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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”.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Movie Review: Tuck Everlasting

Reviewed by Gerti
It isn’t often when I read the book and watch the movie that I prefer the cinematic version, but “Tuck Everlasting” is one of those exceptions. Writer Natalie Babbitt’s story is charming, and asks some big questions, like who wouldn’t want to be immortal? But for me, the movie fixes some of the flaws in the book, yet also changes some other things that did not need changing! For example, moviemakers changed the plot elements regarding how the man in the yellow suit is injured – but it makes more sense in the book. The plot involving Mrs. Tuck’s jail break is also more believable in the book, while in the film the event is almost played for comic relief. But I am glad the movie version left out the details of the eternal life toad, since that was pretty annoying in the book.

Heartthrob actor Jonathon Jackson plays the teenaged boy Jesse Tuck, who causes all the trouble by letting a young girl named Winifred Foster see him drinking from the fountain of youth. The Foster family doesn’t know it, but that fountain is located under a tree in their forest. Winnie gets peevish one day and runs away to the woods, just as young Jesse is taking a refresher sip. He doesn’t need it, because he’s already been immortal for a long time. He tells her he’s 104, and he’s not joking! But the rest of the family, Jesse’s mom especially in the book, and his brother here in the movie, think that means Winnie needs to be silenced.

In the book, she is only 10 that August. But in this movie version by director Jay Russell, she is in her mid-teens, and that makes more sense to the story line, which has Jesse asking her to drink the water in a few years and be his eternal bride. It seems awkward in the book for a 17 year old to fall for a 10 year old, even a little creepy. In the Disney movie, their teen romance is natural and comprehensible, even while obviously designed to sell movie tickets to teens!

Famous Hollywood people lend their talents to this film, including William Hurt (who does a weird Scottish accent), as well as an always charming Sissy Spacek as his wife and the mother of the boys. Ben Kingsley stars as the man in the yellow suit, but the character is more menacing in the book. BK seems overly creepy in the movie version. Maybe it’s the hair? Amy Irving is also lovely (if less than charming) as Winnie’s overly protective and snobbish mother. Winnie is played by an unknown to me actress, but she plays her part well, and adds to the magic in the scenes she shares with teen hottie Jonathon Jackson.

You will enjoy the 90-minute movie, whether you’re a mother or teenager, especially if you’ve already read the Babbitt book, and it will certainly spark household discussions about whether living forever, trapped at one age for all time, is a good or a terrible idea. Don’t miss the short film “A Visit with Natalie Babbitt” for an inside look at the author, and her most famous novel. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

As time goes by : a novel

As Time Goes By by Mary Higgins Clark

Reviewed by Gerti

It’s a sad thing for this fan to admit, but Mary Higgins Clark is old. She has been writing thrillers for a very long time! And although “As Time Goes By” is a thrilling story written in her usual vein, it has some inaccuracies and idiosyncracies that I can only attribute to Clark not being “with it” in the modern sense. She probably isn’t on Facebook or Instagram, and it’s that sort of thing that sinks a book for the modern reader who is more acquainted with those technological advances than is Clark. For example, I had a hard time listening to her discussing TV journalist Delaney Wright’s job because I had worked in the broadcasting and many aspects of TV reporting and anchoring were portrayed clumsily here, as though Clark had little experience of it.

Another false note for me was the character named Singh Patel. Those are two last names from the Indian subcontinent, and it seemed odd that a character would have two last names, the English equivalent of naming your child “Smith Jones”. Perhaps it happens, but it is odd enough to make me think that Clark doesn’t know any people of Indian or Pakistani descent, and therefore just picked these names because they sounded foreign to her. Since she didn’t catch the awkward name herself, an editor should have caught and changed it.

But now that I’ve revealed my pet peeves, on to the highly implausible plot – A beautiful widow named Betsy Grant is accused of having murdered her wealthy older husband, a famed local surgeon laid low by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Delaney Wright is supposed to cover the trial, but is suddenly promoted to evening anchor. However, since she’s so great at reporting, they don’t want to take her off the court beat. And yet the news stories that Wright delivers about the trial are anything but fair! Wright would get fired for biased reporting if she really filed the news stories as Clark writes them here!

As a side plot, Delaney is obsessed with finding her birth mother. She was adopted illegally, so it’s hard to research, but those loveable lottery winners, Alvirah and Willy Meehan, are around to do the work for her. And as luck would have it, the accused murderess is her birth mother! Delaney was conceived at senior prom (could it be any other way?) and the boy didn’t even know Betsy was pregnant! Delaney stops reporting on the trial again, as now she would really be biased! And in another clumsy plot twist, Betsy just reconnected with her old prom date – and Delaney’s birth father – before her husband died, and they are again in love. But that info sounds awful when revealed during the murder trial!

There are other possible suspects in the doctor’s death – the other doctor’s in his practice, his shiftless son who is deeply in debt, that sort of thing. But the real problem with ATGB is that there are so many different “important issues” fighting for center stage here, the drama gets lost. Too many implausible coincidences and not enough fact checking turns NYC into Fantasy Island in this Clark novel.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Manhunt by Janet Evanovich

Reviewed by Gerti

Janet Evanovich has the ultimate recipe for writing success in her numbered series of novels about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum (“One for the Money”, “Two for the Dough”, etc.) She tries to use a similar formula here in “Manhunt” - take a sexy but hapless career woman and put her in the craziest situations imaginable. In this book, successful NYC stockbroker Alexandra Scott decides to pitch it all, all her money and all her success, and head to Alaska on a whim to find a husband. Perhaps it is my status as a housewife, but I don’t believe that story for a minute. It is utterly implausible that a modern woman would trade her gorgeous clothes, fancy condo, etc. for an uber-rustic cabin and a broken-down store in the wilderness in order to catch herself a man.

While that may have worked as the plot of a 1950s Doris Day/Rock Hudson film, it is in fact the setup for the novel “Manhunt”, originally published as a Loveswept paperback in 1989. The 2005 re-issue (which is the edition that I read) is in slightly larger print, which is pretty easy on my over-50 eyes, which is why I chose it as a beach book. I wasn’t really looking for a romance book, but knowing its origins does explain the few steamier love scenes in the book which differ from the other half-dozen Evanovich books I’ve read already. Thankfully, the humor with which she writes is unchanged, and it is in fact the writer’s humor and charm that gilds this highly implausible turd of a tale.

I know I’m not alone when I admit that I read Evanovich books because they are great fun, and “Manhunt” is no exception. Her characters are vastly entertaining and appallingly unique. Her books are as easy to digest as a Twinkie and just as substantive, but I don’t care when I’m reading one because sometimes I don’t want to work that hard with a book. This one goes down easy, and I enjoyed reading about the Alaskan version of Mr. Darcy, hero Michael Casey, who saves Alex’s dog, gives her shelter after she burns down her own outhouse, and eventually proposes, because who doesn’t love a broke, beautiful airhead with spunk? Or maybe there really are no women in Alaska! Lucky for Alex, he’s rich and hunky, so all’s well that end’s well. You won’t be placing this book on your classics shelf next to Dickens or Tolstoy, but it will certainly warm up your beach blanket for a few hours! Read it and laugh, thankful that all the misfortunes that Alex has to face are not yours!