Book Review: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

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Mystery/Thriller: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

The Escape Artist is Brad Meltzer’s latest thriller. Coming twenty years after The Tenth Justice, his new work shows a greater familiarity with his craft and introduces some interesting characters as well.

 

Jim “Zig” Zigarowski is a mortician at Dover (DE) Air Force Base. Preparing deceased military service personnel for burial is his job, and he is quite good at it. Usually the deceased are strangers, but when a young woman who knew his daughter dies in a plane crash, Zig insists on taking care of her himself. However, the body on his table is not that of Nola Brown, and the mix up is not accidental. Zig begins looking for Nola, and soon finds himself in the midst of a mystery that takes him back to his Pennsylvania hometown, to Washington, DC, and back again to Dover. His journey uncovers secrets and crimes that some very powerful people would rather keep covered, and reopens some wounds within him that he thought were closed.

 

Nola Brown was supposed to be on that plane, but switched places at the last minute. She suspects the plane crash was meant to kill her. Instead, it killed her friend and several other people, including the Librarian of Congress, who was a close personal friend of the president. She is eager to get to the bottom of things, too, but she also must confront both external enemies and internal memories to solve this mystery.

 

Zig and Nola share part of their history, connected through Jim’s late daughter. Still, they do not really know each other. Part of their challenge is learning to trust each other and work together. This journey may cover more ground, metaphorically, than the two must cover in their search to find out who was behind the fatal plane crash.

 

Brad Meltzer is a prolific and popular writer. He has had best selling books in many categories, including novels, advice, childrens, YA, and non-fiction. He is also the host of two shows airing on the History Channel networks.

 

The Escape Artist is an interesting and engaging book featuring a strong heroine. Parts of it are formulaic, and the characters flaws sometimes overcome their features, but overall the effect is positive. Definitely a great book for fans of Brad Meltzer and for fans of the thriller genre, and not a bad introduction to the genre for those who like to see smart, tough women overcome challenging circumstances. Unlike many thrillers, The Escape Artist does not use women as mere foils for the male characters. Nola has her own brokenness, her own issues, and she is truly a co-protagonist with Zig. Neither of them survives this case without the other, and both of them are changed by the other.

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Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

 

Book Review: Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman

Book Review: Cave of BonesAnne Hillerman

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Mystery: Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman

Cave of Bones is the fourth novel by Anne Hillerman set in the Dinetah, the homeland of the Navajo people. Continuing with characters established by her late father, Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman succeeds in making this series her own. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are still active characters in her books, but Jim Chee’s wife, Bernadette Manuelito, has become the main protagonist in the books. Cave of Bones may be her best work yet in this series.

 

Officer Manuelito owes a fellow officer a favor. Therefore, despite her distaste for the task, she is driving to a remote campsite to talk to a group of troubled girls. Upon arriving, though, she is informed that one of the girls and one of the leaders have disappeared. The girl turns up at camp soon after Manuelito, but the counselor cannot be found. The search for this counselor involves much of the book, involving the missing man’s boyfriend and sister, an unpleasant state police officer, and questions about the looting of Native burial sites. Questions also arise about funds for the group that sponsored the trip, questions asked mainly by the mother of the girl who had been missing. Manuelito finds herself in the midst of these mysteries, aided as always by the wisdom and warmth of now retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn.

 

Meanwhile, her husband, Jim Chee, is in training in Santa Fe, where he is charged with checking in on Bernadette’s sometimes wayward sister, Darlene. Chee is also asked to look into a possible missing Navajo man. Soon, he finds himself mixing police work with family responsibilities, and finding both to be challenging.

 

The result is a complex, interwoven plot that successfully keeps several narratives going simultaneously, then brings them together in a very satisfying ending. Hillerman books, whether written by father Tony or daughter Anne, follow a familiar motif. This is not a criticism–this is part of their attraction to me. They show a deep respect and appreciation for the Navajo people and culture. They celebrate the beauty of New Mexico. They follow the police procedural mystery textbook (if that exists). And they catch the bad guys. There are reasons why shows like Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, etc., are among the most popular shows on TV. Cave of Bones and the other books in this series follow a very similar format and nail it.

 

If you are a fan of this series, Cave of Bones is a welcome continuation. Using established characters and the eternal Dinetah setting, Anne Hillerman has given us her best work to date. If you are unfamiliar with the series, Cave of Bones stands on its own. It would work well to introduce you to a series that for almost five decades and with two writers has given us a glimpse into the world of the Navajo and the land they love.

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Book Review: Cave of BonesAnne Hillerman

Book Review: Head On, John Scalzi

Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction/Mystery: Head On, John Scalzi

Fans of John Scalzi’s previous novel Lock In will be delighted with this 2017 sequel. Head On features the return of FBI agent Chris Shane, his partner Leslie Vann, and the world of the “Hadens,” people who have survived a usually fatal illness only to be completely frozen in bodies that cannot move. They are awake and aware, but permanently immobile. In this world, Hadens are able to physically interact by using “Integrators,” people who have had a neural implant inserted to allow their bodies to be remotely controlled, and by using “Threeps,” androids also designed to be remotely controlled by Hadens.

 

Agents Vann and Shane specialize in crimes involving Hadens. In Head On, an athlete is killed during a game of Hilketa. Hilketa is a sport where specially designed Threeps physically assault each other, with the goal being the literal decapitation of a specified opponent Threep and sending that removed head into a goal. Since Threeps are not alive, what could go wrong? Apparently quite a lot, as Agents Vann and Shane explore the world of professional sports, where sex and money lead to a trail of bodies that hits too close to Shane’s home.

 

Scalzi specializes in these genre-bending novels and stories. Head On is fully science fiction. A world reshaped by a global plague which led to specific new technologies and adaptations? Check. But Head On is also a mystery and FBI procedural. Two agents pursuing clues that lead to a surprising conclusion? Check. The beauty of Scalzi is that neither genre suffers from the combination, and both are essential to the story. This is not a story that could be written into any other world than the Lock In universe. Agents Shane and Vann know Hadens. He is “locked in,” and spends most of his time in a threep–often one that will soon be destroyed. She was an integrator. Their relationship is often familiar to the mystery/procedural fan: good cop/bad cop, grizzled veteran/young rookie. But it is their experience with Hadens that gives them the extra insight needed to solve these challenging crimes.

 

Some series do not require their books to be read in order. This is not one of those series. If you have not read Lock In, stop. Go buy it or check it out, and read it first. Trust me, you will thank me. Scalzi is a funny writer, and one of the most humorous passages of Head On is in chapter 1. If you have not read Lock In, you won’t get it, and that would just be a shame. It is funny enough that I had to read it aloud to my family, but then I had to explain the background before I could read the passage, and that just took some of the joy out of the joke. Read Lock In, then read Head On, and laugh out loud. In this case, the sequence matters.

 

John Scalzi is one of the top writers in science fiction today, and with Head On he proves that he can be equally effective when writing mysteries. He is a busy man, with four active series currently in development (in 2018). Fortunately, the quality of his writing, his plots, and his characters, are all excellent. Head On is a winner!

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Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

 

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie King

Recipe & Review : Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

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Mystery Series Review: Mary Russell Novels, Laurie R. King

Mary Russell is the leading character in Laurie King’s mystery series that takes place between World War I through the roaring 1920s. American raised 15 year old, Mary Russell meets the retired detective Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs one day and they create a unique relationship that grows from mentor-protege to friends to an equal partnership as the series moves forward in time. Mary Russell is a match for Holmes with her keen observational skills, a logical mind with the ability to deduce as quickly as Holmes himself, and an independent spirit with a compassionate and loyal heart. For most of the series, Mary Russell is an academic from Oxford, studying both the Talmud and chemistry; and Holmes has no issues dragging her from the library or lab into an assortment of adventures.

The series itself is suppose to be the personal writings of Mary Russell, mysteriously gifted to the author, in order to create a memoir of Holmes’ later years and the Russell – Holmes partnership. Therefore, the majority of the series stories are told from the perspective of Mary Russell that include personal reflections on the narrative as reminisces that point out youthful folly or include hidden background information.  The characters, interactions, and dialog of Russell and Holmes truly belong to King, even though, Holmes was clearly grown from the cannon of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle even makes cameo appearances through out the series as well as other fictional and historical characters. In The Moor, Russell and Holmes return to the Dartmoor setting of The Hound of Baskerville to solve a case for the historical figure of Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. In The Game, the partners work with the adult Kim from Rudyard Kipling’s work. In addition, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft Holmes, and Dr. Watson also appear in the series. The historical detail in each novel make it easy to slide into the period, not only the outward setting of clothes and daily details, but the also the more nuanced social norms and interpersonal manners.

As with many multiple volume series written over a large span of time (first book in 1994 and still going strong), the best starting point is the first novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. King was already an accomplished writer at the start of the series and the craftsmanship in her writing has maintained its high quality throughout the series. With the first book starting with Mary Russell as a teenager, this series is very approachable to readers in middle or high school. The first book could easily be classified as a Young Adult coming of age novel.

As an academic or detective, Mary Russell needs a heartier tea like an Assam black tea from India or an English Breakfast blend to get her through both late night study sessions or trailing clues across the country. Likewise, if you can get her to stop and eat, a savory scone or filling sandwich would be needed to refuel her energy level for the next chase and plot twist in a case.

Savory Cheese Scones

  • 2 cups self rising flour
  • 6 TBS cold butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup grated or chopped extra sharp cheddar cheese
  • 3 TBS crushed french fried onions
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup milk, cream, sour cream, greek yogurt, or ricotta cheese
  • Optional: smoked paprika for garnish
  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line it with parchment.
  2. In a food processor, pulse the flour and butter  to make an unevenly crumbly mixture.
  3. Add the cheese and onion, and pulse till cheese is just coated with flour.
  4. Add the eggs and dairy of your choice; pulse just until everything is evenly moistened; the dough will be very sticky.
  5. Spray an ice cream scoop with pan release; then portion scones (about 12) on the baking sheet, pat the tops to flatten lightly. Sprinkle with smoked paprika.
  6. Bake the scones for approximately 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Chicken Curry Tea Sandwiches

  • 2 cups rotisserie chicken breast shredded or 13oz can chicken  
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1 tart green apple (like granny smith or crispin), finely chopped 
  • Salt & pepper to taste (optional, depends on how much curry you use)
  • ¼ cup dried sweetened cranberries
  • Vidalia onion vinaigrette/salad dressing or a light mayonnaise based salad dressing (enough to moisten, so the salad will hold together, but not be runny)
  • Curry powder or paste to taste (if using paste, warm in microwave oven for easier mixing)
  • half a loaf soft whole wheat bread or brioche buns
  • unsalted butter, room temperature
  1. In a large bowl, break the chicken into flakes.   Combine with nuts, apple, cranberries, and onion; stir until well blended. Add curry powder or paste and salt & pepper.
  2. Spread one side of each piece of bread lightly with butter, and go all the way to the edges. Top the buttered side of bread with some of the chicken mixture and top with the remaining bread slices, buttered side down.
  3. Carefully cut the crusts from each sandwich with a serrated knife. Cut the sandwiches into quarters. Yields about 4 whole sandwiches or 8 halves or 16 fourths.

 

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Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

Also see —

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Review & Recipe: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter Series, Susan Wittig Albert

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Book Series Review: The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series by Susan Wittig Albert is filled with many delightful ingredients — cozy mystery, historical Lake District setting, fantasy elements. Albert uses the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter as her main character. As a single female Londoner, Beatrix gets a mixed welcome to her new home in the village of Near Sawrey where she goes to her farm to write and draw her books as well as grieve for the loss of her fiance and escape her domineering parents. Over the course of the series Beatrix solves mysteries large and small while slowly becomes an integral and respected part of the village community.

Each book features a main mystery as well a couple of smaller intriguing issues that are neatly concluded by Beatrix’s keen observation skills, quick wit, and compassionate heart. Albert adds a whimsical fantasy addition by including a parallel problem faced by the animals of the village community who act and talk in the same manner as Beatrix’s literary creations – helpful dogs, generous badgers, marauding rats, even a brave dragon makes an appearance. The language of this series is definitely within the reach of readers as young as upper elementary or middle school and the light fantasy element would be appealing to them.

Albert’s attention to historical detail brings you into the heart of village life of Near Sawrey, as her characters react and reflect on their daily life, enjoy meals, gossip about neighbors, apply manners according to social status, dress for outings, and work the land of the Lake District. The land itself, like the people and animals, becomes a character in how it influences village life. At least once in each book, Beatrix takes time to just appreciate the land with walks or picnics or sketches. The land feeds her need for beauty as well as provides a venue for reflections.

In addition, Albert provides historical commentary in Historical Notes, Resources, recipes, maps, character lists, and glossaries of Lake District dialect words. This series would make a fine bridge into historical novels and period literature for young readers. Readers interested in the life of Beatrix Potter will also enjoy seeking the biographical references listed in the Resources.

Even though, readers know that the series is fiction, Albert makes Beatrix such a plausible and real character that we want to spend time with her. We cheer her steps as she grows from her grief, matches wits with the local matriarch, and discovers the answers to local mysteries. We watch as her makes friends, rebels against her controlling parents, and finds a new romance. We want to become her friend and just sit down and share a cup of tea while she spins another fascinating story. This is the perfect series to read on a picnic blanket in front of a beautiful lake view with some tea and scones.

Tea

In The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix often gathers clues while sharing a cup of tea visiting different villagers. The tea served was probably a black tea where the leaves go through an oxidation process in order to produce a richer flavor. The heartier flavor of black teas enable it to be served with either milk or lemon. Ceylon or Darjeeling teas would be examples of teas that would be served any time of the day. If Beatrix went on a morning visit, a strong tea, such as Assam or English Breakfast would be served. A lighter tea, such as Earl Grey or Formosa Oolong would be served in the afternoon without the milk or lemon due to its more delicate flavors.

Scones

Scones are a traditional treat to serve with tea. In the Cottage Tales series, Beatrix got her scones from a friend that ran a village bakery. This recipe was originally developed for an office gift-in-a-jar exchange. The basic dry mix was layered in a glass jar topped with the dry ingredients for the cranberry orange variation and decorated with a pretty cloth bow and recipe card with the instructions. Note: the addition of an egg is not a traditional ingredient in scones, however, I found a prize winning recipe using an egg and have discovered that the texture less crumbly making it easier to spread toppings. You can omit the egg for a more traditional recipe with the addition of a TBSP or two of extra liquid in the wet ingredient section.

Basic Dry Scone Mix (can be mixed and stored in a jar)

  • 2 ½  C self-rising flour baking mix or buttermilk biscuit mix
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 2 Tbs dried milk powder (optional, unless using juice as a flavor add-in instead of milk/half & half)

Wet Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1/3 cup milk or half/half
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Flavor Add-in Variations (Note dried ingredients can be stored with dry mix)

  • 3/4 cup cranberries & (choose 1) 1 TBS orange zest or 1 tsp orange extract or 1/3 cup orange juice frozen concentrate (defrosted)  in place of milk
  • 3/4 cup frozen blueberries & (choose 1) 1 TBS lemon zest or 1 tsp lemon extract or 1/3 lemon juice concentrate in place of milk
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries & 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  • decrease butter to 2 TBS, add 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese & 2 tsp herbs de provence
  • replace sugar with 3 TBS maple syrup & 1 tsp cinnamon & 1/2 tsp ground ginger or 1 tsp minced crystallized ginger

Preheat the oven to 400. 

Start with dry mix in a bowl.

Top with wet ingredients.

Add any flavor variations from above.

Mix gently with a spatula until the dough just comes together.   

Using a cookie scoop, drop dough balls on to a sheet pan and lightly pat down to flatten – makes about 12 individual or 24 mini-bite scones.

Optional: sprinkle sugar on the tops for a slightly crunchy, shiny topping that browns faster.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on size, until the edges are just lightly browned on edges – tastes best warm from the oven.

 

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Review & Recipe: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

If you enjoyed this post also see:

Recipe & Review : Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

Booklist: If You Like Peter Rabbit… Bunny Books for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: The Fallen, David Baldacci

Book Review: The FallenDavid Baldacci

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Fiction: The FallenDavid Baldacci

Amos Decker remembers everything. He cannot forget. After a traumatic brain injury on the football field, his mind changed and he developed a literally photographic memory. This is a terrific help when it comes to solving crimes for the FBI, but far from helpful when dealing with his own memories. Decker found his wife and daughter murdered. For most of us, memories dim with time. Most of us don’t have perfect recall. Decker’s memories are as fresh as if they happened yesterday. For him, murder is always personal.

 

David Baldacci has created a special detective in his series of “Memory Man” books. (Memory Man, 2015; The Last Mile, 2016; The Fix, 2017; The Fallen, 2018.) Amos Decker has a perfect memory. He also has synesthesia, which means his mind associates colors and/or smells with certain things, i.e. whenever there is a dead body he sees the color blue. With these changes in the way information is processed came changes in the way he processes emotions. He has trouble with empathy and often does not weigh the emotional impact of his words or actions.

 

When he is on vacation with his FBI partner visiting her sister’s family, Amos spots something strange in a neighboring house. Running over to investigate, he sees a fire. Breaking in to stop the fire, he finds two bodies, one dressed in a police uniform. He soon learns these are the fifth and sixth murders in this small town within a very few weeks. Amos and his partner offer their services to the local police; serial killers are their FBI area of expertise, while murder is not typically common in small-town Pennsylvania. What they don’t realize is that murder is not the only criminal act in this town. One character tells Amos, “Nothing is illegal in Baronville.” That may have been true before, but that is not acceptable to the Memory Man.

 

Baldacci is a bestselling author for good reason. His characters are solid and memorable. His dialog is brisk. His descriptions of small town life in Rust Belt Pennsylvania ring true to my observations of the area. He devotes several pages to the scourge of the opioid epidemic, describing it and its impact in chilling detail. All this while keeping a wide-ranging plot moving forward and never losing sight of the core humanity of his characters. Amos Decker is a complex protagonist who has come to terms with his new normal, a normal that is far different from the “normal” that most people have. But in this book, he is confronted with some limitations to his memory. That forces him to look hard at who he is–is he a walking, breathing memory machine or is he a man with a prodigious memory? He also has to deal with a six-year old girl who reminds him of his murdered daughter, and who is confronting a terrible loss herself. Can he find the compassion and empathy within himself to be more than a detective? Can he remember more than just the facts and remember how to care? Those challenges guide the character’s growth.

 

I loved the Memory Man character going into this fourth book of the series. This book makes me love him even more. Baldacci has a special talent for creating powerful characters that do not remain static. The Fallen may be his best work in a long and distinguished career.

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Book Review: The FallenDavid Baldacci

Book Review: Song of the Lion, Anne Hillerman

Book Review: Song of the LionAnne Hillerman

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Fiction Mystery: Song of the LionAnne Hillerman

For decades, Tony Hillerman brought New Mexico to life through the pages of his marvelous books. Featuring Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Hillerman wrote mysteries that shared the beauty of the Navajo nation and its people. Often the landscape itself became a character, with its sacred mountains, its desert climate, and its vast distances between the small towns in the reservation and nearby.

 

Tony Hillerman died in 2008, but his characters continue to live in new works by his daughter Anne. In her 2017 novel Song of the Lion she continues their story as they work to solve a car bombing. An alumni game has brought past basketball heroes back to Shiprock High School. One of those alumni heroes has apparently also brought an enemy with him, as his car blows up during the game, killing a young man whose connection to the target is unknown. Officer Bernadette Manuelito, wife of Jim Chee and herself a Navajo police officer, is attending the game as a spectator. When the bomb goes off she immediately begins working to secure the scene and help the victim. Afterward, she, her husband, and retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn find themselves protecting the target of the blast and working to solve the mystery. Who wanted to harm the man, now a lawyer in Phoenix? Was this related to the mediation he was involved with over plans for a resort in the Grand Canyon? Who was the dead man, and how did he fit into the situation? Throughout, Hillerman’s characters weave their way through Navajo and other native tribal sensitivities and through the desert Southwest which is the silent but still powerful character in all of the novels.

 

Anne Hillerman shares the profound respect for the Diné, the Navajo name for themselves, that her father had. You cannot read a Hillerman book without appreciating the care he or she has for the people who inspired those characters. Anne Hillerman may be a bilagáana (white person) herself, but she writes in love and with a deep desire to get it right. Her father was named a “Friend of the Navajo” by the tribal council in the early 1990s, and she clearly works to make sure his legacy and her own continue accordingly.

 

There is not a bad place to jump into this series. Whether you pick up the latest book (2018’s Cave of Bones) or go all the way back to the beginning (Tony Hillerman’s 1970 The Blessing Way), you will be rewarded by strong characters, intriguing plots, beautiful settings, and the powerful and rich culture of the Diné. Anne Hillerman, like her father Tony Hillerman, can take a standard mystery novel and weave into it the beauty of New Mexico and its native people to create something beautiful.

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Book Review: Song of the LionAnne Hillerman