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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Three Rivers Press; $16.00; 432 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might well – and should have – been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – lurid accounts of Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and engaging in three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, truthfully, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with the late actor’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under the tons of details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick and specific example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner in the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant and lurid titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400+ pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography, and – it might be said – a bio about tricks.)

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud also misses a great opportunity here.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 373 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this  bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Sal Mineo: A Biography was released in a trade paperback version on October 10, 2011.

Note:   We mentioned in this review that the writer did not contact former prosecutor and author Michael Genelin (Requiem for a Gypsy).   We asked him to give us his impressions of the accuracy of the content presented in the book’s Afterward.   Here is his response:

“The facts, as presented by Michaud seemed, in the main, to be correct.   There were a number of things about the case that he was incorrect on, most of them minor; however, he also got much of it right…  with two exceptions.   Michaud said we played tapes of (Lionel) Williams wherein he made numerous boasts of the killing.   Nope!   We had no recorded statements of Williams boasting of the killing.   We also did not, as alleged, bring in the defendant’s past criminal record – commencing with a juvenile conviction when he was 14 – to establish a ‘pattern of criminal behavior.’   That would not have been allowed, and would have been reversible error.”

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Puttin’ on the Ritz

Defensive Wounds: A Novel of Suspense by Lisa Black (William Morrow; $24.99; 352 pages)

“Trying to find a smear of the dark red on the burgundy-patterned carpet made needles and haystacks seem like a bar bet.”

In this fourth time around in Cleveland, Ohio, author Lisa Black presents a convoluted present day mystery that is solved with one part forensics and one part feelings.   Author Black does an excellent job of setting up the story line and expanding her cast of characters.   While forensic scientist Theresa Mac Clean and her cop cousin Frank are easily recognizable from the prior novel in this series, Trail of Blood, their emotions and personal opinions are considerably more pronounced.   Ms. Black uses a plotline that consists of a series of seemingly unconnected murders to thoroughly explore the meaning of family loyalty.   Throughout the tale, each of the main characters – Theresa, Frank, and Theresa’s daughter Rachel – must choose which side they are on.   For Rachel the choice revolves around her feelings for a young man with whom she works at Cleveland’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.   Theresa has to balance her relationship with Rachel and her daughter’s safety with the demands of her job in the medical examiner’s office.

Aggressive defense attorneys are not usually mourned at their passing by local law enforcement officers and forensics specialists.   These public servants often face seemingly excessive interrogation on the stand as expert witnesses during trial proceedings in criminal matters.   When glamorous defense attorney Marie Corrigan is found trussed up and dead in the Presidential Suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, not a single tear is shed or kind word uttered by the team summoned to the crime scene.   Ms. Corrigan’s reputation for winning acquittal verdicts for her questionable clients nearly matched her beauty and enviable figure.   “Ding dong the witch is dead,” was the vocal intoned by Leo DeCiccio in the trace evidence lab as the autopsy of Corrigan’s body began.

What better way to create a readily available pool of murder victims than to have them attend a seminar at said hotel that features the development of skills for achieving litigation success?   There is none better as far as this reviewer is concerned.   As each subsequent victim is discovered, the possibilities for a single murderer seem difficult to grasp, yet the methodology of killing is strikingly similar.   The past and present relationships of the murder victims and the investigators are not obvious.   Theresa and Frank must devote hours of sleuthing to fit the pieces together for the solution of the crimes.

Ms. Black’s wicked sense of humor provides several amusing sidebars for the reader.   Among the seminar lessons are the following:  “How to Make Not-Guilty Happen” and “Criminal Defense in a Down Economy.”   She gives her characters clever phrases and sets up the opportunities for them, such as,

“Two bodies piled up, and this woman knew both of them.   She may be able to connect the dots for us.   How much should we worry about people’s feelings?   Especially since they’re the same people who are going to say we didn’t solve these murders because we don’t like them?”

The take-away from this mystery novel is that we must all move on in life and it takes a bigger person to do so.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Defensive Wounds was released on September 27, 2010; it is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

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Into The Great Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open: A Novel by Andrew Gross (William Morrow, $25.99, 338 pages)

“A horrible family tragedy that may not be what it seems…”

Location, location, location…   They say that these are the three most important factors in real estate, and on occasion location, location, location matters in fiction, also.   Take this novel, Eyes Wide Open, by Andrew Gross (author of Reckless).   You will probably enjoy this thriller of a crime story if you’ve visited at least two of the three California locations in which the action takes place:  Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, near the California-Oregon border.   Since I’ve visited all three – the first for play; the latter two for work – it was easy to visualize the scenes in this novel.

In the tale (based on something that happened in real life to author Gross), our protagonist New York State-based physician Jay Erlich learns that his nephew has apparently committed suicide by jumping off the famed 600-foot high volcanic rock in Morro Bay.   At the request of his troubled older brother Charlie, Erlich flies out to the calm, coastal community to see if what the police have reported is correct.   Early on it’s clear that someone is covering something up, as there are problems with the offical story.

Charlie Erlich was once a chart-topping musician, but then he fell in with a wild group of drug users in Marin County.   And this is where the story telling goes a bit sideways.   It’s immediately clear to the reader that Charlie was once a member of the Charles Manson Family, but here Manson is fictionalized as the “leering and wild-eyed” person known as Russell Houvanian.   [Houvanian, of course, is first imprisoned at San Quentin before being moved to Pelican Bay – just like Charles Manson.]   The author devotes page after page to recreating the events surrounding the Manson Family, but for some strange reason moves them from Ventura and Los Angeles counties to Marin and Santa Barbara counties.

I have no idea why Gross spent so much time and energy to transforming Manson into a fictional character.   But instead of adding to the story, it significantly detracts from it.   It’s as if I were to write a novel about the first Irish-Catholic president elected in the 1960s, a character that I decide to name John McNeal.   McNeal, in my story, has a brother named Richard who happens to be the U.S. Attorney General, and another brother, Ned, who is a senator from Massachusetts.   It wouldn’t take the reader long to ask the questions, “Why not just set this period novel among the Kennedys?   Why fictionalize actual events and real people?”

While the author’s credibility takes a hit with his strangely disguised historical events, the story itself is engaging.   Lives are at risk and it’s up to Doctor Erlich to become an instant, skilled criminal investigator in order to figure out which authority figures are telling the truth and which are telling lies to protect their own reputations.   As with the novels of David Baldacci, Joseph Finder and Michael Connelly, events speed up rapidly as the conclusion approaches, and it all ends in a rather breathless fashion.

Once you’ve finished Eyes Wide Open, you may want to check on the availability of a room at The Inn at Morro Bay.   Just make sure to be very careful if you decide to climb the famed  rock of Morro Bay!

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Should be read with the lights on and the door closed.   A rare and menacing psychological thriller…”   Nelson DeMille

Note:   Morro Rock is actually 576-feet high.   While it’s illegal to climb it, as per Wikipedia, “every few years, someone is caught trying to climb the rock.”

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Death of a Chimney Sweep: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery by M. C. Beaton.

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Ring of Fire

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books; $25.99; 368 pages)

It may be a shame that Marcia Clark spent so many years as a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles.   I say this because she’s such a talented writer, as is made clear by this fun romp of a criminal justice novel.   Because the book’s protagonist, Rachel Knight, just happens to be a Deputy District Attorney who works in the L.A. County Criminal Courts Building (the beloved CCB) one would think that there’s a bit of Ms. Clark in the character.   Maybe, maybe not…  Rachel Knight may be a bit more daring than Clark was in real life.

One surprise is to be noted up front.   This is not a courtroom novel.   No scenes take place inside of a courtroom, so this is not a Scott Turow-style read.   Basically, this is the story of a prosecutor who decides to become a criminal investigator, off of the time sheets and without the approval of her supervisors.   As Guilt by Association begins, Knight is celebrating a victory with fellow DDA Jake Pahlmeyer and LAPD Detective Bailey Keller.   It’s not long before Pahlmeyer is found dead downtown, in a seedy hotel room with a 17-year-old boy; and there’s a nude photo of the boy in his suit jacket pocket.   Knight’s supervisors quickly tell her to keep her “hands off” of the murder investigation involving her best friend in the criminal justice system.

Being a bit of a rogue, Knight involves Bailey in her effort to clear the late Pahlmeyer’s name in a city where scandals are less than a dime a dozen.   And as she does so, she also has to take over one of Jake’s cases – one that involves the rape of a 15-year-old girl, the daughter of a very prominent physician.   Are the two cases somehow related?   Maybe, maybe not…  You’ll have to read this criminal justice system mystery to find out, and to learn the meaning of the rather intriguing title.

You never know what’s coming around the curve…  Reading Guilt by Association is like taking a ride down the virtually mythical Mulholland Drive in a new Tesla roadster.

This reviewer does offer a prediction for the future of this protagonist.   My money is on Rachel Knight’s getting fired by the D.A.’s office, and working as an embittered newly licensed private investigator who uses every contact in her address book to solve some of the county’s toughest and meanest crimes.   Not only will it make a series of great reads, but quite possibly a new hit TV show.   Rachel Knight, PI – it somehow sounds just right!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Guilt by Association will be released on April 20, 2011.

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Building a Mystery

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw (Anchor; $15.00; 320 pages)

“I will never get enough of you.   I will never have enough.   I will never have enough.”

Author Holly LeCraw has produced something quite distinctive in this, her debut, a male romance novel.   It’s a romance novel, told from a male’s perspective (and from the perspective of the woman he pursues), about a young man who wants something he cannot have – his late father’s mistress.

Jed McClatchy leaves his big city job to join his harried married sister Callie in Cape Cod.   There he happens to encounter one Marcella di Pavarese Atkinson, who seven years earlier had an affair with Jed’s dad.   As a teenager, Jed was attracted to Marcella from the moment he spotted her in a sexy swim suit at an adult pool party.   Now he finds the very same swim suit stored in the attic of his late parents’ home.

Jed is attracted to Marcella physically, while emotionally and psychologically he’s tied to her in a desperate search for answers…  It seems that after Jed’s father, Cecil, promised Marcella that he would leave his wife Betsy for her, Betsy was found brutally murdered.   And then soon after Cecil died under mysterious circumstances.   Was Marcella involved in these events?   If not, what exactly did she know about this cataclysmic time?

“He was furious, again, that he could not stop wanting her.”

Subconsciously, Jed must wonder (as does the reader) whether he wants Marcella because she’s the one thing his very important father was never allowed to possess; or perhaps it is because she was the dangerous woman who was involved in eliminating her only competition, Jed’s straight-laced mother.   At any rate, this is a very powerful story of obsession – a young man’s obsession with love, lust and the need to solve a family mystery.

“Marcella was trying hard not to tell him that she felt the cooling late-summer days ticking by like she was a condemned woman.   Every night she could physically feel that the sun was setting earlier, the world darkening in response to their looming separateness.   She was having trouble sleeping.   Her life was broken and she did not know how to fix it.”

LeCraw has a fine, calm and sophisticated style that becomes more engaging the farther one is into the telling.   If there’s a weakness here, it’s that making one’s way through the slow opening pages takes a bit of persistence.   (I put the book down after a few dozen pages, but I came to feel well-rewarded once I resumed the read.)   LeCraw’s strength is that the sexual scenes strike just the right balance – they do not simply drop down from the sky, nor are they included for mere titillation.

It’s a bit disorienting to find a debut novel that is truly one of a kind (sui generis) in tone and nature, but this is precisely what LeCraw has delivered here.   Let’s hope for more to come.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Swimming Pool will be released in a trade paperback version on April 19, 2011.   “A fearless novel full of fresh insights and casually elegant writing…”   Atlanta Magazine


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This Ain’t No Disco

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper Perennial; $15.99; 560 pages)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 560 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States was dragged into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   In this role, Claire comes to meet and fall in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission as her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a murder mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in close to 600 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it were made into a film, most viewers would be very far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out…  she ends the story with a whimper rather than with a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a tightly scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 550 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Fierce Radiance will be released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.


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The Sins of a Family

The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers (St. Martin’s Griffin; $14.99; 320 pages)

murderer's daughters amazon

First-time novelist Randy Susan Meyers certainly knows how to draw a reader into her story while creating empathy for her characters.   Young sisters Lulu and Merry become orphans in July of 1971 when their jealous father stabs their mother to death.   The novel chronicles their major life events and experiences beginning with that fateful day in 1971 to December 2003.

The murder and the ensuing hardships shape the girls’ lives; however, Lulu and Merry are resilient and spunky kids who won’t succumb to being victims.   The first quarter of the book is nearly overwhelming with sadness.   Thankfully, the remainder of the book is rich with texture and emotion that are more easily processed.

murderers-daughters-back

Meyers gives the reader each sister’s perspective on what happens to them as they grow up via the chapter titles identifying whose narrative is being read.   This device is well employed and is not the least bit gimmicky.   The characters who factor prominently in shaping Lulu and Merry’s lives are their father, grandparents on both sides of the family and classmates.   Their relatives exhibit the characteristics we can all recognize as being either frustrating or endearing.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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At the Zoo

Did Not Survive: A Zoo Mystery by Ann Littlewood (Poisoned Pen Press; $14.95; 250 pages)

This second novel from former zookeeper Ann Littlewood, pits human nature against the honesty of zoo animals for a compelling read.   A fictitious zoo in the Pacific Northwest provides the location for a unique spin on an age-old tale of a heroine in peril.   The main character is Iris Oakley who is not only a recently widowed zoo employee, but also pregnant with her deceased husband’s baby.

In this story there are actually two heroines in peril, Iris Oakley and an aged elephant named Damrey.   Damrey has been a favorite of local families who visit her at the zoo.   Author Littlewood makes a case for the depth of knowledge required of zoo personnel.   It’s not just sweeping up after the animals and making sure they have their favorite foods.   Behavior, instincts and training are well documented for a wide range of the zoo’s inhabitants.   There are births and deaths that tear at the hearts of the staff.

Littlewood opens the mystery with the death of the zoo superintendent, a fellow who was good at his job but not well liked.   He’s discovered in Damrey’s enclosure being menaced by the very agitated elephant.   Iris is the first on the scene and it falls to her to assist in determining who is responsible for the super’s death.

Along the way we get to know the elephants.   They have not been part of her job until the discovery of the body in their enclosure.   Her regular charges are the big cats; however, pregnant women must not empty cat pans, big or small.   Iris is a remarkable character who captured this reviewer’s sympathies.

Well recommended. Let’s hope Ms. Littlewood keeps writing about what she knows so well as she provides entertainment bundled with fascinating learning.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Crown Archetype; $25.99; 421 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might have been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and actresses and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, actually, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with Mineo’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under all of the details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On Friday, February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner at the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400 pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography.)   Sal Mineo, the actor and artist, the person one hopes to learn about by reading this hard R to X-rated tome gets lost in the sad process.

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.  

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud misses an opportunity.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 372 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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