Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Intercept – Dick Wolf (William Morrow)

Osama Bin Laden is dead…terror lives on.

Dick Wolf is the creative force behind one of the longest running television brands in the history of the box of light, the Law and Order series; so it should come to no one’s surprise that he has crafted one of the year’s best thrillers with his first foray into novels.

Wolf sets the story in motion with fits of stops and starts to lay the foundation, the cornerstone being the takedown of Bin laden and the treasure trove of secrets left behind in his compound. Ripped from today’s headlines is Wolf’s calling card and plays it to maximum effect here.

One of the terror mastermind’s final mandates is that future operations not be based on past glories. So when a would be Jihadist tries to take over the cockpit of an international flight in-bound for LaGuardia Airport only to be stopped by a Flight 93 style passenger take down; red flags start waving for the Intel folks charged with preventing terror attacks.

Wolf perfectly captures not only the inner workings of the anti-terror types, but he is spot on in his take on how the media create instant celebrity with his story line on the passengers involved with putting a stop to the terrorist. Wolfs adds just the right amount of high profile reality players like New York Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama to keep the story real world relevant.

Wolf’s lead character, NYPD Intel unit officer, Jeremy Fisk brings the right level of obsession to the story of the hunt for the “real” terrorist. Fisk gets cover billing with the subtitle “A Jeremy Fisk Novel” so here’s hoping Wolf is planning to serve up another long-running series. Based on this first salvo, he’s off to a great start.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Merry Christmas Alex Cross – James Patterson (Little Brown)

The most dangerous thing in Merry Christmas Alex Cross, the latest installment in the long running series of popular whodunit’s from mega-best- selling author James Patterson, is not a psycho killer, pistol packing punk or even an Islamic terrorist hell bent on destruction. Nope, it turns out the most dangerous item in the story is the hero’s telephone!

It’s a showy Christmas Eve in Washington, DC when what has to be the most dreaded sound in the Cross family home front, the ringing of the phone calls the master detective/psychologist off on another adventure to face down evil.

While bestselling authors have often been unable to resist the urge to use the Christmas holiday as the backdrop of their story, this one may leave long time Patterson fans more than a little cold. While not truly a collection of short stories or novellas strung together around the Cross family holiday, the book is made up of at least three storylines that don’t quite hang together. Disjointed is the best word I can come up with to describe the effort.

At times it feels like the ridiculously prolific Patterson had a few storylines hanging around the “it’s a good story, but I can’t quite make a book out of it file” that he decide to pull together with a little Christmas glue. After the phone rings for the third time, you start to wonder if the DC police can’t do anything without Alex Cross.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pizza Bomber: The Untold Story of America’s Most Shocking Bank Robbery (Berkley Publishing)

Full disclosure: I literally had a front row seat for much of the early portion of this horrific story. I am a recovering radio talk show host; my morning show was broadcast from a studio situated on State Street in Erie, Pennsylvania, which was directly across the street from the office building that housed the Erie office of the FBI. On a regular basis during the early days of the investigation of what would be dubbed the Pizza Bomber case, I attended press conferences that were held in the FBI office or a block down in Erie City Council chambers.

I waded through much of the same information that Erie Times News reporter and co-author of this book Ed Palatella did and regularly saw Jerry Clark, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation and co-author standing to the side of the podium where the latest information was being discussed. With that front row seat, I regularly saw law enforcement types including Clark, parade the string of bizarre characters involved in this story through the side entrance of the Highmark Building and into the FBI office for questioning.

On one occasion my co-host had the opportunity to pepper William Rothstein, a large, bearded, character decked out in his trademark bib overalls, with questions live on the air, while he stood on the sidewalk outside the studio waiting for a ride. Rothstein remained tight lipped, not responding to any question posed.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction and if any fiction writer had ever proposed a book laced with such a bizarre cast of characters and such a truly far-fetched story, they would likely have been laughed out of any publisher’s office. It is that dysfunctional, gang who couldn’t shoot straight and the tenacity of Clark and his fellow investigators that make this story so interesting.

It was a beautiful, sunny day on Thursday, August 28, 2003. The events that would unfold on the busy retail hub that the locals in Erie call “upper Peach Street” were incredible to the point of almost defying description. Brian Wells, a pizza delivery man walked into a branch of PNC Bank wearing and oversized T-shirt covering a large, metal contraption that was fitted around his neck, carrying a large, black device that was fashioned to resemble a cane, that would later be determined to be a cane gun, and demanded money from a teller.

Shortly after the bank robbery was completed, Wells was stopped by police and placed on the ground in front of his vehicle. It was at this point Wells began a rambling dissertation about the device that was locked around his neck. Police quickly determined that the collar could indeed be an explosive device as Wells claimed. The first responders backed away and called for the Erie Police Bomb Squad to respond to the scene. As time dragged while the bomb squad attempted to work their way through the usually hectic Peach Street traffic, Wells became increasingly agitated, pleading with those on scene to help him and remove the locked collar.

At 3:18 PM, three minutes before the bomb squad would arrive on scene, the device detonated, killing Wells and sending this story into the national spotlight. It would also start the clock on the investigation that would consume hundreds of man hours, cost participants in the investigation their marriages and take countless twists and circuitous turns before concluding with indictments of the conspirators who were involved in the twisted plot to rob a bank.

Central among that group was Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a near-infamous women who was serving time for the murder of her boyfriend, James Roden. Investigators believe Roden had made the fatal mistake of claiming he would expose the bank robbery plot to law enforcement which led to his untimely demise. Further twisting the tale was that fact that Roden’s body ended up in the freezer at Rothstein’s house. Armstrong had first come to attention of law enforcement when she was acquitted of the murder of another of her beaus in the late 1980s.

As I worked my way through the book I was amazed to remember how many of those that played a role in the extended tale had succumbed to illness or had died under mysterious circumstances. The story has told by Clark and Palatella has a disjointed feel to it, but when you reflect on just how twisted this tale became and the manic mental state of those involved in the plot, that disjointedness seems almost fitting.

Despite that front row seat, the book does reveal some amazing detail of how investigators honed in on this group, picking up threads of the story that would lead to not only the indictments, but also the convictions of those central to the story. Palatella details his nearly daily conversations with Diehl-Armstrong, as she called collect from whatever correctional facility she was currently housed in to berate, rant, rave and regularly, loudly, proclaim her innocence. It made me feel sorry for him and glad she didn’t have my number.

While some, including Wells family may disagree with the outcome of the case, Pizza Bomber is a fascinating look into the day-to-day inner workings of the investigation into what certainly is and will remain one of the strangest crimes in U.S. history.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

David Von Drehle - Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year (Henry Holt)

Who would have thought that 2012 could easily be dubbed “The Year of Abraham Lincoln” given the Stephen Spielberg big screen adaptation of Lincoln’s story and the number of books that have been offered up this year on Honest Abe.

Let me start by saying that I am not a Civil War buff and I don’t play one on TV, but I thought that David Von Drehle’s approach to writing Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year was interesting in that rather than trying, as so many historians do, to capture a subject life and work, this book tackles just one year, 1862.

While many Civil War historians will point to 1863 as the critical year in that war, Von Drehle makes an interesting case that 1862 was the critical year for Lincoln and the decisive year for the future direction of American history.

Von Drehle tackles the subject literally one month at a time, with each chapter dedicated to one month, which is not only an interesting literary devise, but one that builds momentum as the story progresses. Von Drehle’s approach does not intrude or sculpt or massage events to fit his narrative, instead he allows the natural flow of history to drive the storyline.

All too often we have seen historians intrude, interpret and invade the story they are attempting to tell with their own bias on the subject; Von Drehle allows history to tell the story while placing it in the context of the era it occurred. For me that is all any historian worth his salt could and should do.

Friday, December 7, 2012

David Baldacci – The Forgotten (Grand Central Publishing)

There’s trouble in Paradise and an over-sized military cop is on the scene to check things out and get to the bottom of a mysterious string of deaths and a fistful of nasty characters. Lee Child’s talented tough guy Jack Reacher? Nope. David Baldacci’s Maj. John Puller, a special agent in the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID).

Puller, first featured in Baldacci’s Zero Day, makes his return in The Forgotten as he heads to Florida’s panhandle city Paradise to follow up on a letter his Aunt Betsy sent to his dementia ridden Father. The letter alludes to mysterious occurrences and how things are not as they seem.

Puller arrives just in time to learn his Aunt has turned up dead; whether it’s murder or an accident remains to be scene. The back drop for this misadventure is the beautiful ocean side setting complete with great weather, sandy beaches, and wealthy tourists and retirees. Peel back a few layers and there’s plenty of intrigue and bad actors to go around.

Baldacci weaves in a heaping helping of action and a series of interesting characters including a Bulgarian giant, who allies with Puller to take down a human trafficking ring at the center of the story. The Forgotten makes for fast and entertaining read.\

 No Puller will never be Jack Reacher…then again neither will tiny Tom Cruise who been mis-cast in the Reacher movie.


Steve Chandler – 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself (Career Press)

Have you ever wondered why there are literally shelves full of so-called “self-help” books at your local bookstore that sell tons of copies every year? Logically, if these books offered the magic bullet, the secret to success or whatever answer the reader is seeking, then wouldn’t that eliminate the need for new books in the category?

The answer to the questions lies not within the pages of the books, but within the persons buying and reading all those  books.  Steve Chandler the author of the bestselling Success Library series also gives a simple, winning, hint in this the third edition of 100 Ways To Motivate Yourself.

While I have read and reviewed a shelf full of these kinds of books, I don’t think I ever remember an author nudging the reader to “Apply the book you read.” No magic hocus pocus, no secrets to unlock, no course book to work through or DVDs to watch, just straight forward DO IT!

While I don’t think anything in Chandler’s list is earth shattering or groundbreaking, I like the fact that he keeps things simple, straight forward and easily actionable. Things like 22. Kill Your Television, 51. Advertise Yourself and 72. Go To War, aren’t objectives that take weeks to plan then put into play. Chandler’s list contains a wide range of things that you can put into play today.

You won’t be able to use all of the 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself, but chances are you’ll find more than a handful that you can put into action and have a positive impact. While it won’t clear the book shelf it will offer you workable solutions.