Hypnosis is for Hacks, by Tamara Berry****

Eleanor Wilde is a sham medium, a fraud who’s used her dramatic talents and the trust of her clients to bilk them. But lately things have changed; she has received intelligence from the great beyond, specifically from her deceased sister. As a businesswoman that now resides in a small town in the UK and doesn’t want her neighbors to hate her, she’s shifted most of her business to herbal cures and such. As it happens, this doesn’t keep all hell from busting loose.

My thanks go to Kensington Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Eleanor–you may call her Ellie—is the protagonist in a satirical cozy mystery series, and this is the fourth. I read and reviewed the first two, but somehow missed out on the third. The first two took place in a tiny village where the ruling family lives in an honest-to-goodness castle. She went there, in the first in the series, to conduct a bogus séance, but instead fell in love with Nicholas, heir to the estate. Now the castle is in need of serious repairs. It’s summer, and the castle is hot enough to be uninhabitable, and so Ellie accompanies the elderly Vivian, matriarch of the castle, to the seaside. Her brother Liam, who is visiting, joins them. And once there, all sorts of things go wrong. We have a menacing, possessed doll that reappears in or near Ellie’s room, no matter what she does to destroy it, and a sinister figure from Ellie’s checkered past shows up as well. And of course, of course, of course, Ellie witnesses a murder shortly after arriving, but nobody will believe her.

I came away of two minds about this particular installment. The thing I’ve appreciated most about this series is that Berry’s writing is hilarious, and whenever an obvious plot device is utilized, it’s done in such an over-the-top manner that we can imagine the author winking and guffawing. Nothing here is to be taken seriously. In the past there’s been very little character development, and I was okay with that, because I wasn’t looking for great literature; I was looking for a laugh.

Here I find some changes. There’s less humor, although two particular bits, one involving lobsters and another involving, per the title, hypnosis, made me snicker. But I also find more character development. Realistically speaking, a series can’t last long if there’s no character development, and so I’m pleased to see Berry adding a bit of depth, but at the same time, what I really want is to laugh out loud. We live in tense times, and there’s a growing body of evidence that we live longer if we laugh. A silly, escapist novel that lets us forget current events entirely for a brief while, forget our own troubles, whatever they may be, and sit back and howl at what our clever author has cooked up, is worth more than many can imagine.

Nonetheless, this story is better by far than most of what’s out there within the humor genre, and I recommend it to you. Now…where’s that cat?

At the Edge of the Haight, by Katherine Seligman****

At the Edge of the Haight tells the story of a homeless youth, Maddy Donaldo, who lives with her dog, Root, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. But one day she runs across a young man lying dead, and the man that is almost certainly his killer locks eyes with her. He tells her, “Keep a handle on the fucking dog…I know where to find your ass.”

I was invited to read and review this award-winning novel by Algonquin Books. My thanks go to them and Net Galley for the review copies. It’s for sale now.

At first, I am not sure I’ll like this book. It seems a bit self-conscious, a bit like a public service announcement or an infomercial. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. But about a quarter of the way in, it wakes up and begins to flow. It becomes my dedicated bathroom book, since I’ve been given a physical review copy, and I find myself brightening when I enter the loo. There are any number of places when the author has the opportunity to use an obvious plot device, but she chooses something better. By the end of the story I believe Maddy as a character, and I appreciate the way it ends.

My home town, Seattle, has an enormous problem with homelessness, estimated in the tens of thousands, and most of them are native Seattle-ites that have been priced out of the housing market. I know one of the people out there; others have squatted in my yard until my dog made them feel unwelcome. Not one part of this city is entirely free of tents, cardboard shacks, and other makeshift shelters. So this subject is never far from my thoughts.

The fact is that there aren’t nearly enough shelter beds, whether in open rooms with mats on the floor, hotels with doors that close and provide privacy, or other options, but in reading this book, it is also clear that there are times when it’s better to walk away from free shelter. Take our friend Maddy. The shelter she sometimes frequents is one where the probable killer has seen her. She can’t go there safely. There are shelters where she can’t take her dog. There are others that sound pretty good, but a night filled with the screams of a neighbor experiencing a mental health crisis make the private niche way deep in the park more appealing. The cops range from businesslike 3 AM bush beaters (“You can’t camp here!”) to the overtly cruel, and most of the homeless know better than to try to confide in them. And so it goes.

The main part of this story involves a couple—Dave and Marva—that are the parents of Shane, the murder victim. They live on the other side of the country, and they never understood why Shane wouldn’t come home. No one besides Maddy recalls having seen Shane, and so although she has only seen him once—dead—they latch onto her, vowing to help her since they couldn’t help him. Between their grief and ignorance, however, they bumble around and breach boundaries in ways that are outrageously presumptuous, and when they drag her to their home for Thanksgiving, they introduce her as someone that “knew Shane,” which of course she didn’t. Maddy feels bad for these folks, but she doesn’t want to be their project. It’s a bizarre situation for her to be in.

Though it is marketed as commercial fiction, I think a lot of teens would embrace this story. I suggest that Language Arts teachers in middle and high schools add it to their shelves, as should librarians. The vocabulary is accessible, and despite the quote I lead with, there’s very little profanity.

Recommended especially for teenage readers.

Autopsy, by Patricia Cornwell*****

Autopsy is number 25 in the Kay Scarpetta series, the first forensic thrillers ever to see print. This series began in 1990, and I have read every single one, but this is the first time I’ve scored a review copy. My thanks go to William Morrow and Net Galley.

When the series began, Scarpetta was the chief medical examiner in Virginia. When last we saw her, she was working in Massachusetts, but now she’s come full circle, brought back to her old position in order to root out corruption and restore the office to the integrity it held when last Scarpetta was in charge. She didn’t expect it to be easy, and it surely isn’t.

There are long running characters that have been so well developed over the years that I almost feel as if I would know them on the street. Her husband, Benton Wesley, holds a sensitive position within the FBI, and the necessary secrecy and sudden need to pack a bag and go somewhere has led to marital tension over the course of the series, but not so much this time. Kay’s niece, Lucy, is more like a daughter; she has been estranged from her mother at times, a high-strung, self-absorbed woman that looks out for number one every minute of every day. The mother—Dorothy—is now married to Pete Marino, with whom Scarpetta has worked closely for the length of the series, and they live nearby.

At this juncture, new or inconstant readers may wonder if there’s any point to jumping into a book this far into the series. I read it with that question in mind, and whereas you won’t have the background and depth of context that faithful fans possess, you can understand everything that happens here; Cornwell doesn’t burden the reader with assumed knowledge.  And if you are a new reader, likely as not, you’ll find yourself headed to the library or bookstore to pick up others from this series. It’s that addictive.

The only background information that might make a difference is that from the outset, Kay’s whole family (except Dorothy, of course) fears for her well-being. A murder occurs in the area, and the victim is a neighbor of Pete and Dorothy’s. Immediately, there’s this sense of urgency, and it’s more than one would ordinarily expect. A neighbor has been killed; the circumstances are weird, and we don’t know whodunit; everyone is edgy about personal security, and again—especially regarding Kay’s safety. So let me help you out, if you’re new: over several of the most recent episodes, someone has attempted to kill Kay, nearly succeeding more than once, and though the occasional thug has been caught, the schemer behind the attempts is still out there somewhere. The narrative makes no specific references to any of this, which I appreciate. It’s obnoxious when a book costs as much as new books do these days, for the author to insert what amount to advertisements to buy her other books. But for those not in the know: If the beginning seems a little overwrought, that’s why.

Add to this that the old guard is still entrenched in Kay’s workplace, with people whispering behind her back, and her secretary clearly plotting against her. She’s just arrived, but she is on the back foot, trying to find out what’s going on and who can be trusted, and trying to establish her own authority without making enemies unnecessarily. As I read, I find myself urging her to assert herself. Because to me, Scarpetta isn’t a fictional character at all. I believe in this character, and I believe in Benton, Lucy, and Marino, too. I’ve known them longer than a lot of people I see in real life, after all.

Those of us that read a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and so forth become accustomed to timeworn plot devices. I have a little list of things I hate to find in books of this genre, and Cornwell avoids them all. There is no alcoholic protagonist that just wants a drink, a drink, a drink. There’s no kidnapping of the protagonist and stuffing her in the trunk (or backseat, or whatever,) nor does this happen to any of her loved ones. Scarpetta is not being framed for a murder she didn’t commit, nor is anyone she loves.

Instead, we get an autopsy in outer space, supervised remotely by Scarpetta. How cool is that?

One other aspect of this book, and this series, that I love, is that there is just enough interesting information included about forensic investigation without the story turning into some tedious science lecture, as I have found in books scribed by Cornwall’s imitators.

The pacing is swift, the dialogue crackles, and a new character, Officer Fruge, is introduced. Hers is the last word in the book, and for some reason, it made me laugh out loud, a first for this series.

Welcome home, Scarpetta.

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, by Cathy Guisewite****

Guisewite began publishing the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976, the year that I graduated high school. It was a time of high expectations for women, and the unrealistic suggestion that we would be able to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” as Madison Avenue decreed, was daunting.  Through her sharply perceptive humor, Guisewite let her peers know that it wasn’t just us; we were judging ourselves with an unfair yardstick. She kept it real, and in doing so, kept us sane.

My thanks go to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam for the review copy.

So how does cartooning translate to prose?  Whereas the cute, punchy single-page entries and single sentence proclamations—and the lists—are her most familiar territory, my favorite parts of this memoir are the least cartoonish ones. Yes, I love the way she takes down the women’s fashion industry and the unhealthy way it affects our body images.  She was good at it forty years ago, and she’s good at it now. But the passages that drew me in and let me get lost in her story are the more vulnerable, deeply perceptive parts of the narrative, her fears for her aging parents; the struggle and triumph of raising a daughter, one with special needs, alone; and the failure of her marriage. I am in awe of the fact that she and her ex made each other laugh until the tears came as they planned their divorce. Who does that? And of course, she made me laugh too.

Guisewite stays inside her usual parameters, never veering outside of the middle class Caucasian realm with which she has experience. Younger women won’t get much joy out of this memoir; women that came of age between 1965 and 1985 are right in her sweet spot, and it is to them that I recommend this book. It’s available now.

Night Moves, by Jonathan Kellerman****

Night MovesI always enjoy the Alex Delaware series. It takes a fun read to make me look forward to my stationary bike–which is generally not my favorite thing–and this did that. My rule for myself is that I am allowed to stop pedaling early, but if I do, the audio book gets turned off, and sure enough, I have been riding it full tilt to sneak in a few more pages.

The best parts are the dialogue, and of course, the adolescent characters that only Kellerman can craft so effectively. That said, I cringe when Milo tells Alex to wear a Kevlar vest when they go in to make the bust; I have bought the premise of the psychiatrist riding around as if he were Milo’s partner, since it makes for a good story and is so well written, but when the bulletproof vests come out, my eyes roll. Noooo, don’t be silly.

John Rubenstein does a fantastic job of reading, and his voices for the many characters are bang on.

Best of 2016: Nonfiction

I didn’t have to think twice about this one. This category includes any nonfiction published for the first time this year except for biographies and memoirs, which have their own category on this site. If you haven’t read this one, you should. It’s not only important, but oddly fascinating.

Fire Lover, by Joseph Wambaugh*****

fireloveratruestory John Orr was a fire fighter that wanted to become a cop. The psychological test weeded him out; his personality wasn’t stable enough for a guy that carries a gun for a living, and they turned him down. Over the years, however, he became not only a fire chief, but a highly respected arson investigator, and took tremendous pride in the fact that he was part of the law enforcement community. However, occasional snubs from that group made him livid, and he dealt with his rage in the most horrific manner imaginable: he became the most prolific arsonist in California history. Joseph Wambaugh captures this true crime story in electrifying detail. I received my copy from Open Road Media and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review, but you can get your copy Tuesday, October 18, 2016 when it is digitally released.

It starts with the Ole Hardware Store fire. Ole is a family owned business, but it is large in scale, the size of a big box store, and four people die there. Wambaugh provides personal, poignant details of those that perish, and I appreciate this. The white Volkswagen is particularly moving.

Orr doesn’t see it as poignant or tragic, however; he is enraged at the cops and insurance investigators for calling it an accident, and in order to achieve recognition for his twisted projects, he sets more fires. More. And still more. And as the fires increase, the budget, which had been going to be cut, isn’t cut after all, and Orr has all the work he can handle and more, because he is investigating his own crimes. Time and time again, he is seen at the sites of fires doing uncharacteristic things, or before an alarm has yet been sounded, but no one is ready to suggest that he is the party responsible until it is screamingly obvious.

The author is tremendously skilled at shifting the mood from the somber, to the ironic, to the occasional moment that is genuinely comical, without ever missing a beat, setting an inappropriate tone, or dropping his documentation, which is meticulous and must have taken a lot of years to compile. I usually am not fond of true crime stories because I know I may not like the ending; the author can’t choose how it comes out if his story is true. But this one drew me like a moth, and I had to get a closer look.

Wambaugh chronicles Orr’s life as well as the arsons, investigations, and then the trials that follow, and he does it brilliantly. He received an Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, and it was an honor he earned.

Highly recommended.

The Birthday Boys, by Beryl Bainbridge**

thebirthdayboysThe Birthday Boys is a fictionalized account of the Scott expedition’s travel to Antarctica in 1910. It’s told sequentially through the perspectives of five men that participate, each picking up where the last has left off and of course, also including some personal reflections and memories to make them more real to us. I was invited to read and review this novel based on my enjoyment of the book Ice Brothers, which was also a maritime tale (and is reviewed here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2015/01/03/ice-brothers-by-sloan-wilson/ ). Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Media, but this isn’t my book. I pushed myself all the way through it hoping for some redeeming aspect of it to pop up at the end, but it only gets worse as it goes, at least from my perspective.

Our story begins in Cardiff, and the men and The Owner (always capitalized) are eager to get started before the Antarctic winter sets in, so they pass their whaler off as a yacht in order to prevent safety regulations from slowing them down. They understand they are sailing across the world in a leaky tub, but one of them is too unprincipled to care, and the others are so darn young. In fact, wouldn’t reaching the destination on one’s twenty-first birthday be the best gift ever? Hence the title.

At the outset, I struggled a bit with some of the technical terms, looking up “plimsol line” and a couple of others, but by the 15% mark I had my legs under me, so to speak, and felt more confident. Soon thereafter, however, the nasty references to gender and race came into it. I looked back at the copyright; since this author, highly respected in the UK and winner of awards, was born in 1932, might this be a digital release of a very old book? But not so much: the original copyright date was 1991. Perhaps Dame Bainbridge felt that ugly racist terms might provide some flavor here. Likewise, the women included here, generally wives of the men involved that were tucked safely away at the base camp, were carping or hysterical, squabbled with one another, and Mrs. Scott, the only woman with any character at all according to the narrative, kept insisting that she hated women.

Whoa.

The plot is rugged and gruesome. If not for the issues just mentioned, I might compare the writing to that of Jack London, fascinating for those that love the adrenaline rush of life-or-death adventures, but too grisly for me. There’s some good work with figurative language and at times the scenes are tremendously visceral. Yet at times the pace actually plods along rather slowly for a book of its kind, and so I find myself wondering how this writer managed to be recognized by the queen; that is true, at least, until I find the following passage:

“It’s difficult for a man to know where he fits in any more. All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under the scrutiny of the magnifying glass…”

Well, perish the thought!

If not for the racism and sexism I’d call this a three star read. If an Antarctic expedition thrills you and you have the stomach for the…never mind. I can’t finish that sentence without scrunching up my face and squinting, so let’s go with the bare truth: I don’t recommend this book to anybody.

Even the Wicked, by Ed McBain**

eventhewickedBest known by the pseudonym Ed McBain, Richard Marsten, the name under which this book was originally scribed in 1958, was born as Salvatore Lombino.  I was a huge fan of McBain’s, and every time I see some small thing he wrote that I haven’t had a chance to read yet, I snap it up. And so it was with this DRC, which I received compliments of Net Galley and Open Road Media. But once I reached the halfway mark, I felt sort of queasy and couldn’t continue. I suspect that much of what he wrote as Marsten might as well be left in whatever obscure attic corner it’s perched in, because society has moved forward since the 1950s, and this book is still there.

The re-publication date for this book is October 25, 2016.

The premise is this. Our protagonist, Zach, is returning to the beach house where he and his now-deceased wife stayed on their wedding night. He brings their little girl Penny along with him. Before he can commence to do any sleuthing, however, the real estate concern that rented the place to him tells him it’s been taken by someone else. Zach isn’t going down easily for two reasons: first, he wants to see if his suspicion regarding the possible murder of his wife is true, and second, he’s already paid in full for the entire stay. The story starts with the excellent, tense build up that would become Lombino-Marsten-McBain-Hunter’s hallmark. I rolled up my sleeves and snuggled in.

And then bit by bit it all went to hell.

First of all, why would a man on a deadly mission bring his little girl with him? Leave the tot somewhere safe or stay home. And then there’s the stereotypic, racist crap about the local Indian. (He’s ‘chiseled’, of course, but he’s also just plain creepy looking.) Next, Daddy Zach tells Penny that he’s pretty sure her mommy was murdered.

The fuck?

And as he sets up his date with destiny, he finally realizes he has to have a sitter for Penny after all—in the contested house, of course, where surely nothing bad will happen to her while he’s away—and so he asks a complete stranger for the name of a babysitter, and the person refers him to someone that’s also a complete stranger. He sets it all up, arranging to leave his little girl, all he has left in this world, with someone he’s never heard of till today and doesn’t even plan to interview, and hits the road to solve the crime.

I got halfway through this thing and finally threw up my hands. Had I read the rest, I might have thrown up, period.

I know that in bygone times, people in the US were much more relaxed about child care arrangements than we are today. Many Caucasian people were also really racist, and men and sometimes even women were sexist, too. But that doesn’t mean I care to see it in my escapist fiction.

If you haven’t read Ed McBain, find something he wrote after 1980 and you’ll be in for a treat. But this one is a thumbs-down.

Doctorow: Collected Stories, by EL Doctorow*****

doctorowcollectedEL Doctorow died last year, and the literary world—well, at least the English-speaking part of it—mourned. I know I did. He was one of the finest writers ever to grace the planet, and so when I spotted this collection of stories, even though I understood that I had probably read most or all of them already I snapped it up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The collection will be available to the public November 1.

I am bemused by “The Writer in the Family”; I had read it before, but it’s worth reading again. Families are complicated, and Doctorow deftly creates a deeply dysfunctional dynamic with this one. Check out the premise:

“In 1955 my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home. The old lady was ninety and hadn’t even known he was ill. Thinking the shock might kill her, my aunts told her that he had moved to Arizona for his bronchitis…And so it came about that as we mourned him in our stocking feet, my grandmother was bragging to her cronies about her son’s new life in the dry air of the desert.”

But Grandma can’t understand why her son isn’t writing to her; this will never do. Thus the aunts approach the protagonist. “You’re the writer in the family,” they open, and then present the obligation to him, that he must forge a letter to Grandma from his late father. The aunts will go to the nursing home and read it aloud to her; all he has to do is write something. And of course one letter isn’t enough; there must be more, more, more, and so even as he is grieving his father’s loss, our protagonist, the good son, nephew, grandson that doesn’t make waves, is required to plagiarize one letter after another in his father’s name, until a shift alters the equation.

Because Doctorow wasn’t just any writer, I visited his Wikipedia page before writing this review, and I learned that his first name was Edgar and that he was named for Edgar Allan Poe; he was expected to become a writer. I trust his parents were satisfied. At the same time, I found myself wondering how many times he had been told that since he was the writer in the family, it was up to him to do this, that, the other. All speculation, of course, but they say to write what you know, and perhaps to some extent, he did.

On my actual bookshelves, the ones made with wood and that have books made of cardboard, cloth, and paper on them, I have half a shelf devoted to this writer’s work, and so when I downloaded this DRC, I went and retrieved the collection of his short stories that I already owned (and paid for), All the Time in the World, which was published in 2011. I wanted to see what difference there was. I found that this new collection has two stories I hadn’t read before, and so that was where my focus began. For those that also already have this author’s complete works up to now, the new short stories are “Baby Wilson” and “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden”. The other difference is that the short story on which his outstanding novel The Waterworks is based is presented here. That one is short indeed, and it’s strong enough that it’s easy to see why he selected it to expand into novel form (which I highly recommend).

Ordinarily I would say that I’d have been annoyed had I paid full jacket price for this one, with a dozen reprinted short stories I already own; the premise for a novel I already own; and two lonely stories that are new to me. But this is Doctorow, and so my rules are different. Were I not a book blogger and able to get a DRC, I would probably wait for this one to turn up in used bookstores so that I could buy it on the cheap, but one way or another, I would have to have it. And to be sure, both stories—though maybe not good choices for the pregnant reader, given that they involve a dead child and an abducted newborn—are absolutely brilliant. Baby Wilson in particular builds irresistibly and is a masterpiece, but the voice in the Rose Garden story is guaranteed to produce chills.

I also reread my old favorites, among them “Walter John Harmond”. Whoa.

As always, Doctorow’s writing is hyper-literate. If you try to read this while doing something else, you will be lost, and I don’t recommend it to anyone for whom English is not the mother tongue unless the reader is so steeped in the language as to be comfortable with heavy literary fiction.

Don’t try to skim; savor it.

Highly recommended to the fluent reader that loves great literary fiction.