Book Review: No Good Deed by Goldy Moldavsky

No Good Deed
Goldy Moldavsky
Point, May 2017
ISBN: 978-0-545-86751-1
Hardcover

Imagine Carl Hiaasen collaborating with Alan Sherman and you’d be on your way to understanding this book. Gregor Maravilla met his idol, Robert Drill, at a book signing when he was fourteen. The tech guru and philanthropist’s words inspired him to come up with a way to save the world. He settled on feeding all the hungry kids. He’s also read Drill’s autobiography nine times. Sandwiched between a nerdy and really rude older brother who plays Minecraft constantly and is raking in bucks from ads accompanying videos of him doing so online and a younger sister who’s a perfect speller, Gregor’s desperate to find his own niche

When he learned that Robert Drill is sponsoring a summer camp for humanitarian teen activists, he applies, expecting to be turned down because the competition is intense. Surprise! He’s selected and even the humiliation heaped upon him by his brother, sister, parents and grandfather on the ride to camp in upstate New York can’t completely dampen his enthusiasm.

His growing awareness that all is not as it seems, begins when he starts meeting the other campers and starts him not only down a road of introspection, but one of gradual cynicism about his plans for saving the world. Everyone there has a cause, including teen movie star Ashley Woodstone (imagine Luna Lovegood channeling some of the ditzier heroines in 1980s Rom-Coms), whose thing is convincing everyone to eat dirt. Add in a men’s rights activist, a boycott camp activist, a teen artist who can’t speak a word of English, an anti Styrofoam activist and dozens more who are equally oddball and you have the recipe for a perfect storm of sniping, backstabbing and cutthroat competition.

While the party line is that everyone’s there to promote a better world, the realization that there are various types of competitions to earn points toward an internship to be awarded to the camper with the highest total, turns any hope of cooperation into a free for all. Gregor’s constant insecurity and self-doubt put him in the fish out of water category, so much so that every time he opens his mouth, he’s nibbling his own toes.

Despite his attempts to avoid Ashley, they seem to be thrown together at every turn and as the summer insanity progresses, their conversations become the sanest part of his day. It takes a virtual war between the guys and gals at the final competition, a frightening experience involving Ashley and some hard looking in the mirror for Gregor to realize what’s truly important, not only in terms of saving the world, but in terms of how he sees others.

This is a funny and wacky story, but make no mistake, under all the goofiness beats a very strong heart.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, July 2017.

Book Review: Two Summers by Aimee Friedman

two-summersTwo Summers
Aimee Friedman
Point, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-51807-9
Hardcover

Fifteen-year-old Summer Everett is set to fly off to the south of France for a visit with her artist father and a chance to see his painting, Fille. Her father’s painting of his daughter as a young girl hangs in a museum there, and Summer has never seen it in person. Summer’s divorced mother discouraged the visit from the beginning, and Summer waits at the boarding gate with a heavy heart because of the terrible quarrel with her mother just before her best friend picked her up to drive her to the airport.

Just as she’s about to hand over her boarding pass and walk onto the plane, Summer’s cell phone rings. It’s a number she doesn’t recognize. From that point, we are swept into the story of two possible summers. In one, she ignores the call and goes to France. In the other, she answers the call and stays home in Upstate New York. In both, she breaks from her normal life, learns about herself, and must process changes in her life that include her best friend breaking bonds and a devastating family secret.

We learn about these scenarios through Summer’s first person descriptions, actions, and thoughts. Sometimes her inner thoughts sound profound, more like mature reflection on her actions, and sometimes her thoughts are childish. Altogether, she’s split, like her summer, thus becoming realistic and worthy of our concern.

I couldn’t put the book aside for long without wondering what would happen. How would the two summers (Summers) fit together and become whole? This is an imaginative coming-of-age story, or two stories, that include beautiful descriptions of a picturesque French village in Provence, exciting New York City, and a tranquil small town in New York State. There’s as much here for an adult as there is for a teenager.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, October 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections, Furtive Investigation and Nine LiFelines, the first three Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Reviews: Never Look Down by Warren C. Easley and What Waits in the Woods by Kieran Scott

Never Look DownNever Look Down
A Cal Claxton Mystery #3
Warren C. Easley
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0464-7
Hardcover

Cal Claxton is a liberal-minded lawyer practicing in a small town outside of Portland, Oregon. His practice and his interests bifurcate his activities and he spends a good deal of time bouncing back and forth between the two locations. He’s also a dog owner. Caxton, who propels this series of legal mysteries, is a former Los Angeles prosecutor who has moved over to the defense realm, although he doesn’t spend much time in court.

This story penetrates one of the highlights of cities like Portland, which attracts a vibrant subculture, in this case, the often homeless artful youth who find their kicks as taggers, writers, graffiti artists and other scribblers. Like all cultures, there are subcultures, one of which is usually called climbers. They are the daredevils who place their often elaborate art high on buildings in places which seem impossible to reach. One such who calls herself K209 is gaining notice for the quality and her risky locations.

One dark night from four stories up, she observes the murder of a woman. K209 escapes and the hunt is on. The killers and the cops seek to capture the elusive youngster and we reads many chapters in her anguished clever head.

As Cal Claxton is drawn into the case, the author uses his ongoing character to consider some aspects of the gun culture in our society. The characters and the novel are nuanced, balanced and worth every bit of their space. Portland is nicely evoked, the writing is strong and the plot develops higher and higher tension as it progresses.

If the story line is flawed at all, it is due to the frequency of Claxton’s travel between the town of Dundee where he is trying to expand his small practice and his office in Portland where similar efforts command his attention.

It is a minor flaw. I recommend this novel as an enjoyable and thoughtful experience, whatever your personal attitudes are toward gun control.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2015.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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What Waits in the WoodsWhat Waits in the Woods
Kieran Scott
Point, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-69111-6
Hardcover

On the very first page of this YA suspense novel, the terror begins. This first unseen threat is scared away, but it’s only the beginning of many frightening episodes Callie must suffer during her camping trip into the woods of upstate New York. She doesn’t want to be there. Camping and hiking are not her things. She’s more interested in reading great books and writing stories. But Callie is new to her small community and goes along to bond with her two new BFF’s. Besides, her boyfriend will be part of the group, and it will only last for four nights.

From the start, though, strange events make the outing more than just the endurance of a few days spent with bugs, brambles, and sleeping three girls to a tent. The alpha female taunts the others, they lose their way, unexplained figures appear and disappear, a beheaded doll is found fireside, and a charismatic young man shows up and volunteers to help. Will that flirty, macho individual help them survive, or is he going to kill them all with the woodsman’s weapons he carries? Tensions common to teenagers complicate the dynamics further, and everyone in the group becomes a suspect.

I would rate this PG-13 for the violence and five stars for the page-turning thrill and the emotional and rational growth of the teenaged protagonist.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, October 2015.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: Stone Cold Dead by James W. Ziskin

Stone Cold Dead ZiskinStone Cold Dead 
An Ellie Stone Mystery #3        
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books
ISBN: 978-1-63388-048-1
Trade Paperback

Ellie Stone is a girl reporter, hanging tenuously to her job on a small town newspaper in upstate New York. Its winter, 1961 and girl reporters are rare and unusual creatures. Ellie Stone is an unusual young woman in the bargain. In her early twenties, she has few scruples about hopping into bed with attractive males, regardless of how involved they might be with her current assignment. She also drinks heavily on occasion.

Her current assignment is to explore the disappearance of a local teen-aged farm girl, Darleen Hicks. Has she been murdered, or run off after disagreements with her parents, teachers at school and a couple of reform school meatheads?

The novel is replete with odd and unusual characters from parents to cops to teachers to colleagues at the newspaper and the narrative is enlivened by conflicts at the newspaper and among other characters. Apparently there’s little to do in the town of New Holland except drink and have sex and squabble. But it is a cold winter and the author makes sure readers are kept aware of it. There are a number of scenes that will stretch readers’ credibility, but idiosyncrasies aside, and in spite of considerable sexist pressure, Ellie struggles on.

I particularly like the way this author handles clues as the investigation proceeds. Some information is discovered, processed and eliminated or stored for later analysis. Other facts seem to jump at one. The variation adds to reader enjoyment. Logical development, slow at times, is always brought eventually to bear on the main plot until we all reach a satisfactory conclusion, if a little too sedately.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2015.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: All Day and a Night by Alafair Burke

All Day and a NightAll Day and a Night
Alafair Burke
Harper, June 2014
ISBN: 978-0-0622-0838-5
Hardcover

Ellie Hatcher, a detective with the NYPD, and her partner, Jeffrey James (“J.J.”) Rogan, working homicide in the 13th Precinct, return in the fifth entry of this wonderful series by Alafair Burke.  The pair have conflicted reactions when Ellie’s boyfriend, ADA Max Donovan, assigns them, on behalf of the Conviction Integrity Unit, as a “fresh look” team to look into the 18-year-old murder conviction of Anthony Amaro, a man who had been put away as a serial killer and is serving a life sentence without chance of parole (in prison slang, “all day and a night,” “all day” simply being a life sentence).  The problem arises when a Park Slope psychotherapist is found murdered in a manner identical to that of the women Amaro had been accused of killing [those having apparently all been working prostitutes], and the police start receiving anonymous tips.  Things get more complex when there is a question about the possibly coerced confession made by Amaro to one of the murders, the fallout of that being a review of all ‘confessions’ elicited by that same cop, again reminiscent of something along similar lines in New York in recent years.

The rather obscure DA unit handles cases of “wrongful conviction,” of which there have been many successful ones over recent years.  The attorney who represents Amaro here is Linda Moreland, a celebrity trial lawyer with 8 exoneration wins under her belt, who in turn contacts Carrie Blank, a former law student of Moreland and now an attorney with a prestigious law firm who is the step-sister of one of the victims, killed many years ago in Utica, NY.  Carrie can’t refuse, hoping she can gain some insight into her step-sister’s murder.  The novel’s point-of-view alternates accordingly, with the parallel investigations.

The writing completely captures the toxic atmosphere currently plaguing the US and, especially, New York City, with regard to community vis-à-vis police relations, and the stop-and-frisk policy just recently changed by New York’s current mayor.  The case revolves around both venues, the upstate New York area where most of the murders occurred and where the most recent victim once worked, as well as the New York area, now home to Ellie [originally from Wichita, Kansas], Rogan, Max and the author as well.  The novel moves ingeniously and quickly to a terrific conclusion, with several unexpected twists and turns along the way.  The author gets everything right, with many ‘ripped from the headlines’ story lines, and the book is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.