Book Review: Beverly Hills Demon Slayer by Angie Fox (Series, #6)

September 24, 2014 2 comments

A woman holding a sword stands near a dog wearing star sunglasses.Summary:
Lizzie and Dimitri are back from their honeymoon and are all moved in to their new California oceanfront home.  Lizzie is loving married life, even if she has to deal with keeping her talking dog Pirate’s pet dragon out of trouble.  But one night someone dumps a purgatory creature on their beach, and their search for who did it and why leads Lizzie right back to two of her worst nemeses: a big bad demon and her birth father.

Review:
I was really excited to be able to get an advanced reading copy of this book, since I’ve been a fan of the series from book one.  I also was happy to see that Fox wasn’t going to stop the series just because Lizzie got married.  I think more urban fantasy needs to acknowledge that you don’t have to be single or have a dramatic love life in order to be bad-ass.  This book demonstrates quite well that just because Lizzie got married doesn’t mean that the series will stagnate.

The book’s strength is its opening sequences demonstrating Lizzie’s married life, as well as the first time we see the biker witches’ new permanent digs.  Both show that while everyone is still the characters we first met and fell for, they are also progressing and changing as their life situations change.  The scenes of Lizzie and Dimitri’s new married life are a pleasure to read, seeing them settled into being a partnership and Pirate accepting of the fact that he is now banned from the bedroom.  It’s also pretty hilarious to see them trying to hide the supernatural from their homeowner’s association.  Similarly, the biker witches are still quirky and funny but now they have made a real home out of a motel, including a surprisingly beautiful magical courtyard out back.  These are the characters we love in new situations, and it’s quite well done.

The plot is a bit meh this time around.  We’ve seen this big bad demon multiple times before, as well as the problems with Lizzie’s birth family.  It feels a bit like a recycled plot, in spite of some of the finer details being different.  I think it’s high time Lizzie gets a new big bad to fight.  Additionally, I think a lot of readers will have a problem with the direction the plot goes at the end of the book.  Fox pulls up this thing that is earth-shattering to readers, and should be to the characters, but they kind of just brush it off and don’t really deal with the consequences.  I’m hoping that they will in the next book, but even if they do, it’s still a rough plot for this book.  It starts out ho-hum as something we’ve seen before then in the final third goes suddenly off the rails in a direction a lot of readers won’t like.  Kind of a difficult plot to deal with when it’s wrapped in such cute characters, scenes, and overarching series developments.

*spoilers*
For those who’ve read it, I seriously question the plot having Lizzie kill Pirate with such vehemence when she’s possessed, only to have him brought right back to life.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the idea of having Lizzie possessed after all of her loved ones were possessed by the same demon in the prior book.  That’s an interesting direction to go.  But having Lizzie actually kill Pirate? Gut-wrenching to read.  And then she faces no consequences because he is just brought back to life, and everyone instantly forgives her?  It felt like Fox ripped my heart out for no reason, and then I didn’t forgive Lizzie as fast as her family and friends seemed to.  It was a tough ending to the book.
*end spoilers

The sex scenes are the perfect level of sexy and romantic. They feel just right for newlyweds but also don’t overwhelm the plot.  One character from a prior book is explored more in-depth, and a new character is added.  I wasn’t a fan of the latter, but I enjoyed the former.

Overall, this book handles its urban fantasy heroine’s new married life quite well, balancing the romance with the fighting, dangers, and sexiness readers expect.  Some readers may be bothered by the fact that the plot starts out feeling like a do-over of previous plots, and some may be bothered by the ending of the book.  However, fans of the series should definitely pick this one up to see where Lizzie and the gang are heading, and they will be left wanting to pick up the next one as quickly as possible.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Previous Books in Series:
The Accidental Demon Slayer, review
The Dangerous Book for Demon Slayers, review
A Tale of Two Demon Slayers, review
The Last of the Demon Slayers, review
My Big Fat Demon Slayer Wedding, review

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Book Review: Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

September 19, 2014 5 comments

A woman's jawline and neck are viewed through a shattered glass.Summary:
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen.  And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.

Review:
I was intrigued by the concept of this book.  Yes, it’s another abduction story, but wrapping it in the therapy sessions after she escapes was an idea I had not seen before.  So when I saw this on sale for the kindle, I snatched it up.  I’m glad I did, because this is a surprisingly edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Stevens deals with the potential issue of back-and-forth with the therapist by having Annie say in her first session that in order to feel safe talking about what happened to her, she needs the therapist to say very little back to her.  It is acknowledged that the therapist says some things to Annie, but it appears that she waits to talk until the end of the session when Annie is done talking.  What the therapist says isn’t recorded but Annie does sometimes respond to what she suggested in later sessions.  This set-up has the potential to be clunky, but Stevens handled it quite eloquently.  It always reads smoothly.

The plot itself starts out as a basic abducted/escaped one, with most of the thriller aspects of the first half of the book coming from slowly finding out everything that happened to Annie when she was abducted.  The second half is where the plot really blew me away, though.  The investigation into her kidnapping turns extremely exciting and terrifying.  I don’t want to give too much away.  Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting most of the thrills to come from the investigation after the kidnapping and yet they did.

Annie is well-developed. Her PTSD is written with a deep understanding of it.  For instance, she both needs human connection and is (understandably) terrified of it, so she pushes people away.  Stevens shows Annie’s PTSD in every way, from how she talks to her therapist to how she behaves now to subtle comparisons to how she used to be before she was traumatized.

Other characters are well-rounded enough to seem like real people, including her abductor, yet it also never seems like Annie is describing them with more information than she would logically have.

I do want to take just a moment to let potential readers know that there are graphic, realistic descriptions of rape.  Similarly, the end of the book may be triggering for some.  I cannot say why without revealing what happens but suffice to say that if triggers are an issue for you in your recovery from trauma, you may want to wait until you are further along in your recovery and feel strong enough to handle potentially upsetting realistic descriptions of trauma.

Overall, this is a strong thriller with a creative story-telling structure.  Those who enjoy abduction themed thrillers will find this one unique enough to keep them on the edge of their seat.  Those with an interest in PTSD depicted in literature will find this one quite realistic and appreciate the inclusion of therapy sessions in the presentation.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 16, 2014 9 comments

A bone hand holds chopsticks.Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.

Review:
I picked this up because I had previously read Compestine’s book Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (review) and when I looked up what else she had written, I was deeply intrigued by the premise.  This is a strong short story collection, featuring diverse yet related short stories, each beautifully written.

The eight short stories are organized into appetizers, main courses, and desserts.  The titles are for the food being served that course, such as “Tea Eggs” or “Long-life Noodles.”  The food mentioned in the title also appears somewhere in the story as a key part of the plot.  It’s a gorgeous way to organize the short stories and makes them also feel like diverse parts of a whole.

The short stories are mostly set in 20th century China, but a couple feature 20th century characters investigating something from the more distant past or being haunted by more ancient ghosts.  One story is set in New York City and features a Chinese-American family.

The stories, universally, quickly establish the setting and characters.  They all subtly teach some aspect of Chinese culture or history.  For instance, one story looks at medicine under Communism in China, while another features preying mantis fights.  At the end of each story, a brief blurb gives further details about two to three aspects of Chinese culture or history featured in the story.  Most surprising, and incredibly welcome, at the end of each short story, Compestine gives a recipe for the featured food!  It reminded me of how cozy mysteries often feature patterns or recipes at the end of the book, only this time the recipes are found in a shorty story horror collection.  Brilliant!

What about the horror aspect of the short stories?  I found them simultaneously plausible and sufficiently scary.  I was a bit on the edge of my seat without being scared out of my wits, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed each of these short stories, from the touch of horror to the settings to the amount I learned about Chinese culture and history to the wonderful recipes.  Highly recommended to anyone with even a moderate interest in China, Chinese culture, or Chinese food.  Even if horror isn’t usually your genre, give these ghosts a chance.  You’ll be glad you did.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Giveaway: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead by E. A. Aymar (US Only)

September 13, 2014 4 comments

Title against a foggy image of a man walking in the woodsIt’s time for the seventh giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  Lots of the indie authors whose books I accepted for review in 2014 also were interested in me hosting a giveaway at the time of my review, so there will be plenty more coming up in the future too.

There are THREE PRINT versions of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (review) available courtesy of the author, E. A. Aymar!

What You’ll Win:  One print copy of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead by E. A. Aymar.

How to Enter:  Leave a comment on this post stating whether you have ever been to Baltimore and if you’d be interested in returning or visiting it for the first time.

Who Can Enter: US only

Contest Ends: September 27th.  Two weeks from today!

Disclaimer: The winner will be contacted via email by the blogger to acquire their mailing address to send the print book.  The blogger will then provide the mailing address to the author.  The author will send the winner the print book.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.

Book Review: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead by E. A. Aymar (Series, #1)

September 13, 2014 4 comments

Title against a foggy image of a man walking in the woodsSummary:
Tom Starks has not been the same since his wife, Renee, was brutally murdered with a baseball bat in a parking lot.  He’s been struggling for the last three years to raise her daughter, who he adopted when he married Renee.  When Renee’s killer is released after a retrial finds insufficient evidence to hold him, Tom becomes obsessed with dealing out justice himself.

Review:
I was so excited that two of my 2014 accepted review copies fit into the RIP IX reading challenge!  This book’s title jumped out at me immediately when it was submitted, and I had been saving it up specifically to read in the fall.  I’m glad to say that this thriller does not disappoint, although it goes in a bit of a different direction than I originally anticipated.  And that’s a good thing.

The main character is not who you usually see from a thriller with a person seeking violent justice.  He’s bookish.  Rather weak and simpering. Afraid of his own brother-in-law, who used to be a boxer.  But he was madly in love with Renee, and so when her supposed killer is released, he becomes obsessed with making him dead.  The catch is, Tom quickly figures out that maybe he’s not cut out to do the killing himself, and that’s where the book gets unique and interesting.  I was expecting from the title and description to see a typical bad-ass main character chase down a killer around the country (or the world) and ultimately get his revenge.  That is not at all the story we get, and yet, it is still thrilling.  There is still violence and chase scenes, it’s just they aren’t the ones you usually see in a book like this.  And that helps it.  That helps keep the thrill level up, since it’s so much harder to predict what’s going to come next.  Tom, with his weakness and inability to parent well, is almost an anti-hero, and yet we keep rooting for him because his grief for his wife is so powerful and relatable.  It’s strong characterization and plotting mixed into one.

The scenes where Tom is seen teaching The Count of Monte Cristo at the community college where he works slow the thrill down.  They feel a bit too aware of themselves, with comparison between The Count of Monte Cristo and the plot in this book.  Plus scenes of classroom literary analysis simply slow the thrilling plot of the book down.  The one scene where it really works is one scene in which Tom is freaking out about his own life so much that he fails at teaching well.  This establishes that Tom’s life is starting to get out of control.  Overall, though, there are just too many scenes of him teaching for a thriller.

The setting of Baltimore is interesting, and I was glad to see that it wasn’t set in the more stereotypical Washington D.C.  Aymar writes Baltimore beautifully.  I’ve never been there, but I truly felt as if I was there, seeing both the run-down aspects, as well as the beauty.  I often end up skimming over setting descriptions, but Aymar’s drew me in.

The plot has just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, but not so many that the reader feels jerked around.  Also, the plot twists stay rooted in reality.  I could truly see this happening in the real world, and that makes a thriller more thrilling.

Overall, this is a unique thriller, with its choice to cast the opposite of a bad-ass in the role of the main character.  This grounds the typical revenge plot into reality, lends itself to more interesting, unique plot twists, and has the interesting aspect of a flawed, nearly anti-hero main character that the reader still roots for.  Recommended to thriller fans looking for something different and those interested in first dipping their toe into the thriller genre.

4 out of 5 stars

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

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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Series, #1)

September 12, 2014 3 comments

A line of spaceships head toward a planet.Summary:
John Perry joined the Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday.  Americans aren’t allowed to be colonists in outer space, but they can defend the colonies in the outer space army.  Old folks join for many reasons from boredom to having always wanted to see outer space, even though details of what goes on out there are kept secret from Earth.  In spite of all the secrecy, the rumor is that those who join the CDF get to be young again, and who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?

Review:
Multiple friends have read this book and loved it, and of course I found the idea intriguing, who wouldn’t?  So when a friend offered to loan me his copy, I took him up on it right away.  I was not disappointed in the world Scalzi has created, it is endlessly fascinating, but the main character’s arc failed to be quite so interesting to me.

I can’t imagine how anyone would not find the basic premise of this book interesting.  Outer space colonies that are kept a mystery from Earth.  Only certain countries allowed to colonize (primarily those suffering from population overload). Top it off with a colonial army made entirely up of old people who supposedly get to be young again?  Completely. Fascinating.  And Scalzi really comes through on the science of all of this, the politics, and manages to have some surprises in there, in spite of the what seems to be very straight-forward book summary.  And the world beyond the soldiers and the colonists is utterly fascinating as well.  The aliens are incredibly creatively imagined, not just in their looks but in their cultures.  They feel real.  And that extends to the battles and spaceships as well.  The worldbuilding here is phenomenal.  It is an example of how scifi worlds should be built.

The main character, though, as well as his character development arc, fail to live up to the incredible worldbuilding.  John Perry, from early on, is talented at war, in spite of having only been an advertising slogan writer for his whole life.  He has no real life experience that would make one think he would be good at war. Additionally, even when he is doing battle, he’s kind of flat on the page.  He doesn’t jump off as the leader he supposedly is supposed to naturally be.  Other characters feel that way, but not John.  In fact, I frequently found myself far more interested in the secondary characters around John than in John himself.  I was willing to give this a bit of a pass since, well, the character has to live for us to continue to see the wars he’s fighting, and maybe Scalzi has a thing for unlikely heroes.  But his character arc takes an odd turn at the end that really bothered me.

*spoiler warning*
John meets a special forces woman who is in his dead wife’s body.  Basically, his dead wife’s DNA was used as a base to build a genetically enhanced body. Ok, I’m fine with that, even if it seems unnecessary. But then John becomes obsessed with her, and she with him, even though she is very clearly NOT his wife.  Then at the end, he asks her to move to a colonial farm with him when they retire. And she says yes. Whaaaaat?! This isn’t romance; this is gross! The special forces woman has as much in common with John’s wife as her sister would at this point, since they have messed with the DNA so much.  This is like John pursuing his dead wife’s sister, who is emotionally only 6, since she was put into a fully adult body 6 years ago and had no life prior to that.  It’s gross. It is not romantic.  And I really think the reader is supposed to see it as romantic, when instead it squicked me out far more than any of the aliens in the book, including the ones with slimy appendages or the ones who eat humans.
*end spoilers*

Overall, this is an utterly fascinating scifi world with a bit of a ho-hum main character.  The ending may disappoint some readers, and Scalzi’s politics can come through a bit obviously sometimes.  However, those at all intrigued by the plot summary or interested in high quality scifi world building should check it out.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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Book Review: The Walking Dead: The Fall of the Governor: Part One by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga (Series, #3) (Audiobook narrated by Fred Berman)

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

A line of zombies stand in a green haze. An eye patch looms in the foreground.Summary:
In the aftermath of her rebellion attempt against The Governor, Lilly Caul is starting to see him as a man who does what it takes to protect the citizens of Woodbury.  So when strangers in riot gear and prison suits underneath show up at Woodbury, she believes The Governor that they’re out to get their supplies and that the woman, unprovoked, bit his ear.  But not everyone believes The Governor, and The Governor starts to think he can use the doubters to his advantage.

Review:
This non-graphic novel series telling the backstory of the big bad villain of the graphic novel Walking Dead series started off incredibly strong but, unfortunately, each new entry in the series gets worse and worse.  Instead of lending new light to the backstory of The Governor and Woodbury, this entry retells scenes readers of the graphic novel have already seen, simply from The Governor and other residents of Woodbury’s perspectives.

While I understand that some things readers of the graphic novel series already know may need to be briefly mentioned again for those who are only reading the print books, a sizable portion of this book features scenes already told once in the graphic novels.  Many of these scenes were disturbing enough in the graphic novels, such as the scene in which Michonne is repeatedly raped and beaten by The Governor.  Retelling them from the perspective of The Governor just felt unnecessary and was frankly difficult to listen to.  It would have been better to have left out showing that scene again and instead showed the, well-told and well-done scene of The Governor after her rapes Michonne back in his apartment where he tries to rationalize his behavior.  This lends new insight into the character without forcing the readers to, essentially, re-read.

The characterization of Lilly Caul continued to bother me.  First she hates The Governor and leads a rebellion, then turns right around and becomes loyal to him? What? This makes zero sense and is never fleshed out enough to make sense.  Similarly, how she handles one particular plot development feels like lazy, cliched writing of women, which bothered me.

Speaking of writing of women, while I understand that the third person narration is supposed to simultaneously be from an evil guy’s perspective, how the narrator talked about Michonne really bothered me.  We are constantly reminded that she is black.  She is never just “the woman” she is always “the black woman” or “the dark woman.” Her dreadlocks are mentioned constantly. Whereas white characters, Latino characters, and male characters are referred to once with descriptors about how they look, her looks are constantly described.  I understand looks need to be described periodically, but this is far too heavy-handed and in such a way that it feels like the narrator feels it necessary to constantly remind the reader that she is “other” and “different from us.”  Worse, she is also referred to as a “creature,” etc…, particularly during her rape scenes.  I never felt Michonne was mishandled in the graphic novels.  She’s a bad-ass woman who just happens to be black in the graphic novels.  Here, though, the descriptions of her feel like they are exoticized, which feels entirely wrong for a book in which we mostly just see her being raped.  She is depicted so animalistically, it made my stomach turn.  Even when she is among her friends, the narrator feels it necessary to constantly refer to her otherness.

So what’s done well in this book?  The scenes where we finally learn how the double-cross happens and see it plotted and carried out from the bad guys’ perspective is chilling and enlightening.  It’s also really nice to get to actually see the scene where Michonne beats the crap out of The Governor.  If other scenes had been left out, the characterization of Lilly Caul and descriptions of Michonne handled better, and the whole book tightened up (and probably part two included here), it could have been a strong book.

Overall, fans of the series will be disappointed by the repetition of scenes they’ve already seen and the overall shortness and lack of new information in this book.  Some may be bothered both by how Michonne is presented in this book, far differently from how she is in the graphic novel series, as well as by seeing some of the rapes from The Governor’s perspective.  Recommended to hard-core fans who feel they need to complete reading the companion series to the graphic novels.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor, review
The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury, review

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