Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Candidate

by Lis Wiehl
with Sebastian Stuart
Thomas Nelson     2016
332 pages     Thriller

The Candidate by Lis Wiehl makes the 2016 presidential campaign we are witnessing look tame—if such a thing is possible.

Erica Sparks, who rose to fame as a GNN news star in the thriller, The Newsmakers by Lis Wiehl,  has become a well established, well regarded nightly news anchor on the GNN network. She also has custody of her young daughter, Jenny, for the first time since her divorce, and she is struggling to keep it all together. The new President of GNN news is pushing her hard to reach the top spot on the nightly news ratings, and she feels enormous pressure to stay on top.

The presidential campaign is in full swing. It is filled with newsworthy aspects; the Republican candidate is a woman senator from Minnesota, and the Democrat is Hispanic from California.  Erica's investigative nose for news begins to sniff overtime when she interviews the Democratic candidate Mike Ortiz and his wife Celeste. Something is just not right about that pair. Ortiz seems way too dependent on his wife, and she is just too much in control. And then there is the gorgeous campaign manager, Lily.  As Erica begins to put together lengthy features about the two candidates, people start dying all around her, including the young woman she has hired to be her personal assistant to help with child care for her daughter. (By the way, Erica is not much of a mother.) Now concerned about the safety of her daughter, Jenny returns to her father and  Erica gets approval from her boss to plunge into the mystery. Erica is more concerned with the story than with her own safety as she travels to Iraq where Ortiz had been held hostage during the Iraq War. While there, she makes a startling discovery that pushes the plot forward at a furious pace to a shocking conclusion at the third presidential debate where Erica serves as the moderator. 

Despite a lot of inconsistencies (like how many nightly newscasters are such daring investigators), this is a fun read. For all her failings, primarily as a mother, Erica has a great investigative nose and a daring spirit. The plot is contrived but compelling. I knew I wasn't reading great literature. I didn't identify with any of the characters, except for the poor, abandoned daughter, Jenny. And I thought that Erica might be just a little bit too smart for her own good. But—I kept reading.

The question I have is one that you probably will ask yourself as you read The Candidate during this month of election frenzy. In an age of media attention to every tiny detail of the presidential candidates, why is Erica Sparks the only one to notice candidate Mike Ortiz's vacant stare and inappropriate smiles? Why did no one else notice Celeste's overbearing nature or her attachment to the campaign manager Lily. At least these impenetrable questions are a delightful diversion from the reality of this year's real-life campaign's craziness.

Lis Wiehl is a lawyer but more importantly a news analyst at Fox News. She brings her legal and television experience to her Newsmaker's series of thrillers. The Candidate is the second in the series. I think that this book makes more sense if you read The Newsmakers first.

Lis Wiehl's website.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


by Robert K. Tanenbaum
Gallery Books     2016
368 pages     Thriller

This thriller is part espionage, part political intrigue, part government corruption, and part legal procedural. Infamy sets out to please everyone except those who like character-driven novels. You aren't going to get to know any characters in Infamy by Robert Tanenbaum. But that's not the point. The point is the plot.  
I had never met New York District Attorney Butch Karp—although he has appeared in many other novels by Tanenbaum. His wife, Marlene Ciampi, who usually helps to solve the crime, only appears in the periphery of this episode. In this case, Karp is prosecuting an army veteran who has killed an important army Colonel in cold blood in the middle of Central Park. But that's not all. The perpetrator says that he was set up, and there is a conspiracy afoot. Well, Karp, who seems to have a finger in every convenient pie, knows something about this conspiracy, code named MIRAGE. His daughter, Lucy, just happened to be at a site in Syria where some bloody murders in the name of MIRAGE went down. How are the murder and MIRAGE connected?

But oh, there are more coincidences. It seems that a wealthy businessman, Wellington Constantine, is mixed up in this somehow as well. He keeps a daily journal conveniently kept in his house that talks about MIRAGE. He also has an unfaithful wife, and a murderous assistant. And wonder of wonders, the man Constantine's wife is having an affair with just happens to be Richie Bryers, who played basketball with Butch Karp in high school.  (This, by the way, just seemed too coincidental and contrived to me. Does it to you?) Then, of course, there is the White House that somehow seems to be involved in the whole mess, although Tanenbaum doesn't implicate the President in MIRAGE. He also doesn't explore how high-up the plot goes. The plot is a perfect s--t storm. 

Regarding characters, the only interesting character is a sexy Russian spy named Nadya Malova, and she is the one who held my attention the most. She appears several times, most prominently in the courtroom scenes that end the book. If this were in the movie, I would want to play her.   

Thank goodness, we finally arrive at the courtroom scenes; first the murder trial in the Central Park killing and then in Wellington Constantine's conspiracy to murder trial. It is in the courtroom scenes that Tanenbaum shines, and I guess this is why people read his books. This last third of the book was really quite good. The litigation scenes move quickly and expertly, and Karp's prosecution was foolproof, at least in the opinion of a lawyer/reviewer. Read his review—it's good.

Robert K. Tanenbaum is one of the country's most successful trial lawyers—he has never lost a felony case. He has been Bureau Chief of the New York Criminal Courts, ran the Homicide Bureau for the New York District Attorney's Office, and served as Deputy Chief Counsel to the Congressional Committee investigations into the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He has taught Advanced Criminal Procedure at his alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law. His previous works include the novels Fatal Conceit, Bad Faith, Tragic, Outrage, Betrayed, Capture, and Escape; and three true-crime books, Echoes of My Soul, The Piano Teacher: The True Story of a Psychotic Killer, and Badge of the Assassin.

I received Infamy from the publicist. She sends me great books.
Robert Tanenbaum's website.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Journey

by Francesca Sanna
Flying Eye     2016
48 pages     Picture Book

Without a doubt, The Journey by Francesca Sanna is the most compelling book that I have read thus far this year—and it is a picture book. When the war in an unnamed country (take your pick) begins, the brave little girl in the story has her life change forever when her father is killed and her family must escape. The trip is scary and extremely dangerous, but "mother is with us and she is never scared." They travel by car, by truck, by bicycle, by foot, by ferry, and finally by train. The girl believes that she is like a migrating bird, and maybe like those birds, her family will find a new home where they will be safe.

The author, who is an Italian illustrator and picture book author, got her inspiration for The Journey when she met some children at an Italian refugee camp. Her illustrations show the scary darkness of the journey from a child's perspective. I was so touched by the girl's trust in her mother and the decisions that the family made to escape from the war. The children (and probably the mother) had no understanding of where they would find a home. Neither the war nor the places that the family is traveling through are named, but the darkness of the illustrations helps the reader know that the danger doesn't go away once they leave the war zone. If I had been the mother, I would have been scared out of my mind, but my purpose would have been singular—to get my children to a better place where they could thrive.

The book is advertised for preschool readers, but I would caution that the pictures are scary. Also, I am not sure that preschoolers would understand the context of the experience—unless you were one of those children taking this journey. Where I see this book being used successfully is in elementary schools for creative writing, or in schools where there are refugees and immigrants. As a matter of fact, one of my friends is using The Journey for a writing seminar for high school students that she is conducting. It is perfect in that setting. I can also see it in settings where refugee and immigrant services are offered and children are served, like the Justice for Our Neighbor clinic at my church. 

The Journey is receiving a lot of press; starred reviews in all the major reviewing outlets. Run, don't walk, to pick one up for your elementary aged (and higher) children. The most timely picture book of the year.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

by Marie Kondo
Ten Speed Press     2014
224 pages     Self-help
Audio Book

My daughter's best friend is a house organizer and cleaner. My daughter is not. Besides that, she has two pre-schoolers. One evening her house organizer friend was trying to help her tidy up, and my daughter told her: "Really I never learned how to clean. We were all taught how to clean up for the cleaning lady." Ouch!

Everyone has been talking about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. You've heard about it, haven't you. I decided to give it a try.

I listened to The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up in the car on a long car ride Tuesday. Like many people of my age bracket, there is a huge accumulation of stuff that comes from having lived as long as I have. I have been trying to start the process of "tidying up" by working to get rid of 3 things every day. Well, listening to Marie Kondo, I realized that my method was not the appropriate way to do the job. Kondo has a very specific method and works to advise people about their tidying up habits. She teaches a method that she assures the reader is foolproof.

As I drove, I thought about where I would begin putting this book into practice. I thought about my messy office, my messy sewing room, my messy closet. I mused that Kondo's method might work for me.  It was when she started to tell me the precise fashion in which to fold t-shirts in order to make them happy that I turned off the book in disgust. As one Goodreads reviewer said, "She is 'batshit' crazy."

 I do need to start liberating the things in my house, but these are things—inanimate objects—they do not have feelings!!! At the same time, I realize that this is a system that works well for a lot of people. And Kondo guarantees that if you use her system, you will get control of your house and your stuff.

Oh—and one more thing. Kondo began tidying up when she was 5-years-old. Wait a minute! This is the only child I have ever known that tidies up at age 5. If she had been my kid, I would have taken her to the psychologist for treatment for OCD! As it is, she has made a whole career of tidying up.

Meena Duerson from the Today show tried the method. Here is her report on what happened in her life.    

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Manitou Canyon

by William Kent Kruger
Atria Books    2016
336 pages     Mystery

Cork O'Connor is the former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota. Now he owns a burger joint/detective agency at the edge of Iron Lake, and as Manitou Canyon opens, he is closing the restaurant and dreading November. Even though his daughter Jennifer is going to be married later in the month, many ghosts of Novembers past haunt Cork even more than the prospect of the harsh winter ahead. He thinks of November as the "shoulder season, right on the cusp of winter."

Cork is drawn into the search for a missing civil engineer, John Harris. Harris designed some of the largest dams and bridges in the world, and he and Cork were childhood friends. Harris went into the Boundary Waters area with his two adult grandchildren, Trevor and Lindsay, and disappeared while he was out fishing. Although a search doesn't find his body, Trevor and Lindsay believe that he is out in the wilderness somewhere, and they know that Cork knows the territory well and can help them.

The mystery evolves slowly and builds to a page-turning, breathtaking finish. There is a tremendous interplay between the ancient and the modern in the plot. While it begins with a search for a missing person, it becomes a life and death battle for Cork to save himself and others during an evolving fight to save tribal lands from an environmental disaster. Militant natives fighting the mining industry. Interestingly enough, when I looked at the news this morning, I read about a current Native American protest over a pipeline being built in North Dakota. Protesters are saying that the pipeline is damaging a native burial grounds. Read about it in Time. In most of the Cork O'Connor books, the tension between the Native Americans and the modern culture is palpable.

Cork O'Connor is a thoroughly conflicted man. He has one foot firmly in the modern world and one foot in the ancient traditions of his Ojibwa heritage. He long ago came to believe that his heritage influenced his every movement and everything that happened to him. "It was who he was, something which had been passed down to him and from which he couldn't turn away, something that would always threaten him and those who loved him and were loved by him." In many ways, the race to save John Harris is a spiritual journey as well as a physical journey. Cork must work through his demons and lead from his heart rather than just his head. 

Native spirituality and native practices play a very large role in Manitou Canyon (and I would suppose all the Cork O'Connor books). Krueger's respect for native culture plays heavily in the character development and the plot. Henry, one of Cork's closest friends, is a "mide," a traditional healer and spiritual mentor. His influence permeates the book as do the other spiritual practices of the native peoples in the book. Besides being a thrilling mystery, the reader is imbued with spirituality and spiritual practices.

The very best part of Manitou Canyon is the setting with all its beauty, danger, and elusiveness. Cork knows the Boundary Waters very well, and has navigated its lakes and portages many times. He knows the dangerous weather signs of November and the constant threat of cold, rain, and snow. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reviewer uses this example: " Cork thinks of the 'thousand moments when a man’s breath is taken away by some sudden, unexpected beauty … [then with] no warnings of the dangers — severe storms that blew out of nowhere, high waves that could founder a canoe, falling trees, forest fires.'” The setting and its weather is as much a part of the thriller as is the thriller itself.

This is the 15th book in the Cork O'Connor series. I read the first few of them years ago, but had not read one for several years. I love reading about Duluth, the North Shore, and the Boundary Waters because this is my home turf. One of my favorite North Shore books is The Long Shining Water by Dannielle Sosin. Another mystery series based in the north woods of Minnesota is Vidar Sundstol's Minnesota Trilogy. I read the satisfying first book of that series, The Land of Dreams

Finally, I want to mention that my niece, Cory Dack, spent the summer guiding youth voyages in the Boundary Waters. She told me that she has seen marvelous growth in the teenagers who venture on those journeys and that she finds her soul there as well. Manitou Canyon explores those waters and those soul experiences in ways that are just as satisfying as the mystery the book exposes.