Book Review: Paw of the Jungle by Diane Kelly @DianeKellyBooks @StMartinsPress

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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: Meet Your Baker by Ellie Alexander

Meet Your BakerMeet Your Baker
A Bakeshop Mystery #1
Ellie Alexander
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, December 2014
ISBN 978-1-250-05423-4
Mass Market Paperback

Juliet “Jules” Capshaw left her hometown of Ashland, Oregon ten years ago, to learn how to be an expert pastry chef, and then to travel the world working on a cruise ship. She had no plans to return to Ashland except for visits to see her widowed mother, but when serious issues arise in Jules’s marriage, her plans change. Jules finds herself right back where she originally started – working at Torte, the family bakery business that her parents began decades before.

I know this book was good for a few reasons. The first is that, whether it’s fair or not, I usually steer clear of cosy mysteries with cute covers and a pun in the title. This book has made me question that policy, because it turned out to be a fine mystery  with unexpected twists and turns not only in the plot, but in character development. The second reason is that, although I am normally a tea drinker, I wanted to drink every coffee and latte and espresso shot that was described in the book. Similarly, the third reason is that I generally prefer savoury foods to sweet ones, but as I was reading Meet Your Baker,  I wanted to eat every raspberry danish, scone, oatmeal cookie, lime crescent cookie, and lime mint cupcake described in the story, as well as the delicious-sounding chicken pasta salad and turkey havarti sandwiches. Alexander is clearly a strong writer if she could win me over on all those points.

I have never been to Ashland, Oregon, and until I read Meet Your Baker, I hadn’t heard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which provides much of the employment for the residents of Ashland. Most of the business for Torte comes from the tourists who visit to see the plays in the city’s three theatres, stop in at galleries, and shop in the distinctive stores. Ashland is also home to South Oregon University, and this also plays a part in the story, since a number of the characters are students with various part-time jobs around town.

The setting was probably my favourite part of the book. Although I haven’t visited Ashland, it sounds very similar to Stratford, Ontario, a Canadian city with a similar population that is also home to a Shakespeare Festival. I love going to Stratford, not only to see the great acting and the wonderful plays, but also because everywhere you go during the season, there are actors and people connected with the theatre – you can’t help but bump into intriguing characters and hearing dramatic discussions in every restaurant and cafe.

This was also what I loved about the descriptions of Ashland. The mystery plot revolves around the theatre, and around the constant fund-raising and endless clashes between producing fabulous plays and ensuring the festival remains commercially viable. Because so many of those involved are actors, directors, and producers, they all have larger-than-life personalities – and often exceptional wardrobes, which makes for a fun read. The dependence of the town’s economy on tourism is clearly described here, and I liked Juliet’s practicality and strong work ethic as she tries to help her mother keep Torte on its feet, even during the slower months.

Although the mystery plot itself is maybe a bit convoluted, I thought this was offset by unexpected developments in the characters’ lives. The reason Juliet has decided to leave her job and her marriage was not what I anticipated when I began reading, and I liked being surprised. Although she is struggling with sadness and confusion as the book begins, Jules is not someone to lie around and wallow in her grief. Instead, she gets busy and bakes, and Alexander’s careful and detailed descriptions of Juliet’s cooking were fascinating to read.

To top it all off, this book also includes recipes. I’m not sure that I’ve ever made a recipe from a fictional book before, but Alexander certainly makes it seem like a tempting idea.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, February 2016.

Book Reviews: The Shadow Broker by Trace Conger and Destroyer Angel by Nevada Barr

The Shadow BrokerThe Shadow Broker
A Mr. Finn Novel
Trace Conger
CreateSpace, August 2014
ISBN: 978-1-500-96697-3
Trade Paperback

This novel serves to introduce Finn Harding, who lost his PI license and is reduced to scrounging for a living, dealing with less than savory persons to make ends meet.  He lives on a houseboat on the Ohio River in Cincinnati, has an ex-wife and six-year-old daughter.  Obviously, this book is the beginning of a series.  Finn supposedly specializes in finding people who don’t want to be found, since doing so doesn’t require a license from the state.

One such assignment comes from a man named Bishop who operates an internet site that offers purloined data illegally obtained by his criminal partners.  It involves identifying a blackmailer, who is demanding $50,000 per month of Bishop to not disclose how he hacked into the site and is able to give the FBI all the background needed to prosecute.  Finn is able to name the blackmailer, but as a result finds himself in a more complicated situation, facing possible death at the hands of his clients.

Finn is an interesting protagonist, resourceful, energetic and calculating, although less than an upright citizen as events turn out.  He knows the difference between right and wrong, but circumstances make it hard to be ethical when you have to cut corners to survive.  It will be interesting to see what develops in the next novel in the series, Scar Tissue.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2015.

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Destroyer AngelDestroyer Angel
An Anna Pigeon Novel #18
Nevada Barr
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, February 2015
ISBN: 978-0-2500-5847-8
Mass Market Paperback

Novels in the Anna Pigeon series usually take place in national parks featuring the wilderness as she grapples with the likes of forest fires and the like.  This time, as she braves a Minnesota forest, it is four gunmen who have kidnapped two friends and their daughters while she was out canoeing, thus missing out on the party at the beginning:  The five women originally planned to enjoy a long weekend camping at a park ranger site.

Thus begins a long trek of undue hardship as the captives are forced to travel toward a landing strip miles away where the kidnappers hoped to be picked up by a plane to wait for the eventual payoff.  Instead, as they slowly head to their destination, trailed by Anna whose purpose obviously is somehow to rescue her friends, the reader is treated to a gruesome blow-by-blow account of the rough treatment the women receive and lessons in how to survive in the wilderness, courtesy of Anna the park ranger, as well as how to stalk prey.

The descriptions are graphic and powerful, brutal and mesmerizing.  Unfortunately, from time to time, the author interjects opinions on a variety of side issues which detract from the forward thrust of the plot. Otherwise, this is a forceful tale, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2015.