Review: The Hive (Gregg Olsen)

Lindsay Jackman is a detective in the Pacific Northwest mourning the loss of her partner/mentor to suicide when she’s called out to the scene of a murder. The young woman at the bottom of the ravine is a college student, researching a story – one that is more an expose, and that appears to be about Marnie Spellman, who hawks bee-inspired cosmetics.

The Hive note in the title is a group of five women who were closest to Spellman, the majority of whom were nurses. While the original five are no longer on Lummi island, where Spellman lives and where she creates her cosmetics lines, there are other women who live an work on Spellman’s farm and who help with the business.

As it seems all roads lead to Spellman, Jackman picks up Spellman’s first book and beings to read it. I’ll say here that this book within a book is filled with the usual pablum found in most “you’re the owner of your life” type books, except for Spellman, not only is the future female, so is the now.

This is a multi-POV book that also bounces back and forth in time. Specifically, we go from the present in 2019 to the past, in 1999, when one of the women in the Hive (Calista) died under mysterious circumstances. It appears the murdered journalist was hot on the trail of this story and had to be killed to stop her snooping. There’s a twist there that comes from nowhere, which I’m definitely not a fan of – I’ve read mysteries where the murderer is only introduced in the last ten pages or so, and to me, that’s cheating the reader out of a fundamental involvement in the story.

Meanwhile, we are told Spellman has some kind of charisma that draws people – especially women – to her, even to the point of women like Calista, who leave their husbands and their kids to go work on Spellman’s farm. I don’t doubt this happens; Spellman is, after all, running a cult, although she and everyone associate with it claim it isn’t.

As we go along with the pieces of the story told by the token cliches -a woman running for Congress, a past-her-prime actress, a woman who faked her own death, and another who blackmailed Spellman to not say anything about what they were doing on the farm. The threads begin to come together, and the reveal of the truth behind Spellman’s products is likely to elicit a shrug. It did for me, anyway, as at most I could see the nurses getting in hot water for theft, and not for making items with the ingredient. The substance cited has been in use for quite some time, with its efficacy in this particular, specific use questionable.

The murderer of Calista is eventually discovered, and the murderer of the journalist is not, thanks to a lie from a major liar and blame cast on someone unable to defend themselves. There is a short epilogue at the end that reads like a closing card on a TV show detailing what happened to the people seen on it.

Overall, it’s a moderately good read, with a little too much bouncing around in time for my taste. There is also one large issue I have with the book, since I am a beekeeper. I’ll give my rating here, and will put the bee-related kind of, but not quite, rant, below.

Three out of five stars. Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

Spellman’s backstory is that she had some kind of epiphany when she saw a swarm of honeybees and they lifted her off the ground and spoke to her. That’s fine: people have weird visions or voices in their heads all the time. She claims the bees tell her what direction she should go, and she does. She is, of course, known as the queen bee on her island, and the five women who are closest to her back in 1999 are of course called the Hive for this reason and because they’re making cosmetics with bee products. This is fine.

What is not fine, however, is something so basic that it is incorrect in this book not once but three times, and there’s another bee-related error as well.

“Pulsing noises lay atop each other as drones bring nectar stolen from the clouds of blossoms that hover over blackberry brambles that line the roads of Lummi Island.”

“‘contains royal jelly.’ From her reading, Lindsay knew that royal jelly was the substance drones fed a bee to turn her into a queen.”

“”Scout,” Calista said, her voice growing weak. “The most important role for a male in the hive.””

Even a cursory look at Wikipedia, or just a generic search would, in 30 seconds or less, return information on who does what in a beehive. I’d expect that a book revolving around bees would get this fundamental item correct: drones (male honeybees) do not gather nectar, do not feed larvae royal jelly or anything else, and are not scouts. Drones primarily exist to mate with virgin queens, and otherwise hang out in the hive, cared for by the nurse/worker bees – all of whom are female. All work that relates to the upkeep of a hive is done by female bees. That includes gathering nectar and pollen, caring for larvae, guarding the entrance, and scouting out new locations for a swarm. Drones, if they are still around when winter comes, are unceremoniously kicked out of a hive to save on resources.

“Nectar is honey transformed.”

Exactly the opposite: honey is nectar (gathered by female forager honeybees) transformed (by female honeybees).

Review: The Plot ( Jean Hanff Korelit)

Jacob “Finch” Bonner wrote a well-received, well-reviewed first novel. He promptly wrote a second novel that was less so. Work on the third book he’s under contract to write is virtually nonexistent.

To pay the bills, Bonner takes a job teaching an MFA class on writing. When doing the meet and greet during office hours, most students are exactly as he thought: not many good ones, according to their reading samples. Except for Evan Parker. His sample, grudgingly shown, shows that he has talent and his arrogance about it is warranted. Eventually, Parker tells Bonner the story – the whole story – and Bonner concludes that the book will be very good indeed, and that the plot is so original that no one has ever written a book using it.

Bonner manages to make it through the term, and subsequently lands a spot teaching virtual classes in another place. He can’t stop thinking about Evan Parker, and is amazed to find that Parker died shortly after that class, without ever having published that book. Bad news for him, but good news for Bonner, who decides to shanghai the idea and write his own version off it. This book becomes a huge bestseller, he lands on Oprah’s show, Spielberg has snapped up the movie rights, and so on. He also goes on a book tour. One place he stops is a radio station on the opposite coast, where he meets a woman working for the station who tells him she read the book and loved it – ditto for his other books. They flirt a bit, and we see where this is leading.

But it seems someone knows what Bonner has done, and doesn’t have any second thought about letting him know. It starts with emails, escalates to social media, and then to actual paper letters..

She moves to New York to be with him, and do all the social things, which, to his surprise, she’s great at.. Bonner continues to get the creepy messages, but keeps this from his now-fiancee and eventually his wife.

The social media portion finally makes it the food chain to his editor and the boss and legal counsel for the publishing house, where they tell him not to worry, they’ve seen this sort of thing before. But he does worry about it, as there are things only someone Evan Parker could have told the story to see. We also get glimpses of the book,with two to three pages of it here and there.within the main book. By now, we’re following Bonner as tries to track down information about Evan Parker, those who knew him well, and who could be behind the machinations to expose Bonner as having lifted the idea from Parker’s draft.

This book reminded be a bit of the movie The Words, a movie about a book about a book, with a dash of Secret Window and The Hoax tossed in, topped off with Deathtrap, by Ira Levine. It’s a bit slow to get started, and somewhat ponderous as well – I attribute this to be mimicking what I suppose is Bonner’s literary fiction style. As things progress, the writing becomes  looser. The ending is something I saw coming, and there’s a cold-heartedness in the reasoning behind why some people do what they do to set things right/get justice as best they can, as they see fit. My only quibble is that the plot of Parker’s book is deemed entirely brand new, and that no one has written anything like it, ever, which is not exactly true in our world (but perhaps is true in the universe of this book).

I’m giving The Plot 4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up to 5.

Thanks to Celadon and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Mastermind, Blackwood/Cray #1 (Andrew Mayne)

I seem to recall reading something that had Theo Cray in it, but clearly, I’m thinking of someone else, as the series featuring Cray is not something I’ve read. Likewise, I have not read any books in the Jessica Blackwood series.

That said, this books, labeled as Blackwood/Cray #1 seems to be a new series where thy will be together to investigate oddball things that may happen – like a mysterious blackout in NYC that appears to be swirling with electric energy and which also cut out power to almost everyone in the bubble and caused electronic devices to stop working.

We get a scene of Cray being liberated from a jail in a foreign land, and it appears Jessica Blackwood possesses skills ranging from hand o hand combat to forging paperwork. It’s the latter that allows her to get Cray out of the hellhole he’s in.

Of course, there’s a catch to all this: the FBI, for whom Blackwood works, needs him and Blackwood to look into the phenomenon they’ve taken to calling The Void. Blackwood believes it’s the work of that typical fictional villain, Michael Heywood, AKA Warlock who seems to have the world at his fingertips and who managed to escape prison during a transfer.

What follows is a romp around the globe, with clues coming from the oddest places: a zoo where chimpanzees have been stolen. A “research facility” in the Chernobyl zone, where the men are practically zombies, but ordinarily healthy otherwise, no matter what ailment(s) they may have had before..

Together, the no nonsense, hyperfocused Blackwood, and the talks before he thinks Theo Cray race around the globe, looking into odd incidents, thefts from datacenters, and two more Voids in Seoul and Singapore. In their way: people paid off by Heywood, and eventually a face to face with Heywood, who demands Cray also be there, despite Cray not having any direct connection to Heywood, so Heywood can detail the ways the he is better than Cray..

As far as stories go, it isn’t too bad. There’s enough suspense that then turns into a “the clock is ticking” story when the threat of yet another Void is hanging over their heads to keep things moving along. I did like the banter between Blackwood and Cray, and there is the typical internecine fighting between federal agencies, both of which ring true. The ending is a turn the tables type, and that works here in the universe of this book. The writing is good, although some of the backstory drop-ins felt a little forced. That does not really break the narrative, however, and while some of them were rather long – necessary for some of the technical stuff that most people don’t know or with which they are not familiar – but I am not dinging it for this.

A solid four stars.

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

Review: No Going Back, Sawyer Brooks #3 (T. R. Ragan)

No Going Back is the third, and final(?) book in the Sawyer Brooks series. I’ve read one of the two preceding books – while this does work as a standalone, readers would do better to read one or both of the books that came before this one, if only to understand the emergence of The Black Wigs and how their actions have change over time.

The Black Wigs is a group of female vigilantes, meting out justice to (male) sexual predators. Previously, they only worked to embarrass such men, but here, in this book, things have taken a decidedly more macabre turn, and the group is engaging in outright torture and murder. While their reasons for doing so make sense, in the context of the world they inhabit in their heads in this book, it isn’t an easy task to take a life. However, at least one of the women in the group is psychopath who sticks to their plans without deviation, and it’s a bit disturbing that the other women, who express some hesitance in the case of one man who did indeed turn himself around and do good things to atone for his previous behavior, do next to nothing to stop his victim from killing him. There’s a lack of humanity floating in the pool at some points here, and there should probably be a trigger/content warning somewhere before the book begins.

This book identifies all of the members of the group, and we get chapters from the viewpoint of several of them – their day to day lives, their failing marriages, their thinking on the nature of the crimes they are committing, and how they’re planning the next snatch and kill. There are also a few chapters from the viewpoint of the victims – but not victims of The Black Wigs. This time, there’s a copycat engaging in their own level of justice, and impersonating The Black Wigs. As the story goes along, it becomes clear that one of the targets is in the crosshairs of both the copycat and the actual group.

Sawyer Brooks, last found being completely unaware that one of her sisters is in The Black Wigs, is now investigating the group, following leads wherever they can be found. She’s also convinced that some of the murders are not being done by the group, but by a copycat. Her sister Aria, also somehow unaware that their sister is part of The Black Wigs, assists Sawyer when she can.

Teaming up with Sawyer on the journalistic investigation is Lexi, a stunningly beautiful (of course) hard nosed reporter who has about as much use for Sawyer and Sawyer does for her – not much. Their differing styles are drawn very well, and each has their own strengths and weaknesses. The scenes where they are together are very well done, from the simmering resentment of Sawyer and the initial dismissal of her by Lexi to their eventual is not friendliness, at least respect for each others methods.

The ending comes together as both the police and Sawyer race to get to the final victim before the copycat and/or The Black Wigs do, and various loose ends are tied down.

There are a couple of false notes rung here and there (especially in one particular item in the finale, which I won’t go into for spoiler reasons) but these do not detract from the story and are not sufficient or jolting enough to take the reader out of the story.

A solid four out of five. Hopefully, this is not the last we see of Sawyer Brooks.

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

Review: The Girl Who Died (Ragnar Jonasson)

How could you go wrong with something that starts “Teacher needed for the edge of the world”? That sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Alas, although I am a fan of Ragnar Jonasson otherwise, The Girl Who Died just does not live up to his other books.

The teacher is Una, the edge of the world is the remote village of Skalar (population:10), and there are two girls who die, one in this time, and one in a previous time. There is – remarkably – even a hunky guy for Una to crush on, which is a good respite from the weirdos who otherwise populate the town. Her charges are two girls, and that’s the extent of her classroom. We don’t get a lot of lookins on lessons: just enough to know that one girl is outgoing, can sing, and is the swan, the other is introverted, can’t carry a tune, and is probably an embarrassment to her mother and her lech of a father, who hits on Una when she meets him.

The best thing about this book is the setting – and more specifically, the outdoor setting. The bleak and barren landscape is described with a suitable creepiness, and may as well be on the dark side of the moon on the remoteness scale.

The plot moves along – Una sees ghost her first day in town, which told me right off I[‘d chosen poorly in this instance. I’m just not a fan of ghost stories, and while Una’s feelings while in house, alone, were well-described, at times she seemed on the edge of the hysteria abyss, about to fall in.

There’s a random subplot that suddenly pops up about 3/4 of the way through, which just dissolves into nothing, and there is a death that was intended for someone else.

The end just fizzled for me, as it was terribly anticlimactic. Una may be part of the town now, but to me, she belongs back in the city.

Two stars out of five. I’m treating this as a one-off and look forward to Jonasson’s next book.

Thanks to St Martin’s and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

Review: Levi’s War, Horowitz #3 (Julie Thomas)

I’m of two minds about Levi’s War, the closing chapter of the Horowitz trilogy. I wanted to like it much more than I did, and I wanted it to be able to stand on its own, and it doesn’t. I wouldn’t say it’s a crushing disappointment, as it is not, but neither is it a rip-roaring tale of a fictional Jew (the Levi of the title) trained as a spy and assassin (more on this later), who by sheer happenstance lands in Hitler’s inner circle during WWII.

I get that historical fiction, and especially historical spy/thriller tales, need a lot of suspension of disbelief and a big helping of coincidence, but this really strained my willingness to remain in the book. But, as my power cut off during a storm, and remained off for over two hours, and having already read the other books on my Netgalley shelf, I didn’t have much else to do.

As might be clear from the above, it’s an easy enough, although rather pedestrian, read, and I did complete it during the outage. It is the third book in a trilogy, and this time, I’d say that reading the first two would have been a huge help to keep track of who everyone was, and who was related to whom. Completely denoting it as a third book in that way would have saved Ms Thomas the need to insert explanatory passages from the first two books, and would have saved us having to read them – multiple times throughout. While I know some people minded how the story was told – a young, 1945 Levi tells his story to a camera, the film is found during archival digitizing, and the immediate, extended, and descendant family watching that film – but this was fine with me. I didn’t care for just how dry – almost clinically dry – it was.

If you’re coming to this book and its weighty subject expecting to find a deeply emotional, resonant work set during one of the most shameful eras of human existence, you won’t find it here. There isn’t anyone in this book who seemed to be passionate about anything at all, except for Levi when playing the piano. His relationship with a childhood friend and a young Luftwaffe officer was mundane, and it wasn’t love that occupied Levi’s thoughts, but textbook dry, junior high muddling. Since homosexuality was criminalized, I’d have expected much more about how Levi and Erik evaded detection, since it’s clear Levi spends many nights – consecutive nights – at Erik’s place, something that surely would have generated gossip.

Beyond that, the book is a rather straightforward account of what Levi did during the war. He leaves Berlin, bound for London via Sweden, but gets held up by a Nazi at a checkpoint. Now, Levi at this point if just Levi, the musician. In this scene, he may as well be James Bond: the Nazi’s Ruger jams not once, but twice when he tries to shoot Levi. Levi needs only to step into the Nazi as the latter is about to pistol whip him and throw what amounts to one punch, which slams the man against a wall an knocks him out. Then Levi picks up the gun and flees with his belongings into the woods, magically making it to London despite having no military or survival training.

All the right doors open for Levi when they need to, and all the right people appear for him when the plot needs it. He works as a banker until total war breaks out, at which point he is placed in a camp with other refugees. He’s eventually tapped by the British to be a spy – and not just any spy: a spy whose purpose is to get into the circle of high level Nazis in order to send information back to the Allies. The British train him in less than a year, and he’s off to Berlin, to work in Goebbels’ office, translating English newspaper articles. He’s tapped to play piano at a party, eventually making it up the Nazi food chain until hes sent to play or Hitler himself. In doing so, he manages to send back quite a it of material, because the Nazis apparently don’t keep their mouths shut about organizational issues and/or chitchat when junior officers are present.

Levi eventually leaves Germany with Erik, who has recently been snuck out of Dachau worse for wear. They decide that Italy is where they should go, to fight with the partisans there, and that’s just what they do, traveling at night and hiding out during the day – something Levi does again later, on his own, and in neither instance is there any threat to being discovered. There’s no tension on those pages or many others in this book.

The Allies win, Levi is debriefed, and off he goes to live his life, with his relatives only finding out the story all those years later, watching the film. The ending sputters out a little, with a genealogy search that says flat out the circle of the Horowitz tale is over, instead of using a more metaphorical image to end on.

It’s decent enough if you’re casting around for something to read and have a few hours to do so. But if you haven’t read the first two books, just a warning that you’ll see the same information presented over and over because you weren’t there for the first two.

Two and half stars, rounded to three, and that only because the story, in its own framework, held itself together to the end.

Thanks to Harper360 and NetGalley for the review copy.

Hunting the Hangman (Howard Linskey)

An engrossing, novelized version of the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the so-called “final solution” envisioned by Nazi Germany, by Czech partisans trained by the British.

Knowing their survival after the assassination attempt – regardless of whether said assassination attempt was successful or not – was unlikely, the two Czechs go forward with their training and the attempt in any case, as the sacrifice of their lives may save many, many others.

The training sequences are the weakest, but only because the other events in the book – including glimpses of the Hangman’s family life – are much more fascinating. This is not a detraction from the book, however, which is a great fictional rendition of factual events read for anyone interested in WWII, the Holocaust, or Nazi Germany.

Solid five out of five read.

Thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Dirty Gold (Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehamas, Jim Wyss, Kyra Gurney)

Dirty Gold explores illegal (wildcat) mining (mainly) in Peru, and the dubious ways gold brokers – such as those detailed in this book – manage to sell or obtain that gold to be recycled and sold to other entities or made into consumer goods.

I’ll say this right off the bat: writers of narrative nonfiction could use this as a textbook. It is intelligently laid out, the cast of characters not only denoted before the book begins, but named and described in the text in a way that does not require constant flipping to the beginning to see who is who, the history of illegal mining given (but not in an overwhelming way) along with the sociological, economic, corruption, and political ties to it, and how the various schemes worked to get the gold out of South America. It’s masterful.

At its base, this book is about three men in Miami – Juan Pablo Granda, Samer Barrage, and Renato Rodriguez, dubbed the three amigos – working on behalf of a larger company, manage to bring an astonishing $3,6 billion worth of mainly Peruvian gold to their company. In doing so, both they, and their primary local buyer in Peru, go to a great number of steps to obscure the actual origin of the gold. Those steps include the creation of fake/shell companies, smuggling Peruvian gold to other countries in order to export it to the US, and failed or too-loose vetting of the supposed exporting companies in Peru that declared the gold obtained in a legal manner.

If you’re interested in anything related to gold, money laundering, smuggling, political and law enforcement corruption, sociological, ecological, and health impacts of illegal mining, and the utter chasm between those riding high on the backs of those in abject poverty, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Absolutely a five out of five star read. I’d also recommend “A Most Wicked Conspiracy”, about the Alaskan gold rush, another five star read.

Thanks to Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

REVIEW: The Ravine (Wendy Lower)

In 2009, Wendy Lower (author of Hitler’s Furies , another worthy book to add to your TBR list) comes across a photo from Miropol, Ukraine: a woman, toddler in her arms, baby at her feet, being shot by a Ukrainian collaborator during operations in that country during WWII. The title refers to the ravine into which people fell after being executed for no reason other than they were not part of the so-called “master race”.

What follows is an excellent, although horrifying read, of Lower’s investigation into this photo. This entails records retrieved in various countries – the US, Ukraine, Germany, and Israel – talking with people and/or potential witnesses, and eventually spans ten years to finally identify the doomed family as well as the Slovakian photographer who was not supposed to be taking pictures of these operations.

If you’re at all interested in the Holocaust or the European Theater of Operations during WWII, you’ll likely be as engrossed in this book as I was, even given – or especially because of the book’s subject, something no one should ever forget.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

REVIEW: The Darkest Evening, DCI Vera Stanhope #9 (Ann Cleeves)

I love Vera Stanhope, cranky old broad and DCI.

In her latest outing, Vera drives home while a blizzard rages. After taking the wrong turn – that happens to be the road to her ancestral home – she comes across a car blocking the road, mired in the snow. The driver’s door is open, and there’s a baby in a carseat in the back, but the driver is missing. As the snow continues to fall, Vera takes the child into her car, leaves a note on the car, and carries on to said ancestral home, knocking on the door to seek harbor from the storm, and in the process seeing relatives she hasn’t seen in quite a long time.

When a young woman’s body is found on the property, it’s clear the woman is likely the mother of the child, and that the people in the house (both er relatives and the dinner guests they are hosting) probably know more about the woman than they let on.

The investigation is then off, with no shortage of suspects and Vera and her team wringing information out of people and chasing down leads and connections, no matter how slim they may appear.

We get more background on Harold, Vera’s father and black sheep of the Stanhope family, and more insight into how Vera views the familial tree (spoiler: she’s not into having to put on the facade of genteel landowner, benificent landlord). I believe these short interludes were both worthy of inclusion to the story and not disruptive to the narrative. Well done on that.

As Vera and her team put together the puzzle of circumstances, the perpetrator becomes more violent and aggressive, and the final showdown is a lulu.

Highly recommended. Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for the review copy (which was approved after I’d already bought it ).

 

Reflections on gardening, cooking, and life