Fidelity, by Jan Fedarcyk***-****

fidelityRetired FBI agent Jan Fedarcyk makes her debut with this intense spy novel, and it is bound to keep the reader guessing and turning pages deep into the night. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received for review purposes. I rate this story with 3.5 stars and round it upward.

The selling point for the new reader of what is destined to become the Kay Malloy series, is that the author has spent 25 years in the FBI and knows what she’s talking about. Though she reminds the reader that a lot of the FBI agent’s job is done at a desk sifting through endless forms to fill out and reports to write and not much of what we see on TV, we also know that she can spot an implausible situation a mile away and not go there or do that.

So the initial question that came to me was whether someone that’s worked for the Feds for a quarter century still has enough imagination left to write interesting fiction, and now I can tell you straight up that Fedarcyk does, and she can, and she did. I like the level of complexity, which is literate without being impossible to follow. The reader will want to give her story full attention; nobody can watch television and read this book during the ads. It’s well paced and the suspense is built in a masterful manner.

Characterization comes up a little short, and I can imagine that this will be her key focus in writing future books in the series. Kay is so darn perfect, and I never feel I know her deeply, despite the discussion of her past and how she is motivated by it. We see her tempted to use her position for a very small, somewhat justifiable personal reason briefly, but she is nonetheless something of a cardboard hero all the way through. Likewise, the Russian spies are big, blocky bad guys, thugs that drink Vodka. The spy novel tradition has been honored, but I would like to see more layers to these characters as we move forward. The ending, while it surprises me to some extent, is not one that the reader had a reasonable chance of guessing, but to some extent that’s true of a lot of espionage thrillers.  What might be really cool would be to see an espionage version of Kay’s own Moriarty come into play.

As is always the case for me when I read espionage thrillers, police procedurals, and other novels that involve heroic cops, I have to construct a mental barricade between what I see in real life and what I am willing to believe when I read fiction. One of Fedarcyk’s characters snorts in derision about the time when people were willing to die for Marxism, and I have news: some of us still would. But for a fun ride, I am delighted to suspend reality and buy the premise until the book is done.

One area where I struggled—and to be honest, I don’t know whether anyone else will or not—was with two characters, first Luis, whose last name isn’t used very much, and then Torres, whose first name doesn’t get used much either. This reviewer has taught more than one student named Luis Torres, so this may factor into my confusion about 75% of the way through the story when I realize that these have to be two separate people, but for awhile I am convinced that Uncle Luis Torres has mentored her into the field, and so when the story arc is near its peak, I have to go back and reread some of the novel to be certain I knew who is who. Luis is the uncle; Torres is the agent and mentor; they’re two separate guys.

All told, this is a promising start to what is sure to be an engaging series. The world needs to see more strong women in fiction, and so I welcome Kay Malloy and look forward to seeing future installments. A fine debut, and it’s for sale now.

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.

The Girls, by Emma Cline*****

thegirlsThe Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson Murders, a terrible killing spree that stunned the USA in the 1960s before any mass shootings had occurred, when Americans were still reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Manson, a career criminal with a penchant for violence yet possessed of a strange sort of charisma, attracted a number of young women and girls into a cult of his own founding. Later they would commit a series of grisly murders in the hills outside Berkeley, and it is this cult and these crimes on which Cline’s story is based. Great thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book will be published June 14, 2016.

Evie is an only child of the middle class; she is well provided for, but her parents have split up and her presence is getting in the way of her mother’s love life. Evie needs her mother’s attention now that she has entered her teens and so she pushes the limits in small ways, then in larger ones. When it becomes clear that her mother just doesn’t want her around, Evie looks elsewhere and finds herself drawn to a feral-looking young woman named Suzanne, who has unsuccessfully tried to shoplift something from a nearby store. Before long, Evie is sleeping on a mattress at the rural commune where Suzanne lives, eating from the communal kitchen and being used sexually by the group’s charismatic leader, and then by a man in the music industry that Russell, the founder, wants to please in the hope of having his music published.  Russell dispenses hallucinogenic drugs freely to make the girls more compliant.

We know immediately that this place, the commune, is not a good place. When we find that the babies  born to young women that live there—in this era before Roe versus Wade gave women the right to choose—are segregated from their young mothers and the pitiful way they regress and attempt to attach themselves to various females in search of a mother or mother figure, that’s a huge tell. But when Evie arrives she doesn’t want to know these things, at least not yet. All Evie wants is to be with Suzanne.

The story’s success isn’t anchored so much in the story line, a story that’s been tapped by previous writers, but in the dead-accuracy of setting, both the details of the time and in every other respect as well, from home furnishings, to slang, to clothing, to the way women were regarded by men. The women’s movement hadn’t taken root yet. This reviewer grew up during this time, and every now and then some small period bit of minutiae sparks a memory. In fact, the whole story seems almost as if a shoebox of snapshots from pre-digital days had been spilled onto the floor, then arranged in order.

The other key aspect that makes this story strong is the character development. Evie doesn’t have to live in poverty among bad people, but she feels both angry at her mother and hemmed in by the conventional expectations of her family and friends. Her boundary-testing costs her the loyalty of her best friend, really her only friend, and so she casts about for a new set of peers. Her mother prefers the fiction that she is still visiting Connie, the friend that has disowned her, and this lie provides Evie with a lot of wiggle room on evenings when her mother is with her boyfriend and finds it convenient for Evie not to be home.

As for Evie, what has started out to be an adventure, a bold experiment in branching out from the middle class suburban life she’s always known, gradually begins to darken. But the worse things get, the more important it is to her to prove her fealty to Suzanne, to not be rejected a second time as she was with Connie. Hints are dropped that probably she ought to just go back where she came from before it’s too late, but she is determined not to hear them.  I want to grab her by the sleeve and get her out of there; Evie won’t budge. Once she is in trouble at home for the things she had done on behalf of the group, her desire to avoid her home and stay with Suzanne grows even stronger, which leads her into more trouble yet. Clues are dropped that something big is going to happen, something that our protagonist maybe should avoid, but she plunges forward anyway with the bullheaded determination peculiar to adolescence.

All told, Evie’s future doesn’t look good.

Readers among the Boomer generation will love this book for its striking accuracy; those that are younger will feel as if they have traveled to a time and place they have never seen before. One way or another, Cline’s masterful storytelling weaves a powerful spell that doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Riveting, and highly recommended.

Dodgers, by Bill Beverly*****

DodgersDodgers is a harrowing tale of African-American teenagers sent away from their home in Los Angeles, an area depressed and tense but familiar, across the Rocky Mountains, the land of white folks, and into the pale rural American heartland, where they have been sent by a father figure to commit a capital crime. I could not wrench myself away from this story for love nor money once I’d begun it. Kudos to Bill Beverly, and thank you to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This book is available to pre-order right now and becomes available Tuesday, April 5.

Our protagonist is East, and a key secondary character every bit as intriguing is his younger brother Ty. We are told at the outset that East has never had a childhood, and that goes double for Ty, who moved out of the house at age nine, their addicted, addled mother making no effort to nurture or stop them. In fact, a social worker would say that the boys are parenting the mother, if anything. Fin, who serves as the only father figure East has, tells him that he is the man of the house. Most days he works a twelve hour shift standing yard, to the casual eye just loitering or hanging around, but in reality watching for anything unusual that might indicate the presence of cops or another hostile outsider, and it’s his job to make sure that if something happens, it gets stopped before it breeches “The Boxes”, the cluster of squatter’s houses in which drug transactions take place. He’s learned to be observant and a fast problem solver, supervising others that are also standing yard in different locations.

When he is taken to meet with Fin, he is hustled into a car in a way reminiscent of mafia tales, told not to look at the street signs and not to attempt to keep track of the route they are traveling. Fin solemnly tells him that he and three others are being sent to whack an African-American judge in Wisconsin, a man that can rule against Fin in a federal court; the man is “a legal Negro”, and has to be taken out. East has never shot a gun before and isn’t eager to begin, but he can’t say that.


Guns, after all. The noise. The mess. He’d held a gun before but never felt safer for it.

                  All the same, he was no fool. He knew guns made his world go round.


One of the four young people heading out on this terrible mission is a young man from the middle class named Michael. Michael is a UCLA student, but has taken on the chore of helping Fin establish a drug market at the university. This is the only potentially weak part of the story. Why would a young man with a future do something like this? On the one hand, I can see why we want him in the story; we are trying to break apart the stereotype that every Black kid lives in the projects and is on welfare. Most African-American teens aren’t living there, and in making “The Boxes” in LA seem like the whole world to East, the author risks perpetuating that myth. But apart from the author’s need to recognize that a Black middle class exists, why would Michael be part of this? He has so much to lose and not much to gain other than maybe an adrenaline rush. Michael is the least developed of the four teens, but we do see that his judgment is questionable, and so maybe that could account for it.

As they cross the Rockies, East can’t stop looking out the windows. He has never seen the mountains before, even though they are within a day’s drive of LA, and this is poignant. And as they cross the USA on their terrible mission, we see countless acts of racist misbehavior toward them that provide us with an important subtext: no matter who is in the White House now, racism in the USA is still alive. It isn’t just cops, not just a few crackers waving their Confederate flags. They’re all over the place.

While we’re talking about text and subtext, let me address the use of the “n” word. It’s used liberally here. In schools where I taught, and among my youngest son’s friends (my youngest son and most of his friends are African-American), the acceptable word for Black people to use among themselves ends with the letter “a”, not “er”. Maybe this is a regionalism. At any rate, it is used a lot in this book with the “er” ending, often by the teenagers in dialogue, and also used by racists against them. At one point East points out that Fin doesn’t want them using that word, an instruction that is casually dismissed.  And this quieted my concern somewhat, because while it gets used, it also gets talked about.

And in general, our four characters are not caricatures, but are portrayed with dignity and a point of view that seems authentic to me. I confess I would like to see some African-American periodicals’ take on this book, and given time, maybe I will see some. Right now there are dozens of reviews out, but all of the reviewers whose photos show are white folks, except for a single Asian reviewer. This isn’t the writer’s fault, but it makes me uncomfortable, a crowd of us out here in cyberspace, Caucasian bookworms, offering approval of a Caucasian writer’s version of Black teens from the ‘hood.

But back to our story. Those that think inner city LA is a scary place to go might do well to see the rest of the country from East’s point of view. Out among the cornfields, nobody knows what the rules are anymore. A white guy sitting in the middle of nowhere in a kiosk behind bullet-proof glass is supposed to sell them guns, but things have changed and he isn’t going to do it. The white guy in a hoody that covers most of his face disquiets them all. “Grim-reaper-looking motherfucker”, says Walter from behind the wheel.

All sorts of bizarre cultural cues jump out at them. It’s Christmas, and at odd times, LED lights festoon the fronts of houses: “a Baby Jesus was standing yard.”

Little brother Ty is brilliant but cold; in a different circumstance, he would be parked in gifted ed classes all day long, but here, he is the one that makes hard choices that make sense from the street point of view, and he is utterly remorseless.

I won’t give anything more away, but I have to tell you that when all is said and done, the untold reason for their cross-country mission is the most staggering of all.

You have to read this book.



The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth Mckenzie*****

theportableveblen“There is a terrible alchemy coming.”

Veblen has led an insular life, focusing her energies on genealogy, a love of nature, and oh dear heaven, her mother. The fact is, her mother is both dominant to an extreme degree, and frankly more than a little bit squirrely. But when Veblen meets Paul, her life changes dramatically; but even more so than most young women, she finds that she needs to be flexible to accommodate Paul, whose needs are different from her own.

A huge thank you goes to Net Galley and Penguin Random House Publishers for permitting me a DRC. I nearly let this title pass unread by me, thinking, because of the cover art, that it was going to be a cutesy animal story, its humor no doubt cloying. I could not have been more mistaken, and so thanks are also due to whatever journalist’s review was posted in my hometown newspaper. Realizing my error, I rushed to the computer to see if it would still be possible, at this late date, to read it free.

It was indeed.

Dr. Paul Vreeland, neurologist and researcher, seeks some normalcy and order in his life. He was raised in a communal environment by parents determined to avoid the rat race and its social conventions as well. All of them. Had he been raised in an urban environment, someone would have probably called the authorities and had him removed from the filth, the drugs, and oh yes, the dreadful embarrassment. When he meets Veblen, he senses that she is fresh and unpretentious, but does not fully grasp just how much she wants to be like his parents—well, minus the drugs.

When Veblen is under stress, she starts anthropomorphizing squirrels. She is certain she can talk to them and that they understand what she’s saying. The stranger her mother behaves, the more Veblen is drawn to squirrels.

And now, a personal note. A good friend of mine took a respite from the grinding, long hours of social work, and for awhile she worked as a wedding planner. It didn’t last long. Having had so much experience dealing with disparate personalities in her initial career, she often felt the urge to hurl herself between the prospective bride and groom, upon whose union tens of thousands of dollars was being lavished. She wanted to cry out, “Just get away from each other, both of you! This marriage will be over before the year is over, so just don’t go there!”

And this is what I wanted to do as of the 33 percent mark. I wanted to haul Veblen back to the rundown cottage she occupied by preference, and haul Paul back to his state-of-the-art medical facility, and have them never see one another again.

Then again, their relationship is hysterically funny, and all of us can use a good laugh, followed by another, and yet another.

The reader can approach this hugely original tale on one of two levels. It can be read as literary fiction, with the squirrel as metaphor. Or one can just read it, and sit back and howl with laughter.

One way or the other, this unbelievably clever, hilarious book is available for purchase now, and it is highly recommended to everyone.

Far From True, by Linwood Barclay****

farfromtrueBarclay is an established writer, with a number of best sellers to his credit, but he was new to me. My thanks go to Net Galley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing me with a DRC in exchange for an honest review.

And indeed, it does take a pro to weave such an intricate plot so adroitly. But let’s take it from the top and go from there.

The story is set in Promise Falls, an ironically named town that contains more trouble than you can imagine. The initial crisis takes place at the drive-in movie theater, the last showing before the place closes up and the property is sold. But then the unthinkable happens.

Like most disasters, this one triggers a flurry of other emergencies erupt related to the victims of the theater tragedy. There are greedy relatives, heartsick loved ones, and other events and individuals that are just bizarre. And then there are more bodies, and the number “23” appears over and over again, a grim warning.

Some mystery novels are great for the classroom. This one isn’t. In fact, if I were a school librarian I wouldn’t buy it either. Leave this one for consenting adults.

For us, there is more flexibility. There are some parts that are more sexually explicit than your average detective novel, and readers know whether or not they find this appealing. If you have read Barclay’s other mysteries, perhaps you already have some notion of what is in store. But if, like me, you come to this title without having read the first book in the Promise Falls series, you can dive in as if it were a stand-alone mystery. There is no prior knowledge assumed.

I liked the story in spite of the kinky stuff that reached beyond my own perception of what is tasteful. The suspense was so palpable, and the many subplots so well woven throughout the text that I expected to rate this title five stars. I read several books at a time, and for awhile this was my “dessert” mystery, the book I reached for after I had dispatched my obligation to the publisher for a title I had not enjoyed as much. While there were a couple of situations that confused me sometimes—we have two new couples that are starting a relationship while all this unfolds, and I tended to mix them up, and which kid was whose again?—most of the characters were distinct and developed sufficiently that I knew who they were and what they were like when the story bounced back to their point of view. Frequent changes in setting, character, and point of view heightened the suspense.

I was eternally grateful not to have a protagonist agonizing over whether or not to stop at the bar, whether or not to have just one beer. Heaven save me from any more agonized alcoholic main characters. And so this was a relief.

Ultimately though, the ending left me feeling cheated, and that is where the final star fell off my rating. To be sure it was a surprise ending, but it felt dissonant and tacked on. I often can’t tell how much I like a good story until I see the ending, and that was surely true here.

Nevertheless, it’s a solid piece of fiction, and worth your time and dime. Unless you have deep, deep pockets, I don’t think I would go full hard jacket price for this one, but if you can obtain it at a discount, digitally, or in paperback, it’s a fun read for a chilly late winter weekend.

This title will be available for purchase March 8.

The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke*****

thetinroofblowSometimes people say they “ran across” a book, and that is close to how I came to read James Lee Burke for the first time. I had been tidying up for company, and my daughter had selected this book from the “free” pile at school, then decided she didn’t want it. She is a teenager, so instead of finding our charity box and putting it there, she dropped it on the upstairs banister. I scooped it up in irritation..then looked at it again. Flipped it over…read the blurb about the writer. This man is a rare winner of TWO Edgars. Really? I examined the title again; I hadn’t read any novels based on Hurricane Katrina, so why not give it a shot?

There are about a dozen writers whose novels I will read just because they wrote them. This man is now one of them. I appreciated his ability to develop characters, deal respectfully but realistically with the tragedy and travesty that was Hurricane Katrina (followed by Rita) and recognize it as such; and keep about a million plot threads going without ever dropping anything. In fact, the complexity of the character line-up–somewhere between a dozen and fifteen important people to remember, when I was on the verge of falling asleep for the night–gave me pause, but then this is #6 in a series, so it is possible that if I’d begun with #1, some of them would have been old friends by now, with just a few new ones introduced (and some disposed of before the story was over).

The setting was entirely unfamiliar to me; I have never spent time in the deep southern part of the USA, unless you count a trip with my family to Disney World, and have never set foot in Louisiana. Burke knew it well enough for both of us. His word work was sufficient to lay the canvas before me,and the devastation that was visited upon those who had previously been poor but stable was laid bare:

“They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquemines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead. They died in hospitals and in nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest.”

He gave due credit to those who, in an official capacity or otherwise, worked tirelessly for up to 72 hours on end to save the lives of the vulnerable who had been unable to get out in time, or whose parents had made the wrong choice for them. But he also tells the truth about the condition of the levee that was supposed to protect the residents of New Orleans, and how it had been permitted to deteriorate, when Federal funds were dropped by 50% without a moment’s notice or explanation, and permitted to deteriorate worst in the Black part of town. The narration spills out with disgust the “latent racism…that was already beginning to rear its head.”

Meanwhile, our hero, cop Dave Robicheaux, is trying to find out the whereabouts of a “junkie priest” who perished trying to evacuate his parishioners, but died in the flood waters when criminals stole his boat. He also keeps track of his best friend Clete, a bail bondsman and private detective who will follow him around if he is not included in the search, because some of the people Robicheaux is trying to locate are also bail skippers, and therefore also his bread and butter. Clete is an alcoholic and makes some really bad decisions; Robicheaux tirelessly tries to keep him under his wing and under control, all the while also trying to keep his wife and daughter safe from a local mercenary he’s investigating. The bad guy knows that Robicheaux’s family is his greatest treasure, and threatens them as an attempt to make him back off.

While parts of New Orleans appear untouched by Katrina, others have had their entire infrastructures destroyed, and there are virtually no navigable roads; the waters are treacherous as well, with downed power lines and debris just below the surface. In short, he has his work cut out for him.

Burke’s bad guys are complicated characters. All come from hideous family situations, and childhood has left its unalterable mark on them, but they are layered in the depths to which they will stoop in seeking wealth, power, or simply revenge. One is capable of property crime, violence, even rape, but finds he cannot look an unarmed man in the eye and shoot him; another can do it without a hitch in his heartbeat. The street smart voices I heard within these chapters felt real to me.

But the consistent thread which lies at the core of the story, of the storm, of everything that takes place between its covers, is one which the writer has hold of like a pit bull with a rat. He has his jaws around it and shakes it without ever letting loose of it, whatever other events weave in and out of his pages, the racism that caused the most harm to be brought upon those with the fewest resources, intentionally and maliciously. He will not let go of the racism that rules New Orleans.

“The original sympathy for the evacuees from New Orleans was incurring a strange  transformation. Right wing talk shows abounded with callers viscerally enraged at the fact evacuees were receiving a onetime two-thousand-dollar payment to help them buy food and find lodging. The old southern nemesis was back,naked and raw and dripping–absolute hatred for the poorest of the poor.”

I can see why this guy has a pair of Edgars to bookend his mantel. He spins a compelling, absorbing tale, and the values and priorities that lay at the core of his work are ones I share and appreciate. It was in reading this novel that I became a die-hard James Lee Burke fan. I wrote this review before I had a blog on which to put it, and this book is a must-read for those that love good fiction, good mysteries, or that care about social justice.

The Lion’s Mouth, by Anne Holt****

thelionsmouthWho killed Prime Minister Birgitte Volter? Was it the neo-Nazis? The Satanists? Was it a personal thing, perhaps an angry family member? The answer is cleverly built up to, so that the reader has a fair chance of figuring it out, and yet will most likely be surprised. I was.

Thank you, Net Galley and thank you also, Scribner for the DRC. Anne Holt is an established writer and it shows in the way she expertly crafts character and setting. I was at something of a disadvantage, never having been to Norway; the place names had no meaning to me, apart from the names of major cities, and I struggled with the governmental structure. When Parliament was mentioned I was fine, and likewise the Supreme Court made sense, but then we came to the President of the Supreme Court, a prominent figure—is that like a chief justice, or is it a very different construct from that of USA?—and also there is a President of Parliament. Americans should be prepared to either Google these items or accept a certain amount of ambiguity; I chose the latter, and it worked all right for me. I knew that there would be some new terrain when I began reading, and as part of my goal was to widen my own reading world a little bit, it was worth battling the unknown. A mystery is an accessible way to do this, and I enjoyed it.

The book was originally published in 1997; even so, I found a couple of stereotypes unsettling. The fat jokes seemed inappropriate and disturbing; Little Letvik started out a caricature, and even when she was developed a bit more at the end, it didn’t help much. Ruth-Dorthe is a “blonde bimbo” and “slightly worn Barbie doll”. There was also some slut-shaming that I could have done without.

On the other hand, the character for whom the series is named, Hanne Wilhelmsen, is a lesbian and is the hero of the story. She is sensible, even-tempered, (thin,) and very intelligent. Another character I really enjoy is Billy T, a boisterous, funny fellow who lightens the story considerably. In fact, there were a number of places that made me laugh out loud.

Although the book is part of a series—this novel being the fourth—I liked it just fine as a stand-alone.

All told, it’s a strong work of fiction and a good choice for the mystery lover to add to her collection. With the above reservations, I recommend it to you.

It is available for purchase February 9, 2016.

Breakdown, by Jonathan Kellerman*****

BreakdownBreakdown is #31 in the Alex Delaware series, and Kellerman’s long-running series still has plenty of gas left in the tank. The premise this time is that six years ago, Delaware was called in to evaluate the parental fitness of a mother; custody issues have become his bread and butter, done on a case-by-case basis. The boy’s mother, Zelda, was an actress plagued by mental health issues, but seemed to be doing a competent job of raising Ovid. The actress’s psychiatrist wanted to be sure, so he called in Delaware to spend time with the child in question. Now things have gone downhill, and the psychologist that treated Zelda is dead. Zelda isn’t doing so well herself.

But the greater question for Delaware is…where is Ovid?

I received this galley in advance thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for an honest review. I rate the novel 4.5 stars and round it up. It’s a fast read, with lots of dialogue and a fair amount of action.

The most laudable aspect of this particular novel is the way it highlights the capricious, bureaucratic manner in which state and federal funds are disbursed to supposedly care for the mentally ill. Delaware is called to what is supposed to be a temporary facility where the mentally ill are kept just long enough to be evaluated as to their own capacity to care for themselves and live independently. The place that passed for a transitional medical setting was appalling; even worse, I suspect it may have been based on something close to the truth. A couple of decades of working with at-risk teens, combined with having loved ones that have struggled with mental health issues, has left your reviewer with a dim view of the care offered to those that cannot care for themselves. If there were such a thing as an award for mental health awareness in fiction, Kellerman would be a contender.

But let’s get back to the contours of the story itself. I appreciated the level of anticipation the author built without departing so far from reality as to breach believability. Whereas previous Alex Delaware novels sometimes strained the credulity of the reader—just how much gun play and tearing after bad guys does your average kiddy shrink do, even if his best buddy is a cop?—this one was much more realistic in terms of Delaware’s role, and the light jokes made by the protagonists about having invented enough ideas for a TV miniseries brought the credibility gap out into the open, gave us a chance to laugh along with the author and better yet, with his characters. Well played!

Brief mention of headaches and personal struggles with claustrophobia make Delaware a more tangible, less Olympian personality, and of course also provide us with some foreshadowing for things to come in future novels. This is one of the better aspects of a long-running series with a faithful readership, the ability to run a thread from one novel within the series forward into another one. He’s done it before, most notably with relationship issues, and done it well.

This book is available to the public February 2, 2016, and if you enjoy a good psychological mystery, you should get a copy and read it.

Holy War, by Mike Bond *****

holywarThat was the best horrible story I ever read. Holy War is set in Lebanon during the civil war. There are three protagonists whose stories and points of view interweave throughout this complex, highly literate novel. The plot centers on these individuals, each with one or more relationships whose ruin runs parallel to the destruction and chaos of Lebanon by various opposing forces (with the author’s emphasis on the religious disparity as opposed to the political differences, and indeed it’s a pretty fine distinction to make in this case). I requested the book from Net Galley because I haven’t read anything set in Lebanon. I am aware of the tendency of US citizens to focus over-much on our own enormous nation, and since I haven’t had the opportunity to travel beyond North America physically, I make a point to read contemporary novels set in other places. In this case, it paid off. I learned a good deal. I had never regarded Beirut as having once been a thriving cosmopolitan city; all I’d ever heard on the daily news in past years was “war-torn”. I live in a city that’s so scenic it’s nearly magical, and I am hard to impress when I travel. I have never thought of Beirut as having been lovely, but the writer describes it as breathtakingly beautiful, and the descriptions that he inserts into the story, without breaking stride in his pacing, convince me that it is much more than just some arid chunk of rock and sand. Bond makes the reader want to weep for Lebanon, and for the characters whose lives are coming undone as they attempt to do the right thing; this is considered different, naturally, by each of the protagonists. During the first third of the book, I was distracted by trying to figure out the writer’s political line. He doesn’t really have one, though, apart from the wish that this beleaguered place might have peace. I also initially wondered why all the sex and relationship material was jammed into what is otherwise essentially a thriller; then I began to see the parallels (although I could really, really live without ever seeing the “c” word applied to women’s anatomy ever again). In the end, inevitably, the protagonists find themselves in the same place together after having missed each other by mere inches at times throughout the story line. I won’t tell you how that plays out; you’ll have to see it for yourself. By the story’s end, though, each of the main characters seemed so utterly lost and hopeless to me that I found myself rooting for the dog, which was supposed to be peripheral. I engaged enough with Bond’s novel that I had to go look at a world map (and happily, we have one on the wall in our hallway) to see where exactly Lebanon is located. As it happens, Israel is smack in the center between Lebanon and Palestine; hence the struggle of the Lebanese Palestinians. I also found myself wondering why Britain (one protagonist‘s homeland) and France (another’s) feel they have any right to determine what happens here. There is no American protagonist, and yet I know the USA hasn’t exactly kept its hands off or its voice silent, either. But Lebanon is a tiny, tiny place, dwarfed by Syria, and practically a fly on the wall in contrast to Saudi Arabia. So why are all the big dogs interested in this tiny place? Are the Americans looking for a military base to replace the one they lost in Iran when Reza Pahlavi was chased away by the Iranian people? Or is there money involved? (At one place fairly early in Bond’s plot, a character says that wherever there is a war, profit is driving it, and I agree.) A trip to Wikipedia tells me that there’s oil in the Mediterranean. Hypothetically, then, the whole thing should be left to the countries that border the Mediterranean, but it would be naïve to believe it could shake out that way. And just as the great cedar forests of Lebanon have been razed for the betterment of Europe, one wonders just what shape the Mediterranean will be in once the next great oil disaster occurs there. Of course, you can read this book without examining all of those questions. It’s a fine read right on the surface level, but you’ll need a strong literacy level and full attention for it, regardless. This is not a beach read. It’s serious stuff. For those who enjoy a good thriller or have an interest in Beirut, you should get this book as soon as you can.