History and mystery

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

JEFFERSON’S DAUGHTERS: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America. By Catherine Kerrison. Books on Tape (Penguin Random House Audio). Read by Tavia Gilbert. 17 hours; 14 CDs. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

DaughtersThis ambitious book by Catherine Kerrison, who teaches history at Villanova University, is, in a way, several books in one.

Kerrison combines her two scholarly interests – colonial and Revolutionary American history, and women’s and gender history – in a remarkable feat of research and also of imagination.

The book is all nonfiction, to be sure, but where there are gaps in the information available, parts of the story that, apparently, no amount of diligent research can fill, Kerrison surmises what she cannot know.

By book’s end, Kerrison has made her case that the unknowable parts of the story are at the heart of the era she’s describing – a time in American history when slaves and women, even white women, were not really considered to be among those people who had been “created equal” and whose voices were worth hearing.

Early on, the book is an interesting account of what’s known of the lives of Martha and Maria Jefferson, the only two children born to Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, who survived to become adults, or even teenagers. Widowed early, Jefferson took considerable interest in the education of his daughters, but because he was so embroiled in the affairs of the colonies as they became a nation, he was often separated from the girls.

Drawing on available sources, Kerrison can tell us most about Martha, the elder by several years, who accompanied her father to Paris and attended a convent school for well-to-do young European ladies there. Martha married young after returning to Virginia with Jefferson, raised a large family, spent much time at Monticello and lived into her 60s, with her latter years complicated by Jefferson’s having lost his fortune and their home,

A bit less is known about Maria, the younger sister, who was left with relatives in Virginia before eventually being brought to Paris for a much shorter stay. Kerrison describes the distinct differences in the two sisters’ experiences and how those experiences helped shape them into very different young women. Sadly, Maria died early after the last of several problematic pregnancies, leaving one child who had almost no memories of her, and little written record.

Kerrison’s recounting of the brief life of Maria and the early years of Martha, while fascinating, get confusing at times, especially when listening to the audio version of the book. I found myself wondering at what point in Martha’s experience various things were transpiring in Maria’s life, particularly after Martha had married and had a rapidly expanding family.

Kerrison begins to delve more into educated speculation when writing about the life of Jefferson’s other daughter, Harriet, who was born to the slave Sally Hemings, with whom he had a long relationship. That relationship began when Sally, then a teenager herself, was chosen to accompany young Maria on her voyage across the Atlantic to join Jefferson and Martha in Paris. The Hemings family already had complicated ties with the Jeffersons; Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife; they shared a father.

Living in Paris where laws dealing with slavery were different, young Sally was apparently able to strike a deal with Jefferson that cemented the Hemingses’ special status at Monticello. Harriet, born in the early days of Jefferson’s presidency, had a privileged childhood for a slave. Sources indicate that although she was never officially freed, she was allowed to leave Monticello when she was 21 and given some help on her trip north. Her younger brother, Madison, offered the information in the 1870s that his sister was “passing” as white and was married to a prominent man in Washington, D.C.

Kerrison had some basic information about Harriet’s early years from the records Jefferson kept, in which he briefly mentioned her in his accounts dealing with slaves. But much of what she tells us about Harriet is based on information she knows about other slaves and life at Monticello. She used such phrases as “might have” frequently.

Inspired by Madison’s claims, Kerrison pored through available records in the Washington area, trying to establish Harriet’s new, white identity. That part of the book becomes more like an academic detective story than biography or history.

Toward the end of the book, she philosophizes about the lives of slaves and women at the time and, to a lesser extent, today. Throughout the telling, she strives to be fair, pointing out the ways the white Jefferson daughters’ lives and fortunes were limited by their sex, but also pointing out how much better off they were than slave women.

Jefferson does not look particularly admirable in this book. Kerrison bluntly talks about how the education he wanted for his two white daughters was nothing like that he wanted for his sons. He never would have considered including them in the university he established at Charlottesville, except on social occasions. They were to be educated for their role in society, which was to be wives and mothers and ornamental additions to social occasions. And she bluntly talks about his attitudes toward his slaves, not accepting the often-expressed notion that he was always a benevolent master. Although there were rumors and even news articles about the belief that the “yellow children” at Monticello were his, and although he apparently afforded them special status, he never acknowledged them.

The effect is to present Jefferson as a visionary with high ideals, the author of the Declaration of Independence – but also a man of his times and place, a plantation owner in Virginia, who apparently did not think that equality and freedom should apply to anyone other than white men.

The earlier parts of the book will probably be more pleasing to readers and listeners who like history as story than will later chapters. Overall, though, this is much more an academic book than a popular history. It is a book that will be informative for the majority of Americans who have only a superficial knowledge of Jefferson’s personal life and thought provoking for anyone who takes the time to read it.


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America’s actor, America’s stories

Bob Moyer takes a look at a book from last fall, short stories from someone we think of primarily as a very good movie actor.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

UNCOMMON TYPE. By Tom Hanks. Knopf. 405 pages. $26.95.

uncommonTom Hanks is America’s actor. By dint of good choices, good fortune and great talent, he belongs to that pantheon of actors that includes Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. Even if the movie doesn’t hold up to posterity, Hanks gives us a skillful, dependable and — well, American, performance.

The same can be said of these 17 short stories. There’s not a clunker in the collection. Even in the least effective, a series of four stories styled as columns in a small-town newspaper, such moments of delight as the summation of sounds made by old typewriters pop up.

Typewriters are both the literary and literal mechanical devices that link these stories together. There’s at least one in every story – just the answer to a trivia question as in “Three Exhausting Weeks,” background noise in “Go See Costas,” or a central theme in “These Are the Meditations of My Heart.” Their presence is surprisingly not forced in a panoply of story forms, from the press junket diary of a bit part actor in ”A Junket in the City of Light,” to the movie script of “Stay with Us.”  In these stories and a few others, Hanks takes advantage of his intimate knowledge of show business to bring detail alive.

The strongest theme in these stories, however, emanates directly from Hanks. He is America’s actor — these are American stories. Not just any America, but a kinder, more accepting America, where a World War II vet comes back not bitter because he lost part of a leg and a hand, but grateful because he’s alive and “…felt like he had won the 1945 Irish Sweepstake.”   Hanks’ America is one where the giant couple looming over the deteriorating desert town motel in “Stay with Us” becomes the centerpiece of a billionaire’s social project; a multi-ethnic quartet of friends hangs out with the intimacy of a sitcom in the making in two stories; and a billionaire from the future returns to the joy of the 1939 New York World’s Fair time and again for love because “The Past Is Important to Us.” The best of these stories is the tale of a Balkan immigrant in Manhattan, who finds succor at every turn during his struggle to survive, even in the most unlikely corners, when he is told to “Go See Costas.” These stories take us on a tour of an America we think of fondly in these partisan times.

Hanks has gone from the stage to page with the same expertise that he has demonstrated in his acting career. You may not be thrilled with all his work, but you won’t be disappointed. His is an Uncommon Type of talent.


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It might be … it could be …

Did you know it’s only a few days until the major league baseball teams start spring training? Tom Dillon is well aware that it’s almost time for a new baseball season, so he figures it’s also time for a review of a new baseball book.

MY CUBS: A LOVE STORY. By Scott Simon. Blue Ridge Press. 145 pages. $23.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

CubsThis isn’t really a book. There is no table of contents, there aren’t any chapters, there’s no index, and you can read the whole thing in a couple of hours sitting in the doctor’s office or at the barber shop or maybe even in a bar – which might be the most appropriate place to do it.

There are also a good number of f-bombs you’ll have to negotiate, and there’s a syrupy sentimentality that may turn you off if you’re not a Chicago Cubs fan.

But baseball season has to start with some sort of book, and this is the only one that’s come across my desk so far this winter. It may also give some hope to the perennial losers among us. Maybe Wake Forest University basketball fans can get something out of it.

It’s basically an appreciation of the Chicago Cubs baseball team and all they went through over 108 years of losing before they finally won the World Series in 2016. It’s told through the personal and family memories of Chicago native Scott Simon, a National Public Radio broadcaster who clearly lives – and dies – with his team.

He’s had family ties with a lot of Cubs people, including the late manager Charlie Grimm and a few broadcasters. He’s eaten at the Billy Goat Tavern, whose owner put that supposed curse on the team all those years ago. He knows where bodies are buried – or at least where a few people’s ashes have been scattered. (Hint: It’s near first base.)

He’s thrown out the first pitch to start a game at least a couple of times, an angst-inducing experience. (Don’t miss the part with the yoga teacher.) And his family—wife and two daughters — are apparently just as mad about the team as he is.

He’s really a pretty good storyteller, as will become clear only a few pages in during an encounter with Santa Claus. And no matter what you may think, he has some sort of jaded weird perspective about this slice of life and baseball.

As he put it somewhere early on, there’s no comparing the Cubs with the Titanic or the Hindenburg. Many lives were lost in those disasters, and besides, they only sank once. The Cubs sank nearly every year for 108 years.

Simon has a passing knowledge of poetry, which will be clear as he twists the work of Allen Ginsburg and Rudyard Kipling, among others, into paeans – or maybe it’s pains – to Chicago baseball.

And he has a lot of trivia at his command. Did you know that Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman who let that grounder go between his legs in 1986, had just been traded from the Cubs to the Red Sox?

Simon is a serious journalist, despite these comments. He has eight books to his credit, including the bestseller Unforgettable, and he’s won broadcasting awards that include the Peabody and Emmy.

He also has a serious part toward the end of this book, where he comments about the Chicago murder rate. “I am sickened by Chicago’s homicide crisis, and appalled by attempts to politicize it,” he says. Yes, that means you, Donald Trump.

But Simon’s book is at heart what the slipcover says it is, a “portrayal of paradise lost and found.” And it tells a good story succinctly. So now, let’s play baseball.

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


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Lights, camera, action, love and friendship

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE. By Melanie Benjamin. Random House Audio. Read by Kimberly Farr. 16 ½ hours; 13 CDs. $50.

PictureMelanie Benjamin has made quite a successful career by spinning the real-life stories of famous people into entertaining novels. As she does so, she largely sticks to the known facts, but since life is messier than fiction, she takes liberties, leaving out some details and developments and adding others. Onto the basic framework of documentable history, she hangs imagined thoughts, emotions and conversations.

In the past, she’s written about Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the author and wife of the famous aviator; Mrs. Tom Thumb; and Truman Capote and the New York high society women he called his “swans” in the 1960s and ’70s.

This latest novel is set during the birth of the movie industry in the United States, primarily as seen through the experiences of two friends, the golden-curled Mary Pickford, a darling of the silent film era, and Frances Marion, a journalist, author and highly successful screenwriter.

The story Benjamin spins of those early days in what became Hollywood is fascinating and one the casual movie fan probably knows only vaguely. Mary Pickford and Frances Marion arrived on the scene in its early days, when movies were silent, brief and known as “flickers,” and respectable people in Los Angeles didn’t have much to do with the people who appeared in them – people they disparagingly called “movies.” The two lived through many developments in the industry and even spearheaded some of them.

They were good friends, bound by their ambition and their determination to make it in a man’s world. We see them as young women, wondering if they will have to sacrifice happiness in their personal lives – never finding true love – as they pursue their pioneering careers. Then we see them decades later, when they are all but forgotten by the general public, and the vagaries of life have taken their toll on that friendship.

The developments in the movie industry – technical, artistic and business – are intriguing and entertaining. Benjamin works the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer, D.W. Griffith and Rudolph Valentino into the story. When Pickford does find love and marries Douglas Fairbanks, the two become the King and Queen of Hollywood, greeted by adoring crowds wherever they go, in Europe as well as America.

And then the “talkies” took over the industry in the late 1920s, and many silent screen stars, among them Fairbanks and Pickford, were unable to make the transition.

Frances Marion’s career as a writer is also fascinating, especially when she went to the front in World War I to make films about the contributions of women to the war effort. Then she returned to the movie world as a writer, eventually winning two Academy Awards

Benjamin tells a good story, and, given all the recent revelations about abuse of women in the entertainment industry, it’s certainly a timely one. We see, for one thing, the early days of the infamous “casting couch.”

She is a bit heavy-handed, however, in conveying her themes. We understand that Pickford, Marion and other women in the movie industry were often treated poorly by the men who held the power, and that they had to work twice as hard to get ahead. It’s jarring, however, to hear them think and speak in 21st-century feminist terms about their problems. And we understand, early in the story, that some of Pickford’s emotional problems stemmed from having to work at a tender age as a child actress, and from being made to feel that despite any success, she was always only a step or two away from poverty. Yet, Benjamin tells us this repeatedly.

The narrative is also a little uneven, alternating between Marion’s lively first-person accounts and Pickford’s story, told in third person. And we get great detail about some things while others, such as Marion’s marriages other than to the cowboy film star Fred Thomson, are barely mentioned.

Ultimately, though, the story is well worth the reading or listening. It’s both a fascinating look at the growth of the movie industry and a touching story about the friendship of two remarkable women.

Kimberly Farr does a fine job of reading the audio version with just the right amount of expression and drama to bring the scenes to life in the listener’s mind – almost as if they were on the big screen.

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Franklin Roosevelt, meeting the challenges

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A Political Life. By Robert Dallek. Penguin Audio. Read by Rick Adamson. 30 hours; 24 CDs. $79. Also available in print from Viking. 704 pages, $40.

franklin-d-rooseveltRobert Dallek’s new book about Franklin Roosevelt, published in November, has earned well-deserved spots on more than one “best book of the year” list for 2017.

The book’s size could appear daunting, and as an audiobook it amounts to 30 hours of listening time. It’s worth every minute of turning pages or listening.

Over the years since he died in 1945, only a few months after being inaugurated for his unprecedented fourth term as president, many books have been written about FDR, as well as about his indomitable wife, Eleanor. I have read some of those, particularly several interesting ones about Eleanor. Reviewers who are more scholarly than I am tell us that Dallek’s book, comprehensive, thoroughly researched and presented with admirable objectivity, ranks high on the list of Roosevelt books.

As his subtitle makes clear, Dallek focuses on the outstanding political skills of this remarkable man who led the United States through some of its darkest moments – the Great Depression and World War II. Today’s readers may think, knowing that he did get elected four times, that FDR was always hugely popular. One of the many things Dallek’s book educates the casual reader about is the difficulties FDR had, the developments and issues that threatened his political career, and the fact – freely acknowledged by FDR himself – that if the war had ended before the 1944 election, he probably would not have won that fourth term. By the fall of 1944, people knew Roosevelt as not only president but also a commander-in-chief who was deeply involved in war strategy and diplomacy. Even those voters who disliked him and/or many of his policies were reluctant to turn to someone else while the country had so much at stake.

Dallek tells us enough of the story of FDR’s life to give context to the remarkable political career. He describes his boyhood, his doting and possessive mother, his Groton and Harvard education (he was a lot more involved in the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, than in his college classes). FDR attended Columbia Law School but dropped out after he passed the bar, and he never really enjoyed practicing law. We learn about his marriage to Eleanor, and Dallek describes the stresses and strains, including FDR’s infidelity, without speculating too much on what cannot be known. Later, there are his worries about their children’s troubled marriages and other problems. FDR’s distant cousin, Daisy Suckley, became increasingly close to him as the years went by, and Dallek draws on their correspondence extensively to show what was going on in FDR’s mind and how Daisy gave him the unqualified support that Eleanor, busy with her own interests, did not. Again, though, Dallek does not dwell too much on the unknowable details of the exact nature of the relationship.

And of course, the polio that left Roosevelt crippled is a central part of the story of a man determined to succeed no matter what the odds.

The book is fascinating in so many ways. We see that FDR was bright and willing to try new things, but we also see that he often forged ahead with no real reason to believe whatever new program he was trying would work. Some did, others did not. Often, he trusted more to Providence and luck than to any studies or experience. Of course, in trying to move the nation out of the terrible Depression, to get people back to work and repair the economy, he was navigating in uncharted waters.

He drew on the same instincts and optimism when the nation moved from Depression to war, and Dallek’s insights into FDR’s dealings with Churchill (they were close friends, but not without disagreements) and Stalin are interesting, as are passages about how he made decisions about military strategy.

So much that Roosevelt started or dealt still resonates in American life. He worried about creating a welfare state and wanted people to have self-respect, but he also knew he couldn’t have the streets filled with the starving and homeless. He and Churchill both knew that as soon as the war was over, they would have new problems with the Soviet Union, but they needed Russian help to win the war.

FDR felt that the newspapers, mostly owned by conservative Republicans, were against him and often distorted their coverage. He preferred the newer medium of radio, which had more Democrats in high places, and he used radio to good effect to take his message to the people, through Fireside Chats and other addresses.

Dallek doesn’t portray FDR as a saint but rather matter-of-factly writes about some of his flaws and shortcomings. FDR didn’t do much to help oppressed black people or to speak out against white racists. He consented to the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. He did little to try to help the European Jews as Hitler was murdering them in concentration camps. Often, he went against his own beliefs, but, always the political man, he pragmatically did what he believed he needed to do to have the votes and support he’d need for matters that he viewed as even more important. Issues such as these were the source of some of his greatest stress in dealing with Eleanor, because she put ideals first and let him know clearly when she disapproved of what he was doing or leaving undone.

But doing what was necessary to achieve the larger goals was always on FDR’s mind. He wanted not only to win the war, but also to win the peace so that Europe and the United States would not be plunged into yet another war in two or three decades.

It was that determination to see the war to a successful close and then have a major role in shaping the new world order that kept him going through that last campaign, when, as Dallek clearly shows, he was already a dying man. Yes, FDR was flawed. He didn’t always live up to his ideals. He could be a little thin-skinned and even petty at times. His relationships with women were, shall we say, complicated.

But this book makes it absolutely clear that Franklin Roosevelt was a great man, a man who, like Lincoln, steered the nation as well as anyone could have through some of its darkest times, at great cost to himself.

Dallek obviously did extensive research, drawing on previous books about Roosevelt as well as letters, journals, news accounts and other sources. For the most part, he handles all this material expertly, showing the reader the reasons for the conclusions he presents without making his book slow and ponderous. (I did, I believe, find one error: Dallek writes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” column in which she “described a visit to the Tuskegee Institute in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she observed the training of African American pilots and had the pleasure of a brief flight with the head instructor.” The Tuskegee Institute and that visit were in Tuskegee, Alabama, of course; Mrs. Roosevelt traveled to Greensboro after that flight and wrote her column about her visit to Tuskegee with a Greensboro dateline.)

Read this book, or if you, as I did, need to make a road trip alone, listen to Rick Adamson’s fine reading of the audiobook. You will come away with a new appreciation for how we got to be where we are today, and even perhaps a new hope that the grand experiment that is the United States can weather even the divisive, difficult times we face now. FDR was a political soul, certainly, and a human with human flaws. But he also was a statesman with a vision and ideals, one who quite literally gave his life for his country.

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A prudent president at a dangerous time

Tom Dillon says Jeffrey Engel’s new book on the first President Bush takes a worthwhile look at a time most of us lived  through without fully understanding.

WHEN THE WORLD SEEMED NEW: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War.” By Jeffrey A. Engel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 596 pages. $35.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

when-the-world-seemed-newMost of us lived through the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s without realizing what a dangerous time it was for this country and others. The period included the first Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy in China and the end of the Soviet Union, among many other events.

These 20-some years since invite perspective and a good rereading of the history, and that is just what Jeffrey A. Engel has given us in When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War.

Engel, the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, spent some 10 years in the research and writing of this book, and he clearly believes that the country was fortunate to have at its helm a dispassionate man who thought at great length before acting. Engel calls Bush “a prudent practitioner of Hippocratic diplomacy.”

Much of the book deals with the give-and-take between Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during Gorbachev’s reform movement known as perestroika, and some of it shows Bush’s timidity during his first months in office following the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

He can do little, for example, to stop China’s crackdown on dissidents in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, despite his earlier service as ambassador to China and the friendships he developed during those years. He is, as well, slow to react to a coup attempt against Manuel Noriega in Panama.

But he puts together a coalition, notably including Soviet support, to drive Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army out of Kuwait during the first Gulf War, and he “rode the stream of history,” as Engel puts it, through the fall of East Germany and eventual merging of the two Germanys into one.

As Engel puts it, Bush was “neither creative nor innovative, neither a radical or a revolutionary, but was instead content to follow ‘what worked.’ This is what made him a success.”

The book gives one pause several times. Bush and his allies agreed to no eastern expansion for NATO as Germany was reunited, and that promise was quickly broken when newly freed countries such as Hungary and Poland applied for NATO membership in the years after the end of the Cold War. That still rankles in Russia. As one general raged, “We have lost World War III without a shot being fired.”

Bush quietened such hawks as Dick Cheney – his secretary of defense – when Cheney advocated a continued hard line against the Soviets. Of course, Cheney had his time in power later on as vice president to President George W. Bush.

Then there’s the story of Col. Vladimir Putin, at the time a KGB operative in Dresden, East Germany. By himself, he stood down a crowd of hundreds of people attempting to take over the KGB headquarters in Dresden. Reinforcements never showed up, and Putin later left East Germany angered about what he called a “paralysis of power” in the USSR.

The end of the Cold War, of course, loosened new forces and hatreds in the world, most notably the wars that broke out in the Balkans after the dissolution of the country of Yugoslavia. That was left for George Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, to deal with. That was something Bush and his team probably did not foresee.

Yet Engel says Bush’s prudent style was what was needed at the time. “We cannot know for certain what a triumphalist, a more hawkish, or a more virulently nationalist president would have meant for global security in 1989 and immediately after,” he says near the end of this lengthy volume.

But he adds, “ …there can be no doubt that a more bellicose president in the White House during such tumultuous times might well have produced a more dangerous result.”


  • Tom Dillon is a retired journalist who lives in Winston-Salem.
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The more things change…

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

TWO KINDS OF TRUTH. By Michael Connelly. Little Brown. 402 pages. $29.

twokinds‘Things change.”

On his way to downtown L.A. from San Fernando, Harry Bosch reflects on how the landscape, the office he’s going to, the former partner he’s meeting, have all changed. Not to mention his own life, of course. After a bitter court battle with the L.A.P.D., which pitted him against both the department and many colleagues, Harry is retired now. He works as a volunteer for the San Fernando Police Department. The two bodies on his latest case were still warm, however, when Harry learned once again, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Harry’s former partner and an L.A. D.A. show up in San Fernando to announce the release of a killer Harry put away — and it’s Harry’s fault. DNA found in the sealed evidence box exonerates the guy, meaning it looks as though Harry planted the piece of evidence that convicted the killer. If they prove their case, and they have solid evidence, Harry’s credibility and career are fatally contaminated, as are all cases he solved. Harry knows he didn’t do it; the reader knows he didn’t do it. Harry muses that: “…there were two kinds of truth in this world. The truth that was the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission. And the other, malleable truth of politicians, charlatans, corrupt lawyers, and their clients, bent and molded to serve whatever purpose was at hand.”

To get to the truth, Harry does what he does best — he pores over all the evidence again and again until he finds the piece that doesn’t fit. With the help of his “brother from another mother,” “Lincoln Lawyer “Mickey Haller, he unravels the case in a highly dramatic finale.

But not before he tracks down the killers in the drug-related case in San Fernando. The case drops Harry into an undercover setting where his other case almost does him in. While deep in the situation, he meets someone who tests an “…essential brick” in the wall of who he is. Faced with depravity and danger, he passes from sympathy to action. He does what he needed to do.

So has Connelly, concocting once again what we have known all along, in a story we haven’t heard before. He truly is a master of the genre.


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Waiting for the gun

Bob Moyer’s New Year’s resolution is to review more books even when he’s on the road, as he often is. He just doesn’t know about this resolution yet, but one hopes he will after reading this post.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE CUBAN AFFAIR. By Nelson DeMille. Simon and Schuster. 429 pages. $28.99.

cubanLooking for a book where you can dive into the action with the leathered hero, following him through adrenaline-soaked, body-filled pages until you both emerge, exhausted but fulfilled, with the partner of your choice and righteousness by your side?

Sorry, this is not that book.

Author Nelson DeMille takes so much time to bring The Cuban Affair to a climax that his narrative may qualify as the longest literary foreplay of 2017. It begins when three Cuban Americans come on to Mac to help them with a multi-million dollar project. They want to get millions of dollars and documents in 11 trunks out of Cuba. They need him for his boat and his body — he’s a veteran field officer who served in “Allfuckedupestan” and can handle himself and others in hostile situations. The plan is simple — the boat enters a fishing competition in Cuba with Mac’s first mate as captain. Mac, in the meantime, pretends to become a couple with the woman in the trio on an educational tour sponsored by Yale. Mac can’t turn down the offer, because it looked like “Sex, money, and adventure.”

When they get to Havana, the mock affair intimated in the double entendre title runs amok, while the clandestine affair turns into a tame tour of present landmarks and past crimes of the Castro regime. The only sparks in the narrative are the frequent witticisms offered by Mac.

Then, his first mate meets him on shore and gives him a gun. Now, there’s a rule in both mystery fiction and the theater that if you bring a gun onstage, you have to use it — because everyone is waiting for just that. Sure enough, this gun is hidden in the room, stowed in a waistpack, stuck in a waistband, dropped over a wall, while we are waiting for it to be fired. For hundreds of pages. Meanwhile,  “ ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley,’ “ meaning, according to Mac, “ ’This shit’s not working.’ ” As they make their way off the island, the gun is finally fired on page 374, relieving all that built-up tension.

Unfortunately, there’s not much pop to the conclusion; there’s more powder in the pistol and AK-47’s than there is in the plot, and we are left relatively unsatisfied by The Cuban Affair.


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Zombies, a giant snake and a Plum good story

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

HARDCORE TWENTY-FOUR. By Janet Evanovich. Random House Audio. Read by Lorelei King. 7 hours; 6 CDs. $32. Also available in print from Putnam.

hardcoreHow does she do it? This is No. 24 in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and it’s just as outrageous, hilarious and entertaining as any of the 23 that came before.

Stephanie’s still working as a bounty hunter in Trenton, N.J., hauling in people who jump the bail that was supplied by her Cousin Vinnie, a bondsman. She’s still living in her apartment with her pet hamster, Rex. She’s still anything but the stereotype of a tough bounty hunter, and, as often happens, she’s pretty much broke. Her relationship with Joe Morelli, a cop, is getting a little more serious, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still attracted to Ranger, the handsome man of few words (mostly “Babe…”) who owns a private security company and often comes to Stephanie’s rescue when she’s in danger or her current vehicle has been destroyed in one way or another. Lula, the colorful former “ho,” is still her sidekick, and Stephanie’s nearby family still drives her crazy even while frequently feeding her and helping her in other ways.

But, these familiar elements all just add to the fun as Stephanie deals with much that is fresh, inventive, wacky and sometimes dangerous in her latest outing.

First, her soft heart gets her into trouble. When she tries to haul the grave robber Simon Diggory back to jail, she agrees to his demands that she look after his pet boa constrictor, Ethel, even though she and Lula are decidedly not fond of large snakes. Adventures ensue as she tries to corral Ethel and keep her fed.

Then there seem to be zombies everywhere, stealing heads from corpses and even murdering people in order to extract their brains. Morelli’s latest case and Stephanie’s county hunting begin to overlap.

Then Diesel, who’s extremely good-looking but troublingly mysterious, reappears in Stephanie’s life – and in her apartment. Despite Morelli’s objections, Stephanie gives in to her soft heart again and lets Diesel stay. Although, really, since locked doors don’t stop him and he doesn’t take “no” for an answer, she has little choice. But is Diesel somehow connected with the weird and increasingly scary things that are happening around town?

Complicating life further, Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur has a new “boyfriend” in Florida, driving Stephanie’s mother to drink.

You get the picture. This book is pure fun. Lorelei King – who sounds exactly the way Stephanie should sound, not to mention Lula, Ranger, Grandma Mazur and all the others – brings the audio version vividly to life. Hang on!

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Hard-won rewards

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE MIDNIGHT LINE. By Lee Child. Random House Audio. Read by Dick Hill. 13 hours; 11 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Delacorte Press.

MidnightLineI’d heard about Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, of course – 21 or so best-selling thrillers, some short stories and, oh, a movie or two, among other appearances. But somehow I’d never read a Jack Reacher novel.

I seem to have picked a good one to start with. It’s a thriller, yes, with some rousing fight scenes in which Reacher, the giant former Army cop, takes down multiple opponents; corpses littered here and there, and some operations that are not exactly legal. As an audio book, The Midnight Line was sufficiently suspenseful to keep me listening and even driving extra miles to get to the conclusion of a scene. When I got to the end of the book, I was almost afraid to keep going, for fear of what the outcome might be. But I did.

Having read reviews of previous Reacher novels, I expected all that. Reacher is a West Point grad who left the Army as a major, with an honorable discharge after 13 years of service in which he learned quite a lot, thank you, including how to fight effectively and a strong, if sometimes unconventional, idea of morality. Now he’s a loner, a drifter, traveling the country with no possessions other than his toothbrush, finding situations, usually dangerous, that demand his attention. He’s unusually big – his enemies in this book refer to him as Bigfoot and the Incredible Hulk, among other names.

What I didn’t expect was a sensitive story that would leave me in tears.

This story begins when Reacher, taking a break during a bus ride to wherever, strolls through a small town in Wisconsin and spies a West Point class ring in a pawnshop window. Immediately interested, he goes into the store and examines the ring. It’s class of 2005 and very small, so he figures it must have belonged to a woman. There are initials been commissioned into the Army during a tough time, in the heat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There must be a story there, he reasons, knowing from his own experiences that cadets don’t earn a West Point ring easily, and they don’t give them up unless circumstances are dire in one way or another.

Reacher sets out to find the woman and return her ring.

The quest takes him across the vast, unforgiving plains of the upper Midwest and into the wilds of Wyoming. Along the way, he discovers a darker story than even he imagined, and, increasingly, danger. Eventually, he joins forces with a missing-persons private detective from Illinois and a couple of other, unlikely people. To say more would spoil the reader or listener’s opportunity to follow Child’s expert unfolding of a story that is full not only of suspense and thrills, but also of pathos and humanity.

Dick Hill’s narration does a fine job of matter-of-factly telling a story that’s often gritty and harrowing, and occasionally heart-wrenching.

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