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Book Review: Deadly Row to Hoe by Cricket McRae (Series, #6)

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Summary:
Sophie Mae and her best friend decided to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) as soon as the opportunity popped up in their small town.  One day when they’re volunteering at the farm, a dead body is found in the compost heap.  Sophie Mae is determined not to get involved this time, after all, she’s got enough on her plate with her soap making business and trying to make a baby with her husband, Detective Barr.  But Barr’s boss asks her to help identify the body by talking to the folks in the community , and she just can’t say no.

Review:
Cozy mysteries consist of a mystery (that’s not too explicit or bloody) paired with an unlikely investigator, some sort of crafting, a good dose of humor, and a punny title.  In other words, they were basically made for me.  (Some even come with recipes!)  So when this one popped up on NetGalley, I snatched it up, and I’m so glad I did!  McRae successfully pulls together everything that makes a cozy great.

The plot is excellent.  The murder mystery isn’t too gory, but is also realistic.  The body is found in a compost heap, yes, but it’s just a dead body.  There aren’t slashed off heads hanging out in tea kettles or something.  Everyone is appropriately disturbed by the finding.  There’s no ho-hum just another day element at play.  Although I admit I had figured out whodunit before the end, the why and when were still a mystery.  Plus I never felt that Sophie Mae was being stupid and just missing something.  Why it was taking her a bit to see whodunit made total sense.  I also really appreciate that GLBTQ people are included in the plot without a big deal being made out of it.  They are just another character, which is just how I like my diversity in genre literature.

The characters are fairly three-dimensional for a cozy.  Everyone had something I liked and didn’t like about their personality, even the heroine, which is key to characters seeming realistic.  There were also a wide variety of people present from Sophie Mae’s best friend’s daughter to an elderly friend of the family.  This range is something that is often missing in literature, and I liked seeing it here.

What I really come to cozies for, though, I admit, is the integration of crafting.  In this case the theme is participating in a CSA, so parts of the book are devoted to how a CSA works from acquiring your weekly allotment to figuring out how to use it to cooking with it.  I really appreciated the quips about having so much of a certain produce that they’re coming out your ears.  I also really enjoyed the scenes that discussed taking real time out to cook dinner and what that feels like, such as talking about how garlic smells when you first throw it into a hot pan.  I know not all readers enjoy this, but honestly that’s part of the point of a cozy.  Taking the time to linger on crafts and talents that take time to cultivate but are well worth it, and McRae incorporated this element very smoothly into the book.  I do wish some recipes or CSA tips had been included, but it’s possible I just didn’t see them since I had an advanced copy.

Overall this book has a dash of everything enjoyable about a cozy mystery.  Recommended to cozy fans, particularly those in or considering a CSA.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Previous Books in Series:
Lye in Wait
Heaven Preserve Us
Spin a Wicked Web
Something Borrowed, Something Bleu
Wined and Died

Book Review: Above Ground by A. M. Harte (Series, #1)

November 28, 2012 4 comments

Yellowish moon seen through the trees.Summary:
Lilith Grey has spent her entire life living below ground–among the lucky descendants of the humans who escaped there before catching the virus that turned the rest of humanity into monsters from fairy tales.  But one day Lilith and her friend Emma get temporary vaccines and go above ground to a tourist theater to view these vampires and shapeshifters in person.  When everything goes horribly wrong, Lilith finds herself whisked away from the carnage on the back of a werewolf.  Can she ever get back below ground?

Review:
I was hesitant to accept a YA book for review, since the genre is not one I tend to enjoy.  But I had previously read and thoroughly enjoyed a book by this indie author, so I decided to give it a go.  Her other work, Hungry For You, is a collection of zombie themed short stories that manages to put a fresh twist on that genre, so I was hoping for more of that unique glint in her YA work as well.  This, her first full-length novel, is more unique than what is currently saturating the market, but I did not feel that it lived up to the expectations I had based on her short story collection.

The basic concept is intriguing.  Many post-apocalyptic stories feature humans living in bomb shelters or other similar underground enclosures but not for the reasons put forth in this novel.  This unique twist is what I’ve come to expect from Harte’s writing, and it definitely was the part of the story that kept me reading.  Seeing how the mutated humans lived above ground versus how the non-mutated lived below ground was intriguing and interesting.  I wish more time had been spent building this world and less on the emotions of the main character (not to mention her friend, Emma, and the werewolf, Silver).  The scifi explanations for the fantastical creatures was also engaging, but again not enough time was spent on it.  Similarly, while the typical werewolves and vampires exist among the infected above ground, there are also the more unique such as the ewtes who mutated to live in the water but can walk on the ground with water tanks.  Actually, I could have easily spent an entire book among the ewtes.  They were far more interesting than our stereotypical main character Lilith.  The world and minor characters are what kept me reading….not the plot or main characters.

The initial plot set-up is painfully stereotypical.  Clueless teenage girls wind up in danger. Two men save them. One is an angst-ridden werewolf. The other is a mysterious, handsome intelligent fella.  The girls protest they can care for themselves but the reader can see they can’t really. The main teenage girl feels inexplicably pulled to the werewolf angst man. The werewolf angst man feels drawn to the teenage girl and angsts about it. And on we go.  The last few pages of plot, thankfully, didn’t take the typical turn, but honestly the pay-off was incredibly minor compared to the rest of the stereotypical YA plot.  Even just making it a teenage boy from below ground saved by a female werewolf would have been a change enough to make me more interested.  I also was disappointed to see no depth or examination of the human condition here, which I saw in Harte’s previous work.  I was excited to see what depth she could bring to YA but she didn’t even bring an empowered female main character to the genre.  Quite disappointing.

Ignoring my own quips with the plot and main characters, the book simply does not read like a solid first entry in a series.  It gives the reader mere tastes of what we want to know from a first book in a series, like who the DEI are and why everyone is afraid of them, while lingering on things like how the main character craves the werewolf.  That is fine if it was a paranormal romance, but it feels more like it is meant to be a post-apocalyptic/dystopian style novel.  A clearer world needs to be established and characters more fully fleshed-out if they are to hold up a whole series.   There has to be a clear world and a three-dimensional main character set up before the danger if the reader is to feel any connection or caring at all.  As it is, I mostly just wanted to wander off and follow the ewtes.

Overall, then, this is definitely a book for YA fans only.  It’s the basic plot from YA with a twist set in a unique future world that was fun to visit.  YA fans will have to try it out for themselves to determine how much they will enjoy that visit.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy received from author in exchange for my honest review

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Giveaway! The author is running a giveaway along with her month long blog tour.  Check out the rafflecopter for details!

 

Book Review: Valley of Death, Zombie Trailer Park by William Bebb

November 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Red tinted image of a desert valley.Summary:
When Josey arrives a secluded trailer park near Albuquerque to empty their septic tank, it soon becomes apparent that not all is right in the park.  In fact, most of the residents have turned to zombies.  As Josey’s fight for survival goes on, we meet a quirky cast of survivors, bystanders, perpetrators–and zombies: illegal immigrants who call the valley home, their exploitative factory boss, a WWII veteran and grandpa, his young grandson, a paraplegic Vietnam Vet, a boa constrictor, bicycling missionaries, and many more. Will anyone survive the valley of death?

Review:
I have finally found the exception to my don’t-take-book-recommendations-from-other-people rule: my daddy.  My dad texted me and told me he was reading a book about a zombie trailer park and asked if I’d like to borrow it when he was done.  I couldn’t turn that down, so he sent his kindle loan to me as soon as he was finished reading it.  I knew within the first few pages that my dad had picked a winner.  That really shouldn’t surprise me, because, well, it’s my dad, and we’re very similar, but I had been burned a few times with book recommendations recently. Anyway. On to the review!

Bebb’s book is a fresh, engaging take on a zombie outbreak.  The origin is a factory error, which is decidedly different from the more usual government experimentation or voodoo approach.  It’s great commentary on the exploitative practices of factories, not to mention the exploitation of illegal immigrants, without ever being too heavy-handed or preachy.  The zombies are a mix of the rage virus and traditional undead. Before dying they are inexplicably full of rage and will eat almost anything but also when they die they reanimate. It’s a cool mix, and I enjoyed it.

The cast of characters is incredibly imaginative, diverse, and even-handed.  People are truly just people (or zombies) regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity.  And, really, how many books can say they have a WWII vet, a sewer truck worker, a mechanically talented Latina, a wheelchair-bound obese meth chef, a loyal dog, bicycling missionaries, and a pot-growing paraplegic Vietnam Vet. I mean, really. And none of them are two-dimensional caricatures either. They are all well-rounded and presented with thought and humanity. I also never had that problem I sometimes have in books where you can’t tell the different characters apart. Everyone was entirely unique and easy to remember.

The plot is complex. I honestly did not know how it was going to end, and it maintains a fast pace throughout.  I was never bored and was never entirely certain what was going to happen next.  That’s coming from a big zombie fan, so I do think that’s saying something significant about the uniqueness of the engaging plot.

What really makes the book, though, is the sprinkling of humor throughout.  This type of humor won’t match everyone, but it certainly works for me.  I described it to my dad as “Patrick F. McManus with zombies,” but if you don’t get that reference, it’s hard to describe the humor.  So, here are a couple of quotes from the book to demonstrate it.

Your average one armed pot growing hermit who just murdered two men might be thinking about a variety of things. (location 2592)

Crazy cop fuckers done bit off my titty! (location 5423)

That second one….oh man. I laugh every time I see it.

So with all this love, why not five stars?  Well, much to Bebb’s chagrin, I’m sure, there aren’t enough commas.  (His author’s intro states that previous reviews said there were too many and now people will probably think there are too few. Sorry to confirm that suspicion, Bebb!)  Compound sentences tend to run on and on with no commas or semi-colons, which can be a bit frustrating to read.  Also, the book isn’t quite properly formatted for the kindle. Its display varies from section to section.  Similarly, while some sections are clearly divided by a dividing line (such as with tildes “~~~~”), others just have a big gap, which is not what one should use for ebooks.  With the variety of ereaders, it’s important to use something besides space as a signal that the reader has entered a new section, since the space can display drastically differently on different readers.  It’s best to use something like the tildes between sections.  Using empty space is a holdover from print that doesn’t work.  Bebb did use the tilde line in some sections, but not all, so there’s also a bit of a consistency problem.

Overall, though, the formatting and comma issues did not distract me from the wonderfully unique and humorous zombie trailer park story.  I’m so glad my dad discovered this indie author and passed his work on to me, and I look forward to reading more of it in the future. Highly recommended to all zombie fans, provided you like the type of humor outlined above.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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Note: It’s currently listed for free!

ETA: Had a delightful email convo with the author, and we determined that I read an older version of the book. The current one available should have mostly cleared up editing/layout concerns.

Friday Fun! (Updates! Boston Organics, Halloween, and Hurricane Sandy)

November 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Hello my lovely readers!  I know you can all tell I’ve been very busy since there hasn’t been a Friday Fun from me in….over a month. I am pleased that I managed to at least keep a few posts trickling in, but even so I have three books waiting to be reviewed. No one thing in particular has kept me busy, it’s just….life is busy!  So, beyond my usual work, reading, exercising, cooking, general hanging out, what have I been up to?

First off, a friend told me all about Boston Organics, and I signed up for it!  Basically you get a box of fresh produce delivered to your door either every week or every other week. You can choose organic or organic and local. I chose organic and local.  So far it has been totally awesome and removed my sense of boredom I had recently acquired over choosing recipes. Getting produce chosen and sent to me challenges my cooking skills, and I’m really enjoying it!  Plus knowing that my food is coming locally, organic, and fresh makes me feel good both about what I’m feeding myself (and my boyfriend), but also makes me feel good about supporting local farmers.

Of course Halloween also happened.  Friends of mine are on the organizing committee for a Boston area scifi/fantasy group (I am so nerdy), and so boyfriend and I went to their costume party. We were Gem and Sam from Tron, and it was awesome. My friends did a great job organizing, and it was the nicest Halloween I’ve had in a while.  We also carved pumpkins! Since my current work in progress is set in the Lovecraft universe, I decided to do Cthulhu!

Cthulhu jack-o-lantern.

Ia ia Cthulhu fthagan!

Hurricane Sandy also arrived. Thankfully, it really did not affect Boston very much. Most people either didn’t have work or got sent home mid-day. The T stopped running partway through the day as well. I briefly lost power, but frankly Nstar did an amazing job maintaining power to homes in Boston during this storm.  I was a bit disturbed that my building was shaking, but truly nothing adverse happened.  My cat spent the morning trying to dive out the window to chase the wind-whipped leaves (her survival instinct is clearly amazing *eye-roll*) but by afternoon needed some serious snuggles. I actually had to wrap her up in her favorite fuzzy blanket to calm her poor little kitten nerves.  I was saddened to see that the National Park I worked at through Americorps in New Jersey suffered severe damage.  Almost every single historical building was flooded, but more importantly, the dunes that the endangered piping plovers nest on were demolished.  It’s very sad, and I can only hope that Americorps will have enough funding to send larger conservation teams than usual there in the spring.

Currently, I’m revving up for Thanksgiving this week!  Since neither boyfriend nor I can make it home to our respective home states to visit, we’ll be making our own vegetarian Thanksgiving. The planned menu is chili and pumpkin pie with vegan maple whipped cream. Nom!

Be expecting some book reviews to come up!  I’m hoping to get caught up writing them this weekend.

Happy weekends all!

Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (Audiobook narrated by ensemble)

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Fuzzy image of little girl jumping rope on a city sidewalk.Summary:
It’s 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone is kidnapping–and killing–black children.  How this terror haunts one fifth-grade classroom is told through three different perspectives. Tasha, whose parents are “living apart” for a while.  A painfully intelligent boy named Rodney who does not actually consider himself lucky to still have his father at home. And Octavia, better known as Sweet-Pea by her family and Watusi by her classmates.  She’s the darkest-skinned child in the classroom, and is ridiculed by them all, but she has a spirit that outshines everyone.

Review:
The Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1980 were a real thing that overshadowed the author’s own childhood.  Jones clearly remembers what it was to be in fifth grade and relates those emotions with raw detail, but she also brings along an educated adult’s understanding of race and race relations in the American south.  This all combines to create a powerful story that sweeps the reader away to another place and time while simultaneously leaving them with greater understanding.

The book is divided into three sections. Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative method.  Tasha’s uses third person.  Rodney’s second person, where the reader is told “you are” in an attempt to put the reader closer into Rodney’s shoes.  Finally, Octavia’s is told in first person.  Tasha’s story covers the first part of the school year, Rodney’s the second, and Octavia’s goes through January.  It’s an interesting narrative choice that ultimately works.  The reader sees three different reactions to the child murders and race relations at three different points in the crisis, in addition to the children’s observations of other people’s reactions.  It provides a multi-layered perspective that clearly demonstrates the complexity of all points the story touches upon: crime, race relations, broken families, class issues, and even just the process of growing up.

I appreciate the narrative complexity that Jones chose, but I do feel the story told suffers a bit.  I identified so much more strongly with Octavia than either of the other two children because her voice and personality were able to shine through so much more clearly.  Of course, it’s possible that this is the whole point. In fact, it does feel a bit like the whole book is just building up to Octavia’s story.  But although I had a similar level of attachment to Tasha, I simply didn’t feel that way for Rodney.  Part of that could have been the narrator chosen for Rodney. His voice was rather flat and dull without the nuance of the other two narrators.  But I don’t think that the second person narrative tense helped much.  Thankfully, Rodney’s portion of the book was quick, and the other two sections more than made up for it.

Speaking of the other two narrators, I feel bad that I was unable to find any of the ensemble’s names.  The women who narrated Tasha and Octavia did a phenomenal job. They captured both the age and the dialect of the children without once slipping into a tone that could be perceived of as false or mocking.  They truly embodied the little girls, and I felt I got something extra from listening to the audiobook, which is precisely how it should feel.  It’s unfortunate that the narrator for Rodney failed to do the same thing, providing a rather lackluster, mediocre performance.

The social justice commentary enmeshed in the book is brilliant.  One cannot possibly read this book and not see how racism and entrenched classism negatively impacts children and families.  Even at ten, these children get it that the media and police care less about them getting kidnapped that they would if they were white.  Even at ten the children have already learned racism so well that they ostracize the darkest child in their class.  (This book made me very interested in reading more about racism within the black community).  Most powerful to me, though, particularly after reading the books in The Real Help Reading Project, is how subtly Jones demonstrates the difficult choices parents and other adults must make to provide what is best for their children and how that is exacerbated by inequality.  I’d be more clear, but that would give away the ending of the book.  Suffice to say it’s a powerful message presented in a subtle manner through a little girl with whom it is impossible not to establish a connection.

Overall this is an engaging, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction.  It brings the reader directly into a classroom of fifth graders to see how not just a kidnapping and killing spree but also enmeshed racism and sexism impact the present and future of children.  Recommended to fans of historical and literary fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer

November 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Two women's faces behind a hole in a bloody door.Summary:
When Kate saves her bellydancing instructor from a random assault in the parking lot then brings her home to a party at her house full of 20-somethings, she doesn’t expect much to come of it. But before she knows it, she finds herself inexplicably attracted to her…not to mention tying her up for some BDSM.  That’s unexpected enough, but when Jamie and others turn pasty gray and start craving human flesh, Kate and her roommates find the world falling apart around them.  Thanks to an STD-style zombie plague.

Review:
Zombie erotica is its own special kind of erotica, and this is not the first of its kind that I have read.  Zombie erotica basically consists of….zombies and erotica. Also punny titles.  The title is definitely the best part of this book.  Everyone I said it to when they asked what I was reading totally cracked up.  The basic concept is rather ordinary, and the execution, while it has a few laughs, is mostly ho-hum.

Making the zombie plague an STD is a logical leap.  Many illnesses spread sexually, and often they spread before there are any visible symptoms.  In fact it’s a great way to spread an illness because of the amount of *ahem* proximity between carrier and the previously healthy person combined with the fact that people almost always will be having sex.  Toss in that the virus amps up attractiveness and/or promiscuity, and you’ve really got an epidemic.  The problem, of course, is that at some point the carriers have to actually turn into zombies.  Beamer handles this transition moderately well.  It is eventually understood that the carriers are basically irresistible crack-cocaine to the nearby uninfected, so that even if they know this person is about to turn into a zombie, they will still hook up with them.

It’s unfortunate that such a creative zombie plague is wrapped in a mostly ho-hum storyline that only becomes interesting when it becomes borderline offensive.  For the most part the story features two of the roommates in a household of 20-somethings approaching the zombie apocalypse getting separated early on, approaching the zombie apocalypse in their own way, then working to get reunited.  Michael tries to pull the household together when Kate abandons ship pretending that nothing is happening to keep her “date” with an older man that is actually more of a sugar daddy appointment.  Michael’s storyline is fairly straight-forward and believable, whereas Kate’s quickly goes off the rails.  I also am not sure that I’m a fan of the whole writing her as a huge slut who winds up having to pay for her crimes whereas Michael is the golden guy thing.  I don’t think Beamer intended it be read that way, but it certainly does not come across as sex positive.

The other part of the storyline that bothered me is that there is a rape. Now. I am not against rape as part of the plot in anything but erotica.  It is a crime that happens and pretending like it doesn’t happen is bizarre. But rape in erotica is an entirely different ballgame.  Erotica is all about turning on the reader, and I do not condone using a very real rape to turn a reader on.  Clearly two consenting adults can agree to act out a scene of non-consent if they wish, but within the book, this is not a consenting scene of non-consent.  There is no prior discussion, no safeword. The character is definitely raped.  To me it is no different from tossing in a pedophilia scene. It is an awful, heinous crime, and it shouldn’t be running around turning people on.  When a book’s entire point is to turn people on, it should definitely not be all up in my erotica.

All of that said, I must still admit that the book is well-written.  It is engaging with a unique plot.  I truly feel it is a book that each reader must decide upon for themselves, but I do hope that readers will come into it better informed than I was, knowing about the questionable sex positivity and the rape content.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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