Reeview: The Idea of the Brain (Matthew Cobb)

I picked this up because I’ve always had a fascination with the brain – how can this person understand rocket science, while this person is better at literature, and how do people view (and/or value) these rather divergent types of development through their own lenses?

If you’re after a very detailed, rather academic sort of book examining the ways people throughout history have viewed the brain, this is the book for you. It comes across as a bit dry, as many overviews of anything do, but it does not stray into the weeds to become completely unreadable. You do need to be ready and alert to read it in order to understand the transitions and shifts of thinking throughout history about the organ that allows us to think.

If you’re a citation kind of person, this is also for you: as with other academic type books of this nature, there are loads of materials one could go find and read, if one were interested in continuing to delve into neurology and the general history of how we view the rather precious blob that sits inside our skulls.

Four stars.

Thanks to NetGalley and Perseus/Basic Books for the reading copy.

Review: Blind Vigil – Rick Cahill #6 (Matt Coyle)

This is more like it!

The last (and only) Rick Cahill book I read was Lost Tomorrows, and I found him to be a bit of an Eeyore, constantly mired in guilt about his wife’s death.


He also got shot in the face and that was a helluva way to end things.

He survived, and it’s now nine months later. Cahill is blind – with the chance that his eyesight may or may not return – and his girlfriend Leah (you may remember her as the sister of his former partner at the Santa Barbara PD) is splitting time between Santa Barbara and Cahill’s place in San Diego.

Moira – a San Diego-based PI – gets in touch with Cahill and wants him to come with her on a job. What job? Turk Muldoon, and old friend of Cahill’s, has hired her to spy on his girlfriend Shay, whom he thinks is seeing someone else. Cahill points out he can’t see anything, but Moira is more interested in his ears, and if he can tell what Turk is feeling and how apt he would be to snap and kill Shay if she was seeing someone else. Moira had given news of a wife’s infidelity previously to a doctor (her own son’s pediatrician, no less) who proceeded to off his wife, child, and then himself. She’d rather that not be the case here, and Cahill assures her Turk would never do something like that.

Shay, of course, is then found dead, and all indications are it’s Turk who killed her after an argument overheard by neighbors. Moira rails at Cahill, that he was wrong and now they’ve gotten Shay killed, but Cahill disagrees. Moira exits the case, but Cahilll wants to help his pal any way he can, even if he still can’t see.

Turk is arrested for murder, but Cahill has found information that tells him Idaho is where he needs to go. He ropes Moira back in, and they’re off, to talk to one recalcitrant cowboy but then to a more garrulous one. From there, it’s off to a PI who was trying to track down Shay’s father, who disappeared with over $800K dollars from the sale of the family ranch, leaving Shay and her mother with nothing. Her father was identified as the decedent in an auto wreck in Mexico, under his own name – this after the PI tells them Shay’s father used various aliases.

While all of this is going on, Rick keeps smelling the same man, repeatedly – following him and Moira, following just Cahill. But Moira never sees him, and Cahill dubs him the Invisible Man.

With that information, they head back to San Diego, to figure out a way to find Shay’s maybe/maybe-not dead father and a ranch hand who worked on the ranch prior to its sale. By now, we are all fairly sure Shay found her dad, and that he likely had something to do with her death. I will reiterate for whatever nth time it is that I still don’t like characters going to the bad guy, alone, without telling anyone.

I won’t go into details about the end except to say that “blind vigil” certainly is in play the last 20% of the book

Four and a half stars, dinged for character stupidity. I’m feeling generous, though, and I did like the story quite a lot, so I’m rounding up this time: five stars.

Thanks to NetGalley and Oceanview for the reading copy.

Release date: 01 Dec 2020.

Review: Line of Sight (James Queally)

Line of Sight open with Russ Avery – former reporter, now PI – helping a dirty cop clean up a mess he’s made. So we know, at least, that Avery can cross a moral line.

Avery is subsequently offered a job by Key, a Black activist and friend, to look into the death of Kevin Mathis. Mathis’ death was determined to be just another drug-related shooting in a town that never lacks them. The twist on this is that Mathis was in possession of a video that appears to show a police officer shooting a friend of his. Mathis’ father, Austin, is convinced his son was also killed by a cop.

Avery, knowing that the release of that video would blow up, requests that they give him a little time to start asking around, and not release the video. The problem for Avery: if he starts asking questions about an officer-involved shooting, his steady stream of “fixing” for cops is going to dry up fairly quickly.

He goes on anyway, his reporter brain fully engaged. Along the way we meet retired cops, active cops, and – thankfully – the really dirty cop who appears in the video. I say thankfully, because sometimes, in books like this, the bad guy doesn’t show up until a few pages from the end of the book, and it’s impossible to even make an in informed guess of whodunnit.

There’s a decent amount of action, and there are protests not unlike current event here in the US as I type this, which bring to mind the Black Live Matter protests, when Key and Mathis’ father release the video to the press. Russ manages to get himself beat up, arrested, and given a very stern talking to by his ex-girlfriend, who is still employed at the paper from which he was fired.

Overall, I’m giving it four out of five stars. The opening is a little slow, but once things get moving, we are along for the ride as Avery pokes his nose into places the people in charge don’t want him to go.

Thanks to NetGalley and Polis Books for the reading copy.

Review: Shadows of the Dead (Spencer Kope)

Magnus “Steps” Craig and his partner Jimmy are part of the FBI’s Special tracking Unit, called upon to assist in tracking everything from bank robbers to, in this case, the driver of a crashed car who had a woman in the trunk. The opening is a tense standoff between the driver the FBI and local authorities have pursued, and that drive, holed up in a cabin deep in the forest.


Unfortunately, that promise is blunted by tedious, unnecessary tangents, and a special ability that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Steps, pronounced dead at the age of eight of hypothermia, but brought back to life, returns from that experience with the ability to see people as colors and textures – this, to me, would be a form of synesthesia, based on grapheme-color synesthesia, but in this book, Steps is told by his father that he has the shine. To me, someone described as having the shine is someone who can see events past and future, and/or talk to other people just using their mind. Neither of those are present in this book, which is the third in a series, although I suppose typing shine is easier than typing synesthesia over and over. This condition is for some reason kept a secret from everyone except Jimmy and their mutual boss, including his own mother, who is never told. In the world of this book, it makes Steps the best tracker in the country. I have some questions about this, which I’ll get into.

Back to the beginning. The authorities have the fleeing driver surrounded in the cabin. Right before someone’s going to launch a tear gas canister into the cabin, we get….a flashback. We get the tale of how Steps died and came back with synesthesia, how he and his father kept it a secret from his mother, how lead crystal glasses help him keep the blinding neon glow of humanity from burning out his eyeballs and giving him migraines. We then get back to the action at the cabin. This was a very weird editorial choice, and it immediately rips the reader out of the action.

They capture the driver, who rattles on about the woman being number Eight, how he was going to “fix” her, and we discover there’s someone out there actually taking the women and holding them before turning them over to the crazy guy so he can experiment on them.

Things shift into trying to find the Onion King, as he’s called. Why is he called that? Is this really number eight? If so, who are the first seven? And where are they – or more accurately, whree are their bodies?

Throughout this, we get a lot of metaphysical discussions – good versus evil, the story of the two wolves – and a lot of references to books Steps has read, movies he and Jimmy watch, and I have to say that all of that really reduces the energy of the investigation, not to mention yanking the reader right out of the story. Nothing seems urgent here, despite the fact they’re hunting for a serial killer, until the last 10% of the book.

Another irritant was that everyone in the book – except, again, the IT person in charge of the systems someone breached – had some kind of witty banter moment, or more than one moment, and some of it wasn’t funny. That sort of thing is supposed to be used sparingly, and it really did seem as if some scenes were there merely to pad the book. Ditto for the main character’s constant meandering off into the weeds about everything from Archimedes to Zeno.

All of the IT people are genius hackers, trawling the dark web as easily as looking up something in a database – except the IT crew that manages the courthouse servers, where crazy man’s bail was reduced from $10MM to $2K, and apparently no one notices this.

A note here about the “shine”: if Steps can see people through their color, and he has never met the missing women, I kept wondering just how he knew each woman’s color. He couldn’t get this from the women themselves, and as they make their way to the homes of each woman, he immediately says “She was here, this is X” based on…just seeing a track of color where the woman has walked. How would he know? What if they had a roommate? Lived with family? A bunch of ifs ran through my mind during some of these scenes.

I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t love it, either. Thirty minutes after finishing, I couldn’t remember the title of the book, and errantly searched for “Death in the Shadows”, which is not the name, of course. There are two books previous to this, and based on the epilogue, a fourth is upcoming. I’m afraid I’m not invested enough in Steps and Jimmy to read what came before or what comes after.

Three point five stars, rounded down to three because of the issue noted. Sorry folks, this just wasn’t for me.

Thanks to NetGalley and Mintaur for the advance copy.

Comanche – Brett Riley – review

There are going to be spoilers galore here, so if you want to read this book without any knowledge beyond the blurb, you should stop reading this review now.

The legend of the Piney Woods Kid is this: he was a murdering bastard, and a posse caught up with him, making him dead. That was back in the 1800s. Fast forward to modern times, and someone/something is killing off descendants of that posse, and witnesses say it was a gray-looking man dressed in Old West garb who did it.

Enter Raymond Taylor, who recently lost his wife and decided alcohol was the way to go to blunt that pain, and his partner, Darrell LeBlanc, of New Orleans, called in by Raymond’s sister, who lives in Comanche with her husband, the mayor. They want to know what’s going on in this small town, and they want whoever is responsible brought to justice. Sounds kind of like a posse to me.

Turner and LeBlanc arrive in Comanche with their medium sidekick – and by medium, I mean the crystal ball-toting kind – and a professor from LSU.

This isn’t a mystery that’s a intricate puzzler. We know immediately who is killing the folks in Comanche, and the motive is very straightforward: revenge. That it’s a ghost as the murderer is fine – someone has to be the bad guy, so why not the original bad guy?

The story overall was just ok. There was a lot of wasted potential here, and I found the story itself repetitious and a bit cringey as I went through it. There’s a lot of male posturing/alpha nonsense again and again, like frat dudes at a kegger telling their pals to hold them back so they don’t kick the shit out of another dude. There are also not that many sightings of the ghost, which is a little odd since it’s at least tangentially a ghost story, and if the Piney Woods Kid is pissed off, his ghost wandering the town where he was killed would have been something I’d have liked to see.

I found the pacing tedious, and the try/fail, try/fail repetition annoyed me. Parts of the book went on longer than they could have, and reading those parts, I don’t understand why they weren’t chopped down.

One big annoyance is the complete lack of quotation marks to denote dialogue. This made the action scenes in particular very difficult to follow, because they also shifted viewpoints. If a reader – or, specifically, THIS reader – has to backtrack at times during these sequences to figure out who the hell is saying what, you’re going to have an annoyed reader, or one who just stops reading the book and gives it a DNF. I did finish it, but I imagine others will not. As the author is a professor of English at the college level, he knows there is a reason certain standards exist – quotations and punctuation, as well as no head-hopping in scenes among them – and that to stray from these things means the writing must be superior. Alas, I did  not find it to be so.

On the whole, it looks like this may have started as a short story or novella years ago, was trunked, then was brought out and used as the basis for a novel without rewriting the original material. That can be good, sometimes. This was not one of them.  Although the last 50 pages or so finally have some action, the ending was a letdown and one we’ve seen any number of times in 80’s horror flicks with magical talismans or cursed toys/books/whatever.

Two stars out of five – one for writing it in the first place (my default), and one for an intriguing, but not well executed, idea.

Thanks to NetGalley and Imbrifex for the reading copy.

Answer in the Negative – Henrietta Hamilton – review

Johnny and Sally Heldar are the investigative couple in this, one of four novels featuring them, from Henrietta Hamilton. All four books were written in the 50s and this one, at least, has been reprinted by Agora as part of their Uncrowned Queens of Crime series.

The action in this book revolves around work in the National Press Archives after World War II. Frank Morningside, an assistant archivist, has been receiving poison pen letters and someone is also pulling pranks on him. His boss Toby calls on amateur sleuths Johnny and Sally to look into it. Posing as researchers, they snoop around a bit. Once Morningside gets his head bashed in – by a box of glass negatives -Scotland Yard is called in. Chief Detective-Inspector Lindsay is nominally in charge of the case, but we know that Sally and Johnny will solve it. The list of possible suspects is not terribly long, but they are amusingly drawn, and each is worthy of at least a look by the duo.

The perpetrator was not a surprise to me (according to the ebook, I figured the thing out at 49%), but finishing the book brought me back to my very young days when Agatha Christie was the only real mystery writer I knew.

Those with modern sensibilities may be aghast at how much smoking there is (or, for younger readers in the aughts, why they’re allowed to smoke inside) or just how slow the book feels. Keep in mind that this was written in the 1950s, and people didn’t have the equivalent of a supercomputer in their hand all day long. There’s something to be said for people intelligently discussing something without being able to bounce on to wikipedia when there’s a question.

Overall: three stars, as I felt things could have been tightened up a bit.

Thanks to NetGalley and Agora for the reading copy.

Little Disasters – Sarah Vaughan – review

Note before starting: when I first saw this, it was being billed as a psychological thriller. It doesn’t fall into that category at all. This is more of a non-genre drama with a hint of mystery thrown in.

Liz is a pediatrician working in the ED (that’s the ER, for US readers) when her friend Jess arrives with her 10-month old, who she says has been vomiting. After tests are run, it’s clear the child has a skull injury. Liz has some reservations about the story Jess is telling, and Jess is acting suspiciously. Something doesn’t add up, but Liz rightfully recuses herself from further examination and treatment.

What follows is a story told both in the present and the past, revolving around four women who took a childbirth class at the same time. Liz and Jess are the primary focus, and what we mostly see are glimpses into the lives of the career working woman Liz, and the stay at home, but clearly suffering from postpartum depression, Jess.

As the story winds on, and the authorities and Liz try to puzzle out what really happened, and whether Jess (or Ed, her husband) beat the child or whether it could be just a serious accident, Liz maintains Jess would never hurt her child, but others are not quite so sure.

The ending is one I found completely unexpected but also completely unrealistic, and quite frankly, I felt cheated by it. I’m just not a fan of a bad guy who shows up completely out of nowhere, either because they’ve not been introduced or because they have been introduced, but their actions in the narrative never hint at their actions in the end.

More forgiving readers than I will not mind this. As for me, it takes my rating to 2.5 stars, rounded down to 2.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria for the reading copy.

Under Pressure – Robert Pobi – review

Under Pressure is the second book to feature Lucas Page, but the first I’ve read.

The opening is at the Guggeheim, where a ton of very wealthy people are present at a party for a high-tech environmental cleaning company (think fracking sites, and the like), with a multibillion dollar IPO looming. All seems rather genteel until a thermobaric bomb ignites, vaporizing the people and the art, leaving the building itself relatively intact.

Brett Kehoe, Special Agent In Charge/Manhattan, faced with the daunting task of sorting out 700+ dead and solving the mystery of why anyone would want to kill them, calls on ex-FBI agent, and current instructor at Columbia, Lucas Page to assist. Page is reluctant, but finally agrees, and we are whisked off to an almost nonstop ride of bombings, close calls, and mysteries that deepen as more people die.

At the heart of the mystery seems to be the Hockney brothers, William and Seth, and their sprawling megacorp. Are the bombings simply a statement against their companies, or is something more personal the core of it? While I have some issues with overly-complex conspiracies, and the habit, often, of main characters heading out into danger on their own, without telling anyone, to see if their reasoning/guess is correct about the bad guy, overall this was not a book killer.

Page, who lost a leg, arm, and eye in something he calls the Event, has a genius-level ability to instantly calculate areas, distances, see connections where others see none, and apparently possesses an eidetic memory. It reminded me quite a bit of the TV series Numb3rs. He is not terribly patient with people he views as stupid, is cranky a lot of times, and can be bitingly sarcastic. I liked him immensely.

Teasing out the mystery becomes more and more dangerous the closer Page gets to the truth, and in the end becomes, for him, a calculation of odds. To say more would give away too much. I will say this, though: be aware of the handcuffs. Chekov’s pistol has never been more apt.

Solid four stars.

Note: while there is enough backstory to know what has come before, I would suggest that if you intend to read the first book (City of Windows), you do that first before reading this. There’s a spoiler in this book for the last – it’s a blink and you miss it thing, but it’s there.

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur for the reading copy.

The Last Agent

The Last Agent reunites us with Charles Jenkins, acquitted of espionage in the previous book The Eighth Sister, who has put the events of that book behind him and rebuilt his life. Or so he thinks.

A CIA agent shows up on his doorstep – again. After being rebuffed at Jenkins’ house, the agent corrals him at the local diner and tells him the agency needs him once more. For real, this time. They believe that Paulina Ponomayova, who saved Jenkins’ life in The Eighth Sister by giving her own, is not actually dead, but is being held in one of the toughest prisons in Russia. They’re not sure she’s there, or what information she may have given up on the other Sisters. They are sure that they want Jenkins to return to Russia, free her from the prison, and get her out of the country.

I wondered at this point just how long the author was going to push a 6′ 5″, 65 year old black man into a country where a) he sticks out like a 6′ 5″, 65 year old black man would in a rather overwhelmingly white country, and b) he’s already been there, is known to the FSB (the KGB’s successor), and has previously created havoc there.

Jenkins isn’t sure he wants to go, is definitely sure his wife and kids won’t want him to go, but does feel that he owes Paulina to help her if he can. Of course he signs on, and once again, he’s off to Mother Russia.

Viktor Federov is back (and on a side note, I would love to have a couple of books about THAT guy), retired now from the FSB thanks to his inability to catch Jenkins in The Eighth Sister. Jenkins blackmails him into assisting, first with figuring out a way to get Paulina out of the prison, and then getting all of them away safely.

I won’t spoil any of that except to say that the bank scene was quite funny, and one of the nonverbal discussions with Paulina is rather ingenious, relying on knowledge of where the cameras are and where the guards will be.

The chase that ensues – three targets instead of one – is now lead by a prototypical old KGB-style chief, who constantly silences his underlings, ignores the supposed lead investigator’s advice, but tells him failure will be on his head. When that investigator suddenly “retires” to take care of his father, it’s all out pursuit, by land, water, and even by air into another country’s airspace.

It’s a fun book, and better than The Eighth Sister, although readers will still have to up their suspension of disbelief game.

A solid four stars.

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

Reflections on gardening, cooking, and life