Category Archives: Book Review

Fair Warning

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

(Published in om 3/13/2021)


What happens when a best selling novel tangentially becomes part of a real life conflict?
Does a reviewer just review the book or should they explore the background which created the current controversy?

Well, Jack McEvoy, the protagonist in Michael Connolly’s newest work, Fair Warning, would leave no stone unturned. In that spirit this reviewer offers a synopsis of the fictional work and an update on the status of the dispute.

Fair Warning opens with the brutal murder of a young woman, Tina Portrero, who is viciously strangled to death. The assailant whispers a final message to his victim,
“People call me the Shrike.” Shrikes are birds known for violently shaking the necks of their prey.

Jack McEvoy had a one night stand with Tina a year before her murder. His name is found in her contacts list bringing him to the attention of local authorities.

Fair Warning is the third Jack McEvoy story from Connelly. Jack has slid down the prosperity pole in this story. A former well known investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a successful novelist he now writes for a small four person consumer watchdog company called Fair Warning. He lives in a barren two room apartment and drives a Jeep Wrangler with 162,172 miles on the odometer.

Using his investigative skills, Jack suspects Tina may have been killed by a cyberstalker. He brings his evidence to Myron Levin the founder and editor of the Fair Warning organization pitching the story as a consumer warning about online predators, a perfect fit for the company’s mission.

McEvoy is hounded by two detectives from the LAPD homicide division and volunteers a DNA sample to prove his innocence. This move sets off a chain reaction of events which propels the reporter into the murky, unregulated world of DNA laboratories, testing procedures and the resale of DNA results for profit. The description of how private DNA and family lineage search companies conduct their businesses and how little governmental regulation exist would make any cautious consumer wary.

Jack’s pursuit of Tina’s killer is a twisting, roller coaster of a journey. The journey reunites him with Rachel Walling, an old flame from prior novels, whose expertise in background investigations could help in his search. To their horror they discover that Tina’s death was not a random tragedy, but just one of several strangulations by a serial killer who is still on the loose.

Connelly has published 35 novels and sold more than 80 million books. He has stated that Jack McEvoy is his most difficult, and autobiographical, character which is why he has rarely featured him in his 30 year career.

Although lacking the rarified skills of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett to create gritty noir atmospherics, Connelly is adept at moving plots forward at a brisk turn the page pace. His characters are clearly, if somewhat one dimensionally, defined and his sense of place is vivid. He knows Los Angeles and its quirkiness.

The post publication controversy of Fair Warning is intriguing and complex.

Connolly’s premise for his book, and its title, comes from an actual consumer watchdog media outlet called Fair Warning. The mandate shown underneath the logo on their web site states, “News of public health, consumer and environmental issues.”
Connolly even uses, with permission, Myron Levin as a character in his work. Mr. Levin founded Fair Warning in 2011 and is also the editor.

Michael Connelly is, in fact, on the Board of Directors of Fair Warning.

On February 19th of this year Mr. Levin and the Board of Directors abruptly announced the closing of Fair Warning. Levin had been accused of making racist statements and of having discriminatory hiring practices by a white reporter who was interviewing for a job at the company. According to the reporter as he was quizzing Levin about the lack of racial diversity in the small firm the editor responded, “We’re not woke.” And he was reluctant to bring in diverse journalist because, “I don’t want them writing about racial justice and stuff like that. That’s not what we do here.”

Levin quickly denied the accusations declaring that while his small staff of four was all white, black reporters had written stories for Fair Warning and that he posted job opportunities with the National Association of Black Journalism.

The evidence of true, conscious discrimination seems a bit shallow. However, two of the four staff writers at Fair Warning penned a letter to the Board of Directors
saying they had raised these issue before and they felt Mr. Levin should resign. If he did not resign they would leave the company.

Connelly said through a spokesperson, “The board is seriously investigating the issue and Michael cannot comment until that investigation is finished.”

The Board and Mr. Levin posted the notification of closure shortly after publication of the Fair Warning’s employees letter.

Now the mystery novel Fair Warning is inextricably entwined with the mystery of the demise of the actual Fair Warning organization.


Book review published in by Jim Raftus

                 THE VANISHING HALF  by Brit Bennett

Pigmentation. Orientation. Assimilation.

Three prime elements in the formula that can determine one’s life.
What race do you belong to?
Who do you love?
How are you accepted?

Brit Bennett brilliantly dissects these questions in her latest novel, The Vanishing Half.
Twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, born inside a small black community in Louisiana during 1938 serve as the catalysts for this fifty years long family saga.

The hometown, Mallard, is so vividly rendered, and critical to the story, that it acts as a character. A cloistered, insular place buried deep in the Creole parish of St. Landry where a person’s skin tone is paramount in how they are received. Generations of its citizenry have purposely married light tone spouses and eschewed relationships with darker blacks. It is a form of hierarchy, and racism, which still exists in some areas today.

Bennett, a young black female writer, utilizes this odd black experience phenomenon to weave a riveting tale of identity, racism and pretense.

Desiree and Stella are described as, “Twin girls, creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair” and also, “ …with skin the color of sand barely wet”. Both sisters feel trapped by the smallness of Mallard and are forever haunted by witnessing their father dragged from the house and murdered by white men when they were young. At 16 years old they secretly escape to New Orleans.

Readers of The Vanishing Half are told on page 4 that, “…after a year (In New Orleans) the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.”

This astounding early revelation allows Bennett to reverse engineer her plot, shifting back and forth from 1954 when the sisters left Mallard to a final funeral scene set in 1986. What a complex, imaginative plot she offers!

Stella’s journey of choice is known colloquially as “passin’ over”. Completely denying your blackness and submerging yourself in the white culture. This deceit is fraught with peril, anxiety and guilt. Rejecting one’s family never becomes easier with the passage of time. For Stella’s family, and the residents of Mallard, she becomes the vanishing half.

Each twin eventually has a daughter, but remain unaware of their nieces’ existence. True to their life choices, Desiree’s daughter, Jude, is, “Blueblack, like she flown direct from Africa” while Stella’s Kennedy is described as, “…perfect: milky skin, wavy blond hair, and eyes so blue they looked violet”.
Jude’s eventual search for her long lost aunt propels her into Kennedy’s life in California where she is a struggling, young actress. Jude also meets Reese Carter a young, transgender black whose sexual evolution she lovingly embraces. Reese’s best friend, Barry, is a high school chemistry teacher from Santa Monica who performs as Bianca two Saturday nights a month in a small drag bar.

Blacks passing as white.
Theresa Carter transitioning to Reese Carter.
Barry playing Bianca.

Clearly Bennett has created a world populated by characters searching to find their true identities and be accepted as who they wish to be.

Given the time span of the main story line from the 1950’s to the late 1980’s their personal journeys occur during some of the most transformative times in America. The Jim Crow south, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy plus Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam, and the advent of AIDS all shaped public opinion and perception of what it means to belong in America.

Bennett very subtly uses this history as a quiet backdrop to her character’s development.

The Vanishing Half has been selected one of the ten best books of 2020 by the New York Times and reached #1 on their best sellers list.

Bennett’s work achieves what the best writing strives to do, bring readers into a different existence and make them reflect on the fortunes of others.

                                                    - END -


Things in Jars

           THINGS IN JARS  by Jess Kidd

            (Published in on 1/09/2021)

Author Jess Kidd demands your total concentration, but rewards your effort.

Her third novel, Things In Jars is her most ambitious and complex work. Set in London the action flits back and forth between 1863 and 1841. In 1863 a strange six year old child, Christabel, who lives secluded in her father’s English manor, is kidnapped. During the abduction she bites one of her kidnapper’s hand and he experiences a garish and painful death. Christabel may be a marrow; part human, part mermaid in Irish folklore.

Christabel’s father hires Mrs. Bridie Devine to find his child. Bridie is a self proclaimed Domestic Investigator who specializes in forensic exploration and, quietly, does minor surgery as a sideline. In vocation and attitude Bridie is an early feminist for the Victorian era. She stuffs her smoking pipe with Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend tobacco. We are told, “… You add lots of Prudhoe’s Blend for colorful thoughts and triple that amount for no thoughts at all.”

Bridie’s pursuit of the absconded Christabel leads her into the strange world of scientist, actors, rouges, and a vague society of “collectors” who take joy in acquiring oddities of life; animal, plant or even human. Many of these anomalies of nature are preserved and showcased in jars. The cast of characters which also includes a carnival barker, a seven foot tall maid (Cora) and a ghost are fully fleshed out by Kidd’s stunning command of language and fertile imagination.

Scenes of pure dread are leavened by her tart humor………………………………………

Chapter 41 begins, “The servants of Albery Hall are having a trying day. Cora Butter has been rounding them up as and when they cross her path – the cook, assorted maids, and a weeping valet have now joined the butler in the cellar. The butler has uncorked several bottles to treat the shock subsequent to being corralled into a windowless dungeon by a seven-foot-tall housemaid armed with a poker.”

Bridie’s near constant companion is Mr. Ruby Doyle a nearly naked phantasmagoric ghost who has tattoos which transform themselves depending upon his mood. He is a mysterious connection to Bridie’s miserable childhood spent as an impoverished helper to a graveyard resurrectionist in the poorest section of London. There are whiffs of a fanciful Dickens in Kidd’s description of Bridie’s early life when she was a waif known as Bridget.

Legends, spirits, murders, mayhem and suspense are brilliantly swirled together by Jess Kidd to produce an intoxicating tale.

Kidd, who is 47 and lives in London, calls her work magic realism. Let’s hope the magic continues with more wondrous works like Things In Jars.

                        - END -

A time for mercy

   Review published - on 1/2/2021

John Grisham had an amazing streak of twenty eight novels consecutively reaching number one on the best seller list. Nine of his works have been made into successful movies. He is, obviously, one of the most popular writers of our time.

A majority of Grisham’s books are courtroom related as he mines his own experiences from a decades long career as a trial lawyer. His latest novel, A Time for Mercy, returns to very familiar territory. It is the third story featuring Jake Brigane, a lawyer in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi.

In A Time for Mercy Jake attempts to juggle two cases simultaneously; one criminal murder case and the other a civil suit involving a tragic train/car accident. The cases are unrelated other than the financial stress placed on Jake and his family in pursuing the expensive litigation against the railway company.

Grisham’s practiced eye and skillful writing introduce us to a plethora of small town characters with their tics and foibles, although at times the author veers into lazy stereotypes. As early as page 1 the main miscreant is described as follows, “ Stuart Kofler was a sloppy, violent drunk. His pale Irish skin turned red, his cheeks were crimson, and his eyes glowed with a whiskey lit fire…” And, of course, Ozzie Walls, the popular black sheriff in a mostly white town, was a local football star whose NFL career was ended by an injury.

One of the challenges for all mystery/thriller writers is to create both foreshadowing of true events and feasible “red herrings” to keep readers off balance as to the actual outcome. Grisham has been a past master of this difficult skill, but in A Time for Mercy the feints and dodges seem too obvious.

Perhaps the burden of creating two parallel plots waters down the impact of the main story. For a 464 page book, which will be blurbed as another “Grisham courtroom novel”, it is a problem that the reader does not reach the actual trial until page 357. Now that’s a very long prelude.

Besides Jake Brigane, many of the characters here were featured in Grisham’s first novel A Time to Kill published in 1989. Incidents of rape and murder ignite both works but there was a much heavier emphasis on Southern racism in the debut work as the accused was black. Themes covered by the new A Time for Mercy include juvenile defenders and capital punishment. Grisham served as a Representative in the Mississippi House from 1984 to 1990 and has long been an opponent of capital punishment. One could speculate that the title, A Time for Mercy may be Grisham’s homage to the powerful 2014 expose of the Deep South’s capital punishment record, Just Mercy, penned by Bryan Stevenson.

After finally placing us into the courtroom, the author deftly, but briefly, describes the ordeals of witnesses, advocates, the defendant and jurors as the tale reaches its conclusion.

However, the real mystery is how Grisham, a writer with great talents, seemed to run out of steam and left so much unresolved. Perhaps another Jake Brigane book is in the works which will tidy up the many loose ends.

The final question is whether Grisham, a noted baseball fan, has lost his fastball.

The jury is still out.

                                            - END -

ANXIOUS PEOPLE (Book review)


Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman’s newest novel Anxious People captures the angst of modern life through the lens of a botched bank robbery, an accidental hostage taking and a single day going really, really sideways. Oh, possible suicides also hover.

It is a comic novel for folks with neurosis.

Backman’s earlier works, such as A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here, have a claustrophobic vibe to them. Their main characters are eccentric loners slowly forced to interact with others. In Anxious People the protagonist, whose name is never revealed, ignites the plot with a singularly foolish, desperate act.

Backman uses repetitive scenes told from the perspective of eight characters to reveal lives in varying degrees of folly, flux, promise and contentment. This elliptical approach and the circular dialogue mimics Joseph Heller’s work in Catch – 22. Both are stories which flit back and forth in time with one tale being told numerous times with comedic insight.

In interviews Backman has been forthright in discussing his time in therapy attempting to overcome bouts of anxiety. He knows the landscapes of uncertainty and self doubt and the affects they can have on lives.

His cast of characters in Anxious People include; a father/son police team, a young lesbian couple about to have their first child, a retired couple trying to limp to the finish line and a desperate parent doomed into making the very bad decision which for several hours disrupts all their lives. The manner in which the bad decision throws this eclectic group together forces them individually, or as couples, to examine their relationships and priorities. Backman handles these revelations with wit, charm and great compassion.

The author shows a deft talent for sharing the quirkiness of commitments and the serendipity of life. The unnamed protagonist received, as a seven year old, this advice from an alcoholic mother, “if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” With such counsel it is no wonder one makes such bad decisions later in life.

Backman’s dedication for Anxious People reads, “This book is dedicated to the voices in my head, the most remarkable of my friends. And to my wife, who lives with us.”

Book lovers can only hope those voices keep feeding the imagination of this talented, versatile writer.

                                     - END -

The Last Pass (Book review published in ProJo on 11/23)

For seven seasons Boston Celtics teammates Bob Cousy and Bill Russell blended their disparate skills to form a devastating force on the basketball court. Two talents who appeared to share one vision of the game which almost always ended in warm celebratory embraces after another championship.

Surprisingly, historian Gary M. Pomerantz new book, “The Last Pass” portrays a post career schism between the legends which haunted Cousy for decades.
The author provides an intimate, detailed exploration into the complicated relationship between legends Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. What “The Last Pass” deftly delivers is two biographies wrapped in an examination of a nation in constant flux from Cousy’s birth year of 1928 to the present. While many colorful descriptions of their on court heroics are included they are merely subplots to the core of the story which is Cousy’s white man’s guilt for not understanding or helping to relieve the burdens his teammate, Russell, carried as a black man in the divided city of Boston and the discrimination he faced across the country.

Pomerantz conducted fifty three interviews with Cousy over a two and a half year period. Russell refused to participate. Although it is tempting to see the cooperation of Cousy and lack of cooperation by Russell as a distillation of their characters, Pomerantz shows us things were more complicated than that.

Both men began their journeys towards fame from impoverished beginnings. Cousy’s father worked on a meagre family farm in France before emigrating to New York in 1927. Russell was born in segregated Louisiana in 1934 and moved to a public housing project in Oakland, California at the age of eight.

The author provides an excellent retelling of the college exploits of these future teammates as they established their basketball credentials utilizing two opposite skills; Cousy’s innovative ball handling at Holy Cross and Russell’s intimidating defense for the University of San Francisco. The Cooz, as Cousy was known, was six years older than Russell and while he enjoyed great individual success during the early 1950’s with the Boston Celtics the team never achieved a championship. This all changed with the arrival of Russell in 1956 as the Celtics went on to win an astounding 11 of 13 championships during his tenure.

Behind the scenes of all this winning there were times of off court difficulties. In October of 1957 a coffee shop in a hotel the team was staying at in Lexington, Kentucky refused to serve two black players. All the Celtics black players decided not to play in the exhibition game they were to play in that evening. While Red Auerbach, their feisty coach, sympathized with the players he felt the problem was with the hotel and not the opposing team nor the organizers of the game who had sold 10,000 tickets. In the end the game took place with all white rosters including Cousy a decision he later deeply regretted.

Pomerantz paints the two men as, not surprisingly, sharing one common trait, fierce competitive natures which abhorred any defeats. Cousy and Russell were also prideful athletes, but Cousy was more of a loner subject often to tough self analysis while Russell was a much more confrontational and intense individual often offending Boston fans with his comments.

A wide array other characters are portrayed during the telling of these two mens’ stories, fellow Celtics: Sharman, Heinsohn, the Jones boys, Sanders…etc., competitors; Schayes, West, Chamberlain, politicians; JFK, Obama all make cameo appearances.

Cousy’s attempt, at the age of 90, to understand and rectify his perceived slight to Russell is captured by the books subtitle, “Cousy, Russell, the Celtics and What Matters in the End.”

“The Last Pass” is Pomerantz sixth book and adds to his solid reputation as a chronicler of sports, history and civil rights.

– END –