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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review of A Serpentine Affair

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of A Serpentine Affair:

The title is appropriate and a delicious pun. Think of a bunch of newly born snakes all intertwined yet separate. Or the serpentine belt on your car. Or an affair that goes sour. It's the name of the river where the women decide to have their annual picnic.

Everyone has had the experience of watching how friends from school evolve as their lives become more complicated with children, one or more spouses, and jobs.

In this very entertaining novel, (thanks, Karen for the heads up) seven British women who had been friends at university meet once a year to renew their friendship. Now in their forties, the meetings have become more of a chore than a pleasure, and, fueled by more than a little wine, the secrets begin to emerge.

All of the friends are damaged, some of the injuries self-inflicted, others caused by the friends, some imagined. Events of the night will have a long-lasting effect. Here's a wonderfully descriptive paragraph before things begin to go south.

The atmosphere was poisonous now, and not even the languidly liquid disappearance of the sun into a cooler, more peaceful place could rescue the evening. JoAnne and Juliette sat stiffly next to each other and didn’t appear to be speaking at all anymore, there may as well have been a fence between them, and poor Sissy looked as though she was going to faint with the stress of it all. Natasha was sullen ( as she had been most of the evening) and Siobhan was trying to paper over her appalling insult of Juliette’s husband, daring to imply that Stephen had somehow had something to do with Nigel’s death. Katie started tidying up, grimly, as if she were picking up dog-shit – tipping the remaining quarter of Sissy’s pasta salad into an M&S bag she’d designated for rubbish without even asking Sissy whether she wanted to keep it; scraping plates like they were potatoes to be scrubbed (or perhaps children to be bathed); scrunching used napkins with unnecessary force into tight mucky balls that were tossed into the carrier bag too, not bothering with recycling, just chucking the empty wine bottles in with the mess; flicking stray flakes of sausage roll towards Siobhan, perhaps deliberately.. 

Some GR friends have remarked on the difficulty of keeping the seven characters straight. I did not find that to be difficult, the author skillfully mingling the backstory of each woman with the picnic in the present as all the secrets flow together into an explosive mix. 

I admit to feeling a bit like a voyeur (or even like the man who is following one of the woman for his brother-in-law) as I watched their friendship dissolve amidst charges and recriminations, but goodness it was fun.

My thanks to the publisher for an ebook copy of this book in return for my always honest review.
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Review of Death at Charity's Point

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Death at Charity's Point:

I love Tapply's stuff and was dismayed to hear of his death in 2009. Fortunately all of his work is being issued as ebooks.  This is the first in his Brady Coyne series and sets the stage for the following books in the series.  All are worth reading.    

 Charity's Point is a cliff named after a Puritan accused of being a witch who jumped to her death in the 17th century. Now, George,  the son of Florence Gresham has been found washed up at the base of the same cliff. He was very different than his brother, Win, who was described as a real killer by his mother.  Win had been killed in Vietnam Or was he?    

Florence is quite a character.   Dud, her husband, blew his brains out with a shotgun in the bathroom, preferring that to a slower death from cancer.  They had talked about it.  Two weeks later, Florence, while taking a bath, castigated the maid for not cleaning the bathroom up well as she had just found a piece of Dud's skull.   

She asks Brady, whose law practice is as much about catering to the whims of his rich clients as it is providing legal advice, to research George's suicide. And then to check into Win's death as well. The elite prep school where George taught history has an interesting set of characters including a strong skin-head contingent.  And did the football star's plagiarized paper have anything to do with George's death?  
This is a fine start to a wonderful series.  Coyne is a great character to follow and I an so glad the series is being re-released as many of the originals had gone out-of-print. 

One joke I must relay.  Brady and his friend Charlie, who works in the Justice Department, are having dinner and Charlie is describing a recent scene in which the Coast Guard ship he was on stopped a boat on which the smugglers began breaking open bales of marijuana and throwing it overboard to the hundreds of circling gulls.  
"So we asked one of the guys what the hell he thought he was doing, feeding the gulls like that. Know what he said?” “What did he say?” Charlie stared at me. “He said, ‘I wanted to leave no tern unstoned.’” 

And another sample: "Charlie and I sat across from each other at one of the long tables covered with a stained, yellowed tablecloth. Next to Charlie sat a fat couple from Arizona, each of whom was hunched over a big sirloin, well-done. The couple’s two kids, a girl and a boy maybe eleven and nine, split a bowl of spaghetti. The boy complained that he hated spaghetti. The father told him to shut up, as he shoveled chunks of thick, overcooked beef into his mouth. The girl asked her mother for a french fry. The mother told her to eat her spaghetti first, then proceeded to gobble down all her french fries so that when the girl was finished there’d be none left."  

My thanks to the publisher for this free advance copy through Netgalley in return for my always honest opinion.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review of Death Benefits

This book is about insurance fraud and claims analysis. Yawning yet? Be in for a surprise as Thomas Perry weaves a terrific investigative tale built around precisely those seemingly soporific plot elements. Max Stillman, a new character for Perry, and John Walker, an insurance analyst who's really good with numbers, team up to discover how a man could impersonate another to make off with millions in death benefits. What they uncover has much larger ramifications and leads them to a town in New Hampshire with a rather sordid past. Mix in Serena, a.k.a Mary Katherine, a delightfully vampish hacker, and all the ingredients are there for a fun read.

Listened to as an audio book that had me sitting in the driveway much too much to hear what was next. Read by a favorite reader, Michael Kramer.

Review of Fatal Frost

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Fatal Frost:

I was a huge fan of Wingfield's Frost series.  They had mystery and humor and excellent writing, so it was with great trepidation that I tried James Henry's re-creation of Frost. (Henry is actually the pseudonym for two authors.) I was happy to see he has succeeded.  It must be a very difficult thing to do and is not often well accomplished.  Robert Goldsborough occasionally succeeds in recreating Archie and Nero, but no one has managed to authentically reproduce Fleming or Ludlum, and they weren't that good in the first place. 

Henry's Frost has just the right combination of humor and mystery. It's 1982, Frost is a DS, and Denton is getting its first black policeman.  Mullet happens to be on the golf course (a source of both embarrassment and amusement to the regulars) when the eviscerated body of a young boy is found.  Overworked with a spate of local burglaries, Frost finds to the murder a welcome distraction and then the boy's sister disappears.  Soon he begins to wonder if this isn't a reprise of a school-girls' Wicca adventure from years previous. 

Listened to as an audiobook.  Delightfully read by Stephen Thorne. Another one of those books that encourages mowing the lawn twice.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Trench Coats, Episode I: The Meeting

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Trench Coats, Episode I: The Meeting:

Generally, I am not a reader of this genre, nor am I a fan of serialized fiction., but I got  the first three installments of James Seeley's Pia Sobel novel for free so I thought, "WTF" I'll give it a shot.  I won't review the installments separately, however, but will instead, refer back to this location, site of the first section.  

Each thriller writer must have some kind of shtick: the protagonist is a quadriplegic, a cat, a dog, a mute dog, a paraplegic dog, an undertaker, an alcoholic, black, green, Indian, lives at home, cook, whatever, an ex-SEAL or seal. Rarely is s/he a relatively "normal" person.  Seeley's Pia is a former star soccer player. Having been a semi-professional soccer ref, that certainly appealed to me and knowing what extraordinary athletes they are certainly lends credence to some of her physical prowess. 

The background is that she runs an international security agency and has a particular interest in protecting children. She lets herself be drawn into the lair of the enemy who has (apparently, since we're only at the end of chapter 3) designs on kids and contacts in the State Department who seem more than happy to do his bidding. 

Since this is a serial, each section ends with a cliff-hangar as one would expect.  The story does hold your interest and I'll probably read Seeley's full-length novel. 

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review of The Accused

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Accused:

Alvin Morlock is a lonely professor at a fourth rate college. He lets himself be conned into going to Providence to get some girls, and while there happens to meet Louise, a rather desperate schemer; a woman in the fast lane who, realizing she's aging, wants a husband.

Louise, after several evenings of this, was bored with Morlock's company in spite of her fondness for him. On New Year's Eve she sent him away early, letting him guess that she was sick. (He was shyly pleased with the delicate intimacy of the hinted revelation and the close relationship the very revelation itself implied.) He left feeling quite gallant. When he was safely gone, she changed her dress and called a cab. Far enough from Federal Hill she allowed herself to be picked up in a cafe and thereafter surrendered herself to drinking and to her companion with complete abandon. It was the last time, she promised herself. Afterward she would be faithful to Morlock. After they were married. It did not occur to her that he might not ask.

Three months into the marriage Alvin discovers she's running up debts and not paying the bills. Morlock is humiliated and unsure what to do. In his despair he returns to Arby's Rock where he had found comfort as a child with a slightly younger friend whom he had defended at school against some bullies.  What happened to her haunts him and the trial resulting in the inevitable outcome.

Daniels alternates between a description of events and  testimony in Morlock's trial for first degree murder.  It's skillfully done and while hardly literature, the book definitely holds your interest and keeps the pages turning to learn what might actually have happened and what will happen.

Daniels wrote a series of crime novels in the fifties that were well regarded.  Except for some anachronisms (fifteen dollars was a lot of money) this one holds up well.  We get a nice sense of the characters feelings and the gulf between the trial and reality - if that exists and the demons that haunted them.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review of The Hanging Valley

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Hanging Valley:

2.5 stars, perhaps. Good audiobook. An alternative title might be "Banks goes to Toronto."   I always wonder when a local character takes off for other pastures as part of an investigation.  Did the author just visit there and want to add some local color? Is Robinson a Jays fan?

Ostensibly, Banks has to travel to Toronto to  find and  interview a woman who may have information about an unsolved murder in Swainsdale that had occurred years before but may be linked to a more recent one.

The body of Bernard Allen, a man who had briefly relocated to Canada, is discovered buried in the woods in a remote area of Yorkshire.  The investigation takes Banks to Toronto to search for a woman who might have known him. (And we get treated -- if that's the word -- to a Blue Jays game.)

Banks has to dig back into the past to determine the reason for the killing. I had difficulty getting a feel for the motivations of the characters and this is not one of Robinson's better efforts.   His writing is good, but the characters in this volume lacked full development.

Some reviewers have complained about the ending, that somehow it was a shock. Perhaps, but only in its abruptness. This may be one of those cases where a good reader (James Langton) makes a bad book better.  I had difficulty connecting with this story, but the excellent narration prevented switching to the off button.

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Review of A Walk in the Sun

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of A Walk in the Sun:

This book was originally written in 1944 and describes in vivid imagery the life of an army platoon during the first few hours following their landing on a beach in Italy. Their objective is simple: reach an isolated farmhouse near a bridge and guard that bridge. Ill luck dogs their path from the moment they get on the landing craft ' First their new lieutenant is killed by a stray shell fragment - it was his first engagement. Their old, well experienced sergeant who had commanded the platoon through several actions, is stitched by a German machine gun on a vehicle that just happened to pass their way. The platoon is then strafed by 3 enemy fighters, and the remaining sergeant slowly begins to lose command. The result is a very realistic account (I assume) of men fighting during the Second World War.

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Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Savage Sky: Life and Death on a Bomber Over Germany in 1944

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Savage Sky: Life and Death on a Bomber Over Germany in 1944:

When reviewing a book, I like to compare it against my expectations for that genre:  they vary.  For a memoir I would expect to learn something about the author who must also have something to say and/or reveal something about the time and place of the memoir. Does it add anything to our knowledge is another question I might ask.  Finally, do I give a shit about either the author or the time and place.  Sometimes I begin a memoir knowing I'll learn something of the time and place only to discover I've begin to like the  author and so actually do care about what happens to him or her. 

Webster captures better than most the harrowing, terrifying, and just downright uncomfortable experience flying missions in a B-17 over Europe.  Almost not making it, when the plane they were ferrying nonstop ran into headwinds, (the engines ran out of fuel while taxing after they managed to find an airbase in Ireland)  his life thereafter was awful.  His intent was never to be in the Air Corps but enlistees had little choice and went where assigned and because he had an aptitude for Morse Code was trained as a radio operator.  The planes were unheated and the slipstream would come through the plane at 20,000 plus feet at 20 degrees below zero at 170 mph making for a wind chill of, well I have no idea. (The Plexiglas top over the radio operators station didn't appear until the G model.)  On one occasion his oxygen mask froze and it was only fortuitous that he recognized the feelings of well-being and warmth as symptoms of CO2 poisoning. 

The reality of flying was the opposite of what they had been led to believe. The idea that  their guns would provide an impenetrable barrier was "horseshit" according to his British instructor. "They shoot down our guys on almost every mission." And a pilot stunned Webster when he revealed he was to only one of his group to make twenty-five missions. Their instructor cautions, "you got no training in the U.S., for practical purposes. . .even with training half of new crews don’t survive the first six missions."  (The Memphis Belle</i> crew was the first in May of 1943.  In the previous eight months not one crew survived to make twenty-five missions. 

There were no facilities on a B-17 and it was too cold to just whip it out and relieve oneself so voiding before they left was imperative. (I would have peed my pants although whether that would have shorted out the electric heating wires in the suits might have been a problem.) To avoid problems at the other end, crews were dosed with paregoric (containing opium) before leaving which bound them up tight, and then dosed with castor oil to unbind things if they returned. Medics issued amphetamines to keep them awake and sleeping pills to help them sleep.  

To make things worse, it was revealed that German civilians were lynching bomber crews who had parachuted safely. If found by the German Army they were safe - unless they had killed a German civilian while defending themselves against lynching, in which case they were executed.  Catch-22.  
Assuming a successful bombing run escaping flak and enemy fighters there was always danger from friendly aircraft.  Webster watched in horror as one returning B-17 trying to regain some altitude slammed into the plane above him sending both to a fiery grave below. 

"I have flown only four missions, but I have learned a lot from talking with veteran crews that have survived twelve or even twenty missions. They say that the air force and news media in the United States misled us. The B-17 Flying Fortress is no fortress. It’s a first-rate airplane and can survive much punishment, but German fighters can shoot it down easily, and its eleven machine guns are little protection. The gunners try hard and frequently destroy a fighter, but our pilots take violent, evasive action by throwing the bombers all over the sky to avoid the fighters’ gunfire. This spoils the gunners’ aim, and their bullets fly in all directions. I guess our commanders, being pilots, don’t trust the gunners, so they decree this wild, evasive action. Real protection for us comes from an escort of our fighter planes. When we are beyond the range of our escort, we lose lots of bombers. Thus, we don’t fly unscathed to a target and return in the best Hollywood tradition. We die from freezing, anoxia (lack of oxygen), altitude sickness, gunshots, shrapnel, being trapped in a burning plane, and explosion. . .I can't get it out of my mind that my chance of surviving twenty-five missions is so small, but if I refuse to fly, I face execution for desertion. What a dilemma to face: death if you do and death if you don’t. No wonder fellows go insane. Most of us are depressed. I see it in pale faces and trembling bodies at briefings. I see men praying. A few try to joke, but I note that they are pale and fidget at the same time. As for me, I’m frightened out of my wits. I wish my headache would go away. I've had it for three days, and it’s killing me." 

By the time he reaches his seventeenth mission, only four of the original ten original crew members. On that mission his Group lost 40% of its aircraft and two of the planes in his squadron that managed to make it back will have to be junked they are so shot up.  Exhaustion is a constant, fear is constant, the stress headaches  have become almost unbearable and he's living on sleeping pills and amphetamines (all Army approved and prescribed, of course.) No one believes they can survive the next mission, let alone thirty. 
One flyer, Charles , had enough and refused to fly any more missions. He could have been executed, but his superiors having faced similar terrors, demoted him to private and gave him the job of sweeping floors.  The punishment was harsher than one could imagine, having to face his friends as they left on missions and then counting the number who didn’t return.  He finally decided to return to combat flying and filled in on a crew for a member who was sick. On April 11, 1944, in the B-17 just behind Webster's,  Charles's plane exploded during an attack by FW-190s and Charles died. 

Obviously, Webster survived the war. Just how, you will have to read the book to find out.  He had to be one of the luckiest men around. Webster  conveys a nice mix of naiveté that is often lacking from more polished memoirs.  For example, the time he visits Cambridge and is just awe-struck by the sense of history and learning. Or his visit to a prostitute in London and the friendship that develops between him and a stripper he met on a bet.  We genuinely see a nineteen-year-old terrified and the  hopelessness of his situation. 

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