Monthly Archives: January 2017

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Five

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Ever since reading Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy, I had wanted to read a book about some of my favorite movie stars such as Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. But it was several factors that prompted me to read this one entitled, Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy first. Interestingly, it was actually an interview with Richard Russo about Russo’s latest book, Everybody’s Fool (which I also read this year) that got me thinking about Paul Newman.

If you are not familiar with Russo’s previous book about the same characters, Nobody’s Fool, then you may not have seen the movie of the same name based on his book. In the movie, Newman played the affable character Sully. In the interview, Russo had glowing comments amount Newman’s performance as Sully and how he brought so much more into the character than was in the book (Newman had also been cast in the TV version of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Empire Falls). Russo’s one somber note was that he was sad that Newman wouldn’t be around for an encore performance of Sully if his latest book were made into a movie.

Ultimately the reason that I picked this particular book first is because it was another one-day $1.99 BookBub offer and the clincher was that it was written by the same author as the Rat Pack book I’d read which I had thoroughly enjoyed.

For a book that was not an authorized biography, this is a surprisingly complete and revealing story of Paul Newman. Despite multiple unsuccessful attempts to gain access to Newman, Levy assembled a well researched and detailed chronology of Newman’s life based predominately on previously published interviews and events that had occurred throughout Newman’s life. And there was much to that life that I never knew.

It was interesting to read how many of the movies Newman stared in came to be and what some of the reviews were once it was released. I particularly enjoyed reading how he interacted with Richard Russo on their collaborations together given the insight I had gained from his book interview. But there is so much beyond his acting career that I found of interest.

Newman was a car-loving guy just like me. But Newman extended that love of cars to racing as well where through much training and practice over several years, he became quite good at racing. In fact there were times when he put his acting career on hold to pursue racing and was rewarded with several wins. Newman was still racing into his 70s so it was a life-long sport he participated in. This love of racing also led to him sponsoring racing teams where he wasn’t always the sole driver.

But probably the two most impressive aspects about his life that I didn’t know was his philanthropy and his ability in spite of the “Hollywood-odds”, to celebrate 50 years of marriage, albeit with his second wife.

First, based on my own experience, I know that being married to the same person for 50 years is a tremendous accomplishment that requires continual dedication and commitment. My parents achieved it, my in-laws achieved it and it is an event I hope my wife and I will be able to celebrate as well. Among movie stars, it is a most rare occurrence.

Second, we are all familiar with “Newman’s Own” brand of salad dressing and spaghetti sauce, but it was amazing how this business that donates all profits to charity got started and what it has grown into today. But something I had completely no knowledge of was the camps for kids that Newman built all over the world originally for ill children but then expanded to other children in need. It is a legacy that continues today, one of Newman’s proudest accomplishments.

Paul Newman died in September 2008 and Levy’s book ends with Paul’s last recorded words. When I read those words, they brought tears to my eyes and a whole new found respect for the life Paul Newman led and the legacy he left behind. It’s a rare Hollywood story that reads so well.

oldmanandsea

For my classic this year, I read Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea. There were several reasons I chose this one. First, last year I heard his daughter, Mariel Hemingway speak at a benefit dinner. The stories she told piqued my interest in reading some her dad’s books.

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Then when the US began to lift sanctions on Cuba and opened up US travel to there, I heard numerous news stories about the house where Hemingway lived and wrote. Often mentioned was this book and since it was his Pulitzer Prize winner, I thought it would make a good choice.

As with my other recent classic reads, I did not read this one in high school. But considering that it is only about 120 pages, it shouldn’t be a burden on a high school student. Even as slow a reader as I am, I read it in a single sitting in about 2.5 hours.

Other than the title, I knew nothing about this book except that it was about an old fisherman. For me, at times it tended to bog down as the old man endured wave after wave of hardship. But towards the end, I began to turn the pages more rapidly as I anxiously awaited the climax of the story. When I compare this classic to the ones I have read in previous years, I would say I liked this one the least. However, with a classroom led discussion, I am sure I would get more out of the too-short story.

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I hoped you enjoyed my book reviews this year. If I piqued your interest enough to read one, then my efforts have been worthwhile. But if you read one and thoroughly enjoy it as much as I did, then it will have brought pleasure to both of us. Because there is nothing better than a great book!

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Four

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What an incredible story. Most everyone has heard about or is at least familiar with the tale of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped below ground and then rescued in 2010. Deep, Down, Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector Tobar tells the true story of what actually happened. By special arrangement, only Tobar, along with the makers of the recently released movie, The 33 (2015), had unlimited access to the miners, their families, and the miners written and photographic documents after their rescue. And even though the eventual outcome of this historical event is fairly well known, the details are not.

The book breaks down the story into three phases. First, following the collapse in early August, those on the surface are left to discover if there are any survivors. This involves an almost “fishing-expedition” like process drilling in search of the men. Then once evidence is discovered that the miners did in fact survive, the story swings into the multiple herculean efforts under taken to keep them alive and bring the miners out. Then once freed, the book describes how each miner individually fared following their celebrity status once they were pulled 2,100 feet from below ground.

It’s a story of extreme survival and rescue on par with Uruguay’s rugby team that crashed into the Andes Mountains, as told in the book and movie by the same name, Alive. If you enjoyed that book, you definitely won’t want to miss this one either.

everbodysfool

I just love Richard Russo’s writing. So when I learned that he had published a new book in 2016, Everybody’s Fool, I was delighted. When I learned that it was a continuation of a story he had published years earlier, Nobody’s Fool, I was ecstatic.   If you have not read Richard Russo before, I would start with Empire Falls, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Then start at the beginning and read all of his books. You’ll find that Russo is not a prolific writer like Cussler or Patterson who churn out book after book. No this is where quality over quantity definitely really matters.

This story interestingly covers a period of less than 48 hours, about 10 years after the time of the first book. But an enthralling 48 hours it is with numerous divergences back in time that bring richness and understanding of the lives of the characters. And from the opening pages to the very end, there are several story lines that twist and turn and in the end, each is illuminated.

Throughout my reading of this book, it was impossible not to picture Paul Newman—cast as Sully in the movie Nobody’s Fool—whenever the story turned to Sully’s troubles. Sadly he won’t be available if they turn this latest book into a movie. But even sadder was when I turned the last page of this book and realized it was over. All I can hope is that Russo is working on another new novel.

informant

A fiction novelist could not have concocted and written a more unbelievable story. And yet this book, The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald is a well-documented, non-fiction accounting of the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) price-fixing scandal of the mid-1990s. When I saw this title pop up on my daily Book Bub and read the brief description, I knew it was a must read. I recalled back to when the story first broke in the news and followed all the updates with interest as several well-known pharmaceutical companies were also implicated in the conspiracy.

The book is filled with incredible details about the case from the very beginning to the dramatic and surprising conclusion. And along the way, the story takes unexpected and sometimes shocking twists and turns that nearly derail the entire covert operation. Although lengthy (over 650 pages), it will keep you turning page after page (numerous times I had to force myself to put the book down and go to bed) as you learn some of the activities the FBI informant, Mark Whitacre, an ADM executive undertook. Since it has been almost 20 years since the incident, I couldn’t recall the final outcome. So the ending was not a spoiler for me but a surprise finish.

before-thefall

Again I’m pleased with my one of my $3.99 BookBub finds. Were it not for that, I don’t know that I would have heard of Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall: A Novel unless someone had recommended it to me. Well I am now recommending it to you, my reader.

In case you have not heard about this book, it is the story of a private plane that crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. This is not a spoiler; this is what we learn in the very beginning of the book. Then interspersed among intriguing chapters that progress and reveal the story following the crash are other chapters about each occupant on the plane, providing some relevant background on them, and then how they each ended up on that plane.

The ultimate cause of the crash is not revealed until the very end of the book amid a controversial side plot so it will keep you in suspense throughout. I couldn’t put this book down (well one time I had to because I ran my iPad down to 1% battery left). It was fortunate that I started reading it over Labor Day weekend because I could read unhindered by the call of work. I finished it in three days. You may not read it this fast; but you’ll want to—or even faster.

To be continued…

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Three

deadwake

I became a fan of Erik Larson after reading Devil in the White City several years ago, which was only reinforced once I read his book Thunderstruck. So when I saw that he had published another book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, I quickly added it to my wish list. I was not disappointed.

It is truly amazing to me how Larson can write non-fiction that reads like a novel, almost as if he were an eyewitness. His account keeps you enthralled from beginning to end and even though I knew how this story ended, it was still a page-turner for me. As usual, Larson interwove several related stories together to give multiple perspectives of the tragedy that occurred. The one story that surprised me the most was a love story that I knew nothing about, one that could have been a significant distraction to a key player within the story.

Jumping from parallel story lines in London, Paris, Washington and the north Atlantic Ocean, as the events unfolded I found myself hoping against hope for a different ending. But his telling is true to reality. Even when I got to the eventual climax of the tale, I couldn’t put the book down as my heart rate quickened as the disaster unfolded.

In the epilog, it was truly amazing to read all the “what ifs” that could have resulted in the story playing out significantly in a less tragic way. While one mystery of why the ship sank so quickly was largely explained, the overall puzzle as to why the attack occurred in the first place given the secret knowledge that was gained at the time will remain much in the fog that weather-wise, could have prevented the loss in the first place. Finishing the book left me thirsting for another Erik Larson.

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It was with immense excitement when I discovered that before he died, Jack Finney had written this sequel to his cult classic time travel book, Time and Again, a book written in 1970 and one that I had thoroughly enjoyed reading based on a recommendation from Stephen King in his time travel book 11/23/63.

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Before purchasing though, I checked out a few of the reviews and found them to be polar opposites. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first book, I decided to judge for myself, bought it, and chose to read it on vacation when I could enjoy long, uninterrupted periods of reading time.

As with the first book, this one wove actual historical events into the time travels of the protagonist, Simon (Si) Morley who this time documented his adventures with a portable camera, a device unavailable in his previous travel to the New York of 1882, when he was forced to make sketches of his travels. In this latest book, the intrigue involves Si on a secret mission to 1912 in an attempt to alter events that play not only into the beginning of World War I, but also the fateful loss of that infamous ocean liner on its maiden voyage in April of 1912, two seemingly unrelated events.

Again in this book, the moral dilemma is raised of the unknown and inconceivable consequences of altering the course of history, only this time an outcome that could directly impact Simon’s son. I won’t reveal the outcome so as not to spoil the ending for those of you who may chose to read this second book. But having read both books now, I find myself squarely in the middle of the reviews half way between the polar opposite positive and negative reviews. I would highly recommend the first book, which I thoroughly enjoyed several years ago. As to the second, I will say in my opinion it is not as good as the first. But for someone intrigued with time travel, they are both books worth reading.

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A book that had been on my wish list for over a year—ever since I heard a podcast interview with its author, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong—was Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. But thanks to an Amazon one-day sale for $1.99, I snapped it up. While the author interview was what originally piqued my interest, what got me to add this book to my list in the first place was a nostalgic memory from the first year I was married when my wife and I would watch a rerun of the show every afternoon after work. So I read this book with a number of visual fond memories from the TV series.

The TV show originally aired on Saturday night from 1970 to 1977. These happened to be the years I was in high school and college, a time when I would not have been caught dead at home on a Saturday night watching TV, which explained why I never saw the shows when they were originally broadcast.

While of late, I’ve read a lot of history books, I’d never read a book about a TV show before so I didn’t quite know what to expect. But the book followed a very natural chronological progression. Opening with the story of Mary on the Dick Van Dyke show and following that, how the producers came together to develop the new show’s concept, what was most enjoyable to read was the casting of the characters. Even though I knew who would end up being the selected actor or actress in each case, it was surprising how many of them were selected almost in a serendipitous way.

Once the cast was set and writers secured, much of the book revolved around many of the challenges encountered developing and filming the show with frequent push back from the network bosses. It was most eye-opening getting the “back story” behind some of the more revolutionary episodes—subjects that were often being broached for the first time in a 1970s era TV show. For instance, in the pilot episode, Mary was originally supposed to be newly divorced but the network nixed that in favor of a recent break up with a long-term boyfriend.

One of the challenges for Mary was actually overcoming the image of her not being Dick Van Dyke’s wife, Laura Petrie, but rather being the independent, self-sufficient single woman she portrayed in her new show. This she actually did extraordinarily well. But what I didn’t know from just having seen the reruns 10 years after they aired was what a huge impact the show had on television at the time. In its relatively short seven year run, it garnered numerous awards and was second only to All in the Family in terms of weekly viewership. Moreover, it was the first to feature a woman cast as the main character and employed many women writers when men wrote the majority of shows.

When the story unfolded about the final season, the emotions of the cast, now a family, literally came through the words and it was with sadness that I read these last pages. But with all the inside information gained from having read this book, I am now motivated to go back and watch all 168 episodes of the show, something I should have time to do when I retire.

To be continued…

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Two

vangoghbook

In contrast to the shorter James Bond books that I read earlier in 2016, I spent a number of weeks in the spring reading one book that was over 975 pages long. It was my sister’s recommendation that prompted me to read Vincent Van Gogh’s extensively detailed biography entitled Van Gogh: The Life written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. I started this book well before my scheduled trip to Amsterdam in April hoping to finish it before visiting the Van Gogh Museum there.

Although I was only a little over half way through the book by the time I arrived at the museum in Amsterdam, having read much of the book tremendously enriched my experience in the museum. Over the 20+ years that I have been traveling to Amsterdam, I have been to the Van Gogh Museum many times. But none of those visits could compare to this most recent one.

It was truly amazing to me having seen so many of Van Gogh’s beautiful paintings that they could have been created by someone who for the most part led such an unhappy life. After numerous failed attempts of trying to find his way in the world from struggling to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a minister, to selling art like his brother Theo, it was very late in life that Vincent began to create his art. At first with pencil and pen and then later with paint, Vincent worked very hard to master this career.

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Through reading this book, I learned that Theo’s support of his brother for these artistic endeavors was much more extensive and lengthy than I ever knew. And of all of the Impressionist artists that he studied with or worked with as he developed his own unique style, many were either names I recognized or their paintings were familiar ones I had seen in the museum. But above all, as I gazed at the long-familiar Van Gogh paintings, it was with all of the new background knowledge that I had gained that allowed me to make direct connections between the art and his life allowing me to see the painting in a whole new light.

Sadly much of his work was under appreciated in his lifetime with the first sale of his art not occurring until the year he died. And only after his death, did his work come into the prominence that we recognize it for today. Thanks to this book, I had a whole new appreciation for that.

shortbrightflash

A book I heard about on one of my podcasts was A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse by Theresa Levitt. And it was a very nice surprise to receive it as a Christmas gift from my oldest son and daughter-in-law since it was a book about building things, a type I thoroughly enjoy. Never having lived along a coast, I wasn’t very familiar with lighthouses and in fact I’ve only been up in one lighthouse, Point Reyes just north of San Francisco when we vacationed there one year.

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I’ve always known the purpose of a lighthouse, to warn sailors against shallows and other hazards along a coastline, but nothing about how they came to be. I was actually surprised to learn that some of them in Europe dated all the way back to the 1500s. But it was the invention of the modern lens by Augustin Fresnel, a person I had never heard of, that vastly improved their functionality.

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When we visited Point Reyes, I remember being intrigued by the shape of the lighthouse lens and wondering why it looked like louvered glass. Little did I know at the time that I was looking at a Fresnel lens. Turns out, Fresnel was actually quite an accomplished scientist and it was his precise use of prisms that refracted and focused the light to make a much brighter beam; thus the explanation for the louvered look.

Up until his death and then continued by his brother, Fresnel worked diligently to upgrade the lights in all of the lighthouses along the French coast with Fresnel lenses. The challenge at the time was that glass molding and polishing was required to form the prisms into precision optical devices. These demands exceeded the technical capabilities of glass companies at the time and so many lens parts were unacceptable and had to be remade.

Interestingly, once the French coast was complete, not a single Fresnel lens existed in any of the American lighthouses. This had predominantly occurred due to a federal government policy of saving money, rather than providing effective lighthouses. Eventually, a lighthouse board made up of naval and technical staff overcame the ineffective previous staff and began to upgrade the lighthouses in the US.

This effectively was completed just as the Civil War broke out and then the improved lenses were removed and hidden to make it more difficult for Union ships to navigate southern waters in the dark. In fact the darkened lighthouse at Cape Hatteras actually cost the Union more ships through groundings than through military battles.

The importance of Fresnel lenses continued up through the Second World War and was only made obsolete by the development of radar and later GPS. But for almost 100 years, it was the Fresnel lens that made safe the waters along the coasts globally saving thousands of lives and ships. Through reading this book, I now knew the story behind this remarkable invention.

elsewhere

I have enjoyed reading every one of Richard Russo’s books so when I found out he had written a memoir, Elsewhere; I immediately added it to my book wish list. I knew many of his books were drawn from the area in which he grew up so I was interested to read the nonfictional backstory that led to his fictional novels. I was not disappointed and several times during my reading, the narrative of his life events at the time he was writing made me want to go back and reread his novels fresh with these new knowledge. In particular, I learned that the last book of his I read and thoroughly enjoyed, That Old Cape Magic, was actually written during the time that both his daughters were getting married within 12 months of each other on two different continents. Although a fictional story, it was surprising how true to life many of the events in the book were.

But for me, probably the most surprising new learning in this story was how large an influence his mother had been in his life. Up until the time of her death, rarely did a day go by that he was not somehow interacting or care giving for his mother. While reading his memoir, I also heard a podcast interview about his newest book, Everybody’s Fool, where in addition to the new book, he talked about his mother’s lifelong medical condition, one for which she was never diagnosed, but one that he only fully began to understand once one of his daughters was diagnosed.

Overall, it is a great read, a story that several times gave me pause to reflect on how my relationship with my parents had influenced my own life.

To be continued…

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter One

Happy New Year!! What better way to start off the year than talking about books!

For 2016, I set a goal for myself of reading at least 36 books, on average one every 10 days. I came up with this realistic goal based on my previous three years of keeping track of the books I read—30 in 2013, 27 in 2014, and then 34 in 2015. I actually met this goal by the end of the 3rd quarter and so by year-end, had exceeded this goal by reading a total of 45 books, 20 fiction and 25 nonfiction mainly due to two reasons.

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First, I was off from work for 12 days in February recuperating from surgery and so had a lot of extra time to read while I lay around. Second, although certainly not intentionally, I read a number of short books as will be explained. So not only did I read more books in 2016 than I had in the three prior years, but more than a third of those I read were really good books so my book review this year is longer than usual.

To make the most of my reading year in 2016, it literally started out on New Year’s Day when I began reading—Bond, James Bond.

CasinoRoyale

I actually became interested in reading about 007 in 2015 when Casino Royale was one of my featured daily book deals. Having finished this relatively short book (less than 200 pages) in December, I decided I wanted to read more in 2016. And when the SPECTRE trilogy also was featured on my daily deals, I snapped it up.

SPECTRE

For those familiar with the James Bond 007 movies, but not necessarily the Ian Fleming books upon which many of the movies are based, this trilogy is a combination of three separate books: Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice, all of which finds Bond battling with the notorious organization SPECTRE, the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion.

Although not what you would necessarily consider “great literature”, these books were definitely a pleasure to read. And for someone who is a professed slow reader and still working full time, they were quick, fun, enjoyable reads (I read the first book in 10 days, the second in 7 days, and the third in 5 days). Earlier in 2016 I wrote a more detailed review of these three books so I will refer my readers to that post rather than repeating myself. But suffice it to say that if one characteristic of a great book is one that makes you thirst to read more, then these books certainly delivered in a triple, “shaken, not stirred” kind of way. And read I did as I went on a binge and read six more in a row after finishing SPECTRE (on average about 250 pages each).

dambusters

Another daily book deal I read in 2016 was Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943 written by James Holland. Recognizing the book cover photo, it was a vague familiarity from my childhood that peeked my interest to purchase this book. A thoroughly researched and well-written account, it was truly amazing to learn the details of this true story.  And the chapters in the book covering the actual raid were absolutely page-turners, on par with any action novel I’ve read.

Of particular interest to me was the fact that the book covered not just the military efforts to achieve this war-changing raid but included the trials and tribulations of the inventor who brought this fast spinning 8,000-pound bomb to reality. And even more amazing is that all of this came about in about 8 weeks, a time frame dictated by the need to hit the dams when the reservoir level would be at its highest so that the water could add its own devastating effect to the breach. Any child who has built a small dam in a stream knows the water’s destructive force once that held-back water starts to topple their handiwork.

While the pilots who normally flew at 30,000 feet were learning to fly an airplane with a 100 foot wingspan at tree-top level (about 60 feet off the water) at over 200 miles an hour, the inventor was overcoming the numerous design flaws and failures of the bomb dropping technique literally days before the attack. Because the bomb had to spin and skip up to a third of a mile over the dam’s reservoir and then sink right next to the dam before exploding, the crews had to train to hit their practice target drop within about 10 yards at just the right angle to be effective. But due to extreme secrecy, the crews didn’t even learn their targets until the day of the attack.   They only knew during training that their bomb would be dropped over water.

The outcome of the raid was tremendous but one that came at a heavy price. I won’t spoil the ending but just encourage you to read this book in the future.

martian

I had been wanting to read this book ever since I heard an interview with the author. It is quite interesting how Andy Weir originally wrote The Martian as a series of posts on his website and then based on requests from readers, released it as a Kindle book. It proved to be a phenomenal success that ultimately led to a published book and movie deal within a week of each other.

I have but one word to describe this book: Wow! Not only were the accurate details of how the protagonist figured out how to survive for so long awe inspiring, but the mathematical calculations and chemical reactions he had to master were entertaining details for someone like myself who is a scientist. It is rare that I read a book that I have to force myself to put it down when it has gotten too late at night. Usually, my reading before bed often ends with me falling asleep, but not with this book. And I would encourage you to read the book before watching the movie, which I did, as details in the movie will make more sense.

memoryman

Following immediately on the heels of this page-turner I read another great book, which I couldn’t put down. I am a long-time, avid fan of the author David Baldacci and Memory Man did not disappoint. In fact, when I was about half way through the book, I got to a certain part of the story where I couldn’t put it down; I just kept reading one chapter after another to find out what happened next. Fortunately I had the time on a Sunday afternoon and so proceeded to read the next ¼ of the book without stopping.

This is an intriguing story about a cop/detective who has an extremely rare condition that allows him to remember everything—hyperthymesia—an incredible advantage for someone in law enforcement to have not just a photographic memory, but also total recall. But following the unsolved, brutal murder of his wife and daughter, he drops off the force until a school shooting in his hometown thrusts him back into the fray. The plot has a number of surprises and as more murders accumulate, it becomes apparent that the murders are not random but are a part of a bigger picture. How all this story plays out is an amazing, intricately woven tale that will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you chose to read this book, be sure you have big blocks of time available, as you will not want to put it down, but rather continue to follow the ever-twisting story.

To be continued…