrest control of Alaskan gold mines from rightful claimants.

Author Paul Starobin has created an exceptionally readable book that traces McKenzie’s beginnings from poor and broke to wealthy kingmaker. It is superbly researched, and conveys not just the sentiment of the day – moguls say who will be sent to Congress, who will be President, and woe be unto you if you buck their requests for money and/or support – but also the aspirations of those seeking their golden fortune in Alaska after the California gold rush had settled.

McKenzie, already a rich man by the time the Alaskan gold rush begins, decides there is never too much wealth, and ropes in various people to assist with his takeover of the existing (and some not yet existing) gold claims in Alaska. Among them are Senators, judges, lawyers, former lawmen, and every day people who believe they are buying shares of McKenzie’s new company. He agitates for and receives the judge of his choice to be placed in Nome – and coincidentally, this same judge will hear the suits of the claim holders against corrupt lawyers and McKenzie. This is the same judge who (illegally) places the claims into receivership – with McKenzie as the receiver, thus freed to start taking gold out of the ground even while the other suits grind through the system, deliberately slowed by McKenzie and his cronies.

It’s a fascinating look at the politics of the times – one might even be inclined to say the politics of our times haven’t changed all that much.

It’s also a great look at some unrecognized heroes, standing against corruption on a massive scale. They include Senators, Federal judges in the 9th Circuit Court in California, lawyers not taken in by McKenzie, and, as always, journalists.

In the end, the punishment for these misdeeds – as is so terribly often the case in circumstances like these – is not befitting the bad actors. In that respect, there certainly have not been many changes from then to now.

Fans (as I am) of books about businesses and their leaders behaving badly (such as The Smartest Guys in the Room about the downfall of Enron), history buffs, and anyone ever tantalized by treasure should appreciate this book.

This is an eminently readable and enjoyable book. Five stars.

Contains photos and extensive notes.

Thanks to NetGalley and PublicAffairs for the advanced copy.

Review: The Words I Never Wrote

Warning: rape

Jane Thynne brings us an epistolary novel set in London and Berlin in the late 1930s in the runup to WWII.

In the present, Juno Lambert, a photographer working her way through divorce, comes across an ancient Underwood typewriter. The typewriter shop owner tells her it was once the property of Cordelia Capel, a journalist who covered fashion in Paris and then the aftermath of WWII. In the case for the typewriter is a partially-finished manuscript written by Cordelia. Juno purchases the typewriter. Her editor has asked her to go on assignment to Berlin, and she accepts with a double purpose in mind: to perform this assignment, and find out all she can about the Capels to complete the story the manuscript began.

In the 1930s, as the decade comes to an end, the Capel sisters Irene and Cordelia are about to head their separate ways. Close for their entire lives, this brings along a bit of angst, especially as Irene is marrying a German industrialist, who has also joined the Nazi party in order to expand his business. Cordelia, a bit later, heads to Paris to act as the secretary to the news bureau chief there, and eventually begins writing columns about her coverage of fashion there.

At first, the sisters write one another often, detailing the happenings around them – there are many historical people named in the novel, from fashion designers, writers, painters, and assorted other cultural icons in France on Cordelia’s side to Nazi leaders in Germany on Irene’s.

As the storms of war ramp up, Cordelia begs Irene to leave Germany and head home to London with her. Irene refuses, and after being warned by Mary Dodd (daughter of the US Ambassador) as well as a handsome Nazi officer (Abel Hoffman) to watch what she says and writes, and knowing that she will never be able to leave without her passport (now locked in a safe to which she does not know the combination), decides to restrict her letter to Cordelia to only the social goings-on she is party to as the wife of a wealthy and influential industrialist. She tells herself, however, to memorize the things she is seeing and hearing.

Cordelia, exasperated with Irene, tells her that the letter she is writing now will be her last, since Irene has apparently chosen the Germans over her family. Cordelia falls in love with her station chief, who decides to go to Spain, where a civil war is underway. She pleads with him not to go, but eventually she returns to London, alone. There, she works with British intelligence to prepare people to act as spies. She works with Kim Philby, the notorious double agent who penetrated the intelligence service.

Back in Germany, Irene makes a fateful decision to work with resistance fighters. Not in the field, but by bringing them materials they can use to fake papers, work orders, and so forth. Eventually, she also begins working in a hospital, to treat Germans injured in the war.

Thynne does a wonderful job of describing the environments in which the two sisters lived, but not to the point of it affecting the story negatively. The bustling of both Paris and Berlin prior to the war is depicted, as is the effect of war on the Germans as WWII grinds down on the country with the advances of both US and Russian troops.

The story is strongest when it is focused on Cordelia and Irene and the milieus in which they find themselves. Juno is certainly the weakest link, and when the book reached the last quarter, it was all Juno and what she had been able to discover, with her egocentric ex making an unwelcome appearance – an unneeded push to the story, as he served no purpose other than to reinforce to Juno that she was doing the right thing.

I won’t go into the very end so as not to spoil it. I will say this is one of the best books I’ve read this year so far, and very well written. It is dramatic without being melodramatic, romantic without being cliche, and descriptive without being flowery.

4 out of 5 stars.

Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine books for the advance copy.

Review: A Field Guide to Homicide

In this cozy mystery from Lynn Cahoon, Cat Latimer, her business partner Shauna, and Cat’s boyfriend Seth host a writer’s retreat at the bed and breakfast run. While the group is out hiking, Cat takes a photo of one of the couples. While looking at the photo to ensure she hasn’t committed any stranger photo faux pas, she notices a leg sticking out of a huckleberry bush behind the couple. The unfortunate owner of the leg is an old Army buddy of Seth’s, Chance. The problem is that Chance supposedly died in Germany years ago.

Cat’s uncle Pete leads the investigation, and his girlfriend, Shirley (formerly law enforcement herself) is down from Alaska visiting. Both Shirley and Cat put themselves into the investigation. Seth also has some of his former Army buddies in town for a reunion. It’s a little busy in this small Colorado town. The dead man was sitting on a gold claim, and according to his bank records, was receiving two grand a month into his bank account. Since he was living under an assumed name, was completely off the grid, and rarely visited town, who killed him, and why?

I’ll admit that cozies are not really my jam these days. It isn’t that they don’t have gore or explicit scenes. It’s just that I like more detail than often is given about crime scenes and procedures. For instance, we don’t find out much of anything about the initial crime scene here. Chance’s body is just kind of found and it kicks off the investigation. A journal the dead man kept and that Cat reads a couple of times doesn’t really yield much to push the story forward (except the romance part, as the dead man writes about how Seth, Cat’s high school sweetheart, bought a ring and was going to ask her to marry him back in the day, before she married another man).

The writer’s retreat aspect of the book could easily have been left out or swapped for anything else. We rarely see the two couples and the young man who make up the five people at the B&B. One of the characters even makes a comment about how little interaction there is between Cat, who is presumably running the thing, as a published writer, and the others. What we do get an awful lot of, though, is talking. Pete shows up now and again to fill Cat in, Seth tells Cat a teeny bit about his Army past, Shirley shows up to tell Cat about something she has gleaned by hanging out with Pete – you get the idea.

We also get a ton of food: breakfast, lunch, dinner at the B&B, restaurant food, people eating, people talking about eating, and so on. Shauna, it turns out, is writing a cookbook, with Mrs. Rice, the next door neighbor Cat doesn’t particularly like, as her beta eater.

There is a little bit of chat from Cat about publishing and how it works, and a pep talk to the young man about writing what he loves, a few scenes where Cat goes off to write, but again, all of this could have been left out, as it really adds nothing to the story. It’s as if the retreat group was simply a box to tick because the series demands it. Yes, the series is about a writer running a writing retreat; however, there’s nothing in this book that requires they be there.

The “who” in the whodunnit comes a bit out of nowhere, with an ending that wraps things up nicely with a bow, although a bit improbably.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thanks to NetGalley and Kensington for the advance copy.

Review: A Criminal Justice (Philadelphia Legal #4)

Note to potential readers: to truly understand what’s going on in this book, you should read A Criminal Defense (the first book in the series). While there is a precis in the form of a small infodump in the first chapter, it could be quite easy to get confused by the players and the conspiracy if the reader is not familiar with the previous goings-on.

Mick McFarland, first introduced by author William L. Myers, Jr.  in A Criminal Defense, is back – this time being arrested at the very start of the book as his firm celebrates winning the release of an innocent man from prison.

When he, and everyone else, protests, the arresting officer smugly informs him (albeit obliquely) that there is video of him committing cold blooded murder.

Way back in my review of book one in this series, I said that with the possible exception of McFarland’s very young daughter, there wasn’t a single character that I liked. I’m sorry to say that this has not changed at all. The most authentic character is Catherine Nunzio, who heads up a crime family of the same name. While she’s evil and a murderer herself, at least she understands in this author’s universe what the hell she’s doing. This book, like the first, is also in present tense, although in third person. Not my thing, and if it isn’t yours, you might want to skip it.

McFarland insists he’s innocent, but is held without bail due to the premeditation of the murder and video evidence that supposedly shows him killing Edwin Hanson – the president of HWI, and the brother of David Hanson, who McFarland managed to get off at HIS trial for killing a reporter back in book one.

McFarland wins up cellies with a Russian gangster, and there’s a bit of a subplot that appears midway through the book between his criminal org and the Nunzios. It isn’t very interesting except when McFarland is used as a tool by both – I found that pretty amusing.

Spoilery stuff ahoy:

Tredesco’s new partner – he appeared in the first book, and was peeved he couldn’t lock McFarland up forever for the reporter’s murder – Murphy (naturally a hot, red-haired woman from Boston) gets involved with McFarland’s brother Tommy, and starts working on the wrong side of the case as far as the powers that be are concerned. I’d be a bit concerned too, if one of my detectives took it upon themselves to go to Puerto Rico to hunt down one of the prosecution’s witnesses with the brother of the dude accused of the killing. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there were various moments like that for me throughout the book.

Piper – McFarland’s wife, who provided a bogus alibi for David Hanson in book one, is despised by David’s wife Marcie for….reasons. I don’t know, I think I’d be grateful for someone perjuring themselves on the witness stand for my loved one, even if I didn’t like them for what they did. But nope, Marcie’s a cold-hearted bitch through and through.

Then there’s Brian Yamura, brother of the slain reporter, convinced McFarland killed his sister, who is somehow magically able to create havoc at HWI, which David now heads, including running ships aground and causing a quarter of a solar farm to burst itself into flames from halfway around the world. All it takes for him to come around is Team McFarland using Catherine Nunzio to get his adoption records and have his pops have a heart to heart with him.

None of it makes any sense, really. A bunch of people hate McFarland so frame him for a murder using – again, just as it’s used in the first book – video, with an explanation that strains credulity and courtroom antics that do the same. The number of people in on the conspiracy to get McFarland put away is amazing, from the DA to the cops, to the security people at HWI, to the Hansons. There apparently isn’t anyone who can’t be bribed or murdered in order to achieve this goal. I don’t like him very much either, but there are a lot worse ways to hurt someone than just getting them thrown in jail with the possibility of the death penalty if found guilty at trial. And none of it involves doctored surveillance video.

I’ll probably not read another in this series. I did like the second and third books better than book one, but this is like Book One Redux: The Return of Bad Video Use.

3.5 stars out of 5. Mainly because all this video stuff is wrapped up now. Maybe we can move on to other things?

Thanks to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for the reading copy.