Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kiss and Tell

Kisser by Stuart Woods (Main and Avoca, F Woo)
Reviewed by Doris

Kisser, the newest Stuart Woods book, continues the exploits of Stone Barrington, the NYPD detective turned attorney. Stone works for a major, prestigious law firm in New York handling cases that come under the heading of “discretion necessary.” Most of his cases are the kind the tabloids love, but with which the high-powered law firm does not want to be publicly associated. This time the client is a major art dealer whose twenty-three years old daughter has fallen into the hands of a drug-dealing Svengali. Stone’s job is to get rid of the boy friend any way he can, short of murder. With the help of his buddy Dino who is still a NYPD detective lieutenant and another contact within the police department, Stone sets motion a sting that will take down the Bernie Madoff-wannabee. As the scenario plays out, Stone realizes the police have their own agenda and the young woman he is trying to extricate from the situation is at risk of arrest or being killed. He has to play the ends against the middle to save the girl and the situation from becoming deadly and while avoiding the clutches of a former lover who happens to be the U. A. Attorney handling the case.

Meanwhile, Stone picks up an actress who has come to New York to become a Broadway star. Carrie is gorgeous, talented, cunning, and just maybe a pathological liar. She is also being stalked by her ex-husband who took her leaving him with most of his fortune in tow a bit hard. Trying to protect Carrie while finding out if she is telling him the truth, and handling the two other women with whom he finds himself in bed just exhausts the poor Stone.

Adding to the complications for Stone is the re-emergence of his ex-wife, the crazy Dolce. Daughter of a Mafia don, Dolce tried to slash Stone’s throat. Her daddy has kept her under lock and key for years since the attempted murder, but a new doctor thinks Dolce needs to get out more. Dolce’s idea of getting out is stalking Stone one more time. Filled with a sense of déjà vu, Stone knows it is only a matter of time until she tries to kill him again.

The plot involving the young woman and the drug dealing con man is actually interesting. The subplot of Stone becoming intimately involved with the female detective working the case and the female assistant to the art dealer father is overdone and distracting. Except for a little twist that comes at the end which I saw coming a couple of chapters before, the outcome is predictable. The touches of evil that waft off the crazy ex-wife are tantalizing—I was kind of cheering for her and her knife by the end of the book. As for the actress, Stone turns out to be a man easily manipulated by a beautiful woman, especially if she is smarter than he is. In this book, all the women are smarter than he is.

Stuart Woods is a very popular author with our patrons, and I have enjoyed a number of his books. His newest release Kisser just does not make the grade though. Filled with gratuitous sex scenes that detract from any plot, it took less than three hours to read because it is merely a couple of hundred pages of scenes set like a bad TV show.

If you are a devoted Stuart Woods fan, read Kisser. It won’t take long, and it won’t leave much of an impression. If you aren’t a big fan, wait. He will have a better book out soon.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The King Is Dead

The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson (932.014 PAT Main & Avoca; CD 932.014 PAT Avoca)

Reviewed by Susan

This book is the best of all worlds: mystery, history, and James Patterson. Wow! Three of my favorite things!!

Also, this is like three books rolled into one. It’s the story of King Tut as well as the story of Howard Carter and his struggle to find a royal tomb. Last but not least, it is the story of James Patterson, his curiosity and reasoning to find the killer.

And yes, there was a killer. Some Egyptologists claim that Tut died of an infection from a broken leg. Patterson pretty much proves that story doesn’t work because Tut was recovering. The throne was the prize. King Tut was only 18 years old with a young and beautiful queen who was Queen Nefertiti’s daughter. Someone only needed to kill a bed-fast king, and it was winner take all.

First Patterson takes us to ancient Egypt around 1490 BC, when King Tut's grandfather ruled Egypt. He shows us the decadence and style of governance under Pharoah Amenhotep IV and Queen Nefertiti, and gives us a glimpse of King Tut’s fear and uncertainty as he takes the throne. Patterson writes like he is just behind the curtain, making you really feel like you are there.

Interwoven in the young pharoah’s story is that of Howard Carter. While a young artist in England, he is introduced to archeology. Poor and unable to find a sponsor, he goes to Egypt as an artist to record the findings by other archeologists. His career has its ups and downs. Finally, he locates a sponsor, and discovers the young pharoah’s tomb at the 11th hour, just before Lord Carnarvon was to pull the plug on the funding. Interestingly enough, the love of his life was Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, Evelyn, who was at his side as history was made when he first looked into Tutankhamen’s tomb and said, “I see wonderful things.” Lord Carnarvon was furious about their clandestine romance. Just months after the discovery, Evelyn--now Lady Carnarvon-- “did the right thing,” turned her back on Carter and found a more socially and financially appropriate husband. Carter died alone. She attended the service. It was a bittersweet story.

Patterson also focuses on the present and tells how this book came about. He shares what he went through as he searched for the truth behind Tutankhamen's death. Is he right? Maybe. There are clues enough to make this into a whodunit thriller.

If you enjoy digging into Egyptian tombs and pyramids--

If you enjoy “Tales of the Mummy” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” stories—

If you like real life stories—

Then you will enjoy this book.

It is after all, one of history’s oldest murder mysteries.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cat Solving Mysteries: Joe Grey, FPI (Feline Private Investigator)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Many mysteries these days have a theme: a cooking mystery that features recipes on the side or a hobby mystery with tips on how to quilt or scrapbook. Possibly one of the earliest trends was to have a pet figure in the mystery, such as the cats in the “Mr. and Mrs. North” series by Richard and Frances Lockridge or the “Undercover Cat” books by The Gordons or Asta in Hammett’s The Thin Man. This trend is alive and well today in numerous mysteries: "The Cat Who" by Lilian Jackson Braun, "Midnight Louie" by Carole Nelson Douglas, "Chet and Bernie" by Spencer Quinn aka Peter Abrahams (Chet is a dog in this wonderful new series of mysteries; the second one is due out this year), Rita Mae Brown’s "Mrs. Murphy and Tee Tucker" series, and so forth. One series I tended to recommend to folks who liked animals and mystery was Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s "Joe Grey" series. Joe is a talking cat, the books are mysteries, so it should work, right?

Umm. . . only sometimes. I set out to read the series and perhaps figure out why the series didn’t work for everyone, even those who generally like talking cats and mysteries. Here are my conclusions:

Some of the books are almost evenly divided between fantasy and mystery. Even though I like both, I think there needs to be a tipping point where the story becomes more one or the other. Certain ones never do, which makes the book a bit unsatisfying. Others are a relatively comfortable mix. There are occasional scenes of violence against cats as well as scenes of the cats doing what cats do: hunting and eating prey. Those readers looking for a cozy read may find these parts disturbing while others will see it as a bit of realism.

For me, the attraction is the delightful characterization of the cats. These cats are adult beings and control their own lives, despite human attempts at coddling. Joe is one opinionated tomcat, while his lady friend, the serene Dulcie, is more grounded. Later on in the series, more talking cats are introduced, including Kit, the adorable wide-eyed little dreamer kitten and the dark and sinister Azarel who definitely has an agenda of his own and various members of the wild clowder.

The humans in the story are broadly drawn, but Murphy does allow the characters to change. They have romances, marry or split up, change jobs, try new things. Many authors tend to lock the characters into one form and keep them there. Murphy usually gives a quick recap so that new readers get the background, so you can start reading at any point.

There are often lovely descriptions of meals that made me wish I could order take-out from their deli or one of cafes. Murphy also has a gift for describing certain things, like antiques or a stage performance that made these things seem very real indeed. I could almost see the theatre or feel the wood of an old chest. She’s able to communicate the passion of a performer or an artist in a very real way, which I enjoyed.

If this sounds intriguing to you, by all means give the series a try! Here are the titles, in order of publication:

Cat on the Edge: Joe Grey is in the alley, minding his own business when he sees a man murdered. Seeing that Joe is a cat, most murderers wouldn't give him a second thought; but Joe has suddenly become able to understand and use human speech-- and the murderer seems to know that. (This is one of the books that totters between mystery and fantasy. Mystery fans may want to skip this one.)

Cat Under Fire: Everybody thinks Rob Lake murdered artist Janet Jennot-- everybody but Dulcie. But what can one small cat do when no one else believes her, not even fellow feline Joe Grey?

Cat Raise the Dead: Dulcie has taken to hanging out in an old folks' home and wants Joe Grey to join her as a therapy cat. Joe's having none of it-- until it looks as if there might be some shady dealings.

Cat in the Dark: There's robbery afoot, and murder, and a large black talking cat who does not like humans-- or Joe. Azarel, the cat from South America, introduces a dark new element.

Cat to the Dogs: Joe Grey hears the sound of a car crashing and goes to investigate. He didn't expect to find a dead man, a cut brake line, and two very large, very hungry half-grown dogs. This book introduces a mysterious feral kitten and is a good balance with mystery and fantasy. A pick of the litter!

Cat Spitting Mad: When two women with connections to Chief Harper are murdered and a child disappears, all the evidence points to Joe's favorite top cop as the perp.

Cat Laughing Last: Yard sale items are suddenly the target of thieves and overly aggressive antique collectors. Could the arrival of an author who specializes in local history have anything to do with it?

Cat Seeing Double: A bomb planted at the church nearly derails Charlie's wedding and Ryan is suspected of murdering her no-good cheatin' husband.

Cat Fear No Evil: When a number of break-ins begin occurring in Molena Point, there are signs that Joe Grey's old enemy, Azrael, may be back in town.

Cat Cross Their Graves: The bones of murdered children are unearthed and may provide a connection to the recent murder of a beloved senior citizen.

Cat Breaking Free: Someone is trapping the feral cats of Hellhag Hill-- apparently someone who knows about sentient cats. Meanwhile an old flirt of Clyde's has moved in next door about the same time as the break-ins start rocking the shops of Molena Point.

Cat Pay the Devil: One of Wilma's former parolees has escaped from prison and is bent on revenge just as that ol' ne'er do well Greeley turns up to retrieve something valuable-- except he's not sure where he is.

Cat Deck the Halls: Dulcie sees the dead body of a man in the square near an elaborate Christmas display, a child huddled in his arms. She calls the police but when they arrive, there's no child and no body.

Cat Playing Cupid: A skeleton turns up in Oregon which may finally solve a ten year old mystery of a bridegroom who went missing from Molena Point. The jilted bride returns in hopes of finding out what happened-- or else to cover her tracks.

Cat Striking Back: While out on a ramble, Joe finds human blood in an empty swimming pool by an abandoned house. Trouble is, there’s no body and someone is out to make it appear there never was.

To sum it up, I’m glad I persevered with this series, even though at times I found some of the plots contrived and repetitive. The felines made up for these weaknesses as they are wonderful, complex, charming, and winsome characters, without being overdone. There are lovely scenes in the books that I remember with great fondness. At times I put the book aside and reflected on my relationship with my own animals, which says a great deal for Murphy’s insights. I may or may not agree with her, but she does give me things to consider. I’ll also be ready to read the next installment whenever it appears.

Check for copies of these books at both Main and Avoca. Some titles are in large print (SSB F MUR) as well as in paperback.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wytheville's UFOs

Reviewed by Nancy

Do you believe UFOs are out there? Or do you think everyone who claims to have seen one is a crackpot? Either way you should read Don't Look Up! The Real Story Behind the Virginia UFO Sightings (001.942 GOR Main).

In the late eighties there was a rash of UFO sightings over southwest Virginia. And by a rash of sightings, I mean a rash! A bunch! A passel! If UFO sightings are the realm of crackpots, then there are quite a few kooks in that part of the country for sure.

This book was written by Danny B. Gordon and Paul Dellinger. Gordon, the news director of WVYE Radio in Wytheville, Virginia, and Dellinger, the Bureau Chief for the Southwest Bureau of The Roanoke Times and World News, became deeply immersed in the UFO controversy in Southwest Virginia.

It all began when Danny Gordon received a report from Wythe County Sheriff Wayne Pike that five police officers had spotted a UFO over Wytheville on the night of October 6, 1987. The report was aired as a sixty second spot on the radio station's news. Gordon thought the story would make the wire service, get a chuckle, and go away. Things didn't work out that way. Other news media picked up the story, and calls began coming in from people who had experienced similar sightings.

Then Sheriff Pike reported another sighting, this time by a vacationing family from Ohio who claimed that a low-flying object had run their car off the road. Unfortunately, while the family reported the incident, they had received a guarantee that their names would not be released.

This was frustrating for Gordon, who felt the stories lacked impact as long as the people who experienced the sightings insisted on remaining anonymous.

He got a break when veteran State Police Dispatcher Brooks Coleman saw an unidentified something-or-other in the night sky and was willing to go on the record and talk about it. Coleman had seen two green lights, one above the other, hovering in the sky. He was absolutely certain that what he had seen was not any type of aircraft he had ever encountered.

Happy to have his first credible UFO witness willing speak publicly, Gordon aired the interview on the radio station and then transcribed it for the United Press International wire service.

As Gordon was covering this story for his radio station, Paul Dellinger picked the story up for the Roanoke Times. Danny Gordon initiated a call-in program for the radio station, the subject under discussion to be the UFO sightings, and invited Dellinger to sit in during the call-in session so he could write his own story for the newspaper.

The program was not aired as the calls came in, but rather was taped and edited to be aired at a later time. As things progressed Gordon and Dellinger were stunned at how similar many of the stories seemed to be, even though none of the callers were hearing what the others were saying.

There followed denials from the military that they had generated any of this aerial activity, a UFO conference, and things took off from there. (Sorry, I could not resist saying that things "took off from there.") Even the TV show "Unsolved Mysteries" took an interest and aired a segment on Wytheville.

So, in conclusion, as I said in the beginning, read this book whether you believe or not. It's pretty interesting.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In the Graveyard of Empires Clarifies the Gordian Knot of Afghanistan

Reviewed by Doris

A few weeks ago a group of online friends and I were discussing the situation in Afghanistan and what should be done there. I realized I knew almost nothing about the history of Afghanistan. I went looking for a book that would help me with the country’s history and information about what is arguably the longest war America has ever fought. On our new book shelf was In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan by Seth G. Jones (958.1047 JON Main). Though I am still quite conflicted as to what the best move is for the United States regarding Afghanistan, I understand so much more about the complexity of the country and our current situation there after reading this excellent book.

Afghanistan rightly deserves the title of “the graveyard of empires.” In 330 B. C. Alexander the Great had defeated the great Persian Empire and headed into Afghanistan on his way to India. Having encountered little resistance throughout Eurasia, Alexander was unprepared for the fierce Afghan tribesmen. His legions, which may have numbered more than 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, suffered their heaviest losses at the hands of the phantom attackers who slaughtered his troops from their mountain hideaways. Under continuous attack, Alexander ordered his generals out of the region with all possible speed.

Over the next two thousand years the region continued to be a problem for major empires from both the East and West including Genghis Khan, Tamberlane, Babur, the British, and of course the USSR. In 1842 in the First Anglo-Afghan War the departing British forces were reduced from 16,000 to one lone Army surgeon who survived. It is about this war that Rudyard Kipling wrote of the young soldiers lying wounded on the battlefield waiting for the Afghan women to come with their sharp knives. England would fight two more Afghan-Anglo wars with similar results. Most recently, the ten year war the USSR fought against the Muhadjin is partially credited for the downfall of the Soviet state with billions spent and causalities totaling more than eleven thousand elite Spetsnaz GRU Soviet Special Forces.

Jones has done a tremendous amount of research and combined it with his own perceptions. He carefully documents America’s invasion of the country after 9/11. From that point forward he fully explains the development of the insurgency that evolves as America misses opportunity after opportunity to shut down the Taliban, warlords, and the drug cartels that thrive in the unstable atmosphere. As each military decision seems to create more problems for a fragile Afghan government and our own forces, Jones shows how the insurgency is rapidly growing in strength, arms, and area. It is obvious we have lost the tiny window of opportunity we had as Afghanistan and Pakistan become more and more unreliable allies and unstable politically. Unsurprisingly this has been confirmed this week with the release of additional intelligence information about our initial move into Afghanistan after 9/11.

Jones’ research is thorough and well-documented. He weaves history and his own knowledge into the mix along with information from his sources within the Afghan military and government. The issues are highly complex, but I found his style of writing and the knowledge he was sharing relatively easy to follow. He does not take a political stand at all: he provides the facts and shows where we missed each opportunity and where failure after failure has led us to today. While I have always thought I followed the news closely and I understood what the issues are, I was wrong. The country of Afghanistan is still a Stone Age country in many, many ways. It has been at war almost its entire existence. There is no simple answer to any of its problems or to our involvement. In the Graveyard of Empires is an outstanding analysis of the place, the war, and America’s dilemma.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Strangers in a Strange Land

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman  (915.1 GIL Main)
Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

Every done anything on a whim?   Sometimes it works, sometimes...well…

While sitting at IHOP eating pancakes, two college friends decide to go around the world to eat pancakes. Why not start with China?  Oh, did I mention this is in the 1980s, just as China was opening up to the west.  Neither one of the girls have done much traveling.   And, to save money… they decide to go backpacking on a shoestring.

Susan Gilman writes this entertaining memoir.  In many places it is laugh-out-loud funny.  In other places, sad.   It becomes a thrilling powder keg, a real battle of wits with communist Chinese officials as they try to leave the country.  She and Clair, her fair-haired friend, decide to tackle the world, armed with Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, bottled water, and tons of idealism.  Upon landing in Hong Kong, the 21-year-olds are immediately thrown into culture shock.    Their language guide book is all but useless, because most Chinese speak regional dialects. Cockroach ridden hostels.  (At one of the nicer hotels, they comment on how decorative the wall paper is, until they notice the design is moving)  Very public toilets.  Just to get a train ticket takes a two day wait.
They are the first Americans that many of the local folks have seen.  Often a crowd would gather and follow them, just like when the circus comes to town in this country.  People wanted to communicate, and would shout out whatever word they remembered:
“Nuclear Warhead.”  
“Marilyn Monroe.” 

And the food.  Back in the 80s, especially in the non-tourist countryside, catering to the poor backpacking crowd, meat was mostly bone or hide.  They splurged one time at a “nice” restaurant.  They couldn’t order, the owner brought out a whole fish.  They only wanted rice.  The fish was raw.  The owner couldn’t understand them and it became a “fish beauty pageant.”   16 fish were brought out.  They finally took a couple of bites, and never got the rice.
As they ventured deep into the Chinese countryside, they had to confront their limitations amid culture shock and government surveillance.  The lighthearted journey became a struggle, as Clair exhibits mental illness, including an attempt at suicide.  The Chinese government didn’t want this kind of a situation known and wanted to commit her.  The story becomes a desperate real-life international thriller that keeps you turning the page.
The trip transforms them both.  Susan Gilman goes on to become a journalist.  She writes the story from 20 years of hindsight, but maintains the feelings and enthusiasm of a 21 year old.  Years later, she goes back to visit and notes the dramatic changes between then and now.  
It is a wonderful story that proves most people are decent, friendly and sweet.  If it is made into a movie, I will be first in line.  I do plan to read the book several times.