Tuesday, 30 June 2015


by Gwendolyn Womack.

RENOVO … developed in the 1970’s by a group of scientists and apparently the miracle drug that would cure Dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Lab tests seemed to confirm that it improved the brain’s ability to retrieve memories.  Why are scientist never satisfied with successful lab tests and future recognition?  Michael, the team leader, while surely tapping his fingers on his chin, pondered on what would happen if someone with a healthy mind took the miracle drug.  He decided to try taking Renovo himself (bad idea!) and it seems the answer is that you begin to experience very strange dreams.  Dreams that you wake from having acquired skills and languages you did not have before – dreams that turn out to be very real and have very deadly consequences.

In the present day … Bryan has experienced strange dreams his whole life.  As a child he was subjected to one psychiatrist after another and even institutionalized.  As an adult he deals with the dreams by painting them.  Linz, a neuroscientist herself, has her own history with dreams, one recurring dream that haunts her into adulthood.  When she attends an art opening she is shocked to see her dream portrayed on canvass.  How could the artist have known about her dream?

So starts a trip not only into Bryan and Linz’s intertwined recent past but through 10,000 years of shared history, repeating itself throughout different lifetimes.

I cut my “grown up” reading teeth on books like “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud” and “Audrey Rose” and although I have more than willing wallowed in the horror genre ever since I have not picked up too many books about reincarnation.  After reading a few I started to get an overwhelming sense of deja-vu myself.  This book was different, giving the whole subject a fairly new spin.  Personally, I wouldn’t classify this book as “horror” although there are incredibly creepy moments.  It is definitely a thriller with touches of historical fiction, science, a love story and an interesting time travel element.  Ms. Womack has combined elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

I enjoyed this book very much despite the fact that I felt it started to drag a little bit towards the end.  The final “dream” segment was a little lengthy for me and I really wanted the story to move back into the present.  When it finally did the revelations came fat and furiously, one after the other – some I saw coming and others I most certainly did not.

An excellent debut novel for Ms. Womack and special praise from this reader in one particular area; considering the number of lifetimes and character names involved she did an amazing writing job because even I managed to keep them straight and sorted through all the action.  I did feel there was a not quite complete ending to this book so could there possibly be a sequel in the works?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website)

Originally from Houston, Texas, Gwendolyn Womack began writing theater plays in college while freezing in the tundra at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. During that time she lived in St. Petersburg, Russia on an independent study working with theater companies. She went on to receive an MFA from California Institute of the Arts in Directing theater and film where she was encouraged to write her own material. After graduating she focused on writing feature screenplays and was a semi-finalist in the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship. In 2009 she moved to Japan and began THE MEMORY PAINTER the following year. Currently she resides in Los Angeles with her husband and son where she can be found at the keyboard working on her next novel.

THE MEMORY PAINTER is her first novel.

MEMORY MAN by David Baldacci. 

Amos Decker is the first athlete from his high school to ever make it to the pros.  Sadly, his career was short lived when a horrible tackle from an opposing player left him sprawled on the field technically dead for a few moment, resulting in some unusual side effects including the fact that now he forgets NOTHING.

It seems like that would be talent that comes in handy when he is trying to finish his college education (straight A’s) and pass the police entrance exam (top of his class) but when life once again plays an unfair card and it is Amos who discovers his wife and daughter murdered in their home, that’s something he does not want to remember in vivid detail.  The memory is debilitating.  He can no longer function, loses everything and lives day-to-day wondering why he didn’t go through with killing himself the night he made the discovery.  He becomes a self-imposed hermit, one tiny step away from being homeless.

Almost a year and a half year later two events happen that force him back into the real world.  The police finally have a viable suspect in his family’s murder and a rampage at his old high school leaves one teacher and many students dead.  He wants answers to his family’s killing but to get those he needs to help the police in the case of the shootings.  Against his will he is drawn back into the world of the living.

As usual Mr. Baldacci weaves an interesting story, filled with more questions than answers right up to the end.  Amos is a little different too.  He is not one of the usual “war hero/super cop/can do no wrong” characters that sometimes populate Mr. Baldacci’s books.  In fact Amos would have fit in well with some of the odd characters in the (my favorite) Camel Club series.

My one criticism of this book and a few more of his more recent books is that Mr. Baldacci does not give his readers enough credit.  He has become very repetitive.  In the last book I felt that if I read the words “army creds” one more time I would have hurled the book into the nearest wall.  In “Memory Man” it was his description of Amos as “having let himself go”.  Amos is a tall man, former football player so obviously he is a big guy.  I also understand that Amos’ size is a determining factor in solving some of the clues in this book.  But it seemed as if every other page mentioned the fact that he was “overweight”, “fat”, “had to shop at the Big Man store” and “filled his plate to overflowing at the breakfast buffet.  I got the reference after the first ten times … I get it … I get IT … I GET IT!!  I kept thinking to myself that “yes, that visual is clear in my head – now give it a rest”.  It really took away from my enjoyment of the story so hence my three star rating for an otherwise really good who-dun-it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website)

David Baldacci published his first novel, Absolute Power, in 1996. A major motion picture adaptation followed, with Clint Eastwood as its director and star. In total, David has published 30 novels; all have been national and international bestsellers, and several have been adapted for film and television. His novels have been translated into more than 45 languages and sold in more than 80 countries; over 110 million copies are in print worldwide. David has also published four novels for younger readers, including the #1 bestseller The Finisher, which is in development for feature film.

A lifelong Virginian, David received his Bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, after which he practiced law in Washington, D.C.

While David is involved with several philanthropic organizations, his greatest efforts are dedicated to his family’s Wish You Well Foundation®. Established by David and his wife, Michelle, the Wish You Well Foundation supports family and adult literacy in the United States by fostering and promoting the development and expansion of literacy and educational programs. In 2008 the Foundation partnered with Feeding America to launch Feeding Body & Mind, a program to address the connection between literacy, poverty and hunger. Through Feeding Body & Mind, more than 1 million new and gently used books have been collected and distributed through food banks to families in need.

David and his family live in Virginia.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

... Losers, Weepers

FINDERS, KEEPERS by Stephen King.

From an interview for Rolling Stone Magazine:

When asked why he started out in the horror genre when it was widely considered “less than respectable” …
And I have to say this: To a degree, I have elevated the horror genre.”

A few times Mr. King has contemplated retirement, but he always keeps writing …
“It fulfills me. There are two things about it I like: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” 

Morris Bellamy could probably have made his living writing critiques about his favorite book series featuring Jimmy Gold, his literary hero.  But life has damaged Morris quite a bit so he has difficulty channeling his energy in a socially acceptable manner. Instead, he is angry with the author John Rothstein, because of the way the books series ended (whew … slight personal flashback to the Dark Tower Series) and he decides to pay the reclusive author a visit.  The visit does not end well for Mr. Rothstein or Morris’ accomplices.  Morris himself couldn’t be happier; not only did he make off with tens of thousands of dollar in cash, but more importantly to Morris, a treasure trove of moleskin notebooks containing the rest of Jimmy Gold’s unpublished story.  What does Morris do with his ill-gotten gain?  He knows he cannot keep it with him so of course he buries it.  Unfortunately for Morris his life spins slightly out of control and he cannot get back to recover his prize.  That was in the 1970’s.

Now it’s present day and Pete Sauber is walking through the woods when he stumbles upon a buried travel trunk.  This discovery is like “manna from heaven” because things have not been going so well since the recession hit and his father was injured in the Mr. Mercedes massacre.  Peter doesn’t think twice about helping his family with the money but he squirrels away the notebooks for his own enjoyment and he is also becomes a Jimmy Gold fan.

Morris inconveniently reappears at about the same time the money runs out and Pete needs to make some decisions about what to do.  They turn out to be not the best decisions he could have made so young Pete’s life takes an (un)expected turn for the worse.  Through a fortuitous set of circumstances Bill Hodges, the retired cop/now unlicensed PI, and his cohorts from the Mr. Mercedes case become involved, but can they piece things together quickly enough to save Pete?

“Finders, Keepers” is the second in the Bill Hodges trilogy, and as was Mr. Mercedes, this book is a step away from the “horror” genre for which Mr. King is known.  This book is definitely an action/thriller. 

When asked about his foray into the suspense/thriller genre Mr. King told Rolling Stone Magazine, Do you want to do what your heart is telling you you should do, or do you want to do what people expect? Because if you only want to write what people expect, what the f*** did you do all this for? Why don’t you write what you want to write?”

Mr. King is my go-to author for horror but this book does not disappoint – it may just not be what you are expecting.  “Finders, Keepers” gave me an antagonist I could really despise – everything from his appearance to his demeanor was reprehensible and a protagonist I felt for every step of the way.  Most of the suspense in this book comes from Pete’s angst about what his is doing and the decisions he is making.  It was written well and it was believable.  Every time something worked out for him I felt like cheering.  The driving factors moving this story forward were the coincidences that kept cropping up, but rather than detracting from the story they made me sigh and think “poor Pete, what else could possibly go wrong”.

I know this is Bill Hodges’ series so it was unusual that he did not make appearance until well into the book, but that worked too.  The story had me captivated and I didn’t really miss him until he came along and gave me that “oh, yeah” moment.

Was this King at the top of his game?  Maybe not quite, but it was a good read.  I’ll definitely be picking up the next book because there was just enough of a kiss and tease in this book to make me think there will be some kind of horror element in the final book of the trilogy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website)

Stephen Edwin King was born in Portland, Maine in 1947, the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King.  Stephen attended the grammar school in Durham and then Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. From his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper, THE MAINE CAMPUS.

He and Tabitha Spruce married in January of 1971. He met Tabitha in the stacks of the Fogler Library at the University of Maine at Orono, where they both worked as students.  Stephen and Tabitha now spend winters in Florida and the remainder of the year at their Bangor and Center Lovell homes.

The Kings have three children: Naomi Rachel, Joe Hill and Owen Phillip (both authors themselves), and four grandchildren.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Another Gunn Zoo Mystery


* I received this ebook at no charge from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review *

Zookeeper Theodora (Teddy) Bentley finds herself, with very short notice, on a plane traveling to Iceland.  The eccentric owner of the Gunn Zoo, who also happens to be Teddy’s aunt, has asked her to go and pick up a baby polar bear named Magnus, two artic foxes and a pair of grounded Puffins for the Gunn Zoo’s new “Northern Climes” exhibit.  Although the trip was unexpected Teddy is looking forward to doing some sight-seeing in addition to her “zoo duties”, because really – how many times does one get to travel to Iceland with a platinum corporate credit card?

On her second day she and her Icelandic zoo counterpart, Bryndis, are out horseback riding when a strange lava formation catches Teddy’s eye.  Upon closer investigation it turns out not to be an unusual land mass but a dead body … shot twice and, unfortunately, a little worse for wear having been pecked at by the wild puffins that nest in the area.

Teddy does have a knack for finding dead bodies.

Despite being warned by both her fiancée (the local law back home) and Icelandic detective Thorvaald (Thor) Haraldsson she cannot help herself – she begins looking into the death herself.  She learns the victim is an American birdwatcher (who happens to be married to a successful novelist and has just won multi-millions in the lottery) on holiday in Iceland with his Arizona bird-watching group.  There are no shortage of suspects nor is Teddy’s discovery the last victim.

I have read and enjoyed all of Ms. Webb’s Gunn Zoo Mysteries so when I saw this new title I wanted to read it immediately.  The Icelandic setting makes “The Puffin of Death” a little different from the previous three books.  Ms. Webb enjoyed a trip to Iceland herself and made good use of her first hand knowledge of the country.  Her descriptions of the lifestyle, the people and their unusual names, the language and the landscape are wonderful.  Her well-researched information about Icelandic wildlife is fascinating.  Between that and the vivid geographic descriptions, I learned a lot about a place I will probably never get to visit myself.  That was enjoyable however, while Iceland was an excellent setting for this murder mystery, I did find myself missing the Gunn Zoo and all the quirky characters I have come to know over the course of the last three books.  I’m sure (fingers crossed) they will be back in the next installment to this series.

All in all a good read and completely the type of story I was looking for when I picked it up.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Goodreads)

As a journalist and literary critic for more than 20 years, Betty – a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, where her fictional detective Lena Jones also lives – has interviewed U. S. presidents, Nobel prize-winners, astronauts who’ve walked on the moon, polygamy runaways, the homeless, and the hopeless.

Now retired from journalism to write full time, she also contributes the Small Press column for Mystery Scene magazine and teaches creative writing at Phoenix College. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Vintage Phantom of the Opera

by Philip J. Riley

* I received this as a free ebook from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. *

The popularity of the stage production of “The Phantom of the Opera” has definitely introduced the classic story to many people who may otherwise not have bothered with Gaston Leroux and his “little book”.  I know I would not have picked it up years ago had I not gone to a production of “The Phantom” at the theater.  Probably even lesser known is the 1925 film version starring Lon Chaney.

This book is the history of that film and it does not miss a step.  If you are left with a question after reading through this I cannot imagine what it might be.

This book gives the reader detailed notes on the reconstruction of the film, a preface by Ray Bradbury, a forward by Mary Philbin (who played the part of Christine Daae) and an introduction by Ron Chaney (Lon Chaney’s great-grandson).  Then Mr. Philips goes on with a written description of how the film came into production including some of the trial and tribulations of bringing it to the screen in the 1920’s – before CGI and today’s special effects masters.  This section of the book contains photographs and sketches as well as tidbits about the behind the scenes production of silent movies in general.  For instance, did you know that 

“Silent films were often tinted various colors to represent moods:  red = fire, desert blue = night and mystery, green = underwater, dark emotions and yellow = happy scenes”?   

There is even a reproduced page including the signatures (autographs?) of all the principals involved in the film.

There are so many gems in this book that if I continued on in this vein this review would be as long as the book itself.  Suffice it to say that it also contains:
-         Step by step pictures of the construction of the elaborate film set
-         Secrets behind Mr. Chaney’s make-up complete with transformation photos
-         The shooting script complete with annotations
-         Stills from the film
-         A complete publicity section with reviews, newspaper articles and promotional materials and,
-         A “Liberty” article about Mr. Chaney (A Portrait of the Man Behind a Thousand Faces) written by Adela Martin St. Johns

Although I do not suggest it – even if you were to skim over every typed word in this book it would be worth picking it up just to flip through pages and enjoy the marvelous vintage pictures and artwork.

This book will definitely be on the gift list for two people in my life.  My BFF who covets all things “Phantom” and my daughter who, by hobby as well as profession, is enamored of all things “film”.  Of course I received the ebook version and have seen it listed as a paperback on  I think it would be a brilliant “coffee table” book.

I did not realize when I requested this book that it is part of a series Mr. Riley has done on vintage films produced by Universal Studios.  Now I want to take a peek at some of the others ... particularly "Dracula".

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from an Examiner article)

His may not be a household name, but he has done more than most to preserve and promote classic horror films – especially their screenplays, production histories, and unrealized projects.

Riley is an archeologist of the dark corners of genre cinema. For more than 25 years, he has authored and edited a series of books which have reprinted the screenplays of classic films like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and The Phantom of the Opera. Riley has some 20 plus books to his credit from various publishers including the Vestal Press, Magicimage Filmbooks, and most recently BearManor Media.

Contributors to these illustrated titles include silent film stars Patsy Ruth Miller and Mary Philbin, grandson Ron Chaney, and contemporary writers like Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch. These resource-rich books are reclamation projects – and essential reading for anyone interested in early horror films.

Riley also has similar series devoted to classic science fiction, classic comedy, film monsters, as well as screenplays for never realized films, a kind-of what if series. He has also written numerous magazine articles and contributed to 12 other film related books by various authors. Riley has received the Count Dracula Society Award and was inducted into Universal’s Horror Hall of Fame.

In a recent interview on the Psychobabble blog, Riley explained how he got started. “During my research for the Universal Filmscript Series by MagicImage Filmbooks, I had the chance to meet all the great actors, producers, musicians, and crew members that were still alive at the time. I was one of the few authors to be permitted access to the Universal Vaults. I’d been trying to get into Universal for 10 years, but they wouldn’t even admit that they had a vault! Then one day I was having lunch at Universal with Patsy Ruth Miller (star of the 1923The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Leonard Maltin, when Patsy’s brother grabbed my arm and said he wanted me to meet someone. Well, that someone happened to be (Universal Studios owner) Lew Wasserman, himself, who said in a loud voice so all the lawyers could hear, ‘I like your work, kid. Give this kid anything he wants for his books’.”

Before he “got into” classic horror films, Riley was a professional musician and session artist who played on eight Grammy Award winning albums for the likes of The Isley Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Jeff Beck, Moby Grape, Stevie Wonder and others. While still a working musician, Riley encountered Forrest J. Ackerman - the legendary editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Ackerman encouraged Riley to pursue his interest in writing about early genre films.

And the rest, as they say, is history – or at least film history.

Almost Perfect - A Review

ALMOST PERFECT by Diane Daniels Manning.

* I received this book as a free ebook from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review *

In the spirit of full disclosure I picked this book solely based on the fact that it had a picture of a really cute puppy on the cover.  The puppy’s name is Breaker and he turns out to be, no surprise, an integral part of this story.

As a young woman Bess Rutledge established Umpawaug Kennels to breed show winning Poodles, now at 70-years-old she feels its time to close the doors.  She just has to get through one more litter of puppies sired by her championship winning poodle, McCreery.  This will be the last litter for them both after which they will simply be companions in retirement.  Bess is hoping to us the time to mend fences with her twin sister Mona and reestablish a relationship with her son David – both having been neglected in favor of her dogs.

Benny Neusner is a troubled young man.  He attends a special school and has regular meetings with Dr. Kate to hopefully help him get over his anger issues; issues quite probably caused by his parents divorcing, his father remarrying and his mother’s apparent lack of interest.

The one thing Benny wants more than anything in the world is a dog.

On a snowy evening, as Benny wanders through Bess’ property on his way home having been disappointed once again by his mother, fate brings McCreery and Benny together.  It’s love at first sight for both of them.  It’s also the beginning of a sometimes touching and occasionally mutually manipulative relationship between Benny and Bess. 

This book is filled with characters that have personal flaws, problems with trust, relationship issues and personal agendas.  I had a difficult time enjoying “Almost Perfect” as I started reading because it didn’t seem like there was a likeable one in the bunch.  Even the dog had an agenda.  I know Benny was a “tweenager” with problems but that didn’t stop me from disliking every word that came out of his mouth and every action he took.  I found his character annoying and admittedly, though it took a couple of chapters, I did get over all that.  Ms. Manning has woven an intricate tale of how a group of people, each with their own flaws, can gather strength from each other; learn to trust again, heal their hearts and even achieve some dreams given up long ago – with the help of a couple of really cute (and determined) dogs.

I liked this book.  The story was sweet.  It contains some important lessons about family, trust and understanding.  I learned a lot about the world of dog shows and show dogs as well.  That was not only an integral but also a very interesting element in this book.  Although McCreery and Breaker do tend to take center stage in this book because they have strong “dog personalities”, they neither talk nor do anything even remotely un-dog-like.

As advertised on the cover this book that will definitely appeal to a wide audience of readers.  I would consider it G-rated – it is most certainly an quick, enjoyable read for adults yet you could feel quite comfortable reading it aloud to children ready for chapter books or gift it to your maiden aunt who enjoys “cozy” reads.

It’s an all around charming story.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website)

Diane Daniels Manning is the co-founder and director of The New School in the Heights, a therapeutic school in Houston, Texas which helps children dealing with social-emotional challenges find success in school and life. She has a Ph.D. in Education and a post-doctoral M.P.H from Harvard and is a practicing child psychoanalyst certified by the American Psychoanalytic Association. Formerly, she was the Director of the Reading and Learning Disabilities Clinic at Tufts University, Lecturer and Research Associate in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Harvard, and Chair of the Department of Education at Tulane University. She learned the inner workings of dog show kennels by writing an authorized oral history of a lifetime President of the Poodle of Club of America. Her writing awards include the Faulkner-Wisdom Novella Prize and the Women in Film and Television Short Script Competition.

When not at The New School, Diane and her writing partners, a Standard Poodle named Misty and a rescue cat named Elvira, convene at the keyboard to share great thoughts and plan the dinner menu.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Favourite Authors - Christopher Moore

I enjoy author events and try to attend as many as I can when they come to my little corner of the world.  Not living in a major metropolitan area and in Canada to boot, well … its kind of like a double whammy in the “missing out” department.  That being said, every once in a while a local Chapters store, small independent bookseller or my Public Library will manage to snag someone and they make the trek.  Unless they are from Ontario I’m quite sure once they get off the 401 Highway they have no clue where they are headed.  If I manage to find out about it before hand – and not the day after it happens, which has sometimes been the case – I make a point of trying to attend.

These events usually follow a pretty standard format that runs something like this:
·        Introduction
·        Short biography by the host of the event or by the author about him/her self
·        A short chat about the newest book
·        The reading of an excerpt from the newest book
·        A question and answer period
·        Then, if I’m really lucky, there will be a book signing and possibly a photo-opp.

It’s my idea of a fine evening out doing something I enjoy,

I usually attend these events by myself.  Oh, despite the fact that they may not be quite as enthused about the event as me, there are any number of people who would gladly join me if I asked.  I choose not to.  I ENJOY going alone.

Invariably one of the questions posed to the author during the QandA is “Where do you get the ideas for your books?”  Definitely not the most original of questions but one that everyone is very interested in.  If no hands go up at the beginning of the QandA, it’s also a pretty good icebreaker.  The answers are always interesting and varied.

Every since I randomly picked up a copy of “A Dirty Job” (without knowing what I was in for) Christopher Moore has been on my “favourite authors” list.  His books make me laugh out loud.   If pressed to describe them in one word I think that word might be “wonky” – they’re just a little off kilter, really original, filled with over the top characters, some unusual situations and quite often (for those of milder dispositions than myself) could be considered slightly offensive.  Yup – Mr. Moore has pretty much bastardized Christmas, Angels, the life of Jesus, Impressionist Art, Shakespeare, vampires and death/dying, to mention a few – usually with gratuitous sex and profanity thrown in, just for good measure.

I few years back (quite a few - I was still dying my hair) I had the good fortune to
win an opportunity for a “meet and greet” with Mr. Moore.  Authors truly ARE my rock stars, so needless to say I was thrilled.  At the great risk of repeating from a previous post, I just want to take the opportunity to say that Mr. Moore was as charming and humorous and clever and smart as I suspected he would be after reading his books.  He was also very down to earth, damn tall and … pretty handsome too.

Crap, I’m getting off topic …

I suppose in much the same way as nothing ever beats that first kiss, no book ever measures up to the first book that made you enjoy a new (to you) author. Since I enjoyed “A Dirty Job” so much I am looking forward to the release of the sequel, “Secondhand Souls” (August 25, 2015).

KNOW  "Secondhand Souls will not disappoint.

Whenever there is new book being released it is accompanied by the usual media blitz.  In that vein Mr. Moore made a Facebook post praising the art of Monique Montil as the inspiration for some of his characters.

It does however provide an answer that pesky “Where do you get your ideas from?” question and it proves that ideas for characters (or other things) can come from any source if you give your imagination some free reign.

Posing with Mr. Moore are these little works of art created by Monique Montil that inspired the “squirrel” guys in “A Dirty Job” and I’m assuming they are making reappearance in “Secondhand Souls”.  They are displayed at Paxton Gate in San Francisco and Portland.


I find them a equally whimsical and creepy – the perfect combination for characters in a Christopher Moore book.

Other Christopher Moore Books include:

Sunday, 14 June 2015

A Little Visit to Boston


* I received this as a free eBook from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. *

January 15th, 1919 was an unseasonably warm day in Boston’s North End.  Everyone was going about his or her day-to-day lives when the unthinkable happened.  Amidst screeching steel and popping rivets a large tower “exploded” and a flood of molasses covered the area.  In total 21 people lost their lives and many more were injured as the metal pieces soared through the air and whole buildings were moved off their foundations.  One person was sent flying through the air and into the frigid waters surrounding Boston.  A 6-year long court case ensued between the citizens of Boston and U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company for restitution and the settlement of damages for the victims.  Blame flew back and forth, fingers pointing at the USIA for negligence, the local Anarchist Society (suspected of placing a bomb in the tank) and even so far as accusing a 6-year-old girl killed while she was playing in the area of being the one to plant to the bomb for them.  Settlement was finally reached out of court.

Ms. Kops does a respectable job of telling of the tragedy in an abridged yet very understandable manner.  This by necessity as the book is written as a “children’s book suitable for ages 9 through 12”.  I picked this book up because I had never heard of the “Molasses Disaster” until I took a walking tour of Boston several years ago.  I always meant to look into it a little further but until this little book caught my attention I never got around to it.  So why read a children’s book?

1 – It was available.

2 – While reading it, I found it contained all the information I needed to know without making a huge time investment.

3 – It had some truly incredible pictures.  (Yes – I like picture books sometimes – stop guffawing)

This book satisfied all my needs when it came to what I wanted to learn about the “Molasses Disaster”.

With a title like “The Great Molasses Flood” it sounds like it may be an amusing bit of bedtime reading for a little tyke.  It’s hardly that.  Ms. Kops is very factual about what happened including descriptions of people being trapped under debris, injuries people suffered and the deaths that were caused.  She also goes into fairly extensive detail about the court case.  The top end of the recommended 9 – 12 years old would probably be more suitable as the writing is very fact based, with few embellishments, so unless the youngster had a real desire to know about the incident, they may not find it overly captivating for a casual read.  Information packed … absolutely!  I would even go so far as to say it would be an excellent resource for a 4th grade history paper.

I do think this book should have a place on the shelf in every school library’s history section, especially because of the pictures and newspaper article reproductions included.

A small plaque was placed at entrance to Puopolo Park by the Boston Historical Society to mark site of the disaster.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website)

"I grew up in a suburb of New York City, where I lived with my parents and older sister.  When I was in fourth grade, my wonderful teacher, Mrs. Silvers, always made time for creative writing. I wrote long, dramatic stories, which often had tragic endings. Mrs. Silvers egged me on.

Like many writers, I’m curious about a lot of things. One of my first writing jobs was reporting for a small newspaper in Vermont—perfect for a curious person. I wrote about everything from animal auctions to dog sledding, which I got to try. That was exciting! (And I covered a lot of meetings, which were not so exciting.) 

Years later I edited books for children at a small publishing house in Connecticut. I enjoyed helping authors polish words and tweak paragraphs until they sang. And, being curious, I may have annoyed one or two of them with all my questions. Then it was time to write my own books."

MASTER THIEVES (The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist) by Stephen Kurkjian.  

In March of 1990 two men dressed as police officers knocked on the door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  An inexperienced security guard allowed them through the door.  The two guards on duty were tied up in the basement and the thieves had free reign in the museum.  Forty-five minutes later they existed the museum with thirteen works of art valued at $500 million dollars.  This is the largest unsolved art theft in history.  Mr. Kurkjian’s book is the latest of many books (both fiction and non-fiction) written on the subject over the last 25 years.

In “Master Thieves” the reader is updated on the investigation and introduced to the gangs and organized crime groups in Boston long rumored to have been involved in the theft.  Mr. Kurkjian uses many of the contacts made during his years as a reporter at the Boston Globe to obtain interviews, gather ideas and offer speculation about who might actually have “pulled the heist”.  Mr. Kurkjian does not pull any punches when it comes to his criticism of the FBI investigation.  He feels that they dropped the ball in more ways than one; turning down help from local law enforcement agencies who may have had better contacts and informants as well as not following up on substantial and very credible leads which they determined “not useful”.  Is he correct in his criticism?  He makes a strong case.

As Mr. Kurkjian points out in his afterward, he did not spend a lot of pages discussing the theft itself because most readers will be familiar with the details.  Although he always does draw the reader’s attention back to the Gardner robbery, this is definitely a time line of underworld activity in Boston and surrounding areas from the mid 20th century to the present.  Interestingly, Mr. Kurkjian, at the end of the book, offers the reader not only a viable motive behind the crime but also does a little finger pointing in the direction of whom he thinks are the most likely suspects.

I have read about and been fascinated by not only the theft but by Isabella Gardner’s life and how the museum came into being so this book was right up my alley of interest.  “Master Thieves” is probably not the best book to pick up without at least a little background about both the museum and the robbery.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the theft and no one has been arrested nor has anyone had a verifiable sighting of the valuable pieces of art in all that time.  It was on my bucket list to see the Gardner Museum and a few years ago I was able to do just that.  I found the museum itself rather overwhelming and it truly is a breath stopping moment to walk into the Dutch Room and see the empty frames hanging on the wall.  After all the reading, and especially after finishing this book, my personal opinion is that if the paintings have not been destroyed over the past 25 years, they will surface accidentally when all of the key players in the mystery have died and a relative comes across them hidden away in an attic somewhere.

If your interest is piqued a little about the Isabella Stewart Gardner robbery this an excellent website to check out

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website)

Stephen Kurkjian was born and raised in Boston, and a product of the Boston public schools, including The Boston Latin School. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in English Literature and Suffolk University Law School.

Stephen Kurkjian is one of the most acclaimed investigative reporters in the country. A forty-year veteran of the Boston Globe, he is the paper’s former Washington bureau chief and a founding member of its investigative Spotlight Team. Kurkjian has won more than twenty-five national and regional awards, including the Pulitzer Prize on three occasions. He is a graduate of Suffolk Law School and lives in Boston.
During his career, Kurkjian specialized in writing about political and government corruption, as well as, in his later years, art theft..

Kurkjian lives in Boston, and is the father of two children - Erica Kurkjian Parrell, a public school teacher, and Adam, a sports reporter for The Boston Herald - as well as grandfather to three, Theodore, Jillian and Emily Parrell.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Fifteen Dogs - A Review

So … two gods walk into a bar … sounds like the beginning of some really bad joke.  This book is no joke.  I can honestly say that when I turned the final page my first thought was that this book has easily made it onto my personal list of 5 Best Books EVER!  I realize that may have been a knee-jerk reaction because I could never really compose a list of FIVE BEST EVER, but if I had a list it would be a contender.  Is there a 7-star rating system somewhere?

FIFTEEN DOGS by Andre Alexis ... back to my review … seriously, two gods – Apollo and Hermes – walk into the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in downtown Toronto to have a couple of drinks.  As gods are want they begin a discussion about the nature of humanity.

“Apollo argued that, as creatures go, humans were neither better nor worse than any other, neither better nor worse than fleas or elephants, say.  Humans have no special merit, though they think themselves superior.”

Hermes took the opposing view feeling that human creativity and language using symbols is interesting.  After further discussion, and a few more bottles of Sleemans, they decide to make a bet and conduct an experiment.  Wondering if animals – any animal chosen – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.  With a human year's worth of servitude to the winner at stake Hermes takes the bet, but on the condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, he wins.

“As it happened, the gods were not far from the veterinary clinic at Shaw.  Entering the place unseen and imperceptible, they found dogs, mostly: pets left overnight by their owners for one reason or another.  So dogs it was …”

As each of the fifteen dogs awoke they were confused and a little frightened by their new “awareness”.  Their first order of business, of course, was to get free of the their cages and as far away from the clinic as possible.  And so starts the story of how fifteen dogs lived (and died) with the gift of human awareness and language.

The subject matter, and the gods referring to it as an experiment, harbingers – I’m sure – those readers who will not be able to resist analyzing this work of fiction to death.  They will site Allegory, Existentialism, Philosophy, Raised Consciousness and Societal Realities.  Those readers are probably deeper thinkers than I and they could possibly be right.  This book could be construed as one writer’s study of the evolution or de-evolution, depending on your perspective, of humanity (albeit starring dogs).  I simply consider it a wonderful book.

Fifteen Dogs explores so many themes that it is difficult to narrow down any one particular.  My suggestion would be to not even try. Think of it as well thought out and beautifully written prose that also happens to make you ponder life a little.  If you have ever owned a dog, or any other pet for that matter, that you imagined having conversations with, this book will appeal to you on the level that it did me.  My only criticism, if I had to make one under duress, might be that winning the bet for either Apollo or Hermes rests on whether the dog “dies happy”, so by necessity the book features each dog’s passing.  Some are quiet and dignified while others are bloody and brutal.  Those were heart-wrenching pages to read but they were well balanced in other sections with humor and tenderness. 

Mr. Alexis has written several other books, and being on a little bit of a "reader’s high" after reading this one, I wanted to run out and get his others as well.  I hesitate, because if they are of a similar vein I’m not sure I can handle the emotional roller coaster.

So who wins the bet?  Does one or do all of the dogs die feeling happiness?

Uh-uh, not telling!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book cover)

Andre Alexis was born in Trinidad, grew up in Ottawa, Ontario and currently resides in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel and Trillium Book Award, and was short-listed for the Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.  His previous books include Asylum, Beauty and Sadness, Ingrid and the Wolf, and, most recently, Pastoral, which was also nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction prize.

Personal Note:

If I have not chosen a book to read because of someone else’s review then I try to be very diligent about not reading other reviews before I sit down to write mine.  Of course, after I do, I must go and see what other people thought.  At 171 pages this is not what I would consider to be a lengthy book … barely above being called a Novella.  “Mightymike” on wrote “well written and surprisingly long for such a short book”.  I’m sure it was a compliment and I agree … it does pack quite a punch in its 171 pages.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Two Tales of Survival


** I received this in a Goodreads “First Reads” giveaway (courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada) in exchange for an honest review. **

Morgan Prager is pretty content with her life.  She has almost completed her thesis on victim psychology, she has just gotten engaged to very sexy and handsome Bennett and she does volunteer work with a local dog rescue.  That all changes one evening as she walks through her front door and finds her fiancée has apparently been mauled to death by her three dogs; a Great Pyrenees and two Pit Bulls.  Definitely strong enough to have committed the horrific act Morgan still has trouble believing what has happened.

Bennett was always quite secretive about his life, but consumed by guilt over what her dogs had done, she feels it is up to her to find Bennett’s parents and tell them about the death of their son.  That’s when things begin to go a little off kilter.  Morgan can find no trace of his family, no trace of his company and nor any coworkers or friends.  In fact she is beginning to suspect that Bennett might not have been his real name.  Who was this stranger she had been ready to marry and what really happened on that strange night?

When Morgan learns that Bennett also had an ex-wife, an ex-fiancée and another current fiancée she begins to fear that she, herself, has become one of the victims she has been studying for so long.  When these women from Bennett’s life begin to turn up dead as well, she begins to fear for her own life.

This book is a psychological thriller, as advertised.  However, where I would usually expect a psychological thriller to be a page-turner, I found this one to be rather slow moving.  I understand that a large part of the story centered on Morgan feeling as much a victim as those she studies for her thesis, too much time was spent on that aspect of the story.  While it was interesting, I felt it slowed the book down and was quite honestly, not necessary.  The story would have moved along just as well had she been a secretary or a teacher.  With that personal criticism out of the way, I can still honestly say that it was a good read.  It has its gory moments, its frightening moments and definitely some suspense.  The story idea is fresh … can’t say I’ve read another murder mystery where dogs were the prime suspects.  The characters themselves were a take them or leave them bunch, with only the animal rights lawyer being top of my list as a favorite.

I did have the bad guy figured out quite a bit before the final action took place, but that’s okay and maybe on purpose.  It was fun to know before Morgan figured it out … made it somehow more suspenseful as a reader.

Overall … I would not feel bad recommending this to murder mystery fans, but maybe not quite go as far as to call it a hardcore thriller.

I did particularly like the last line in the book; referring to a normally good natured dog that might become vicious when it’s frightened, being threatened or abused.

“ ‘Turns out she’s the sweetest thing.  She protects the smaller dogs here, and I trust her with all of them,’ Alfredo said.  ‘There’s a term you’ve heard?  The blossom?  A dog finds herself out of a bad situation and can trust that she is safe?’

She blossoms.”

Don’t we all?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(s) (from Goodreads)

A.J. Rich is a pen name for the collaboration of Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment.

Amy Hempel is an American short story writer, journalist, and university professor at Brooklyn College. Hempel was a former student of Gordon Lish, who eventually helped her publish her first collection of short stories. Hempel has been published in Harper's, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Bomb. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as the Ambassador Book Award in 2007, the Rea Award for the Short Story in 2008, and the Pen/Malamud Award for short fiction in 2009.

Jill Ciment was born in Montreal, Canada. She is the author of Small Claims, a collection of short stories and novellas; The Law of Falling Bodies, Teeth of the Dog, The Tattoo Artist, and Heroic Measures, novels; and Half a Life, a memoir. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts, a NEA Japan Fellowship Prize, two New York State Fellowships for the Arts, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Ciment is a professor at the University of Florida. She lives with her husband, Arnold Mesches, in Gainesville, Florida and Brooklyn, New York.

The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens.  

“Dear Daniel, A person has to have lived a little to appreciate a survival story.  That’s what I’ve always said, and I promised that when you were old enough, I’d tell you mine.”

So begins the letter from a father to his son telling the story of Wolf Truly’s life and the five unforgettable days and nights he spent on the (always unnamed) Mountain. 

Life had never been kind to Wolf and when it became more cruel than he thought he could bear Wolf intended to climb to Angel’s Peak at the top of the Mountain and jump.  It was the day of his eighteenth birthday.  Not planning on returning from his excursion he left his backpack at home leaving him with no food or water.  Almost as equally unprepared were Nola, Bridget and Vonn, the Devine women – mother, daughter and granddaughter – one with a mission, one with a grudge and one with a secret.  When the paths of these four people cross it begins an unfortunate series of missteps.  They find themselves stranded – their only hope of making it off the Mountain alive being their wits and each other. 

This story is the ultimate “you can’t get there from here”.  Wolf and the ladies can always see the lights of the city below and even the local trailer park named “Tin Town” and they look so close, so achievable and so inviting.  Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving and not only when speaking of landscapes.  The book cover states, “The trial they undergo together is thrilling and heartbreaking, funny and nail-biting and profound.”  No false advertising there.  It certainly is all those things. 

Lori Lansens has been on my “must read author” list since Rush Home Road.  Her books have never disappointed me and that carries on with “A Mountain Story”.  She gives me characters whose lives are far from perfect, who question themselves and their motivations … who often stop and ask “why me?” … then they persevere placing one foot in front of the other, like we all have to do in real life.  Ms. Lansens’ writing takes the readers on every painful step right along side of the characters from the gut-wrenching ride on the tram to get partially up the mountain through to the cold, hard rocks, and the hunger and thirst being endured to try and get back down.

Excellent writing!  An amazing setting!  A great story!   Another wonderful book by Ms. Lansens.

About the Author (from the book cover)

Lori Lansens was a successful screenwriter before she burst onto the literary scene in 2002 with her first novel, Rush Home Road.  Translated into thirteen languages and published in fifteen territories, her debut received rave reviews around the world.  Her follow up novel, The Girls, was also an international success.  Her most recent book is The Wife’s tale, which was another national bestseller.

Born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, after living in downtown Toronto most of her adult life, she moved with her family to the Santa Monica mountains near Los Angeles in 2006. There she shares her backyard with bobcats, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and coyotes. The Mountain Story, her latest novel, was inspired by her respect and appreciation for the wild.