Archive for the ‘Mini-Reviews of Books’ Category

Mini-Reviews of Books #26…

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

Death in Holy Orders. P. D. James, author (2001). We can call this “finding hidden treasure.” The ebook was on sale, so I decided I wanted the ebook version. (I did the same with Heinlein’s Podkayne recently.) I took a look and became pleasantly surprised when I realized that this was one book in the Adam Dalgliesh series (#11) that I missed. I read so many books that they become fuzzy if cherished memories in my mind, especially in a series where you have a strong main character like Commander Dalgliesh.

The book is in James’s verbose and very English style (that was a turnoff for me in the much shorter sci-fi story Children of Men). It’s filled with excess narrative (like Christie, she hides the clues among the verbose weeds), but I’m always a sucker for British mystery, the DS, DCI, and, in this case, Commander-ranked agents and detectives in London’s Metropolitan Police AKA Scotland Yard. Christie’s detectives Miss Marple v. Poirot were different; they were both private citizens, one a meddling spinster and the other a PI. The crime is still murder, though—in the case of this novel, multiple ones. We peer back a little bit into Dalgliesh’s past and into the pasts of many of the suspects’, as well as the victims’, dark pasts in some cases.

The setting is a struggling divinity school. For a while I couldn’t figure out whether it was Roman Catholic or Anglican, but no matter (I still don’t know, but it seems like it’s Anglican in the RC tradition, whatever that means). The characters are complex and interesting and woven with skill into the complex plot and seaside scenes of the story. James has Dalgliesh performing his usual methodical sleuthing. It’s an interesting read albeit a bit too long and verbose.

This novel generated a bit of nostalgia. I was reminded how P. D. James and other English mystery writers, Christie included, influenced my own writing in the upcoming Rembrandt’s Angel, which can be partly considered an homage to these great English writers who have entertained me.  Of course, I minimized the verbiage a wee bit, following my minimalist writing tendencies, but Esther Brookstone, a Scotland Yard inspector, and Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, stubbornly plow into a case like Miss Marple and Poirot…or Dalgliesh. I hope you have as much fun reading about their adventures as I did (and you will) reading this one.


Coming soon! Gaia and the Goliaths has environmental issues as a theme, but Chen and Castilblanco still have to solve a crime. #7 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series” starts out with the murder of an environmental activist on a street in Manhattan. As the detectives pursue the investigation, they discover that the activist’s boyfriend is also a target. His activity overseas leads to the conclusion that there is a conspiracy involving an American energy company, a Putin surrogate, and an old nemesis. This new novel will be available in all ebook formats.

In libris libertas!

Mini-Reviews of Books #25…

Friday, January 27th, 2017

The Pope of Physics. Gino Segre and Bettina Hoerlin, authors (Henry Holt/Macmillan 2016). Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi not only brought Italian physics out of the Dark Ages, he was a national and international icon who was the last great physicist to excel in both theory and experiment. He was also a great teacher to many students. He had a cameo role in my novel Sing a Samba Galactica for asking one day at Los Alamos, “Where are they?” He was referring to extraterrestrials. That statement is now called the Fermi Paradox: if ETs are abundant in the Universe, why haven’t they come to visit? It probably inspired Freeman Dyson to come up with his famous estimate for the number of ET civilizations.

Fermi’s less rhetorical accomplishments, while noteworthy, aren’t described in great detail in this biography. The book is more a tribute to the man. The person who first explained beta decay, designed the first atomic reactor (then called a nuclear pile) at the University of Chicago, and helped bring World War Two to a swift close with the development of a fission bomb, was a complex person who tried to isolate politics from science—for him the bomb was an experiment in nuclear science. He’s been criticized for that attitude, but the criticism is unjust—one can read between the lines here that scientists were used by the politicians. They still are.

Perhaps more important in this story is how Fermi, who wasn’t Jewish, still suffered from anti-Semitism. His wife was Jewish, so they had to flee Mussolini’s Italy. His wife’s father died in a concentration camp. Friends and their relatives were persecuted and murdered. Fermi’s flight from Italy was immensely beneficial to the U.S., though, as it was the case for many refugees from the hatred and bigotry ravaging Europe.


Mini-Reviews of Books #24…

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Our Revolution. Bernie Sanders, author (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2016). Thank goodness for Christmas gifts. The price on the flyleaf for this hardbound is $27! Not Bernie’s fault, of course. If you don’t know it already, Bernie Sanders is one of my heroes, right up there with Kurt Vonnegut. I identified with this man and his campaign—probably the first time since McGovern—and now I know why. His background is similar and his views are similar. Mind you, I don’t agree with him 100%, but the percentage is higher than with any living politician.

This book is a post mortem of his campaign and an introspective look at a great progressive. His ideas need to continue into new generations to give hope to the downtrodden. As he states, the progressive movement isn’t about one candidate or one campaign. It must build from the ground up so that America can return to being the shining star of freedom in this world that has become so dark in its move toward fascism, exploitation by multinationals, and enriching the one-percenters. Every progressive who deserves the name should read this, absorb the ideas, and act. Yearn for the Bern.

Poisoned Palette. Jill Paterson, author (J. Henderson, 2017). Not a bad little mystery, emphasis on “little,” as DCI Fitzjohn and DS Betts solve another one in the Blue Hills region two hours from Sydney. But wasn’t the last one in this series about an art shop too? (This is #6 in the series.) OK, it was a literary agency. Similar. The downhill slide noted in Mini-Reviews #18 continues. The twists and turns in earlier books are fewer and the story more predictable. The 172 pages relies too much on the previous books for character development—the MCs aren’t further developed here, the feud between Fitzjohn and his boss becomes more of a stretch, and the romance between a victim/suspect and a visiting American is left as a cliffhanger.

Maybe the author is tired of old Fitzjohn and should have taken the opportunity to end the series with the old boy retiring to babysit his orchids? The rush to end this story hints at a yes answer. Editing errors, noted in previous books, also continue, although the author seems to be more into dropped words now (I can fill something in, but I don’t know about the average reader, and s/he shouldn’t have to do so). The $3.99 price seems to be a bit much too, considering this is more novella than novel. If you’re new to this series, don’t start with this one—numbers one through three are better fare.


Silicon Slummin’…and Just Gettin’ ByThe Silicon Valley hasn’t seen anyone like Mary Jo Melendez, ex-USN Master-at-Arms, and she’s not sure she wants to stay there either. Readers met the MECHs (Mechanically Enhanced Cybernetic Humans) in Muddlin’ Through. Russia and the U.S. still want them and think Mary Jo knows where they are. But they have to compete with Mary Jo’s stalker. Unlike the first book in the series, this one doesn’t travel around the world, but the dangers for her might be worse. This mystery/suspense/thriller novel is available in all ebook formats.

In libris libertas!

Mini-Reviews of Books #23…

Friday, January 6th, 2017

[Whip me with an Udon noodle because I don’t do enough of these. These reviews are short—not as short as the average Amazon review—but, like everyone else, unless I write a review shortly after finishing a book, my procrastination becomes infinite. Here are two books, though, that are certainly worthy to read. Enjoy.]

The Billion Dollar Spy. David E. Hoffman, author (Anchor, 2015). This was a gift from someone. Anchor is a subsidiary of Random House (who distributes the book), so the book is overpriced. Thanks to whoever gave it to me as a gift. It’s non-fiction but reads like a spy novel. While Putin has declined to follow his foreign minister’s advice to expel U.S. diplomats who enjoy that oligarchical paradise known as Mother Russia, all in retaliation for Obama’s actions (and those in retaliation for the cyberattack on his beloved DNC), the Cold War was difficult for the CIA as they tried to find spies in Moscow. This is the story about their most successful recruit and his handlers. A lot of this material was undoubtedly classified TOP SECRET for decades. So fascinating I added it to the “Steve’s Bookshelf” page! As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

Dark Secret. Edward M. Lerner, author. (Phoenix Pick, 2016.) Can six people start a new human civilization out among the stars? They can with frozen and fertilized embryos and a lot of science and technology to back them up. Their adventure begins when a gamma ray burst from two merging neutron stars gives the Mars colony’s VIPs only a short time to prepare an expedition to preserve the human race. The teeming billions of Earth and Mars are doomed, so the six have to muddle on.

Human nature being what it is, the probability there will be one power-hungry fanatic among them is certainty. Ask yourself what the choir boys in Lord of the Flies would become if brainwashed by such a warped individual—that’s the danger the other five face. Sinister, exploitive danger generated by one individual with Hitler-like aspirations.

This sci-fi novel can be many things to many readers—dark psychological drama, extrapolative science, post-apocalyptic tale, refined space opera—but entertaining will be all their common denominators. The title is a play on words. The planet is named Dark, but the fanatical despot in the tale has a dark secret until the nefarious plans become known to the other five. Better than your average sci-fi story, I must say. Well done, Mr. Lerner!

In libris libertas!

Mini-Reviews #22…

Friday, August 19th, 2016

[Note: these reviews are generally reserved for R&R books I’ve found entertaining. They are NOT on Amazon, and please don’t query me to review your book here. I do my “official reviewing” at–query there instead.]

The Nuremberg Puzzle. Laurence O’Bryan, author (Ardua, 2016). The PR for this novel calls it the “most controversial mystery of 2016.” Hmm. It’s not very controversial—people have been wondering about the Catholic Church’s support of the Nazi regime for years—so it’s just another conspiracy wrapped up in some historical fiction. It’s also not a mystery but a thriller. That said, it’s OK, and reading it is probably time better spent than playing some stupid computer game because it’s a gory tourist guide to the city where those famous trials were held.

Sean Ryan becomes involved in a neo-Nazi conspiracy designed to apply the final solution to the wave of new immigrants in Germany from the Middle East via an ethnic-specific virus. If you can stretch your mind far enough to believe that, you’ll be ready for the subplots that include the search for letters from Pius XII encouraging Hitler to invade Russia to eliminate the godless Communists (not clear why the neo-Nazis want those), a fictional excuse for Hitler’s stupid repetition of Napoleon’s mistake (Hitler already had a treaty with Stalin’s government).

The ending of this adventure in Nuremberg is unsatisfying and a 67% cliffhanger—to avoid a spoiler alert, you’ll have to read it to see what I mean—and I abhor cliffhangers. (This probably means there’s a sequel coming, but I won’t be reading it.) That 67% is just about the main characters, by the way; you’ll never know whether authorities can defeat that virus!  There are some interesting characters (FYI: Ryan isn’t one of them), but they aren’t well developed nor interesting enough to compensate for a herky-jerky plot that leaves you breathless for all the wrong reasons. There are no big plot twists or interesting themes either—the West doesn’t need neo-Nazis to make immigrants’ lives hell.


On sale: The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan. This sci-fi thriller will be on sale at Smashwords for $0.99, reduced from $2.99 (67% discount) from now until September 1. Use the coupon code FU54W. First question: what will the U.S. in the future do with retirees with Top Secret information? Second question: how do you prevent the assassination of a presidential candidate? Third question: is there room for romance in the life of an old agent? This fast-moving story’s main character is a woman who shows perseverance and strength to survive while unmasking a terrible conspiracy. Don’t miss the thrills!

In libris libertas!

Mini-Reviews #21…

Friday, May 6th, 2016

[I was cleaning off my book shelves and found a hardbound I’m definitely offering up to some school book fair.  They might get a buck for it?]

By the Book.  Pamela Paul, ed.  (New York Times, Henry Holt, 2014).  The long subtitle is “Writers on Literature and the Literary Life, from the NY Times Book Review.”  First objection: most of these people aren’t writers by my definition.  Lena Dunham?  Not exactly a prolific writer.  Neither are Colin Powell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emma Thompson, Sting, Carolyn Kennedy—you get the idea.  For the most part, you have personalities where the Times has sent faux-interview-like questions about literature and the literary life like “What book would you recommend that the president read?”  This is the Times doing its pseudo-intellectual masturbation in grand style.  At $28, it’s a rip-off, unless you’re a one-percenter who thinks it will create some conversation sitting on your coffee table.

Among the 65 people responding, I’ve read books by only 9 of them.  That sounds like I’m an illiterate clod, but remember, most of these people aren’t writers.  Celebrities like Powell, Sting, and Schwarzenegger probably used ghost writers; Bryan Cranston doesn’t even have a book.  The real writers in the group should feel insulted.  Many are academic, or pseudo-academic types like Malcolm Caldwell, who write for other academics; many write non-fiction; and others write “literary fiction” (whatever that is, I don’t read it).

Most real authors here aren’t prolific.  Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, but she recommends that the president read Moby Dick.  What does she want to do?  Bore him to death?  He’ll already be there when he leaves office and doesn’t have McConnell and Ryan to enliven his existence.  Lee Child, who’s become formulaic with his Reacher novels, lauds Cruise’s portrayal of the famous stud.  Huh?

I guess a third of that subtitle is real: these people are talking about reading, so maybe they all have a “literary life.”  The rest is false advertising on the part of the Times.  I got this book for Christmas two years ago—well-intentioned, I suppose, because I am a full-time writer.  I would never have bought it otherwise, though.  You shouldn’t either.  And you can get 7-8 ebooks for the price of this monstrosity.


May Day Sale.  It might still be going on.  It’s not clear what the Amazon cut-off time is for a Kindle Countdown Sale.  Mary Jo Melendez has been inviting you to that sale all week.  Her stories, Muddlin’ Through and Silicon Slummin’…and Just Gettin’ By, were on sale through today, May 6, for $0.99 each; they might still be.  But don’t worry: they’ll just revert to the original $2.99 price, which is still a bargain.  Want more summer reading?  Check out my entire catalog: here’s my Amazon page.  Three more series, twenty more recent books, all save one for $3.99 or less, including my new sci-fi/fantasy novel, Rogue Planet, for $2.99.  What are you waiting for?

In libris libertas (just not the Times’s)…      

Mini-Reviews #20…

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

[Two crime stories today that maybe justify the $0 price?  Don’t take my word for it, of course.  Reviews are always just a reader’s opinion.  Yours is as good as mine—maybe even better!]

Eleven.  Carolyn Arnold, author (Hibbert & Stiles, 2011).  There’s a lot of publishing folklore out there.  One bit of advice to authors is: give away the first book in the series so that readers are attracted to the rest of the series.  Another, almost contradictory piece of advice: write the next book in the series because the new book will motivate readers to read the first ones.  My answer to this bit of folklore is: it all depends on how the writer writes!  If the series is a good one, books that use a few of the same characters and maybe similar settings but can be read independently, it doesn’t matter—but the writer has to spin a good yarn.

This writer has taken the first advice.  She even puts an excerpt from the next book right up front.  I paid $0 for this book, but I don’t like to see giveaways.  The author might as well take a promenade in Times Square carrying a sign that says, “I put $0 value on all my hard work”!  But this author was a believer, yet advice #1 didn’t work with this reader.  The book’s OK, but I won’t be buying any more books from this series.  It moves slowly in the beginning—the proverbial “hook” for me was completely absent (ho hum, another serial killer tracked down by an intrepid FBI agent)—but it picks up speed toward the end.  The Redeemer (the serial killer) is already in jail, but he has disciples.  The agents don’t know who they are.  The reader doesn’t either.  They come out of the woodwork throughout the novel.  If mystery, that’s not misdirection, that’s using deus ex machina to save a plot.  If thriller, that just doesn’t work for me.


Mini-Reviews #19…

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

[Two mysteries today with no earth-shaking themes.  It’s amazing how murders can find their genesis in petty meaningless stuff.  Happens all the time in real life, of course, but I’m not sure the events are worth a novel.  Nevertheless, I like to try new authors, and these two were new for me.  You can read the following and decide, but I found that I had to write the review immediately because it’s too easy to put them out of mind.]

Bone Hook (Lei Crime #10).  Toby Neal, author (Toby Neal, 11/10/2015).  Well plotted, interesting characters, and a setting that’s my second favorite Hawaiian island, Maui (Kauai is the first), but the author commits the sin of a cliffhanger (she apologizes for it in a note at the end, so every reader becomes her priest in the confessional).  Lei is a Maui cop who has a lot of domestic problems but still has to solve a murder that has too many suspects.  The cliffhanger isn’t a major negative, by the way, because it corresponds to the subplot associated with the domestic problems, which are a bit ho-hum because they’re more common these days than dishonest politicians.  I still found the cliffhanger annoying, though.  You might not.  Reading between the lines, maybe previous books in the series don’t have this flaw?  Still, this is only good for a few hours entertainment when you get tired of the schlock on TV.  Sorry, Toby.

Shadows of the Past (Logan Point #1).  Patricia Bradley, author (Revell, 2/4/2014).  Many pros, one con.  This is a well written mystery with a good plot and interesting characters.  The settings are near Seattle and Memphis, about as far apart in distance and culture as one can imagine and still be in the U.S., and that creates some of the tension.  Psych prof and profiler Taylor Martin is scratching a lot of old Southern family wounds by insisting on looking for her long-last Daddy.  In the process, she acquires a stalker and has an on-again-off-again affair with a famous author.  If it were shorter, this could almost be a cozy, but there’s a lot of criminal meat in this romantic stew.  I enjoyed it by steaming by the romance, which wasn’t a wee bit steamy, and looking beyond the religious mumbo-jumbo associated with Taylor finding Jesus again (that one major con).  In fact, it’s a shame all that fluff wasn’t eliminated to have a perfect mystery.  I suppose there’s a big market for this stuff, but for me the price was right: $0.  Sorry, Patty.


Like more edgy mystery, suspense, and thrills that treat some important themes?  Have you tried the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series”?  Some of the books are more thriller than mystery, but in either case the two NYPD homicide detectives, often with viewpoints that are yin and yang, make an astonishing crime-fighting duo.  There are six novels in the series that starts with The Midas Bomb, already in its second edition and available in all ebook formats and paper (Create Space)—other ebooks in the series are still Amazon only.

In libris libertas….

Mini-Reviews #18…

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

[Do you like series?  Series can be problematic for an author.  On one hand, your characters can demand another chance to live again amidst your prose, and you can get another chance to develop them further.  On the other, you run the risk of becoming formulaic and neglectful of those other stories your muses are pressuring you to tell.  Whether for those, or for some other reasons, few people review an entire series.  I have four myself, and it’s hell to advertise them and get reviews for them.  In the spirit of trying to turn that situation around, today I review two crime series that have captured my R&R reading attention.]

Z series. John Stockmyer, author (Stockmyer Books).  Z is for Bob Zapolska, an unlicensed PI with some interesting high school buddies (one cop, one mobster)—they played on a championship football team together.  He also has a steady and sexy girlfriend who looks like a model but is an insurance company’s slave, and an on-again-off-again mistress who’s a sexy ghostbuster.  That’s basically the series cast—the villains come and go.  You’d think that Z’s encounters with them would be minimal—Z is for almost zero on the PI pecking order—but the bad guys seem to find him as his mundane cases turn into major ones.

Z is the quintessential anti-hero, an ugly bruiser who stumbles through life doing the best he can.  The stumbles, including tightrope walking between legal and illegal and balancing girlfriend and mistress, add some comedy.  The books in the series are uneven and formulaic at times, though.  Some new ones have appeared that are on my TBRoR list (“To Be Read or Reviewed”).  Jump in anywhere.  In each ebook there are references to Z’s previous cases, but the books can be read independently in any order, the mark of a good series writer.  I’m hooked.  (Yes, John, is also the author of the “Under the Stairs” fantasy/sci-fi series, which is even better.)


Mini-Reviews #17…

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

[Authors, please don’t query.  These are generally reviews for books that I buy for R&R—if I like them, I’ll review them here…maybe.  If you want your book reviewed, query—that site has many reviewers, including me.]

Magic Mirror (Georgia Lee Maxwell #1).  Michaela Thompson, author (booksBnimble, 2013).  This ebook proves a point that’s often made: when you discover an old book it can be a refreshing new read for the discoverer.  Ms. Thompson originally published the paper version of this book in 1988.  I don’t know anything about booksBnimble, but apparently they reissue old pbooks in ebook format.  I count myself lucky to have come across it.

The easiest way to write a mystery is to write it in the first person.  The reader can then discover all the clues right along with the “detective,” in this case Southern transplant to Paris Georgia Lee Maxwell, and no one is tempted to go into some other character’s point of view where spoilers can lurk.  I consider this mystery a precursor of cozies, but it has the average book length.  There are no serious themes entwined with the plot beyond the usual human ones of greed and obsession.  Misdirects abound, Georgia Lee is something like a bumbling Miss Marple, and the reader is taken on rides around Paris that show the charm of the city on the Seine and a few of the snotty Parisians who inhabit it.

You never find out whether the mirror, a circular and polished piece of obsidian once belonging to Nostradamus, is for real, but you won’t care.  This is a fine mystery by a fine writer.  For those readers wanting something in the Mary Higgins Clark tradition, download a copy.  For those writers who want to learn how to write things in that tradition, download a copy.  And, for those who want to do neither one, you’ll still find it an entertaining read.  (Perfectly edited, this book is appropriate for everyone.)

Misunderstood: Six People, Three Incidents, One Courtroom.  Gail Matelson, author.  A judge is about to retire.  Does blind justice become blinder in his courtroom?  As we age, we begin to worry about retirement.  Some go kicking and screaming into that Golden Age; others can’t wait to walk out of that day-job.  This is partly a study of that quandary with a psychological flavor.