Book Reviews: Double Switch by T.T. Monday and Don’t Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz

Double SwitchDouble Switch
T.T. Monday
Doubleday, March 2016
ISBN:  978-0-385-539958-1
Hardcover

The book is equal parts mystery and baseball.  Johnny Adcock is a terrific protagonist.  He is a no-longer-young baseball player, 36 to be exact, fourteen years in the big leagues, his assigned role to come into a game in the eighth inning, primarily to face left-handed hitters (as he is a southpaw himself), and retire them (working, as he says, ten minutes a night).  Divorced and with a teenage daughter, he plays for the fictional San Jose Bay Dogs.  In the opening pages, Johnny meets a woman with the unlikely name of Tiff Tate, who apparently has a following as a sports stylist – who knew?  In effect she does makeovers on sports figures, upgrading their image, including hair, body ink, clothing and the like.  We are told that “Her work is legendary, lucrative, and highly confidential.”

Johnny’s side job, so to speak, is as an investigator for friends and colleagues, which primarily involves cheating spouses, for which he charges no fee; he says that “an empty bullpen is the closest thing I have to an office,” seeing it as his job down the road after he retires from baseball.  Tiff asks him for help with regard to a Colorado Rockies rookie outfielder who is as well known for his escape from Cuba as for his power at the plate.   She says that he is being blackmailed by the Venezuelans who smuggled him out of Cuba, and are apparently holding his family at gunpoint in Havana as collateral.

At some point, dead bodies start to pile up, and Johnny’s sideline brings him into danger that he never anticipated.  There is much about the less glowing aspects of the sport, with its history of steroids and humongous salaries.  There are tidbits such as that the Coors Field equivalent of a no-hitter is four runs on eight hits, and Johnny pitching to a power hitter who is facing the possibility of leaving “a runner in scoring position against a thirty-six-year-old finesse pitcher who makes a fraction of his salary.”  Oh, and to the uninitiated, the eponymous ‘double switch’ is a “maneuver that allows a manager to change two players at once and swap their places in the batting order.”

Timing is everything, they say, and my reading of this novel on the eve of the new baseball season couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.  It is a good mystery, with just the right amount of humor, and lots of terrific baseball lore and references.  And I even learned a new word:  callipygian!  Of course, the final scene has Johnny coming into a critical game in the eighth inning with the bases loaded.  One doesn’t have to be a baseball addict to enjoy the novel (although, to be fair and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am exactly that).  This is an entertaining book, on any level, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2016.

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Don't Look BackDon’t Look Back
Gregg Hurwitz
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, December 2015
ISBN:  978-1-2500-6831-6
Mass Market Paperback

The title derives from words spoken by a mysterious figure at the heart of this book, an exhortation not to be taken lightly.  When the warning is ignored, in the early pages of the novel, it is the last mistake made by the woman to whom it is spoken.  The man is lethal in a nearly unbelievable way, well-trained in jihadi tactics, and intent on only one thing:  That no one must see him, no one must endanger his hard-won invisibility.

Our protagonist, Eve Hardaway, single mother of an adored 14-year-old boy, has taken a rafting and hiking trip in the mountains of Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico.  Having come upon the fatal encounter referenced above, she is plunged into the most threatening and dire of situations, both nature-made and man-made, exhibiting incredible bravery.  The man hunting her, having seen her observing his murderous actions, has almost inhuman expertise in all things offensive and defensive.  Eve is facing unimaginable odds and a relentless adversary.  In fact, that last adjective describes the book as a whole, for it too is relentless.  So much so that I kept finding myself wanting to put the book down, but could not bring myself to do so.  The author’s descriptions of the jungle and its inhabitants, human and otherwise, are very well wrought.  There are occasional chapters from the pov of Eve’s adversary, giving the reader a glimpse into the mind and heart of a man who is basically, in addition to and despite being a devoutly religious man, a homicidal terrorist.

The book spans about one week, but the scenes that play out sometimes seem endless.  Eve is one of a group of seven, of varying ages and greater or lesser abilities under these threatening circumstances, and they each find their bravery and loyalty to one another tested.  At some point they see the reality of the situation:  “Us vs. nature.  Us vs. him.”  Which just about sums it up.

Despite some reservations, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2015.

Book Review: A Man of His Own by Susan Wilson

A Man of His OwnA Man of His Own
Susan Wilson
St. Martin’s Press, September 2013
ISBN 978-1-250-01436-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Rick Stanton was a promising professional baseball player with dreams of playing in the major leagues and starting a family with his young wife, Francesca, when World War II changed everything.  Rick returns from the war with his body broken and his dreams shattered.  But it was not just body and spirit he sacrificed for the war. He and Francesca volunteered their beloved dog, Pax, for the Army’s K-9 Corp, not knowing if they’d ever see him again.

Keller Nicholson is the soldier who fought the war with Pax by his side, and the two have the kind of profound bond that can only be forged in war.  Pax is the closest Keller has to a sense of family, and he can’t bear the thought of returning him to the Stantons.  But Rick and Francesca refuse to give him up.  Instead, an arrangement is made: Keller will work as Rick’s live-in aide. And thus an unlikely family is formed, with steadfast Pax at the center.   As they try to build a new life out of the ashes, Keller and Francesca struggle to ignore their growing attraction to each other, and Rick, believing that he can no longer give Francesca what she needs and wants, quietly plans a way out.

All three of them need healing. All three of them are lost. And in Susan Wilson’s A Man of His Own, Pax, with his unconditional love and unwavering loyalty, may be the only one who can guide them home.

 I’ve read a number of “life of a dog” books that take you from the pup’s early days to the end of his life (or close to it) but this one is very different. A Man of His Own is the story of a service dog who spends his life in more than one kind of service and it brings together the very diverse worlds of war and baseball.

Rick is at the beginning of what should be a promising professional career in the sport he loves, baseball, as he’s been called up to a AA team, the Hartford Bees. Then, he literally trips over a frightened puppy and we get a first glimpse of what kind of man Rick is, the kind who worries about betraying an animal’s trust. This little German Shepherd now has a name, Pax, and a home.

Seemingly a world away but connected by the lure of baseball, Francesca grows up wanting more for herself than a farming life. Visiting a cousin in Boston, she has her first encounter with her future at a game between her beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Braves. As it turns out, that future will include a very special dog who isn’t at all sure Francesca is worthy of Rick.

And then war comes and life changes dramatically for everyone in this little family. It’s difficult to say whether Rick’s condition after war or Pax’s introduction to the battlefield is more traumatic but, certainly, life will never be the same again for any of them or for Keller, the man who fought by Pax’s side.

This is a tale that could be really depressing and, in some ways, it is, but it’s the love these people and this dog have for each other that rises to the surface and has ingrained itself into my “book memory”. Each character is vividly drawn and captured my heart but it’s Pax who ties it all together and it’s Pax who represents the possibilities that exist in the face of tragedy. I will remember Rick, Francesca, Keller and this wonderful dog for a long time, especially when I see news reports of our contemporary war veterans and their canine partners. Ms. Wilson knows the hearts of people and dogs and the tale she has woven is as comforting and joyful as it is sad and tragic.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2014.

Book Review: Double Play by Jen Estes

Double PlayDouble Play
A Cat McDaniel Mystery
Jen Estes
Camel Press, April 2013
ISBN: 978-1-60381-942-8
Ebook
Also available in Trade Paperback

For baseball aficionados and everybody else who enjoys a good crime novel. By turns romantic, dangerous, wacky, twisty and funny, the novel rocks through Buffalo from riverfront nastiness to the upscale homes of overpaid prima donna ball players.

This novel has just about everything, including corruption and digs at the very foundations of the story, the venerable American pastime, baseball. Yet, protagonist Cat McDaniel is a likeable guide into some of the more arcane aspects of the game and its public image. It’s a twisty tale with several surprises along the way that will baffle many readers until the final exposition.

By and large the book is smoothly written and the author’s breezy fast-paced style fits the lightness of the attitude Cat takes to some interesting aspects of her life, such as her relationship with her fiancé and her nightmares over her upcoming wedding. The baseball scenes have the feel and tone of authenticity and the criminal aspects fit nicely like a well-oiled fielders’ glove.

The novel falls comfortably into what this reviewer terms American Cozy, which is a somewhat darker version of the traditional English novel popularized during the golden years of English popular fiction. This is a fun novel to relax and sink into while your favorite team is on the television.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Reviews: Accidents Waiting to Happen by Simon Wood, Vanishing Girls by Katia Lief, All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming, Sacrifice Fly by Tim O’Mara, and If You Were Here by Alafair Burke

Accidents Waiting to HappenAccidents Waiting to Happen
Simon Wood
Thomas & Mercer, November 2012
ISBN:  978-1-612-18402-9
Trade Paperback

Josh Michaels, a young man with a wife and little girl he adored, while driving back to his home in Sacramento, California, is forced off the highway and into the river in what appears to be an accident born from what he thinks of as reckless stupidity on the part of the other driver.  But the actions of that driver, before he gets back into his car and speeds away, convince Josh that it is anything but. Josh survives the ‘accident,’ but starts to doubt his ability to continue to survive the ensuing events, all appearing to be accidents by increasingly obviously [to him] staged attempts to end his life. Josh is staggered as he comes to this unavoidable conclusion and cannot believe that he is the target of a killer, but has no choice but to accept this fact and attempt to figure out who wants him dead, and why, if he is to survive.  To make matters worse, if that’s possible, past indiscretions and errors in judgment are now coming back to haunt him.

At Chapter 4 the reader meets “the professional,” the man hired to kill another person, a woman, as well as Josh.  Who has hired him?  Is there a connection between the two intended victims [something not readily apparent]?  And what is the motive?  As ‘the professional’ himself muses, “a seemingly motiveless murder was just as hard to solve as a well-planned accident.”

Simon Wood has fashioned an exciting and well-written novel of suspense, with a nail-biting conclusion during which this reader held her breath in anticipation of what new horrors might be in store.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2012.

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Vanishing GirlsVanishing Girls
Katia Lief
Harper, July 2012
ISBN 978-0-0620-9504-6
Mass Market Paperback

Karin Schaeffer, ex-NYPD and now a private detective, working with her husband at MacLeary Investigations, in the newest book by Katia Lief, becomes embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer dubbed The Working Girl Killer.  As you might guess, the victims have all been killed in the same manner, with the same exact type of weapon, and were all prostitutes.  Seven young women had been found dead across Manhattan, then two in Brooklyn.

At 38, Karin is now seeking an undergraduate college degree in forensic psychology.  She has not had an easy time of it, having survived the murder of her first husband and her daughter six years ago, and just recently had a miscarriage.  She dotes on their little boy, Ben, though still grieving for her losses.  As the book opens, Ben receives a text from Billy Staples, a detective at their local precinct in Brooklyn and Mac’s closest friend, from a crime scene that Billy believes to be where the serial killer has left his latest victim.  Eerily, a little girl is found badly injured several blocks away after what is believed to be a hit-and-run accident.  The cops feel the two things could somehow be connected, as the location and timing seem to rule out coincidence.

Billy had been fighting his own demons.  He has been hunting this killer for over a year. At the same time, Mac and Karin believe he is having hallucinations, suffering from PTSD after a horrifying incident when the woman he loved had tried to kill him, instead leaving him blinded in one eye; he had been forced to shoot her dead.  The current investigation triggers all his symptoms again, and envelops Karin as well to a very personal degree.

It is an interesting plot, telling a very dark tale that stayed with this reader for quite a while after turning the last page.  I have to admit, however, that after having read – –  and loved! – – the author’s two previous books, You Are Next, and Next Time You See Me, I felt this one did not live up to the expectations I had for it.  And though it was an interesting read, in the end I was disappointed.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2012.

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All Mortal FleshAll Mortal Flesh
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur, February 2013
ISBN 978-1-250-01855-7
Trade Paperback

All Mortal Flesh, the fifth in the Clare Ferguson/Russ Van Alstyne series, finds Clare, the parish priest in the small Adirondack, upstate NY town of Millers Kill, and Russ, the local police chief and married man she loves, having just wrenchingly ended their relationship.  The following day, an even more devastating event occurs:  Russ is told that his wife, from whom he had recently separated when he told her of his love for Clare, has been brutally murdered.  Loving Clare, yet still loving his wife, matters are only compounded when both Clare and Russ are considered prime suspects, not only by the police but by the local gossip-loving town residents.

With her usual adroit skill, Ms. Spencer-Fleming has written another wonderful tale of these very human protagonists in this book, available for the very first time in a trade paperback edition.  The sense of place is vivid, and the wintry weather graphically evoked. There is a slam-bang ending with a final unexpected and stunning turn as this suspense-filled tale concludes.  An excellent and fast-paced read, and one that is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2013.

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Sacrifice FlySacrifice Fly
Tim O’Mara
Minotaur, October 2012
ISBN: 978-1-250-00898-5
Hardcover

Raymond Dunne is a very dedicated schoolteacher, working with eighth-graders in a middle school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and taking the welfare of his students very seriously.  In particular, one of the most promising, Frankie Rivas, has obtained a scholarship to a private high school on the basis of his baseball skills and the fact that Ray has called in a favor from their coach.  When Frankie fails to show up for school for a couple of weeks, Ray decides to try to find out why.  His visit to the home of the boy’s father results in his discovery of the man’s dead body.

Ray’s involvement at that point derives as much from his concern as his teacher as from the fact that Ray is a former cop.  His feelings when he walks into his old precinct are made palpable to the reader, his emotions roiling as he remembers back five years, when “you fall thirty feet, and your whole life changes.”  Among those changes are the physical ones; Ray has an umbrella with him every day, knowing it has to rain sometime; besides, it means he doesn’t have to carry a cane.

Frankie and his younger sister are nowhere to be found, and Ray follows up every lead he can find in order to locate the two children and ensure their safety.  Then the pace, and the suspense, move into higher gear, beyond the “controlled chaos” of Ray’s classroom, and the stakes go up as well.

When one has a terrific protagonist [with a valuable friend, a wannabe cop, nicknamed “Emo”], a well-developed plot, writing that makes the Brooklyn streets come to life and, as the title might imply, a lot of baseball references, what more could one ask?  [Well, this reader had to get past the fact that Ray is a Yankee fan, although he does don a Mets cap when the situation requires it.]  This is a wonderful debut novel from a writer whose next book I will anxiously await, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2013.

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If You Were HereIf You Were Here
Alafair Burke
Harper, June 2013
ISBN: 978-0-06-220835-4
Hardcover

In her ninth novel, and second standalone, Alafair Burke introduces McKenna Jordan, a writer for the fictitious NYC Magazine.  Before her marriage five years ago, she was McKenna Wright, who had spent four years as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, a job she lost in the aftermath of a police officer’s shooting of a 19-year-old youth, there being a question as to whether or not the boy had been unarmed, the gun found nearby planted.  McKenna’s zealous investigation into that incident, accusing the officer of homicide and perjury, ultimately caused her disgrace and ended her prosecutorial career.  This was soon followed by another, only slightly less traumatic event, when one of her best friends, beautiful West Point grad [and daughter of a two-star general] Susan Hauptmann, disappeared without a trace.

Now, all these years later, a cell-phone photo comes into McKenna’s hands showing a mysterious Superwoman, a female crime victim who had plucked her attacker’s body from the subway tracks to safety, who McKenna believes is that same friend, who she had become convinced was long dead.  Susan, an athletic 32 years old who had been deployed in the Middle East prior to the time of her disappearance, could have easily been capable of the feat in the subway station.

There ensue a series of bizarre and seemingly unrelated incidents that this reader never saw coming, including but not limited to a mysterious private operative [hitman?  private detective?  something else altogether?], a dead cop, someone hacking into and forging e-mails, and no clue as to who is pulling the strings.  The author somehow manages to tie them all up in a relentlessly intriguing plot.

Another well-written book by this author [who gives a tip-of-the-hat, without needing to name his completely recognizable protagonist, to Lee Child, which I loved], and recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2013.

Book Review: Wherever I Wind Up by R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey

Wherever I Wind Up
R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey
Blue Rider Press, April 2012
ISBN: 978-0-399-15815-5
Hardcover

This is a fascinating tale, about a fascinating man.  R.A. Dickey is much more than a talented pitcher: He is a former English lit college student; he once [attempted to] swim the Missouri [and was partially successful]; and most recently climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, a height of over 19,000 feet, for charity, in an effort to raise awareness and funds to stop human trafficking and prostitution in Mumbai.  He is a devout Christian, and though at times less than perfect as a Christian, husband and father, that is no longer the case, and there can be no doubt as to his love for and devotion to his wife [his childhood sweetheart], his children and his God.

Nominally, and obviously, a sports book, this novel is much more than that.  To the author’s credit, he names names, and is generous in his praise while being candid in his assessments when circumstances warrant it.  In addition to an insider’s view of the game of baseball, there is the occasional quote from ancient Greek or Chinese philosophers.  In 2011 he completed his 15th season of professional baseball, in a remarkable story.  Despite some horrific abuse suffered when he was eight years old, detailed in the book, he overcame great odds to be where he is today, also detailed in the book.

Full disclosure:  This reviewer is a passionate fan of the New York Mets, the team where Mr. Dickey is now a trusted part of the five-man pitching rotation, and I have been a Mets full-season ticket holder for 25 years, attending at least 70 [out of 81] home games each of those years.  But my admiration for the author goes beyond the obvious – he is a courageous human being as well, as this book makes clear.  Called a “phenom” when he started out, he was the Tennessee State player as a senior in 1993, an All-American at the University of Tennessee and a starter for Team USA in the 1996 Olympics.  After playing in the minor leagues over a long period of time, he is offered a signing bonus of $810,000 by the Texas Rangers.  It is the realization of his dream.  Until he undergoes the routine physical examination required before the contract can be signed, and it is found that he was apparently born without an ulnar collateral ligament – the main stabilizing ligament – in his elbow, and the offer is summarily withdrawn.  Ultimately, he signs for $75,000.00.  How he proved himself, remained in the major leagues, and became one of the premier – and few – knuckleball pitchers pitching today, is quite a tale.

The book is highly recommended, for readers who are baseball fans certainly, but for those who are not as well.  As you can probably tell, I loved it.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2012.

Book Reviews: The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill, The Dog Sox by Russell Hill and Negative Image by Vicki Delany

The Woodcutter
Reginald Hill
Harper, August2011
ISBN No. 978-0062060747
Hardcover

Wilford Hadda began life as the son of a Cumbrian woodcutter on the Ulphingstone estate.  Sir Leon Ulphingstone gave him the nickname of Wolf.  At one stage in his life, Wolf Hadda held the title Sir Wilford Hadda.

Reginald Hill takes the reader through the various stages of the life of Wolf Hadda and Wolf has led a very interesting life.  As a boy, he charmed Sir Leon’s daughter and left Cumbria to earn his fortune.  Wolf became a very wealthy man and returned to marry Imogene Ulphingstone.  The couple had a daughter that Wolf doted on but one morning a knock on the door brought a screeching halt to Wolf’s charmed life.

The police entered his home with a search warrant and arrested Wolf.  To say that Wolf was surprised by the visit would be putting it mildly.  He did not take well to being pushed around by the Officer in charge and so Wolf decided to make his exit from the police station.  Wolf wound up in a traffic accident that left him badly injured and in a coma.  As he started to come out of the coma in the hospital, the only bright spot in the day was Davy McLucky, the man in charge of guarding his hotel room.

Wolf recovers from his injuries to find he has lost all of his money, his wife has left him and she is planning to marry his lawyer.  Wolf is sentenced to a long term in prison and marked as a pedophile.  When Alva Ozigbo the prison psychiatrist begins treating Wolf, he is reluctant to talk about his crimes.  Wolf eventually opened up to her and she was convinced that he was rehabilitated and should be released from prison.

Once released Wolf went back to his childhood home and began to put his life back together.  Although the locals were against Wolf even being in the neighborhood the local minister felt he should at least visit Wolf.  After a few visits, the two men became friends.   Alva also began to visit Wolf.  The visitors were seeing a different man than the one that had been committed to prison for such horrible crimes.  Did he actually commit the crimes he was accused of or was he set up in a complicated scheme to take the fall for others?

This stand-alone is an exciting and interesting book that keeps the reader guessing.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2011.

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The Dog Sox
Russell Hill
Caravel Books, April 2011
ISBN No. 978-1929355747
Trade Paperback

Ray Adams has a different approach when he buys a gift for his girl friend Ava Belle. Ava loves dogs and baseball so Ray buys her a baseball team.  The team is named The Knight’s Landing Dog Sox.  The team’s manager is a 70-year old Jewish man who has a number of colorful phrases that he repeats from time to time.  He is quite an interesting character and is determined to turn the team into the best team possible.

The team consists of players from different occupations and includes one very special pitcher, Billy Collins.  Billy has a drunken and abusive father who disrupts Billy’s life and threatens his success.  Ray and the team’s manager are determined to figure out a way to rid Billy of this problem.

The team has a unique refreshment stand and quite an interesting fire works display.  There are laugh at loud incidents in The Dog Sox.

The Knight’s Landing Dog Sox is top priority for Ray and Ava and the interaction of the team members makes for good reading.  The book is short but a great read and one that you won’t soon forget.

Russell Hill is the author of The Lord God Bird and if you have not read it you’ve missed a great book.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, April, 2011.

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Negative Image
Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press, 2010
ISBN No. 978-1590587904
Trade Paperback

Rudolph Steiner is a famed photographer whose career is sliding downhill.  When Steiner visits Trafalgar in British Columbia along with his wife Josie and his assistant Diane Barton, life suddenly becomes unsettled for Constable Molly Smith.

Steiner’s body is discovered in the bathroom of his hotel room.  Investigation proves that Eliza Winters was a visitor to Steiner’s room just before the murder.  Eliza is the wife of John Winters, Molly’s boss and mentor.  Eliza is a model and formerly worked with Steiner.  Eliza becomes a suspect in the murder and her husband is banned from the investigation.

There have been a series of breaking and entering in Trafalgar and no suspects have been discovered.  Since Winters can’t be involved in the murder investigation, he decides to devote his time to solving the breaking and entering crimes.  Winters enlists Molly to do a door-to-door investigation of the neighborhoods where the crimes occurred.

Molly has been seeing Adam Tocek of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and is having some issues with Adam’s attempts to protect her reputation.  Molly is not only concerned about her relationship with Adam but Charlie Bassing has begun stalking Molly.  Molly helped send Charlie to jail when Charlie attacked Molly’s best friend.  Molly is keeping a record of the incidents that involve Charlie Bassing but hasn’t confided her fears either to Adam or her fellow workers.

To add to Molly’s problems, her dad falls and breaks his hip.  Molly has the added worry of her father’s health but she’s also quite concerned with the way her mother, who usually takes everything in stride, is handling her dad’s hospitalization.

Negative Image is the fourth book in the Constable Molly Smith series.  It is not necessary to read the previous books in order to enjoy Negative Image, get a real feel for life in Trafalgar, and meet the great characters that Delany has created.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, March 2011.