Book Review: Cold Heart by Karen Pullen—and a Giveaway!

cold-heartCold Heart
A Stella Lavender Mystery #2
Karen Pullen
Five Star, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-4328-3257-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Motivated by her mother’s long-ago unsolved abduction, Stella Lavender has joined the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation only to be severely challenged by her first assignment: undercover drug agent. Stella works nights, buying drugs from paranoid drug dealers, gathering evidence to send them to prison or turn them into informants. She’s great at the job because, as her boss says, “you don’t look like a cop.” But the physical danger and the necessary betrayals are getting to her. When she sees a chance to work homicide, she’ll always take it.

One afternoon Stella gives a hitchhiking teenager a ride to her babysitting job in a wealthy neighborhood. Horror awaits them–the father lies dead in a pool of blood, and his toddler is missing. Stella joins the murder investigation as the puzzle quickly grows. Most importantly, where is the toddler? A dizzying array of plausible suspects provides more questions than answers.

At the same time, Stella’s personal life offers plenty of distractions. Her grandmother Fern, a free-spirited artist with male admirers wrapped around every one of her paint-stained fingers, needs Stella’s help with expensive house repairs. And Stella’s attraction to three very different men means her romantic life is, well, complicated.

Cold Heart draws the reader into a darkly delightful page-turner as Stella rummages through every strata of society in her relentless and sometimes unconventional pursuit of a cold-hearted murderer who won’t stop at just one victim.

If you’re not careful, sometimes what you wish for turns out to be much more than you think it’s going to be. Stella Lavender is good at what she does, working Narcotics, but she really wants to get into the Homicide division. When she picks up a hitchhiker, she has no idea that she’s about to walk smack into a murder case but she’s more or less prepared for that. What surprises her are the connections she discovers she has to the case, kind of a six degrees of separation thing.

The fact that Stella made a drug buy just the night before from the man who’s now lying dead is just one of those links and she soon finds that her personal life isn’t as separated from work as she’d like it to be. For instance, could one of the many men who orbit around her charismatic grandmother be somehow involved and is Fern hiding things from Stella? Are other people being attacked because Stella herself is really the target and, if so, why? Most importantly, what has happened to the dead man’s toddler daughter, Paige?

There are a few too many coincidences in the plot but a plethora of leads and suspects kept me guessing for quite a while and the characters, particularly Stella, are interesting. I liked her very much and appreciated her determination and even her occasional rule-bending. Stella Lavender is a cop I could be friends with 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

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Just by leaving two comments,
you’ll have a chance to win a
print copy of the first book in
the series, Cold Feet. Leave
one comment today and one
on yesterday’s guest blog by
Karen Pullen. The winning name
will be drawn Thursday evening,
January 26th. This drawing is
open to residents of the US.

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Book Review: Time’s Up by Janey Mack and Choked Up by Janey Mack

times-upTime’s Up
A Maisie McGrane Mystery #1
Janey Mack
Kensington Books, June 2015
ISBN 978-1-61773-690-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  All her life, Maisie McGrane dreamed of following in her father and other brothers’ footsteps and joining the force.  But when she’s expelled from the police academy, she’s reduced to taking a job as a meter maid.  Now, instead of chasing down perps, she’s booting people’s cars and taking abuse from every lowlife who can’t scrape together enough change to feed the meter.  McGranes weren’t put on this earth to quit, however.  When Maisie stumbles across the body of a City Hall staffer with two bullets in his chest, her badge-wielding brothers try to warn her off the case.  But with the help of her secret crush, shadowy ex-Army Ranger Hank Bannon, Maisie’s determined to follow the trail of conspiracy no matter where it leads.  And that could put her in the crosshairs of a killer – – and all she‘s packing is a ticket gun.

Maisie and her family members – equal parts cops and defense attorneys – make for a fascinating group of characters, as are the others who populate this novel, the first in a series.  In a first for this reviewer, immediately after I finished this book I opened up the next in the series, Choked Up, which picks up when Time’s Up ends.  I did this primarily because although I liked the plots and sub-plots, and mostly liked the McGraine family, I found somewhat off-putting the nearly constant updates on the couture of the characters, both male and female, accompanied by regular descriptions of the various (and numerous) motor vehicles which oddly play a part in the novel.  As well, there were several cultural references that escaped me.  But I’ll chalk that up to me and my advancing age, I guess.

There is much here to like, and the book is recommended, with that small cavil.

More soon, as the review of the 2nd book in the series is next up for this reviewer, as mentioned above.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2016.

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choked-upChoked Up
A Maisie McGrane Mystery #2
Janey Mack
Kensington Books, January 2016
ISBN 978-1-61773-692-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Scrappy Traffic Enforcement agent Maisie McGrane has finally landed her dream job as a Chicago police officer.  There’s just one catch.  She must remain undercover as a meter maid to gather evidence against Stannislav Renko, a charismatic Serbian mobster running a brutal multi-million dollar mobile chop-shop operation.  When Maisie is targeted by a killer who leaves a body slumped against her car, Renko comes to her rescue and takes her under his wing.  From her perch inside the crime boss’s inner circle, Maisie sets up a daring sting operation to take down Renko once and for all.  But can she pull it off before her family of overprotective Irish cops and her sexy ex-Army Ranger boyfriend blow her cover?

We learn a bit more about the makeup of the McGrane family in this, the second entry in the series, e.g., her birth mother was killed in an accident, and her adoptive mother, who is black, adopted all of his six small children when she married their father (“Da” throughout), the family now made up of four cops and three attorneys.  The family members become more interesting with each book, as do Maisie’s lovers, a sexy bunch I must admit!  The reader also learns a bit more about Chicago politics/corruption, three words inextricably intertwined throughout.

How can one not love a protagonist who quotes Virgil and Dashiel Hammett, watches episodes of Harry Bosch on tv and listens to Chet Baker on her I-Pod [or the equivalent]?  Not me!  This second book in the series is, as was the first, recommended, and I look forward to Maisie’s third appearance in Shoot ‘Em Up, due out from Kensington in October 2016.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2016.

Book Review: Ivory Ghosts by Caitlin O’Connell

Ivory GhostsIvory Ghosts
A Catherine Sohon Elephant Mystery
Caitlin O’Connell
Alibi, April 2015
ISBN 9781101883471
Ebook

From the publisher—

Still grieving over the tragic death of her fiancé, American wildlife biologist Catherine Sohon leaves South Africa and drives to a remote outpost in northeast Namibia, where she plans to face off against the shadowy forces of corruption and relentless human greed in the fight against elephant poaching. Undercover as a census pilot tracking the local elephant population, she’ll really be collecting evidence on the ruthless ivory traffickers.

But before she even reaches her destination, Catherine stumbles onto a scene of horrifying carnage: three people shot dead in their car, and a fourth nearby—with his brain removed. The slaughter appears to be the handiwork of a Zambian smuggler known as “the witchdoctor,” a figure reviled by activists and poachers alike. Forced to play nice with local officials, Catherine finds herself drawn to the prickly but charismatic Jon Baggs, head of the Ministry of Conservation, whose blustery exterior belies his deep investment in the poaching wars.

Torn between her developing feelings and her unofficial investigation, she takes to the air, only to be grounded by a vicious turf war between competing factions of a black-market operation that reaches far beyond the borders of Africa. With the mortality rate—both human and animal—skyrocketing, Catherine races to intercept a valuable shipment. Now she’s flying blind, and a cunning killer is on the move.

Elephants have to be among the most beloved of all animals and there’s something quite romantic about them and their story. I think much of our appreciation of these wondrous creatures comes from our recognition of their intelligence and their loyalty to one another. We’re also drawn in by the tragedy of their existence, the horrendous poaching and slaughter for their body parts, especially their tusks.

Catherine Sohon is an admirable woman, one who goes the extra mile to fight the smuggling trade that so severely endangers the elephants, but the stakes get even higher when she becomes involved in murder. Unprepared for this, she nevertheless plunges right in to investigate the human deaths as well as the poaching and slaughter of the animals. Running into something of a brick wall in an official named Jon Baggs, Catherine pushes ahead and finds a senseless darkness even she didn’t expect. She also finds a welcome lightening of the grief she has been living with since her fiancé’s death.

Author Caitlin O’Connell doesn’t just admire elephants; she has made them her life’s work and I envy the opportunities she has to be around them. She’s also a dedicated scientist and is doing much to make that discipline more accessible to those of us who aren’t as thoroughly immersed as she is. Her knowledge of science and of elephants in particular shine through the pages of this debut novel and I can honestly say I know a little more after reading it. I’m already looking forward to what I hope will be many more novels from Ms. O’Connell.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2015.

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About the Author

Caitlin O'ConnellA world-renowned expert on elephants, Caitlin O’Connell holds a Ph.D. in ecology and is a faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as director of life sciences for HNu Photonics. She is the author of five nonfiction books about elephants, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense, An Elephant’s Life, A Baby Elephant in the Wild, and Elephant Don, and co-author of the award-winning The Elephant Scientist. She is the co-founder and CEO of Utopia Scientific, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and science education, and the co-founder of Triple Helix Productions, a global media forum with a mandate to develop more accurate and entertaining science content for the media. When not in the field with elephants, O’Connell divides her time between San Diego, California, and Maui, Hawaii, with her husband, Tim Rodwell, and their dog, Frodo.

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Book Reviews: Sons of Sparta by Jeffrey Siger and The Likeness by Tana French

Sons of SpartaSons of Sparta
A Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis Mystery
Jeffrey Siger
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0314-5
Hardcover

Author Jeffrey Siger and Poisoned Pen Press continue their winning collaboration with this sixth entry in the excellent Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series. Set in turbulent, often corrupt, politically chancy, modern Greece, the novel enticingly exploits a full range of Mediterranean attractions. The history of Greece from Athens to Corinth to Sparta, and beyond is filled with thrilling exploits, good wine, fine food, smuggling, piracy and fierce familial ties. So too, this novel. No mistake, the author is very sympathetic to the passions and cultural attitudes, but he observes with a keen and balanced eye.

Yiannis Kouros is a young special crimes division detective. He’s also a member of an old and still powerful family descendent from ancient Spartan warriors. A family with ties to the full range of past illegal activities. When the head of the family, his uncle, calls, he must appear, worrying that he will be compromised in his loyalty to his boss and mentor, Chief Inspector Kaldis. It is the beginning of a long and complicated case of murder, old wrongs and new chicanery.

Kouros, Kaldis and the other member of the successful police triad, Tassos Stamatos, an aging, exceedingly competent homicide investigator buddy of Kaldis, combine their experience to protect Kouros from family pressure and simultaneously help solve the murder of Kouros’s uncle. The case involves a range of interesting criminals, crimes and members of Kouros’s family. It explores Greek culture in illuminating ways but the author is careful to maintain the focus of this novel on the interesting police procedures and the deductive processes of the cops in a government environment as corrupt and dysfunctional as one might ever encounter.

The plot is complicated, intriguing and well-considered. Occasional excursions into sexual dalliances are appropriately included to add interest and rhythm to the fabric of the novel. Pace almost never lags and the conclusion is satisfying.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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The LikenessThe Likeness
Dublin Murder Squad Series #2
Tana French
Viking, July 2008
ISBN: 978-0-670-01886-4
Hardcover

First she wrote a best-seller, In The Woods. Now comes a second novel following the activities of a mythical Murder Squad in Ireland. The principal is again, Cassie Maddox, a fine detective, but one who seems doomed to tread the perilous paths of psychological involvement at very high levels.

After working murder and as an undercover operative, Cassie has moved on. Physically and still mentally damaged, she needs something with less stress. She finds it in what amounts to a desk job in the Domestic Violence unit. But her past will not let her alone.

When the novel opens, Cassie’s current boyfriend , Sam, a detective still on the murder squad, importunes her to visit a crime scene. A young woman has been found dead in an abandoned cottage in a small town outside Dublin. Cassie goes to the scene where she is mightily shocked to discover that the dead woman appears to be almost her twin. What is even more unsettling is that the dead woman is identified as Alexandra Madison, a name and persona used years ago by Detective Maddox in an undercover operation.

Unsettling as all that is, Cassie’s former boss of undercover operations sees the situation as ideal to help them solve the murder—by hiding the fact of Madison’s death for as long as possible and infiltrating Cassie into the dead woman’s life in order to solve her death. This situation is not without problems, several of which the author has left un-resolved. Moreover, the convoluted plot, including the question of who Alexandra Madison really is and who killed her does not lend itself to simple answers. Like her debut novel, which also leaves important questions in limbo, the narrative is handled in a stately and protracted manner. The novel is a good deal longer than it needs to be, but French’s style and high level of skill with language mitigates many of those problems.

In spite of my reservations, at least for traditional mystery fans who thrive on psychological tension, this is a mesmerizing novel with compelling characters, logical and precise progress, and an outstanding evocative sense of place. A real winner for serious fans of the psychological thriller.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Reviews: The Hit by Melvin Burgess and The Trigger by L.J. Sellers

The HitThe Hit
Melvin Burgess
Chicken House/Scholastic, March 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-55699-6
Hardcover

The Hit is a book that will make you think. Set in the near future, it puts us right into the conflicting world of haves and have nots, exploring the results of the worldwide financial crisis as the one-percenters have totally taken over. But that’s not all. A new drug—the drug culture having grown even more prevalent—is gaining popularity. One especially made for young people who don’t believe they have a future. Take the hit and the drug, called Death, will make the recipient euphoric and strong for seven days. Then you die.

Adam, one of the poverty-stricken ninety-nine percenters, doesn’t have much to live for. He and his parents can’t afford for him the education that would lift them out of comparative destitution. His girlfriend, Lizzie, is part of the upper-class. Adam, teenage hormones raging, lives to get laid; Lizzie can’t make up her mind. Then, when the pair attends a rock concert one evening, the star of the show dies on stage after taking the drug. The crowd goes wild! Riots pop up, the drug lords are pressing kids to take a hit, and Adam’s own brother is the chemist who invented the drug.

This is a large, convoluted plot. The concept is a bit scary actually, and is a book that seems a bit dark for the readership at which it’s aimed. Well-written, some of the characters come alive, leaping off the page with an energy equal to their years. Others seem like caricatures to me.

There were plenty of TSTL (to stupid to live) moments, plenty of bad decisions made, not a lot of hope for the world after this adventure.

True to life? God, I hope not.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, March 2014.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

 

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The TriggerThe Trigger
An Agent Dallas Thriller
L.J. Sellers
Spellbinder Press, August 2013
ISBN 978-0984008650
Trade Paperback

Agent Jamie Dallas, whose specialty in the FBI is working undercover, is called upon to investigate a potential kidnapping. The wife and child of the leader of a notorious doomsday prepper has disappeared, and murder is suspected. Is she the victim of a random abduction, or of something closer to home? It’s up to Dallas to find out.

Dallas, her undercover assignment a closely guarded secret, is backed by a team of local FBI agents. Unfortunately, her main contact is soon called away to work on yet another murder that only ties in with the main plot at the end of the novel. Dallas is soon stranded and in deep trouble when communications fail and the preppers discover her mission.

The Trigger is a ripped from the headlines style story with lots of twists and turns and an edge-of-your-seat ending. Hackers, preppers, and fanatics, as well as regular people caught up in an uncertain world are featured. Dallas is a great character, with all the foibles of the human condition. Agent McCullen partners well with her. I like that the villains are not over-the-top monsters, but very human with familial loyalties and mostly good intentions—or so they’ve convinced themselves.  At least until their plot to take over the worldwide monetary system and the Internet begins to go wrong.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, April 2014.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

 

Book Review: Fools Rush In by Sunny Frazier

Fools Rush In 2Fools Rush In
Sunny Frazier
Oak Tree Press, May 2010
ISBN 978-1-892343-68-0
Trade Paperback

I picked up Fools Rush In based on a recommendation from a friend.   It sounded interesting and I   wanted to read something “slightly different” in the mystery genre.  This book fit the “slightly different” category in my eyes because it included narcotics, informants, astrology, and mystery.  I was not sure how the author would pull it all together to make a great read, but SHE DID!

The book is fast paced and enjoyable to read, in fact, I read it all in one night.  The main character, Christy Bristol, is unique and I fell in love with her immediately.   Her understanding of law enforcement and ability to bring her astrology background (in the form of a horoscope) to assist a NARC she may or may not have feelings for, the “Wolfman,” with a major problem he’s found himself in was amazing.  The author nailed exactly how people in the narcotics world think and behave, which strengthened the credibility and believability of Fools Rush In.

The infusion of astrology kept the book moving along and made for a fantastic read.  I know nothing of astrology, but it made sense, and was very interesting to learn about.  The fact the author found a way to use the information to help provide leads for the case was fascinating.

Overall, this book was a “must read” for me.  I’ve read a lot of books.   Many are commercialized in today’s ever-changing market (cookie cutter with the same plot).  Fools Rush In not only was entertaining but informational.   It includes excellent dialogue and subtle humor and romance.  I can’t think of a better combo!  The book is part of the “Christy Bristol” series by Sunny Frazier.  I cannot wait for the next book by this author.

Reviewed by Chris Swinney, June 2013.
Author of the upcoming Gray Ghost.

Book Reviews: The Ranger by Ace Atkins, Dead Scared by S. J. Bolton, and Dinner with Lenny by Jonathan Cott

The RangerThe Ranger
Ace Atkins
Berkley, May 2012
ISBN: 978-0-425-24749-5
Trade Paperback

Quinn Colson, the eponymous protagonist, has returned home to Tibbehah County, in rural northeast Mississippi, to attend the funeral of his beloved uncle.  He is told that his uncle committed suicide, but refuses to accept that.  In trying to uncover the truth, he discovers much more than just what the former sheriff had been up to in the months leading up to his death.

Quinn is a man of many talents and skills who had joined the Army when he was eighteen.  The author says of him:  “The Regiment had whittled him down to a wiry, muscular frame built for speed, surprise, chaos, and violence . . . .He had a Choctaw grandmother about a hundred years back mixed with the hard Scotch-Irish who settled the South.”  He has not been home for six years, is now a platoon sergeant with the Rangers, having done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and back again.  He returns home to find a town that had seen hard times, getting harder, and a bunch of good ol’ boys spreading drugs, money and corruption wherever and whenever they can.  The town is perhaps typified by the following:  “Nobody has real names out here.  We’re all just kind of passing through until we can get to Memphis or Jackson,” and a chancery clerk at the Courthouse whose “job was elected, but unless you ran away with half the county’s budget or performed an intimate act in public you could pretty much keep the job as long as you wanted it.”

All the action – – and there is a lot of it – – takes places over a one-week period, the time frame allowed to Quinn for his bereavement leave from the Army.  There is a recurring theme of lost young women and the families – – and babies – – they leave behind.  And finally the inevitable showdown that you knew had to be coming, but that packs a punch nonetheless, with some plot developments that perhaps should have been expected but were not, at least for this reader.

I have to admit that this was my first Ace Atkins book.  It is one which is recommended, and I am looking forward to the next one.  [He has written four standalones, plus four books in the Nick Travers series, and, recently, The Lost Ones, a sequel to The Ranger.   In addition, the author was selected by the Robert B. Parker estate to continue the Spenser series, the first of which, titled, aptly enough, Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby, was also published in the past few months.]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2012.

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Dead ScaredDead Scared
S. J. Bolton
Minotaur Books, June 2012
ISBN: 978-0-312-60053-2
Hardcover

The brief prologue sets the scene for the reader:  Near midnight; one of the tallest towers in Cambridge, England; D.I. Mark Joesbury, racing up the stairs to its roof; and a young woman perched near the ledge at the top.  And then the reader is brought back eleven days in time to see how they got there, with a 1st person p.o.v. of D.C. Lacey Flint, which alternates with third-person perspectives.  Flint has been “loaned out” from the Southwark Police to the Special Crimes Directorate of the Metropolitan Police which deals with covert ops, typically being sent on “difficult and dangerous situations.”  As we are introduced to them, the slightly flirtatious banter underlying their meetings hints at the least of a possible romantic entanglement between them at some point in the relatively recent past.

Lacey goes undercover as a student at Cambridge University after the latest in a number of suicides, with a suspicion that there is more going on than meets the eye.  The death was only the latest of three suicides during the current academic year.  The only one outside of her police colleagues who knows the truth is Dr. Evi Oliver, head of student counseling.  The belief is that there is “something decidedly sinister” happening. Lacey’s remit is to “keep a lookout for any unhealthy subculture that might be unduly influencing young people.”

Initially Lacey feels out of her element:  “I knew I’d never get used to it,” in a place where “Wordsworth and Wilberforce weren’t characters from history but alumni.”  But she is there to do a job, and it becomes increasingly urgent.  Within several days, one more death occurs.  And further investigation indicates that there have been a total of nineteen suicides over the past five years, far more than the general statistics on suicide would bear out.  And the manner of death chosen is not what might be expected, including self-immolation by one girl and another who’d decapitated herself.  As the days go on, whatever is going on threatens to ensnare Lacey herself.

This is a book at once not an easy read and yet difficult to put down, much more so on both counts as the book progresses. The fifth novel from Ms. Bolton, this is the first I have read, but it will certainly not be the last.  It is a nail-biter, beautifully written, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2012.

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Dinner with LennyDinner with Lenny
Jonathan Cott
Oxford University Press, January 2013
ISBN: 978-0-1998-5844-6
Hardcover

This is a book, sub-titled “The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein,” that is slight in size only, but which provides hefty and fascinating insight into the mind of the internationally renowned “Lenny” Bernstein, brilliant conductor, composer of orchestral works as well as legendary musical scores for Broadway, including On the Town, Wonderful Town, and West Side Story, and lecturer at innumerable Young People’s Concerts at Carnegie Hall.

The author conducted a twelve-hour interview at Bernstein’s country home in Fairfield, Connecticut in November of 1989, not long after his 71st birthday – he passed away less than a year later.  The book opens, fittingly, with a Prelude, and concludes with a Postlude, in which the author discusses his subject, with many details of his career, e.g., it was on his 25th birthday that he was appointed the conducting assistant to Artur Rodzinski, then the music director of the NY Philharmonic, who told the young man that he had “gone through all the conductors I know of in my mind and I finally asked God whom I should take, and God said, “Take Bernstein.”  Three months later, he made his “legendary conductorial debut with the New York Philharmonic substituting for an ailing Bruno Walter on only a few hours’ notice at a Sunday afternoon Carnegie Hall concert on November 14, 1943.”

Bernstein states that he “was fourteen when I attended my first concert, and it was a revelation.  It was a Boston Pops benefit for my father’s temple – – he had to go because he was vice-president of the temple.”  He did jazz gigs as well as weddings and bar mitzvahs to defray the cost of his piano lessons.  There is discussion on Freud; the family seders; political references, e.g., Bernstein was blacklisted for years and the FBI had a file on him 700 pages thick, and the fact that he made the front page of the NY Times and Washington Post – –  which included his picture, he was quick to note – – when he refused to attend the White House luncheon awards ceremony given by President Bush; gave six lectures at Harvard University in 1973; famously took the all-Catholic Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, whose players didn’t know what a Jew was before he conducted them, to Israel; among many other anecdotes.  Bernstein’s enthusiasm, erudition and brilliance shine through these pages.  This is a book to be savored by musicians and non-musicians alike, and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2012.