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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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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:


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.

May 2018: Book notices

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Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Station Eleven is a thought-provoking book about the end of the world—and the beginning of a new world. It follows the mostly separate stories of a handful of characters who are all loosely connected through their relationships, in the old world, with a famous actor, Arthur Leander. Arthur’s death on stage at the beginning of the story feels pivotal, as though it's the thing that sets the apocalypse in motion, but it is only coincident with the beginning of the end. A virulent flu, unprecedented in its deadliness, kills off most of the world's population. 

The characters’ stories are woven together skillfully, with jumps between the past and present that are never jarring. Remarkably, the post-apocalyptic world described in the book, where electric lights and air conditioning are unthinkable, feels as real as the more familiar world of the characters' past. The author has created a completely credible dystopian future. Most books, even most good books, aren’t particularly memorable, but I believe I'll be thinking about this one for some time. 

February 2018: Book notices

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Joseph Finder, The Switch

This is one of those stories where an average-ish Joe winds up in incredible circumstances that he has to deal with without any specialized training. Our average Joe is Michael Tanner, the CEO of a Boston-based coffee company, who accidentally picks up the wrong laptop at an airport. This lands him in a load of trouble because the laptop just happens to have top-secret intel on it. So what do you do when you're privy to state secrets and your knowledge of them is a threat to some high-ranking officials? That's what Tanner has to figure out. I really enjoyed this book and thought it was close to perfect for much of the story. Certainly the first half flew by. But I had two main issues. (1) I think that Tanner made life much more difficult for himself than he had to by not immediately handing over the laptop. And there were other occasions too when he seemed to me to make some stupid decisions. (2) The story began to sound preachy on the subject of government surveillance. When one character in particular (Earle) talked about it, it sounded like we were listening to the author's rant on the subject and not his character's. That took me out of the narrative on a couple of occasions. (Similarly, I was jarred out of the narrative by this sentence: "He stopped at a red light, even though the intersection was empty in all directions." Note that this isn't an extraordinary situation, where he might be expected not to stop. So this was just weird for me.)

Renee Shafransky, Tips for Living

Nora used to be married to a big name artist, but that fell apart a few years before this book begins: Hugh got another woman pregnant and left Nora, and now he's back to make her life miserable again. He's moved with his new family to the small town where Nora's been piecing her life back together. Worse yet, the other woman has joined Nora's yoga class. Even worse, the irritating couple winds up getting themselves murdered on a night when Nora can't exactly account for her whereabouts. You see the problem. I really enjoyed this book. The main characters are likable. The story holds together very well. And I was totally hooked on the mystery and wondering who done it until the big reveal came. If I had to criticize something about this book, I'd say that it takes too long to wind down once the murderer is revealed. I didn't exactly dislike spending that extra time with the protagonist, but the book was a little slow after that.

January 2018: Book notices

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Gregg Hurwitz, The Nowhere Man

Evan Smoak is back in this follow-up to Orphan X. Evan is a government-trained black ops guy who uses his formidable skills to help the helpless, one job at a time. His life is necessarily secretive because he’s made a lot of enemies over the years. When Evan is captured in this outing by a freakish Bond villain type, many of his foes will have an opportunity to extract their revenge. The Nowhere Man is as exciting as Orphan X was, and it also furthers the story of Evan’s personal life. A great read, and the good news is that book three in the series is due out later this month.

Jeremy Bates, White Lies

Katrina Burton picks up a hitchhiker one night while driving through a storm to her new home in small-town Washington state. This sounds like a really bad idea, of course, and things do go horribly wrong, but not in the way we might expect. To get the creepy guy she's picked up out of her passenger seat and off her scent—the scene in her car is realistically scary—she lies about where she lives. Pretty soon, her white lie spirals horribly out of control. Katrina is caught up in a series of ever worsening crises, making perhaps flawed but not unreasonable decisions—like lying to the hitchhiker—at each step. Eventually, things escalate very quickly, maybe too quickly to be quite believable. The ending is a little over the top and probably not necessary, but White Lies is nonetheless a quick nail-biter and a fun read. 

Rachel Caine, Killman Creek

The second book in Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake series picks up where the first left off (see my review). Gwen Proctor is the ex-wife of a serial killer who mutilated women in the family’s garage without her knowledge. Now that he’s escaped from prison, Gwen goes on the offensive, desperately trying to protect her children from their father and the crazed minions who support him and copycat his crimes. The book is sometimes reminiscent of the TV series The Following, in which Kevin Bacon plays an FBI agent who’s after a serial killer: that killer is likewise charismatic enough to attract sick acolytes, and the show also features the killer’s ex-wife, although the focus is primarily on Kevin Bacon’s character. At any rate, Killman Creek is absorbing and exciting, definitely a good read. I thought I’d seen somewhere that there would be three books in this series, but I suspect that’s wrong: the story seems to be well tied up by the end of book two.

Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, The Heist

Kate O'Hare is an FBI agent who's married to her job, and Nick Fox is her nemesis turned partner in this fun series by two very practiced authors. I'm more familiar with Lee Goldberg's books than his co-author's, and this story seems to me very much in his style: a fun mix of light comedy and crime and likeable protagonists. It's the literary equivalent of watching a feel-good TV crime show. Remington Steele, maybe. In this outing, the alliance between Nick and a not quite willing Kate is formed, and the two put together an unlikely team to bring down a con man who's absconded with half a billion dollars. My only complaint about the book—and I don't really know how to phrase what I'm thinking—is that the action somehow seems too removed, too distant. The reader isn't allowed to see the nitty gritty of the preparation that goes on behind the action: getaway transports are simply available; elaborate plans are laid and put into action across the globe without anyone breaking a sweat. I definitely wouldn't want the story to be bogged down by too much detail, but I would like some. Otherwise it's as if you're reading the story through gauze. (I told you I didn't know how to express my thoughtsn here.) Apart from that, I really enjoyed this first book in the series and will certainly read more. 

December 2017: Book notices

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Nancy Boyarsky, The Swap

This book has a promising premise. An American couple, Nicole and Brad, swap houses with a couple from London for the summer, and unpleasantness ensues--Nicole is followed and threatened and soon swept up in an alarming bunch of illegal stuff while her marriage to Brad falls apart. It sounds good, but it just didn't work for me. I didn't care about any of the characters or feel at all excited or interested in what Nicole was getting involved in. And, honestly, I kind of disliked her, in part because she kept ordering expensive food and then finding herself too upset to touch a bite of it. If you're too upset to eat, don't order $100 breakfasts, Nicole! Plus the incident with the vase and the box (sure, order a really expensive vase just to get the packing box, you idiot). The story just wasn't plausible or interesting. By the end, I didn't really care what the explanation for the whole mess was. I just wanted the book to be about a hundred pages shorter. 

Gregg Hurwitz, Orphan X

Orphan X introduces Evan Smoak, a guy with gadgets and a particular skill set who's using his government-sponsored black ops training to help the helpless, one case at a time. Evan was part of a secret program that turned promising orphans into lethal machines, but that period of Evan's life ended, rather dramatically. Now he's a modern Equalizer, waiting for calls on his secret phone while trying to avoid condo association meetings. I loved pretty much everything about this book. There are two more books out or soon to be out in the series, The Nowhere Man and Hellbent. There's also a short story, Buy a Bullet (but be warned that it is very short: most of what you get for your $1.99 at Amazon is a sample of The Nowhere Man. I wasn't happy about that.)

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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