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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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Authors & publishers:
I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them. The blog, however, will continue, and if you've got a good first line to share for TwitterLit please do so here.

From a random review:


October 2015: Book notices

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Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine

In Alexander McCall Smith's latest No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novel, Mma Ramotswe is talked into taking a vacation, and leaving the agency in the hands of her sometimes difficult colleague, Mma Makutsi. But it's difficult to let go, and Mma Ramotswe finds herself almost as busy on vacation as she is at work. There's a case to solve, a young man to save, and a curiously-named new business in town that needs to be investigated. Mma Ramotswe approaches everything with her trademark grace and wisdom. Readers of McCall Smith's Botswana novels will enjoy this installment in the series as much as his previous books.

The leisurely pace of McCall Smith's stories can make one feel as if nothing much is happening in the books. However busy Mma Ramotswe may be, she still has time to contemplate the broad Botswana sky, to enjoy conversations over cake and tea, and and to mull over the remembered wisdom of her beloved late father, Obed Ramotswe. As slow as the books may seem, however, we have watched the series' main characters grow and change quite a lot over the course of 16 books, perhaps none so much as Mma Makutsi, whose circumstances have changed dramatically since she first came to work in the agency. In this latest novel, we see something new emerge in Mma Makutsi, and so does her boss. It's a pleasure to witness.

Tony Parsons, The Murder Man

The first chapter of this book is an adrenaline rush of a read and it sucked me in. Things calm down after that, which is a little disappointing, because it wasn't what I'd expected. But the book is still quite good. It's the first in a series featuring detective Max Wolfe, who's newly transferred to homicide after the events of the first chapter. This is in London, mind. Pretty soon he becomes involved in the investigation of an unusually gruesome murder, which ultimately leads to the grounds of an exclusive boarding school. Max is a single father with a five-year-old daughter, irritatingly named Scout. And a new dog, whom we hear a lot about. And Max likes to box. Clearly we'll be hearing a lot about that as well in upcoming installments. I liked the story and Max himself well enough to read another, but I probably won't go out of my way to keep tabs on the series.

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Man of Some Repute

A Man of Some Repute is the first book in a new series set in 1950s England. Hugo Hawksworth is a young intelligence officer whose lame leg--damaged under mysterious circumstances--means he can't work in the field anymore. Instead, he's sent to work in the Government Statistics Department in the small town of Selchester. The job turns out to be more interesting than Hugo anticipated--the Department is not what it seems--as is life at Selchester Castle, where Hugo is put up upon his arrival. It turns out there's a mystery to solve: the earl of the castle went missing seven years earlier, and he wasn't what he seemed either. I enjoyed this book. It's not edge-of-your-seat exciting, but it was a pleasant mystery with characters I'd be interested in reading more about. My one criticism is--SPOILER here--the equus ex machina toward the end of the book: having the damsel in distress saved more by her horse than by our strapping hero somehow diminished things for me. But the next book in the series is due out in a few weeks, and I intend to get my hands on it.

September 2015: Book notices

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Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm

Just finished Robert Galbraith's compulsively readable second Cormoran Strike novel only to find out that the books are being turned into a BBC miniseries! This is great news, though one worries what their choice of actors will be. Unusually, perhaps unprecedentedly, I've had a very particular person in mind while reading The Silkworm, Israeli actor Oded Fehr. Ditch the accent and he'd be perfect for the part, I think. At any rate, I think I enjoyed The Silkworm even more than The Cuckoo's Calling. I was completely blindsided at Strike's resolution of the whodunit--the "it" being the particularly gruesome murder of an egotistical author. But what I really love about the series is the relationship between Strike and his secretary/helpmate Robin. She's engaged; he still thinks about his ex; it's complicated. But their courtship, if one can call it that, is exquisite.

August 2015: Book notices

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Joe Finder, The Fixer

Joseph Finder's latest thriller, The Fixer, is about a former investigative reporter, Rick Hoffman, who winds up living in his father's abandoned house when he loses his job. But it turns out the house has secrets, and so does his father, who's been vegetating in a nursing home for some 20 years after a stroke. Of course Rick starts looking into things and winds up in trouble with various unpleasant characters who want him to mind his own business.

The Fixer is a decent enough read, and it certainly helped pass the time on a train ride recently. But there are two things that bug me about the story. One is in fact something one of the bad guys says to Rick in the course of the story: the 20-year-old mystery he's trying to solve just doesn't seem worth risking his life for. It's not even particularly interesting. So that failing kind of undermines the whole story. The second--and here's a spoiler--is that there's a fair amount of attention given in the book to Rick's father's treatment. It turns out that there may be a way to get him to talk, and we anticipate that he'll have something very important to say as soon as he can. Maybe he'll ID the bad guys, or maybe the bad guys will find out about his treatment and make sure he's never able to say anything. But no. He dies, of natural causes of all things, and that part of the story simply evaporates. So the story is not as tight as it could be. Still, it's not the worst way to spend a few hours of your time.

Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore, The Tomb

Retired OSI agent Maxine Decker continues to grow on me. In her third outing--after The Blade and The Shield--she finds out about a long submerged, corroded Nazi device that's recently surfaced in Mexico. Whatever the thing is, and despite its condition, it's worth killing for. And as you might guess, Maxine and her former husband, OSI Special Agent Kenny Gates, are on the short list of potential victims.

The book follows Maxine and Kenny as they try to figure out what's going on: it turns out that the Nazi relic is tied to a very real threat in the present day, and thousands of American lives are at stake. The main story is interrupted periodically by excerpts from an old diary. A woman named Magda Scarlet provides a riveting account of a personal tragedy. Her story seems at first to be completely unrelated to the modern-day drama that's keeping Maxine busy, but of course it's not. Eventually the two storylines merge, and it's a bit of a surprise when they do. (My one complaint about the book is that Magda Scarlet's transformation is so dramatic that it perhaps strains credibility.)

The Tomb is a quick read with short chapters that keep you turning the pages. An entertaining plot, but I'm increasingly in it for the characters. I really like the relationship between Maxine and Kenny: it's a sweet romance that somehow keeps you hooked despite their history. Their happily ever after didn't take the first time, but we're hoping they'll give it a second shot.

[Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the authors.]

April 2015: Book notices

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Joe Finder, Zero Hour

In this standalone thriller by Joe Finder, terrorist-for-hire Henrik Baumann is unleashed on the United States with instructions to bring down the world's financial markets. FBI Special Agent Sarah Cahill is the one we're rooting for on the other side. She's a veteran of the Lockerbie investigation and the mother of a young son, with a problematic ex-husband who causes trouble along the way. I always love reading about smart criminals, and Baumann is supposed to be the best, but he makes an awful lot of mistakes for all of his vaunted prowess. That he didn't shine as a criminal made this book fall short for me. The story also gets bogged down in too much detail. Still a decent read, but not edge-of-your-seat exciting.

March 2015: Book notices

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Stephen Carpenter, Killer

I love the main storyline of this book. Jack Rhodes is the author of a bestselling series of crime novels that focus on the murders of a mysterious serial killer. The killer has a gruesome M.O. that involves the beheading of his victims' corpses and the amputation of their hands. Jack's story starts when a corpse is found with eery similarities to the victim in his first book. It might have been a copycat killing if it weren't that the real-life murder pre-dated the book's publication. So, trouble ensues, and it's a good story.

The real-life killer's story alternates with Jack's. We learn about the abuse he suffered as a kid and how he came to find solace in the murder and mutilation of a series of women. This part I didn't like very much. I think it may have detracted from the book to let us know fairly early on that Jack was not in fact guilty of murder--he might have been, had the story played out differently, or his guilt or innocence might have been ambiguous. So we know that there's a real killer out there, and somehow that cheapens the story a bit. There remains a mystery--how did Jack come to be writing the books he writes, which seem to have real-life parallels, but that question is answered fully by the book's end. (I had initially thought that Jack would wind up on the run and trying to clear his name in the book's sequel, but I was wrong.) On the whole a good read, but I think it could have been better.

February 2015: Book notices

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Hy Conrad, Mr. Monk and the New Lieutenant

The stakes are unusually high in the latest Monk novel, because someone wants Captain Stottlemeyer dead. Monk and Natalie  have to figure out who's targeting him while dealing with a handful of distractions--a mysterious woman who hires Natalie for her divorce case, the hippie printers next door to their office, and an oafish new lieutenant who can't hold a candle to Amy Devlin, let alone Randy Disher. Eventually, inevitably, the case is solved, and you'll be surprised at the who and why behind the attempts on Stottlemeyer.

The bigger news, though, is that Mr. Monk and the New Lieutenant is slated to be the last Monk novel. Hy Conrad, who took over from Lee Goldberg three books ago, is leaving the series, and apparently no one else is stepping in to take over. For those of us who have read the Monk books religiously, this is very sad news. Conrad leaves the series in a good place. We can feel good about where the characters are at the book's end, but the conclusion also leaves things open so that someone could pick up the reins again in the future. Here's hoping.

January 2015: Book notices

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Lee Goldberg, My Gun Has Bullets

This early book by Lee Goldberg has elements that will be familiar to his readers: television references that betray the author's love for the medium, and a certain light, readability to his prose. It's not as good as Goldberg's more recent stuff, however. The characters are cartoony (the guy with hair implants, for example), or some of them, the plot a bit too farfetched (the pair of stunt men), and the story sometimes veers into excessive detail when it comes to discussions of the television schedules of the various networks. The lead character was enjoyable, however, and there are elements to like here as well--the love interest, the grande dame who is not what she seems.

December 2014: Book notices

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Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Dale Carnegie's book is the sort of thing you hear about all your life but never bother to pick up, because, I don't know, because it's just there. But I ran across it while hanging around Amazon the other day. It's got an enormous number of reviews (favorable reviews), so somebody's reading it, and looking at some of them my curiosity got the better of me. So what's the book like? Basically, Carnegie offers a lot of very good, common-sense advice, practices which, if followed, probably would do a lot to help you win friends and influence people. His advice could be summarized in a page or two, but not so as to make it stick. What he does is devote one short chapter to each of his tenets--things like, encourage other people to talk about themselves. And then he discusses this practice at length by giving a bunch of real-life examples in which following that advice helped someone out--these are people who took his classes or whose autobiogaphies he's read, for example. All of this is in very straightforward, down-to-earth prose, so it's very readable. The book is also interesting, unintentionally so, because it is to an extent dated. The advice is not dated, but the stories he tells of people who benefitted from it are from a different era, where men with hats were employed by typewriter companies and sent letters via the post to their business contacts. It's kind of charming.

October 2014: Book notices

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Alexander McCall Smith, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café

I haven't yet read the last couple of books in this series: while I was off doing other things Mma Makutsi changed her title and had a baby--pretty big doings. Still, time moves slowly in McCall Smith's Botswana, and one is able to jump into his books out of order without missing too much. This time out, Mma Ramotswe is asked to discover the identity of a woman with amnesia. She also concerns herself with the future of Charlie, her husband's girl-chasing apprentice mechanic. Meanwhile, Mma Makutsi is wading more fully into entrepreneurship by opening the café of the book's title: things don't quite go as planned. As always, it's a delight to spend some time in the company of Mma Ramotswe and her people. McCall Smith's writing is a simple joy, in the way that watching dust motes waft lazily in a shaft of summer sunlight is a joy. Life should have more such moments. And more such books. Fortunately, Mr. McCall Smith is a most prolific author.

Veronica Roth, Allegiant

I have finally finished this trilogy! This last one was sitting around a long time before I picked it up. It's not that there's anything wrong with it. I just never particularly cared about the characters, particularly the second-tier ones, and so I would completely forget what was going on between books. It was difficult to work up the enthusiasm, therefore, to open a new one. My twelve-year-old loved the books, though, and the movie, which I've yet to see.

Paul Alexander, Homicidal

I really wasn't impressed with this Kindle Single. Singles are supposed to be "compelling ideas expressed at their natural length." This is a good description, and in my experience Singles do tend to be well told stories, whether they're fiction or nonfiction. Alexander's account of a string of murders in Los Angeles, the work of the so-called Grim Sleeper, starts well, with the arrest of the killer while his shocked neighbors look on. But it quickly becomes a string of repetitious descriptions of murders, with names of the dead and of law enforcement officers blending together. I have no idea how many murders were committed, or whether all of the murders mentioned in the book were the work of the one killer. The author hasn't honed his story into a readable whole. Worse than that, it comes as a shock in the last couple chapters when you realize that the man arrested for the crimes has yet to go on trial! The author never spells this out. His verbs just suddenly change to the future tense when he's talking about the trial. Failing to make the status of the case perfectly clear to the reader is, I think, really unforgivable.

September 2014: Book notices

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Joel Dicker, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

Joel Dicker's much ballyhooed The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is a very long book. Reading it, one has a lot of time to think about whether jumping into a 650-odd page tome was a good idea. I'm still not sure. There was a lot I didn't like about it. A litany of complaints: I'm pretty sure a lot of the book could have been lopped off to good effect. I found much of the story implausible. The too-precious chapter openings--in which Harry gives Marcus advice about writing--are often nauseating. Marcus' mother--a minor character, thank you, Jesus--is a ludicrous caricature of a Jewish mother. Everyone was supposed to love the fifteen-year-old Nola--whose disappearance in 1975 is the book's great mystery--but the persona she presented to people, as described in the book, was not particularly likable in my opinion. And the book within a book, Harry Quebert's alleged masterpiece, well, it reads like schlock in the snippets that punctuate this book. Towards the end, my interest in the story increased as we finally found out whodunit. And there is indeed a decent mystery buried in these pages. But there are so many twists and turns in the last couple chapters that I wound up not really caring by the end of it what had really happened to Nola.

Shane Kuhn, The Intern's Handbook

Well this was a fun read. Shane Kuhn's The Intern's Handbook purports to be a text written by an unusually successful assassin for the benefit of new recruits at his organization. At 25, he's about to retire from the biz. He's been working since he was a kid for a company that inserts assassins, posing as interns, into business settings to get access to high-profile targets. Anyway, there's a lot of assassin-y advice, and we hear about the principal's tortured past, and the story winds up having unexpected twists that work pretty well. Our narrator's tone and jokes and movie references get a little tiresome, but it's not unbearable. Not the height of literature, perhaps, but reasonably enjoyable.

About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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