Game On! by Janet Evanovich****-*****

Stephanie Plum has been my constant companion for decades, but she never seems to get any older. We should all be so lucky!

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Stephanie is a bounty hunter, working for her cousin Vinnie’s bail bond service. She tracks down no-shows, takes them to have their hearings rescheduled, and collects a commission. Her mother wishes fervently that she would get a normal job such as a bank teller, or just go ahead and marry long-time boyfriend Officer Joe Morelli, and keep house and raise kiddies. But Stephanie is long on independence, and she’s short on marketable skills, and so this is what she does. And we readers are well aware that she wouldn’t be half this hilarious as a housewife, so we cheer her on.

In an interview, author Evanovich said she had lit on the idea of a bounty hunter protagonist because the writer doesn’t need a background in legal matters the way that she would if she used a cop, detective, or lawyer. The primary skill required of a bail bonds enforcer is lying, and she felt she had a good grasp of that one.

You gotta love it.

There have been a few wobbles in the series, and a moment (long ago) when I thought perhaps it was played out. But like her intrepid protagonist, the author rallied and came back stronger than ever.

Can you read this book if you haven’t read any of the others in the series? Yes. Yes, you surely can; but you are most likely going to want to go back for the rest once you do so.

There are a few things that strike me as I read this one. I suddenly find myself wondering why Stephanie doesn’t seem to have women friends. She’s lived in Trenton—in the Burg—her entire life, so shouldn’t she have a few lifelong pals? But by the end of the story, I realized that her work buds are her go-to girls. Lula gets into a scrape and leaves what little she has to Stephanie (but of course, Lula pulls through. I don’t feel like this is a spoiler; since when would a riotously funny writer like Evanovich off a main character?) Connie is a distant relative, but she’s also a friend.

I also find myself, like other reviewers, wondering about the sanitized language and decreasing vocabulary levels. We’ve been drifting in this direction for awhile. At the start of the series, profanity was used by the people and in the situations where you’d expect to find it. The overall language level was accessible to anybody that finished eighth grade. Over the last several episodes, however, it’s been drifting downward. Now, apart from one “damn”, I found nothing, although the euphemisms are stellar (“What the fork,” “What the Hellman’s Mayonnaise,” “Son of a bagel.”)  And the overall vocabulary level is now down to about fifth grade. If it goes any lower (see the author’s other series,) I may not be interested anymore, but as it stands, it’s fast, it’s snappy, and I’m in.

The usual elements—escorting Grandma Mazur to viewings at the mortuary; exploding cars; men surprising Stephanie when they let themselves into her locked apartment; dinner with Stephanie’s parents; a geeky witness, or victim, or possibly even an offender, that Stephanie takes under her wing; and the red-hot Joe Morelli are all present and accounted for. Stephanie’s mother has been drinking heavily every time Stephanie gets into a dangerous scrape, and Evanovich has been toying with some character development in her direction. I hope she follows through.

The tension of Stephanie trying to decide between Morelli and the mysterious Ranger is over, for now, at least, and it was getting old, so I applaud this development. She knows that Ranger will never marry her, and there’s a lot he’ll never tell her. She knows Morelli. They grew up together, and they understand one another. Marriage, maybe not yet; but Joe is the one. She’s tempted by others in this installment, but for once, she behaves herself. Good.

Whereas this series isn’t the magnificent literary accomplishment attained by some mystery Grand Masters, and it doesn’t try to be, I rate it as five stars in the humor genre. It made me laugh out loud on page two, and though I read quite a lot of books each year, those that have made me howl this year can be counted on one hand. It’s a more valuable characteristic than some might guess, especially during these tense times.

Highly recommended to those that need a good laugh.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman*****

He’s done it again, only better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copies. You can buy this book today, and I suggest you do it. The world around us may have gone nuts, but Backman helps us to remember the good in ourselves and in those around us, even in the most unlikely people. For that alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

We start with an attempted robbery at a cashless bank; as with so many crimes done on impulse, nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. There’s no money to be robbed, and with the cops on the way, the best thing to do is to duck out quickly…until you realize that the door you chose isn’t an exit. Then there are these hostages, an insurance policy to prevent your being swept away to prison, but “it’s harder than you might think to take people hostage when they’re idiots.”

Backman often creates complex situations with huge numbers of characters in his novels, and he does better than hardly anyone else when he does it. This book, by contrast, has a more manageable number of characters, and perhaps that’s a big part of its even greater success. We have the robber; the hostages, who are the people viewing an apartment for sale, and the seller and realtor; a pair of cops that are also father and son; the therapist that sees one of the hostages; and a couple of other people. The first that we meet is Zara, a sharp-tongued, wealthy woman that is viewing the apartment even though she is obviously too rich to want it. Just about everything that comes out of Zara’s mouth is smart, mean, and very funny; we gradually learn that she does this to deflect the conversation away from herself. With apologies to Dickens, Zara is as solitary as an oyster.

Besides Zara, the prospective buyers include two dysfunctional couples. There’s an older couple, man and woman; and there’s a pair of women, one of whom is hugely pregnant. When this is revealed I roll my eyes, convinced that the climax is almost certainly going to include the obligatory emergency birth. But I should know better, by now, than to underestimate Backman.  He doesn’t use tired tropes or formulas, and Julia isn’t going to give birth during this crisis.

I don’t want to give away any of the details here, but as we get to know our collection of hostages and others, it’s pretty clear, as the title suggests, that everyone’s misbehaviors come from their anxieties, and when they criticize and pick away at others, they are actually dissatisfied with themselves. But of course, Backman’s writing is much more magical than my own, and the result is the sort of feel-good denouement that doesn’t insult our intelligence or become maudlin. At this moment I can only bring to mind three writers that consistently do this for us. (The other two are Alexander McCall Smith and Amy Poeppel.) And right now, friends, we need all of this magic that we can get.

Buy this book if you can; if your wallet is too thin right now, then get on the list at your library. Highly recommended to everyone.

What Rose Forgot, by Nevada Barr****-******

Nevada Barr’s newest stand-alone mystery is a humdinger. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy; this book is for sale now, and you should read it.

Rose Dennis wakes up ragged and half naked in the bushes. Sturdy staff members close in on her and drag her back to the secure wing of the Alzheimer’s unit.  She overhears an administrator in the hallway opine that she’s unlikely to last a week, and she knows she has to get out of there. But proving she’s not suffering from dementia is a tall order, and saving herself calls for desperate measures.

Barr’s wit and sass are at their best here, and the pacing picks up at ten percent and never flags. Rose and her thirteen year old granddaughter Mel are well crafted characters. Although I appreciate Rose’s moxie and self reliance, Mel is the character that impresses me most. I spent decades teaching children of about this age, and so I am overjoyed to find a writer that can craft a believable seventh grader. For Mel to do the things she does, she has to be gifted—as Barr depicts her—and again, this character is right on the money, clever without losing the developmental hallmarks of adolescence. The dialogue is resonant and I love the moment when Rose borrows Mel’s cell phone for most of a day. The suffering Mel tolerates for her beloved grandmother is priceless.

But now let’s go back to Rose, and to her situation. A lot of Barr’s readers are Boomers; I am perched on the margin, retired but not yet drawing Social Security.  Looking through Rose’s eyes at the way senior citizens are treated gives me the heebie-jeebies.  As a younger woman I had regarded assisted living facilities as a sensible approach to aging; my mother lived the last few years of her life in one, and I have often joked to my children, whenever I have done them a favor, to “remember this moment when you choose my nursing home.” But after reading this novel, I am not going into one. Not ever.

Now of course most places aren’t complicit in murder for profit schemes, but there is so much here that is completely believable.  Nursing assistants talk to the patients as if they are toddlers. “Diapers are our friend.” Rose is planted in a day room in front of a picture of Sponge Bob and a handful of crayons.  Do we really believe such patronizing behaviors aren’t present in real-life nursing homes? It makes my skin crawl. And the pills that render senior citizens passive and helpless: “Her brain floats in a chemical soup concocted by evil toddlers in a devil’s pharmacy.” And this place has a two year waiting list!

Rose isn’t going gently, and before we know it, she’s on the loose. Now and then the things that she does in her own self-defense make me arch an eyebrow, but the fact is that people age very differently from one another. Some are still kicking butt and taking names when they’re eighty; others pick up the knitting needles and head for the rocker at sixty. And more to the point, what Rose does makes me want to cheer, and so I choose to believe.

My only quibble here is with the way Barr depicts large women. She’s done it for decades; I wrote to her about it once, and her response was that these negative notions weren’t her own thoughts but those of Anna Pigeon. Well folks, here we are with Rose Dennis, and the Nurse Ratchet character here is—oh of course—huge. I would love to see Barr feature a plus size character, oh just once, that is a good person. Please let’s lose the stereotype; other authors have managed it, and Barr should too.

Should that hold you back from buying and reading this book? It should not. I laughed out loud more than once, and the subtext is powerful.  I recommend it for Barr’s many readers, and for all feminists at or near Boomer-age.

Seances Are For Suckers, by Tamara Berry****-*****

SeancesareforTamara Berry is the queen of snarky humor, and now that I have read the first installment of the Eleanor Wilde series, I am primed and ready for those that follow it. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Ellie narrates her own story in the first person. She explains that she makes her living through fraud, scamming those that want to talk to their dead relatives and solve their Earthly problems via séances. A referral brings her a wealthy Brit that wants a fake medium to vanquish the ghost his mother believes is haunting their mansion. Expenses paid, she flies out to join him and is delighted to find that he lives in an actual castle. His mother, however, hates houseguests and discourages them with miserably small, terrible meals and bad accommodations. As preparations are made for the séance, guests exchange furtively obtained and hoarded snacks in order to avoid starvation.

Nicholas is a hunk; he and Ellie are both drawn toward each other and repelled in classic fashion, and there’s a lot of crackling banter that keeps me snickering. Other well drawn characters include Nicholas’s mother, his sister and her teenage daughter, and a couple of other men, one of whom works for the family. When she comments to the reader, “Bless the sturdy and simple folk of this world,” I nearly fall off my chair. The narrative and dialogue are wonderfully paced and hugely amusing. The solution to the mystery is both partially obvious and wildly contrived, but since this is satire, that makes it even better. In fact, there’s more than one tired old saw that works its way into this story, but it’s with a side-eye wink every time, and I love it.

As the narrative unspools, a corpse is found and then lost, threats and warnings heighten the suspense, and we wonder along with Ellie which of these guests and family members are truly as they seem, and which might be a killer.

The scene leading into the séance is so hilarious that I nearly wake the mister with my cackling.

The only aspect I find unappealing here is the somewhat saccharine story having to do with Ellie’s dying sister. Ellie’s dishonest vocation is, she tells us, necessary so that she can pay for her catatonic sister’s nursing care, and while squeamish cozy readers may find it comforting, I am more than ready to dispatch sis to the great beyond and just let Ellie be Ellie anyway. Happily, this doesn’t hold the story back, particularly since most of the sister’s part of this tale is told at the start and is out of the way by the time we are rolling.

I can’t wait to see where life—and the wakeful dead—will take Ellie next. Highly recommended for mystery lovers ready to be entertained.

Best of 2016: Mystery

This category includes everything within the same zone: thrillers, suspense, detective fiction, crime fiction. If it’s related, I’m rating it here. I expected this to be my toughest call because I read so many books of this genre, but when I had a look at the original titles I’d seen this year, and then eliminated those crossover novels that had already been awarded as the best of some other genre on this site, it was down to three books. Unbelievable…but not at all mysterious.



Treasure Coast, by Tom Kakonis*****

TreasureCoastHugely imaginative, terribly funny, and utterly tasteless, Kakonis delivers the chortles with Treasure Coast, a comic caper that juggles numerous entertaining characters with surprising deftness. Thank you twice, first to Brash Books and second to Net Galley, for providing me with the DRC to review. This title will be available September 14, 2015 to the book-buying public.

Our tale begins with Uncle Jim Merriman, a professional gambler who can’t even manage to break even these days, and “his numbnuts nephew”, Leon Cody, “…this kid with the crop of wild hair and Magoo glasses and dippy grin”, who is in debt to loan sharks. Leon’s mother has died and left not only her body, but also her foolish son, to Uncle Jim’s care and keeping. And of course we have the shark’s collection agents, Morris “Junior” Biggs and “your badass Hector Pasadena”.

On the other hand, we have Bryce Bott, hustler of gravestones that once purchased, will never arrive and “séances” delivered with the help of his hillbilly sidekick, Waneta Jean, who feigns nearness to death as a part of the séance scam.

Of course, ultimately, the characters wind up in a messy pile trying out-scam each other. “Circles inside of circles, games within games.”

But oh, that’s not enough! We also have trophy bride Billie Swett, who within my mental movie soon became Bernadette Peters, and her obnoxious, porcine, but almost infinitely wealthy spouse, Big Lonnie Swett. Eventually we add Cheetah, to whom Reverend Bott referred as “that other intrusive fellow”. Their roles in all of this, you will have to find out on your own.

“And how do you count the ways of weird?”

This was a story worthy of patience. There were so many nasty racist comments made about almost everyone you can think of; however, they are used within the context of Junior’s vapor-brained, “Aryan” sensibilities. There are several horribly ugly sexist remarks using the worst possible terms you can imagine, but again, it is only the bad guys that use them…and a reckoning comes down in a manner I found deeply satisfying.

To put it another way: we were halfway through before I was even sure I liked this novel, but once I was on board, I was in it for keeps, flagging one clever passage after another, most of which I can’t share here. I can share this YouTube promotional clip, though:

So although I was ultimately dumbstruck by the creativity with which Kakonis wove all of the complicated strands of this story together without dropping a single one, I also caution the reader. There are some really crass, fairly specific references to corpses in this book. If you have just lost someone and the wound is still raw, this is probably not the title with which you should escape. There are repeated references to the joys of rape. If you or someone near to you has been down that brutal path, maybe this is not your story, either. And one more caveat before I can go back to singing praises: if your mother tongue is not English, you may not want to embrace this challenging novel, which despite its Keystone Cops-like atmosphere requires exceedingly strong vocabulary skills. For those that enjoy word play, it’s a real treat, but any time you have to look up more than 3 words per page, the effort will outweigh the enjoyment you receive.

With the above caveats in mind, this new release comes highly recommended by this reviewer. The only real question is how you will wait until Monday to get your copy!

Off and Running, by Philip Reed****

This little gem was released digitally today. Funnier than hell!

Seattle Book Mama

offandrunningOff and Running is a comic caper set around Y2K. Jack is a writer looking for his lucky break; Walt is an old man, a beloved American icon who hasn’t published a memoir yet. Garrett is Walt’s ill-begotten, bad-tempered adult son, the worst celebrity brat imaginable. Reed tosses them all into his literary blender and what comes out is both hilarious and at times, genuinely suspenseful as well. Thank you once more to Brash Books and Net Galley for permitting me a sneak peek; this amusing tale will be for sale in August.

Jack has had one project after another not work out. His wife, Sarah, has had it with him, and wants him to go out and get a real job. Every day she schleps out to her full time job, coming home tired and ill tempered, and she doesn’t want to hear anymore about how Jack’s latest book…

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Off and Running, by Philip Reed****

offandrunningOff and Running is a comic caper set around Y2K. Jack is a writer looking for his lucky break; Walt is an old man, a beloved American icon who hasn’t published a memoir yet. Garrett is Walt’s ill-begotten, bad-tempered adult son, the worst celebrity brat imaginable. Reed tosses them all into his literary blender and what comes out is both hilarious and at times, genuinely suspenseful as well. Thank you once more to Brash Books and Net Galley for permitting me a sneak peek; this amusing tale will be for sale in August.

Jack has had one project after another not work out. His wife, Sarah, has had it with him, and wants him to go out and get a real job. Every day she schleps out to her full time job, coming home tired and ill tempered, and she doesn’t want to hear anymore about how Jack’s latest book proposal will make money for sure. She has a change of heart when Jack’s agent sends him out to see the venerated, universally loved comedian, Walt Stuckey. Walt is choosey about who he sees and what he talks about, but over time, Jack builds a genuine rapport with him. They become friends, and Jack is accepted as Walt’s biographer. Just as Walt invites Jack and Sarah to come stay the weekend with him and his girlfriend, Mary, the unthinkable happens: Walt has a stroke. The son-from-hell Walt loves but has been unable to develop a positive relationship with takes charge. Walt is held virtually a prisoner, and it soon becomes clear that Garrett does not really want Walt to recover. He wants Walt’s financial empire, and he will be the executor of Walt’s estate when he goes.

So the first thing Garrett does is to isolate Walt. Since his own memoir is the one thing Walt is truly excited about and could give him reason to live, Garrett uses his power-of-attorney privilege to fire Jack and cancel the memoir. Mary isn’t having any of it, and once he thinks about it, neither is Jack. Jack is determined to finish this book. It’s what Walt wants, too. And most of all, Jack wants to know why the reference to Bebe Rebozo in Walt’s comedy routine caused his over the top hit comedy show, which was “funnier ‘n hell”, to be cancelled without a moment’s warning. He’ll find out, or die trying.

So Jack and Mary launch a rescue mission to free Walt from his rotten son-turned-captor, and the result is alternately suspenseful and hilarious.

There are several events in the book that strain credulity, but it’s okay, because this is not literary fiction; this is a caper. I couldn’t wait to see how it ended, and I was sorry when it did. A considerable portion of the story is set in Death Valley, and the heat, the inescapable sun, the gritty sand were all so palpable that I nearly resolved never to leave my cool damp domicile again.

We all need something ridiculous in our lives now and then. Humor relaxes us and puts our own worries into perspective. Do yourself a favor and order this book when it comes out digitally August 4. Then, you’ll be off and running!

Somebody Owes Me Money! by Donald Westlake *****

 somebodyowesme Imagine that you are a working class guy, okay, not always technically LEGAL work, and you place a small bet on a fairly frequent basis with a friend who is also a bookie. And week after week, just as with lottery tickets, it is money down the drain.

Then suddenly, the angels sing: Hallelujah! Your horse just won on some VERY long odds! You trot joyfully up the stairs to your bookie’s flat…and he’s there. Dead. On the floor. It looks like a professional hit.

So…what would you do?

If it was me, I know what I’d do! I’d run like hell! NEVER MET the guy. But not our protagonist. (And this is all right there at the start, mind; I haven’t spoiled a thing beyond the very beginning of the book). OUR protagonist is thinking of just one thing: he has FINALLY won a bet, and he is GOING to collect! So, whoever took this guy out must be the one who owes him money now, RIGHT? Well, where is he?

Westlake has made me laugh many, many times. I will miss him terribly, and am glad he wrote so much. I felt at least one of his novels should be on this list.