Book Reviews: Empathy and Emojis

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?
Many years ago I saw Alan Alda on a TV show, something about scientific frontiers. While that’s mentioned in this book, he focuses on one particular subject, that of empathy.
It all started with an encounter at the dentist’s, where the man couldn’t get his point across to his patient because he couldn’t stop thinking like a dentist. From there Mr. Alda moved to doctors, stating, “People are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another.” Another great quote is, “Not being truly engaged with the people we’re trying to communicate with, and then suffering the snags of misunderstanding, is the grit in the gears of daily life.” There’s some fascinating points where he talks about using acting practices to get doctors and others to communicate better. It didn’t take long for the realization to hit: “Developing empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking are both essential to good communication.”
Here’s a little hint to make this book more interesting: read it in his voice, feel it reverberating inside your skull.
Most of the chapters are small, some only describing an encounter, story, or lesson that led to his conclusions, but it seems to work fine. In explaining how to better explain things, he explained everything really well. Even a book about making communication accessible can be full of jargon, but thankfully this one wasn’t.

Emoji Adventures Book 5: The Pet Unicorn
Told in first person by a kid/emoji named Annie, this story revolves around her and three others—Dot, her sister with heart-shaped eyes; Kevin, her evil twin; and Billy, a soccer-playing poop—who try to find a unicorn to claim the missing poster reward, only to find it cooler to have an actual unicorn to play with.
It takes a while to get to the first photo, with the quartet inside the fro-yo shop, showing them to be actual emoji heads on stick bodies, with hands to hold ice cream cones (but no stomachs). And yes, Billy is a poop emoji. Annie is a cute brunette with a big smile. Once I see it I can accept this ridiculous reality and treat the story as it was intended. On the other hand, the unicorn is full-bodied, not an emoji (how many times do I have to write that word?). Not forgetting other parts of social media, the chapter titles are hashtags. (Dumpster pasta should have been a hashtag too.) And of course they literally live in Emojiville.
There’s plenty of humor here, which is really the only thing it needs. Examples:
“The Ancient Egyptians were a lot more sparkly than people think.” I know exactly who to spring that line on.
“All I want to do is take this unicorn to a field of flowers and braid its mane.”
“Shakes her mane around like she’s at a heavy metal concert.” But later it’s said that unicorns like Taylor Swift, which pretty much explains everything.
And I’d gotten so into thinking of them as kids that I didn’t get their disgust when the unicorn licked Billy.
Quite an enjoyable little story, though I can’t help but think it would have been just the same without the emoji conceit. If there’s a moral here, it’s on the last page: always take the reward money. The author lists his Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at the end; bet he gets inundated with emoji suggestions for the next book. And I can’t help but wonder if the upcoming Emoji movie is based on one of these books (is Sir Patrick Stewart really playing the poop?).

101 Things to Do Instead of Playing on Your Phone
I love it when the title tells you everything you need to know. However, I’m reading this on a tablet, so it was a little hard remembering it’s meant to be a physical book, which makes things like Draw a Selfie and Coloring very difficult, though not as impossible as Cutting out the Paper Airplane.
Kids’ games abound, my faves being I Spy and Cloud Zoo. Smile at someone, see if they smile back. Play Fashion Adviser has too much opportunity to turn to the dark side. I particularly like the Giving Awards one, though the fun in it is coming up with the right awards.
But there’s also quite a bit of stuff like Write Your Grocery List for Tonight’s Meal or Bucket List where it’s the same as doing it on the phone, and would be simpler. Still, most of it is fun stuff, as well as things to think about.

A philosophy grad student at Northwestern, who despite seemingly being a good girl keeps getting into perilous dumb situations and poker games, comes across the dead body of her advisor just as he was planning to ruin her career. In addition to that there’s a Russian mafia plot that makes things convoluted, with too many characters to keep straight and flashbacks that spoil the flow.
But the author’s main purpose in writing this story is the rape culture and drugging found in colleges today, especially at frats. There’s an avenger that kicks ass—literally—but unfortunately she’s not the main character. Instead we get Jessica, the Montana cowgirl philosopher with a love of Nietzsche, who at least three times in this story passes out, either stone drunk or drugged. Yet at the end there she is getting drunk again. Did the author really intend to make her protagonist seem so stupid? Or is it trying to impart the belief that even the smartest can fall prey to drugs and evil guys. . . over and over and over? Still, you’d think that, short of admitting she was an alcoholic, she’d learn not to drink so much. It’s hard to respect people, especially those who think of themselves as so intelligent, who can’t figure things out.
Despite that the writing is pretty good, with plenty of droplets of humor. There’s a cute mention of Star Trek: The Next Generation near the end that fans will love.


Book Reviews: Berlin, Virginia, Canada, and fantasy

Federico Fellini: The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.

Night Train to Berlin
The wife of a top cop in Paris is approached by a stranger quoting Scarborough Fair. That starts a chain of events that leads to a possible terrorist attack in Berlin on the Ides of March.
Though the plot, especially where it eventually lands at the end, is intriguing, the getting there was a lot tougher. There’s quite a few boring info dumps, and I skipped a whole section that was clearly an ill-disguised author diatribe. The end-of-chapter foreshadowings were annoying and amateurish. The thing about ventricles was cute, but the author had to keep going and make it boring. And once the big thing happens in the middle of the book, it slows down quite a bit.
Good plot, some amateurish touches. Author should get better with more experience.

LaCour’s Destiny
An accountant investigates some shady money stuff at her company, which leads her to search for a disappearing employee. Things get dangerous.
Early on it had the feeling of a romantic comedy about to explode, but it never really settled into a particular genre. That’s not necessarily bad, but it made this story feel unfocused. For someone who claimed never to have done anything worse than walking out on a few blind dates, she sure took to lockpicking, and breaking and entering, easily; no moral qualms at all. She also recovered awfully quickly after almost being killed. And wow, she maced herself. Butt monkey much?
The mystery was too convoluted, and I hate it when the protagonist doesn’t figure it out. Kinda cheap to have the killer go off the deep end and basically confess. Felt like it was longer than it needed to be. Enjoyed the main character most of the time—though it was hard to get past her choice for favorite football player—but the plot and the large amount of suspects was confusing.

Sam in Winter
A 9 year old kid who still likes being read to in bed—he particularly enjoys the vampire rabbit stories—can read his dog’s mind, or at least his howls.
Sam is a pretty weird dog. I’ve trained a lot of canines, but I’ve never seen one like this. Then he disappears and Kix can’t think about anything else. It’s hard to believe this book can be so big with a really simple premise, but then the scene where they search in the snow went on forever. There’s an interesting bit on doggie dementia, but even though I mostly enjoyed this, I feel it dragged too much. There were a couple of times when I almost gave up on it, because other than the walking around parts, everything was Kix’s thoughts.
Where this story takes place is never really told, and the fact the author is Dutch doesn’t help. There are too many places in the world that get so cold and snowy. Finally First Nations told me it was Canada, and then I remembered what a Chinook was from when I went to Calgary for the ‘88 Olympics. Wish they would have simply said so, though.
There’s a few simple sketches amongst the text. The photo at the end, with the author and the dog who inspired this story, is a great touch.

A World Away
A bookish academic finds a sword that glows, and while studying it one snowy night she’s trapped in the museum with some thieves. She gets knocked out and ends up in another world where she gets to play Red Sonja, when she’s not the sexual plaything of the local general as they fight demons and dragons and such like.
There’s not much style to start, and probably in an effort to make it different it’s told in present tense. It felt like typical 80s escapist fantasy, where the disenchanted end up in another world via a magic gate, magic cupboard, etc. Unlike those, this one doesn’t bother to explain how she switched realities; no magic portals, just the sword.
Not great by any means, and a bit Mary Sueish with a British accent, but I did find myself enjoying the fish out of water aspects. This could have easily turned bad. The writing got better, but I was never comfortable with the present tense; didn’t see any need for it at any point.


Book Reviews: Exercise, Joy, Legalities, and Archaeology

Do you think the French and French Canadians say Monterey Jacques when ordering cheese?

Undulation: Relieve Stiffness and Feel Young
An easier gentler version of yoga for those of us whose bodies are winding down.
As with all self-help books, be it mental or physical, the first part tries to convince you why you need this. Some of them are actually well-pointed, such as the difference between pain caused by regular physical labor and internal injury. There’s also the difference between small and large movements, as well as an explanation as to who really is in charge, the mind or the body. One line really made me laugh: eels have powerful strong cores, because that’s all they have. Eels can’t fall back on arms and legs.
Obviously it takes a while to feel the effects and benefits of any physical regimen, so I can’t tell you how successful this is yet, but I can recommend this book just for the names of the exercises, some of which genuinely made me laugh out loud:
Hip hiker—Octopus—Paint your head with the floor—Follow the music—Tailbone penmanship—Coffee grinder—Caressed by waves—Barber pole—Tree tops—Train cars—Speed bump—Inchworm—Snake charmer—Tornado.
There’s an appendix that lists the exercises alphabetically.

November Fox – Book 1. Following Joy
This novel was both interesting and weird on many levels, though thankfully most were entertaining. The philosophical ramblings tend to be too much once in a while, but basically it’s an enjoyable ride as we follow a young female rock star through many worlds and even time, all the while searching for some kind of enlightenment, semi-guided by a floating Rubik’s Cube that makes the subtitle literal.
November—thankfully we find out about the name early—turns out to be a happy loopy girl, the kind who says good morning to the furniture and singsongs to herself about everything she sees. On her travels she meets an elephant who speaks in a German accent and only wants cake. This guy is a hoot! Inspired characterization. At one point Captain Picard of Star Trek makes a cameo, and the Borg are mentioned, which makes November the nerdiest rock star ever.
I found it weird that there was an omnipresent voyeur narrating what’s going on with the protagonist. This narrator is even stranger than November, and talks—writes—way too cutesy and mannered. There’s a strange fascination with time, which here is called tick-tock, or cake time, depending on the character. By the end I was thinking I liked November’s story and Erica’s notes much more than the Architect’s philosophical ramblings, and could have done without them.
There was also a promise of music and/or video which could be accessed via an app, but even though there was animation at some points it didn’t work as promised.
Most importantly, November—the character—was so enjoyable. Her story could have been told just as well without the frames, but obviously that’s not what the author wanted.

Legal Asylum: A Comedy
The wacky behind-the-scenes travails of a state law school trying to be reaccredited and make the top five nationally at the same time leads to hilarity, though only for the readers, not the characters.
The main character is the dean of the law school, a driven and attractive woman who wants to be on the Supreme Court and have sex with just about everyone—compatible goals, I guess. But even with her leading the way there were so many points of view! To my surprise I rather like the member of the accreditation committee who writes notes to be transcribed like Cooper and Diane from Twin Peaks. I liked the tone of the whole thing; it’s not hilariously funny, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, like when the chancellor takes Viagra at the wrong time. There’s an interesting tangent on commercialism and Chinese aspirations too.
I wanna root for the Dean of Sexiness, but she’s not exactly sympathetic. And her obsession with being top 5, even if she has an incredibly selfish reason for it, is so ridiculous I can’t stand her. At one point she beats up two librarians and gets away with it, which is the main problem I had with the plot.
Funny how I only moderately liked it as I was reading it, but the ending was uplifting enough to push it slightly higher.

Olmec Obituary
Archaeological mystery? I’m there!
While there is a main character, and a mystery to solve—eventually—the best part is the interplay within her giant family, which has so much genetic mix: Chinese, Welsh, Berber. There’s plenty of supporting cast as well, from fellow librarians to an archaeologist she Skypes with; my favorite was the meek geneticist. But I wrote a note about halfway through where I said I didn’t know what the mystery is supposed to be, or if there was one, which is my main problem with the plot.
Food plays an important part in this family’s life, so there’s recipes—completely incomprehensible to me, of course—and a glossary at the end. But once I look back at it I find I enjoyed it, even though I had some difficulty following the chain of evidence. Didn’t think I would like the Olmec sequences, but it turned out the ballcourt-playing princess was the most interesting character of all.


Book Reviews: Lies, Angels, Traps, and Emily

“You win! Your prize is you get to have sex with me!”
“I’ll take the equivalent in cash!”
Someone handed her a dollar.

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett
A teenage loner in small-town Pennsylvania tries to solve the mystery of the death of the local prom queen type in what luckily only bears superficial resemblance, mostly in the intro, to Twin Peaks.
There’s actually very little about the mystery; it’s mostly about the protagonist, who has a unique way of seeing the world. A lot of meandering, especially in her mind, but I suppose that’s a teen’s life. There’s a good meditation on being out of control and the unfairness of life, “do everything right and still get killed by a drunk driver” kinda thing. The only time the character really annoyed me was when she thought, “Even if the monster killed me, at least I would die having the best day of my life.” The fact that being scared was the one thing that made her feel so alive. . . I’d liked her up to then, but that just made me feel sorry for her.
Likeable despite her quirks, and the same can be said for this book.

A Shadowing of Angels
The story of a hostage rescue in Iraq, showing how complicated such missions can be. After a prelude in Afghanistan, to show the protagonists’ cred, the plot quickly goes to the long preparations necessary to carry out such an assignment, with only the last few chapters the actual mission.
Oh oh. Despite the excellent craft, the writing is stilted from the start. Descriptions are overly long and at times too technical, especially with things like munitions. In contrast, the scene where the two main characters blurt out their feelings for each other is short and perfunctory, though happening only after numerous similarly-sounding moments of “she hoped that she would one day be able to tell him.” Stop beating me over the head with this, please.
So it’s not exactly polished prose. There are small touches that tell me this author has not been writing long; even the moments when they’re simply thinking of each other read inexperienced writer. The other problem I had was grasping the battlefield, which felt too big, too much to take in, confusing at times.
But what saves this is the tradecraft. I particularly enjoyed the main character in pregnant disguise. Gritty as needed but not overdone, and the writing will only get better in the next book.

The Trapped Girl
A body pulled up in a fishing trap turns out to be a much deeper—no pun—mystery than anyone thought, especially the detectives.
The main character—not counting the investigators—goes from supposed victim to possible serial killer and back, and everywhere in between. From being conned into marriage—though I never understood her husband’s motive for that—to becoming a new woman in more than a changing-identities-kinda way, her story was well done and the best part of the novel.
I love reading mysteries set in places I’m familiar with, and Seattle has always been a favorite, squeeing about spots I’ve been. In this book there’s a prominent scene up in the Alki Point lighthouse, which I’ve been to but never for an occasion like this. Now I feel like an intruder.
So this turned out to be one of the best mystery novels I read this year, keeping me guessing throughout. The killer was well thought out, and I loved detective Tracy, which is the most important thing.

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson: America’s Favorite Recluse Just Got a Life!
Life lesson: You can never go wrong by starting with a James Bond parody.
If the famous poetess were alive today, how different would her life be? She’d probably still be a recluse, but having much more fun with it due to social media. The author takes snippets from Emily’s life and poems to show what could have been.
Some highlights:
Angie Dickenson made the family tree.
“(Dogs) are better than human beings, because they know but don’t tell.” Her dog can speak, but only says “Ruh-ro.” (Okay, he says “Woof!” once.)
Emily as advice columnist? Fashionista? Top chef?
There’s Facebook, Instagram, dating websites, emojis, apps like Spinterest, and of course Twitter, because she liked birds. There are pages that only contain silhouettes, as well as exhortations for book donations for the museum library.
The drawings are simple sketches, but really that’s all that’s needed.
Some good stuff, but not quite as funny as it thinks.


Book Reviews: Hookers, Dogs, and Lawyers

“Don’t tell anyone, under penalty of noogie. . .”

Serena’s Plight
. . . turns out not to be a plight at all.
A recent high-school graduate—barely—is offered a business deal by an ex-boyfriend who got into an Ivy League university: she becomes a paid companion—as opposed to out and out whore—he’ll be her pimp, and they’ll both make a lot of money.
This was much better, much more than I anticipated; so much more than just the sex. Love the main character and her sense of humor. I was surprised by her insights, of which there were a lot, as this was first person. Obviously I’ve never wondered what a young call girl thinks of, but the author made me like the character, care about her.
It’s also great how she cares about her boys, helps them with their social anxieties and disorders, especially Bartholomew and James. She’s almost like a therapist with benefits. More than anything else, she’s a good person. Her biggest problem is a couple of her would-be johns are mean to her; she got spoiled by the first couple of nice boys.
It’s not often a book leaves me pleasantly surprised. I look forward to the next.
There’s one booboo: near the beginning Sam says he received a scholarship to be on the wrestling team at Cornell, but Ivy League schools do not award athletic scholarships. But that’s the only nitpick. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, but there’s definitely a “to be continued.”

Fifty Nifty Facts about Dogs
Like the one about cats, this is basically a printed version of a slideshow you click on from Facebook. Dogs stick their heads out cars for the odors? For me that was the most interesting one, along with noseprints for dogs=fingerprints for humans
A few were fun, most were general knowledge. No big.

A newly minted lawyer who used to be a hacker gets an impossible first case: “prove something no one has ever proved before—that GMOs have the capacity to kill people.” Facing an opponent that will kill to win, she has to find a murdered scientist’s paper and then a witness while facing threats from within as well as without.
The great lead character is the best part of a book that could have been serious and dour, but thankfully is peppered with humor. My favorite line was the little kid who admits, “I haven’t pooped since Denver.” Most of this takes place in Los Angeles—the Huntington and UCLA are mentioned—with trips to Vegas, Northern California, and the east coast, though there isn’t much time for sightseeing when you’re being hunted by assassins.
Perhaps one too many twists at the end, but overall just the right amount of suspense without becoming overwhelming.

Moral Defense
The second in the new series by Marcia Clark, featuring an amazing lead character: a bend-the-rules defense attorney who’s always taking on more than she can chew.
The main case involves a family being murdered, with only one survivor, who is now her client, partly because it’s so high-profile but mostly because it’s personal for her. Another job has to do with a loose end I remember from the first book, so glad to see it picked up here. There’s a couple of other threads as well, so it helps that she has two able and funny assistants. More importantly, a lot of writers would have made the cases tie together at the end, which I always find too much of a coincidence to buy, but thankfully that doesn’t happen here.
What often makes a good book despite other problems—which is not the case here, just an example—is the lead character. It takes skills for a defense attorney to be on the run from gangbangers, drug dealers, and crooked cops all at once, and none of them had anything to do with the primary case. When she stops at In-n-Out I love her even more.
So this was great, but maybe a little less great than the first. This one was a little too convoluted, especially at the end, but still well worthwhile.


Book Reviews: Spain, Emojis, and Star Trek

Lao Tzu
We make a vessel from a limp of clay; it is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful.

A Darker Sky
In the first of a new mystery series, a woman on the run from a stalker goes to a yoga retreat and is killed after a hookup. The amateur detective in this case is the editor of the Scandinavian weekly, soon assisted by a former cop now working for the embassy.
This is one of those stories that takes place in two timelines, the present and an incident from the past, though the way it was first written made me think it happened earlier that day rather than years ago. At this point I guessed the killer. . . though I admit I changed my mind a few times between then and the reveal. While not sympathizing with the killer, gotta admit I wasn’t devastated when the final victim got his. And despite not going into detail, the settings were well done. I’ve been to these Spanish islands and I don’t remember them being big enough for all these places, but then I wasn’t there very long. I certainly had no idea so many Scandinavians lived there.
There were some early clues that didn’t seem like clues at all, making me wonder why they were included; the most dramatic of them was the minister having sex with the male masseuse. By the end I realized this led to some really good twists when it came to suspects. . . so good, in fact, that it made me wanna go back to read previous stuff from these authors.

How to Speak Emoji
This author rewrote Moby Dick with just emojis, so he’s the right person to do this book. This seems more impressive than the Peter Rabbit edition of hieroglyphs, but then it’s a lot easier to make an emoji of a whale.
This book starts with a dictionary, from the most simple onward. But by the time you get to the phrasebook and idioms it seems like more work than it’s worth. The pickup lines are the worst I’ve ever heard. . . wait, I’ve never heard a good one. Never mind. Insults, on the other hand, I can get behind. (That’s what she said.) The proverbs are fairly funny, reminding me of a similarly-themed book I had for Latin. Even better were lyrics, though I don’t know if anyone who likes Love Is a Battlefield will figure out that emoji chain. Eye of the Tiger, on the other hand. . .
But it’s the movies and TV shows section that’s the funniest, particularly Fight Club. Breaking Bad is novel-sized!
I’d imagine most people use emojis to emphasize what they’d written; this book is mostly about substituting for words completely. It’s fun for a while, but I wonder how many people would actually use it. . . well, I suppose if you cut and paste. . .

Lone Wolf
A tiny redheaded veterinarian in Montana falls for a rancher while treating an injured eagle. If only life was that simple. Sigh.
It doesn’t matter where you set a romance novel, or what kind of fantasy character you put into it (in this case a wolf shifter, of which there’ve been a lot lately); in the end you know there can only be one outcome, regardless of how many obstacles are randomly thrown at them. What I did find amusing was how in this story’s universe shifters are known and accepted.
The prose quickly left me bored. Every other paragraph talks about how much she wants him; I didn’t understand her any more than him. He’s of course an alpha who tries really hard not to fall for her, for one of the few reasons ever used in these kinds of books.
This had possibilities–different settings and circumstances that gave it a chance–but those were thrown away to make it generic, so that by the end it was nothing special.

Boarding the Enterprise
A few months ago I read a book about Star Wars that was a retread trotted out because of the new movie. Now with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek the same thing is done here, with a book written ten years ago for the 40th anniversary.
Basically this is a collection of articles, much like a fanzine in the early days. There’s a piece on some classic sci-fi stories that were adapted to Star Trek, and I agree with the author when he wondered how great it would have been had others been done, especially Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star. But then you get another chapter that was simply author bios. C’mon.
One chapter that started out interesting was a discussion about how the Prime Directive, while a good idea, probably wasn’t, but even that succumbed to overthinking. Possibly the best entry was a funny one that reminded me of an Asimov short story, a report on Earth done by an alien. I love this part: “crew members being flung from their seats by various impacts on several occasions, and the resources to install improvised seat belts were clearly available; we must conclude that either seat belts were unknown, or there were reasons not to install them that outweighed the obvious benefits.” The conclusions are hilarious.
Another great line: “It’s not some utopian dream of peaceful cooperation that has prompted the Federation, but the perceived need for defense— the Federation serves the same purpose as a street gang.” There’s a fantastic argument for why the most trustworthy officer on board is Scotty, but this pretty much exemplifies the few good aspects of this book: “It’s easy to find faults, but without Star Trek, I would never have become an astronomer.”
Unfortunately there’s more that doesn’t work than does: it’s much better than the Star Wars one, but that’s not saying much.


Book Reviews: All Kinds of Detectives

“Every guy notices you.”
“Even the gay ones?”
They want to be you.”

An Untimely Frost
An innocent actress in 1880s Chicago falls for a rogue who steals her money and smacks her around before moving on to his next victim. Broke and angry, but realizing there isn’t much she can do to catch him, she instead redirects her idealism into helping other women by answering an ad to be a Pinkerton agent. Of course it’s not easy, for even though they want women detectives now, they prefer them more seasoned with life experience. But since she’s an actress, she’s able to fool the family of Pinkertons by playing different roles until one gets accepted, and soon she’s Lilly Long, female operative.
What a fantastic character she turned out to be, so much so that I didn’t concentrate on the plot all that much. Of course she’s not perfect, being quite stubborn, especially when there’s a guy she finds attractive. The same reason she fell for the first guy keeps her from doing anything positive here; she just doesn’t know how to act around men, so she resorts to playground antics, and more often than not the guy falls into that too. But at other times her pugnaciousness is more than welcome, persevering in solving the case with humor and compassion.
The other interesting thing in this book was the settings, especially the empty house that is the basis for her case. Everyone assumes it’s haunted, more so when she finds evidence of the famous crime still in place. What was really interesting was how an empty house could elicit so much of her backstory.
There were a few twists, particularly the boxer and the preacher, that were obvious long before the reveal; I might have given this a 5, or at least a 4.5, if not for that. There were also a few instances of unnecessary verbs which the author should get better at with time. The most important takeaway, though, is that this was quite fun to read. The first ingredient in a successful story of this type is a likeable protagonist, or at least sympathetic, and Lilly is more than just that.

Winemaker Detective Mysteries #1-3
Having read and reviewed, and more importantly enjoyed, some of the newer works in this long series, I had to check out how it started once I saw those tomes were available, possibly for the first time in English.
Wish I hadn’t. I’m surprised the series lasted long enough to get there. These were dull and amateurish in comparison.

Treachery in Bordeaux
This first book is so sloppy and hamfisted, with long digressions and explanations about things that have nothing to do with the plot. Once in a while there’s a tiny clue amongst these long ramblings from the obvious author avatar, but by then you’re zooming by and miss it. There’s actually one point where the protagonist says, “Okay, I’ll stop there. I think I’ve overwhelmed you.” No kidding! As if long boring info dumps weren’t bad enough, the subjects—there’s a long piece on shoes!—had me skipping past them, which at least made for fast reading. It’s a good thing I read and enjoyed others in the series, because had I started here I would not have continued. . . zzzzzzzzz.
I’m going to give it a little bit of a break, as it was the first one, but still. . .

Grand Cru Heist
Cooker gets carjacked in Paris and ends up in the hospital, but he’s more interested in the car and his notebook than anything else.
Even after the reveal at the end, I’m confused. Couldn’t follow the “logic” of how he solved the case I didn’t even know he was on!

Nightmare in Burgundy
There’s a line near the beginning that goes, “It is an honor to be named Chevalier du Tastevin in a setting as glorious as the Vougeot château.” Is this a real thing? Because the authors make it sound so pompous. As always I’m reminded of the line, “I Wouldn’t want to be in a club that would have me as a member. . .”
Someone is graffitiing bible verses. Two “artists” are shot for it, though nobody knows why they were doing it.
Even bigger problems in this book than the previous two. Besides more of those long boring digressions, the killer turns out to be someone we never heard about throughout the entire story! This makes everything written beforehand irrelevant, along with all those long asides that already were. More importantly, it’s insulting to the reader.

As a whole. . .

Buried Crimes
Sophie Allen is back! I love this British crime series, and most of all the character; it’s like visiting an old friend. This time she’s tasked with solving a cold case involving two small bodies found in a yard.
This novel feels like the first one. After the heaviness of the past two, this was a welcome respite. The other cops also feel a bit like family now, and even though it seems like a little bit of a digression the subplot featuring the transgender cop is well done.
All in all, much better! Almost as good as the first, definitely an improvement on the previous. Less of the mildly irritating daughter too.

Dead and Buried
A girl in the 60s dies after an illegal abortion, putting the story into action fifty years later.
Calladine is back for his fifth case and is as big a mess, if not worse, than the last book. It doesn’t help that his right hand is away on maternity leave, and that he’s still falling for any pretty face that talks to him. (I expect this particular dalliance to blow up in his face in an upcoming book.)
As for the plot, there’s far too much here that’s easy to figure out, like the new officer’s motivation, the original crime, even the burial; that’s a little disappointing. There’s also some plot holes, but in general it’s as enjoyable as the first ones in the series. And of course I’m always happy to see more of Imogen.