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By Debra Hamel

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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them.

From a random review:


March 2019: Book notices

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Christine Carbo, The Wild Inside


The Wild Inside is the first in a series of police procedurals by Christine Carbo. The book is written in the first person and follows Ted Systead, a special agent with the Department of the Interior's National Parks Service, as he investigates a murder-cum-bear-mauling in Montana's Glacier National Park. Ted works out of Denver, but this crime has him back where he grew up. The case hits close to home in a more figurative way as well: When Ted was fourteen, his father was dragged by a bear from the tent they were sharing and mauled to death. This case has Ted facing the memories he's mostly suppressed in the twenty-odd years since his father's screams stopped.

The murder Ted's investigating is somewhat interesting; the book's setting is more so: I haven't read a crime novel that plays out in this kind of wilderness before. I liked Ted and his ad hoc partner Monty as characters. The writing was fine. It was a pleasant read. Still, I'm not sure I'm eager to jump into another in the series. The book felt long. There are no great dramatic moments in the story. We just follow the day-to-day investigation and Ted's struggles with his past until both find some resolution in the end. So maybe some day I'll reach for the second book in the series, but not for a while.

Michael Kardos, The Three-Day Affair


Wow. I can't remember the last time I read a book that I really didn't want to put down, that I put off doing other things to finish. And when I was done with this one, I hightailed it to Amazon to see what else the author has written. This book had me thinking of Scott Smith's marvelous A Simple Plan. It's similar in that both books put their protagonists in a situation that progressively worsens, seemingly inexorably, each reasonable-under-the-circumstances decision leading to another that's just a little more awful. So, three old college friends are getting together for a golf weekend in New Jersey when one of them does something impulsive and criminal and immediately involves his buddies in the mess he's made. And things go downhill from there. The story of this modern crime in progress is woven together with the characters' back story, their time together at Princeton, their girlfriends and careers. All of it eventually comes together to make us understand their relationship and their shared crime better, because there's more to it than we originally suppose.... 

John Braddock, The 24th Name


This is the second Kindle Single that I've read by John Braddock, a former CIA guy. The first was his nonfiction piece A Spy's Guide to Thinking (my review), which I liked because he explains a system of thinking--DADA: data to analysis to decision to action--by unpacking the thought processes and decision making that would be involved in a real-life scenario, a subway mugging. The 24th Name is similar in that Braddock's discussing thought processes and decision making, but now he's doing so through fiction. This Single tells the story of a former spy who's unofficially gone back in the game. Two of his "cases" are described in stories that wrap around one another. Here's the sort of writing from it that I like a lot:

When someone asks you a direct question about your purpose, you have three options:

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Lie
  3. Deflect

When you're a spy, you usually choose Option 3. And if you need to, Option 2. You keep your purpose secret. You keep it secret because when the enemy knows your purpose, they can reason backward to your tactics. They can figure out what you're going to do next.

But when you meet an ally, you tell them your purpose. You tell them, so they can help you get there faster.

Option 1, if they're an ally.

Option 2, if they're an enemy.

Option 3,  if you're not sure.

I looked at the woman and chose option 1.

I love this for some reason. I'm a sucker for lists, I guess. Oh! There's also a clever meta bit in the last chapters that will have you wondering what the author is up to when he's not writing. :-)

Tim Tigner, Falling Stars


Kyle Achilles' latest adventure pits him against Ivan the Ghost, the criminal mastermind we first met in Tigner's novella Chasing Ivan. This time, Ivan's got an ingenious plan to use cutting-edge technology and the basic human instinct for risk aversion to make a killing. Achilles teams up with former con artist turned former CIA operative Jo Montfort to thwart him. Like Tigner's other Achilles novels, Falling Stars is a fast and fun read. I'll definitely be reading more in the series (next up: Twist and Turn). (Also, Tigner has a stand-alone novel coming out soon! Check out The Price of Time.)

John Braddock, The Spy's Guide to Strategy


In A Spy's Guide to Strategy, former CIA operative John Braddock writes about the strategy of looking forward and reasoning backward. In other words, to make plans yourself or figure out someone else's likely moves, you look forward to the endgame, and then reason backward through the steps you or they have to take to get there. Braddock discusses real-life applications of the principle, including sussing out what Bin Laden was up to and a couple of issues Braddock himself had to deal with. One of these was a surprisingly suspenseful story about his shoes going through an explosives testing machine in an airport not long after 9/11. Braddock's writing is, in his own words, herky-jerky, and it's quite repetitive, more so this piece than the other two books I've read by him. But reading this was still a net positive for me.

February 2019: Book notices

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Dean Koontz, The Silent Corner


This is the first in Dean Koontz's five-book Jane Hawk series. Jane is an FBI agent who takes a leave of absence to investigate her husband's mysterious suicide. Turns out, he's not the only seemingly non-suicidal person to take his own life of late. Jane quickly finds herself up against nefarious evildoers who are bent on recasting the world for their own purposes. I like Jane as a heroine. She's smart and resourceful on the run, a recipe for a good thriller. This one's a bit unusual in that the writing veers to poetic at times. Koontz also uses a surprising number of "big words." At least, I had to look up more than usual while reading. A winning book. I'll probably read the next in the series soon.

Mary Roach, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex


In Bonk, Mary Roach asks the sort of questions and explains the kind of things that our inner 12-year-old boys are dying to know about--from penis cameras to Danish pig insemination. She approaches the subject of sex with a lively wit and much verbal play: There's a phrase or two to admire on pretty much every page. This didn't surprise me given how much I loved her book Stiff (my review). Her prose goes down easy, but it also leaves me feeling like I've just downed one of those movie-size boxes of of Good & Plenty. It's a good read, but I'm not sure I'm really learning anything.

Jeffery Deaver, Ninth & Nowhere


Ninth & Nowhere is an Amazon Original story by Jeffrey Deaver, a quick read, told in two parts. In the first, Deaver introduces seven very different characters who seem to have nothing to do with one another, from a gangbanger to a woman who’s sneaking off to meet a man who’s not her husband to a policeman on patrol and nearing retirement. In the second part, the lives of the characters intersect in a violent incident, and our preconceptions about them are in some cases proved wrong. Reading the first part, it’s hard to keep the characters straight, with so many separate lives introduced one after another.  But by the end their roles have clarified, and we know more about them than we did from the introductory vignettes. This is a good read, the first time I’ve read anything by Deaver, and worth the small investment in time (and money).

Mark Dawson, The Cleaner


The Cleaner is the first in a series of self-published thrillers by Mark Dawson. His protagonist, John Milton, is an assassin, the number one hit man in his assassin collective, the man Britain goes to when problems need solving. But Milton’s had enough. He announces that he wants out, and spends his first days of retirement trying to help a new acquaintance’s son, who’s on the brink of becoming fully immersed in a gang. The book is not what most of us are probably expecting going in. We're looking for Jack Reacher or Orphan X, but what we get is a lot about gang life in the projects outside London. Not really my cup of tea. Still, the book is entertaining, a good page turner, and I’ll probably read more in the series. But there are problems. Milton, for all his lauded prowess, is just not that impressive. He’s often not very smart about things, and he winds up getting people killed. Which leads to my second major problem—spoiler alert: The people Milton sets out to help in this story would arguably have been better off if they’d never met him. People wind up dead or injured, and in the end the boy is left without the positive role models that might have helped him stay out of the gang. So what’s the point? Is Milton going to wander around England ruining people’s lives in these books? Is that the story we want to read? One other mild irritant: Does everyone in England use “younger” as a noun to mean, I guess, young man? Does anyone? Every appearance of the word grated, and believe me, it appeared a lot.

January 2019: Book notices

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T.M. Logan, Lies


Joe Lynch has the best of intentions when he innocently follows his wife's car into a hotel parking garage. But his plan to surprise her leads to an altercation with the man she is there to meet, her best friend's husband, Ben, an obnoxious type A type who's a whiz with computers. Things escalate very quickly after their encounter. Ben goes missing, the police are looking at Joe for Ben's murder, and no one will believe Joe's claim that he's being set up by the alleged victim. Lies had me fully interested and fully duped up to the dramatic climax, when the bad guy lays it all out for us in a James Bond-style information dump. I found that conversation hard to swallow: too much talk under the circumstances. But otherwise, I've no complaints.

Rachel Rosenthal, Identity Thief


Rachel Rosenthal tells a very interesting true story about a period of her life when she and her fiancé were experiencing financial problems, due--she suspected--to an identity thief who'd stolen her wallet in Chicago. There's more to it than that, but I don't want to give anything away. This is a short read, a recent addition to Amazon's newish imprint, Amazon Original Stories, under its Kindle Singles umbrella. I love the brevity of the story, but it did leave me wanting to know more about the person behind the author's financial issues, particulars about just how things were done. Including that information, though, would have turned this into more of an investigative piece, and I understand that that's not what the author intended. And after all, being left wanting more is better than wishing it would end sooner.

James Renner, True Crime Addict


Maura Murray drove her car into a snowbank near New Hampshire's White Mountains on February 9, 2004. She declined a passing motorist's offer of help, but he called the police anyway from his driveway 100 feet away. Seven minutes later, when the police reached her car, she was gone. James Renner, a crime reporter who's written about missing girls before, became interested in Maura's case in 2009. Renner's book weaves various threads into a very readable narrative--the events leading up to Maura's disappearance, the police investigation, the author's investigation, red herrings and other bits of evidence, horrible and terrifying events from Renner's personal and family history. I particularly appreciate his transparency in his presentation of evidence. His approach toward reporting is to lay the evidence before readers so they can follow along, fact check him, and come to their own conclusions. It's honest and more credible than stories served up with their evidence fully digested. This is true crime, but it's also a form of (very modern) history, and this is how I would like history presented to a popular audience as well.

Gavin Edwards, The World According to Tom Hanks


Like everyone else in the world, I'm a fan of Tom Hanks. Still, I didn't expect much when I downloaded a sample of Gavin Edwards's celebrity bio, The World According to Tom Hanks. I definitely didn't expect to wind up buying and reading the whole thing. But it's well written and interesting, and somehow it just goes down very easy, even at more than 350 pages. The book is divided into three parts: a straightforward biography; a look at Hanks through the prism of his "ten commandments" (e.g., "Excel at your life's work"), which I believe are precepts attributed to Hanks by the author rather than a list Hanks came up with himself; and what I assume is an exhaustive list, with discussion, of Tom Hanks's films.

Edwards's account is, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly positive, but he does have some critical things to say about some of the movies--and he can also land a nice turn of phrase from time to time: "Returning to the role of [Robert] Langdon, Hanks has a bit more urgency in his performance and a bit less bouffant in his hairdo. To say the character is paper-thin does a disservice to paper--however, it is nice to see a movie hero who takes murder and mayhem in stride, but gets really excited when he enters a library."

Edwards did not interview Hanks for the book, but reportedly had his blessing in writing it. He certainly interviewed a lot of people around Hanks as well as mining televised interviews for material. The result is a very readable and informative narrative.

Gregg Hurwitz, Hellbent


Hellbent is the third book in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series. Evan Smoak, trained from puberty as part of a black ops program, now uses his formidable skills to help the helpless. That calling has its own considerable dangers. But he’s also being hunted by similarly trained operatives who’ve been tasked with tying up loose ends. Evan necessarily lives a secretive life--two lives, really. He excels at the lethal ninja stuff, but he’s still learning how to play the average guy, which makes for some amusing interactions. This time around, Evan has run-ins with Charles Van Sciver (his nemesis), Van Sciver’s various cronies, and the L.A. chapter of MS-13. But his trip to Target with a new friend may be the most traumatic experience for him. I really enjoy the Orphan X novels. They’re great thrillers. Evan is an interesting, likable character who’s growing as a person as we read, and events in this latest installment humanize him just a bit more. It just keeps getting better.

Elizabeth Stuckey-French, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady


In The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, seventy-something church lady Marylou Ahearn adopts an alias and moves to Tennessee to be near the man she's decided to kill. She's got her reasons: Dr. Wilson Spriggs did something awful to her some sixty years before. But killing the old man isn't as easy as she'd expected, and in the process of getting herself in position to do the deed, she winds up insinuating herself into the lives of his family members. Spriggs lives with his daughter and son-in-law and their three children, two of whom have Asperger's. No one in the family is particularly happy, for various reasons, so Marylou has a lot of material to play with when she waltzes into their lives.

This was a fun, light read, and it was satisfying when things fell into place rather tidily at the end. But I never felt like I was reading about potentially real people, and I was never emotionally invested, so I suspect it will ultimately be a forgettable read. Nothing wrong with that, though.

December 2018: Book notices

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Joakim Palmkvist, The Dark Heart

The Dark Heart is a true crime story about the murder of a wealthy Swedish Farmer, Göran Lundblad, in 2012. The book follows the official investigation by the police into Lundblad's disappearance, but it focuses more on an unofficial investigation conducted by a private citizen. Therese Tang is the COO of the local branch of Missing People Sweden, an organization that rallies volunteers to search for the missing. Called in by one of the missing man's daughters, Tang was instrumental in apprehending the guilty parties. It's pretty clear from the get-go who the suspects in Lundblad's disappearance are. Nevertheless, I won't give anything away. I enjoyed this book particularly because of the prose, a straightforward, reportorial style that gets the story across without distracting flourishes.

October 2018: Book notices

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James Hankins, The Prettiest One

I got this book as a Kindle First selection apparently almost two years ago and finally got around to reading it. It was just okay. A woman wakes up from a fugue state with blood all over her and, weirdly, a bag of prosthetic hands. That's an intriguing opener, and the book eventually answers all our questions about how she came to be in that position. But the ultimate motivation of the bad guys is a little hard to believe, and the dynamics between the principals isn't that interesting. As I said, it's an okay thriller to pass the time (actually, this literally started as an airplane read for me), but it's ultimately forgettable.

John Case, The Murder Artist

This is another okay but forgettable thriller. A separated dad's twin sons are abducted at a Renaissance fair, and he spends the rest of the book trying to find them. It's a lot of slogging through leads and a lot of exposition. There's origami and magic and voodoo involved, which you'd think would be exciting, but somehow just wasn't for me. 

August 2018: Book notices

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Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Marie Kondo is an enthusiastic declutterer--enthusiastic, perhaps, to the point of madness, but charmingly so. I have long been trying to achieve the kind of serenity she seems to live in, my things reduced to a minimum, and I periodically make great strides toward that end. This time, I read Kondo's book by way of further inspiring myself. I cannot follow her approach in all its particulars. As I said, she's a little bonkers, but she is most certainly inspirational. This most recent bout of decluttering, over the last few weeks, has left my kitchen cabinets and drawers and my bedroom closet all much emptier, so it's easier to access the important things that remain. I've also parted with perhaps 75 books and counting. (I was able to get rid of a five-shelf bookcase.) The less stuff I have, the better I feel. I'd recommend Kondo's book to all would-be declutters. Armed with her advice about how to part with things, you'll be able to get rid of more than you might think. Besides, the author is a pleasant coach to have in your head as you work.


July 2018: Book notices

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Tim Tigner, The Lies of Spies

The Lies of Spies is the second full-length novel in Tim Tigner's Kyle Achilles series. The fate of the world is at stake again, and Achilles is just the right larger-than-life guy to set things right, this time with the help of Katya, his dead brother's Russian-born fiancée, whom he's been kind of shacking up with.... It's complicated. The bad guys have a super couple doing their dirty work, too, an Achilles-like he-man and his gorgeous Russian girlfriend. We kind of like them, as it turns out, which is good, because we read a lot about them: They could have a series of their own. Tigner's books are fun if a little forgettable. I had some trouble remembering what had happened in book one in the series, which I wanted to do so as to orient myself in this story. I guess I'd recommend binge reading these like you would a good TV show to keep things fresh in your mind. At any rate, this is a good escapist read.


June 2018: Book notices

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Lee Goldberg, True Fiction

TV writer and novelist Ian Ludlow is in Seattle plugging his latest Clint Straker thriller when he discovers that a terrorism plot he once conjured up has been turned into horrific reality, an attack on American soil that leaves hundreds dead. Ian soon realizes that he's a target, since he knows who's behind the attack, and that he has in fact been one for some time: he's dodged a few bullets already out of sheer dumb luck. The story that follows is a fun one, with Ian teaming up with his publisher's book tour guide, Margo, in an attempt to survive further attempts on his life. But can our everyman protagonist summon his inner Clint Straker and prevail against the professional assassins his nemesis throws at him?

A few months ago, I described Lee Goldberg and Janet Evanovich's novel The Heist as "a fun mix of light comedy and crime and likeable protagonists. It's the literary equivalent of watching a feel-good TV crime show." The same can be said of True Fiction. I enjoy Goldberg's style, his nods to classic TV, his light, entertaining plots. He's got, I don't know, maybe a zillion novels under his belt (a few less, maybe: http://leegoldberg.com/books/) in addition to TV writing credits, and that competence shows on the page. I'm just glad we're going to be seeing Ian Ludlow again. Book two in the series, Killer Thriller, is coming in 2019.

Ellie Monago, Neighborly

Kat and Doug have just moved into a small house in Aurora Village, a seemingly perfect community where kids can roam unattended and the neighbors have your back. But from the get-go things seem off. There's a Stepford vibe to the place, and soon Kat is being harassed by an anonymous note leaver. The neighbors, it turns out, have secrets, but Kat has secrets too, and at least one neighbor seems privy to them. The story is told mostly from Kat's perspective, with conversations with a therapist interjected between the narrative chapters. Since Kat's telling the story, there's room to wonder whether her perception is skewed, which adds to the book's interest. I found this a compelling read, with a couple of caveats: (1) It's very hard to keep the secondary characters straight, as most of them don't have defined personalities. And (2) toward the end of the book there's a bit of an information dump, when all is revealed. Apart from that, I enjoyed the read.

About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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