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: Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

ThreatenedThreatened
Eliot Schrefer
Scholastic Press, February 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-55143-4
Hardcover

I want to crawl into this book and live forever with Luc and “his” chimpanzees. Mr. Schrefer’s adoration and admiration of these astounding creatures is obvious and contagious. His complete understanding of the logistics as to why the chimpanzees must be wild animals is as evident as the tug of emotion that wishes it wasn’t so.

Threatened isn’t a glossy, glowing fantasy of strolling under canopies of trees, munching fresh fruit, arms happily swinging without a care in the world. Luc’s story is tragic and not unique. This is real. It is raw. And brutal. Harsh and stunning. This tiny tome is heart-breaking, soul wringing and world-shattering. But, most importantly, it is hopeful.

Our street-boy-turned-scientist-narrator, Luc is tough, courageous, bold and tenacious. He is sneaky, suspicious, starving, alone and abused. But kind. And emphatic. And hopeful, loving, open and intelligent. Uncannily, it seems the Professor gleans this as he sips mint tea and watches the scrawny boy wipe down tables in the seedy dive on Gabon’s main street in Africa.

The Prof is delightful, compassionate, sly, clever, brilliant and also…..sad at his core. The Egyptian Arab proudly proclaims to be embarking on an adventure to become Africa’s very own Jane Goodall. Of course, an assistant is required for his stay in the jungle. With slightly less than half of the population being under 15 years of age due to the AIDS epidemic (The Worm), the Professor hopes to employ a local boy.

Mr. Schrefer’s tale of two lost souls together in the jungle observing chimp behavior is breathtakingly beautiful. He perfectly captures Luc’s gradual, 180-degree change of heart and mind towards the chimpanzees in general, and one very captivating chimpanzee: Drummer, specifically. This author’s prose is thoughtful and thought-provoking. As if by magic, he combines infuriating, depressing facts with optimism, ambition and sweetly simple dreams.

While Threatened is indeed appropriate for Middle-Grade readers; this narrative, in Mr. Scherer’s words, transcends age. It should not be overlooked or dismissed by the Young Adult, New Adult, or even the Older-Than-Dirt Readers, like me. This is not the time for self-limiting. Missing out would be catastrophic.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2015.

Book Review: Taken by David Massey

Taken MasseyTaken
David Massey
Chicken House, August 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-66128-7
Hardcover

Understandably apprehensive, Rio focused on the yacht that would carry her and the five wounded veterans she’d yet to meet, around the planet. The mission of the self-described group of misfits isn’t just to prove that a disability doesn’t disable the individual. The true goal is raising money for the Hidden Children, kids whose families have been destroyed by war. As the “able-bodied” mate, Rio is confident in her sailing skills. As a civilian rather than a veteran, she hopes for the strength and resolve to genuinely contribute to the crew.

The badly burned Marcus uses outstanding humor to keep the crew relaxed. Rio adores his hilarious t-shirts that draw attention away from his stretched, scarred skin. The youngest soldier, Izzy, had fallen from a helicopter, shattering one of her legs. While being treated, it was discovered that she was diabetic and required daily insulin shots. Charis has both a gorgeous Welsh accent and a robotic arm.

Ash looked like a super-hero to Rio when she saw him on his blades-in-lieu-of-legs. His charm, intelligence and warmth stole her breath and stopped her heart. An endeavor of this magnitude, establishing relationships based on trust, would be paramount; looking for love…distracting. Make that dangerous. Jen, the one crew member to take an instant dislike to Rio, keeps a close watch on Ash.

The Lord’s Resistance Army which began in Uganda, touting their goal of ruling according to the biblical ten commandments has, in truth, broken each one. Moses Mwemba, 2nd in command of the LRA, views the disabled veterans’ mission as an opportunity to garner attention, thus notoriety. The Sangoma (Witch Doctor) will sabotage the ship. Once stalled, his young, crazed army will abduct the crew, and move them deep into the jungle. Huge ransoms will be demanded, but hardly the point.

Taken elicits tangible sensations. Heavy, humid air of the jungle is suffocating. The stench of spreading infection is stomach churning. Torture and gratuitous killings invoke horror, anger, and disbelief. Critical observations without prejudices poignantly present different points of view. Emotions aren’t mutually exclusive. Fear, anger and hatred towards the captors don’t necessarily override empathy, compassion or even an odd affinity for the half-starved, frightened, bark-munching child captors.

Mr. Massey brilliantly displays that stark fear, even coupled with harsh, deplorable, unimaginable conditions, can’t smother the basic human will to survive. He shows that through the absolute worst, most dismal of situations, life goes on. Kindness, compassion, selflessness, qualities not always evident, usually do exist, in most people.

Taken is not just an outstanding, exceptional book. The issues, terroristic groups, senseless acts of violence and killings are very real. Mr. Massey provides imperative education while simultaneously gifting a compelling story packed with clever characters, spot-on dialogue and thought-provoking prose.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2015.

Book Review: Escape from Eden by Elisa Nader

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Title: Escape from Eden
Author: Elisa Nader
Publisher: Merit Press
Release Date: 08/18/13
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Young Adult
    

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Escape from EdenEscape from Eden
Elisa Nader
Merit Press, August 2013
ISBN 978-1-4405-6392-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Since the age of ten, Mia has rebelled against the iron fist of a fundamentalist preacher who lured her mother away to join a fanatical family of followers. At “Edenton,” a supposed Garden of Eden deep in the South American jungle, everyone follows the reverend’s strict and arbitrary rules–even about whom they can marry. Mia dreams of slipping away from the armed guards who keep the faithful in and the curious out. When the rebellious Gabe, a new boy, arrives with his family, Mia sees her chance to escape and to free her family. But the scandalous secrets the two discover beyond the compound’s facade are more shocking than anything they imagined. While Gabe has his own terrible secrets, he and Mia bond together, more than friend and freedom fighters. But there’s no time to think about love as they race against time to stop the reverend’s paranoid plan to free his flock–but not himself–from this corrupt world. Can two kids crush a criminal mastermind? And who will die in the fight to save the ones they love from a madman whose only concern is his own secrets?

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I’m dating myself, I know, but I remember Jonestown very well. For those of us on the outside, it was unbearably sad but also a real shock to our sensibilities because we had never really experienced anything remotely like this. There had been other megalomaniacs before Jim Jones—Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung come to mind—but, so many years later, most of us just didn’t contemplate the possibility of a “civilian” having such total control over the people who believed in him. Those other men operated with immense cruelty but they were generally removed from the acts of their followers while Jones was right in the midst of it. Besides the incredible sadness of all the lives lost, we were confronted with the reality that some people are so lost and in search of meaning in their lives that they could be completely swayed by the glibness of a madman to the point that they would murder their own children because he told them to do it.

There have been other cults with their own kinds of disasters and leaders, like Charles Manson in the 1960’s and David Koresh in the 1990’s, who also could twist the minds of vulnerable people but Jim Jones is a name that will always be the epitome of cultish horror. In recent years, though, cults have become less of a news item. They certainly still exist but their activities are no longer in the public eye as much as they were back then. That makes what Elisa Nader has done even more remarkable than a casual reader might realize.

Ms. Nader is far too young to remember Jonestown and her target audience certainly won’t but she has created a story that brings to life how a cult leader like Jim Jones can operate.  Certain traits hold true with Reverend Elias Eden including isolating his people from general society, controlling what they eat and where they go , even naming the community after himself as another subliminal means of imprinting on these people who are not allowed to keep their own family names. What’s so amazing, in real life and in this story, is how far those people will go to support their leader and I think Escape from Eden will help today’s young adult readers understand the serious pitfalls of such a life.

Yes, the scenario is frightening and sad and a matter of incredulity for those of us on the outside but here is where Ms. Nader introduces an element that relieves the sense of doom—she creates hope in the persons of Mia and Gabe, two young members of the hidden society who don’t believe, who seek to break free and perhaps bring an end to the tyranny. I appreciated the support they gave each other although I didn’t particularly care for the potential romance or Mia’s propensity to let her attraction to Gabe get in the way but it’s such a relief to have these kids bring hope to an untenable situation. Mia, in particular, is refreshingly not always the brightest bulb in the box  and Gabe has his own tragic background to overcome but they have the passion to survive. Along the way, the reader is faced with intense suspense and fast-paced action, frequently feeling the need to chew fingernails.

Elisa Nader Book Quote

The combination of appealing and credible characters, and some who are not so appealing, with such a bonechilling plot led me to race through the story because I just had to know what was coming on the next page while I was also dreading the end. I was afraid of what might happen but wanted the story to keep going. Elisa Nader has brought us a real winner with Escape from Eden and I hope we won’t have to wait too long before her next work. Perhaps she could come up with a novella or two to tide us over in the meantime ;-).

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2013.

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About the Author

Elisa NaderHi. I’m Elisa. I like cheese and reading and TV show marathons. Writing is scary, but not as scary as, say, Civil War amputations. I’m an Aquarius. Uh… let’s see… I’m not very good at writing my own biography. Or autobiography. I guess this is reading more like a slightly incoherent personal ad.

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