Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Review: The Neighbors by Ania Ahlborn

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

At the intersection of Blue Velvet and Basic Instinct lies The Neighbors.

theneighborsAnd that about covers it. What a fun (fluffy) summer read, for those of us who like a little blood and guts with our romance and thrills. There is absolutely nothing believable about this book, but I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Drew Morrison thinks he’s been saved by his old friend, Mickey. Just as Drew had had enough of his alcoholic mother, of his miserable existence taking care of her, Mickey steps in and offers him a place to stay. Drew leaves his mother to fend for herself, quits his job, plans to start with a clean slate. Unfortunately, Mickey’s place is more hovel than home; dark, dreary and dirty. But next door! Next door is nirvana:

“Easing his truck along the curb, he stared at the house just outside his window. It was gorgeous, a gingerbread house pulled straight from a fairy tale. This one had a white picket fence as well, rosebushes bursting with bright red blooms. Matching hydrangeas, heavy with blossoms, dangled from pots that hung beneath the eaves of the porch. A wind chime shivered in the breeze, small rounds of capiz shell sparkling in the sun. A hammock stretched across the right side of the patio.”

The gingerbread house belongs to Red and Harlow Ward, Drew’s new, too-perfect neighbors. Whether it’s a plate of cookies or a job offer, they are right there to offer Drew everything he needs. With Mickey sulking in his room and acting strangely, Drew can’t resist the offer of a home-cooked meal, especially when it’s served up by the luscious Harlow Ward. But are these neighbors too good to be true? Why is Mickey acting so strangely – and what is behind the locked door at the end of the hallway? What secrets are hiding behind the pleasant facade of 668 Magnolia Lane?

Okay, there is nothing remotely plausible about this story, but the over-the-top quality is what makes it so much fun. The story just gets crazier and crazier and crazier! There’s no deep meaning here, just a fun story, a few sympathetic characters, and a vampy villain you have to read to believe. It’s exactly my idea of a summertime beach read.

My copy of The Neighbors by Ania Ahlborn is from my private Kindle library.

 

Review: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

bellman and blackIn Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, we start with a group of boys, playing in the woods. One boy, William Bellman, kills a rook with his slingshot. Even as a child, he recognizes the moment as significant, but he can have no idea then how this single childhood moment will influence his life.

The Bellman family is a prosperous one, but William and his mother have their difficulties. His uncle, Paul Bellman, takes him under his wing, into the family business, and soon comes to appreciate William’s work ethic and his unique abilities. The mill prospers, Paul is pleased with his protege, and William seems unstoppable. Success after success seems to follow William – at the mill, in his marriage, with his children. But still, there’s the rook…

Have you ever finished a book and felt as though there were nuances you did not quite grasp? I felt that way with Bellman & Black. There seemed to be a moral to the story that eluded me. Was William really haunted by the rook? I thought so, but I’m not sure. How much of Mr. Black was real and how much was William’s imagination? Again, it’s hard to say. But the uncertainty, the feeling that there is more going on than meets the eye, made this a particularly good read.

It’s hard not to like William. He is cheerful in the face of his grandfather’s malice. He is an industrious young man who wants to make a success of himself, and you find yourself rooting for him. Even as he is building the complex enterprise that will become Belmont & Black, I was impressed by his daring and the dogged way he pursued his goals. But as the enterprise unfolds, you begin to worry about him. There is definitely something off-kilter in his thinking, and the reader can see trouble on the horizon.

The chapter breaks about rooks, crows and ravens were fascinating. I had never thought of a rook as a particularly mystical bird, but the author has given a great deal of thought to what rooks think about:

What does the rook do with this leisure time?

1) he tells jokes and gossips

2) he engineers handy, throw-away tools

3) he learns to speak foreign languages. The rook can imitate the human voice, a logger’s crane, the crash of broken glass. And if he wants to really make fun, he can call your dog to him – with your own whistle.

4) he enjoys poetry and philosophy

5) he is an expert in rook history

These asides make the rooks real characters and give them an important part in the story. Just how important, I’m still not sure I know – and I find I enjoy the uncertainty.

My copy of Bellman & Black was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge by Atria Books.

Review: Only the Innocent by Rachel Abbott

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

only the innocentRachel Abbott was “the epublishing sensation of 2012″ and Only The Innocent was her first novel. This is the sort of author story I love to read – I love the variety that epublishing brings us, and I hope that the trend continues. I only wish that I had enjoyed the book more.

Only The Innocent has some major issues and plot holes, in my opinion. There is still an entertaining mystery here, if you can suspend enough disbelief. The writing (aside from the plot issues) was pretty good and I would definitely give another story of Abbott’s a try, even if it wouldn’t be at the top of my TBR pile. That said, I had some serious issues with this novel.

There will be some spoilers below, so you may want to skip to the end if you don’t want to be clued in!

Laura Kennedy is a modern young career woman, working for a film company, when she meets Sir Hugo Fletcher. Hugo is older, very rich, very married, so of course she immediately starts dating him. The hilarious thing is that Laura has just won an award for a documentary film on abusive relationships, and yet she falls into every cliche – he cuts her off from friends and family, makes her quit her job, demeans her and criticizes her at every turn. He refuses to meet any of her family until the wedding – won’t even let her see his house until after the wedding, every detail of which he plans right down to her dress and flowers. No way a woman like the Laura they describe would fall for it – and if she would, she wouldn’t make a very likable or sympathetic character.

After her husband’s murder, Laura “reconnects” with her former best friend, Imogen. They haven’t spoken in years and there is a lot Imogen doesn’t know about Laura’s marriage and their estrangement (entirely due to Hugo, of course). Over the years, Laura has written letters to Imogen, letters that she has kept hidden and never mailed, explaining the bizarre circumstances of her marriage. When Imogen shows up after Hugo’s death to comfort Laura, Laura gives her the letters to read.

Okay, some of that is plausible – except for the fact that first, we learn that Laura was writing these letters to Imogen, undetected, while she was forcibly confined in a mental hospital, drugged and keenly observed. How could she have written them and where would she have hidden them? Makes no sense. And we later learn Laura and Imogen have been back in contact for quite some time. In fact, Laura has drafted Imogen to assist in her plan to blackmail her husband. And she did this without telling her about the sham of  a marriage and her reasons for needing protection? That also makes no sense.

There are a number of mysterious, italicized asides from a mystery woman. We glean that she is locked up, chained actually, in a remote room somewhere, without food or water, waiting for her mysterious benefactor to return. As soon as we learn that Hugo’s family charity dealt with helping young prostitutes, we know who she is and who her captor must be. The book would have been considerably better without those snippets; they gave way too much away.

In the end, I kept reading just to see how Abbott would finally resolve the story. It was pretty much what I suspected, and not terribly satisfying. For someone who was under constant observation by a husband who had threatened to kill her, Laura had a lot of leeway, it seems. The explanation for Hugo’s sexual proclivities was pretty ridiculous. It just wasn’t satisfying for me. I could see the glimmers of a great story here – the writing was quite good, there were some interesting characters, and Abbott created a pretty intricate plot – but in key ways, it fell apart for me.

My copy of Only The Innocent by Rachel Abbott came from my personal Kindle library.

Review: Cadaver Blues by J. E. Fishman

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

cadaver_20blues_20cover_20finalCadaver Blues is an interesting idea for a series. Phuoc Goldberg (what an awesome name!) is not your typical private detective – in fact, he’s not a private detective at all. He’s a financial advisor to the down-and-out, the guy you call when the collection agencies are knocking down your doors. He helps people who are over-extended and under-financed keep a roof over their heads – doesn’t seem like a lot of opportunities for solving mysteries. Until he meets Mindy.

Mindy Eider is smoking hot, kind-hearted, and a little gullible. Her Uncle Gunnar, more of an honorary uncle, is off on one of his annual retreats – Mindy doesn’t know where he goes or how to reach him – and Mindy is looking after things in his absence. She has come to Phuoc because someone is trying to foreclose on Uncle Gunnar’s house and she doesn’t know why. There has never been a problem with the bills during these little walk-abouts before, and since it isn’t her account, she can’t speak with anyone at the mortgage company. She hopes that Phuoc can help.

The book is a reminder that the world tends to bow before a beautiful woman. If Mindy had been an ordinary-looking schoolteacher, there is no way that Phuoc would have ended up risking his life for her. Maybe I’m a little cynical. Anyway, what follows is a pretty entertaining mystery. Part of what makes it entertaining is that Phuoc is clearly not a detective – he’s doing all this for a beautiful woman in distress. The situations he gets himself into are pretty funny, even if I found the mystery itself a little implausible. (Okay, more than a little.) They start out in Wilmington, Delaware, spend a weekend snowed in at a resort in the Poconos and end up skulking around mysterious mushroom farms in the dark of night. Throw in some cool friends, a few decadent chocolates and perhaps some magic mushrooms and you’ve got a fun story that kept me turning the virtual pages.

Now, I don’t know where the series will go from here. How many mysteries can a debt consolidation specialist in Wilmington, Delaware run into? Still, you can get me to suspend a lot of disbelief if you have good characters and a snappy storyline, and this had both. I enjoyed this one (a bargain on Amazon) and I would definitely give the next in the series a try.

My copy of Cadaver Blues by J. E. Fishman came from my personal Kindle library.

Review: The Abomination by Jonathan Holt

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

the-abomination-coverEverything is a trilogy these days! I’m serious – I cannot begin to tell you how many review copies come to me that are Book One is some trilogy or other. Most of the time, as I may have said before, I’m unimpressed. Often it means that the writer can’t seem to figure out how to wrap up the story in a single book. I think it’s great if a book is so good and so well-received that it inspires a sequel, but just like movies, every book these days has to come with a sequel.

In The Abomination by Jonathan Holt, I can actually see the need for a sequel. The plot is so complex, with so many threads to follow, that you could never wrap it up in one book. A few of the plotlines you’ll need to keep straight:

- Captain Kat Tapo of the Carabinieri is investigating her first murder case: a woman found in the canal, shot in the head, wearing the robes of a Catholic priest.

-  Colonel Aldo Piola, a seasoned investigator, is supervising Tapo on this case. There’s chemistry between the two of them and Piola has a reputation…

- Second Lieutenant Holly Boland is thrilled to be back in Italy, even if the assignment – a sort of community liaison officer – doesn’t sound terribly exciting. However, Boland’s first official task – look for some documents related to a Freedom of Information Act request – may be very exciting. And Dangerous.

- Daniel Barbo, a computer genius with a tragic past, has designed the ultimate virtual reality space for Italians – Carnivia.com, a detailed and eerily accurate rendition of Venice. Like the city itself, Carnivia contains many secrets – some that might be worth killing for.

There are actually a couple of other interesting plotlines, but if that doesn’t pique your interest, you may be unpiquable. Holt does an excellent job of moving the story forward, keeping the plotlines interwoven but not tangled, and keeping you turning the pages. It’s a great mix of characters, an amazing and exotic setting, with plenty of action and intrigue. The plot takes off in completely unexpected directions, and by the end of the book, you feel as though you have wandered into a totally different story. It was an excellent read and I am actually looking forward to the sequel, The Abduction, coming out in May.

My copy of The Abomination was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge by the good folks at HarperCollins Publishers.

Review: Slow Cooking for Two: Basics, Techniques, Recipes by Cynthia Graubart

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Slow-Cooking-Front-Cover-266x300I know a lot of people think of a crockpot as a winter thing – full of chili or pot roast or beef stew. Fact is, a crockpot is great for cooking in the summer. You don’t heat up the house, there’s not standing over a hot stove, but you still get a hot meal at the end of the day. And you are certainly not limited to stews and chili; you can make seafood, vegetables, lasagna, even bake a cake in your crockpot. I have been having some fun, testing out new recipes for the coming months.

Slow Cooking for Two: Basics, Techniques, Recipes is a very handy resource for single folks and small families, especially if they are new to slow cooking. There are excellent sections on tips for using a crockpot, cooking times, and equipment. The recipes really run the gamut – everything from Spiced Mixed Nuts (page 136) and Banana Bread (page 126) to Cornish Hen Dijon (page 54) and Mushroom Risotto (page 106). There is a great section of desserts – Vanilla Custard, Lemon Cake and Apple Crisp – as well as a good section on some recipe basics. I never thought of roasting garlic in the crockpot, but you would really get that low-and-slow taste with this method.

In my house, my crockpot is a stock machine – I make chicken stock, beef stock, vegetable stock, all in the crockpot. My favorite method is to throw all the ingredients in, pour boiling water over them, turn the crockpot on low and then go to bed; I wake up in the morning to a house that smells like heavenly and I’m ready to make a terrific soup or stew.

Probably the most interesting section for me was the chapter on “Double Dinners” – basically, take a big chuck roast or pork tenderloin, cut it in half, then make two dinners at once in the same crockpot. Of course, the secret is using those crockpot liners (terrific for sticky, messy dishes). you simply put half the meat in each bag, add the other ingredients, and place the closed bags next to each other in your big crockpot. It’s perfect if you don’t like eating the same leftovers day after day until they’re gone. This way, you’ve got two entirely different meals.

All in all, a good reference with some great recipes. I like the Potato Gratin, the Pork Tenderloin with Cabbage, and I am looking forward to trying to Spinach Lasagna. My copy of Slow Cooking for Two: Basics, Techniques, Recipes came from my personal library.

 

Review: Starers by Nathan Robinson

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Starers_Nathan_RobinsonThis one is from my personal library, recommended by someone on my Bookapalooza thread, and let me tell you: Starers by Nathan Robinson is one seriously creepy book! A little horror, a little family drama, maybe a little religion – and a lot of creepy suspense. This was a great one-sitting read.

Dylan Keene is heading home from a night at the pub, his deadbeat brother in tow. Standing at the bus stop across the street from the house is an old man. Dylan doesn’t give him much thought – but he’s still there the following morning. Even more disturbing is the fact that he’s not alone, there are other people out there, staring at the Keene household.

And it doesn’t stop. As the day wears on, more and more people gather to stare at them, leaving Dylan, his wife, Kirsty, his daughter, Lucy, and his brother, Lennon, trapped in the house. The Starers don’t react to anything. They are in various stages of dress (and undress). There are accidents, but they don’t move. They don’t eat, they don’t sit down, they don’t even blink – they just stare at the Keene’s house…and every time they look outside, there are more of them.

Creepy enough for you? Honestly, the thought of being locked in the house with my family is bad enough, but creepy staring people on the lawn? No thanks!

There are a few issues with this one. It could use a bit of editing, I think – I found some of the phrasing awkward and grammar issues make me grit my teeth. Still, I had great fun with it, trying to guess what the ending would be. One of the best things about getting books for my Kindle is that for very little money, I can pick up some really cool books – this is definitely one of them.

My copy of Starersis from my personal library.

Review: Vintage by Susan Gloss

Monday, March 17th, 2014

VintageHC-C-1-e1386603710842I don’t generally review a lot of women’s lit, but the story behind Vintage  by Susan Gloss really spoke to me. I love the idea that items in a thrift store all have stories behind them! Someone wore the dress you’re trying on, the shoes, the wedding gown; someone sat at the table or read the books. Were those happy times? Did a beloved grandchild play with that teddy bear? I find it infinitely fascinating. In Vintage we meet some of the people behind those stories.

There are three women at the heart of the story. Violet Turner owns Hourglass Vintage in Madison, Wisconsin. Violet has always been a little out of step with her peers;  even in high school she had a retro style. She’s built this business – the perfect location, carefully selected vintage items, a growing clientele – and now she may lose it.

April is 18, an orphan, and pregnant. She bought a wedding dress at Hourglass — and returned it almost immediately. Amithi is still reeling from a terrible betrayal when she brings Violet a stack of beautiful Indian garments. While Violet navigates the turbulent waters of a new romance, the three women hatch a plan to save Hourglass, and maybe themselves along with it.

Okay, it’s definitely chick lit, but I don’t say that as a bad thing. It’s about women, about women on their own, making their own way without a man. Yes, there’s some romance, but it is really about three women who are (or are becoming) self-reliant. They can’t deal with the men in the story until they have their own lives under control – that was a theme that definitely appealed to me. Although I was a little disappointed in one big decision in the book, for the most part these women dig in their heels and refuse to be pushed around.

I really enjoyed Vintage, and I think it will make a great summer read. Telling the story with the items in the shop was a clever way to tie old stories in with new ones, and it really played to my love of thrift store finds and their imagined histories. My copy of Vintage was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. Sadly, it has disappeared from my Kindle (those blasted self-deleting ARCs!), but you can pre-order yours on Amazon, or pick it up at your favorite bookstore on March 25th.

For more on Susan Gloss and her work, visit her website. For more on other new releases from William Morrow, check out their website.

Review: Game by Anders de la Motte

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

game coverHave you noticed that everything is a trilogy these days? I always thought that the way things worked was that you published a book and if it did well, maybe your publisher wanted another. Maybe you could turn it into a series. That seems passé these days – now, everything is a series right out of the box.

That’s not always a good thing — sometimes, I think it’s just lazy writing. Instead of having to create a self-contained story, something that could be wrapped up in a single volume, writers can let their story meander all over the place. Instead of coming to a denouement, wrapping up the story and tidying loose ends, it’s much easier to write a cliffhanger.

Now, after all that, you might think that I was disappointed to find out that Game by Anders de la Motte was a trilgoy. In the beginning, I was skeptical, but I found that I was really enjoying the story and look forward to what de la Motte would do in the next volume.

Henrik “HP” Pettersson is a pretty typical slacker – under-employed, lacking much motivation, but with a pretty high opinion of himself (mostly unfounded). His life is going nowhere. Then one day he finds a cell phone on the train — a very snazzy, high-end cellphone that he figures he can sell for enough to keep him in beer and cigarettes for a while. That is until the phone gets a text: DO YOU WANT TO PLAY A GAME?

At first, he ignores texts, assuming they are for the rightful owner. But when the texts start to refer to him by name — WANNA PLAY A GAME, HENRIK PETTERSSON? – he’s intrigued.

He finds himself in the world of The Game. He is assigned tasks, which could be anything from stealing an umbrella to hacking the power grid. He films himself performing these bits of vandalism, and the results are posted online. Suddenly, he’s got cash, he’s got a fan base, and he is in way over his head. The tasks get more and more dangerous, until it becomes clear that the people running The Game have more power than he could possibly imagine…

It’s a pretty decent thriller! There are lots of plot twists and turns. The Game itself is so big, so involved, that it teeters right on the fine edge between Don’t Be Ridiculous and Maybe-Just Maybe. There’s a good storyline and while you can see some of the curve balls coming, there were a few that came right out of left field. Game also does a nice job of both tidying up loose ends and giving you a good cliffhanger. The ending had me literally thumbing back through the last chapter, trying to figure out whether I had missed something, it was that much of a shock. It really left me wondering about where the next book will go. For a change, I don’t have to wait to find out — the rest of the trilogy (Buzz and Bubble) is available on Amazon.

My copy of Game is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Nanette’s Review: Delilah’s Daughters by Angela Benson

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

delilahsdaughters_v4_s260x420When I was a kid, my mom used to curl up under a lamp and read romances until bedtime. If work had been particularly bad that day, she’d head for her book right after supper. When I got a copy of Delilah’s Daughters, I followed my mom’s example and curled up on my side of the bed, turned the night table lamp on and read, and read. This book is that kind of read. I found it absorbing precisely because it didn’t take me too far from home; the relationships, conflicts and values were familiar enough to make me nod my head in recognition, and I think a lot of readers will do the same.

“Delilah’s Daughters” is a trio of singing sisters that has reached the finals of an “American Idol” –like t.v. show. They should win—but they don’t. (You know how this goes, right? The best acts always seem to come in second.) The television show has brought them exposure that will ultimately divide them. Their mother, Delilah wants them to continue in the group that their dead father founded and managed. No one part should be greater than the other, she insists. And there’s a recording contract with a small, local company that will let them do just that. But daughter Veronica has been offered a solo contract with a major recording studio. Veronica loves the spotlight—how can she refuse? And Alicia—well, she’s never liked the spotlight anyway, and the demise of the group leaves her free to pursue her dreams of becoming a songwriter. Meanwhile, Roxanne, a cruise ship singer who is technically the best singer of the group, is seeing a married man. And then, there’s mom and manager Delilah herself: she’s trying to hold the family together, but the secret she’s harbouring could potentially tear it apart for good.

The conflicts between the characters are familiar. Can loyalty to a family or group hold a person back? Is breaking free and getting the dream all it’s cracked up to be? How many of your core values are you ready to give up to pursue your dream? And what do you do when the mistakes of the past threaten to overwhelm the present? Values are a central part of the book, but there are no tub thumping homilies here. Instead, you get people who are just struggling to do the right thing. They’re human, and they make bad decisions. They fight. They get jealous. And, although there aren’t any sexually explicit scenes, sex exists. These are real women, after all.

Angela Benson’s work represents something of an alternative to some kinds of urban fiction. As another African American author pointed out, “not everybody’s into pimpin’, druggin’ and ‘hoin’.” This is about educated, reasonably successful but still ordinary folks that you don’t see on the news unless they’re anchoring it. But real folks have their own dramas—dramas that are all the more compelling because they are ones that everyone shares.

My copy of Delilah’s Daughters was an Advance Review Copy, provided free of charge.

For more on Angela Benson’s work, check out her website.