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.

Review: Broken Genius

There’s nothing like a widget that could be used to rule the world to build a book around.

Look, it wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t very good, not to me. Drew Murray novel features wunderkind Will Parker, formerly the CEO of a tech startup, who goes to work for the FBI after he makes a mistake in one of his programs that leaves a young woman dead.

That’s my kind-of-unbelievable-thing number one. Number two was the Fukishima Unicorn, the previously mentioned widget that could be used to control everything, which has gone missing after the 2011 tsunami that took out most of Fukishima. I suppose if you’re going to go big, you might as well go BIG.

Parker is called in on a case involving a dead guy at a comic convention. Also turning up is Dana Lopez, a detective with the local police department (and who I bet would share a bed with Parker before the book was over). Decker, a buttoned down FBI agent is Parker’s partner on the case. Clues start building, and eventually it’s discovered that the dead man had (at some point) the Unicorn, which technically still belongs to Parker’s old company. But there are other people after it: Russians, a Chinese hacker named Dragoniis, and a couple other mysterious bidders. To up the stakes, the dead man’s daughter is taken hostage, which brings in the requisite “guy who failed previously has a chance at redemption” part of the story.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about how the teams tracks down the bidders and the killer – pretty standard thriller/mystery story there, with some chases and SWAT teams and hunches.

It was ok. I didn’t particularly care for Parker, as i found him a tad too full of himself, and some of his thoughts (repeated “Gross.”, for instance) seemed to be more something a teenager would say, versus a billionaire whiling away time working for the FBI in cybercrimes. I think it also bugged me that this is yet another entry in the field of “million/billionaires working for peanuts in law enforcement and who can also use their own resources/money/companies to push the story forward”.

Overall, it wasn’t unreadable. It sounds like faint praise, but if you’re into tech, as I am, you might want to take all the IT stuff with a giant grain of salt and just enjoy a murder mystery/saving the world thriller that takes place at ComicCom.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Review: A Deathly Silence (DCI Helen Lavery #3)

A cracking good mystery.

A Deathly Silence is book three in a series where I’ve not read books one or two. I rarely do that, because there’s often backstory that either doesn’t make its way into a later book cleanly (i.e., the author does big infodumps) or the later books cannot be read as a standalone (i.e., it’s just a continuation of a cliffhanger in the previous book).

I’m quite happy to say that this can be read as a standalone, and Jane Isaac has a deft hand at including enough information from previous happenings to let us know what went on before and how that shapes the current book.

DCI Helene Lavery, currently on leave to recover from incidents in the previous book, where she was injured and a fellow officer killed, is called back early to work a case. A young woman – and a police officer, at that – is found murdered in an empty factory/warehouse, tortured before a fatal slit of the throat.

Questions abound: why her? Why here? Who had access?

There are a lot of people in this book. If you’re not good at keeping track, it might be helpful to jot a couple of notes here and there. Those include: two boys, playing in the factory, who found the body but didn’t report it. Their mothers – and in the case of one boy, his sister as well, plus their father (who is in prison, and who is named but never appears in the book). A next door neighbor who recently went through cancer treatment and who exchanged a lot of texts with the victim, as well as her husband. The victim’s husband, also a police officer. His ex-girlfriend. The victim’s friend who is possibly more than a friend, and her brother. An ex-con with sadistic, sexually driven tendencies. Plus all the assorted officers in homicide, management, medical examiner and technician, and the crew who monitors the organized crime outfits.

The story is great. There isn’t a lot I can give specifics on, for spoilery reasons, and that’s one of the reasons the story is quite a good read. There is a great combination of action and thinking/conversation, and the clues (bar one that only makes an appearance at the end) are spun out, gathered by the reader as the police work the crime and the associated crimes that arise after it.

The only thing I’d have to nitpick about would be some curious sentence constructions, where a sentence rings a bit oddly because it should have been part of the sentence before it. Instead, it’s a bit of a dangler, completing the thought of the sentence previous to it. But that and the clue at the end are very, very minor things: the former because the thought still comes across, and the latter because we know by that point toward the end (or way earlier, in my case) who the killer is.

Overall: five stars, not a rating I use often.

Now I’m off to get the first two in the series.

Review: The Ninja Daughter (Lily Wong #1)

Warnings: rape, domestic violence

The Ninja Daughter is (apparently) the first in what will be a series from author Tori Eldrigde, about Lily Wong, a badass young woman of Chinese-Norwegian descent. After her younger sister is raped and murdered, she turns into a vigilante, and also works helping abused women (and their children) get away from their abusers and to a shelter.

The book opens with Lily strung up on a hook by a Ukrainian mobster who is trying to get information out of her. It won’t be spoilery to say that she manages to get out of her predicament and manages to kill said mobster in the process. The “ninja” in the title is on full display here. When she makes it back to the shelter, she is stunned to learn that the woman and child she’d rescued from the dead Ukrainian’s boss have returned to the boss’ house.

Afterward, Lily is drawn into the case of Mia, who seems to need protection against a man named J Tran. She isn’t being paid for this: she simply shows up at the courthouse where Mia has lost her case against him, and Mia agrees to have Lily keep an eye on her.

What follows is a romping story as Lily tries to discover just who J Tran is, and why he would be after Mia in the first place. There are payoffs, conspiracies, more Ukrainian mobster, gang bangers, human trafficking, drugs, affairs, a fair bit of humor, a mysterious and dead, but drop-dead (no pun intended) handsome stranger who is also an assassin, and more dead bodies as the story moves along. As far as the story goes, it’s a bit like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, with a little more gore. While this book was suggested as a thriller, it definitely falls more into the mysrom category, at least for me. The ends tie together in an okay fashion, although the teaming up at the end was a little stretching it for me.

I do love series characters. The only issue with many first books is information. That is to say, at times, authors tend to try to cram too much backstory into the first book, which can slow the pacing of the story in the (book’s) current day. I found that to be the case from time to time in The Ninja Daughter (side note: I think the title would be better as just Ninja Daughter – no “the” necessary, since she’s the only one in this story). We get quite a bit about her father’s parents, her mother’s past, more than a few colloquialisms on the Norwegian side of the family, and so on. While at times these lend an authentic feel to the story, as when Lily is ruminating on the comfort brought on by the quilt her Norwegian grandmother made, there are other times when it goes on a bit long and we have to get wound up for the next part of the adventure. We also get more than a couple reminders that Lily is, in fact, a kuniochi – a ninja – something we know already, from the title and from the previous mentions of the same thing.

That aside, I did like it, and it would be a great beach or plane/train read.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Fiercest Enemy

Detectives Jack Murphy and Liddell Blanchard are loaned out to the FBI and head out to a rural town to help the local investigate a series of murders, all of which have occurred in March, and all with the same general circumstances.

Possible spoilers here on out.

This is the ninth book in the Jack Murphy series by Rick Reed, himself former law enforcement, but only the first that I have read. I had no issues reading this as a standalone, as there were instances where a bit of information was passed along regarding events in previous books. The author’s knowledge about how police departments work is, of course, good, but I think this book tries far too hard at the buddy cop stuff between Murphy and the much, much larger, former football player turned detective Blanchard, whom Murphy calls Bigfoot. There is a lot of banter between Murphy and Blanchard that is supposed to be humorous but which got old fast, squabbling between the two Chiefs (one male, one female – obviously their fighting means they’re secretly in love with one another) in the neighboring counties Murphy and Blanchard are sent to, and a handful of times where the author seems to think readers won’t understand something, like “G-man” referring to Federal agents.

“Rosie said, “Follow me G-men.” [sic]
Jack smiled at her use of the old moniker for an FBI Agent. ‘G-man’ was underworld slang for anyone working for the government. It meant government man.

There is a passage where one law enforcement characters tells another that they must “have some tall” to get a piece of information, and the author informs the reader that “tall” means pull or influence – why not just say “pull”, then?

At the beginning, we’re told via a couple pages long expositional speech by Angelina Garcia, the computer whiz who can apparently hack into anything, that the murders all occurred in March, as noted above. As an aside here, I can deduce that the writer may be a fan of the TV show Criminal Minds. The computer guru on the show is called Garcia by the agents of the BAU. Her full name is Penelope Garcia. The IT whiz in the book covers the last name, and the female Chief’s daughter is named Penelope.

Another annoyance I have with some writers is when they will have a piece of information be given to the reader in some way (such as in a summary given by the IT whiz), then repeated, and then given again, spelled out for both another character and the reader.

“Five murders in seven years,” Jack mused. “One seven years ago, two more at five years, one at three years, and one that just happened. All in March.”
“March is important to the killer,” Liddell said.
“Something got this guy started killing. Whatever it was must have happened at least seven years ago in March. Most of the serial killers we’ve dealt with needed symbolism. Sometimes they were sending us a message, sometimes they were sending it to other possible victims.”

Writers, don’t treat your readers like they’re stupid.

The plot revolves around two very small PDs and the two on loan agents figuring out the common connection between the victims of what they correctly believe is a serial killing, following the more than ample clues, and nabbing the bad guy(s) in the end. There is a secondary, personal lives story running through, because Murphy and his ex-wife are getting remarried, and Blanchard and his wife are expecting a child.

The number one villain is not really a surprise, although I have to credit the author for not introducing the villain three pages before the end, as I have the misfortune of seeing in some other books. There is one villain that is introduced but whose identity as it relates to the main villains and the deaths does come in just before the end, which is a bit of cheating, as there’s no hint at all that the person is anything or anyone other than how they are introduced earlier.

Overall, it’s a serviceable serial killer novel, with the action taking place in a rural area filled with closed out coal mines.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thanks to NetGalley and Kensington for the advance copy.