Category Archives: What I’ve been reading

You know sometimes things don’t get done?

I have to confess that blogging is not something I intuitively think of doing, and so you’ll note that I don’t have a lot of blogs. This section is a good example. Although I love to read, I’m not good at remembering to blog about the books when I finish them.

So let me just mention a couple of books I recently read and what I’m reading now:

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE by Clare O’Donohue — This is the second in the Kate Conway series, and it’s very entertaining. In it, freelance television producer Kate Conway (who is a lot like Clare, in my humble opinion), is offered the opportunity to create a documentary about lifers in an Illinois state prison. It’s a big change from her current other gig, which is producing a documentary about the opening of a new restaurant. Or is it all that different? Because when one of the restaurant’s investors is murdered, Kate finds herself getting advice from the killers on death row on how to solve it. Complicating matters is that one of the other investors in the restaurant is her dead husband’s mistress Vera. In fact, Vera is one of the main suspects.

The best thing about this series is Kate herself. She’s cynical, funny, and lovable. Her complicated relationship with Vera adds to the mystery here, as it did in the first book. I enjoyed watching her solve the mystery, moving between her two lifers, Brick and Tim, and the restaurant cast, one of whom is likely a killer. The lifers offer advice, but Tim may be conning her, and Brick may be coming on to her. At the restaurant, Kate finds herself siding with Vera and trying to prove her innocent, even at the point of getting herself in trouble with the law.  How she sorts it all out makes for an enjoyable read.

FONDUING FATHERS by Julie Hyzy — This is the sixth in Julie’s popular White House Chef series, and let’s face it, I’m a fan. In this outing, White House Chef Ollie Paras is looking into her father’s death. She’s always believed he was an honorable man, and so she’s devastated when she finds out from her mom that he was dishonorably discharged from the Army. But that’s not all–she also learns he was brutally murdered because someone at the company he worked for believed that he was selling company secrets. Anyone who knows Ollie knows she going to get down to the truth, and even the highest levels of the United States government are not going to stop her, which they try to do.

Ollie is as resourceful as ever in this latest mystery. She enlists the aid of her boyfriend, Gav, who has connections that she doesn’t, to prove her father innocent. Even when there are major roadblocks in her way, and let’s just say that everyone in National Security doesn’t want her to know the truth, she won’t stop until she proves her father is innocent. Although it’s a cozy mystery, Ollie has a hard edge and the type of plots she has to unwind often feel more like thrillers. I love reading cozies and thrillers, so this is a perfect combination for me. FONDUING FATHERS doesn’t disappoint, and it has the best ending of all of the books in this series. I’m looking forward to the next.

THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters — This novel won the Edgar this year for Best Paperback Original, and it’s well deserved. The premise is this: an asteroid is hurtling toward the earth and the earth won’t survive the hit. With everyone doomed, society is falling apart. Money isn’t worth anything anymore, most people aren’t working, and chaos reigns. And yet, in Concord, New Hampshire, newly minted detective Hank Palace wants to do his job. When he comes across a suicide that just doesn’t ring true to him, he sets out to find out the truth even though the few other detectives still on the force think he’s crazy. Despite spotty cell phone reception, the death of key witnesses, and episodes from his family life to distract him, he ultimately solves the case and finds the reason for the man’s death.

Hank Palace is a terrific character, but what really makes this book stand out is Winters’ vision of what life would be like if everyone knew the world was going to end in a certain number of days. He makes this chaotic world believable and manages to weave in a terrific mystery plot that keeps you reading. The book is the first in a trilogy (the world IS going to end, after all) and I’m looking forward to reading the second, COUNTDOWN CITY. It just came out July 16.

As of today, I’m reading THE JEFFERSON KEY by Steve Berry. I expect to finish it soon, and I hope I remember to post a review!

 

Books I meant to review in 2011, part 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the last of them:

  • AGATHA CHRISTIE’S SECRET NOTEBOOKS by John Curran – This is definitely for intellectual types who love Christie and want to know more about her world and how she thought. It also contains two unpublished Poirot stories. The book won the Edgar Award last year for Best Critical/Biographical, and while I’m sure it was worthy, I found it a bit dry. It was interesting in a historical way, but I didn’t find it compelling. I have to conclude I must not be:  a) be intellectual enough or b) love Christie enough.
  • DEAD EX by Harley Jane Kozak – This is book #3 in Wollie Shelley series that began with DATING DEAD MEN. Wollie (pronounced Wally), the main character, creates greeting cards and often condenses her situations into greeting card sentiments, which is endearing and quite funny. Even  better, in this book Wollie is the dating correspondent for the reality show “SoapDirt.” Of course, there’s a murder, and her friend Joey is the prime suspect, but the best thing of all is that these books are breezy, funny romps. Harley Jane is an excellent writer—be sure to check out her short story in the MWA anthology THE RICH AND THE DEAD—and I’m really sorry her publisher decided not to extend the series. Here’s hoping she gets a new series going soon.
  • NICKEL AND DIMED by Barbara Ehrenreich – I read this book for a leadership class I was taking, and it really opened my eyes to the plight of the working poor. Ehrenreich is a freelance writer who accepts an assignment to see what it’s like to try to survive on a minimum wage job in three cities in America. Even giving herself a bit of an advantage over those who are the working poor—she starts herself out with a little seed money—she proves over and over again that it can’t be done.  Even trying to manage two jobs just to make ends meet proves impossible, with managers who won’t work schedules around second jobs and unreliable public transportation. The people she works with give you a sense of how resilient the human spirit is—even those poorer than her, who don’t know she’s not one of them—start bringing her food when she can’t make ends meet and is trying to survive by eating less. It’s a heartbreaking book, and it reminds us that unions get a bad name when they’re greedy (and we’ve seen that happen), but they still have a purpose when they fight for those who don’t have the power to do so. Wal-Mart comes off as one of those employers whose executives rake in millions and millions of dollars but can’t share it with their minimum wage employees.

Books I meant to review in 2011, part 2

….As I mentioned in Part 1, I let myself get overwhelmed in 2011 and didn't post reviews of some of books I read. But before we get TOO far into 2012, I wanted to post these. The last post covered all the books on the left, this post will cover the first four on the right. Next week I'll post the remainder.
  • THE NINTH DAY by Jamie Freveletti—Book 3 in the Emma Caldridge series. This is my favorite so far in the series. Freveletti  does a great job of setting up a horror that’s easy to imagine—a wasting disease that infects a prized marijuana crop and within nine days will kill anyone who inhales it or even touches it. When the crazed drug lord who can’t find a way to stop the disease from contaminating the plants decides to deliver massive quantities of the marijuana to the United States and start an epidemic, it’s up to the intrepid Emma to find a cure for the disease and stop the shipments from reaching their drop points. When Emma discovers that she has disease herself, it’s truly a race against the clock to find the antidote. Brilliant work from a terrific thriller writer who’s only getting better.
  • DEAD UNTIL DARK by Charlaine Harris—I’ll admit that I’ve never watched TRUE BLOOD on HBO, nor had I been much of a fan of this type of genre since DARK SHADOWS in my teenage years (which were, regrettably, a very long time ago).  But after having had breakfast with Charlaine at Bouchercon 2011 (a perk that came with being Midwest Chapter President of Mystery Writers of America), I bought a copy of the novel that started it all and asked Charlaine to sign it. Well, I couldn’t put it down. It had a narrative drive and a mystery that kept me going until the end. Loved the premise that vampires could become an accepted part of the world and go mainstream once a synthetic blood was developed. I’m still not a big fan of the vampire genre, but there’s no question in my mind why Charlaine has and deserves a legion of fans.
  •  GRACE INTERRUPTED by Julie Hyzy—Book 2 in the Manor House mystery series by the author of the White House chef series. When a group of Civil War re-enactors comes to Marshfield Manor, it’s murder on the staff—even more so when one of the most hated of the re-enactors is murdered. Grace must wade through a myriad of people who may have wanted the man dead, including relatives of the man she’s just started dating, to figure it out. Delightful stuff from a hardworking cozy writer whose latest book (AFFAIRS OF STEAK) just hit #22 on the NYT extended bestseller list.
  • WILD AT HEART by John Eldredge—I came to Eldredge’s book after completing Henry Blackaby’s excellent workbook, EXPERIENCING GOD. I was searching for another study to bring me closer to God and closer to the man he wants me to be. While I disagree with Eldredge on a few points (from his stories, I think he was an angry young man and some of that still colors his perception of the world), I feel his call for us to return to our masculine roots, not to strive to be ‘nice guys,’ but rather warriors who seek to right the wrongs of the world. He points out that when we were kids, did we dream of being nice? No, we dreamt of being Luke Skywalkers and (more recently) Harry Potters. It dovetails with the biggest thing I took away from Blackaby—to see where God is at work and seek to be a part of what he is doing in the world. I recommend WILD AT HEART to all Christian men.

Books I meant to review in 2011 part 1

Books I meant to review in 2011, part 1

You can see from the photo that I really fell down on the job, because I like to review books that I read, and there are quite a few here that just never got reviewed because I let myself feel overwhelmed last year. Going to try not to let that happen in 2012.

In the meantime, here are quick reviews from half the books you see pictured. Next week I’ll do the other half:

KNEE HIGH BY THE FOURTH OF JULY by Jess Lourey
–Jess is hilarious! I know her from being on the MWA Board together, but this was the first of her books that I’ve read. When a giant Indian statue goes missing from Battle Lake, Minnesota, Mira James’s fascination with the big guy gets her into trouble that can only be solved by finding out who did the dirty deed. Great fun.

BURIED SECRETS by Joseph Finder — I met Joe at the February meeting of the Midwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America where
he was our guest speaker, and I won this advanced copy, which others had to wait until summer to read. Even then I didn’t get around to writing the review. Guilt aside, it was incredibly suspenseful, made all the more horrifying because of the teenager girl who was buried alive. Joe really made me feel the claustrophobia of the young girl.

OTHER EYES by Barbara D’Amato–any book by Barb D’Amato is a treat, but I loved the premise of this book: researchers discover that it’s possible an early, one-time experience with a certain hallucinogen may inoculate users from ever getting hooked on drugs. Needless to say, a lot of very powerful, mean people would love to stop this kind of research. Even starts out suspenseful with a baby crawling across an interstate in the middle of the day. Great read!

RUNNING DARK by Jamie Frevelleti–Book 2 in Jamie’s series about biochemist/ultra-marathoner Emma Caldridge proves the first, RUNNING FROM THE DEVIL, was no fluke. Though I found the first book more interesting from a setting perspective, this second was just as riveting as Caldridge and her love interest Cameron Sumner attempt to stop Somali pirates from getting hold of a dangerous chemical no one knows is on board.  Non-stop suspense.

GETTING SASSY by D. C. Brod–Every once in a while I love a good caper with a preposterous plot, and in the hands of a terrific writer like Deb Brod, this one sings. Sassy is a goat, and she just happens to be the one thing that a valuable race horse, owned by a scummy businessman who’s screwed main character Robyn Guthrie’s mother out of her money, has fallen in love with. Robyn falls into a kidnapping scheme using the goat as bait. Funny with a satisfying ending. Looking forward to the second book, GETTING LUCKY.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie–I read this book in preparing to write the next Nick Bertetto mystery (for reasons I won’t elaborate here), and I was pleased to see how well Christie’s book has held up. Though you couldn’t start a mystery as slow today as Christie did back then, it still has an elaborate puzzle and her enigmatic sleuth Hercule Poirot to keep you reading. Even though I knew the ending, it was still amazing to see how Christie sets it all up. I can’t forget the magnificent 1974 movie version of this mystery, which was one of the things that got me hooked on reading, and subsequently writing, in the genre. Christie was a master plotter.

More next week

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Viper by John Desjarlais

As he did in BLEEDER, John Desjarlais takes a contemporary mystery and expertly intertwines a supernatural one.  VIPER features Selena De La Cruz—insurance saleswoman, shoe fashionista and former Drug Enforcement agent—who is forced back into police work when a hit list is discovered and her name is on it. The nine people on the list have one thing in common—they all had a run-in with a drug dealer called the Serpent.  As Selena and her colleagues try to track down the dwindling number of people on the list to stop the killings and learn who is behind them, they must deal with a young girl whose visions of a Virgin of Guadalupe-type apparition precede each death.  Are the little girl’s messages of a veiled vengeance real?  Are the apparitions somehow connected to the deaths, or is this event being used by the killer to cover each murder?

Desjarlais keeps you guessing as the action accelerates faster than De La Cruz’s souped-up vehicles.  When Selena becomes the last woman standing, she must either figure out who is behind the killings or fall victim to La Serpiente. VIPER strikes fast and sinks its teeth in you. You won’t be able to put it down.

 

Buffalo West Wing by Julie Hyzy

Julie’s fourth entry in her White House Chef Mystery series is her best book to date. With a new administration taking office, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the Executive Mansion, and a box of buffalo wings intended for the incoming president’s young children is left in the kitchen. While the box is from a reputable restaurant, Executive Chef Ollie Paras knows that nothing is to be consumed unless it is known how it got to the White House. Ollie’s decision makes the children unhappy, the First Lady unhappy and even members of the staff unhappy. Ollie puts the wings away, but one of her assistant chefs retrieves the box and gives it to the laundry women and two of the butlers. They later become deathly ill and are rushed to a nearby hospital. The hospital comes under siege almost immediately and the White House patients are taken hostage.  The terrorist group wants their leader set free from a Wisconsin prison.

The poisoned wings were clearly meant for the President’s children, but the Secret Service wants it kept quiet while they investigate who the traitor is among the White House staff. This means that the First Lady, still unhappy with Ollie, has no idea that her children would have been the hostages had it not been for Ollie’s decision to follow protocol. Ollie must also wrestle with a troublesome personal chef the First Lady has brought in to prepare the family meals. The man happens to want Ollie’s job. Toss in the stress of new Secret Service agents haunting the kitchen, a strained relationship with her ex-boyfriend, a potential new love interest, and an upcoming state dinner for officials from the country that spawned the terrorists, and Ollie is once again over her head when trouble finds her on the front lines of protecting the First Family.

The thing I loved most about this book was how skillfully Hyzy weaves all these elements into the story. We know some of them will turn out to be red herrings in terms of who the insider traitor is, but all of these elements are important to Ollie and therefore important to us. It’s a fun read that never loses its momentum, has lots of good twists, and reaches a satisfying conclusion where Ollie once again feeds the First Family and saves the world. Don’t miss getting hooked on this series and especially don’t miss out on this book.

Running Dark by Jamie Freveletti

Running Dark, Jamie Freveletti’s second novel, is just as captivating as her first. It features the same characters that were in Running from the Devil now a few months into the aftermath of their Colombian experience. Cameron Sumner is still with security company Darkview, but this time his assignment is on a cruise ship believed to be carrying pharmaceuticals. When the ship is attacked by Somali pirates, it becomes apparent these are not ordinary pharmaceuticals, but maybe a new kind of chemical weapon. To find out what’s there, a chemist needs to be transported into the danger zone. Emma Caldridge, fresh from an ultramarathon in South Africa where she was unwillingly injected with an experimental drug, volunteers to be that chemist and to be with Cameron again. Behind the scenes, a United States Senator is trying to bring down Darkview because of the Colombian pipeline destruction in the first book. To keep this from happening, Darkview executives Edward Banner and Carol Stromeyer are dancing as fast they can, trying to avoid giving up incriminating documents—and trying stay alive. Both are in danger of being killed by an organization that wants revenge for their earlier successes.

Freveletti’s characters are likeable and sympathetic, and the action never stops. You will not—I repeat NOT—be able to put this down. Don’t even try it. Just give into the delight of reading something this good.

So Cold the River

Michael Koryta’s latest novel, So Cold the River, is nothing like the novels that he’s written to this point. While it still has well-drawn characters and impeccably-described settings, this one starts out with a quiet puzzle rather than a lit fuse. That puzzle is presented to a man named Eric Shaw, who has the ability to sense truth through photographs and video. The failed former cinematographer is hired to go to West Baden, Indiana to do a video portrait of the mysterious early life of a 95-year-old rich man who is dying. The project is financed by Bradford’s daughter-in-law against the old man’s wishes. Bradford started out as a purveyor of Pluto water which is drawn from the springs found at West Baden.

Weird stuff begins to happen as soon as Shaw is hired. The blue bottle of Pluto water the daughter-in-law gives him is strangely cold, even in the ninety-degree heat. Shaw makes the mistake of tasting the water and is soon drawn into fits of migraine headaches and—once he reaches the West Baden Hotel—surreal visions. A young man who is a descendant of Bradford’s becomes a thorn in everyone’s side as he, too, sees visions and is driven to protect old secrets, even if that means committing murder. Like quicksand, So Cold the River slowly pulls the reader in until there’s no going back. What starts out as a curiosity that tugs at your brain becomes a compelling urge, not unlike the one which possesses Shaw, to learn the truth behind the Pluto water and the mysteries that surround Bradford’s history.

Though the end didn’t completely satisfy all the questions I felt Koryta had built up, there’s no denying the power of the story and his ability to tell it in a literate, compelling way. Plus, for those of us who’ve been to the towns of West Baden and French Lick and stayed in the two amazing hotels, Koryta’s novel provides an imaginative turn on the history of the area while documenting the rise, fall, and resurrection of this part of southern Indiana.

Running from the Devil by Jamie Freveletti

There’s been a lot of talk about newcomer Jamie Freveletti with the publication last year of her first book, Running from the Devil, and after having read it, I can understand.  This is a first-rate thriller, all the more amazing because it’s her debut novel.  The book opens with a gripping airplane crash set in the Colombian jungles. The survivors are quickly taken hostage by guerrillas, who have a score to settle with the Colombian and American governments.  Emma Caldridge, a chemist for a cosmetics company and an ultramarathon runner, is thrown from the wreckage and escapes capture.  Feeling she has no alternative, she trails along behind the hostages as they are marched toward an unknown fate.  Meanwhile, an American covert task force is rushed to the crash site in hopes of saving the survivors, only to find them gone.  Emma has the good fortunate to team with Cameron Sumner, an injured American government agent the captors have left behind to die.  As the two scheme try to stay alive, evade capture, and do what they can to save the hostages, they are being tracked by someone who is after Emma for a reason we do not understand.  There is some secret she knows that may have been the reason the plane was downed to begin with.  Will the task force be able to save them? Can Emma and Cameron stay alive long enough?

This is a compelling mystery/thriller that I could not put down.  I had been wanting to read it and picked it up in an airport on the way back from Florida when I ran out of books.  Freveletti does a great job of keeping the tension up as complication after complication prevents Emma and Cameron from helping the survivors escape and hampering their own ability to elude the crazed guerrilla who wants to see Emma die.  Plus, as you start to understand the reasons why both of them were on the plane and what secrets each carries, you fear for their lives even if they manage to get back to America.  I found that things became a bit muddled at the end as all the threads were all woven together, and I had to reread a few sections to ‘get it,’ but there is no question that RFTD is a fantastic read.  I highly recommend it.  I’m looking forward to reading Freveletti’s second book in the series, Running Dark, which came out earlier this year.

Here’s a photo of Jamie signing a copy of RWTD at Magna cum Murder.   Want to win this book?  I’m running a quickie contest. As I write this note, it’s Tuesday, November 16.  Send me a note at tony perona @ gmail .com (you know the drill here…there’s a dot between tony and perona, no spaces around the @ symbol, and no space between ‘gmail’ and ‘.com’)  Anyway, send me the first five words of the second sentence of this review (one of the words is hyphenated) to my email address through Friday, November 19, and you’ll be entered in a contest to win the book.  I’ll select a correct entry at random on Saturday, November 20th and send the winner Jamie’s signed copy.  Couldn’t be easier!

Jamie Freveletti

Mean Town Blues by Sam Reaves

I just finished reading Mean Town Blues by Sam Reaves and had to blog about it. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book that will keep you guessing till the end how it’s all going to turn out.  Main character Tommy McLain has just returned from Iraq where he suffered some pretty tough injuries.  He’s from a dysfunctional family in Kentucky, and decides to leave home for Chicago because he has a good friend there.  But his future takes a turn for the worst when he ends up killing a man who’s stalking the girl he’s dating.  The man is related to a major mob boss.  Soon rival mobsters are taking hits at each other, unsettling Chicago police, who decide Tommy is worth taking a look at for the original hit.

Tommy could keep himself out of trouble except he has a conscience.  When an innocent man gets killed trying to protect his sister from the mobsters who blame her for the hit, Tommy gets re-involved.  He ends up working for the two rival bosses, playing one against the other.  Tommy’s tough and experienced in combat, and he just about has it worked out to his advantage when the police haul him in with news that rocks his world.  Could his girlfriend, the one he saved from the stalker, have been lying to him all the time?

Full of unexpected twists and turns, Mean Town Blues is a fun, quick read.  The prose is lean, and Tommy McLain is a believable war veteran who’s been through so much he sees the world a lot differently than you or I.  You’ll enjoy getting to know this character.  Others have compared Tommy to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, but where Reacher is nearly invincible at 6’5″ and 250 pounds, Tommy is just tough.  The question is, is he tough enough to survive this book?  The good news:  yes, he is.  I highly recommend Mean Town Blues