Stone Barrington’s latest is rich with plot, action and politics

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

BELOW THE BELT. By Stuart Woods. Read by Tony Roberts. Penguin Audio. 8 hours; 7 CDs. $35. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

beltI haven’t read nearly all of the Stone Barrington books, which Stuart Woods cranks out with alarming frequency. I have read enough of them to know that they are of uneven quality; some are more worth a read or a listen than others. Below the Belt, No. 40, is one of the better ones. It’s got plenty of plot, lots of action and it’s something of a commentary on contemporary politics,

As anyone who’s tried the books knows, Stone is a wealthy man, with his private plane, servants and multiple houses in attractive places around the world. And nearly everyone he deals with is also excessively rich, and usually powerful as well. On one level, these books are pure fantasy for those who like to imagine how it would be to have more money than anyone could spend in a lifetime, to be able to hop from Manhattan to an English manor or a desert or island retreat at a whim, and find the chosen abode in perfect order and stocked with goodies. A good deal of dialogue deals with such things as wines, liquors and fine dining, not to mention yachts, cars and aircraft. When Stone needs a car, he buys a luxury one, and there’s no loan involved.

This fantasy lifestyle also includes sophisticated sexual relationships. Stone always has a woman who’s intelligent, usually wealthy in her own right, and perfectly happy to engage in an adult relationship that need not have strings attached. It’s sort of like having a golfing or sailing buddy, only different, wink, wink.

All this wealth, ease and dalliance are intriguing the first or second time, but the less successful books in the series offer little else. A whole novel in which people do little but jet around, buy expensive items, eat and drink well, fall into bed and then arise to do the same things the next day gets a bit boring.

But Below the Belt will have you turning pages feverishly or, if you, as I did, listen to the audio version, taking the long way home to hear what’s happening next. This story begins at Stone’s new spread in Santa Fe, where he hopes to spend time with Holly Barker, a beautiful and willing companion who’s taking a little break from her high-level White House position. Things quickly get complicated after the former president, who happens to be the husband of the current one, asks Stone to do him the favor of taking possession of a strong case. What exactly the case contains and why various people are going to great lengths to acquire it are parts of a mystery that involves current and former intelligence operatives and could have bearing on the president’s re-election.

The action moves across the country and eventually across the Atlantic, with danger and suspense mounting. A key player is a wealthy man who made his fame as a TV personality and who has been carefully groomed by an even wealthier man for a major political role that could profoundly change the United States. Could this celebrity politician have some explosive secrets in his past?

If any of this sounds as though it’s loosely based on our recent election, that’s obviously the idea. But never fear, reading (or listening to) it is a lot more fun than living through recent events.

As always, Tony Roberts does a good job of reading the audio version, and this time, the story is well worth his time and yours.


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Frozen, a la Stephanie Plum

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TURBO TWENTY-THREE. By Janet Evanovich. Read by Lorelei King. Random House Audio. 6 hours; 5 CDs. $32. Also available in print from Bantam Books.

turbo-twenty-three-by-janet-evanovichJanet Evanovich is one of those prolific writers with several series and a new novel of some sort appearing just about every time you turn around. All her books are entertaining, but the first series that propelled her into the big leagues – the one starring Stephanie Plum, an unlikely New Jersey bounty hunter – remains by far my favorite. Judging from the regularity with which these books jump to the top of The New York Times best-seller list, I am in good company.

The latest of Stephanie’s adventures is No. 23, but Evanovich manages to make this book as fresh and entertaining as the first one. And, of course, because these books have a touch of romance as well as adventure and crime, Stephanie still hasn’t resolved her attraction to the two men in her life, Morelli and Ranger, even though she and Morelli are sort of engaged to be engaged. Or something. Let Ranger say “Babe…” as only he can do, and all Stephanie’s resolutions begin to melt.

This time out, Stephanie and her intrepid sidekick, Lula, the buxom former ’ho, happen upon a refrigerated 18-wheeler as they are chasing a criminal who, once again, has jumped bail. When it turns out that the truck contains not only a load of ice cream from a local factory but also a very dead employee decorated like the factory’s famous ice cream bar, things start to get both zany and dangerous.

It seems that two local ice cream factories are warring, and eventually Stephanie winds up working undercover for Ranger’s private security company at each of them, at least briefly. Meanwhile, Lula and Randy Briggs, an annoying dwarf who’s crossed their paths before, are having late-night adventures around Trenton as they try to win a spot on a reality TV show that involves nudity. Stephanie, of course, gets roped into helping them make their videos. Further complicating her life, Stephanie is suspicious of Grandma Mazur’s new love interest.

As always, there are plenty of laughs and lots of action. Stephanie’s life and limbs are in grave danger, naturally, and things don’t go well for her current vehicle. And, also as always, despite her unusual life, Stephanie comes across not as a hardened woman of action but as a likeable gal who doesn’t like guns or violence, wants to do the right thing, loves her wacky family and friends and is just trying to figure out how someone with “virtually no marketable skills” can get by in Trenton, N.J.

These books are quick, light reads . I enjoy listening to the audio versions, with Lorelei King’s voices for the various characters adding to the hilarity.





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The enduring mountain

Tom Dillon, journalist and outdoorsman, reviews a new book that’s full of information about North Carolina’s beloved tourist attraction and state park.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN: THE HISTORY AND GUIDE TO AN APPALACHIAN ICON. By Randy Johnson. University of North Carolina Press, 290 pages, $35.

grandfather-mountainMention Grandfather Mountain near Linville, and the face of the late super-promoter Hugh Morton inevitably springs to mind. It was Morton who promoted North Carolina’s “top scenic attraction,” as it was known, came up with the idea of the Mile-High Swinging Bridge (only 80 feet above the ground, but a mile above sea level), and eventually became one of the best-known North Carolinians of the 20th century.

But Morton isn’t the only name one should associate with the mountain. A more obscure name is that of Randy Johnson, a hiker, cross-country skier and backpacker who set up Grandfather Mountain’s self-sustaining backcountry trail permit system in the 1970s and 1980s. It was that system that really saved what at the time was a decaying trail network, as well as laid the groundwork for what is today Grandfather Mountain State Park.

As Johnson tells it, he and some friends had come to the mountain sometime in the 1970s hoping to do some winter camping and hiking – looking for “the snowiest, most spectacular summit in the South” – only to find the trails closed. There had been a death from hypothermia on a poorly maintained trail, it turned out, and Morton, ever averse to bad publicity, had closed the trails. To him, it had seemed the only option.

“I couldn’t imagine the possibility that the mountain’s highest peaks would be off-limits to hikers,” Johnson writes here, “so I set out to meet Morton. Luckily, he was receptive to a hiker fee-funded, safety registration program I devised to keep the trails open.” Johnson ran that program for more than a decade, reopening old trails and blazing new ones, teaching cross-country skiing, promoting backcountry management, and all the time, writing about it.

He’s still a writer for a several outdoor magazines, as well as author of a number of hiking guides, but this is the book he was destined to write, and it’s a good one. His history follows that of northwestern North Carolina through the travels of the early botanists, on through settlement (yes, there’s stuff about Tweetsie Railroad), the logging years, then into the development of resorts (some good, some bad) and finally through to the emergence of a conservation ethic.

The book reliably follows the battle between Hugh Morton and the federal government about the route of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the region. That’s the fight that ended with the agreement to build the Linn Cove Viaduct over a part of the delicate high-altitude environment. It was a definite battle, and Johnson says Morton’s feelings are probably one reason the mountain’s backcountry is today a state park, instead of parkway land.

There’s also the inevitable information about the swinging bridge and other tourist attractions, which remain under the control of the Morton family and friends. That was one of the compromises that had to be worked out when the backcountry was sold to the state for a new state park. It’s a tourist attraction, but it has been done with more care than a good many others.

One caveat: Don’t expect to tuck this into your back pocket for a hike. It has information about all the trails, old and new, as well as some Johnson would like to see that don’t exist yet. There are also handy tips on photography. But at 9-by-12 inches and loaded with color photography, this is a coffee-table special. It’s a coffee-table special with a lot of information and history, but it’s still a coffee-table book.

But the main point is Johnson’s optimism about the future of the mountain now, with new state protections against development and new state support for the trails. “My hope,” he says, “is that the wild beauty still found on the mountain’s peaks … will open a door to appreciation and inspiration for whoever finds their way to our great, evergreen Grandfather.”

  • Tom Dillon is a retired journalist in Winston-Salem.


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Around the world with Dirk Pitt

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ODESSA SEA. By Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler. Read by Scott Brick. 12 hours. 10 CDs. $45. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

odessaIf you like Dirk Pitt novels, you’ll get your money’s worth and more in Odessa Sea, No. 24, out just in time for Christmas.

These novels are great travel books – ideal for listening while driving or for reading while on a plane or waiting in an airport. This time, the tale is also a travel story because the fat-paced action moves from the Black Sea to Bermuda to Norway to the Mediterranean to Gibraltar to England to the Chesapeake Bay … you get the idea.

Pitt is the director of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) a fictional government agency that deals with ocean exploration and investigation. (In real life, Clive Cussler has created a real NUMA as a nonprofit organization that works with underwater archaeology and shipwrecks,) Somehow, however, doing what might seem to be fairly routine NUMA tasks (if dive expeditions and the use of high-tech submersibles are ever routine) often embroils Pitt and his relatives and associates in dangerous situations involving international bad guys.

This latest novel is definitely one of those times. When Pitt and his colleague Al Giordino answer a Mayday call from a freighter in the Black Sea, they find most of the crew dead in mysterious circumstances. As they try to unravel the mystery, the two are drawn further and further into a tangled web of crime, violence and global political intrigue. Missing gold from the waning days of the Romanov Empire seems to be involved, as are British warships in World War I and a bomber that went down during the Cold War. Pitt’s adult children, twins Dirk Jr. and Summer, are drawn into the danger and intrigue via a shipwreck they find far away from their dad’s activities.

Before it’s all over, a nuclear bomb threat, rebels in the Ukraine, highly advanced drones, an alluring if sometimes-rash Interpol agent and anoxic zones in various bodies of war are involved.

As usual, the Cusslers lace their action tale with plenty of interesting history and science, which is based in fact even if the tales themselves sometimes stretch credulity. There’s so much action, suspense, thrills and interesting information in this story that a lazier or less ambitious author would have turned it into several novels.

This book is definitely worth the trip!



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Better than chicken soup

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING. By Fannie Flagg. Read by Kimberly Farr. 16 CDs; 12 hours. $54. Also available in print from Random House.

wholetownJust as there is comfort food, there are comfort books. Once again, Fannie Flagg has dished up the latter in fine style.

Some people know Fannie Flagg mostly for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café, which became a popular movie, and they think of her as a Southern writer. She is, indeed, a fine Southern writer, but she’s also written some good novels with other settings. We already know the Midwestern town of Elmwood Springs, Mo., from her Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, Standing in the Rainbow and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. (Forgive me if I’ve missed one.)

And now Flagg gives us, as only she could, an overview of the history of Elmwood Springs from its founding in the late 19th century to the present. Fans will be happy to see some familiar characters again, but first-timers won’t have any trouble appreciating what’s here.

Of course, this novel is not some dry accounting of facts, but rather a history through stories of the people who live in Elmwood Springs – and even of many of the people who die and are buried there. Lordor Nordstrom, the dairy farmer who, with his mail-order Swedish bride, got things started back before Elmwood Springs had a name, set aside a special place as a cemetery for family, friends and their descendants. As the years go by, Flagg’s stories of what has “the whole town talking” move easily back and forth between the living and those who find themselves at Still Meadows, mostly at peace but keenly interested in what’s going on.

Still Meadows, as it turns out, is something of a misnomer. Its residents can talk to one another, even if they can’t communicate with the living (for the most part).

This is not, however, a ghost story. It’s very much a book about life, described with Fannie Flagg’s characteristic wisdom. There is often humor in Flagg’s stories, but it’s never slapstick or condescending.

Flagg brings Elmwood Springs alive through a series of fairly brief stories told from a variety of points of view. Common themes and people tie everything together, even as the townsfolk find their lives changed by the Great Depression, wars (worldwide and more limited), women’s suffrage, suburbanization and all sorts of modern inventions, including movies, airplanes and cell phones.

There are happy times and sad. Inevitably, there are tragedies. Some people get what they deserve, while others suffer fates that just don’t seem fair. Yet, the overall feeling among the residents is that life goes on, and that’s mostly a good thing.

This book is sentimental at times, but never sappy. It’s certainly not formulaic. The stories may take a quirky turn at times, but never to an extreme.

Longtime fans should be warned that the audio version is not, as some earlier ones have been, read by Flagg herself. While her Southern accent enhances some of her books, the choice of Kimberly Farr for this one is wise. She’s able to get the Swedish and Midwestern accents just right. And even though the book covers a lot of time, and it’s important to pay attention to the setting of each new section, it’s not hard to follow the audio version.

Whether you listen or read the print version, The Whole Town’s Talking will make you smile a lot, laugh at times and ultimately feel that things aren’t so bad. It’s a celebration of life, family and that elusive thing we call community.




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Playing a risky game

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

SWEET TOOTH. By Ian McEwan. Anchor Books. 400 pages, Softcover. $15.95

sweet_tooth-mcewan_ian-18807532-frntlSerena Frome has been playing out of her league all her life.

The mostly overlooked daughter of an Anglican bishop, she attends Cambridge University, where she’s a middling student in “the maths” and the target of derision by more talented male classmates.

She accepts work in the British Security Services, where few females rise above secretarial positions and where her male superiors outmaneuver her.

But it is in love that Serena, lead character in Ian McEwan’s 2012 thriller, is most obviously outplayed. Her first lover is a gay student who uses her to hide his homosexuality. That’s something one must do in early 1970s England.

Her next is a Cambridge professor, 33 years her senior, who enjoys his dalliance and dumps her at a highway rest stop. Her third is the true premier leaguer, however, feasting on her minor league talent.

Thomas Haley is a rising author and literature professor at a second-tier British university. Frome’s superiors assign her to enlist him in an MI 5-sponsored program through which he’ll receive a regular stipend to write whatever fiction he wants. MI 5 considers Haley a supporter of British ideals, a young cultural figure who’ll be a good tool in the Cold War’s clash of ideas.

After Serena reads several of Haley’s graphically sexual short stories, she fantasizes. Once she meets him – he’s handsome, of course – she lands in his bed, something that’s clearly a conflict of interest for a spy, which, technically, she is at this point.

Poor Serena. She just wants a good job, a good lover and a chance to read. She loves literature and would have been an English major but for her mother’s insistence that she use her math talents to enter a male-dominated field, helping liberate all women.

Serena becomes entangled in the intrigues of MI 5, the jealousies of co-workers, the vindictiveness of a rejected suitor and the manipulations of those much craftier than she.

Sweet Tooth is set amid the social and political turmoil of early 1970s London and is a fictional account of government attempts to infiltrate the intellectual community for Cold War purposes. It’s wonderfully written; no one would expect anything less from McEwan. But one gets the sense that it could have just as easily been a long short story as a novel. One, two, maybe three accounts of weekends in bed might have been enough to get across the concept that Serena and Thomas liked sex.

And just about the time the reader wonders where the hell this story is going, McEwan throws in a twist in the last chapter that turns the whole damned thing on its head. Pretty clever.

That one word sums up the whole novel: clever. All of these men were more clever than Serena, and McEwan is more clever than his readers, at least this reader.

  • Paul T. O’Connor is the political columnist for the N.C. Insider newsletter. Contact him at






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Let justice prevail

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE WHISTLER. By John Grisham. Read by Cassandra Campbell. Random House Audio. 11 CDs. $45.

the-whistler-2897021John Grisham has written so many books that it’s hard to keep count: In addition to the legal thrillers (29?), there are children’s books and books about the rural South, among others. His fans are legion, and sometimes they are hard to please.

Some of his books are better than others, of course, but I have yet to try one that wasn’t worth reading. Maybe it’s because the audio version arrived at my house when I needed a good diversion, but for whatever reason, I liked The Whistler, and spent quite a few entranced hours listening to its story rather than the all-too-real news of the day.

Grisham’s thrillers usually expose problems he perceives in the legal system, and this time out, it’s a corrupt judge. The unlikely heroine is Lacy Stoltz, a young woman who, right out of law school, started to work for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct, the small, underfunded state agency that keeps watch over the ethics of the state’s judges. She’s stayed there, even though the pay isn’t great for a lawyer. Whenever there’s a problem with a judge, Lacey is saddened, but she believes the work is important. Usually, the cases are nothing more remarkable than a judge who has let his alcohol problem interfere with his duties.

But a phone calls plunges Lacy into a case that quickly becomes a lot bigger, more complicated and more dangerous than anything she’s ever handled or even imagined.

From the beginning, it’s all rather cloak-and-dagger, even though lawyers on the BJC don’t carry daggers or guns or even badges. A lawyer who was disbarred and spent a few years in federal prison begins to tell her, bit by bit, about a woman in Florida who he claims is the most corrupt judge in U.S. history. This former lawyer goes by the name Greg Myers, but that’s the result of a legal name change. The information he’s feeding Lacy comes from a go-between who communicates with the real “whistler,” aka “the mole.” Myers is willing to sign his name on the official complaint that will give Lacy’s office the right to start investigating the judge.

Gradually, through clandestine meetings on a boat and chats on burner phones, Lacy learns more of the details – the judge, who turns out to be a woman, is one of the beneficiaries of a huge web of corruption that involves a casino on a small Native American reservation and a gang called the Coast Mafia. There are tales of bribes, kickbacks, rigged trials and a murder or two or three, not to mention an innocent man on Death Row.

The informants, it seems, don’t trust the FBI. They want the BJC to break the case, and their reward will be a hefty whistleblower’s share of the money that will be forfeited.

Lacy and her partner, Hugo Hatch, convince their reluctant boss to let them start the investigation. But before they’ve gone very far, things begin to get very ugly.

Those who want nonstop action in their thrillers may find this book a little slow. The BJC’s work is usually that way – a lot of paperwork and dealing with lawyers. But things pick up after Lacy and Hugo unwisely head to a late-night rendezvous on the reservation. After that, the suspense mounts, and the reader, along with Lacy and others who are involved, begin to suspect danger around every corner. Lacy proves to be a strong and determined woman.

There are some loose ends – at one point, Lacy seems to be starting a romance with a younger man who’s her physical therapist, but then he vanishes from the story. The plight of the innocent man on death row is not resolved as completely as readers might want, but again, maybe that’s because Grisham is demonstrating how slowly the wheels of justice grind.

And Grisham has never been the most eloquent or literary of writers, nor has he pretended to be. Rather, he tells realistic stories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and how right can ultimately prevail even in a society that sometimes seems terribly corrupt and a system that seems awfully slow to respond.

Sometimes, that’s just the sort of book you need to hear or read.

Cassandra Campbell does her usual excellent job of reading, making the various characters come alive believably.






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Beneath the surface

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE TRESPASSER. By Tana French. Penguin Audio. Read by Hilda Fay. 21 hours; 18 CDs. $55. Also available in hardcover from Viking.

the-trespasser-2896705What a delight it is to discover Tana French, a wonderful Irish writer who pours her prodigious literary skills into richly layered detective fiction. I’m a latecomer to the French fan club; this is her sixth book about the Dublin Murder Squad, and she’s regularly on The New York Times bestseller list.

Although all her novels are about the Murder Squad, and this one uses the same two detectives as its immediate predecessor, The Secret Place, it is by no means necessary to have read any of the others to get full enjoyment out of this latest. Once you’ve read The Trespasser, however, you are likely to lose no time laying your hands on French’s earlier works.

The detectives are Antoinette Conway, the only woman on the squad, and Stephen Moran, who’s even newer to the squad than she is. Conway, who had thought that making it to the Murder Squad would be a dream come true, has instead been experiencing something of a nightmare. No one seems to like her; some of her fellow detectives are actively trying to sabotage her. She’s to the point of considering leaving the police force. Steve, her partner, is her only friend on the squad.

Their new case seems at first to be just another of the routine lovers’ spats gone wrong that are so often handed to Antoinette and Steve, though they long to tackle a really complicated and exciting case. Aislinn Murray, a pretty young blonde woman, is found dead in the living room of her stylishly decorated apartment, her bashed lying on the hearth. The table was set for a romantic dinner, and it doesn’t take long to learn that the expected guest was Aislinn’s relatively new boyfriend.

There is, in fact, considerable pressure within the squad for Antoinette and Steve to waste no time in charging the boyfriend, who was in the area of the apartment on the night of the murder.

But Antoinette isn’t one to be pushed, and she begins to see some troubling aspects in this supposedly easy case. For one, she is sure that she’s seen Aislinn somewhere before. And Aislinn’s best friend is acting a little strange, making Antoinette and Steve suspect that she knows more than she’s telling. And why are the other detectives in the squad pushing them so hard?

Antoinette gradually begins to question everything. Is everyone in the squad against her? Can she even trust Steve? Could there be some sinister plot in the background of this increasingly puzzling case? Is she at least partly at fault for the way her colleagues treat her? Is she in danger, beyond the obvious threats to her career?

French’s characters are as complex as her plot. Antoinette was raised by a single mom, who spun a series of stories about the identity of the father. Other than the fact that he hasn’t been around, the one thing Antoinette knows for sure is that he was not white. She’s come up the hard way, and she’s as tough and determined as she is intelligent.

Family also plays an important role as we get to know more about Aislinn, the seemingly Barbie-doll-perfect blonde victim.

French’s prose is literate and evocative. The plot develops rapidly enough to keep the readers’ interest, but not so rapidly as to make us miss the nuances. At least we think we are not missing the nuances, but when all the twists and turns are done, the ending will likely come as a surprise – even though all the elements were there.

This is fine detective fiction, and outstanding writing that transcends genre.

Hilda Fay’s reading is excellent, down to the varied accents, and the compelling story lends itself well to the audio version. French does not write the kind of story in which you need to flip back through the pages to remember who’s who or what happened. We know what Antoinette knows; we worry with her about what she doesn’t know.

Now, where are those other five Murder Squad books?







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Why we do what we do

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

INVISIBLE INFLUENCE: THE HIDDEN FORCES THAT SHAPE BEHAVIOR. By Jonah Berger. Simon & Schuster. 232 pages. $26.99.

invisible-influenceAs much as we’d all like to think that we run our own lives, there’s no denying that social influences help us choose a new car, a preferred brand of jeans or a political party.

Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business, has outlined the most important of these influences. Sometimes we want to be unique, other times we want to go with our crowd and, on occasion, we want both.

Is there any explanation for one musician’s rise on the pop charts and another’s failure to earn much notice outside of her hometown? What explains Britney Spears’ meteoric rise, for example, when other musicians with equal talent never registered with us at all?

Berger says, “monkey see, monkey do.” The crowd influences us. If we see a musician rising on the charts, we check her out. We don’t have time to hear every other aspiring musician, so we take the crowd’s word: Enough people listened to Spears, and she became a star.

But sometimes, we don’t want to follow. As Yogi Berra said, nobody goes there any more because it’s too crowded. There’s a counter influence that drives us to be different. If oldest sister is a biochemist, middle sister becomes a speech therapist and youngest a structural engineer.

Other influences drive us away from options: Note the drop in bookings that PBS News Hour recently reported for Trump hotels. Many people who can afford his hotels don’t want to be associated with him. And there are influences in which we’d like some aspect of the latest trend, but also something different. I like craft beer, but don’t want to drink the same brand as my friends.

Finally, Berger enlightens us on competition and why we sometimes choose to charge but other times quit.

Throughout the entire 232 pages, Berger is insightful and fun. He explains his principles through research anecdotes. One concept is demonstrated through a test of cockroaches in a maze, another by Princeton supper club members. The stories are fun in themselves.

I’m happy I picked up this book at the library. I wonder what prompted me to do so?

Oh, now I see, there’s a secret message on the cover saying, “Everyone’s Reading It.” I just went along with the crowd.

  • Paul T. O’Connor is the political columnist for the N.C. Insider newsletter. Contact him at



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Dark corners in the heart of North Carolina

Bob Moyer reviews the latest thriller by John Hart, a fine North Carolina author. I scooped Bob by a few months: You can see my review of the same book that ran May 8 in the Greensboro News & Record here:

Fortunately, Bob and I agree in our praise of the novel.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

REDEMPTION ROAD. By John Hart. St. Martin’s Press. 417 pages. $27.99.

redemption-road“…bad men and the things that happen in dark houses” haunt the tough young woman cop. An ex-cop, convicted for a murder he didn’t commit, gets out of jail, only to get arrested again. Two children, one poor, one privileged, are in peril. A serial killer not even in the public consciousness comes closer to his intended victim with each turn of a page.

And it’s all happening in Rowan County, North Carolina.

Or, at least, some place that looks very much like that countryside. Author John Hart has written a lyrical piece on the Web about that part of the world and its place in his writing: “I no longer live in North Carolina, but I set my books there, and when I close my eyes it’s what I see: Salisbury and Rowan County, the people and the land and the long, forever river.”

There’s another side to the county as well, a cityscape where “…the east side of town was paved with empty factories and broken dreams.” Hart moves us through this landscape on plot twists and turns that make a verb out of the noun “maze”: The ex-cop gets out of jail only to be confronted by the son of the woman he didn’t kill, a boy cared for by the female cop, whose life was saved by the ex-cop, so she became a cop — and we’re not even out of the first 50 pages.

As the narrative careens around corners, it may go up on two wheels, but Hart never loses control or the reader. He stays busy injecting subplots right up through the denouement, and he manages to get every major character into the grand finale. It’s a blistering, bloody read that will make you think about getting his next book, but also make you think twice about taking the I-85 exit to Salisbury on your way south.

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