Before Paris Hilton, there was Zsa Zsa

Our roving correspondent, Paul O’Connor, whiled away some driving time by listening to a true story that could provide ample fodder for a prime-time TV soap.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE HILTONS: THE TRUE STORY OF AN AMERICAN DYNASTY. By J. Randy Taraborrelli. Hachette Audio. 16 CDs. 19.5 hours. $35. Read by Robert Petkoff.

The good news about this audiobook is that it isn’t about Paris Hilton. The bad news is that it is too much about Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Conrad Hilton was an amazing man. The eldest son of a small town New Mexico merchant, he tried and failed at a number of endeavors in early adulthood. After he found his niche as a hotelier and built a small profitable chain, the Great Depression nearly broke him. After he survived that, he went on to build one of the nation’s great businesses, making a fortune in the process.

He was a devout Roman Catholic, extremely generous to charitable and civic undertakings, and he did his best not to spoil his children.

But he also married Zsa Zsa. Poor guy. The second marriage for both of them. She’d have seven more husbands, he only one more wife, but their lives were inextricably bound together.

Hilton believed strongly in family, and because Zsa Zsa was pregnant at the time of their divorce, Hilton always publicly treated the child of that pregnancy as his own. (The author never determines whether the child was biologically Hilton’s daughter, but Hilton denied her being so in private and later in legal documents.)

Hilton also had two sons by his first wife, the elder being a fun-loving guy who married Elizabeth Taylor, the younger being a serious guy who went on to become Paris’s grandfather and a billionaire in his own right. Oh, and then there was a third son by that first wife, conceived while Conrad was working all the time and while the first wife was probably having an affair with the local football coach who would become her second husband.

I don’t remember any reference to J.R. Ewing in any of this.

So, here’s my advice on this audiobook: Listen to it if you like People magazine and those Hollywood news shows that come on at 7 p.m. Find another Hilton biography if you’re more interested in learning how this amazing businessman built and sustained the Hilton operations.

While the author does wander into the business details of Conrad Hilton’s, they obviously take second priority to the family gossip. Paris does show up on the final CD, and that was all most of us would want to know about her.

Robert Petkoff does an admirable job of reading the book, although his Zsa Zsa voice does grate after 19 hours.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at


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The pet patrol rides again

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

NINE LIVES TO DIE. By Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. Bantam. 253 pages. $26.

Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy mysteries are light and easy-going despite the inevitable presence of at least a couple of murder victims. There’s also always some danger for Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, the human protagonist and amateur sleuth, but her four-legged, furry friends are around to avert disaster. (Of course, you understand, Rita Mae Brown’s cat, Sneaky Pie Brown, helps her write the books, providing the insight into the animals’ points of view.) Even though – or maybe because – the writing team has worked this formula many times now, “Nine Lives to Die” is fresh and fun to read.

The mysteries are good enough to keep the reader interested, but it’s the characters – human and animal – that provide the real entertainment.

In the latest tale, winter has Crozet, a small town on the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, in its grip. It’s the Christmas season, and Harry, her veterinarian husband, Fair, and their friends are busy with their usual year-end activities: distributing care packages to neighbors, and attending the posh fund-raising gala for Silver Linings, an organization that helps teenage boys from needy homes.

But this year, trouble stalks the Silver Linings organization. In fairly short order, two of the prominent men who work as volunteers mentoring the boys are found dead in mysterious circumstances. Irregularities surface in the organization’s accounts, and then two severed human fingers turn up in a pencil jar in the bookkeeper’s office at a church.

Meanwhile, Harry’s intrepid animals discover old human remains in the woods near her farm.

What in the world is going on? Has somebody been getting away with murder for years? Is somebody getting away with murder now?

As usual, Harry and friends get involved in the mystery. Interesting characters in the community make the tale livelier. And the passel of pet detectives – all of whom talk in ways the readers, but not the people they live with, are privy to – leads the charge. This time, the domestic animals get help, warily, from a coyote who has moved into the neighborhood.

This would be a good book to provide a break when the run-up to Christmas gets hectic. But if you’re a fan and can’t wait that long, the descriptions of snow and cold in Virginia’s mountains can serve as a respite from summer’s heat. Either way, enjoy!




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Hindsight’s clear vision

Paul O’Connor once again has put his driving time to good use, this time listening to a troubling book about how the U.S. put Nazi scientists to work in this country after Hitler’s defeat.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor


The passage of time allows us to see very difficult choices from the past with a clarity that was missing in their moment.

Today, Americans are embarrassed that their country, fresh from the Greatest Generation’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany, recruited some of Hitler’s most ruthless scientists to come to the United States, work for the country that had defeated them and gain the rights and privileges of American citizens.

But in late 1944, and the years immediately following, the decision to recruit those scientists and use their expertise for U.S. national defense was not so obvious as wrong. The Allies first faced the possibility that developing Nazi war technology could, in the very latest days of the war, either swing the flow of battle back to German advantage or, somehow, be transferred to the Japanese to prolong the Pacific war.

Then, after the war ended, it became clear that the Soviets, who were quickly emerging as America’s newest enemy, were themselves recruiting Nazi scientists and employing them in the search for new weapons to potentially use against the West.

Annie Jacobsen does a good job of providing historical perspective to the situation that American military and intelligence officials faced at the time.  The Cold War was under way, she explains, the Soviets were perceived as a very credible threat to the West, and there were horrible implications imaginable should the best German scientists land on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

It is only in the latter chapters that, equipped with hindsight’s clear vision, she judges. It is appropriate that she does.

She concludes that the U.S. erred in two key areas of intelligence. The first was in its knowledge of the Nazis who were being admitted to the U.S. – or in a few cases, being employed by the U.S. in Europe. Much that should have been known about these people was either unknown in the 1940s or was deliberately overlooked. These were not the Good Germans we often hear about.

Many were monsters. Some conducted or oversaw scientific experiments on human beings, often killing the test subjects in the process. Others employed slave labor, often working the slaves to death. Others were involved in research and development aimed at chemical and biological weapons.

Her work is exhaustive and, quite frankly, exhausting. Had I been reading this book at home, I’m sure it would have taken me months to finish. The detail and minutiae would have worn me down. But, it was in the CD player of my car as I drove from Raleigh to Denver, and when my mind wandered, I was always able to refocus, even if I’d missed something.

This is a work, however, that most readers of history would prefer in book form if for no other reason than to be able to use the index to refresh memories of the many characters. I say this despite the author’s credible job of reading the work.

Are there more entertaining ways of passing the time on a cross-country trip? A fictional thriller might have been a better choice on my part. But, having endured the bad news that this book provides about my country’s leaders in the postwar years, I’m glad I listened.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at



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Beware the “undid”

Victorian London, with its veneer of manners and morals and its dark realities of poverty and crime, is often depicted in fiction. In this first novel by a young English woman, the dark side of Victorian London is even darker – and more terrifying – than usual.

THE QUICK. By Lauren Owen. Read by Simon Slater. Random House Audio. 15 CDs, 19 hours. $50. Also available in print from Random House.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

This book is as full of twists, turns and dangers as a back alley in a poor section of 1890s London. The biggest shock of all comes fairly early, and it shouldn’t count as a spoiler to reveal that the gentlemen with pale countenances and the occasional spot of blood on the collar – as if from a shaving mishap, but not quite – turn out to be vampires. Even though the word vampire is almost never used in the book.

Lauren Owen writes well, and Simon Slater reads the audio version of her novel exceptionally well, so the early chapters intrigued me. We see the girl Charlotte Norbury and her younger brother, James, spending their lonely, eccentric childhood on a country estate that’s fallen on hard times. Then James goes off to Oxford while Charlotte remains in the country with an elderly relative, because that’s how things go for young men and young women of a certain class in England.

After Oxford, James, trying to succeed as a poet, stumbles into sharing lodgings with another young man, a younger son who has more charm than ambition or principles. Eventually, James falls into an inconvenient romantic attachment that begins to consume him. Then, as far as Charlotte knows, he disappears.

Despite knowing nothing about how to get on in the world beyond her home, much less in the crowded, bustling streets of London, Charlotte sets out to find her brother.

When I realized that Owens’ tale involved the “undead” (or “undid,” as some of the less sophisticated characters call themselves), as differentiated from the “quick,” I briefly thought about giving up on the novel. I don’t usually read vampire tales. But the story thus far had been engrossing, and Slater’s dramatization of it had lured me in. I kept listening, ever more fascinated and entertained in a sometimes-ghoulish way.

Charlotte stumbles into an alliance with a young American man who has run afoul of one group of the undead: the exclusive, mysterious Aegolius Club. Together, they become involved with a couple of unlikely vigilantes who are determined to fight the bloodthirsty monsters who roam London disguised as normal humans, looking for prey.

There’s another prominent group of the undead, of a social class much lower than that of the Aegolius Club, and including a number of street urchins destined to be bloodthirsty children as long as they survive.

As Charlotte desperately looks for James; as the Club members look for James, Charlotte and Charlotte’s American companion; and as all the undead look for the blood they need to keep going, the uneasy rivalry between the two main groups of London vampires (dare I say that word?) seems destined to become a veritable war.

Owen tells all this in a convoluted way, moving back and forth in time and shifting from one viewpoint to another, sometimes recounting the same events through different perspectives. As a result, the reader (listener) begins to share some of the feelings of bewilderment, anxiety and even horror that plague Charlotte and her fellow “quick.”

A reader could look for metaphors about the dark side of Victorian society in this gory tale. A reader could, as I did before deciding to suspend disbelief, wonder if other Londoners might not notice that certain prominent “people” seem never to age or perish.

Or a reader might just, as I eventually did, just get caught up in this unusual, well-told tale and enjoy it.



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One island, two stories

For the first 10 years of my life, I was an Army brat. My father’s last duty station before he retired was the island of Okinawa. In the late 1950s, being the child of a U.S. Army officer on that island was like living in paradise for two years. But not so many years earlier, Okinawa had been anything but a paradise. It was the site of a nightmarish battle, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific during World War II.

Sarah Bird, a former Air Force brat who now lives in Austin, Texas, wrote about life in an American military family on Okinawa in the 1960s in her 2001 novel, The Yokota Officer’s Club. I enjoyed that book. Her new novel set on the island is much more ambitious and powerful.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ABOVE THE EAST CHINA SEA. By Sarah Bird.  Knopf. 318 pages. $25.95.

Separated by 70 years and vastly different circumstances, two teenage girls are nonetheless bound by culture, tradition and shared sorrows in this memorable novel by Sarah Bird.

Luz James is a contemporary Air Force brat, whose mother, a tough sergeant, is head of police at Kadena Air Force base on Okinawa. Dragged to yet another base, another high school, Luz mostly hangs out with the kids, American and “Smokinawans,” who get high on the beach every night. Moving repeatedly, never feeling that she belongs, is bad enough. But Luz has just lost her only real anchor: Her older sister, who shocked her by enlisting after high school, has been killed in Afghanistan. Luz is sinking further into despair and depression.

In 1945, Tamiko Kokuba, along with her beautiful older sister, is swept up in the Battle of Okinawa. The girls and their classmates at an elite high school are pressed into service in the hospitals deep in the Okinawan caves where the Imperial Japanese Army brings its wounded. The Japanese who occupy the island have talked boastfully of how they would easily defeat the invading Americans, but things do not go as expected. At the mercy of both the Japanese, who have contempt for the native Okinawans, and the invading Americans, who don’t understand or care that Okinawans are not Japanese, the girls suffer terrible hardships. Eventually, Tamiko is alone, pregnant, and mourning her sister and the rest of their family. She finds suicide the only way out.

Luz’s grandmother was Okinawan, but Luz’s mother has only vague information about the family. Being stationed on the island has not given mother and daughter the connection they might have hoped, and the loss of Luz’ sister has widened the gulf between mother and daughter.

Then one summer night, straying from the crowd at one of the beach parties, Luz sees a haunting vision of a dying young woman and a baby in a cave. Is she going crazy? Have the drugs and booze finally gotten to her? Or is there something else, something mysterious and mystical, going on?

Although most people today think of Okinawa as just another part of Japan, it historically has a distinct culture. As Bird makes clear, the Japanese were occupying Okinawa, and they sacrificed the island and its people as the American forces closed in on Japan itself. Then after the war, huge American military installations covered much of the island, further threatening its beauty and heritage.

Many Okinawans believe that the spirits of the dead are an important part of life, continuing to exert influence, and that your relatives will be with you in the next world. Remains must be properly honored; souls must not go astray. Bird has obviously done a great deal of research, but for the most part she conveys information deftly, without slowing the narrative.

As Luz tries to make sense of her own life and of the vision she saw, Okinawa is preparing for the annual festival of Obon, when the spirits of the dead are honored. Jake, an Okinawan boy who may be more than just a friend, helps her in her quest.

The increasingly connected stories of Luz and of Tamiko unfold in counterpoint, until they eventually intersect.

Tamiko’s account is heartbreaking, as the forces of war destroy a way of life and an island paradise. For Luz, though things seem bleak, there is more hope, fed by her awakening sense of family and connections.

Through these two teenage narrators, Sarah Bird tells readers much about the rich, sad history of an island that was a pawn in a war between great powers, an island that today is little more than a dot on the map to most people. Above the East China Sea is a story, too, about very different cultures living side by side. And it’s a haunting tale about war and its tragic effects, on those who fight and those who find themselves in the way.




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Not your typical sailor

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ANOTHER GREAT DAY AT SEA: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. By Geoff Dyer. Read by Jonathan Cowley. 5 hours, 52 minutes. Also available in hardback from Pantheon. 208 pages.

Geoff Dyer is an eccentric, irreverent, funny, peripatetic, brilliant, Oxford-educated British writer of fiction and nonfiction, bending the “rules” in both genres. He’s in his 50s, fond of his creature comforts, resistant to change and an atheist.  He’s unusually tall and physically unfit. Despite his tales of having been fascinated by World War II stories and model planes as a lad, he’s about as un-military as a person can be.

So he might seem a terrible choice to be placed on the USS George H.W. Bush, one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world, for a two-week visiting-writer gig. But in 2011, toward the end of the mammoth ship’s first deployment, Dyer landed on board the Bush in the Arabian Gulf. He’d been offered a part in a new writer-in-residence program, and, with a world of choices open to him, he’d asked for the carrier. Now his book about the experience is generating a good bit of attention, positive and negative.

I’ll say right off that although I approached this book a tad suspiciously, I’m firmly in the camp that’s giving it two thumbs up. I’ll also say that although I both listened to and read (more about that later) the book, I think the audio version is a good choice because the reader, Jonathan Cowley, has just the right British accent to help Americans appreciate Dyer’s sense of humor.

I had a particular interest in this book because my younger son is a U.S. Navy lieutenant (junior grade) assigned as the navigator of the USS Truxtun, one of the destroyers that deploy in a group with the Bush. As I write, those two ships and about half a dozen others are in the Arabian Gulf near Iraq, which is in a state of dangerous turmoil. (The Navy has released information about their presence there, so I am not violating any operational security rules.) I’ve seen the Bush (it’s bigger in both area and population than my hometown) several times at its home base in Norfolk, Va. (which is, by the way, the largest naval base in the world), including on the rainy, dreary day in February of this year when it and the Truxtun sailed away on deployment to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Arabian Gulf and wherever else events might dictate.

Also, in a much more limited way, I, too, have been a largely uninformed civilian visitor aboard a Navy warship. When the ship my son was previously assigned to, the USS Mesa Verde, returned from an 11-month deployment in February 2012, my husband and I spent two nights and three days aboard as part of the Tiger Cruise for families. Dyer is right on when he describes feeling as though he’d been dropped into an alien, gray, metal, greasy, noisy universe filled with steep ladders, heavy doors, confusing passageways and very busy people.

If you want a book that details the operations of an aircraft carrier and gives you facts, figures and the official “gouge,” you need to look somewhere else. Dyer even pays his respects to a couple of other books more along those lines. That sort of reporting is not what he does, as anyone who’s read his other books or magazine articles (I had not) would know.

As more than one reviewer has said, this book in some ways is as much about Dyer as it is about life aboard the Bush. (So it’s only fair that this review is turning out to be about me as well as about Dyer’s book.)  He writes not just about what he observed aboard the Bush, but about how he reacted to what was there – his emotions, his prejudices, his petty complaints, his sometimes lame jokes and his hyperactive mind that jumps hither and yon and circles back in a zany way.

And, as some critics have fairly pointed out, Dyer did several things that ensured that he did not experience as fully as he might have what life aboard the Bush is really like. He felt like a conspicuous outsider the whole time, and not just because he was a civilian and possibly the tallest and the oldest person on board.

First, he refused to share sleeping quarters, wangling his way into the ship’s small single room usually reserved for dignitaries. He had been offered a berth in a room for six, sharing with the photographer who accompanied him, the ensign who was assigned to babysit him, and three other junior officers. A room for six, of course, is luxury compared to enlisted berthing, which might have a couple of hundred people sleeping in close quarters. But Dyer was horrified at the prospect.

Appalled by the food on board, he managed to interview the captain’s chef and then regularly got leftovers from the delicious meals she prepared.

During a man-overboard alert one night, Dyer was told just to stay in his quarters – and he did. You get the picture.

And although he had done a fair amount of preparing for his visit, he was woefully ignorant about life aboard an underway U.S. Navy warship. He was disappointed that there was neither Ping-Pong nor badminton, not to mention no bars, no wine at the table and, in fact, no alcohol. How, he wondered, could people linger, relax and chat without alcoholic beverages to loosen things up?

But Dyer’s unabashed ignorance of most things Navy, and his perspective as a coddled, rather effete Brit are part of what made the book rewarding for me. He looks at the U.S. Navy, this ship and the people on board from the point of view of a curious, thoughtful outsider. He is one of the “others” who, as Robert Burns put it, can see ourselves in a way that we cannot. That perspective is in many ways more enlightening and refreshing than the view from an American with more background in naval matters would have been. Dyer also thinks about the meaning of what he observes in a different way than someone who’s more familiar with the Navy would have done.

None of this is to say that Dyer didn’t gather a lot of information while aboard the Bush. With his ensign escort (whom he readily accepted because he realized he would have become lost and probably injured on his own), he visited many areas of what is essentially a city afloat, and interviewed a variety of people, enlisted and officers. He listened to people’s stories, learning a lot about why various ones joined the Navy – whether out of patriotism, a desire to get their lives back on track, or a means to get an education – and what their service means to them.

He makes no bones about his prejudices. An atheist and a liberal, he was rather appalled by the Bible study session he attended one evening, and by the politically and religiously conservative comments of a lieutenant commander who was about to retire from the Navy to help home-school his young children.

And yet, almost in spite of himself, Dyer finds himself honestly moved by many of his experiences on board: a steel-beach “picnic” on the flight deck, a promotion ceremony, awards. He’s impressed not only by how hard and efficiently everybody seems to be working, but also by how working hard and doing a job well, even under difficult circumstances, gives them a sense of purpose and even joy. He marvels at how these thousands of people in close quarters, male and female, most of them quite young, work professionally and politely together.

He is in awe of the U.S. Navy and its role –a major force where history is being made, at “the tip of the spear.” And he reflects upon the American-ness of it all: the optimism, the self-assurance, the conviction that things can get even better.

At first, he is bemused by the nightly prayer on the ship’s loudspeaker. An atheist, he never prays, believing, he says, that there is no one or nothing to pray to. But by book’s end, having departed the carrier for Bahrain, having had a long shower, a proper restaurant meal and one cold beer – which he surprised himself by finding was all he wanted – Dyer lay in his luxurious hotel bed and found himself praying “for those who go to the sea in ships.


How much did I like this book? I began listening to a review copy of the audio version only to find, 20-some chapters in, that I had managed to download it with several chapters missing. So I immediately bought the iBook version to fill in the gap. Then I bought a print copy to include in the next care package I send to my son who’s on a destroyer accompanying the Bush.

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Going downhill

One night, many years ago, I saw Tom Dillon ski down Summit Street in Winston-Salem. So when he asked to review a book about skiing and snow, I wasn’t surprised. As he points out, this book has some important things to say even to the non-skiers among us.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

DEEP: THE STORY OF SKIING AND THE FUTURE OF SNOW. By Porter Fox. Rink House Productions (2013). 286 pages. $14.95 paperback

I was introduced to skiing 50 years ago on a glacial snowfield in Germany, and I’ve often wondered if that snowfield is still there year-round. I got a hint several weeks ago that things may have changed some.

We were on a train climbing over Switzerland’s Bernina Pass, headed down toward Italy, and it was clear that despite the calendar – it was June 1 – winter had only recently departed. The lakes were still frozen, snow still covered everything, and a few backcountry skiers were still out, even with the lifts closed.

But there with all that snow, with a branch of the Inn River dribbling out of a nearby snowfield, sat something I never expected to see that high up in the Alps. It was a bank of snowmaking machines quite similar to those you’ll find at any eastern U.S. ski slope.

The sight of those snow machines made more of an impression on me than almost anything in Porter Fox’s book, which rode in my backpack all around Switzerland. But the point was the same.

Since 1850, Fox reports, European glaciers have lost fully half their volume, 26 percent since the 1970s alone. In the summer of 2012, he says, the famed Matterhorn was snow and ice-free for the first time in recorded history. And with alpine temperatures rising three times faster than the global average, it’s possible to see skiing there as being in a crisis.

That’s a problem for a nation as tourism-dependent as Switzerland, as two geographers from Zurich University noted in a recent report, “Climate Change as a Threat to Tourism in the Alps.” They warned of both significant costs and probable job losses if things don’t change.

But it’s not only skiing that has a problem, and it’s not just Switzerland, Fox hastens to add, for those who might consider fewer downhill runs something less than a global crisis. “As people in the Western U.S. have already seen,” he says, “declining snow depth is the first domino in a long line that can set off a downward spiral of environmental catastrophes.”

Skiers are, if you will, something like canaries in the coalmine where climate change is concerned. Perhaps that’s why some skiers and snowboarders are belatedly beginning to talk strongly about climate change.

Fox, the editor of Powder magazine, published this book late last year, and it’s had a lot of notice, both good and bad. There was a full-page feature story in the Sunday New York Times a few months ago, basically an excerpt of the book. Jeremy Jones, pro snowboarder and founder of the movement Protect Our Winters, calls the book “the most important book on snow ever written.”

But John Fry complained in Skiing History magazine this spring that most ski areas are not struggling, as Fox insisted. Fry said Fox, in places, “struggled with facts.” And then there are the usual legions of climate-change deniers, who also struggle with facts. Yes, that’s an editorial comment.

Fox grew up skiing the hardpack of Maine, but after he was introduced to western skiing, he shifted allegiances and became what we in the sport would refer to as a “powder hound.” Since going to work for Powder magazine, he’s skied all over the world and has been able to take a good look at what’s happening to winter.

This book opens with the story of a giant snowfall and subsequent catastrophic avalanche in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state during the winter of 2012. That accident was also the subject of a 17,000-word story in The New York Times, for which writer John Branch won a 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

The avalanche killed three well-known American skiers, and it was soon clear that some mistakes had been made: too many people skiing an unpatrolled slope and skiing too soon after a huge snowfall, among others. Fox doesn’t deny any of that. “They died in an accident,” he says. “Nothing more.”

But he says the conditions that led to the accident may become more familiar. They were similar to what weather forecasters are warning about, he says – winter rain, longer periods between snowstorms and extreme snowfall. “The avalanche,” he says, “serves as a wake-up call that as the atmosphere changes, the mountains are changing too.”

I had read the Times’ original report, and it was riveting. So is Fox’s account of the storm. But the meat of this book, at least for me, is really in the second half. That’s where Fox takes off for Europe, attempting to find out what’s happening with the weather – and with snow – elsewhere.

He visits some famed resorts, talks with people in the know and takes some great runs. And he includes a report on the famed Swiss Federal Commission for Snow and Avalanche Research, which has been around since 1931. Go there, and you’ll see what the country has done to manage its prodigious wintertime snow load. The Swiss are pioneers.

Some of Fox’s organization is a little clunky, but his book is readable, and I found it a valuable asset to my own tour of Switzerland. I didn’t get to visit that old snowfield where I learned to ski, but I’m still going to. Thanks to Fox – and those snow machines on the Bernina Pass — I have a little better idea what to expect.

  • Tom Dillon is retired from the National Ski Patrol. Information on Protect Our Winters is available at



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A Buffalo girl – detective


A few books and CDs sit heavily on the table in my office, emanating a cloud of guilt whenever I look their way. These are books I read or listened to and liked enough to review – but something happened, and that review never made it out of my head and into print.

One of the books that’s been glaring at me is Black Irish, the 2013 debut in Stephan Talty’s suspense series starring Absalom Kearney, a police detective in Buffalo, N.Y. It’s a gripping, memorable novel, one that raised hopes that many more like it would follow. And the guilt was twofold, with both the hardback book and the Books On Tape audio version heaping shame upon me.

Now Talty has produced No. 2 in the series, giving me a chance to make amends.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

HANGMAN. By Stephan Talty. Ballantine Books. 302 pages. $26. Audio version read by David H. Lawrence XVII. Books On Tape.

BLACK IRISH. By Stephan Talty. Ballantine Books. 320 pages. $26. Audio version read by David H. Lawrence XVII. Books on Tape.

Absalom “Abbie” Kearney grew up as the adopted daughter of a well-respected Irish cop in Buffalo. So you’d think she’d feel right at home when she returned to Buffalo after college at Harvard and a stint in police work in Miami. Her father’s getting on in years, and she’s had her share of troubles.

But, as readers soon learn, Abbie has never really felt at home. The Irish-American world of South Buffalo has long been secretive and suspicious of outsiders, and Abbie will always count as an outsider. The County, as it’s known, has plenty of peculiarities, and it looks after its own, no matter what. Abbie gets some consideration because of her adopted father, but that goes only so far. She has to earn the cooperation and respect of the people of the County, and she has to earn the cooperation and respect of her fellow officers in the Buffalo Police Department. The two goals don’t always coincide.

In Black Irish, the debut novel of this promising series, Abbie is trying to figure out who killed Jimmy Ryan and left his mutilated corpse in a church basement. She’s getting nowhere with her investigation, largely because no one is providing information. Frustrated, she seeks answers at the Gaelic Club, where alcohol tends to loosen tongues.

Soon, Abbie herself feels threatened by the mysterious killer. The secrets lurking underneath Buffalo’s gritty exterior seem to be entwined with the dark shadows in Abbie’s own past, and maybe even that of her beloved father.

In Hangman, the second book in the series, Stephan Talty takes the suspense to another level when a notorious serial killer escapes while being transported by van from one New York state prison to another. Only a few years earlier, Marcus Flynn, aka Hangman, had terrorized the town by preying on the pretty teenage daughters of North Buffalo’s wealthy neighborhoods, until he shot himself in the head after abducting his own cousin, who has yet to be found.  He lived, but his memories were obliterated – until just recently. After he escapes from the van, Hangman heads for Buffalo to resume his murderous ways. Abbie leads a desperate manhunt in the terrorized city, but the diabolical Hangman always seems a step ahead, leaving a trail of bodies.

Abbie’s past intrudes again when she must decide whether to take advantage of the secret Irish network that reaches throughout the city.

Talty has a winner in his detective, Abbie Kearney. It’s a bit of a gamble for a man to create a suspense series starring a woman, but he’s done it just right. Not one of those female detectives who seem more like a man in nearly every way, Abbie is smart, tough and independent while being convincingly female. She’s nice looking and likes her stylish clothes and shoes. She treasures quiet evenings and relaxation at the house she’s recently bought, and loves being with her boyfriend, a policeman in Niagara Falls, as well as with her neighbors. She uses her intellect and sensitivity more than brute force and violence, but she can fight when she needs to.

Interestingly, the audio versions of these first two books are read by a man, and that also works well, partly because the books are told in third person. David H. Lawrence XVII keeps up admirably with the taut pace of the story and avoids inane affectation when reading Abbie’s dialogue. Abbie is neither weak nor a superwoman, but rather an intelligent, courageous but less than perfect human being. Talty and Lawrence convey her personality admirably.

The plots of both these novels are complex and surprising enough to please any fan of mysteries and thrillers. Suspense mounts as the danger increases. Violence is described convincingly but not gratuitously. Buffalo, with its dying industries and faded glories, is a fascinating and complicated setting, brought to life through evocative descriptions. And Abbie Kearney, though she may always feel like an outsider, is every bit a daughter of Buffalo.

It’s not necessary to read Black Irish to be caught up by Hangman, but why not?  Double your pleasure. As for me, I say bring on the next novel in this intriguing series!



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Crime, Minnesota style

By Linda C. Brinson

It should come as no surprise to me or anyone else that John Sandford’s novels are very good. After all, everything he writes lands at the top of the bestseller lists. He brings the writing and investigative skills of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to his fiction, with good result. He’s a person with wide-ranging interests and experience.  And the Minnesota setting is a refreshing change from ordinary fare.

Nonetheless, I had never read any of his books until I came across an audio version of one. I was in between books for listening, so I thought I’d give it a try. As I’ve written before, I’m inclined to try books in the audio form that I wouldn’t sit down and read in print. The reason I hadn’t tried a Sandford novel in print is that I like some police detective/thriller books, but I find many of them longer on violence, gore and misogyny than on plotting and character development.. Sandford’s, I now see, do not fall into that category.

Having now listened to at least a couple of books in each of Sandford’s two series involving agents of Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, I am eager for new ones. I’d also love to listen to (or even read in print; they are that good) the earlier ones in the series. Sandford does allow his characters to go through life changes, such as marriages and new jobs, but a reader can pick up the series at any point without feeling at a loss. It’s like making new friends, accepting them for the relationships you have, and gradually learning more about their backgrounds.

If you listen to audiobooks while traveling with others, Sandford’s books may be good candidates. At the risk of indulging in stereotype, I would venture that some books women like are too “girly” for men. And some books in the thriller/detective genre would not find favor with a lot of women. But fans of intelligent, well-plotted and suspenseful fiction with interesting characters ought to be able to agree on John Sandford’s books. (That’s not to say these are good books for listening with the kids in the car. Things can get pretty graphic.)

Here are brief looks at three of Sandford’s latest audiobooks.

FIELD OF PREY. By John Sandford. Read by Richard Ferrone. Penguin Audio. 9 CDs, 11.5 hours. $39.95.

This is the 24th in Sandford’s “Prey” novels starring Lucas Davenport. Earlier in his career, new readers of the series learn, Davenport was an unusual but effective officer for the Minneapolis Police Department. For some time now, however, he’s worked for the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, handling some of its most sensitive cases.

This time, he’s called in to help out when after the shocking discovery that a serial killer has been at work in the Red Wing area. A couple of teenage lovers stumble onto a smelly cistern on an abandoned farm, which turns out to be filled with the remains of young women. As the body count mounts well into the teens, evidence suggests that the killings took place over a number of years.

Besides the horrifying thought that a killer apparently has getting away with murders for a long time, the sensational discovery brings unwanted publicity to Minnesota and pressure on Davenport’s boss.  Not wanting to deal with the bureaucratic challenges of orchestrating a massive investigation, Davenport stays on the fringes at first. But when the killer becomes a threat to the investigators, he moves into high gear. The killer, he realizes, must be someone who lives in one of the area’s small towns, right in plain sight.

The plotting is deft, as Sandford not only tells us what Davenport is doing and thinking, but also what’s going on with the killer. We are also able to see minor clues that Davenport and the other investigators don’t quite grasp, a device that heightens the tension.  But as the story progresses, the reader, too, is in for some surprises.

What’s the audiobook equivalent of a “page turner”? Maybe a “gas burner,” as those who listen to this one while driving are likely to go a few extra miles if they reach their destination while the tale is still unfolding.

SILKEN PREY. By John Sandford. Read by Richard Ferrone. Penguin Audio. 10 CDs, 12.5 hours. $39.95.

One of the great things John Sandford brings to his novels is infinite variety. In No. 23 of the Lucas Davenport “Prey” series, he plunges into the cutthroat world of politics.

Minnesota’s governor, a Democrat with national political aspirations, calls in Lucas Davenport for some discreet detecting when a scandal has the potential to wreak havoc in a close race for a U.S. Senate seat. A volunteer has found kiddie porn on the computer of the apparently straight-laced Republican incumbent. It’s a touchy situation that could backfire on Democrats if not handled properly, and although they are in different parties, the governor knows the senator well enough to doubt he’s involved.

But Davenport can’t just make the problem go away. Before he’s made much headway into the investigation, he finds reason to believe that there might be a lot more involved.  Word of the porn leaks to the press, and somebody has got to be found responsible. There’s a good chance that dirty political tricks are involved, but who’s behind them? And then there’s the matter of a longtime political operative who’s gone mysteriously missing.

The investigation takes him, of course, into the campaign of the senator’s challenger, a wealthy, beautiful and ambitious woman named Taryn Grant.

What results is a fascinating and sometimes horrifying look into the behind-the-scenes world of high-level politics. This is another tightly plotted book, with fascinating characters and plenty of intrigue and action – not to mention more than a little satire and dry humor aimed at politicians and their hangers-on.

STORM FRONT. By John Sandford. Read by Eric Conger. Penguin Audio. 8 CDs, 9.5 hours. $39.95.

A few years ago, John Sandford gave Virgil Flowers a series of his own. Flowers works for Lucas Davenport in the Minnesota BCA, and the two often figure at least a bit in each other’s novels.  The interaction can be entertaining, partly because they are very different men. While Davenport is independently wealthy and a family man with a wife who’s a surgeon and young children (as well as an adopted teenage daughter), Virgil is a cowboy with longish blond air, boots and a string of ex-wives. A Lutheran minister’s son, he loves fishing and women. He’s a good detective in terms of results, but definitely unorthodox in his methods.

In Storm Front, Virgil Flowers finds himself wondering if he’s been dropped into a movie like the ones based on Dan Brown books or featuring Indiana Jones.

A rare and valuable relic, just unearthed at an archaeological dig, has been smuggled out of Israel. And the apparent culprit is a terminally ill Minnesota man who may have brought it home. Davenport assigns Flowers to meet with the Israeli investigator who’s coming to Minnesota in hopes of retrieving the stone.

Of course, it’s not that simple. The stone fragment turns out to have major political implications for the Middle East, and the man who stole it, though in poor health, is crafty and determined.

Flowers soon finds himself in a wild investigation involving several bad guys and gals, apparently including the Mossad, Hamas, Syrians, a Texan, a TV star and the lovely matriarch of a local family of two-bit criminals. Oh, and some of the people involved have weapons, and don’t hesitate to use them.

This book is a lively adventure, and also delightfully funny.




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Nutty family meets axe murderer

Three years ago, I reviewed (favorably) Colin Cotterill’s first Jimm Juree mystery, set in Southern Thailand. Somehow, the second entry in the series (with the intriguing title of Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach) slipped by me, but I’ll be looking for it. I’ve just read third book about the intrepid Jimm, and it’s, if anything, quirkier than No. 1.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE AXE FACTOR. By Colin Cotterill. Minotaur Books. 294 pages. $24.99.

Jimm Juree’s budding career as a journalist – crime reporter, to be precise – in the Thai city of Chiang Mai was cut short when her mother, eccentric on her best days, sold everything the family had to buy a rundown resort in a remote fishing area. Jimm’s family, although (or, perhaps, because?) it is wildly dysfunctional, is very close, and everyone but Jimm’s sister Sissi (formerly a man), whose business demands good Internet access, dutifully moves and pitches in to run the resort. Everybody includes, besides Jimm and her mother, Mair, her grandfather, who is a former policeman; and her brother, Arny, a body-builder who’s in a relationship with a much older woman. And it turns out that Mair dragged the family to the edge of nowhere in hopes of reuniting with the father who abandoned the children when Jimm was a toddler – Captain Kow, of squid boat fame.

In other words, these books are murder mysteries, but mysteries heavily laced with wit and satire.

This time, Jimm, who in addition to helping run the money-losing resort, picks up extra money by correcting the often hilariously incorrect translations of Thai into English, is thrilled to get a juicy free-lance writing assignment. Conrad Coralbank, a famous author of crime novel who’s originally from England, is living with his Thai wife in a mansion near the resort. Jimm is dispatched to interview the great writer.

One of the first things she discovers, however, is that the author’s Thai wife has disappeared in what seem to be mysterious circumstances. About the same time, the local doctor, a woman, also has disappeared, and, urged on by the doctor’s nurse, Jimm does a little detective work.

Oh, and some unpublished blog entries dropped into the narrative every now and then suggest that there may be a crazed serial killer on the loose.

Jimm’s life gets much more interesting when Conrad Coralbank, now intriguingly available, begins pursuing her. Despite mysterious warnings from someone, Jimm is more than eager to be pursued romantically. It’s been a long time.

Further complicating things, Mair heads off to meet Captain Kow, and a major storm is bearing down on the fragile coastal area.

What has happened to the missing women? What are Conrad Coralbank’s real intentions toward Jimm? Can Granddad Jah and his buddies save the day? These and other questions propel the book toward a bloody climax and the revealing of more than one mystery.

With the addition of Conrad Coralbank, whose background and initials bear an obvious resemblance to his own, Colin Cotterill has taken the series to a new level. He’s poking fun at himself as well as at his characters and society in general.

As the title might suggest, however, with axes involved, this book does have some blood and gore. The mystery turns out to involve some serious corruption. And Jimm, who after all is a grown woman who was once, briefly, married, is no Girl Scout when dealing with Conrad Coralbank.

Not everyone could combine such improbable comedy with a credible and well-plotted mystery, but Cotterill pulls it off admirably. This is a great book to take along on vacation.


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