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Book Briefs

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Here are some brief reviews of recent reads.

It’s time for Kinsey to retire
I’ve been a Kinsey Millhone fan since Sue Grafton introduced the spunky private investigator in 1982 in “A is for Alibi,” but it’s time to wind it up and let Kinsey enjoy retirement in Santa Teresa.
    In “W is for Wasted,” Kinsey’s name is found on the body of a homeless man who died on the beach. The coroner asks Kinsey to identify the body.
 Through a series of pretty incredible events, Kinsey learns she has ties to the dead man. And,  that’s when the trouble – for Kinsey and the book – begins. Another murder that could or could not be tied to the dead man serves to muddy the already murky plot.
   Grafton’s last few offerings have been weak, but in this one she asks the reader to jump the shark.
     Even the presence of Henry Pitts, Kinsey’s adorable 88-year-old landlord; his brother, William; and Rosie, the larger-than-life Hungarian bar owner, can’t make this plot plausible. It’s a bridge too far.
    I’ll read the next three titles because I want to see how Grafton wraps it up, but it really is time for Kinsey to go to the house.


    
An interesting look at age-old questions
Biology professor Andy Waite is on the tenure-track at a small college in New Jersey while raising two young girls alone after his wife dies in a horrific car crash.  
    He’s also dealing with a neighbor lady who would like to be more than a friend.
    Waite, a “hard core  evolutionist,”  encounters Melissa Porter, an evangelical student who is determined to change Waite’s mind about God.
   She asks him to be her advisor in an independent study in intelligent design.
    “But you should know that I’m a Darwinian. I teach a class some people call There Is No God,” Waite tells the young woman.
    But, she persists.
    “Maybe there’s another explanation for life on earth,”?she said. “A better one than just natural selection or whatever kind of crap that is.”
    Over the course of “the Explanation for Everything” by Lauren Grodstein, Waite and Melissa must deal with issues larger than the subject of her research. In Goldstein’s capable hands, both sides of the creation v. evolution argument are fairly examined, minds are changed, lives are impacted and nothing is tied up in a neat ribbon – kinda like real life.
 

Ronstadt shares her musical journey
If you are a child of the 1960s or just a lover of music, Linda Ronstadt’s book, “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,” offers up a wealth of great stories to enjoy.
    Ronstadt, who grew up on a ranch in Arizona,   was exposed to music from an early age, listening to opera, Mexican folk music and jazz.
   She moved to California just as the folk-rock movement was beginning. She hung out at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, fronted a band called the Stone Ponys, had a relationship with J.D. Souther and hired a young backup band that became The Eagles.
    After a string of hits that included, “Different Drum,” “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou,” Ronstadt stepped out of her comfort zone and sang the lead role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” She also was one of the first pop singers to record songs from the Great American Songbook. She partnered with Nelson Riddle for “What’s New” in 1983 and “Lush Life” in 1984, winning Grammys for Best Pop Vocal Performance for each.
    Ronstadt is a natural-born storyteller with a rich, easy style. Hopefully, a personal memoir is on the horizon. This book was finished and at the publisher before she announced her ongoing battle with Parkinson’s, silencing one of the greatest singing voices of any generation.


    
Laugh out loud look at the mess we call Washington, D.C.
It’s been a long time since I read something as funny and sad as Mark Leibovich’s “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – plus plenty of valet parking – in America’s Gilded Capital.”
    Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, is a true D.C. insider. He has covered the capital for decades, working for the interminable Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, serving as a national political correspondent for the Times’ Washington bureau.  He received a National Magazine Award for his profile of Politico’s Mike Allen in 2011.
    The book begins in 2008 with this opening: “Tim Russert is dead. But the room is alive.”
    His description of the machinations at the beloved NBC news personality’s funeral is just down right funny.
    You can’t work it too hard at a memorial service, obviously. It’s the kind of thing people notice. But the big-ticket Washington departure rite can be such a great networking opportunity. You can almost feel the ardor behind the solemn faces: lucky stampedes of power mourners, about two thousand of them, wearing out the red-carpeted aisles of the Kennedy Center.
    Leibovich doesn’t play favorites. Democrats and Republicans are both fair game. Neither side comes off looking very good.
    “Getting rich,”?Leibovich writes, “has become the great bipartisan ideal: ‘No Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore,’” goes the maxim, “only millionaires.”
    One of the more interesting aspects of beltway life is the women. There’s professional party host and cable producer Tammy Haddad; reporter Andrea Mitchell whose power marriage to former Secretary of the Treasury Alan Greenspan opened a lot of doors;  Arianna Huffington, former Republican and founder of The Huffington Post; Sally Quinn, Bradlee’s wife and regular contributor to the “On Faith” website on WashingtonPost.com; and of course, Hillary Clinton. These girls have learned how to work the room, move the shakers and get things done.
    Politicians-turned-lobbyists are also of special note. Leibovich tells their public-servant-to-riches stories with relish. No wonder congressman and senators are retiring in record numbers. The grass really is greener on the private sector side.
    Take the case of former Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
    In 2008, Lott, a Republican, “started a boutique lobbying firm with former Senate colleague, John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat.”
    The son of “financially stressed parents,” Lott now earns “seven figures a year, easy.”
    Leibovich uses humor to soften the blow that, in reality, Washington, D.C., is a dysfunctional operation that will probably never be free of corruption or the money that drives it.

 

Aloysius Pendergast: A remarkably creepy hero
Dark and violent novels don’t usually get my attention, but the first chapter of “White Fire,” the latest Aloysius Pendergast novel from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, hooked me.
    The book begins with a 1889 meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde at the restaurant in Langham Hotel in London.
    The playwright conveys a story so horrifying that young Holmes is forced to flee the table and head for the men’s room.
    Then, the timeline moves readers to the present, where Corrie Swanson, a young criminal justice student, sets out to examine the remains of 11 miners in Roaring Fork (read Aspen), Colo. It seems a rouge grizzly killed the men sometime in the 1870s.
    Swanson does a little research and finds the connection between the tragedies at Roaring Fork and the initial meeting of Holmes and Wilde. She decides to visit Roaring Fork over her Christmas break, thinking she’ll appeal to the city fathers for permission to examine the bones and find out what really happened to the men.  
    A development company wants to build a spa on the site of the original cemetery, so they’ve moved the skeletons to a warehouse.
    When Swanson runs into a stone wall – in the form of one Betty Brown Kermode, she takes matters into her own hands, gets arrested and is about to be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
    But, Swanson has an ace in the hole – her mentor, FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast.
    According to Wikipedia, “Aloysius Xingu L. Pendergast . . . first appeared as a supporting character in their [Preston and Child] first novel, ‘Relic,’ and in its sequel ‘Reliquary,’ before assuming the protagonist role in ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities.’
      “Pendergast is a special agent with the . . . Federal Bureau of Investigation. . . . He is a favorite among fans for his unique personality, cultural discernment, and his almost preternatural competence. He works out of the New Orleans branch of the FBI, but frequently travels out of state to investigate cases which interest him, namely those appearing to be the work of serial killers.”
    Pendergast has incredible resources, numerous contacts and an eerie knack for getting to the bottom of things. Swanson, fiercely independent, is reluctant to lean on Pendergast, but her rookie mistakes keep her a breath away from complete and total mayhem.
    It’s probably best to begin with “Relic,” but you can read “White Fire” as a stand-alone story. I want to spend more time in Agent Pendergast’s dark, weird world. It’s simply fascinating.
        

‘King and Maxwell’ would have made a solid short story
The plot for David Baldacci’s new novel, “King and Maxwell,” is perfect for a short story, but it’s way too thin for a 419-page book.
    Not exactly sure what happened to the normally reliable Baldacci. Maybe his publisher was pressuring him for a new title. Maybe his public life takes too much time. He is involved in several major charities, including an adult literacy program called Wish You Well and a spin off of it called Feeding Body and Mind. Or maybe he has just run out of plausible plot lines that can be adapted to full-blown novels.
    Here’s how former Secret Service Agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell get their new client.
    They are driving in the middle of a pouring rain when they spot a young man – with a gun – running down the shoulder of the road. Of course, they stop and chase the kid down.
    Tyler Wingo is raging in the night because his father, Sam, has been killed in action while carrying out a secret mission in Afghanistan, or at least that’s what the authorities tell him.
    Tyler questions the news because he received an email from his dad after he was supposedly killed during the mission. He hires King and Maxwell to find out what really happened. Then, he fires them. But the duo is stubborn. They stay on the case and began digging into Sam’s background.
    They enlist the services of Sean King’s ex-wife, Dana, now married to a general who – as miraculously as it seems – has connections to the Wingo case. The assignment ends with a deadly shoot out in a shopping mall.
    Baldacci takes readers on one wild goose chase after the other, while King and Maxwell spend an inordinate amount of time traveling through Northern Virginia seeking counsel from Edgar Roy, the brilliant information analyst from “The Sixth Man.” It’s all padding for a slim plot that involves a 25-year-old tragedy and the man seeking its revenge.
    King and Maxwell are solid characters. They deserve better treatment than Baldacci gives them this time around.

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