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Monday, October 17, 2016

Me before you : a novel

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Reviewed by Gerti

I wanted to see the movie when it came to theatres, but didn’t get the chance. So what’s left to do but read the book? So that’s why I picked up Jojo Moyes novel “Me Before You”, and I can tell you, that I haven’t cried so much since I read “The Fault in Our Stars.” The book’s protagonist is Louisa Clark, an odd British girl living an ordinary life until she loses her job at her little town’s café. She tries unemployment, but all their jobs are pretty unpalatable, like working at a chicken processing plant. So she interviews for a job as a caregiver to a quadriplegic, never thinking she’ll get it. But she does.

She’s hired by Will Traynor’s mom, but it is with Will that she will spend many hours. Tentatively at first, they begin a relationship that will end in love, but not in marriage. Will was a very successful businessman before a tragic accident while hailing a cab left him wheelchair bound. He used to be tremendously active, like sky-diving and mountain-climbing active, and resents Louisa for being able to do those things, but living her life in a small way – by sitting in front of the TV eating chips during her hours off. He wants her to live larger and experience more, but her life isn’t that sad. She has a long-time boyfriend who she’d marry eventually, but working for Will allows her to see that chaps even more selfish than is Will.

Will’s mother hired her to keep Will from killing himself, because although he can watch movies and write and search the internet with special attachments to his wheelchair, that’s not the life he wants to lead. It’s not enough for him. Even Louisa’s love is not enough. And that’s where the heartbreak comes in. Everyone wants Will to live and be satisfied with his lot, but he refuses. As a result, the book brings up a lot of big questions – what makes a worthwhile life? Is it the same for everyone? Louisa visits quadriplegic blogs and learns what activities might keep Will engaged and alive, trying to get him to change his mind about dying during the 6 months in which they are together. And the reader hopes fervently it will all be enough… but Will still decides to kill himself.

Deep issues, surrounded with controversy and human pathos. That’s the essense of Moyes seemingly light-hearted story. Will devastates his parents and his girlfriend by his choice, and I hate him a little for making it, but I have strong feelings about suicide. And while I can understand his choice, it ultimately seems the wrong one. I was much more sympathetic when the heroine in “Still Alice” heroine decided she would rather die than lose her mental faculties. But Will’s mind is still sharp. It’s his heart and humanity that are broken.

This novel is well written, and I love the character of Louisa. Her eccentricities and her relationship to her family seem blissfully normal. Memorable scenes include Will’s trip to the racetrack on a rainy day, and his ex-fiance’s wedding to his former best friend, where the pair “dance” in his wheelchair. Moyes has written a humane, thought-provoking book, even if I don’t buy her conclusion.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Storm front

Storm Front by John Sandford

Reviewed by Gerti

I usually don’t read books about ancient treasures or the political implications of found relics. That’s why I avoid writers like Clive Cussler and Dan Brown. But John Sandford snuck one in on me, using protagonist Virgil Flowers as the lure. And I’m glad I did read it, even if I enjoyed the characters more than the plot.

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers is called on to help retrieve a relic stolen from Israel. It’s an ancient stele uncovered during an archaeological dig involving some professors and enthusiasts from America, including Dr. Elijah Jones, professor emeritus from Gustavus Adolphus College in Mankato. Realizing its immense value, Jones uses stealth to bring it back to the US, hoping to sell it and pay for his Alzheimers-afflicted wife’s long-term nursing care. Jones has terminal cancer, so he doesn’t really care what happens to him, but he needs the millions of dollars the object would bring. But Jones is closely followed by bad guys and girls from various international organizations, because the object shows that King Solomon, mentioned in the Bible, was a myth, and the stories about him were really referring to a Pharoah named Siamun (a real historical person).

Virgil travels around with a woman named Yael Aronov, supposed to be from the Israel Antiquities Authority, who ends up being Mossad. When the real investigator (of the same name) arrives from Tel Aviv, Flowers’ realizes he’s been had, and how important and complicated the case really is if these groups who want the stone could delay her flight for days. There are other guys with guns, generally bumblers played for comic relief, and a few “Indiana Jones” wannabes who are looking to find this artifact so they can keep their lucrative TV shows. But the most interesting thing going on in this novel has to do with Virgil Flowers himself, and a local lady con-artist named Ma Nobles. She is a big-busted beauty with a bevy of sons by different fathers (hence the nickname), and Flowers started the book trying to find out where she was aging local lumber to sell it to East Coast snobs at a huge profit.

Instead, the pair begin working together, and against each other, each with their own motivation. Nobles knew Jones as a child, when he was a big, burly preacher who helped her family out of poverty. Flowers’ father was also a local pastor, and that gives Flowers an edge on information about the Holy Land, but he wants to catch Jones and get the stele back to Israel before anyone gets killed, including Jones’ daughter Ellen. I hate the plot, but I love the characters, and Sandford always injects enough humor to keep everything interesting. I would recommend the book, even if you don’t like ancient mysteries, because it’s as exciting as riding a dune buggy over ancient sands, modern fun on ancient ground. Another Sandford winner.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Mad River

Mad River by John Sandford

Reviewed by Gerti 

My John Sandford obsession has been going on for a few weeks now, and his “Mad River” is the first of his novels that has sounded a sour note for me. It’s the story of 3 teens, dysfunctional as all get out, who begin a crime spree ala Charlie Starkweather because they are just flat broke. The girl, Becky Welsh, knows a local Shinder girl who married well and wore diamonds to a recent party in the town, which Becky helped cater. Becky wants those stones. Her boyfriend, the impotent (or possibly gay?) Jimmy Sharp, was born mean, and he figures out a way to get those diamonds, and make some extra cash on the side by committing a murder for hire. The pairs’ ride-along buddy is named Tom McCall, who at first seems the best natured of the trio, but then turns into a cop-shooting rapist. These 3 inspire a manhunt the likes of which Minnesota has never seen.

Enter Virgil Flowers. While I love this crime-solving character in other Sandford novels I’ve read, he seems a little flat in this book. At one point, he gets the snot kicked out of him by two thugs and ends up with a concussion, but he almost seems to be handicapped from the start! Lucas Davenport, his boss and the subject of several other Sandford novels, also makes a short appearance here in this book, but he also seems toned down. It’s almost as though Sandford is tired of writing cute paragraphs to decribe his two most famous protagonists for those who haven’t read the series before, and so there is very little background information given on the pair. Which is a shame, because in previous books, it has been the details Sandford uses to describe these clever employees of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that have really made his novels sing!

I’m also missing Johnson Johnson, Flowers crazy fishing buddy who always livens up the storyline with his lunacy. Instead, here we have a tight-knit Catholic family of doctors (yawn) and a former high school girlfriend with whom Virgil finally scores. Just like the book itself, the investigation into the spree killers seems to stall. This is the first Flowers novel in which Virgil does not get his man. Several convictions fall through, that of 2 of the kids, and of the local good-old-boy sheriff who ordered their car fired on in ambush style while they were giving themselves up. As a result of that event, Virgil never does get enough evidence against the man who ordered the hit on his ex-wife, so the book, while providing closure in the end, doesn’t provide much satisfaction. It’s like Virgil’s high school relationship with Sally Long – all talk and not enough action. Sandford has written far better books than this one, and fans should seek them out. The journey on this “Mad River” leaves me high and dry.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Bad blood

Bad Blood by John Sandford

Reviewed by Gerti

In “Bad Blood”, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension superstar Virgil Flowers takes on a religious cult in which sex has taken the place of spirit in worship services. The book opens with a non-descript high school kid beating an older man to death at his job, and no one knows why he would do such a thing. When the kid is found dead in his jail cell, the suspicion falls on the errant deputy who was on duty when his death occurred. But then something awful (and wonderful) happens to that deputy. Exactly what is going on in Warren County?

That’s what the ever-entertaining Virgil Flowers is sent to find out, and with his nose for trouble (and the ladies) he works his way through witness after witness until he winkles it out. Oh, and he starts dating the local lady Sheriff, too.

This novel is rich with humor and depravity. There is enough description of deviant sexual behavior (including child sexual abuse) to make this a book I would only recommend to consenting adults. While the perversion and violence make it interesting, it is a vast departure from other Flowers books, which tend not to go down this path. So be forewarned: if descriptions of gang rape offend you, you will not enjoy this book.

On the other hand, the tale that Sandford tells about this farming community is pretty complex and fascinating, peopled with a large panoply of eccentric characters, although I object to his notion that this wild sex cult existed for hundreds of years in Germany and then was brought to the US by immigrants. However interesting the story, Sandford does not seem to like these small, insular farming communities that he writes about, and at times the book seems almost like a way for him to slam them in the nastiest way possible. But does that make it interesting for the reader? Sure, you betcha.

The final chapters, including a shootout that could not be more dramatic if you were watching it rather than reading it, are riveting. Even when you think it’s all over and the bad guys have been vanquished, the plot takes another twist. I have to say that this is the most interesting of the latest spate of Sandford novels that I have tackled, even if it is the least savory. From the verbal artistry of the first chapter to the life-and-death drama of the last, Sandford is obviously a writer in

Monday, September 19, 2016

Shock wave

Shock Wave by John Sandford

Reviewed by Gerti

John Sandford has already written more than a half dozen Virgil Flowers’ novels, and I feel the need to show you why I love, love, love this character. John Sandford paints Flowers as a surfer-dude-looking detective with an attitude to match. His penchant for wearing vintage rock band T-shirts and charming the ladies belies his razor sharp skill at winkling out criminals. Given your own personal taste, that can leave you interested or high and dry.

But the gift of a really good writer is that even if you don’t like the protagonist, relate to him, or want to date him, the plots are peopled with other fascinating people, and in Sandford’s case, those other people are clever as hell. Witness a line from an angry book-store owner at a city council meeting: “You and that g-d crook you’re married to would sell your children for ten dollars and a rubber tire…” Or here again, from the billionaire owner of a Walmart analog chain of stores: “Virgil, we’re clean as a spinster’s skirt on this thing.” And with an ensemble cast like that, Sandford’s “Shock Wave” is pretty near irresistible.

This is really one of Sandford’s best works. The plot is amazingly complex, like Flowers himself, as Sandford runs a convoluted shell game with suspects in a series of bombings. He gets you breathing hard for one supposed villain, and then shows you how that fellow was only set up by the real bomber. And then he does it again. It’s a strip-tease of suspects, with Flowers constantly convincing you it’s one guy, and then getting a feeling that he’s been led astray. Then you’re off on the trail of another fellow who looks good to be the killer. And then Sandford pulls the rug out from under you again. It’s thrilling, and all-consuming. How can you put down a book like that?

I’ll summarize the plot quickly. Willard Pye owns a chain of Walmart-like stores, and plans to open another in tiny Butternut Falls, Minnesota. But first a bomb goes off at Pye’s birthday party, right before a board meeting. Then another goes off at the Butternut Falls work site. Before long, Virgil’s even got a pipe bomb go off in the boat he took with him to town to run the investigation, just so he can think while he fishes. Other people are killed by bombs, there is a scandal with the city council and the mayor who accepted payoffs from the large corporation to change some zoning. Everyone is sleeping with everyone else’s wife (except for Virgil, who gets dumped by his sheriff girlfriend, Lee Coakley) and Virgil has some real inspirational moments in the investigation. But the bomber is too smart for him for a long time, until he starts following the money…

It is rare for me to find books that are so good I want to read them again immediately, but “Shock Wave” is one of those books. I find it fascinating that Virgil befriended the bomber early, and want to re-read those scenes of their conversations for clues. One thing is certain, though. The strength of this “Shock Wave” will keep me following Virgil Flowers novels for some time to come.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Deadline by John Sandford

Reviewed by Gerti
My John Sandford obsession has been going on for a few weeks now, but until this book, “Deadline,” I had sought out books with protagonist Lucas Davenport. While I will not stop reading the Sanford “Prey” series in which Lucas is the hero until I’ve read them all, I’m gonna put those on hold until I’ve finished all the Sandford books about Davenport’s goofy subordinate at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in Minnesota, a man named Virgil Flowers.

Lucas is rich and suave and talented at what he does, which is track down bad guys. Virgil’s tracking skills are almost as good, but he is flat out funny (which I really like in a man!) and his friends, at least those he makes in “Deadline”, are comedy gold. They run from the curiously named “Johnson Johnson” (whose parents were obsessed with boat motors, which is why his brother is named Mercury), to backwoods savant Muddy (whose musician father is obsessed with, you guessed it, Muddy Waters), who is helping Virgil track down some dog-nappers. Sandford finds a way to make the most bizarre details sound authentic.

A book about a bunch of low-rents kidnapping dogs has no right to be as entertaining as this novel is. But Sandford is an awesome writer whose stories and characters take the best aspects of an author like John Grisham, and add just a sprinkling of the ridiculous. So you’ve got a fascinating, unpredictable storyline, enhanced by a troop of characters who would not be out of place in an old-fashioned freak show. And it’s the unique twist that Sandford gives these characters, their quirks and shameless individuality, that makes the book seem so real, and that ultimately makes it “the most fun I have had reading in a long time.” Yes. I’m quoting the critic from the Huffington Post, because he’s so right!

While it seems as though the stolen dogs will provide the crime story here, the dog thieves are also cooking some meth in their backwoods hideaway, and one of them gets picked off by an even nastier group of people – the local school board, which is working overtime to get rid of evidence of their crime – stealing millions from the annual budget. Ex-reporter Sandford is spot on as he describes how the group of middle-class achievers on the board vote, after their official business is handled, to kill the newsman on their trail. The juxtaposition is genius!

Sandford is clever and his plots are intricate, with humor an added bonus. His characters seem authentic, whether he’s writing about police, politicians, or the good old boys in this hilly region of Minnesota. Don’t miss “Deadline”! It’s the most fun you can have with a book in your hand, as Virgil Flowers might say.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016


Bac si : a novel

Bac Si: a novel by Tom Bellino

Reviewed by Gerti

“Bac Si” is a “good news, bad news” scenario. First the good news for author Tom Bellino. His story, of protagonist Tommy Staffieri’s time as a Navy psychologist thrust into the intrigues of the Vietnam War is fascinating. For someone only acquainted with the war as the subject of TV news stories, it was interesting to hear a first-hand account of those trauma-inducing times. It was also wonderful the way Bellino introduced the words of that culture, like “Bac Si” (meaning doctor) and “Cam on” (meaning thank you). I enjoyed reading how compassionately Staffieri dealt with patients, even Vietnamese ones, whether on American soil, or on the “Angel of the Orient”, the hospital ship Repose.

Also interesting were the details about naval life for an officer, including terminology like BOQ (for Bachelor Officer’s Quarters) and BuPers (the Bureau of Personnel). Since I knew ROTC officers back in college, some terms were familiar to me, and others completely foreign. But watching the highly-biographical character progress from being a naïve Junior Lieutenant in the Navy to a man honored with a Silver Star because of being stabbed while gaining intel in Vietnam, was largely a rewarding trip. I also enjoyed hearing about the Montagnard’s, the native mountain people of North Vietnam, and how they helped US soldiers there survive during the war against the Viet Cong.

Bellino has interesting insights. He feels, for example, that the conflict in Vietnam was their Civil War, with brothers often fighting on opposite sides, comparing it to the American conflict that occurred roughly a hundred years earlier. That helped put things into perspective for me. It was also a revelation that our military used LSD in order to extract information from enemy combatants, because apparently one can’t lie when one is under the influence of that drug. Those passages in the book were both humorous and mild-blowing in many different ways.

But the bad news is that this book needed the firm hand of an editor, which is supposed to be part of the package when you work with vanity publisher “Outskirts Press,” but this author got gipped. I caught a number of misspellings, and the comma usage was crazy. There were a lot of them, and they weren’t always in the right places. Some sentences suffered from too many, others from too few, and that poor flow ultimately detracts from the book’s storyline.

My other critique, and it is common in first books by male authors, is that there is too much sex! I understand about PTSD in soldiers, but I’m stressed out from reading about the hero’s love affairs. It’s almost always self indulgent, whether its John Grisham writing about how young attractive women fall for lawyers (“Pelican Brief”) or Michael Connelly detailing how young ladies get the hots for cops (in his early Harry Bosch novels). In the end, I just don’t care who’s in bed with the protagonist, whether it’s a sexy French model or his long-time love. The real emotional impact of the book comes from the terrible days spent “in country”.